An Important Distinction

Viṣṇubhaktagaruḍa with Malla king in Bhaktapur

I am usually thrilled to be able to work with old manuscripts. The older it is, the more excited I get! But excitement aside, we really need to be clear on the following distinction: the age of the manuscript is almost never equivalent to the age of the text it contains. Hypothetical example: A text was penned in the 10th century, but the original is lost. What survives are a twelfth century palm leaf manuscript and an eighteenth century paper manuscript. At first thought, one may suppose the palm leaf manuscript to be closer to the original text than the one copied 600 years later, and this may be, but it is not necessarily so. We don’t know how many times the manuscripts that survive were copied. It is possible, therefore, that the twelfth century manuscript was the result of a copy of a copy x 10 of the original. It is also possible that the eighteenth century manuscript is a direct copy of a tenth century copy of the original. I exaggerate a bit to highlight the point that just because a manuscript is recent does not mean that the text it contains is recent and likewise just because a manuscript is old does not mean the text it contains is older than a more recent manuscript. Each needs to be evaluated on its own merits.