Oldest Buddhist Lotus Sutra manuscript now in new book

NEW DELHI, May 4: The Gilgit Lotus Sutra manuscript an ancient scripture containing the teachings of Buddha and discovered by cattle grazers inside a Buddhist stupa in 1931 has now been released in a laminated facsimile edition.
The book, a joint initiative by the National Archives of India, the Institute of Oriental Philosophy and the NGO Soka Gakkai International was launched here last evening. The National Archives will make the copy available to universities and scholars on request.
The manuscripts, which date back to the 5th century were discovered inside a wooden box in a circular chamber within a Buddhist stupa and the cattle grazers who found it in three stages took it to the Wazir of Gilgit who in turn sent it to Srinagar to the Maharajah of Kashmir.
Subsequently British archaeologist Aurel Stien studied them and announced their discovery to the world.
“Much work on our cultural thought and norms has been done abroad and scholars have painstakingly worked at learning ancient scripts in order to understand the true meaning of what they have studied. It is fitting that we in India take care to preserve what we have, knowing that it is of relevance not just to us in India but the rest of the world as well,” said Sangita Gairola, Culture Secretary after releasing a copy of the edition.
The manuscripts, said Lokesh Chandra, historian and Chairperson, International Centre for Indian Culture apply a value system to Asia for the last 1,600 years. “It is the rarest of sutras that speaks about the gross national happiness, which is the happiness of each individual. Even Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn had mantras from the Lotus Sutra,” said Chandra.
Lokesh Chandra said, “I first saw the Gilgit Sutra manuscripts when I was just 7 years old when a captain of the Indian army posted in the Gilgit area came with the box of manuscripts to my father who was a noted Sanskrit scholar and wanted him to buy it but they were very expensive,”
The document was finally split up with parts of it going to museums in Britain and Germany, and part of it being retained by the ruler of Kashmir.
Experts say that the Lotus Sutra managed to survive the the freezing temperatures of the Gilgit region for centuries because they were written on the bark of the bhoj (birch) tree which does not decay or decompose.
The Lotus Sutra is among the oldest existing texts of Buddhism. Others are the Golden Line Sutra and the Mala Devi Sutra, which Chandra points out as “a very feminist sutra perhaps the most ancient feminist text sometimes even more violent than  what femnism is today.”
The Lotus Sutra most widely translated among Indian Buddihst sutras.
“It is by no means a mere relic of the past and represents unlimited philosophy of peace and happiness. It is a sacred text eternal in nature and unending in the creation of life. There is  hope that the wisdom in the text will once more brighten the future of all mankind,” said Daisaku Ikeda, President SGI in a message.
Prof Mushirul Hasan, Director General, National Archives of India said bringing out the facsimile editions holds importance to scholarly research.
“A crying need in our country and in other parts of the world is to make historical documents accessible. The launch of this publication ensures that these wonderful manuscripts can now be viewed and studied more freely.”
Kapila Vatsayan, Founder President, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) pointed out how the Lotus Sutra was instrumental in the dissemination of knowledge in the ancient times.
“It is not just a question of putting the Buddha in a kind of niche but an integrated view of knowledge extending from mathematics to much else including what we call as philosophy and human values. The nature of that knowledge and the dissemination of that knowledge has much to teach us today both in terms of motivation and spread of that knowledge,” she said.
The historian pointed out, “The number of people who can read epigraphical inscriptions is dwindling… The scripts of India will become the scripts of the Indus valley to be deciphered and we may have a generation of Indians who may keep them in satin scarves but not able to read them…. If preserving our heritage is not the priority of the state, then India is on the verge of losing its cultural memory.”
In 1994 the Soka Gokkai along with the Institute of Oriental Philosophy launched a campaign to contribute to the study of Buddhism worldwide and the contributions included the study of the Lotus Sutra in Sanskrit and other languages and materials of high scholarly value.
“It involved a plan to set up a committee entrusted with the publishing the Lotus Sutra in facsimile edition and Romanised text and so far 40 editons have been published so far from museum collections in China, Nepal, Cambridge, Tokyo, Britain, Paris and elsewhere,” said Akash K Ouchi, Fellow, IOP.    (PTI)


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