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University News Six Little Images

Buddhist treasures rescued from Afghanistan


Published by the Communications and Development Department


19 February 2003


Ancient manuscripts smuggled out of Afghanistan are throwing new light on the development of Buddhism.


Helping make sense of the scripts is Professor Paul Harrison, head of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Canterbury.


Last year Professor Harrison spent four months at the Centre for Advanced Study in Oslo as part of an international research group “Buddhist manuscripts in the Schoyen Collection”.


The manuscripts – consisting of approximately 3000 fragments – were smuggled out of Afghanistan during the civil war ultimately finding their way to dealers in London. They were purchased by Norwegian millionaire Martin Schoyen who has made the collection available to scholars for the purpose of conservation, study and publication.


Spanning the second to the eighth century, the manuscripts have been likened to the Dead Sea Scrolls for their age and historical significance.


It is believed the manuscripts stem from a monastery library built up by the Buddhist Mahasamghika sect. The library was probably destroyed during a Muslim invasion of Afghanistan in the 8th century. The surviving fragments – preserved in the cold, dry climate of the high Afghan plains – were found in caves north of Bamiyan where in March 2001 the Taliban authorities blew up two 50-metre high Buddhist statues which were almost 2000 years old.


“We are immensely relieved that these manuscripts were not burned by the Taliban,” said Professor Harrison. “We are happy that they were taken out of Afghanistan and removed to safe keeping although questions are being asked in Norway and elsewhere about who actually owns these and whether they should be returned to Afghanistan.”

The manuscripts arrived in Norway in a completely unsorted state after 1400 years of total neglect. They are mainly written on birch bark which is extremely brittle and crumbles easily when touched. With the aid of a computer the fragments are pieced together like a jigsaw. “We scan each piece and, using Adobe Photoshop, manipulate the pieces to form a virtual image of what it would have looked like,” explained Professor Harrison. “This has been an interesting discovery for me in that you can often read them better on computer than you can the real thing.”

The texts, which are written in Sanskrit, are then translated and, where possible, compared with other versions already in existence. The manuscripts are a selection of texts from most of the genres found in Buddhist literature: Buddha’s own words (Sutra) and the monks’ rules of conduct (Vinaya), as well as poetical and narrative pieces and even a non-Buddhist philosophical treatise.

Found in one of the most important centres of Buddhist creativity – a key station on the Silk Road linking India and China to the west - the manuscripts are of great significance in the history of Buddhism.

“A lot of this material has not been known previously in Indian languages. A lot we’ve only had in Chinese or Tibetan translation, so these are copies of the original, if you like,” explained Professor Harrison. “In some cases this is the only surviving piece of the work and that makes it even more important.”


The research group, headed by Professor Jens Braarvig of the Department of Culture Studies at the University of Oslo, has already published two volumes of reproductions and translations of the Buddhist manuscripts and work is currently underway on a third.


“The manuscripts are generating an enormous amount of interest in the hope, of course, that we will gain new insight into the way Buddhism developed and, in particular, how its literature developed,” said Professor Harrison.


“We have lost so much of it as the humid Indian climate is not good for the preservation of manuscripts. It is only from dry areas like Afghanistan that we can find these texts preserved. We are expecting to cast a great deal of light on how Buddhism developed and how the various schools of Buddhism developed their own set of scriptures.”


For more information contact:
Professor Paul Harrison
Philosophy and Religious Studies
University of Canterbury
Ph 03 364 2383
Email paul.harrison@canterbury.ac.nz