Resources for Scholars
To encourage further research, a bibliography of resources relevant to study of the Sanghāta can be downloaded here. This bibliography includes references to help scholars locate editions of the sutra, as well as secondary materials.
Scholarly Study of the Sanghāta
Since Gregory Schopen’s influential article in 1979 suggesting that the Mahāyāna may have begun as a loose federation of groups centered around particular sutras—what he called the ‘cult of the book’—his assertion has been widely accepted as descriptive of the history of the early Mahāyāna. Yet in the nearly three decades that have passed since his article first appeared, little content has been given to the persuasive vision Schopen has sketched out.
Even without observing what has gone on around it, if ever there was a text that imagined itself as the focus of intense worship, surely the Sanghāta Sūtra is such a text. Remarkably, within a few short years after the Sanghāta Sūtra was brought back to the attention of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners in 2002, the practices anticipated by and described in the text were already in full evidence in the community that is engaging with the Sanghāta. (It is particularly noteworthy that sutra recitation was not a widespread practice among Tibetan Buddhists, outside certain specialized ritual contexts.)
This would seem to recommend the Sanghāta as a key text for considering Schopen’s influential theory. However, the vast majority of scholarly interest in the Sanghāta to date has been philological. A number of fine critical editions have been prepared by European scholars. These editors made invaluable contributions to the study of the Sanghāta, through their work dating and editing its manuscripts, but found the content of the text ‘confused’ (Oskar von Hinüber, in a 1980 article) or ‘cryptic’ (Giotto Canevascini in his 1993 work). As such, minimal attention was paid to its content, or to its place in the communities that preserved and valued it.
Art historian Deborah Klimburg-Salter is among the few to consider the impact that the Sanghāta may have had on the culture around it. In a 1987 article, she points out that the decorative manuscript covers found with the Sanghāta in Gilgit were among the very earliest suggests that the text itself played a pivotal role in shifting attitudes towards books in India:
The Gilgit manuscript covers, as well as manuscripts from the find, mark an important phase in the history of the art of the book in India…. That is, that a change took place in the concept of the book so that books were seen not merely as media for the conveyance of information but, for some reason or reasons as yet unclear, began to be conceived of as objects worthy of beautification. As we shall see, one possibility, which needs further consideration, is that this development was affected by the evolution of certain texts into cult objects. (Klimburg-Salter, 1987:817)
While we are clearly far in time and place from the communities Klimburg-Salter describes and Schopen imagined, the picture he presents of the Mahāyāna—as communities engaged in intensive devotional activities centered around particular texts—is evocatively echoed in the phenomenon documented on this website.
For this reason, scholarly study of the current rise of Sanghātacould be productive for thinking both about how some Buddhist communities work, and about the power that sutras hold for them.
Those interested in pursuing further research into the Sanghāta will find a good deal of information about the early transmission of the text in the section of this site devoted to translations. This site also provides an account of the trajectory that the Sanghāta has taken in its recent revitalization in the hands of Buddhist communities. The guide for readers adapts portion of a 2004 masters’ thesis written on the text (from which the bibliography posted here is drawn.)
If there are other resources that would be welcome on this page, please do send your suggestions.
Please note that what is here printed in the word ‘sanghāta’ as a ‘t’ is actually retroflex, and the ‘n’ in ‘sanghāta,’ of course, represents a velar nasal. The title of the text is correctly transliterated in the bibliography.