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The Perfection of Wisdom

Around 1000 years ago, a scribe called Sujātabhadra, penned the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra or ‘Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 lines‘. It is believed to have been completed in the year 985 during the reign of the Pala King, Mahipala.

Importance of the Thought of Enlightenment

Where there is no sprout, there can in the world be no tree. How can therein be the production of branches, leaves, fruits or flowers?

Without aspiration for enlightenment there is no possibility of a Jina* in the world.

*a term used for human beings who have attained omniscience

These words from the text are meant for those who are on the path to enlightenment and to help them realise the transient nature of things, making it easier to attain nirvana. Full of such pearls of wisdom, it is the world’s oldest Sanskrit manuscript.

What is the Perfection of Wisdom about?

perfection of wisdom manuscript
The manuscript illustration shows scenes from Buddha’s life. In this case, you see the birth of Buddha.

This manuscript — considered a physical embodiment of the Buddha’s wisdom — is both an object of learning and one of devotion. Devotees study and recite its text, believed to be the Buddha’s own words.

“The Perfection of Wisdom is set in the community of monks at the Vulture peak in Rajgrha, modern Rajgir. The text is in the format of a conversation circle, where various disciples of the Buddha, such as the traditionalist Sariputra, Buddha’s first cousin Ananda, and bodhisattvas such as Maitreya discuss what constitutes the correct path to enlightenment.” The teachings of the texts are mainly presented in the form of dialogues between important figures.

Discovering the world’s oldest Sanskrit manuscript

perfection of wisdom manuscript
Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra | Illuminated Buddhist manuscript on dried palm leaves. India Pala period, late 11th C.

Buddhism travelled from India to Nepal, Tibet, along the Silk Route to China and further onto Japan. The manuscript was found in a disused temple in Kathmandu in the 1870s by Dr Daniel Wright, surgeon of the British Residency.

When Sujātabhadra picked up his reed pen and put his name to the manuscript, he was part of a rich network of scholarship, culture, belief and trade

Dr Camillo Formigatti of the Sanskrit Manuscripts Project.
Buddha taming the enraged elephant, Nalagiri

Where can you find this manuscript?

The manuscript is in the South Asian collections at Cambridge, along with about 2,000 other centuries-old manuscripts that cover religion, philosophy, astronomy, grammar, law, poetry and many other subjects. A digitisation project has made the manuscript accessible online to scholars worldwide and has revealed fresh evidence about the origins of some of the earliest Buddhist texts.

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