Gandhari and the early Chinese Buddhist translations reconsidered: the case of the Saddharmapundarikasutra.

Author:Boucher, Daniel

    It has for some time now been assumed that many if not most of the early Chinese Buddhist translations derive from originals written in Northwest Middle Indic. A number of scholars have attempted to show that the reconstructed pronunciation of many of the Chinese transcriptions of Indian proper names and Buddhist technical terms in these translations reflect a Prakrit source text that has much in common with, and perhaps is even identical to, a language now widely known as Gandhari.

    While there can be little doubt that the Chinese translators often heard recitations of Indic texts that were heavily Prakritized, containing a number of features that coincide with what we know of the Gandhari language, it is not as certain that they saw such texts. This is to say, what has not been sufficiently taken into consideration is the fundamentally oral/aural nature of the translation process in China. This paper is an attempt to take such a process into account and to raise some caveats with regard to our understanding of the underlying Indian language of these translations.

    Until quite recently, there were few thorough examinations of the early Chinese Buddhist translations. With the exception of a few brave Japanese souls, scholars of both Indian and Chinese Buddhism have generally been put off by the difficult if not at times impenetrable language of these texts. Moreover, there has been little to attract scholars to these abstruse texts. While the translations of the first few centuries of the Common Era had considerable impact on the gentry Buddhism that emerged after the collapse of the Han dynasty, they were subsequently eclipsed by the translations of Kumarajiva and his successors. It was these later translations that had a greater impact on the development of the indigenous schools of Chinese Buddhism.

    From the other side of the Himalayas, Indologists have generally questioned - with good reason - the reliability of these first attempted translations as documents for the study of Indian Buddhism. The majority of our historical data - prefaces, colophons, early bibliographies, etc.-paint a rather dismal picture of the earliest translation teams in China. The Indian or Central Asian missionary is frequently described as having little or no skill in Chinese; it is virtually certain that practically no Chinese of this early period commanded any Indian literary language; and it is not at all clear how these texts were copied, transmitted, or preserved. As a result, it has been universally accepted that the translations of later Indian-trained specialists such as Xuanzang, as well as the very literal renderings in Tibetan, are far more trustworthy in absence of an Indic original.

    Be that as it may, the early translations are currently enjoying an upsurge of scholarly attention. This newfound interest has come from two camps. Sinologists, led in the West by Erik Zurcher, have sought to mine these texts as repositories of early Chinese vernacular language. The fundamentally oral/aural nature of the translation process in China - a process that will be discussed in detail below - has left remnants of what appears to be the spoken idiom of Luoyang during the first few centuries C.E.(1) Indologists, on the other hand, have been drawn to these texts as early representatives of Mahayana Buddhist sutras drafted at a time thought to be rather close, by Indian standards, to that of their composition. In fact, these early translations predate our oldest Sanskrit manuscripts by as many as four or five centuries and may well reveal an earlier redaction of the Indian textual tradition. In addition, it is also believed that these early translations may contain clues concerning the Indic language of transmission. Given the fact that almost all of our extant Indic language materials date from a period when Sanskritization had already profoundly reshaped their idiom, these early Chinese sources may be one of our few windows into their earlier Middle Indic stage.

    Already in 1914 Paul Pelliot had surveyed the transcriptions of proper names in the Chinese translations of the Milindapahha in order to reconstruct their underlying Indic forms? While Pelliot had noted similarities between some of the names in the Chinese texts and forms originating in Northwest India, as well as the possibility of Iranian influence, this was, in his own words, "une etude provisoire."

    In the early 1930s Friedrich Weller and Ernst Waldschmidt turned their attention to the early fifth-century Chinese translation of the Dirghagama.(3) Weller examined thirty-six transcriptions from the fifteenth sutra of the Dirghagama, noting that their reconstructed pronunciation showed many features closer to Prakrit than to Sanskrit, though he hesitated to label the specific idiom. Waldschmidt investigated an even larger body of transcriptions from the nineteenth sutra (the Mahasamajasutra).(4) He was perhaps the first to notice similarities between the reconstructed language of these Chinese transcriptions and the language of the Dutreuil de Rhins manuscript of the Dharmapada that had been discovered in the late nineteenth century.(5) Nevertheless, there were unresolved problems that kept Waldschmidt from drawing firm conclusions concerning the nature of the underlying Prakrit.

    The first attempt to identify and describe the features of the Middle Indic idiom that appears in some of these early Chinese transcriptions as well as in a number of Central Asian languages is the groundbreaking article by H. W. Bailey entitled "Gandhari," by which name scholars have continued to identify this Northwest Prakrit.(6) For Bailey, this Middle Indic language encompassed the Asokan kharosthi edicts from Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra,(7) the various donative inscriptions from northwest India,(8) the Dharmapada found near Khotan (the Dutreuil de Rhins manuscript),(9) the documents from the ancient Shanshan kingdom found at Niya and Loulan,(10) and the miscellaneous traces preserved in Central Asian and Chinese sources.

    Since the publication of Bailey's article, attention paid to this language has steadily increased. In 1962 John Brough published a masterful study of the Gandhari Dharmapada which thoroughly discussed all aspects of the discovery, publication, and language of the manuscript as well as its relationship to other versions of the text. In discussing the broader role of Gandhari Prakrit in the transmission of Buddhist texts, Brough also advanced the growing consensus that some early Chinese translations may have been translated from originals written in Gandhari.(11) Brough was prudently cautious in his remarks, recognizing that very few texts had been systematically studied with this problem in mind. However, within three years - and with no further studies undertaken to my knowledge - he was able to state: "Sufficient evidence, however, has now accumulated to establish that the originals of these early Chinese translations were mostly, even if not exclusively, texts written in the Northwestern (Gandhari) Prakrit."(12) While Brough's newfound certainty is indeed curious, it is noteworthy that his conclusions concerning the role of Gandhari Prakrit have been regularly repeated by subsequent scholars, generating what I call the "Gandhari hypothesis."

    Franz Bernhard, in an oft-cited article published in 1970, reiterated the now firmly established Gandhari hypothesis:

    Phonetic transcriptions in early Chinese translations of Buddhist texts make it clear that Gandhari was the medium in which Buddhism was first propagated in Central Asia, the medium through which Indian culture was transmitted from the northwest across Central Asia to China.(13)

    Bernhard describes Gandhari as "the Buddhist missionary dialect par excellence," a kind of lingua franca comparable to ecclesiastical Latin of the European Middle Ages.

    It is difficult to know what would constitute evidence for a lingua franca in Central Asia on the basis of the rather scant extant records.(14) There can be no doubt that Gandhari had a noticeable impact on other languages it encountered in Central Asia,(15) and most scholars have assumed that it had been most widely influential during the height of the Kushan empire in the first few centuries of the Common Era.(16) Whether this impact can be described as the impact of a lingua franca, a common language shared by speakers of diverse language groups for the purposes of commerce, administration, or religious intercourse, is far more uncertain.(17)

    Bernhard would like to see the Dharmaguptaka school as primarily responsible for this spread of Gandhari in Central Asia.(18) Some of Bernhard's evidence indicating such a role for the Dharmaguptakas, however, has recently been shown to be problematic.(19) Furthermore, it is well known that the Sarvastivadins had the most substantial presence in Central Asia, at least as discernible from the preserved remains of Buddhist literature in this region and from the reports of Chinese pilgrims passing through. And, not insignificantly, the Sarvastivadins are specifically connected with the Sanskritization of canonical literature.(20) Nevertheless, some connection with the Dharmaguptakas is not entirely without basis. The Chinese translation of the Dharmaguptaka-vinaya refers to the recitation of the arapacana formulary(21) and this formulary has now been convincingly shown to be the syllabic order of Gandhari Prakrit in kharosthi script.(22) Moreover, as mentioned above, the Chinese translation of the Dirghagama, widely believed to belong to the Dharmaguptaka school, has been repeatedly cited as derived from a Gandhari original.(23)

    Since Bernhard's article, the Gandhari hypothesis has been repeated, more or less intact, by Indologists(24) and Sinologists(25) alike, usually without any substantial increase of data. Sinologists have generally sought to use the transcriptional data to aid in the reconstruction...

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