The British Library has found what it believes to be Buddhism’s equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written on strips of birch bark dating from as early as the second century.
The manuscripts on 60 separate fragments of various sizes include some of Buddha’s poems, sermons and treatises.
They were written as much as 600 years after Buddha’s death in the fourth or fifth century BC, but scholars say they are the oldest Buddhist texts ever found and provide a valuable insight into the early foundations of the faith.
“What we get is a very vivid picture of how the people of that time conceived of the Buddha,” said Richard Salomon, an expert in ancient languages from the University of Washington in Seattle who helped authenticate the manuscripts.
He compared the discovery to the Christian religion’s Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts of Old Testament books found in caves in the late 1940s which were 1,000 years older than any others in existence.
“What we have here is almost certainly the early extant manuscript of Buddhist texts,” Salomon said.
They are believed to be part of the canon of the Sarvastivadin sect which dominated Gandhara--now northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Gandhara was one of the great centers of Buddhism in ancient times and it was from there that the faith spread into central and eastern Asia. There are now about 250 million Buddhists worldwide.
The British Library said it bought the manuscripts from a dealer for a five-figure sum. It gave no further details of their origins.
They had been stored, rolled into bundles, and had to be unfurled with extreme care. “They looked like 2,000-year-old cigars that someone had stepped on,” Salomon said.