A new Indian facsimile edition of the Gilgit Lotus Sutra - an important document of Mahayana Buddhism - written in Sanskrit has brought the last teachings of Gautama Buddha before his death to researchers and lay people.
Known as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra - or the teachings of the white lotus and sun - the sutra is the basis of the Tiantai and Nichiren schools of Buddhism. Transcribed by monks for over 100 years between the 5th and 6th century AD, they are possibly the only body of Buddhist manuscripts discovered in the Gilgit region and probably compiled there as well, scholars say.
The facsimile was launched Thursday in the capital by secretary of culture Sangita Gairola at the India International Centre.
The facsimile edition of the Gilgit Lotus Sutra is a collaboration between the National Archives of India, Institute of Oriental Philosophy (IOP) and Japanese Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai.
Unveiling the edition, Gairola said "much work was going on in cultural thought both in India and abroad. It is fitting therefore that in India we take care to preserve, promote and disseminate all forms of culture. We have entered into cultural agreements with several foreign countries".
Leading Buddhist scholar Lokesh Chandra, who had suggested the publication of a facsimile edition of the sutra to the National Archives, said: "The Gilgit manuscripts found in three stages by cattle grazers in 1931 in a circular chamber within a Buddhist stupa."
Found in a wooden box, these manuscripts survived for centuries partly because they were written on the bark of the bhoj tree that does not decay or decompose, Chandra said. The icy weather of the Gilgit region also helped it survive. After they were discovered, the manuscripts were taken to Srinagar where archaeologist Aurel Stein announced their discovery.
Chandra, who has grown up with the Lotus Sutra, recalled that an army captain brought the box of Buddhist manuscripts to his father (noted Sanskrit scholar Raghu Vira) in the early 1930s.
"The army officer was posted somewhere in the Gilgit region. He wanted my father to buy the papers but they were very expensive. He asked several institutions, but no one wanted to buy the manuscripts. The manuscripts went different ways - a part of it went to the former Maharaja of Kashmir while the rest went to Germany and Britain. The original manuscripts - small portion which remained in India - are now at the National Archives," Chandra said, addressing an the audience at the launch.
"The manuscripts are about the beauty of the human mind - purity and light - as expressed by the white lotus. The white lotus sutra has given a value system to Asian nations for the last 1,600 years," Chandra said.
One of the Lotus sutras, "the Shri Mala Devi Simha Nanda Sutra, was a great feminist text - and probably the earliest one", he said.
Historian Kapila Vatsyayan, one of the guests of honour, said Indians were losing the power of reading ancient epigraphical inscriptions and one of her studies showed that the country had only 61 inscription scholars.
"It might lead to a generation of Indians who may keep all ancient papers in satin textiles but not be able to read them," she said, recalling how Lokesh Chandra's father was sent to China to bring back Buddhist manuscripts during the regime of former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
"I was a young education department employee when Raghu Vira promised to bring donkey loads of papers from China," she said.
Director of National Archives Mushirul Hasan said the extra pennies given to the archives by the government might be useful for preserving more ancient manuscripts and developing the repository.