These scroll fragments, from an extraordinary collection of birch bark writings from ancient Gandhara in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, may represent the oldest surviving Buddhist texts (and also the oldest South Asian manuscripts) ever discovered.
What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is arguably more a philosophical outlook, or spiritual tradition, than a 'religion': it does not believe in a deity and does not look for a relationship between humanity and God. It centres on the search for Enlightenment through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom, taking a 'middle way' through life's challenges. Compassion, and a regard for the interconnected nature of life, is central.
Buddhism dates back 2,500 years to when Siddhartha Gautama, or 'the Buddha', achieved enlightenment under a fig tree. There are two main sects, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, and many smaller ones. There are around 300-500 million Buddhists worldwide, including around 150,000 in Britain.
Who was Siddhartha Gautama?
The founder of Buddhism began his life in wealth and privilege. Siddhartha Guatama was born the son of an Indian prince in 566 BC. At his birth, a prophet declared he would become either a powerful king or a great spiritual leader. Mindful of this prophecy, his father kept him at court, shielding him from the harsh reality of the world by surrounding him with luxury: silken clothes, precious jewels and beautiful women.
Then one day, when he was 29, Siddhartha was overcome by curiosity. He dressed in disguise and slipped away from the court. Beyond its walls he witnessed four sights that filled him with infinite sorrow: a decrepit old man, a diseased man, a dead man and a monk. Seeing such misery, he renounced his birthright and committed himself to a life of self-denial in order to find a way to end to human suffering.
Eventually he moderated his lifestyle of total deprivation and found the 'Middle Way'. Sitting beneath a 'bodhi' tree, according to tradition, he achieved a profound understanding of the cycle of birth and rebirth by intense meditation. Through this enlightenment, Siddhartha became the Buddha, or 'Awakened One'.
The Buddha preached for almost 50 years, providing his disciples with many sutras. The recitation of sutras – traditional teachings or sermons written in Sanskrit – is an important part of Buddhist religious observance.
What was Gandhara?
Gandhara was a great kingdom straddling present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a vibrant crossroads of Indian, Iranian and Central Asian cultures. At the peak of its influence, from about 100 BC to AD 200, it was perhaps the world's most important centre of Buddhism, and was almost certainly the gateway through which Buddhism was transmitted from India to China and elsewhere, to become one of the world's great religions.
What do the Gandharan scrolls say?
Archaeological evidence for Gandhara's Buddhist culture abounds, but until recently there has been little documentary evidence of its literary or religious canon. The British Library acquired this collection of 13 scrolls, written in Kharosthi in 1994, which together represent a substantial proportion of the long-lost Gandharan Buddhist canon.
Texts so far identified range from technical to philosophical teachings to popular didactic verse, such as the 'Rhinoceros Horn Sutra' and the 'Song of Lake Anavatapta'.