[Buddha-l] Is this true?

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Tue Aug 24 23:44:26 MDT 2010

The Gombrich passage is (deliberately?) misleading since it mixes apples and 
oranges, specifically implying that there is an equation between the date of 
extant manuscripts (artifacts) and the date of the texts written on them. I 
suspect that if you have a copy of Shakespeare on your shelves, that edition 
was not published in the early 1600s. By Gombrich's implications, that 
should suggest to us that Shakespeare's plays and poetry do NOT date to 
earlier than the late 20th century, which is clearly absurd. If, as far you 
know, no extant edition of Shakespeare earlier than the one your shelf can 
be found, then even if all the history books tell us that Shakespeare wrote 
in the early 1600s, what would be the proof? (Others who quote him, and can 
be dated, would help, but if their works are no longer available in 
manuscript form contemporary to their composition, but only in later 
publications, questions will remain.)

Same with manuscripts. Since Indians primarily chose to write on very 
perishable materials (palm leaves, etc.), and the Indian climates are often 
not the best for preservation over time, the lack of early manuscripts is 
unfortunate but not unexpected. Texts written on parchment (treated animal 
hide) and preserved in the desert (dry is good for preservation) would have 
a tendency to last much longer -- and that is the case. Texts inscribed on 
stone or clay, which is even more durable, would have even a better chance, 
ergo extant cuneiform texts.

To have an "earliest" manuscript does give a solid piece of evidence for a 
date (assuming the artifact can be accurately dated -- another field with 
potential contentions), but it does not preclude that at one time (and 
perhaps still, though undiscovered) earlier manuscripts existed (unless the 
text states its own date which corresponds to the date of the ms.). It 
certainly does not preclude that the language and similar texts existed 
earlier, anymore than your recently published Shakespeare precludes the 
existence of earlier versions (imagine some time in the future when YOUR 
copy is the earliest one that can be found).

On the other hand, if taken differently, a more interesting and 
significant -- if less bombastic -- point could be drawn from Gombrich's 
observation. Languages and texts undergo modifications and revisions, 
alternate redactions, variants, etc. The extent to which what we have 
received as the Pali corpus is a product of multiple redactions, revisions, 
tweaking, etc., much less when any of these -- if major, systematic 
complilations or overhauls -- took place is largely unknown. For instance, 
we get a hint that during Buddhaghosa's day, a major overhaul and redacting 
(including "correcting" the grammar, etc.) of the texts was underway. The 
sources tell us that one of the important qualifications Buddhaghosa was 
required to have in order to be permitted to become a major contributor to 
the redacting/commentating project was a mastery of grammar. I suspect that 
was not just to guarantee exegetical expertise, but to allow him to 
authoritatively tweak the texts into "correct" expressions, which further 
suggests that the materials they had in hand which they acquired were 
recognizably in need of such tweaking. Anyone who has worked with mss. 
should not find that surprising at all -- in fact, it is rather the norm 
than the exception with manuscripts, in most traditions, not just Pali 

A full set of mss. would provide a view of the state of the canon at that 
particular period, but would not foreclose speculation on what might have 
preceded those mss.


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