When Ye Shaoyong, a prominent Chinese Sanskrit scholar, first came across the old yellowed palm leaves from Drepung, one of Tibet’s most important monasteries, he was intrigued by the letters on the page. The 14 palm leaves he found bore ancient writing, older than anything that the Sanskrit professor from Peking University had ever seen. That day in 2003, Ye stumbled upon one of the oldest undiscovered Sanskrit texts from India-a 2nd century text, the Mulamadhyamakakarika, one of the founding texts of Mahayana Buddhism that had, until Ye’s discovery, only ever been seen referenced in quotations in later commentaries.
Chinese scholars say this rare palm leaf is among hundreds-possibly thousands-that still lie in Tibet’s monasteries, carrying a trove of more than thousand-year-old information about Indian philosophical thought and history, from between the 2nd and 14th centuries. Ye spent a decade painstakingly translating the old manuscript, which was finally published four years ago and is among the first from this forgotten treasure to be made public. “Tibet might be the last treasure of Sanskrit manuscripts which has not yet been fully investigated,” he wrote in his book. “Nonetheless,” he lamented, “they are still gathering dust on the shelves of monasteries or in the drawers of museums.”
China has since launched an ambitious effort to bring to light this old Sanskrit treasure. The texts, Ye believes, are of immense religious, historical and literary value. For Buddhists, some of the texts contain the founding precepts of Buddhist thought, such as the Mulamadhyamakakarika, that was found in Drepung, and the Lankavatara Sutra, found in the Potala palace in Lhasa. For historians, the manuscripts could hold a wealth of information. “These texts could change how we think of our history and philosophy,” says Ye, who points to how a similar trove in Nepal brought out new elements of the country’s early modern history. Most of the texts are of philosophical nature, but as Ye points out, they also hold a wealth of information about society and politics from that period, from the lineage of dynasties to their politics and administration.
The collection is particularly of great relevance to India, especially as in many instances, they are the only surviving records. Thousands of Indian texts from a similar period fell to ruin, both on account of the failure to systematically preserve them and because of the tropical climate. In the high altitude of Tibet, many manuscripts have remained untouched over hundreds of years, even as they lay forgotten in the storerooms of monasteries, and scholars say, they could survive another millennium. “For many texts that have played important roles in literary, philosophical and social history, the original Sanskrit texts have been lost, and scholars can only base their study on the Chinese and Tibetan translations,” says Ye. So far, more than 500 bundles of palm leaves have been discovered-each containing thousands of lines of text-and Tibet’s monasteries could very well hold many more. Most of this text was hundreds of years ago copied in India and Nepal, and brought to Tibet.
The texts of Tibet
Among the hundreds of Sanskrit manuscripts, these five philosophical texts are in the first batch being edited, catalogued and translated.
A text from the 2nd or 3rd century that, some scholars say, carries the most authoritative philosophical explanation of emptiness, a key premise of Mahayana Buddhism.
One of the key texts for Buddhists that records a conversation between Buddha and a Bodhisattva, set in Lanka.
Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra
The ‘perfection of wisdom in 8,000 lines’ is one of the oldest surviving Sanskrit texts.
A text written by Dharmakirti, an influential Indian scholar who was in Nalanda in the 6th century.
A text found in Xinjiang dating back to 4th or 5th century. It’s one of the earliest teachings of the Buddha that became popular in China after being translated into Chinese by the Indian monk Dharmaraksha.
Our man in Tibet
The trove of Sanskrit manuscripts in Tibet may have remained unknown if not for the discoveries of scholar Rahul Sankrityayan during his intrepid journeys across Tibet in the 1930s. During one such trip, when shown palm leaf manuscripts that are more than a thousand years old, in a Lhasa monastery, Sankrityayan pledged to return to investigate. He did in 1934 and 1937. In Tibet, Sankrityayan would befriend lamas and copy and photograph any manuscript he could lay hands on. He found 25 complete volumes of the Pramana Varttika Bhasya, a neverseen commentary by the 6th century Nalanda scholar Dharmakirti. Sankrityayan became an honoured guest of the Tibetan government and got access to the libraries of top monasteries that are, even eight decades later, out of bounds. On his return, he published 28 volumes based on the photographs and texts from Tibet. His legacy, ironically, is being kept alive across the border in China.
Chinese scholars believe the texts that have so far been translated are just a fraction of the treasure trove. Hundreds of palm leaves lie undiscovered, and the scope of the trove is as yet unknown, which is surprising considering the effort to retrieve the texts dates back to at least the early 1930s. Then, the Indian scholar and traveller Rahul Sankrityayan, who made several trips to Tibet to translate old Tibetan texts back to the original Sanskrit, first heard about the collection during his travels. He later wrote that he first dismissed the stories of a vast Sanskrit palm leaf collection as a myth, but intrigued by the accounts he heard, he returned to Tibet in 1934 to investigate.
Sankrityayan was welcomed in Tibet, and even taken to see the Kalon Lama, one of the top ministers of the Tibet government who was then the most powerful man in Tibet following the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in December 1933. Sankrityayan was taken to the Kundeling monastery, where he was presented with two rare manuscripts. “My joy knew no bounds,” he would write later. Thanks to him, photographs of some of the texts were brought back to India, and stored in Patna Museum.
RARE GEM Folios from the 11th century Saddharmapundarika Sutra, or Lotus Sutra, found in Tibet
Few scholars in China, caught in political turmoil in the 1940s and 1950s from the Japanese occupation and then the Chinese civil war, paid attention to the texts until the 1960s. Then, around 250 bundles were brought to Beijing and catalogued, and returned to the Tibet Museum in Lhasa, where they are still kept. But the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) halted the effort, with many of China’s leading scholars persecuted and sent to do hard labour in the villages. After the Cultural Revolution, the German-educated Chinese Indologist Ji Xianlin set up a first ever South Asian studies institute at Peking University, and slowly began the effort of translating some of the texts.
That effort is now being revived by Peking University and led by one of Ji’s students, the renowned Chinese Sanskritist Duan Qing, who is one of the world’s leading experts of Sanskrit, Pali and the ancient language of Khotanese, and is also Ye’s teacher. The institute is training Chinese scholars in Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan to translate old Sanskrit, Kharosthi and Khotanese texts that have been found in Tibet and the Muslim-majority Xinjiang province, which was then an important centre for Buddhism and today holds the oldest texts.
So far, Peking University has published eight volumes since 2011, but this is just the start. China doesn’t have the number of scholars or resources to systematically unravel the entire trove. “Each scholar needs professional know-ledge and special training not only in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese languages, but also on manuscriptology,” says Ye. “For example, some of these manuscripts were written not in the uniform Devanagari script, but in various local scripts with different conventions. To read them, we also need experience in Indian palaeography in order to provide reliable editing, and you also need background knowledge of its content, such as the historical information and philosophical system.”
This is a formidable challenge. China is now working with the world’s best Sanskritists to surmount it, says Zheng Dui, director general of the influential China Tibetology Research Centre in Beijing that stores in its collections copies of several dozen palm leaves. In 2004, Zheng signed an agreement with an institution in Vienna to work together to translate palm leaves. Subsequent cooperation agreements have been taken forward with universities in the United States, Italy, Germany and Japan. “Our research is generating a lot of attention abroad,” he says.
Everywhere but India, which is conspicuous in its absence in the list of countries that China is working with. Privately, Chinese scholars say their attempts to reach out to Indian scholars and institutions have received little response. Chinese Sanskrit students have struggled to find fellowships in Indian universities, which are often reluctant to host Chinese students unless they enrol in full-time courses, which makes little sense for them as Indian degrees won’t be recognised. European and American institutions, by contrast, have shown great interest and flexibility in working on the project, and are hence taking the palm leaves translation forward.
Ye, the scholar at Peking University, believes this is an area where India and China should work together and that Chinese scholars would immensely benefit from studying with Indian scholars “who have the best traditional teaching methods” in Sanskrit. This, he suggests, could also be an ideal project for the revived Nalanda university, which, however, has been slow to take off and shown little interest in Buddhist and religious studies despite its unique history. The irony is that this rich trove of the only surviving records that could fill vital gaps in understanding of the history of both Sanskrit literature and philosophical thought holds no greater significance for any country as it does for India.