The earliest history of Buddhism is largely lost, because some 400 years separate the death of the Buddha from the first documented efforts to commit the Buddhist scriptures to writing. Moreover, early written texts, which are the only witness of the oral history of earlier years, themselves no longer exist. But the discovery of some eighty fragments of Buddhist texts, which seem to be the earliest surviving specimens yet found, will help to clarify the early development of Buddhism.

These scrolls may be the oldest Buddhist manuscripts ever found—dating from the end of the first century A.D. or the beginning of the second. They are in Gandhari, the Sanskrit-related language of Gandhara, a long-gone kingdom once based in the area around present-day Peshawar, in Pakistan.

Just how the manuscripts came to light is something of a mystery. They were found inside three clay pots believed to have been uncovered somewhere in eastern Afghanistan. Who discovered them and in what circumstances has never been explained. What is known is that the scrolls went first to an anonymous buyer. From there, they passed quietly to an unknown dealer in antiquities and then, as a gift, on to the British Library.

To help decipher the scrolls, the British enlisted the help of Richard Salomon, a professor in the department of Asian languages and literature at the University of Washington in Seattle and one of just a handful of scholars who can read Gandhari. Working mostly from photographs, he pieced together about 80 separate fragments of the scrolls into 20 partial texts, ranging from a few words to several hundred lines.

Salomon is in charge of reconstructing, decoding, and publishing a collection of manuscripts of a kind that he and his colleagues feared they would never live to see. Until recently, concrete evidence of the Gandhari tradition consisted of a single manuscript, discovered in 1892 and published 70 years later as The Gandhari Dharmapada (Oxford University Press), edited by the late University of Cambridge scholar, John Brough.

Specialists knew that other manuscripts existed. In the 1830s, for example, one French archaeologist wrote of finding some, “but when they touched them, they literally crumbled in their hands,” says Graham W. Shaw, the director of the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collections.

Although no other substantial Gandhari manuscript had come to light, Salomon was among a handful of researchers who studied the language, from the Brough edition, from secular documents in a related language, and from inscriptions on pots, coins, and archaeological ruins. Salomon specialized in those arcane inscriptions, which are in Kharosthi, a script based on the Aramaic alphabet.

In 1994, his preparation paid off when he was contacted by officials at the British Library, who had acquired a collection of what appeared to be many more Gandhari-dialect manuscripts written in Kharosthi.

Library experts and Salomon determined that the manuscripts dated from the first century AD, and that made them the oldest known Buddhist manuscripts anywhere, and the oldest Indic manuscripts known to have survived.

Judging by comparisons with other artifacts and by comments in travellers’ and early archaeologists’ journals, Salomon deduced that the manuscripts probably had been found in a jar in a cave near Jalalabad in what is now eastern Afghanistan, close to the ancient region of Gandhara.

Gandhara was the seat of a series of powerful dynasties from the third century BC to the fourth century AD. Well-known from abundant archaeological remains, it was a crossroads of cultural influences from India, the West, China, and East Asia, and a melting pot of Greeks, descendants of Scythian invaders from the North, and many others.

Less than half the scrolls have been fully identified and none is complete. But Salomon says some appear to be substantial pieces of a manuscript. He describes them as “potentially comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls”—the documents that are the key to studying Judaism and early Christianity. “They’re probably the earliest, and certainly the earliest large collection of Buddhist manuscripts,” he says.

After the Buddha died in 483 B.C., his sermons were passed down orally for several hundred years, and were not written down until the first century B.C. But none of those earliest texts has survived and it is unclear what language they were in. Salomon says he is “fairly confident” that the Gandhari scrolls date back to the first century A.D., because they contain a reference to a satrap named Jihonika, who is known from inscriptions and coins to have ruled Gandhara at the time. This would make them 400 years older than most of the ancient Buddhist texts in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit or Pali.

For 800 years, beginning in the third century B.C., Gandhara was almost a second holy land of Buddhism after India, where the religion was born. But it lay in the path of the invasions of India, and its monasteries were vulnerable to attack. Buddhism came to an abrupt end in the kingdom in the fifth century, when Gandhara was overrun, probably by Huns from Mongolia.

Preliminary findings suggest that the scrolls belonged to the library of a monastery of the Sarvastivada sub-sect of Buddhism, which was the most dominant in Gandhara at the time. The scrolls bear interlinear notations that indicate their contents have been copied --meaning they were possibly discarded remnants that were accorded a ritual “burial.” Making sense of the scrolls is a daunting task. “"Is this just some random sampling of a larger selection or is there some pattern in it?” Salomon asks.

So far, the manuscripts do not change our understanding of Buddhist doctrine in any fundamental way. Instead, they show a strong continuity between the Buddhism of two millennia ago and today. “The message [in the scrolls] is basic Buddhism: restraint of the senses, rejection of worldly pleasure, meditation toward enlightenment,” explains Salomon. “These are mainstream early Buddhist concepts, well within the general realm of Buddhist literature in other languages.” An example is the Rhinoceros Horn Sutra, a clearly ascetic message contained in the scrolls.

Before the discovery of the Gandhari manuscripts, the oldest Buddhist writings were in Chinese. Some scholars have speculated that the Chinese texts were translations from Gandhari in the second century A.D., but this was never proved. Now preliminary comparisons of Chinese as well as Pali texts with the Gandhari scripts are showing some encouraging similarities. “But we don’t have any smoking gun yet,” cautions Salomon.