The Silk Road, especially during the time when Buddhism first propagated out of India into the northwest and then east into China, is a fascinating point in history. Much of this is epitomized in a little-known writing system called Karoshthi.
At that time, much of the world from Europe to Asia spoke a language called Aramaic. Jesus’s native language was Aramaic, not Hebrew (though like many Jewish people at the time, he certainly knew it). Aramaic spread far and wide partly by accident, when Assyrians forced captive peoples to migrate to remote parts of their empire. Compared with the older cuneiform script, used in many Near East languages, Aramaic had a simple, straightforward alphabet that allowed people to pick it up quickly and easily.
Aramaic was also used in the Silk Road that ran from the edges of the Roman Empire, through the Parthian Empire, east to the Kushan Empire (later the Hephthalites) and across the Taklamakan Desert to Tang Dynasty China.
However, starting in the region of Gandhara (modern-day Pakistan), a new script, based on Aramaic began to appear: Karoshthi.
This video, courtesy of Vidya-mitra’s online correspondence courses, explains the Karoshthi in great detail and is worth a watch.
Some highlights from that video that I wanted to share.
First, Karoshthi was only around for a few centuries: mostly the 1st century CE to 3rd century CE. However, this overlapped with a pivotal time when Buddhism developed many characteristics in Gandhara that we now see today:
- Mahayana Buddhist texts were developed and written down, not orally transmitted.
- Buddhist statuary, possibly influenced from Bactrian-Greek culture, were first made.
Second, contrary to what I thought, most of these Buddhist-Karoshthi scripts were composed in a prakrit language called Ghandari Prakrit, not Sanskrit.1 According to the video, Ghandhari had some unusual features compared to other prakrit languages found in India, and Karoshthi had to be adapted for this. So, it contains some letters and styles not found elsewhere.
Third, Karoshthi wasn’t just used for Buddhist literature: it was used across a large swath of the eastern part of the Silk Road, so texts written in Karoshthi can be found in western China as easily as they are found in Pakistan, though because of geography, it tends to be found in pockets, where oasis-towns and other settlements existed.
I have been playing around with it quite a bit using Unicode and HTML as well as other ancient scripts, and was able to compile the Sanskrit phrase om namo’valokiteshvarāya2 meaning “praise to [the Bodhisattva] Avalokiteshvara”:
- Brahmi script: 𑀑𑀀 𑀦𑀫𑁄𑀯𑀮𑁄𑀓𑀺𑀢𑁂𑀰𑁆𑀯𑀭𑀸𑀬𑁍
- Karoshthi script: 𐨀𐨆𐨎 𐨣𐨨𐨆 𐨬𐨫𐨆𐨐𐨁𐨟𐨅𐨭𐨿𐨬𐨪𐨌𐨩𐩕
The Brahmi script such as Emperor Ashoka might have used, is written left-to-right, as you’ll notice, but the Karoshthi script is written right-to-left. This makes copy and pasting on a browser really tricky by the way. 😅
Anyhow, this is a very amateur look at the ancient Karoshthi script. Karoshthi script is something that you probably wouldn’t see very often, if ever, but it’s a fascinating historical relic of a time when commerce and information was exchanged heavily along the Silk Road, bringing empires across parts of Asia and Europe briefly together. As a Buddhist, it’s also a snapshot into the earliest forms of Buddhist, particularly Mahayana-Buddhist, literature one can find anymore.
1 Buddhist texts gradually became more and more Sanskrit-like, but that took centuries, and even then it probably wasn’t pure, literary Sanskrit as one would learn in a textbook. This phenomenon was dubbed “Buddhist-Hybrid Sanskrit” by scholars.
2 I found this phrase in a stotra (hymn of praise) published in romanized-Sanskrit from the Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon, namely here: Avalokiteśvarastotram (carapatipādaviracitam)