How do you underscore the historical significance of a recently recovered cache of ancient Buddhist manuscripts? You call them “the Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism.” That’s what Graham Shaw, deputy director of the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collections, called a horde of documents purchased in 1997 by Martin Schøyen. How much are they worth? “It’s incalculable,” the London Times reports him as saying. “How would you put a value on the Dead Sea Scrolls?”

Many of the most important of these manuscripts are now available in Volume I of Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Oslo: Hermes Publishing, 2000) to which 11 leading Buddhist scholars contributed. Additional volumes are planned.

Exactly how the manuscripts were found remains something of a mystery. What seems clear is that they came from Afghanistan. Refugees fleeing from the Taliban claim to have found them in caves near the Bamiyan valley, where the Taliban destroyed two giant statues of the Buddha in 2001 (the photos below show one of the statues prior to destruction, then the empty hole left in the cliff face when the Taliban were finished).a Like the manuscripts from the Dead Sea caves, this collection may have been maintained as a library in the caves where they were found, or they may have been hidden there by ancient refugees. Also like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the manuscripts are mostly fragments.

The account in the Schøyen volume provides all the information we now have on the rescue of the manuscripts:

“According to information passed on by the manuscript dealers, many manuscripts were further damaged when Taliban forces blew up a stone statue of the Buddha in one of the caves. Local people trying to save the manuscripts from the Taliban were chased by them when carrying the manuscripts through passes in the Hindu Kush to the north of the Khyber Pass. Further damage was incurred in this period, but the rescue operation was for the most part a success.”

The manuscripts made their way to London, where Schøyen acquired them. He obtained the first cache of 108 fragments in early 1997 and later that year added a large number of additional fragments to his collection. Today he has more than 5,000 sizable fragments and 8,000 smaller ones.

The manuscripts are mainly Buddhist texts, on palm leaf, birch bark and vellum, and dating from the second to seventh century A.D. Most are in Sanskrit, which scholars consider the earliest Indo-European language with any substantial surviving literature (fragments of Hittite may be older). The Sanskrit manuscripts are written in ancient Indian Brahmi script. Others in a local dialect called Ghanhari are written in Kharoshti script. Despite the non-Semitic nature of the languages, the scripts are believed by many scholars to be of Semitic origin, derived from Aramaic script.

Most scholars now think that the Buddha, or “enlightened one” (his given name was Siddhartha), lived and preached in the latter half of the fifth century B.C. The new documents—mostly sutras (discourses or sermons of the Buddha) and vinaya texts (rules of monastic discipline)—bring us to within 500 or 600 years of Buddha’s life, so they are extremely important to Buddhist history, religion and culture. Many are much older than versions of the texts previously known from other Buddhist traditions of India, Sri Lanka, southeast Asia, China and Tibet.