Welcome to Gandhāra

Buddhist Literature of Ancient GandharaThis is a book review, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review, where it appears with an addition by Kulamitra:

Richard Salomon

The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra: An Introduction with Selected Translations

Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2018, pb $29.95

In 1994, a clay pot containing ancient birch-bark scrolls appeared on the antiquities market in Pakistan, and was acquired by the British Library. Richard Salomon was one of the first scholars to inspect these fragile scrolls, and to discover that they were written in the Gāndhārī language, in kharoṣṭhī script, and were the oldest Buddhist manuscripts ever found. Since 1994, more collections of Gāndhārī manuscripts have been acquired, and an international team of scholars, with Salomon among them, has dedicated itself to studying them. Having in 1999 written the first guide to the new discoveries[1] – with photos and illustrations that make it still a valuable work – Richard Salomon has now written a non-specialist guide to the highlights of what has been discovered about the Buddhist literature of ancient Gandhāra, including an anthology of translations of the wide range of sūtras and stories that have been worked on so far. This is completely compelling reading for anyone with an interest in early Buddhist literature or Buddhist history. Not only does Salomon write with a wonderful clarity and precision, that allows us to enter into a very specialist world of scholarly study, but the newly discovered Gāndhārī literature opens up whole new perspectives that were simply unavailable before.

Although I had read Salomon’s earlier introduction, as well as some of the specialist volumes published by the University of Washington,[2] and even attended a fascinating seminar on a particular Gāndhārī scroll with Dr Mark Allon at SOAS in London, I found the experience of reading this comprehensive new introduction quite exhilarating. The first three chapters present an overview of the history of Buddhism in the Gandhāra region and some context for understanding the significance of the Gāndhārī literature that has begun to come into view. Ancient Gandhāra comes into the historical record with coins and inscriptions from the period when it was under the rule of Greek and Indo-Greek kings; the paracanonical text The Questions of King Milinda contains fictional philosophical dialogues of the Bhikkhu Nāgasena with the Indo-Greek King Menander.[3] The heyday of Gandhāran Buddhism, however, was the first centuries of the common era. The Kushans, originally from Central Asia, ruled their empire from there; many Buddhists will be familiar with the Hellenic-influenced style of Gandhāran Buddhist sculptures from the Kushan period. Scholars already knew about Buddhist literature from the area, since the discovery of a Gāndhārī version of the Dhammapada in the late 19th c.[4] So although the revelation in 1994 and since of many more scrolls and fragments was not a complete surprise, the implications are nevertheless profound.

This was proof that there had existed Buddhist canons in local languages, such as Gāndhārī, comprising similar, but by no means identical, texts to those preserved in Pāli and Sanskrit and translated into Chinese and Tibetan. The implications for the study of early Buddhism are profound. There are still those who believe that the Pāli canon is in some sense the authentic record of the teaching of the Buddha, even that the Buddha spoke Pāli. This view is now comprehensively refuted, at least as far as sensible scholarship goes. The Pāli canon is the one surviving version of the canon in its original Indian language; but evidently there were others. Since, on the basis of comparative study, there are many small differences between versions, the conclusion must be that the Pāli canon is not ‘the’ authentic record of the teaching of the Buddha, but simply the version of it preserved in Pāli by the Theravāda tradition.

Salomon goes even further than this. In his conclusion, he makes a comparison between the emerging picture of relationships between the various Buddhist literatures and texts with the discovery made by scholars of human paleontology, that there is not in fact some linear chain of hominid predecessors to modern Homo sapiens, but rather a “tangled bush” of ancestry. Likewise, the early Buddhist texts we now have can rarely be traced through a process of transmission to a single ancestor – representing, perhaps, a record of the original teaching of the Buddha – but rather what we have is a “tangled bush” of transmission lineages and textual traditions, among which none can claim to be the authentic one. In this way, Salomon follows contemporary scholarship in suggesting we speak of “Buddhisms” rather than a single tradition whose various branches can be traced back to its founder. That said, these various Buddhisms are not in fact all that different from each other, and in practice the variations among different texts and traditions generally speaking add to the richness of the tradition considered as a whole, although the fantasy of discovering ‘the Buddha’s original teaching’ now looks impossible rather than simply very difficult to achieve.

Another exciting discovery that the study of Gāndhārī texts has made is evidence in support for what has come to be called “the Gāndhārī hypothesis”. This is the hypothesis that the originals for many of the early Buddhist texts translated into Chinese in the first centures of the common era were not in the Pāli or Sanskrit languages, but rather in Gāndhārī. The evidence is linguistic but in some cases compelling. This turns out not to be entirely a surprise, however, since the Gandhāra region is on the Silk Route, the route by which Indian Buddhist spread to China. This in turn brings to mind to existence of whole canons of Buddhist literature in languages now lost to us, and the plurality and diversity of Indian Buddhism in its early days.

However, after the exhilarating opening chapters, so rich in scope and implications, when one comes to the anthology of translations of the newly-discovered Gāndhārī literature, one might feel some disappointment and even frustration. The old scrolls, written on crumbling old birch-bark, yield mere parts of texts, all incomplete, some mere fragments, and much of it hard to decipher. Additionally, although Gāndhārī is a middle-Indo-Aryan dialect (a Prakrit), a cousin of Pāli, a niece of Sanskrit, the scholars working on the Gāndhārī manuscripts have hardly anything else to go on as they try to read the texts they have. There are idioms, spellings and grammatical features that are otherwise unknown. Hence the the twelve chapters containing illustrative translations of the best-preserved or most interesting texts are frustratingly partial. So much of what we would need in order to compare these texts with Pāli or other versions is missing. The translations that Salomon presents are like a random selection, picked out of the lottery of time and chance, many of which have to be padded out with translations from parallels preserved in other languages so that they can even be made to make sense.

Further reading, however, transmutes this sense of frustration into a quiet sense of the revolutionary importance of these old texts for our understanding of early Buddhism. The range of texts that Salomon translates is significant in this regard. There are early poetic texts, such as stanzas from the Dhammapada, and texts with parallels among the mainstream Buddhist sūtras. But there are also stories of the Buddha’s disciples and their karmic backgrounds that seem peculiar to the Gāndhārī tradition, suggesting how Buddhism varied across regions even in its homeland of the Indian subcontinent. There are also fragments of ancient commentary and Abhidharma, which shed fascinating light on the varying traditions of how Buddhists thought about their own texts and traditions. And then, as a kind of fabulous encore, there are extracts from an early Perfection of Wisdom sūtra, giving us a valuable window into the early history of Mahāyāna.

A highlight of the volume for me was chapter 3, entitled ‘The Rhinoceros Sūtra’. I had already studied Salomon’s specialist volume on this early Buddhist poetry, each stanza of which concludes with the line, “one should roam alone like the rhinoceros”.[5] The Gāndhārī version of the Rhinoceros verses present many of the same stanzas as the Pāli version, but in a different order. Their existence in Gāndhārī, as well as in Pāli and Sanskrit (in the Mahāvastu) suggests just how popular the verses were among the early Buddhists, perhaps being included in a curriculum for new monastics, hence much-copied and among the best preserved of early texts. Salomon includes a lot of prefatory material to his translation which is easily the best introduction to the Rhinoceros Sūtra available, exploring the concept of solitude in early Buddhism, and the peculiar attribution of these verses to the paccekabuddhas – the ‘solitary Buddhas’ who lived before ‘our’ Buddha arrived. For me at least the book is worth its cover price for this introduction alone.

I was not completely satisfied with Salomon’s scholarship, however. In his chapter on some verses from a Gāndhārī version of the Dhammapada, he includes a translation of a stanza with a parallel preserved in Pāli:

“[A monk] who removes anger as soon as it arises, as one removes [snake venom with herbs as it spreads through the body, leaves behind] this world and the next [as] a snake leaves behind its old worn-out skin.”[6]

The phrase “this world and the next” in fact recurs in a series of stanzas here which, following their name in Pāli, we can call the uraga (‘serpent’) verses. In a note he comments:

“The exact sense of the phrase translated as “this world and the next” (orapara = Skt orapāram) is a problem that has been extensively but inconclusively discussed by traditional and modern scholars.”

I myself have contributed to this discussion but, far from leaving the translation inconclusive, I have come up with a suggestion for an understanding and translation that, although not proven, goes a long way to making sense of not only the phrase orapāra but also some other long-standing issues of understanding and translation of the uraga stanzas.[7] Actually, orapāra does not exactly mean “this world and the next”. Rather, it means “this shore and the far shore”, and the idea that this is a reference to “this world and the next” is an interpretation among several possible interpretations, in a metaphorical context typical of a poetic text. Indeed, the most obvious interpretation of “this shore and the far shore”, or so I argue, is as a reference to a discourse which by some happy coincidences is not only preserved in Gāndhārī, but is translated in Salomon’s new volume, in ch.2, as ‘The Parable of the Log’.[8] In this discourse, the Buddha, while looking at a log floating down the river Ganges, entreats his monks not to get stuck on the near shore or the far shore, the near shore representing the six senses and the far shore the sense-objects, but instead to keep going to reach the ocean, which represents nirvāna.[9] This is not the place to go further into how to fully understand either ‘the Parable of the Log’ or the uraga verses and their parallels in the Gāndhārī Dhammapada, but I was pleased to find that Bhikkhu Bodhi has taken up some of my suggestions in his recent translation of the Suttanipāta.[10] I do not of course suppose that Richard Salomon should necessarily agree with my arguments or conclusions, but my point is more that he seems not to know about them. This in turn suggests that his translations more generally may not always reflect all the scholarship available on the various texts he translates.

I should hope that most readers of this review will, quite rightly, take my very particular criticisms to be those of a disgruntled specialist. They should likewise conclude that, if such a tiny criticism is all that this reviewer can come up with, Salomon’s translations sound good enough. Indeed, generally speaking his translations combine accuracy with a wonderful readibility. Richard Salomon is that rare creature, a scholar who writes beautifully.

This new volume represents more than an account of first impressions of the literature of Gandhāra. It is more like a deeply considered summary of what has been discovered in the first twenty years of its study. But there is more yet to be studied, and there is the likelihood of yet more ancient birch-bark manuscripts turning up, hopefully not just on the antiquities market in Pakistan, but in their archaeological context. So there is every chance that this book will be followed by more. Let us hope Richard Salomon writes them. These are rich times indeed for the study of early Buddhism.


[1] Richard Salomon, Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra: The British Library Kharoṣṭhī fragments, The British Library, London, 1999.

[2] Six volumes so far; see https://asian.washington.edu/early-buddhist-manuscripts-project for details.

[3] The Milindapañhā now exists only in Pāli, but is thought to have been translated from a north Indian original.

[4] Edited by John Brough as The Gāndhārī Dhammapada, SOAS, London, 1962; his discussion of the text and of the Dhammapada generally are legendary for their thoroughness and caustic wit, but he does not deign to translate. Valerie Roebuck’s translation of The Dhammapada (Penguin, London, 2010) contains some selected translations of those stanzas in the Gāndhārī Dhammapada that are not in the Pāli version.

[5] This is my translation from the Pāli; Salomon translates the parallel Gāndhārī phrase as “wander alone like the rhinoceros”. Some of Salomon’s thinking ended up in an article I wrote on translating this line, which Bhikkhu Bodhi translates “one should live alone like a rhinoceros horn” (Bodhi, trans., The Suttanipāta, Wisdom, Somerville MA, 2017, p.182f.). See Dhivan Thomas Jones (2014), ‘Like the Rhinoceros, or Like Its Horn? The Problem of Khaggavisāṇa Revisited’, Buddhist Studies Review, 31.2, pp.165–78.

[6] Salomon p.196. While this stanza is included in the Gāndhārī Dhammapada, its Pāli parallel is found in the Pāli Suttanipāta v.1, with another in the Sanskrit Udānavarga (another traditional name for the kind of anthology we know as the Dhammapada). The square brackets here enclose words supplied from the Pāli version, missing in the fragmented Gāndhārī text, a typical example of how much has been lost from the birch-bark scrolls.

[7] Dhivan Thomas Jones (2016), ‘“That bhikkhu lets go both the near and far shores”: meaning and metaphor in the refrain from the uraga verses’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 11, pp.71–107.

[8] This discourse is preserved in Pāli in Saṃyutta Nikāya 35:241, trans. Bodhi, Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom, Boston, 2000, p.1241f.

[9] A quite delightful discovery in Salomon’s translation is that the Gāndhārī version includes a supplement concerning a frog-bodhisattva (pp.155–6).

[10] See Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., The Suttanipāta, Wisdom, Somerville MA, 2017, p.1364 n.288 and p.1367 n.308.


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