Woe unto you, scribes
|Another Prajñāpāramitā ms., source here.|
I have just finished reading "Bengal, Bihar, Nepal? Problems of provenance in 12th-century illuminated Buddhist manuscripts" published in two parts in Oriental Art, vol. XXXV (1989). In this otherwise extremely well-researched and interesting article J. P. Losty writes the following about an Aṣṭasāhasrikā ms. now held at the British Library (Or. 14268):
Its colophon, however, is worth quoting as it both suggests a date and offers food for intriguing speculations (Fig. 25). The ye dharmā verse is followed (after another verse expressing pious Buddhistic sentiments beginning with lokaṃ prāpayituṃ) by (f. 292v):
kāle[']smin bahudṛṣṭiśa[=sa]ṅkulakalau pāṭhe [']pi dūraṅgate
nānābhedam anekapustakagatan dṛṣṭvādhunā śraddhayā
kupyadvādigajendrakumbhadalane bhadreṇa yā śodhitā
lokārthaṃ hariṇā mayā parahitaiḥ seyaṃ budhair guphyatāṃ || [[...]]
Here the pious donation statement breaks off. A literal translation would be: "At this time in the Kali-era of tumult of many view-points, when the establishment of good readings is not possible on account of the many gaps in various books, now let this [MS], which has been edited for the general benefit with faith by me Hari who am skillful in breaking open the temples of enraged elephant-lords of debate, be strung by the well intentioned wise. [[...]]" [[...]]
Although at first sight a personal statement and not a scribal formula, one other manuscript is known to me which contains the identical verse along with its preceding one. This is Grierson MS 1 in the India Office Library, written in a very similar, if not identical, hooked Nepalese script of the same period, but this time with a donor, one Luṃṇībhāro, and with covers illuminated in the Nepalese style of the late 12th century. However, this seems to be the only other occurence of these verses, and I propose for the time being to treat them as personal scribal statements and not as standard formulae. It is difficult otherwise to account for his stating that his name is Hari, which is odd because this is a Hindu name and also because unaccompanied by the usual nāmnā. He also of course has no Buddhist monastic titles to justify his portrayal of himself as a skilled debater in Buddhist councils. Be that as it may, he must logically be either a Nepalese writing either in Nepal or Bihar, or an Indian who had gone to Nepal and adopted a typically Nepalese script.
As to dating, the scribe's gloomy remarks suggest a period of great upheaval. On palaeographic grounds, a date in the second half of the 12th century or early 13th is most likely by comparison with dated manuscripts using this script. The evidence of the miniatures suggests a date at the end of this period. Both India and Nepal experienced upheavals in the last decade of the 12th century. In Nepal, the so-called Ṭhakurī dynasty had collapsed, three claimants were fighting for the throne, and feudatories from outside the Kathmandu Valley were establishing their independence. [[...]] In India, of course, the Muslim armies swept down the Gangetic plain towards Bihar and Bengal, and the ferocious onslaught was such that the Buddhist monasteries with their great libraries were all destroyed by the early decades of the 13th century. Either event could be referred to by the phrase "in the Kali-era of tumult of many viewpoints," although so apocalyptic a phrase suggests the latter.
Our scribe tells us that he is a skilled debater, often victorious in the philosophical debates that took place at the great monasteries, and hence we would suppose him to be more than a humble copyist. The image comes irresistibly to mind of this famous debater sitting in the ruins of the library at Nālandā, piecing together from what was available the text of this famous scripture. It would, however, be sounder in fact to resist this image, as we must remember that our scribe is using a Nepalese script. It is difficult to see why a Nepalese scholar would have gone to India at such a time to copy such a well-known text. [[...]]
We could, however, suppose that our scribe was in Nepal, viewing events in distant India from the still unviolated Kathmandu Valley. But would a Nepalese scribe speak so slightingly of the libraries of the Buddhist vihāras of his own country, so that it was impossible to write the text of so well-known a scripture without recourse to the Indian libraries? This is unlikely. However, if the scribe were an Indian monk who had taken refuge in Nepal and was using a well-established Nepalese script (albeit with backslidings towards Siddhamātṛkā), then his feeling of cultural isolation, running even to peevishness in his final remarks, is perfectly comprehensible. [[...]]
Another possibility is that our scribe was not actually in the Valley itself, but in one of the towns outside, and hence he thought that it was not possible for him to establish good readings. [[...]]
No firm conclusions can be drawn as yet about the provenance of this manuscript in the light of the above speculations. However, the most likely seems to be a Nepalese scholar (or possibly an Indian) established temporarily in a town such as Dhulikhel in the period 1190-1200, earning a humble living as a scribe, fulminating about the disasters in both the Valley and India itself, [[...]]To sum up: Losty argues that the statement in verse is made by the scribe of the manuscript. This man was called Hari, therefore probably a Hindu. His statement suggests turbulent times, which must be events at the end of the 12th century in India or Nepal, possibly both. However, he carefully points out that this is his (informed) speculation and no firm conclusions should be drawn from it.
The image of the fulminating scribe faced with tragic events is a very attractive one. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it is also untrue. For the rather clever verse hides not a Hindu scribe, but a famous Buddhist author who lived about four centuries before.
Let us take another look at the verse. The image of "breaking open the temples of elephants" is exclusively associated with lions in poetic imagery (they also extract a kind of pearl from there, but this is a story for another day). Bells start ringing that the author is trying to be clever, for "hari" does indeed mean lion. Is he trying to trick us anywhere else? Indeed, he does: "bhadra" is to be construed with the lion, therefore the name in hiding is Haribhadra.
I could not trace Grierson MS 1, but I would be very surprised if it were not a Buddhist ms. linked to the Prajñāpāramitā. The same verses also occur at the end of the Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā (at least in Vaidya's edition, see Mahāyāna-sūtra-saṃgraha, part I, p. 397), although a little bit garbled. The present transmission is actually very helpful in emending that edition (especially after we read gṛhyatām for the unnatural guphyatām).
In other words, there is no fulminating scholar-scribe, these are the words of the 8/9th-century Haribhadra. The "crisis" described therein does not seem to refer to any real events. It seems that this is just a good old Buddhist cliché about our ever-decaying world.
The moral of the story is of course not that Losty was wrong. Actually, the reasoning is ingenious and we would be hard pressed to find a better one if we were not in possession of Haribhadra's works. The lesson seems to be that we must co-operate, textual scholars and art historians. It is difficult to believe that the text would not have rung a bell had it been exposed to Buddhologists (ok, I don't like the name either). Conversely, textual scholars must have written equally wrong statements based on superficial observations of artworks. I would know, I could not tell one miniature from the other even if I were to look at them for hours. The other lesson is never to trust secondary literature, even if it is written by the most eminent scholars of the field.