Piṭakasampadā and the written scriptures in the early Buddhism period

Dear All,

I have found the word piṭakasampadā in the early suttas (eg. MN 76, MN 95, and the famous Kalama Sutta AN 3.65) commonly translated as “collection of authorized sciptures” [from piṭaka = basket or collection, and sampadā = authority], for example in the Ven. Bodhi’s translation of AN here. But I don’t think this is a correct translation since there is no written scriptures in the early Buddhism period (the earliest written form is from Asoka’s period or perhaps I wrong?).

Is there any evident of written scripture texts from early Buddhism time? Or is there a possibility of written Brahmanism texts (Vedas) in the period? If none, how we should translate the word piṭakasampadā ? Perhaps “collection of authorized teachings/doctrines” is better?

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A question that is so good, I wrote a long essay about it some time ago. Enjoy.


Dear Bhante,

Perhaps my English is not very good, but I read your article and it said about “books” and “scriptures”, which is indicate there are a written form for the Vedas in the early Buddhism period. Isn’t it?

No, it’s just a figure of speech. As far as we know, the Vedas were not written down until after the Buddhist texts, maybe long after.

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How about Upanishads? Some says it has been written since pre-Buddhist period (c.a 800-500 BC)…

I think pitaka not necessarily should be writtened, but pitaka also can be memorized.

A few Upanishads (far from all) were composed in the pre-Buddhist period. But writing came later; no pre-Ashokan texts were written down.

In articles where these things are discussed, scholars won’t necessarily feel the need to specify that we’re dealing with purely oral texts, as this is so well known.

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Dear Bhante @Sujato,

I found the reference to written material in Ud 3.9 which said about “lekhāsippaṃ” (writing-craft). Is this a proof that there is a method of writing in the Buddha’s time, perhaps not in massive writing form like those in Asoka’s time, but only a simple writing form which is only accessible to certain community (e.g. the brahmanas)?

Thank you :anjal:

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Yes, such references do seem to attest to writing. However, they are rare, and usually found in texts such as the Udana or the bhikkhuni Vinaya, which are usually held to belong to the somewhat later strata of the early texts. Are they pre-Ashokan? I think so, but it is hard to say.

Personally I find it hard to believe that writing went from nothing to a central instrument of state policy overnight. I think its very likely that writing was used in some form for quite some time prior to the appearance of any evidence. However, it was probably restricted to such things as commercial contracts for trade or government orders, which is why it is so rare in the early texts. These would have been written on some kind of leaf, which explains why none have survived. Not until Ashoka decided to inscribe his edicts in stone were durable texts formed.

The technology for creating large scale texts as required for philosophical, religious, or literary texts did not yet exist. In addition, there surely would have been a—perhaps justified—bias against adopting such new-fangled methods. A written text is much easier to fake. If a monk recites a text, I know who that person is and can ask about the text and its provenance. But a written text could come from anywhere.

So its not just a matter of developing the technologies of manufacturing birch-bark or palm-leaf manuscripts at scale, there is a social aspect to persuading a culture to adopt a new approach. That’s why our oldest record, from Sri Lanka, says the texts were written down, not because they were more reliable or because a new technology was invented, but because of the social upheaval caused by famine, which made them realize they needed another backup plan.


The Buddha mentioned a ‘moving picture’ in a sutta (like a hand-drawn cartoon animation?). It seems they could draw, on some material which was light enough for it to move.

With metta

Not quite. In a simile at SN 22.100 there is mention of a picture called caraṇa, i.e. “Life” or “Conduct”. Probably it was a didactic work depicting various kinds of conduct and their outcome, something like that. It is clearly some kind of sophisticated, colorful artwork.


it’s hard for me to understand how people back then could rely on a spoken word in serious matters, does this mean people were once more dependable, honest and trustworthy?

it’s kind of strange that no records on clay have been found, which is a convenient, disposable, cheap and durable enough material to use for writing and record keeping

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Think of it more like the words of a professional in their capacity. If a doctor or a lawyer gives advice as part of their job, it is more than just a random person says so. Of course, like anything, it might still be incorrect, but there is a massive social/institutional weight behind it. And so long as the institution is uncorrupted, itṥ generally a good idea to listen.

I agree, and of course many clay inscriptions are found from the Indus valley time. Clay tablets are far from ideal for preserving large amounts of text, which, however, did not stop the Mesopotamians.

One thing to remember is that they may well not have cared about how long they lasted. For mercantile or political uses, so long as the leaf lasts long enough to get the message, extra longevity is irrelevant. Think today how many people rely on Adobe or Microsoft software, uncaring that the use of such proprietary formats is terrible for creating long-lasting text. Oral texts worked well, it was an established and reliable technology.


I take it there are no known clay tablets with Buddhist teachings on them?

Not so far as I know.

Loosely connected, in this video Harry Falk discusses a clay pot inscription with alleged Buddha remains in nice brahmi script. The music is heavy on sensations but Falk has been an expert on scripts for a long time. The full documentary is too long, 10 minutes would have been enough…

Thanks for your sharing, but I read on the net that over the years there has been much debate about the authenticity of the Piprahwa find, particularly, an inscription on a reliquary vase found at the site.

Piprahwa Stupa: resting place of the Buddha

Piprahwa is particularly known for its large Buddhist Stupa which is argued to be one of the eight resting places of the Buddha’s ashes.[3][4]

This Stupa was discovered by W.C. Peppe, a British colonial landowner of an estate at Piprahwa.[5][6][7]

In 1897, W.C. Peppe led a team of men to unearth a large mound on his land. Having cleared away scrub and jungle they set to work building a deep trench through the mound. Eventually they came to a large stone coffer which, on opening, contained several small vases containing ashes and jewels.[8]

On one of the vases was an inscription which was translated at the time to mean “This relic deposit of the Lord Buddha is the share of this renowned Sakya brethren, his own sister’s children and his own son;” meaning that this reliquary contained the ashes of the Buddha, a member of the Sakays.[9] A momentous historical find for Buddhists all over the world.

However, over the years there has been much debate about the authenticity of the Piprahwa find, and in particular, an inscription on a reliquary vase found at the Piprahwa Stupa.

Some non academic critics argue that the Piprahwa find was probably a forgery by a Dr Fuhrer, an archaeologist in Northern India at the time of the excavation and working some twenty miles away from Piprahwa, and who became notorious for forging Buddhist relics.[10]

Others, including descendants of W.C. Peppe and several academic experts dispute this theory of forgery, citing a range of evidence including historical records, personal documents, drawings, and archaeological and linguistic evidence.[11]

In 2006 a conference was held in England at Harewood House, Yorkshire, to discuss the authenticity of the Piprahwa Stupa and its inscription. Several world-renowned experts in Indology, Indian philology, and Sanskrit attending the conference concluded that the Piprahwa Stupa and its contents, including the inscription and reference to the Buddha’s ashes, are authentic.[12]

More recently, academic expert opinion obtained for a National Geographic documentary on the Piprahwa Stupa entitled “Bones of the Buddha” (May, 2013) suggests - with a high degree of certainty - that Dr Fuhrer could not have been involved in forging the Piprahwa reliquary inscription. This is because Dr Fuhrer lacked the complete knowledge of the language used to write the inscription, and more importantly, would never have known a particular word written on the reliquary.

Experts on ancient Indian languages and history within the documentary “Bones of the Buddha” are now of the opinion that the reliquary found at Piprahwa did contain a portion of the ashes of the Buddha because the inscription is deemed authentic and could not have been forged, and the inscription does translate as ‘this vase contains the Buddha’s ashes’.

The general consensus in the documentrary “Bones of the Buddha” is that the Piprahwa Stupa was built by the Emperor Ashoka a couple of hundred years later over the original and more simple interment site of one eighth of the Buddha’s ashes. Experts within the documentary point to the close similarity of materials used at Piprahwa and its grand size with other Ashokan Stupas, and that the coffer containing the reliquary found at Piprahwa also reflects Ashokan workmanship, design, and the type of stone used for monuments like the Lumbini pillar erected during his reign.

The original interment site of the Buddha’s ashes at Piprahwa was discovered by the Indian archaeologist S.M. Srivastava in the 1970s several feet deeper than the coffer containing the relics that W.C. Peppe had excavated.[13] This find was dated to the period in which Buddha lived.[14]

Mr Srivastava’s excavation also discovered some archaeological evidence that Piprahwa was within Kapilvastu - the homeland of the Buddha. However, the location of Kapilvastu remains hotly debated, with competing claims that Kaplivastu is at Tilaurakot in Nepal.

Recent evidence concerning the authenticity of the Piprahwa reliquary once more raises questions about the exact whereabouts of Kapilvastu, tilting the evidence towards it being located in India.

Relics and archaeological artifacts from the Piprahwa Stupa are to be found in the Calcutta and New Delhi Museums, the Golden Mount Temple in Bangkok, in Burma, the Dipaduttamrama Temple (also known as the Jewel Stupa) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the Anuradhapura Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka. A small portion of the relics were given by the Indian Government for W.C. Peppe to retain, and these are still owned by descendants of the Peppe family in England.[15]

Today, the relics from the original and the 1970s excavations of the Piprahwa Stupa are revered by many Buddhists the world over.[16]

In 1978 ten million people paid homage to the relics from Piprahwa when they travelled to Sri Lanka, and in August 2012 the Indian government once more allowed the relics to be lent to Sri Lanka.[17]

In June 2013, the grandson of W.C. Peppe appeared on the British television programme [http://www.channel4.com/programmes/four-rooms/4od#3526988 ], hoping to sell the jewels found at the site. However, the provenance of the jewels at the time of making the programme (January 2013) was yet to be conclusively established, and the four dealers on the programme felt that if he was able to obtain this they would be of immense historic value.

Since the making of the programme Four Rooms in January 2013, the grandson of W.C. Peppe has sought official written provenance from world leading experts in Indian history and languages who vouch for the authenticity of the Piprahwa find.[18] One of those experts appeared on the National Geographic programme “Bones of the Buddha” stating that the inscription on the reliquary urn found at Piprahwa is authentic.

There is a website discussed about the Piprahwa stupa deception here: The Piprahwa Deceptions: Set-ups and Showdown

Yes, the stupa is still an interesting case. Just posted the video for the nice clay pot with brahmi inscriptions and Falk validating it.

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