Sanskrit Manuscripts in Tibet

By David Reigle on April 12, 2012 at 1:16 am

Rumors that original Sanskrit manuscripts of Buddhist texts, lost in India, were preserved in Tibet led Rāhula Sāṅkṛityāyana to make a trip there at the end of 1929. He did not find any Sanskrit manuscripts on that trip, and returned to India with many Tibetan texts, but disappointed regarding Sanskrit texts. In 1934 he made a second trip to Tibet in search of Sanskrit manuscripts, which was crowned with success. This was followed by two more trips. His extraordinary finds were described in three articles published in The Journal of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society, as follows:

Sanskrit Palm-leaf Mss. in Tibet” (vol. 21, no. 1, 1935, pp. 21-43, attached).

Second Search of Sanskrit Palm-leaf Mss. in Tibet” (vol. 23, no. 1, 1937, pp. 1-57, attached).

Search for Sanskrit Mss. in Tibet” (vol. 24, no. 4, 1938, pp. 137-163, attached).

He photographed as many of these manuscripts as he could, and he copied some by hand. He had little money and little film. So the majority of the Sanskrit manuscripts were not photographed. Moreover, the photographs that he took, under difficult conditions, are not always legible. These photographs are now preserved at the Bihar Research Society, in Patna, India, with copies at the Seminar of Indian and Buddhist Studies in Gottingen, Germany.

A descriptive catalogue of 75 of these photographed manuscripts was prepared by Frank Bandurski and published in 1994 in Untersuchungen zur buddhistischen Literatur, pp. 9-126. It is titled “Ubersicht uber die Gottinger Sammlungen der von Rahula Sankrtyayana in Tibet aufgefundenen buddhistischen Sanskrit-Texte” (attached as Sankrtyayana Collection Catalogue Gottingen).

In the 1930s and 1940s Giuseppe Tucci also made trips to Tibet, and he also found many of the same Sanskrit manuscripts that Rāhula Sāṅkṛityāyana found. Tucci also photographed a number of these manuscripts, some of the same ones that Sāṅkṛityāyana had photographed, and some that Sāṅkṛityāyana had not photographed. Tucci had scribes make copies of some of these manuscripts as well. His collection of photographs and copies of these manuscripts remained uncatalogued for several decades. In 2000, sixteen years after Tucci’s death, the first listing of them was published. It was written by Francesco Sferra, and is titled:

“Sanskrit Manuscripts and Photos of Sanskrit Manuscripts in Giuseppe Tucci’s Collection. A Preliminary Report” (in On the Understanding of Other Cultures, ed. by Piotr Balcerowicz and Mark Mejor, Warsaw, 2000, pp. 397-413, attached as Sanskrit Manuscripts in Giuseppe Tucci’s Collection).

After the Chinese communist occupation of Tibet in the 1950s, and especially after the “Cultural Revolution,” 1966-1976, it was feared that all these Sanskrit manuscripts had been destroyed. But in the 1980s rumors began to circulate in Western academia that these manuscripts had not been destroyed. In 1985 a typed catalogue of 259 of these manuscripts was prepared in Peking/Beijing, compiled by Wang Sen. It turns out that these manuscripts were taken from Tibet to Beijing for their safety, before the Cultural Revolution. This catalogue was quite inaccessible in the West, but a photocopy of it circulated in Western academia. Finally in 2006 it was reproduced by Haiyan Hu-von Hinuber as an appendix to an article that she contributed to a festschrift. The article is:

“Some Remarks on the Sanskrit Manuscript of the Mūlasarvāstivāda-Prātimokṣasūtra found in Tibet” (in Jaina-Itihāsa-Ratna: Festschrift fur Gustav Roth zum 90. Geburtstag, ed. by Ute Husken, et al., Indica et Tibetica, vol. 47. Marburg, 2006, appendix on pp. 297-334, attached as Sanskrit Manuscripts once kept in the Palace of Culture).

These manuscripts were returned to Tibet in 1993, and are now in Lhasa. Other Sanskrit manuscripts that were preserved in Tibet have also been gathered in Lhasa. At present there is no comprehensive listing of them. Efforts to gain access to them were undertaken by several European scholars, most notably Ernst Steinkellner, over the past few decades. These are briefly recounted by Ernst Steinkellner in his 2003 lecture, published as a booklet, A Tale of Leaves: On Sanskrit Manuscripts in Tibet, their Past and their Future (available in the “References” section of this website). After much delicate negotiating, and after a number of frustrating failed attempts, an agreement was at last reached in January, 2004, between The China Tibetology Research Center and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. This has at long last led to some access to the Sanskrit manuscripts preserved in Tibet. Some of these are now being edited and published in the series, Sanskrit Texts from the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The first of these was published in 2005. A review of it by Eli Franco, pointing out the great significance of what it heralds, was published in 2006 as:

“A New Era in the Study of Buddhist Philosophy” (Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 34, 2006, pp. 221-227, attached).

Several volumes have been published so far in this series. A listing of the ones still in print may be found at: http://verlag.oeaw.ac.at/Reihen/Sanskrit-Texts-from-the-Tibetan-Autonomous-Region?language=en. Most of these are very important but comparatively short texts. One of the latest volumes is A Unique Collection of Twenty Sūtras in a Sanskrit Manuscript from the Potala. It is a large and consequently expensive volume. I have not yet seen it, so I do not know what twenty sūtras are in it. The publisher’s listing does not say. Unlike the other volumes so far, it includes English translations. Many more of these important texts are forthcoming in this series.

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