All posts by drgethinrees

The Bactrian Archives as a Source for the History and Historical Geography of Afghanistan

This month it was a pleasure to welcome Nicholas Sims-Williams to discuss the difficulties and benefits of the archives of Bactrian documents for the study of Afghanistan in the first millennium AD. These archives surfaced together in the 1990s and consist of legal documents and letters. Properly ordered, these have the potential to shed light on the administrative centres in Bactria which produced them. They also offer an insight into Bactrian language itself, hitherto only dimly understood from a limited number of coins and inscriptions. However, a central problems is converting the dates in the documents into AD equivalents and dating those documents which lack a date. Sims-Williams took us through some of the thorniest issues and the most heated of the debates surrounding the chronology of the Bactrian archives. He pointed out some ways forward by using internal references (to the Sasanian Peroz, the Hephthalites, or Arab tax documents) that helped set parameters for the dating. He then showed how the dated documents could give clues as to the period of the undated ones. Finally, he outlined some of the ways in which these documents contribute to the history and historical geography of the area between the Oxus and Kabul, such as modes of water-use, (co-)ownership of land, inheritance, as well as providing the first mention of the Afghan people in the second half of the fifth century. These Bactrian archives offer unparalleled access to the ancient centres of Rob and  Kadagstān as different ruling dynasties gain paramount authority in the region, the Kushanshahs, the Sasanians, the Hepthalites, Western Turks, and finally the Arabs. The last stages of the archives contain both Bactrian documents and Arabic tax records relating to the same local family.

Michael Willis then followed up this talk by showing some of the Bactrian artefacts housed in the British Museum. He contextualised the fine artwork on seals and coins in order to bring up questions surrounding worship, divinity and kingship, tying the works to later Vaishnavite wall carvings and inscriptions from Udaigiri and other sites.

The Sanskritisation of Gandharan culture

This month we welcomed Ingo Strauch to speak about the Sanskritisation of central and northern India before and during the period of the Gupta empire. The focus of his talk was the greater Gandharan area, stretching from today’s Swat Valley in the north to what is now Islamabad in the south and including Bamiyan, Gilgit and Taxila in between. This area shared a common culture linked by language and script during the first millennium CE.


Original image by Asia Society. Uploaded by , published on 23 June 2015 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. No changes made.

By the sixth century, what Pollock names the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” held sway over central India, but it affected different areas to various extents and in divergent ways. Different groups also held contrasting attitudes to Sanskrit, and these positons changed gradually over time. At the start of the millennium, Buddhists were generally hostile to the language, and Middle Indic dominated as their language, whereas Sanskrit was largely confined to ritual texts associated with Vedic literature, as propagated by the Brahmanical schools. The connected questions of why and how Buddhists adopted Sanskrit can now be investigated more thoroughly, at least in the northwest, with the benefit of important manuscript discoveries from 1994 onwards.

Strauch led us through the examples of Gāndhārī language to show that, on the level of the written word at least, biscriptualism was linked to bilingualism. Aśoka’s north-western edicts were written in Kharoṣṭhī (contrasting with his other, Brāhmī inscriptions). The evidence of the Bamiyan and Bajaur manuscript discoveries, among others, points towards the gradual adoption of Brāhmī in “Greater Gandhara,” and other evidence suggests the late-Kuṣāna period hegemony of this new script—to the extent that, even when Kharośṭhī was used, it began to reflect the language written in Brāhmī. Strauch argued for a gradual Sanskritisation (rather than a sudden conversion), in which for some time the Sanskrit of the Sarvāstivādins sat side by side with the Buddhist Sanskrit of the Mahāsāṃghikas (even in the same manuscript, for example the Bajaur Prātimokṣa sūtra). He also stressed the varieties of Sanskritisation taking place in different ways on coins, sculptures and reliquaries. Overall, though, it seems clear that the shift from Kharoṣṭhī to Brāhmī did not cause Sanskritisation, but rather that the latter was more suited to writing the complex ligatures necessary to reflect Sanskrit sounds. This pragmatic cause led to the loss of Kharoṣṭhī in “Greater Gandhara” by the end of the Gupta period, excepting for pockets of resistance in small outlying areas.

Strauch connected Sanskritisation itself to the rise of Hindus in Gandharan areas and in South Asia more generally. These groups used Sanskrit not only as a lingua franca and for administration, but also as a prestige religious language, and thus succeeded in convincing the Buddhists of “Greater Gandhara” of the necessity of accepting it as part of the spectrum of languages reflected in the Bamiyan and other manuscripts. Strauch cited Bronkhorst’s speculations concerning the reasons why the Buddhists eventually took up Sanskrit—the status of the language in mediating the important priest-patron relationship apparently led the Buddhists to use the same means to defend their own interests at the royal courts.

Michael Willis then showed some examples of similar shifts in language for the British Museum Collection, including sealings, coins and artifacts discovered at Sunet, near modern-day Ludhiana. Many of these resources will be put up on the research group’s Zenodo pages as part of the project’s important task of data collection and dissemination.

Finally, Robert Bracey discussed the coin-moulds at Sangdhol, a petty kingdom in the same area flourishing on the edge of the Gupta empire. These curious remains appear to correlate to no extant coins, problematizing Sangdhol’s description in other secondary literature as a mint site. Bracey speculated that the moulds, sometimes intended to cast multiple “coins” at once, may have fulfilled some very site-specific, folk ritual function and cast not metal but a material that has not survived in the ground.



Aspects of Royal Ideology in the Buddhist Vinayas

At our May workshop, Vincent Tournier discussed his research into the Mahāvastu and its part in the changing depiction of the royal, spiritual and buddhological lineage of Śākyamuni. The fruits of this work have recently been published as La formation du Mahāvastu et la mise en place des conceptions relatives à la carrière du bodhisattva (Paris:  École française d’Extrême-Orient, 2017). He showed how in the first millenium CE, what Peter Skilling called the “epochal career” of the historical Buddha was increasingly contextualised within the framework of other buddhas, and his family tree more and more intertwined with the very beginnings of kingship in India. This depiction of the Buddha then affected his status as an enlightened authority figure and that of his spiritual heirs, his disciples, within an increasingly crowded religious marketplace of first millennium South Asia.


Tournier first outlined the findings of his philological interrogation of the Mahāvastu, probably closed as a work in the sixth century CE and written like the Vinaya in the “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit” of the first-millennium Mahāsāṇgikas. Other works describe the Mahāvastu as a Vinaya text, and though it does not describe rules to be followed by the Buddhist community Tournier argues that this should cause us to broaden our conception of the Vinaya itself. The work itself attempts to line up a number of elements within the Buddha’s biography with corresponding Vinaya doctrinal categories. Yet the Mahāvastu consists of many strata, including two different prologues, dating to various points in the development of the Buddhist literary tradition. This leads to a rich but sometimes confusing mixture of themes and portrayals of the Buddha and his pre-incarnations, many of which Tournier has expertly separated and then investigated for the light they shed on the Buddha’s purported royal heritage.

The idea of seven buddhas of the past, present and future, found in much earlier Buddhist works such as the Mahāvadana, is structured as a lineage in the Mahāvastu. There, thematic elements and poetic imagery are repeated for each buddha, unifying them into a chronologically ordered set. Furthermore, the portayals of an earlier buddha pronouncing a prophecy (vyākaraṇa) for his immediate successor increasingly resemble a king’s appointment of his royal heir, for instance in Śākyamuni’s description of Maitreya’s future life as a dharmarāja. Tournier contextualised this trend with recourse to the Lalitavistara lifestory, the Avataṃsaka sūtra and sculptures found at the Borobudur temple complex. Finally, he showed how the narrative of the royal descent of the Buddha, found in the Mahāvastu, grew out of an independent aeteliologies concerning the Ikṣvāku family lineage and the cosmogonic beginnings of people and their first king, Mahāsammata. The Mahāvastu combines these two tales into an account of Śākyamuni lineage stretching from the First King down through the Ikṣvāku royal line. Tournier highlighted the similar strategies of appropriating the stories of past kings used in both creating a Buddhological lineage and also unifying the Buddha’s royal line. He suggested this perhaps reflects a Kushan and/or Gupta milieu, in which it was necessary for the Buddhists to argue that they did not merely consist of a mixture of social classes but were instead pure sons of a Buddha prophecied aeons ago, who was himself heir to an old and exalted lineage.


Lewis Doney’s Fieldtrip to Thailand

Between February the 19th and March the 16th, 2017, I travelled to Thailand to investigate the region’s long history of religious kingship, Buddhism and its attendant material culture.

I spent the first ten days in Bangkok, an area rich in temples, monasteries, monuments and lived religious practice. Examples include Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, the Grand Palace and the Erawan Shrine.


Scene from the Rāmāyaṇa mural at the Grand Palace (Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang), Bangkok.

The time of my visit coincided with the sad period of mourning for the beloved King of Thailand. This gave me the opportunity to witness first hand both the organised Buddhist rituals of his commemoration among the civil service employees who still dress in black or white as a sign of respect, and also the preparations for the departed king’s cremation due to take place in December 2017.

During this time, I also visited the National Museum, a treasure-trove of artefacts from around Thailand dating from the prehistoric age over 6000 years ago to the Bangkok period. Of especial interest is the time of the Dvaravati city-states (6th–11th centuries CE), which borrowed Mon culture and non-Mahāyāna Buddhism from its neighbours. Numismatic and stone inscriptional evidence suggests that these were based around Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok. Like the earlier Guptas, this civilization maintained numerous overland trade routes—including east to what is today Cambodia, west to Burma, and north to Chiang Mai and Laos. These existed in addition to the maritime networks existing from the eighth century under the protection of the empire of Srivijaya, who controlled trade between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Evidence of Dvaravati Buddhist artwork remains, and seems to show that the localised forms of originally Indic design had been interpreted through Mon and other cultures to form a unique local flavour. The Dvaravati city-states lasted until the westward expansion of the Khmer empire (9th–15th centuries) into the region during the eleventh century.


Relief depicting female musicians (Dvaravati style, 8th–9th) from Khu Bua, Ratchaburi province.

While in Bangkok, I had the chance to visit Mahidol University and to present my latest research and the ongoing work of the Beyond Boundaries project to staff and students of the Buddhist Studies international programme within the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities. I was also lucky enough to participate in a reading group hosted by Mattia Salvini and Harunaga Isaacson on Jñānaśrīmitra’s (fl. 975-1025) Sākārasiddhiśāstra and an opening talk by Shoryu Katsura on the Prajñāpāramitopadeśa of Ratnākaraśānti (c. 1000).

Further afield, I was able to document the archaeological sites of Ayuthaya, Sukhothai and Satchanalai to the north in Thailand. Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, Sukhothai was a regional Khmer administrative centre and so lay on one of the main roads connecting the capital at Angkor along which temples in the Khmer style—Brahman and Buddhist—acted as a visible symbol of imperial power. After the Tai expelled the Khmer in the thirteenth century, King Sri Indraditya and his son Ramkhamhaeng made of Sukhothai a large regional power with dependant kings in the four directions. Satchanalai was the northernmost, and second most important of the cities in this kingdom. Lastly, Ayuthaya was the centre of power and basis for booming maritime trade during the eponymous period, from the mid-fourteenth century onwards. The site combines Khmer and local traits, since the Ayuthaya rulers conquered the Khmer in the 1430s and were connected in marriage to the closer kingdoms of Suphanburi and Lopburi and other vassal states. Unlike Sukhotahai, Ayuthaya’s rulers were given the epithet devarājā rather than dhammarājā. The region also maintained ties with China during this period.


Standing Buddha (h. 12m) at Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai archaeological site.

Finally, pursuing my research into Buddhist material culture, I was able to visit several important sites of Thai and Chinese temple bells, photograph them and record their dimensions. This will help to give an account of them during the panel titled “Bell Inscriptions across the Buddhist World” at the International Association of Buddhist Studies conference to be held in Toronto in August 2017.


Shrine and bell & drum tower at Wat Chana Songkhram, Bangkok.

Indian Philosophy Seminar

It was a pleasure to welcome to our workshop this month Prof. Larry McCrea of Cornell University, and Prof. Isabelle Ratié from the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle for a seminar on Indian philosophy. Larry McCrea talked to us about late-first millennium discussions of the opening phrases of Indian philosophical works. At stake in these debates was what constitutes the rational human agent who will decide whether or not to read such works based on certain criteria. The creation of gradually larger schema of criteria can help inter alia date certain commentaries ascribed to this period.

At first, within the Brahmanical commentarial tradition of the philosopher Kumārilabhaṭṭa (c. 650 AD), a tripartite set of criteria for judging the value of texts by their opening statement (ādivākya) was expressed, consisting of the text/topic (śāstra) itself; its purpose (prayojana); and the connection (sambandha) between the topic and its purpose. These three parts should motivate the reader to engage with the text at the very outset. These lively discussions suggest a mileu in which several authors and their works competed for readership within a busy philosophical and literary marketplace.

The eighth-century Buddhist philosophers took up this three-fold and unpacked its implicit consequences. Arcaṭa, for instance, in his Hetubinduṭīkā commentary on Dharmakīrti’s work criticized the claim that such criteria are sufficient for gaining even uncertain knowledge of the truth or falsehood of any work’s opening claim. Later, Vinītadeva’s commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Nyāyabindu added a fourth criterion, the purpose of the purpose (prayojanasyaprayojana): to learn epistemology in order to accomplish all human aims. Another commentator on the same text, Dharmottara (c. 750s), describes the fourth criterion instead as the purpose of the topic (abhidheyaprayojana), which he claims implies the first three criteria.

Finally, Jayantabhaṭṭa’s (c. 900) Nyāyamañjarī coins the term “opening statement” itself (with recourse to the above philosophers). However, Jayantabhaṭṭa broadens the scope of the opening statement, which he claims validates Nyāya epistemology / logic in order to ultimately validate the Vedas, out to apply to our criteria for deciding to follow any path. He argues, against Kumārilabhaṭṭa, that in the every-day world of choices, we can trust out “hunches” or “suspicions” (saṃśaya) without recourse to the intrinsic validity or otherwise of some claims. However, when approaching Vedic ritual the stakes are higher and the attendant sacrifices and responsibilities greater. Thus, McCrea suggests, the problem for Jayantabhaṭṭa’s philosophy is how one argues from the quotidian to the transcendent level of epistemology.

Isabelle Ratié presented her latest discoveries regarding the works of the grammarian-philosopher, Bhartṛhari (450–510). Among the works attributed to Bhartṛhari is the now lost work known as the Śabdadhātusamīkṣā or perhaps more properly the Ṣaḍdhātusamīkṣā, that is known only from later references and quotations. Bhartṛhari influenced both later Brahmanical and Buddhist philosophical traditions, but the content of this work, and so part of the content of his oevre, has long been in doubt.

It was assumed, given Bhartṛhari’s supposed concern with speech (śabda) in other works, for example the Vākyapadīya and Mahābhāṣyadīpaka commentary on Patañjali’s famous work, that this “investigation” (samīkṣā) also focused on language. However, Ratié has found evidence in quotations and criticism of his position in works by Somānanda (c. 900–950) and Utpaladeva (c. 925–975), who appear to be intimately familiar with this work, that it may instead have investigated the six elements (ṣaḍ-dhātu), most likely the five material elements of earth, fire, water, air and ether and the immaterial element of consciousness (cetanā) or self (ātman).

The surviving fragments of the Bhartṛhari’s text suggest that he attempted to unify these six elements as arising from a unitary consciousness or self in a similar way to the later Advaita Vedānta school. The existence of such an important antecedent to the Advaita Vedānta position of the eighth-century Ādi Śaṅkara has important consequences for the study of that school. The eighth-century Buddhist philosopher Śāntarakṣita and his disciple Kamalaśīla may also have been aware of it. Ratié notes, though, that the attribution of the Ṣaḍdhātusamīkṣā to Bhartṛhari is still not a certainty and so this position may not have existed as early as the fourth century. Nonetheless, Ratié’s investigation into the Bhartṛhari’s discussion of the six elements acts as a salutary reminder that modern philologists should not be too quick to discount the perspectives of medieval Indian exegetes in favour of a reductionist scepticism.