Buddhists and Books in the Indian Subcontinent
Greater would be the merit of someone who would make a copy of this perfection of wisdom, would believe in it and have faith in it, faith serene and firm; who would raise his thought to enlightenment, and with earnest intention, would give this perfection of wisdom to another Bodhisattva who had raised his thought to enlightenment; would first of all perfect himself by tireless writing and reciting; then, after much zealous labour, he would persuade the other Bodhisattva, explain this perfection of wisdom to him, instigate to it, fill with enthusiasm for it, make him rejoice in it, would, by his words, lead him to it, educate him in it, illuminate its benefits to him, cleanse his thought and remove his doubts.
The two common words for book in the Sanskrit language are grantha and pustaka. Grantha, meaning “tying or binding,” is the earlier word and was derived clearly from the fact that a book in India, whether made of birch bark or palm leaf, was tied with strings. The word Granthini is used as a proper name in the Rigveda (c. 1500 B.C.), the oldest text of the Vedic Aryans (a branch of Indo-Europeans who came into India, probably in several waves, during the second millennium B.C.), but it is unlikely that it meant a maker of books. The word granthini, meaning “one who reads books,” is, however, used in the law books of Manu, while the words granthakara, a maker of books or a librarian, and granthakartri, an owner of books, occur in the great epic the Mahabharata (written between the fourth century B.C. and fourth century A.D.). None of these allusions to the book can be dated much earlier than the beginning of the Christian era. The word pustaka, believed to be a loan word from Persian, appears first in the Harvarhsa, a Vaishnava text probably compiled during the early centuries of the Christian era. Subsequently, pustaka remained the principal word in Sanskrit to denote a book. In the Brihatsamhita Varahamihira (active sixth century) uses the expression pustavartta for one who lives by books or makes books. The word pustaka presumably was borrowed from the Persian to distinguish Persian books, which were written on vellum and were bound differently than were Indian books.2
For the transmission of knowledge the Indian tradition, by and large, has relied upon the spoken rather than written word. This is clear not only from the fact that most surviving books in India are not of great antiquity but also from the various terms coined to denote the philosophical and religious literature of ancient India. The aranyakas were texts composed by brahmins in the seclusion of forests (aranya); books containing metaphysical discourses between gurus and disciples, which also took place in the solitude of hermitages away from urban areas, came to be known as upanishads because the pupil sat (nishad) near (upa) the teacher to receive esoteric knowledge. Hindu religious literature is generally divided into two classes, categorized as sruti and smriti. Although the former expression is generally taken to mean revelation and the latter as tradition, literally they mean hearing or heard knowledge and remembered or recalled knowledge, respectively. Significantly, the earliest school of Buddhism was characterized as Sravakayana, or the path of the auditors; a lay follower of Jainism is also known as a sravaka, or listener.
The word commonly used by Buddhists to denote their original canonical literature is sUtra, derived from the root word for sewing,which literally means a thread. The meaning is closely related to the word grantha, although the word sutra cannot be applied generically to a book. A sutra really means a string of aphorisms and was applied before the Buddha to de-scribe books of rules and laws.3 Buddhist tradition claims that some sutras were written down during the life of the Buddha (c. 563-483 B.C.). Whether this is true or not curiously the early Buddhists adopted the word pi taka meaning “basket or “receptacle” to designate their canonical texts. This may imply that collections of books were placed in baskets. By the time of the Maurya emperor Asoka (r. c. 273-232 B.C.), who was zealous in engraving his messages on rocks and public monuments, the Buddhists probably committed some of their sacred words to writing. His son, or brother, Mahendra is supposed to have taken books to Sri Lanka to spread the message of the Buddha.
The Lalitavistara, a biography of the Buddha probably composed in the second century B.C., informs us that as a child the Buddha was familiar with all sixty-four scripts then prevalent in the subcontinent. As a matter of fact, the word for school used in the text is not the common pathsala, a house of reading, but lipisala, a house of writing (fig. 3). Many of the. scripts mentioned in this work cannot be identified today, but the text also refers to Brahmi and Kharoshthi as well as Greek and Chinese. The Greek script was also known to the grammarian Panini (active fourth century B.C.), who certainly was familiar with both writing and the book. Thus, even though the Indian tradition was largely oral, by the Maurya period (c. 324- 187 B.C.) a wide variety of scripts was apparently used in different regions of the country.
The Buddhist tradition is quite consistent in stating that the scriptures were committed to writing at the time of the Buddha. According to the seventeenth-century Tibetan polymath Taranath, the custom of writing the scriptures began in earnest only after the third council of the religion, held during the reign of the Kushan emperor Kanishka I (c. 78-102). “It is said,” writes Taranath, “that this Vararuci prepared a number of copies of the Vibhasa and distributed these among the preachers of the Doctrine and that, though certain written works containing the sayings (of the Teacher) existed even during the lifetime of the Teacher himself, only henceforth began the practice of writing of the commentaries in the form of the sastras.”4
Even if they began writing their scriptures as early as the time of the Buddha, the testimony of the Chinese pilgrim Faxian, who visited the subcontinent around A.D. 400, indicates that the practice was not widespread. Upon reaching Patna in Bihar, the account of his travels informs us that:
Fa-hien’s original objective had been to search for (copies of) the Vinaya. In the various kingdoms of North India, however, he had found one master transmitting orally (the rules) to another, but no written copies which he could transcribe. He had therefore travelled far and come on to Central India. Here, in the Mahayana Monastery, he found a copy of the Vinaya, containing the Mahasanghika rules,—those which were observed in the first Great Council, while Buddha was still in the world. The original copy was handed down in the Jetavana vihara. . .. This copy (of the rules) is the most complete, with the fullest explanations.5
Although Faxian remarks that the Sarvastivada rules, which were generally observed by the Buddhist communities in China, “have all been handed down orally from master to master without being committed to writing,” he did get hold of “a transcript of these-rules in six or seven thousand gathas” and several other texts.6 In consequence (of this success in his quest) Faxian stayed in Patna for three years, learning Sanskrit books and the Sanskrit speech and writing out the Vinaya rules. Later, he went on to Tamralipti (modern Tamluk in West Bengal) where he also found a flourishing tradition of writing books in the local monastery. He then continued his journey to Sri Lanka where he transcribed many other scriptures, unknown in China, and set sail for Java on the way home laden with books and images. He almost lost them all during the journey but was apparently saved by Bodhi- sattva Avalokitesvara.
It seems an indisputable fact that the needs of such Chinese monks to transmit the rules and scriptures to their own country encouraged the Indian Buddhists to commit the texts to writing. Moreover, they must also have been aware that, no matter how great the memory, it was not humanly possible for every monk to memorize the vast body of literature that had accumulated by the time of Faxian’s visit. By the seventh century the demand for books must have increased considerably to satisfy the various Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia and Tibet. Even in their thousands, the surviving Buddhist manuscripts provide no idea of the numbers of books that were written in the Indian monasteries between the seventh and eleventh centuries. Certainly, the important monastic establishments, such as Nalanda in the east, Nagapattinam in the south, and Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, were veritable factories of book production.
The earliest archaeological evidence for a book in the subcontinent is provided by an inscribed stone image of the Goddess Sarasvati discovered in the city of Mathura in Uttar Pradesh (fig. 4). In her left hand the goddess holds a book evidently made of loose leaves. The shape of the book is similar to that of the typical Jain paper manuscripts of western India rather than the narrower and longer palm leaf books or those made from the larger birch bark. Belonging probably to the first century A.D., the image was commissioned by a fain devotee. It is not improbable that the fains began to write their texts even earlier than the Buddhists.
That religious books, even among the Hindus, were being copied by the fifth century is suggested by a fifth century terra-cotta panel sculpture, showing one of the mythical ascetics reading a book held in his hands (fig. 5). Another book is placed on an hourglass-shaped side table (like the modern wicker morhaj. This scene takes place in a forest hermitage, where knowledge was orally transmitted in more ancient times. By the fifth century, however, books had become important to these remote centers of learning and discourses (asramas). Certainly, by about the eighth century the book had become a common attribute of various deities of all three major Indian religious systems. In a rare bronze from Kashmir the Buddha holds a manuscript in his left hand (fig. 6), According to Buddhist tradition texts of the famous Prajnaparamita (Perfection of wisdom) were recovered in the form of books by the famous second-century philosopher Nagarjuna from the land of the nagas, or serpents.
The earliest surviving Buddhist manuscripts, from about the middle of the first millennium A.D., were recovered largely from Central Asia and from a collapsed stupa in Gilgit in present-day Pakistan. Those from Gilgit were written on birch bark, while the Central Asian books were written both on bark and paper, in imitation of the shape and format of birch bark. It is somewhat curious that while Faxian found books only in eastern India, the earliest Indian manuscripts should have been found in the northwestern part of the subcontinent. It is equally curious that, although that part of the country, including Kashmir, was extremely important for the transmission of Buddhism into Tibet in the seventh century, no books written in Kashmir have so far been found in the Tibetan monasteries, although hundreds of books from Bihar and Bengal have survived both in Tibet and Nepal. In any event, there can be little doubt that one of the principal reasons why the Buddhists began to forego the oral for the written tradition was the demand by foreigners, first of Central Asia and China and, subsequently, of Tibet and Southeast Asia, to possess books containing the scriptures. Although hundreds of Indian monks with prodigious memories, as noted by Faxian and others, went abroad to spread the message of the Buddha, it was imperative that the texts be translated into the local languages. Even with written texts, this is a difficult task at best but to do so simply through the oral process would be a superhuman effort. It is not surprising, therefore, that, although India has relied strongly upon the oral method of transmitting knowledge, later tradition asserted that the elephant-headed god Ganesa served as the first scribe to write down the Vedas.
Apart from the impetus provided by the needs of foreign adherents of the religion, the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita itself affords ample evidence for the writing of texts by the Buddhists. This important Mahayana sutra is traditionally attributed to Nagarjuna. Repeatedly in the text Buddha himself asserts that it is far more meritorious to hear, recite, study, and write the Prajnaparamita than to raise stupas in honor of the master.
Greater would be the merit of someone who would truly believe in this perfection of wisdom;. . . who would copy it, and preserve and store away the copy — so that the good dharma might last long, so that the guide of the Tathagatas might not be annihilated, so that the good dharma might not disappear, so that the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, might continue to be assisted, since their guide will not give out, - and who, finally, would honour and worship this perfection of wisdom.7
Clearly, therefore, when the Prajnaparamita was composed the Buddhists had become somewhat insecure about the future of their faith and strongly felt the urge to write down their texts to help posterity and disseminate dharma. Indeed. to emphasize the importance of the Prajnaparamita it is unambiguously declared in another chapter that the study, recitation, and copying of the text is even greater than venerating the relics of the Tathagatas. This particular text became the most copied of all scriptures among the Buddhists. Sakra, the chief of the gods, states:
O Lord, if there were two lots; and if not only this great tr- chiliocosm, but if all the world systems, countless as the sands of the Ganges, filled with the relics of the Tathagatas, were put down as the first lot; and a copy of the perfection of wisdom as the second. If I were invited to choose either, and to take it, I would take just this perfection of wisdom.8
The five hundred years between the seventh century, when the most famous Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsiian- tsang; 600-664) visited India, and the twelfth century, when most monasteries in Bihar and Bengal were destroyed and abandoned, witnessed the most flourishing period of the art of the Buddhist book. While books may have been written for a thousand years before the seventh century and transcribed in austerely beautiful script, as evident from surviving works from Central Asia and Gilgit, the impulse to embellish them with illuminations and pictures seems not to have captured the Indian imagination much earlier than the ninth century. At least, to date, nothing earlier than this period has come to light that indicates that either the Buddhists or lains were in the habit of illustrating their books. It should be noted, however, that upon leaving Patna, Faxian proceeded to the ancient port city of Tamluk where he stayed for two years “writing out his Sutras, and drawing pictures of images.”9 We do not know whether these pictures, no doubt iconographic drawings, were drawn as marginalia on his manuscripts or incorporated into separate sketchbooks. If the former, then this may be the earliest instance known of including illustrations on manuscripts on the Indian subcontinent.
As was the case with Mahayana Buddhists, so also, certainly by the Gupta period (A.D. 300-600], the Hindus had begun not only to write their sacred books but to worship them as well. Usually, the last chapter of a purana, many of which had assumed their present form by the Gupta period, is devoted to extolling the merits of reciting, writing, donating, and worshiping the text. Any of these activities is considered to be as,or more.worthy of acquiring piety than the visiting of sacred sites or the performing of sacrifices. Since some of the early puranas may have been compiled as early as the Mahayana sutras, it would appear that the tradition probably began at about the same time and reflects a similar upsurge in bhakti or religious devotion, although the Buddhists may well have provided the impetus. One of the earliest Indian texts, although not Buddhist, to discuss the preparation and dedication of books is the Hindu Devipurcma.10 Chapter 91 is devoted entirely to exalting the practice of donating books to brahmins and temples of the Great Goddess, in particular, but also to other temples. The Devipurana is generally thought to have been composed in the second half of the first millennium A.D., but some of its material is much earlier. Chapter 91, however, is considered to be a later interpolation, although it is unlikely to date much later than 1050, as it was quoted extensively by later writers whose dates are securely known.11
The text leaves us in no doubt that of all donations, the gift of knowledge is the best. After dilating at length about vidya, or knowledge in general, the. text specifically states that by listening to vidya, one gains devotion (bhakti) and develops the proper attitude toward the guru. The guru then reveals the agama (esoteric knowledge), which is available only in a manuscript (granthasrita), and, hence, it is one’s duty to write and donate books. Information is then provided for the preparation of a book and the elaborate rituals necessary to dedicate it.
The book should consist of palm leavesand should be evenly spread out and placed on a skin beside a colorful cloth. The manuscript should be contained within two painted wood boards tied together by black or red strings. The book should be written in clearly legible letters of the nandinagara script. The letters should not crowd each other nor should they be placed too far apart. At the beginning of the book should be five verses of invocation and at the end five verses of peace. The book should then be placed on a six-legged, seven-legged, or three-legged stool within a mandala and worshiped.
Elaborate rituals are prescribed for the worship of the book before it is given to a brahmin or a temple. The donor should draw a mandala with cow dung in a quiet spot to the east or north of his house. Within this mandala should be drawn a lotus with red powder, which should then be decorated with flowers. Above the mandala should be a painted canopy decorated with bells, flywhisk, mirror, and half-moon. Accompanied by the sound of bells, a yantra (mystical diagram) made of ivory should be placed in the center. Thereafter, one must wrap the book in a piece of cloth embellished with figures of the lion and elephant and worship it along with a painted image of the presiding deity of the book. That night, one should praise the Goddess in the company of actors, itinerant singers, and naked people. The writer or copyist of the manuscript should also be worshiped, for he is a superior person having preserved texts that otherwise would be lost. In addition, we are told that it is meritorious to donate pens, ink, inkpots, sharp knives, book covers, and stools among other things.
One of the earliest Buddhist texts to extol the virtues of worshiping a book is the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita. Apart from the passage quoted as an epigraph to this chapter, the Buddha unequivocally states:
Moreover, Kausika, among the Gods of the Four Great Kings, those Gods who have set out for full enlightenment will make up their minds to come to the place where someone has put a copy of the perfection of wisdom, and worship it. Many will come, look upon the copy of this perfection of wisdom, salute it respectfully, pay homage to it, learn, study and repeat it.12
In Nepal copies of the Prajnaparamita and other sacred books are still worshiped in the monasteries, and many wood covers, often saturated with dried unguents, can be found today. That the act of copying books had become an act of piety among Buddhists is evident in the following passage from a later Buddhist text:
In the act of making images or preparing books, the artists should first conceive of the form of Amitabha as the sire of the family of the deity to be represented. Then the wood, clay, stone, cloth etc., with which the form of the deity is to be depicted, are to be purified. The mantras are to be altered in order to endow the brush, pen, and ink with powers to overcome obstacles. The pen and ink being the aids to supreme knowledge are to be venerated, preferably with the hundred-syllabled mantra so as to make them highly potent. The artist should be satisfied in respect of the food, etc., he receives as honorarium. If the desired form does not come through, the image already delineated should be obliterated and a new form drawn. This system is to be followed also in cases of renovation of deities of the replicas of votive objects.13
A brief, but interesting passage stressing the esoteric nature of Buddhist tantric works is included in the Hevajratantra:
Then the Goddess asked about books and he (Hevajra) replied: “O listen, Goddess, greatly blessed, and I will speak on the subject of books. The book should be written by one of our tradition on leaves of birch bark twelve angula (fingers] long, with bone as a pen. But if someone unworthy should see either book or painting, one will fail to gain perfection either in this world or the next. To one of our tradition it may be shown at any time. Then on a journey, the book should be hidden in the hair or under the arm.14
To my knowledge, no one to date has examined a manuscript of the Hevajratantra to determine whether collyrium was used as ink. Certainly, there is no way today to ascertain if pens were made of human bone. When the Hevajratantra was composed is not known, but by the end of the eighth century it had certainly taken its present form. In discussing books the author of the Hevajratantra mentions birch bark rather than palm leaf, indicating that the work was perhaps composed in the northwestern region of the subcontinent, where birch bark was the more familiar material, rather than in eastern India. Another interesting comment in this text is the stricture placed on showing a Buddhist book to a non-Buddhist. That such was indeed the case is evident from the well-known Cambridge manuscript of the Prajnaparamita copied in Nepal in 1015. A second colophon was added by Karunavajra in 1139 taking credit for saving the book from the hands of nonbelievers.
While the Devipurana does not specifically allude to illustrations being added to the book itself, it does state that the covers should be painted, and, indeed, this is borne out by existing early Hindu manuscripts preserved in Nepal. Certainly by the twelfth century manuscripts of the Devimahatmya were illuminated with images of the Goddess.15 The Devipurana states that a painted image of the Goddess should be worshiped along with the book.16 A convenient way of fulfilling this sacred injunction may have led to the inclusion of the image in the book itself.
The Buddhist text, however, is more precise about adding images to books. While it is generally assumed that the purpose of these images was prophylactic, both the Hindu and Buddhist passages discussed suggest that the book itself was worshiped directly. It is still a common practice in India for Hindus to substitute a copy of the Devimahatmya for an image of Goddess Durga, while in Nepal sacrosanct manuscripts, especially the Mahayana text of the Prajnaparamita, are ritually worshiped. Thus, just as the brahmin or guru received homage as the repository of knowledge so also the book became a sacred object as it contained the sacred words. The idea that revealed books, such as the Vedas, were holy was already prevalent in India, even if the texts were not committed to writing. The Buddhists may have been inspired by the Manichaean tradition of illuminating and illustrating books in Iran and Central Asia during the early centuries of the Christian era. Added incentives may have been provided by copies of Bibles, whether illustrated or not, that the Nestorian Christian communities in southern India possessed as well as the veneration accorded to the Koran by Muslims who were a strong presence in Sind in Pakistan by the eighth century. It should be emphasized, however, that the art of illuminating and illustrating books never achieved the same richness and diversity in India as it did in Byzantium. While we do know that by about the sixth century donating books had become a pious act for the Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, certainly the Indians did not consider the possession of a beautifully illustrated book as significant as it was to Christian patrons in medieval Europe and later to Muslim princes in Islamic lands, including India. Although colophons of Buddhist manuscripts provide some information about the patrons who commissioned the books, nothing is known as to whether the donor determined the kind of illustrations to be included. In fact, as will be presently discussed, which books were to be illuminated and with what subjects and in what manner seems to have been determined by tradition when the earliest surviving manuscripts were illuminated in the eleventh century. For historians Indian and Nepali Buddhist manuscripts, whether illustrated or not, are a primary source for valuable historical information. The postcolophon statements are at times the only source for gleaning a royal name or the duration of his reign. They are also helpful for ascertaining a precise date of a work of art, which is not insignificant considering that most sculptures and paintings of the period cannot be attributed securely. The postcolophon statements further contain names of donors, but very rarely do they inform us as to why a book was commissioned or illustrated. By and large, most Buddhists dedicated books to earn religious merit, and, in most instances, a stock dedicatory formula is included that declares that the merit accrued from the act should benefit the donor’s parents, teachers, both past and present, and increase the welfare and enlightenment of all living beings.
One of the most elaborate postcolophon statements occurs in an east Indian Prajnaparamita manuscript copied in the eleventh century and now in the Asiatic Society, Calcutta.17 The book was dedicated by Sadhugupta, who is characterized as a Sakyacharya (Sakya teacher) and sthavira (elder monk). He resided in the great monastery known as Tadivadi.18 Unfortunately, even though this was a major monastery, it cannot be identified. What is interesting is that the book was copied by Chintamanikya, who is characterized as a kalyanamitra (a good friend) and was a resident of Nalanda.19 Since the scribe lived at Nalanda, the book presumably was copied and illustrated there at the behest of the elder monk Sadhugupta while he was perhaps a visiting professor at the famous university.
This is not the only instance of such commissions by visitors from one monastery to another or from one country to another. Another copy of the same text was dedicated in Apanaka Monastery in the eighteenth regnal year of King Ramapala (c. 1100) by the elder Trailokyachandra, the disciple of Purnachandra who had come from the Malaya country, the Malabar region of the southwestern coast of the peninsula.20 Somewhat more problematic is the Cleveland manuscript dedicated in the year 1100 at Vikramasila monastery in Bihar by the monk Srimitra, who is clearly described as a Nepali (Srimannepalades'iya).21 Vikramasila is the name of a a well-known monastery in Bihar and a lesser monastery in Nepal. If the manuscript had been dedicated in the Nepali Vikramasila, then Srimitra would have hardly announced his own nationality. Interestingly, no name of a ruler, either Nepali or Pala, has been included, while the date is given in the Nepali rather than Indian era. Since the pictures are clearly in the Nepali style, it would appear that the pious Nepali monk copied and illuminated his book in Nepal before visiting the Indian Vikramasila monastery to dedicate his book. Considering the importance of the monastery, the act was probably considered especially meritorious. Earlier, another devout follower of Mahayana from Nepal dedicated a manuscript of the Dharanisamgraha in the Nalanda monastery in the mideleventh century.22 Unlike Srimitra’s copy, Ramajiva’s manuscript was copied by a local scribe.
Relevant to this discussion are the postcolophon statements of two Buddhist manuscripts that mention China. The earlier of these is a palm-leaf manuscript written in the Nepali year 188, or A.D. 1068, by Paka, who describes himself as upasaka chinaisishya.23 In the Buddhist context the expression upasaka means a lay worshiper. Chinaisishya commonly means a disciple of China. Thus, the expression may mean Paka, the disciple of China (proper name), or the Chinese disciple and lay worshiper Paka. The word China as a country is certainly mentioned in a manuscript dedicated by Punyakirti in the village of Ghoshali (location unknown, but probably in either Bengal or Bihar) in the seventeenth year of King Gopala.24 Since the style of writing is of the tenth century, this manuscript was probably dedicated during the reign of King Gopala II (midtenth century). In any event, Punyakirti describes himself as a monk from the country of China (chinadesi-vinirgata-bhikshu). In the Indian context the word China is generally taken to denote Tibet, while China is referred to as Mahachina.or Great China.25 Whether, therefore, Punyakirti was a Tibetan or Chinese monk cannot be determined; both Chinese and Tibetan monks often had Sanskrit names.
Another interesting occurrence of a monk from one country settling and commissioning a manuscript in another is provided by a copy of the Prajnaparamita dedicated in the year 268 of the Newari Era, or 1248. The elaborate postcolophon statement eulogizes the donor who is described as having come from Kashmir and settling in Nepal.26 The name “by which he was famous in the world” was Tilaka. This is, in fact, one of the few instances we have of the cultural exchange between Nepal and Kashmir. No other document names this Kashmiri pundit, who is described in the eulogy as one “whose fame had spread far, who provided happiness to good people, who was respected by his loved ones, who was an ocean of patience and a possessor of good deeds, humility, courage, generosity, and virtue.” Even more interesting is the fact that Nepal has preserved a manuscript of a commentary on a Vajrayana Buddhist text by Jayabhadra, a monk from Sri Lanka.27 Sri Lanka is primarily a Theravada Buddhist country, and such esoteric texts written by Sinhalese monks are extremely rare.
Like the forgotten Kashmiri Tilaka, Vanaratna (1384-1455) was another famous Indian pundit whose name is no longer remembered in India but who achieved fame in Nepal and Tibet. Fortunately, Vanaratna’s biography is preserved in the Tibetan tradition,28 and at least two manuscripts have survived that corroborate the Tibetan and Nepali evidence. Both manuscripts are now preserved in the Asiatic Society Library, Calcutta, one of the richest sources of such material in the world.29 One of these is a manuscript of the Bodhicharyavataratika, copied by Prajnakaramati (1384- 1469). According to the postcolophon statement, the manuscript was commissioned by Vanaratna, who is described in highly eulogistic terms and characterized as a Sakyabhikshu and great elder. He is none other than the great Bengali pundit who was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Although the place where the manuscript was copied is not given, the script is certainly old Bengali, and very likely it was commissioned by the pundit during his sojourn in Magadha, perhaps in the monastery known as Uruvasa. From the Tibetan tradition one can calculate that he lived in Magadha sometime between 1410 and 1426, probably around 1415. The second book is of the Krishnayamaritantra, copied by the Nepali monk Dharmarakshita in Shadakshari Monastery, probably in the year 1480. The monk describes himself as one“who massaged the lotus feet of his guru, the great elder Vanaratna.” Thus, these two manuscripts not only corroborate the existence of Vanaratna, characterized by the Tibetans as “the last great pundit” but identify at least one of his devoted Nepali disciples.
These few examples are sufficient to demonstrate how postcolophon statements of Buddhist manuscripts contribute significantly toward extending our knowledge about little- known or otherwise unknown Buddhist scholars and monasteries. Most donors appear to have been monks-, and the descriptive epithets and occasional eulogies provide information about their accomplishments, status, and prestige.
Apart from monks, who constitute the majority of donors of Buddhist books in India and Nepal, lay persons, too, considered it an act of piety to donate books to monasteries or commission them for their personal use. The well-known and richly illustrated manuscript of the Pancharaksha, now in the Cambridge University Library,30 was commissioned by Queen Uddaka during the reign of King Nayapala in the year 14, or around 1054. Very likely, she was one of Nayapala’s queens. This may be the only example of an illuminated manuscript commissioned as a royal benefaction by a Pala queen, although the Palas were munificent patrons of the Buddhists and followed the faith themselves. A second Pancharaksha manuscript, now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was commissioned by Raja Vikramamana, whose father was a great feudal chief and king of kings (mahasamantadhipati maharajadhiraja) as well as a great governor (maha- mandalika). Vikramamana was only a prince when he dedicated the book, while his father Rudramana was one of the important functionaries in the government of the Pala emperor Madanapala (c. 1143-62],31
A very important royal dedication of an Ashtasahasrika 30. Prajnaparamita manuscript, preserved in the National Library, Kathmandu,seems to have been ignored by most scholars. The postcolophon statement informs us that the manuscript was commissioned by Vasantadevi, queen of King Govindachandra (r. c.1150) of Kanauj in Uttar Pradesh.32 Unfortunately, we are not told where and when this manuscript 32. was copied and illuminated. Shastri characterized the writing as Newari Ranja in which case Nepal would be the likely place, but this is impossible. If it were copied within Govindachandra’s kingdom, it would be the first Buddhist illuminated manuscript to have survived from contemporary India west of the regions under Pala influence. It would also corroborate the Chinese and Tibetan evidence that manuscripts were indeed copied in monasteries in ancient Uttar Pradesh.
A wider variety of donors’ names occurs in Nepali manuscripts. In the year 1120 a Prajnaparamita manuscript was commissioned by one Yishakarachandra, whose profession is not given but who is described as a resident of Indrakoshtha in Udayapur and whose overlord (mahasamanta) was Yishujiva during the reign of the devout Buddhist monarch Sihadeva (c.1099-1122).33 Around the year 1200 an illuminated manuscript of the Paramartha Namasahgiti was commissioned by a Kirtipala who is characterized as a chief merchant (sarthavaha).34 Unlike in India, in Nepal where Buddhism is still a living religion, manuscripts continued to be commissioned and written well into the present century. Many later manuscripts were commissioned by lay Buddhists as well as by Newari priests and members of their families. Although the hereditary Buddhist priests continued to characterize themselves as vajracharyas (adamantine teachers) and bhikshus (monks), in point of fact they were all married. Postcolophon statements of later manuscripts, written frequently in Sanskrit and Newari, often contain names of the vajracharyas as well as their wives, sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law. Principal lay donors were merchants and bharos who were influential members of the nobility.
Apart from the altruistic motivation for commissioning a manuscript, whereby all creatures are to be enlightened, in a few instances specific benefits, mundane and spiritual, are sought by the donor. All the examples cited here occur in Nepali manuscripts generally after the thirteenth century. From the year 1380 have survived two copies of the famous Sanskrit lexicon known as the Amarakosha, copied by two different scribes.35 One was copied for the personal use of the patron. In the other the scribe Ramadatta states that he has written this sastra (scripture) for the benefit of others and that the book is auspicious. Several later Nepali manuscripts were donated so thatthepiousactmay bringhappiness, prosperity, and wealth in this and the next life for the donor and members of his family. In at least one instance a donor wished that he would attain the Sukhavati paradise after death because of the donation.36 Another donor specifically hopes that by having a manuscript of the Lotus Sutra copied he will remove all sorrows in this world (sarvaaukhahsantena).37 A manuscript of the KarandaVyUha was written by Dharmasimha of Arako Monastery in the hope that the moment the book entered his house it would result in the increase of family, fortune, good health, and life and satisfy all desires both mundane and spiritual.38 In another elaborate postcolophon statement the donor dedicated a copy of the Lotus Sutra along with a golden chaitya in the year 1713 in the hope that the religion will be preserved all over the world, that all creatures will hear the words of the king of sages, that the earth will have enough water, and that the ruler will protect all pious subjects.39 While monks copied books as acts of piety, professional scribes were also engaged for the purpose. A scribe was known originally as a kayastha, which today is the designation of a subcaste and does not refer to the profession. A scribe was also simply known as a lekhaka, or writer. Very little information is available about the scribes of ancient India. Because they were literate, some held administrative positions of great significance and most were civil servants. In 1436 a manuscript of Santideva’s Bodhicharyavatara was copied in Venugrama (in Bihar?) by Amitabha, who describes himself as a good Buddhist, a karanakayastha, and a Thakkura.40 Most scribes in Mithila in northern Bihar were Thakkuras. The Thakurs remain extremely influential members of the Hindu society in Bihar today. Ten years later, Jayaramadatta, a resident of the village of Keraki, copied for a monk a manuscript of the Kalachakratantra.41 He, too, proudly announced that he was a karanakayastha and was also the headman or administrator of the village of Ara, an important town in present-day Bihar.Interestingly, Datta now is a common surname among the kayasthas of Bengal. From Nepal, too, have survived two manuscripts copied by a Ramadatta (active 1380-1400), who was probably a professional scribe attached to the Yampi Monastery.42
It appears, thus, that there were professional scribes who were freelancers but also held offices in the civil service, and others who were attached to monasteries. Certainly, important monasteries, such as Nalanda or Vikramasila, must have retained a large number of professional scribes as well as artists. Scribes were not paid with money for their labor but were compensated with grains and other necessities of life. Very likely, the illuminators were also paid in kind rather than in cash. The Indian tradition generally considers it a sin to sell knowledge. In ancient India most students lived with their teachers and paid for their lessons with services rather than money. The professors received no salaries but were paid in kind and at the end of the term received a suitable honorarium from the pupil.
A survey of the surviving books copied in Nepal in the last five centuries or so reveals that the principal copyists in that country were vajracharyas, who are now hereditary priests. Few names of professional scribes occur in the postcolophon statements. Apart from Ramadatta, another fourteenth-century scribe who lived in present-day Nawakote, just outside the Kathmandu Valley on the west, was Virasimha, who apparently copied a book with his student Ratnachandra.43 Another scribe noted that he belonged to the lineage of Kasyapa.44 Meager as such information is about the scribes, we know almost nothing about the artists who were called upon to illuminate the books. While some monks may have been illuminators, almost certainly most pictures were painted by professional artists. The scribes themselves probably did not draw the pictures. Certainly, the scribe and the artist were expected to be pious Buddhists, and the acts of writing and illuminating had their ritualistic implications. This must have been an ideal state of affairs, however, for professional scribes were certainly called upon to copy non-Buddhist works. For instance, the Cambridge University Library possesses a number of manuscripts of the Amarakosha, an ancient lexicon not specifically Buddhist or Hindu, several of which were copied by vajracharyas. This clearly demonstrates that the Nepali vajracharyas served as professional scribes.
The task of copying such manuscripts was not easy; a well- known verse states, “I have written this manuscript by breaking my back, by bending over with lowered head and clenched fist. Please preserve it with care.” It was also common for a scribe to add the standard caveat that he had simply copied what he saw and that if there were any mistakes the reader should not blame him. One Nepali scribe was so concerned that he entreats his readers to protect the book from fire, from water, from thieves, and from rats, for he had copied it with great care.45
Meager though the information is about donors and scribes, it is surprising that even this little is available to us today. In the Prajnaparamita the Buddha makes it clear that those who recite or copy the text must not only concentrate completely on their task and not be distracted by the “sutras associated with the vehicle of the Disciples and Pratyekabuddhas,” but that they should not even be conscious of their own achieve- ment. “If some of the followers of the great vehicle, after they have copied out this deep perfection of wisdom in written letters, should think that ‘the deep perfection of wisdom has been written down by me,’ then they form an attachment to the written letters as representing this deep perfection of wisdom. This also should be known as Mara’s deed to them.”46 Thus, it is a wonder that so many donors and scribes should have proclaimed their deeds in the manuscripts they commissioned or copied. Let us hope that this did not diminish their store of merit.