We live in an age inured to change and intoxicated with novelty. Evidence of the past is carelessly tossed away all around us, and few make any effort to dredge it back up later.
Thus it is fascinating -- and curiously reassuring -- when anyone stumbles on some long-lost relic or other, and manages to extract from it a few precious clues regarding what man may once have been or where he may have come from. T.V. has bored most of us stiff with endlessly repeated news about King Tut and his celebrated tomb. Obviously some must still be convinced that the barely preserved corpse and outrageously overstuffed grave of an ancient youngster -- however marginal historically -- can still yield valuable information of some kind.
Considered for a brief time at least somewhat newsworthy was the recent announcement that a cache of birch-bark manuscripts containing ancient Buddhist texts was discovered (though no one seems to know exactly where, when or how). The news media is no longer much interested in the find, but scholars certainly continue to be -- and for reasons at least as compelling as those which attract us to Tut and his excess of playthings.
These manuscripts are believed to be the oldest Buddhist documents in existence, and perhaps the earliest Indian Documents as well. I am in no position to appreciate the significance of this for the study of Indian history or literature. However there can be little doubt that the find is extremely important to an understanding of what Buddhism may once have been -- and how it became what we now think it is.
Don't hold your breath waiting to find out about these manuscripts from a T.V. special, as you did perhaps with the Shroud of Turin or the Dead Sea Scrolls. The manuscripts are too dilapidated to show up well in color, and it is easier to make out the freckles on King Tut's mummified visage than the archaic writing on some of these two-thousand-year-old documents.
But the scholarly promise of the Gandharan Texts is potentially immense, and in its way every bit as profound as the richest tomb ever excavated. Therefore Richard Salomon's elegant book, Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara, is well worth consideration.
Saloman, a scholar of immensely lofty standards, still manages to produce a book whose narrative is readable and informative, and whose pictures are interesting (if, to a layperson, somewhat redundant). Naturally it is the ancient texts themselves which fascinate, and this book is intended only to introduce their probable history and document the process of their translation. Therefore only tantalizing excerpts from them are included in it. Susequent volumes willl present their contents more fully.
Many readers will approach this book searching only for the sights, smells and textures of so-called original Buddhism, hoping that this early source might have survived unpolluted by the later political, cultural or doctrinal prejudices characterizing modern Buddhism. Inevitably, others will be looking for evidence to resolve long-standing questions regarding doctrinal superiority or primacy of one school or denomination over another.
Though the texts are quite beautiful and possess ample literary and spiritual merit independent of any denominational puzzles on which they may shed light, the doctrinaire reader is not likely to be disappointed. I find Solomon to have a slight anti-Theravadan bias. However he still concedes,
Although it would be premature at this point to draw detailed conclusions about the doctrinal positions of the tradition represented by the [birch-bark] fragments, it is worth mentioning that the preliminary studies carried out to date reveal no clear traces of Mahayana ideas or tendencies...Of course, closer analyses of individual texts...might bring to light material that would require modification of this statement, but on the whole it appears that the manuscripts come from a time and place in which Mahayana ideas had not come into play at all, or at least were not being reflected in scholastic texts...[F]urther analysis and possible future discoveries could well change the picture, but as matters stand at this point, the[se]...scrolls do not offer any support for the hypothesis of a relatively early origin for Mahayana Buddhism.
For many of us, observations of this sort alone are more than worth the price of Solomon's book. However be assured that it also contains an abundance of valuable and intriguing information about early Buddhism and Indian history and society in general. The texts which it reports and details are also likely to furnish us the most objective insight we will ever get into the nature and sociology of the place and time in which Buddhism was conceived and first flourished.