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Nágárjuna in Context

Nágárjuna in Context

Maháyána Buddhism and Early Indian Culture

Joseph Walser

columbia university press
new york

columbia university press
Publishers Since 1893
New York

Chichester, West Sussex

Copyright © 2005 Columbia University Press
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Walser, Joseph.
Nágárjuna in context: Maháyána Buddhism and early Indian culture /
Joseph Walser.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
isbn 0-231-13164-x (cloth : alk. paper)
1. Nágárjuna, 2nd cent.
3. Maháyána Buddhism.

2. Mádhyamika (Buddhism)
I. Title.




Columbia University Press books are printed on permanent
and durable acid-free paper.
Printed in the United States of America
c 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For my father, Joseph Walser III,
for teaching me a love of learning



Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1
1. Locating Maháyána 16
2. Locating Nágárjuna 59
3. Maháyána and the Constraints of Monastic Law 89
4. Maháyána Sñtras as Monastic Property 123
5. On the Parasitic Strategies of Maháyána 153
6. Abhidharma and Sectarian Identity 188
7. Nágárjuna and the Abhidharma 224
Conclusion: Toward the Outline of a Career 264
Appendix: The Authorship of the Ratnávalô 271

Notes 279
Bibliography 339
Index 357


he process of writing this book has been rather long and
often di‹cult, and I could not have done it without the help of
both friends and family. First and foremost, I am enormously
grateful to my wife, Radha Subramanyam, who was a constant source
of advice and inspiration for this book. Radha has provided emotional
support while never compromising on her standards of what constitutes
good scholarship. Her critical and scholarly eye was invaluable to the final
product, one that I would never have begun it, let alone finished, without
her. I also thank my family on both sides of the ocean for their help
throughout my studies and through the crafting of this work. Their love
and assistance over the years has been a large factor in the completion of
the project.
In addition, I am grateful for the generous eªorts of those scholars who
read and commented on drafts of the book. In this category, especial acknowledgment is due to Jim Egge, who must have read four diªerent
drafts (without complaint!). I also thank Aloka Parasher Sen of University of Hyderabad, for her astute and extensive comments on the sections
dealing with archaeology and early Indian history. Leonard Priestley agreed
to read and comment on several drafts of the last two chapters. His expertise in the rather di‹cult Pudgalavádin material was a godsend. Furthermore, his keen eye for both philological accuracy and philosophical nuance
in some instances forced me to completely rethink my approach.
I also appreciate the assistance of many other people who proofread
drafts. I am especially grateful to Lydia Francis, who spent hours with me




checking my translations from the Chinese. I also extend my gratitude
to Wendy Lochner at Columbia University Press, who guided the book
through the long journey to publication. I would also like to thank
Debra E. Soled, who did an excellent job of editing the final draft as well
as to the anonymous readers for Columbia University Press and Oxford
University Press, whose comments were invaluable. I further acknowledge
Ananda Abeysekhara, Gary Leupp, Ikumi Kaminishi, and Jim Ennis for
their help and comments on specific chapters, and Parimal Patil, George
Bond, Todd Lewis and Beth Burton for being generally supportive
throughout the process.
Finally, I oªer my appreciation for those professors who have mentored
me over the years. Although there are too many to name all of them, three
deserve special mention. I am eternally grateful to Adolf von Wuertenburg
for sharing with me his love of Sanskrit, to David S. Pacini who, in his
own way, opened my eyes to the joys of scholarship, and to Isshi Yamada,
who showed me by his example what is possible. I sincerely hope that this
book lives up to the standards they have set.

Nágárjuna in Context


his book is a study of Nágárjuna, a Buddhist philosopher of
the second century and a key figure in the development of Maháyána Buddhism in ancient India. Few figures in the history of Buddhism stand out more prominently than Nágárjuna. In Maháyána hagiographies, Nágárjuna is among the earliest of the great saints mentioned.
Nágárjuna is prominently represented in the transmission lineages for both
the Zen tradition and the various Tantric traditions. He has been cited as a
source of authority by personages as diverse as Tsongkhapa in Tibet and
Dêgen and Shinran in Japan. As a measure of his authority, in the eighth
century the Tibetan king Khri Srong lDe brTsan declared, “Everyone
should follow the teachings of Nágárjuna and engage assiduously in the
practice of morality and the perfections.” 1
To find someone of comparable stature in other religions, one would
have to look to Augustine of Hippo or, perhaps, to Moses Maimonides.
Yet such a comparison with Augustine and Maimonides would soon expose a serious deficiency in our knowledge about Nágárjuna. Scholars of
Augustine, for example, have not only examined his arguments against
Pelagius but also have investigated his institutional role as the bishop of
Hippo. Similarly, scholars of Maimonides study his Thirteen Articles of
Faith and Guide for the Perplexed but also examine and debate his other
roles as a chief justice (dayyan) and as the physician to Saladin. Indeed, it
has become common in scholarship of Western religious figures not merely to study the ideas of the author but to look at what those ideas meant
in the social and institutional context in which the author wrote.




By contrast, despite great scholarly interest concerning Nágárjuna’s contributions to Maháyána doctrine, a similar level of interest in his social and
institutional contexts has been absent. This absence is particularly unfortunate in light of the fact that Nágárjuna, along with Asvaghoía, is one of
the earliest-known figures in Maháyána Buddhism. Any study, therefore,
that successfully uncovers his indebtedness to his contemporaries as well
as his contributions to the larger Maháyána movement would also reveal
a great deal about Maháyána Buddhism at a time when its doctrinal and
institutional boundaries were being negotiated.
This book aims to achieve such a recovery. The traditional focus of
Nágárjuna studies here shifts from viewing him as a philosopher to viewing him as an early champion of the nascent Maháyána movement. This
shift draws the focus away from strictly doctrinal concerns and the logical
viability of his arguments to questions of the imprint of social and institutional forces on his works. The center of the work, then, is not so much
Nágárjuna’s teaching on emptiness but the rather strange way that he goes
about arguing for it.
Nágárjuna is perhaps best known in the West for his employment of
apparently logical arguments to arrive at counterintuitive conclusions. For
example, the first verse of the first chapter of his Mñlamadhyamakakáriká
posits, “At nowhere and at no time can entities ever exist by originating
out of themselves, from others, from both (self-other), or from lack of
causes.”2 In the same vein, chapter 10 examines the relationship between
fire and fuel and comes to the conclusion that “fire is not wood, nor is it
in something else than wood. Fire does not contain wood. There is neither wood in fire nor fire in wood.” From this he concludes, “Insofar as
I am concerned, those who speak of the reality of entities and who assign
them distinct essences cannot be considered truly knowledgeable of the
(Buddha’s) teachings.3 My investigation of Nágárjuna is less concerned
with the validity of these arguments than with the question: “Why this
particular argument and not some other?”
It is my contention that many of the peculiarities of Nágárjuna’s writings can be more adequately understood if read as strategies devised to
respond to the specific demands of the social and institutional contexts
in which he wrote. This thesis entails two separate, though intertwined,
tasks. The first requires bringing these contexts into relief by locating
Nágárjuna historically, socially, and institutionally. The second is to uncover the ways in which Nágárjuna’s writings reveal a strategy to secure
the needs of Maháyána Buddhism within this context.
By focusing on strategies implicit in Nágárjuna’s writings, this book
takes an unusual approach to Nágárjuna. There is an enormous amount of



Western scholarship on Nágárjuna, stretching back almost a hundred and
fifty years. Most of it takes his writing as exemplary of “Maháyána philosophy.” In so doing, these works assume that his intended audience was
either his Maháyánist supporters or his philosophical opponents (i.e., the
Sarvástivádins, the Sáåkhyas, etc.). Neither of these scenarios provides a
su‹cient explanation. Rather, what is elided by such arguments is a third
and functionally more important audience—those monks and laypeople
in control of the resources that the Maháyánists needed. The members of
this audience would probably not have been a‹liated with the Maháyána
per se (they may even have been opposed to Maháyána), but neither
would they have been the opponents that Nágárjuna attacks in his writings. If we assume that Nágárjuna needed to win over this third audience,
we might speculate that the opponent Nágárjuna engages in his arguments is someone whom the third audience had an interest in defeating.
By refuting these opponents, Nágárjuna secures an alliance with his
spectator audience and thereby secures a place for Maháyána within their
monastery. One of the primary goals of Nágárjuna’s strategy was the
incorporation of Maháyána texts into the monastic industry of text reproduction and preservation. But if Nágárjuna had argued against the position of monks in his home monastery, the monks of succeeding generations would have lacked any impetus to recopy the text that had proved
their school wrong.
Examination of internal and external evidence relevant to Nágárjuna
suggests a plausible (if, at times, diaphanous) picture of his career. Although much remains to be filled in, two parts of his career are treated
in this book: his early period as a monk in a Mahásáéghika or a
Saåmitôya monastery, perhaps around Mathurá; and a later move to
coastal Andhra Pradesh, where he was an adviser to a king. Throughout
his career, Nágárjuna appears to have been not so much a founder of a
specific school of philosophy as a champion of Maháyána more generally.
The image presented here of Nágárjuna, while somewhat less extraordinary than the traditional legends of him, is a far more complete portrait
than scholars have drawn previously. Nágárjuna, far from being an ivorytower philosopher, stands out as not only as a brilliant thinker but also a
sincere and shrewd champion of the Maháyána cause.
In this regard, I focus specifically on his strategies to ensure the transmission and preservation of Maháyána sñtras—a necessary and crucial factor in the successful spread of Maháyána Buddhism. Nágárjuna labored to
demonstrate how Maháyána texts fall within the category of texts that
non-Maháyána monasteries had a prior legal commitment to preserving.
Moreover, by showing that Maháyána does not deviate from the teach-



ings contained in the Tripiìaka of his host monastery, Nágárjuna was able
to ensure the survival of Maháyána in a hostile monastic environment.

Theoretical Matters and the Scope of the Project
Thus far, I have referred to Maháyána Buddhism as the Maháyána movement. My choice of words is intended to highlight the social focus of my
inquiry. Although one may refer to “Maháyána Buddhism” as a doctrinal
system, the designation “Maháyána movement” refers specifically to the
social and institutional apparatus of Maháyána Buddhism. Maháyána Buddhism does not exactly qualify as a “social movement” in the modern sense
of the term. Nevertheless, a comparison between the Maháyána movement and certain theoretical discussions of modern social movements further delimit the features of Maháyána Buddhism that constitute the target
of my inquiry.
A brief comparison between Maháyána and social movements indicates
what is not investigated here. Sociological theories of social movements
arose as an attempt to explain social protest movements in Europe and
the United States. Hence, most definitions of social movements apply
primarily to social protest movements. As such, the element of grievance
and the attempt to rectify it for society as a whole form a common part
of the definition. Su‹ce it to say that, from the standpoint of correcting
social grievances, it is not clear that Maháyána constitutes a “social movement” at all since it is not clear from what, if any, grievances the movement
arose. Furthermore, it is not clear that Maháyána constituted a social
movement organization, in view of the lack of evidence that it was organized in any meaningful way. Finally, although social protest movements
seek overall change in the societies from which they spring, it is not clear
that Maháyánists expected or even wanted all the monks in their monasteries (much less all laypeople) to become bodhisattvas.
Nevertheless, while Maháyána may not fit the definition of a social movement, reference to the work on social movements of the past three decades
sheds some light on the social dynamics behind Nágárjuna’s writings as
they pertain to early Maháyána. According to John Lofland, social movement organizations are “associations of persons making idealistic and
moralistic claims about how human personal or group life ought to be organized that . . . are marginal to or excluded from mainstream society—the
then dominant constructions of what is realistic, reasonable, and moral.”4
I have chosen this definition, not because it necessarily represents a consensus, but because it contains several features that are useful in thinking



about Maháyána. The first feature is the opposition between the movement in question and the “dominant construction.” At the very least, we
know that the “idealistic and moral” claims of Maháyána raised a few eyebrows, and as argued in Chapter 1, at least some Maháyána communities
appear to have been “marginal” or “excluded” on the basis of their a‹liations. The other useful part of the definition concerns the term “mainstream society.” Lofland defines mainstream society as “a set of institutions and their authoritative decision-makers that can and do maintain
public order, dominate economic activity, and provide plausible rationales
for exercising power and authority in such matters.”5 He goes on to point
out that some agents in the mainstream society have more of a hand in
constructing normativity than others. Finally, he shows that the construction of normativity is pari passu the construction of marginality.
In the case of Maháyána Buddhism, we have to consider two mainstream societies: the society consisting of laypeople (Buddhists, nonBuddhists, kings, ministers, foreigners, etc.) and the society consisting of
non-Maháyánist monastics. The most immediately important mainstream
society for the Maháyána Buddhists who lived in monasteries (monastic
Maháyánists are the primary focus of this book) comprised the other
monks of the monastery. Again, as shown in Chapter 1, there is no evidence for the existence of a purely Maháyána monastery as early as the
second century, when Nágárjuna was writing. This means that the relevant
Buddhist mainstream would have consisted of the established Buddhist
sects, such as the Sarvástivádins, the Mahásáéghikas, and the Dharmagupas. As a matter of course, agents of these sects authorized certain doctrines, texts, and rules of behavior both through their own actions of promotion and through the punitive powers of the institution. For reasons
that this book explores, Maháyána was perceived to challenge the normative doctrines, texts, and rules of behavior and was marginalized to the
point that even the earliest records of Maháyána register a kind of defensiveness about its doctrines.
As seen in Chapter 1, sometime between the first and fifth centuries
what perhaps began as cursory attempts at doctrinal or literary innovation
became institutionalized and references to Maháyána monasteries began
to appear. If, as argued in Chapter 2, Nágárjuna writes at the end of the
second century, then he is writing at a crucial juncture in the development
and institutionalization of Maháyána. If Maháyána were a movement marginalized from the mainstream by those “authoritative decision-makers
that can and do maintain public order, dominate economic activity, and
provide plausible rationales for exercising power and authority,”6 then an
investigation of Nágárjuna, specifically focusing on his strategies, may re-



veal how Maháyána survived and eventually came to thrive in such an environment. It is the survival of Maháyána, as opposed to its origins, that
forms the central focus of this book.
Several prominent social movement theories address the question of
what makes one social movement succeed and not another. One theory,
in particular, deemphasizes the role of grievances in the formation and
success of social movements. The “Resource Mobilization Theory ” of
John McCarthy and Mayer Zald asserts that the relative success or failure of a movement has more to do with the movement’s ability to mobilize resources than with the magnitude of its members’ grievances. A
movement’s ability to access and direct resources forms the heart of the
Each [social movement organization] has a set of target goals, a set
of preferred changes toward which it claims to be working. . . . The
[organizations] must possess resources, however few and of whatever type, in order to work toward goal achievement. Individuals and
other organizations control resources, which can include legitimacy,
money, facilities and labor. Although similar organizations vary
tremendously in the e‹ciency with which they translate resources
into action . . . the amount of activity directed toward goal accomplishment is crudely a function of the resources controlled by an
Application of this theory would shift the emphasis of the study of
Maháyána from an emphasis on doctrine to one on how Maháyánists
managed to secure the resources of money, labor, legitimacy, and media
access to perpetuate that doctrine. And in this respect, McCarthy and Zald
point out an important, if obvious, fact. These resources are often not in
the control of movement members. They are most likely to be under the
control of the mainstream culture. This premise leads to the other features
of the theory, which McCarthy and Zald summarize as follows:
Support base

. . . Social movements may or may not be based upon the grievances
of the presumed beneficiaries. Conscience constituents, individual
and organizational, may provide major sources of support. And in
some cases supporters—those who provide money, facilities, and
even labor—may have no commitment to the values that underlie
specific movements.



Strategy and tactics

The concern with interaction between movements and authorities
is accepted, but it is also noted that social movement organizations
have a number of strategic tasks. These include mobilizing supporters, neutralizing and/or transforming mass and elite publics into sympathizers, achieving change in targets.
Relation to larger society

Society provides the infrastructure which social movement industries
utilize. The aspects utilized include communication media and expense, levels of a›uence, degree of access to institutional centers,
preexisting networks, and occupational structure and growth.8
What light might this theory shed on our study of Maháyána? If Maháyána was to be successful, it needed to have a certain amount of discretionary use of resources that were under the control of other groups. Any
investigation of the success of Maháyána must investigate its strategies in
relation to those resources. The Resource Mobilization Theory posits that
social movements must rely on nonmembers as well as on mainstream infrastructure for at least some of their resources. This means that a movement’s tactics in securing cooperation from nonmembers are just as important as its tactics for recruiting and training members. The tactics will,
of course, vary depending on whether the agents in control of the resources are sympathetic nonmembers (“conscience constituents”), neutral
nonmembers (“the bystander public”),9 or actual opponents. In the case
of Maháyána, the resources in question would be under the control of either their host monastery or the outside, lay society. The bulk of this book
examines the diªerent strategies employed by Nágárjuna to secure resources from precisely these two sources.
McCarthy and Zald’s article was, of course, not the last word on the
topic of resource mobilization. The theory has been criticized and defended from various angles.10 One key development that is useful in an exploration of Maháyána concerns the structure of the resource base from
which the movement must draw support and the institutional infrastructure on which it must depend. Although much of Resource Mobilization
Theory focuses on the internal strategies that movements use to mobilize
their followers and to disseminate their message, several theorists began
to focus on the influence of the mainstream political and institutional context on the formation of movement strategies. In 1986 Herbert Kitschelt



coined the phrase “opportunity structure.” According to his definition,
“Political opportunity structures are comprised of specific configurations
of resources, institutional arrangements and historical precedents for social mobilization, which facilitate the development of protest movements
in some instances and constrain them in others.”11 He goes on to explain
that “political opportunity structures influence the choice of protest
strategies and the impact of social movements on their environments.”12
As such, in contrast to other Resource Mobilization theories, the emphasis of Kitschelt’s analysis is “on relating the strategic choices and societal
impacts of movements to specific properties of the external political opportunity structures that movements face.” 13
An opportunity structure is a political, institutional, or legal structure
consisting of laws or bylaws governing the allocation of resources, the
recognition of institutions, the ways that laws are to be formed and the
ways in which dissent is to be handled. According to Kitschelt, “These
rules allow for, register, respond to and even shape the demands of social
movements that are not (yet) accepted political actors. They also facilitate
or impede the institutionalization of new groups and claims.” For example, most governments and institutions have a mechanism through which
grievances may be aired and changes introduced. The accepted mechanism
for change may well determine the form and the strategies that social
protest takes to the extent that the use of that mechanism for change constitutes one of the goals of the movement.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution, for example, stipulates that an
amendment may be appended to it if, and only if, that amendment is approved by two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the Senate or
if the amendment is ratified at a constitutional convention. The National
Archives and Records Administration then publishes a draft of the amendment for consideration by the state legislatures. The state legislatures vote
on the amendment, and if three-quarters of the states ratify the amendment, it becomes part of the Constitution.14 The framers of this article
probably did not have the Temperance League in mind when they wrote
the provision, but the Temperance League certainly had the mechanics of
Article V of the Constitution in mind when it organized the Temperance
The political and institutional rules that constitute the political opportunity structure describe the mechanisms through which reform may become established, institutions recognized, o‹cials elected, and resources
distributed. In so doing, these rules also form a threshold that any agent
of change must reach in order to succeed. If the movement in question
does not meet that threshold, it must either adopt a diªerent strategy or



fail trying. Furthermore, the overall disposition toward change can aªect
the movement strategies more globally. Again, according to Kitschelt,
when political systems are open and weak, they invite assimilative
strategies; movements attempt to work through established institutions because political opportunity structures oªer multiple points of
access. In contrast, when political systems are closed and have considerable capacities to ward oª threats to the implementation of policies, movements are likely to adopt confrontational, disruptive strategies orchestrated outside established policy channels.15
Maháyána Buddhism was never a unitary phenomenon, and much of its
diversity in its early years can be ascribed to the diªerent strategies used
by Maháyánist groups to respond to the diªerent political and legal
structures in which they were enmeshed. This book studies the writings
of one particular author as this kind of strategy, exploring aspects of
Nágárjuna’s writings as strategies to secure the resources necessary for
the survival of Maháyána. The focus is on those strategies that specifically
target the part of the mainstream (non-Maháyána) audience that served
as agents of the legal and administrative apparatuses of the local monastic and civil communities.

From Philosophy to Context
In discussing Nágárjuna’s role in securing resources for the Maháyána
movement, my intention is to supplement, not to replace, philosophical
studies of Nágárjuna’s writings. It is undeniable that the majority of the
works that can most securely be attributed to Nágárjuna are prima facie
works of philosophy and that the depths of the philosophy contained in
these writings have yet to be plumbed. Still, while modern scholarship on
Nágárjuna’s philosophy tends to overlook his social and institutional
a‹liations, the philosophical issues themselves beg a host of questions
concerning precisely these a‹liations. For example, many scholars assume
that Nágárjuna’s opponents were Sarvástivádins, and many modern works
investigate his arguments against this opponent. Yet no one has so far
given a plausible reason why he singled out the Sarvástivádins for refutation and not, say, the Theravádins. The above discussion of Resource Mobilization Theory highlights the fact that the audience that Nágárjuna was
writing for was probably much more crucial to the well-being of the local
Maháyána community than the scholars against whom he was writing.



Even Nágárjuna’s most philosophical treatises can yield important insights into the strategies of Maháyána if we take a slightly diªerent perspective on the role of philosophical arguments. What may serve as a descriptive statement from a philosophical point of view can simultaneously
be understood as having an injunctive function from an institutional point
of view. Arguments carry a workload, and often they do so on many
diªerent levels. Sometimes the work they do is an expression of the author’s intention, sometimes not. Regardless of the author’s intention,
there is some work that all arguments must do. To clarify what I mean by
workload here, it may be useful to distinguish writing from publishing.
One is completely free to write anything to oneself in order to prove
something to oneself. Indeed, one may write a philosophical proof on the
back of a napkin simply for personal pleasure and hide it away under the
mattress with impunity. Publication (i.e., “making public”), by contrast,
is always a social phenomenon with tangible social rewards. At a minimum, the work that a published argument must do is to ensure its own
production. To this end, it may be less important for an author to convince the readers of an argument’s correctness than to convince them to
reproduce the argument, although the acceptability of an argument is
usually an important factor in its publication.
Publication is often tied to other rewards. Thinking of the modern context, consider how often some kind of institutional payload is tied to a
particular target audience’s judgment regarding a published work. That
reward may be something as simple as a passing grade in a class, the acceptance of an article in an academic journal, or votes in an election. In
some arguments, the very livelihood of the author is at stake—hence, the
oft-heard dictum in academia, “publish or perish.” In modern academia
the acceptance of an argument is tied to books being published, getting
tenure, and so on. Authors tend to be very aware that they do not write
in a vacuum. They write to imagined audiences and attempt to anticipate
the desires and criticisms of those audiences. Works meeting certain criteria are published, and those that do not meet them are not. Authors write
with these stipulations in mind and try to make their manuscripts conform to the form of a publishable text. It is likely that in this regard the
professional lives of monks as authors in the Indian Buddhist monasteries
of the second and third centuries were little diªerent from those of modern writers.
Here, it is important to note another important diªerence between my
project and that of the sociologists involved in research on social movements. Social movement researchers have many tools at their disposal that
are not available to someone conducting historical research. I believe that



our understanding of Maháyána in general and Nágárjuna in particular
will be greatly enhanced if we, following Kitschelt, relate “the strategic
choices and societal impacts of movements to specific properties of the external political opportunity structures that movements face.” However,
unlike Kitschelt, we do not have recourse to interviews of the movement
organizers to ask what their strategies were. The best I can do is to look at
the opportunity structures comprised in legal literature, compare then to
what Nágárjuna wrote, and from there infer his strategies. The danger in
this method is that it is easy to infer strategies where there may be none.
To this objection, I can only say that there are no smoking guns here. Any
kind of historical work involves a degree of uncertainty. Nevertheless, I do
believe that the attempt to come up with a plausible reading of the available evidence sheds an important light on the subject.
Nágárjuna’s writings are mostly about Buddhist practice and its goals.
In this he is not in any way duplicitous. His writings are, however, multivalent in that they also can be read to have strategic implications. The first
strategic layer of Nágárjuna’s writing, then, must be the strategies that he,
as a Maháyánist,16 employs to ensure that his own writings will be acceptable and, hence, published. This strategy is related to his strategy to ensure
the survival of the movement as a whole. The strategies that he uses to ensure the reproduction of his own texts also argue for the legitimacy of all
Maháyána texts.
It is from the standpoint of the authorization of textual production that
I wish to reopen the discussion of the Buddhist “canon.” As has been
pointed out by Steven Collins, word “canon” has two meanings.17 The
first simply denotes a collection of texts (either oral or written) that is considered authoritative without being the sole textual authority. The second
signifies a collection of texts that is closed (i.e., no new texts may be added
to it and none may be taken away).
In early Buddhist materials many diªerent terms are used to convey a
sense of canonicity (at least in the sense of an authorized body of texts).
The term that best conveys the sense of the authority of Buddhist scripture is buddhavacana (word of the Buddha). Superficially, this term ties
the authority of individual texts to the authority of the source—ostensibly
the Buddha himself, although, as seen later, the term is much more inclusive. Other terms are descriptive of the canon’s content. The earliest of
these is probably Tripiìaka (Three Baskets), consisting of the Sñtra Piìaka
(the collections of the sermons of the Buddha), the Vinaya Piìaka (the collections of monastic rules), and the Abhidharma Piìaka (the doctrinal digests of the diªerent Buddhist “schools”). In the same vein, other Buddhist
texts discuss a “nine-limbed scripture” or a “twelve-limbed scripture.”18



These categorizations of scripture appear quite early, but Collins argues
that, even though they are often taken to refer to the content of the canon,
before the advent of written scriptures, it is more likely that they refer to
genres of literature rather than to a fixed collection of texts.19 Even after
the advent of written Buddhist texts, it is still debatable whether the canon
was ever closed in fact. Vasubandhu, both in his Abhidharmakosa and in
his Vyákhyáyukti, mentions discrepancies in the contents of the canons
used by diªerent schools as well as the existence of diªerent recensions of
the same texts.20 Similarly, it is clear that new texts continued to be introduced into the authoritative collections of early schools. Thus there is a degree of uncertainty as to the specific collection that Nágárjuna would have
considered “canonical.” Nevertheless, that Vasubandhu has to point out
that the Tripiìaka diªers from place to place and school to school indicates
that many assumed that it was fixed and therefore could argue against potential heretics as if the Tripiìaka constituted a complete and closed canon.
It is from this perspective that Collins argues that the perception or the idea
of the Pali canon is more important that the actual contents of the canon
as possessed by any given monastery.21 It is the “very idea” that the canon
was closed in a given monastery that would lead to resistance to the reproduction of Maháyána texts in Nágárjuna’s time.
Indeed, Collins claims that Maháyána itself may have been the catalyst
for the closure of the canon, at least among Theravádins. He suggests that
the closure of the Theraváda canon coincides with the advent of Maháyána at the Abhayagôri monastery, which he places in the third century.22 He
sees both the writing and the fixing of the canon to coincide with the creation of Ceylonese vaåsa literature (a kind of genealogy of the religion)
since these texts define orthodoxy and scriptural integrity through a description of heresies.23 As a Maháyánist who defends the status of Maháyána sñtras, Nágárjuna would have been at the heart of the debates over
what was and was not canonical. Whether the canonical catalogues were
in fact fixed during his lifetime, “the very idea” that the canon should be
closed to at least some texts lies at the heart of what Maháyánists were arguing for.
One of the key resources needed by Maháyánists was the media. Again,
Maháyána Buddhist texts should be seen not just as an aggregation of
philosophical ideas but as ideas whose survival requires processes of production. Whatever else Maháyánists may have required, there could be no
Maháyána without the continued presence of Maháyána texts (either oral
or written). The production of Maháyána sñtras involved both labor and
material resources—resources that would have been under the control of
the “mainstream” community, not the Maháyánists themselves. As dis-



cussed in Chapters 3 and 4, the procedures and rules governing the reproduction and preservation of monastic texts was already in place for
mainstream Buddhist texts. The monastic laws covering textual reproduction serve as a kind of “political opportunity structure” against which
Maháyána’s strategies would be devised. Here it is important to note that
there are no monastic rules in any of the vinayas that specifically target
Maháyána. Rather, the legal infrastructure established in the vinayas sets
forth a set of standards governing what is to be learned, preached, recited,
and copied. Maháyánists knew that if they met these standards, their activities in these matters would have to be tolerated. By the same token, if
their activities did not meet these standards, they would be liable to disciplinary sanctions even if no one actually brought suit.
The standard for doctrinal and textual acceptability, as shown in Chapters 3 and 4, was legally determined by the textual precedent set in the
monastery. In other words, the preservation of a text might be assured if
it was like the texts that the monastery was already committed to reproducing. Thus the importance of canonical precedent within the monastery
would determine how the laws in the vinaya would apply to a particular
text newly introduced into the monastery. Although all monasteries were
committed to reproducing what they understood to be canonical (functionally speaking, “word of the Buddha” or Tripiìaka), it is apparent that
some monks resisted the inclusion of Maháyána texts in that category. So,
the idea of the Tripiìaka as a legal category (not as a specific catalogue of
texts) becomes both the site and the goal of Maháyána’s struggles.
Consequently, an important strategy for Nágárjuna was to show that
Maháyána texts shared the same authority as those already contained in
the Tripiìaka and should therefore be included in the canon. Following
the example of other Maháyána texts, Nágárjuna made characteristically
Maháyánist propositions and arguments while couching these arguments
in clandestine (and not-so-clandestine) allusions to doctrines, texts, and
laws that were already part of the Tripiìaka. In doing so, he demonstrated
the Maháyána sñtra’s contiguity with sources already contained in the
The demands of production, then, come to determine the final form of
Maháyána texts. The result is that many early Maháyána sñtras and sástras
have come down to us marked by a kind of hybridity. Early Maháyána
texts therefore should be regarded not as pure representatives of Maháyána diªerence but as the hybrid products of institutional negotiation. On
one level, the very reproduction of texts is at stake, yet, on another level,
what is being negotiated is Buddhist identity itself. “Maháyána” and
“non-Maháyána,” then, should be read not as fixed identities but as hy-



bridities arising out of the process of identity negotiation. As Homi Bhabha has written:
Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or a‹liative, are
produced performatively. The representation of diªerence must not
be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits
set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of diªerence, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation.24
In Nágárjuna’s works is visible the negotiation of Maháyána identity
through its engagement with well-established and financially endowed
Buddhist sects. The syncretic strategies of Maháyána that Nágárjuna employs consist of a range of devices aimed at maximizing Maháyána’s authority while minimizing its apparent diªerence from the norms of his
host monastery. What Maháyána teaches is in many ways new, but it is
packaged as merely a rearticulation or elaboration of an old and already
authoritative tradition. The result is that Maháyána texts are neither entirely canonical nor entirely innovative. For the period under consideration in this book, much of Maháyána literature occupies a hybrid space,
and this condition lasts until it achieves authority of its own.

Chapter Breakdown
The present work therefore places Nágárjuna’s writings in the milieu of
early Maháyána, identifies the obstacles facing early Maháyána and discusses the strategies he used to overcome these obstacles. Chapter 1 discusses the geographic range and institutional viability of Maháyána in
India during the first few centuries of the Common Era (c.e.). Maháyána’s lack of independent institutional support may have been responsible
for its virtual invisibility in the archaeological record until the fifth century.
Chapter 2 narrows the study of Nágárjuna to the Eastern Deccan. This
chapter reviews the available evidence relevant to Nágárjuna’s date and
place of residence and considers the likelihood that, while he wrote the Ratnávalô, Nágárjuna lived in a Mahásáéghika monastery in or near an urban
center in the Lower Krishna River Valley in modern Andhra Pradesh.
The remaining chapters investigate Nágárjuna’s strategic use of three
sources of textual authority in Buddhism: the vinaya piìaka, the sñtra piìaka, and the abhidharma piìaka. To this end, Chapter 3 contends that, under



Mahásáéghika law, a monk teaching Maháyána doctrine would be liable
to the charge of causing a schism and would have been exposed to various
legal sanctions, both from the monastery and from secular authorities.
The chapter also examines Nágárjuna’s strategies in the Ratnávalô to limit
Maháyánists’ liability to this charge. Chapter 4 addresses the issue of
property rights and the legal and economic implications of the presence of
Maháyána in a Mahásáéghika monastery for the production and reproduction of Maháyána texts. For Nágárjuna’s community of Maháyánists,
the most e‹cient way to get their texts reproduced may well have been to
camouflage them as the kind of texts that the monastery had a prior commitment to reproducing.
Chapter 5 examines the precedent for camouflage in other Maháyána sñtras and examines how Nágárjuna incorporates this strategy into his foundational work, the Mñlamadhyamakakáriká. Maháyána manipulation of
common Buddhist texts inserts new interpretations into the interstices left
open by the prior textual tradition, and the new Maháyána teachings stay
well within the doctrinal boundary of texts acceptable for reproduction.
Chapters 6 and 7 look at the ways in which Nágárjuna forges alliances
with the Buddhist sectarian interests represented in Abhidharma literature. Chapter 6 presents an overview of Buddhist sectarian material (abhidharma) that may have been available to Nágárjuna and addresses the
issue of what Mahásáéghika abhidharma materials would have looked
like. Chapter 7 examines arguments of the Mñlamadhyamakakáriká for
alliances that Nágárjuna forged between Maháyána doctrines and important sectarian interests of his day.
This book argues that Nágárjuna belonged to a minority Buddhist movement that was still in its early stages in the second century. Nágárjuna’s
ostensibly philosophical works reveal strategies to ensure the material reproduction of Maháyána manuscripts. It lays out the specific constraints
and threats to Maháyána as well as the textual tactics for navigating this
terrain. In the end, Nágárjuna’s strategy for the survival of Maháyána is
one of syncretism, hybridity, and purported conformity with the assumed
canon. Although his texts are addressed to an obvious opponent, they actually target a “home audience”—an audience to whom he is declaring
loyalty and solidarity in order to secure a place for Maháyána Buddhism
in a potentially antagonistic environment.

Locating Maháyána

o present Nágárjuna’s role in the development and spread of
Maháyána, we must first explore the contours of Maháyána in
India around the time that he lived. The present chapter examines
Maháyána’s development on two fronts: its institutional development and
its geographic diªusion. To that end, I present evidence for Maháyána’s
development in the first centuries of the Common Era through an examination of inscriptions, Maháyána sñtras, records of Maháyána translators,
Chinese pilgrims’ accounts of Maháyána, and Buddhists’ own histories of
their religion.1 The preponderance of this evidence suggests that Maháyána was a relatively small, in some places embattled, movement within
Buddhism with no independent institutional status. This state of aªairs
seemed to persist until at least the fourth or fifth centuries.
A fair amount of discussion has recently taken place over the very
definition of Maháyána as well as over the degree to which Maháyána
Buddhism should be distinguished from non-Maháyána Buddhism. The
problem lies in the diversity of Maháyána sources. The issue is summarized by Jan Nattier:


Thus we find one scripture (the Akíobhyavyñha) that advocates both
srávaka and bodhisattva practices, propounds the possibility of rebirth
in a pure land, and enthusiastically recommends the cult of the book,
yet seems to know nothing of emptiness theory, the ten bhñmis, or the
trikáya, while another (the P’u-sa pen-yeh ching, –ƒª~g) propounds the ten bhñmis and focuses exclusively on the path of the bod-

Locating Maháyána


hisattva, but never discusses the páramitás. A Mádhyamika treatise
(Nágárjuna’s Mñlamádhyamika-kárikás) may enthusiastically deploy
the rhetoric of emptiness without ever mentioning the bodhisattva
path, while a Yogácára treatise (Vasubandhu’s Madhyánta-vibhágabháíya) may delve into the particulars of the trikáya doctrine while eschewing the doctrine of ekayána. We must be prepared, in other
words, to encounter a multiplicity of Maháyánas flourishing even in
India, not to mention those that developed in East Asia and Tibet.2
In order to accommodate the diversity within the phenomena of
Maháyána in India, I adopt diªerent strategies of definition in this book.
The purpose of this chapter is to examine the contours of “Maháyána” in
the broadest sense. Hence, as evidence it uses primarily items in which the
word “Maháyána” is actually included. One could certainly argue that by
the time the word “Maháyána” enters the historical record, it had already
become something of a brand name to which a diverse set of authors,
practitioners, and so on wished to attach themselves.3 A brand name does
not necessarily denote a single product, manufacturing plant, or location,
and yet the name suggests the idea of a unity. Subsequent chapters employ
a narrower definition of Maháyána to apply more specifically to the Maháyána of Nágárjuna’s community.
Many prominent theories in scholarly literature relate to the social context of early Maháyána. The theories relevant to the social context of early
Maháyána have appeared mostly in discussions of “the origins of Maháyána.” Although Maháyána’s origins per se are not directly relevant to this
study (Maháyána was already well under way by the second century),
these theories of Maháyána’s origins relate to both Maháyána’s social context and the trajectory of its spread.
There are three divergent views of the social context of early Maháyána.
The first view is simply that Maháyána arose in and remained ensconced
within already established Buddhist sects, such as the Sarvástiváda and the
Dharmagupta. According to this view, the word “Maháyána” may never
have applied to a separate Buddhist institution. Maháyána would simply
denote a specific doctrinal predilection among a smaller cohort of monks
within of one of the existing sects. This theory proposes that Maháyána
should be seen as a váda, that is, a “school” or a “philosophical movement” (i.e., a body of doctrine), as opposed to a nikáya, which denotes the
full institutional apparatus, both material and ideological, of a‹liated
monasteries. This hypothesis is the least controversial of prevailing theories and plays a central role in the argument presented here. According to
this view, regardless of Maháyánists’ specific beliefs, they would have


Locating Maháyána

taken the same vows, lived in the same monasteries, and received the same
ordination as any other Buddhist monk. This view has been accepted by
some of the most prominent scholars to research early Maháyána, including Junjirê Takakusu, Auguste Barth, Louis de La Valée Poussin, Jean Prysluski, and Heinz Bechert.4 For evidence, these scholars primarily cite the
travel accounts of Yijing and Xuanzang, both of whom mention monasteries in which Maháyánists and non-Maháyánists lived and studied together. Furthermore, these scholars have also noted that few inscriptions
in India used the word “Maháyána” as an adjective to describe a monastery or a saégha. Finally, according to Bechert, if Maháyána had formed a
separate sect, there would first have to be a schism. Yet he reads Buddhist
legal literature to define a “schism” as a rift over interpretation of Buddhist
law—not Buddhist doctrine. He concludes that the creation or adoption
of Maháyána as a separate doctrinal system would not have constituted a
Some advocates of this view, such as Bechert and Paul Williams, claim
that Maháyánists lived peacefully among other monks in their monastery.
Others, such as Stephen Kent, argue that although Maháyánists may have
lived among non-Maháyánists (and hence did not form a separate nikáya,
or particular Buddhist sect), there was considerable tension between the
two groups.5 Because of this tension, Maháyánists endured constant antagonism at the hands of their fellow monks. It was this constant persecution that led to the “embattled mentality ” found in such Maháyána
texts as the Saddharmapuçfarôka. This latter view has been championed
by Gregory Schopen, who argues that “one strand of the early Maháyána
in India was institutionally located within the larger, dominant, established monastic orders as a marginal element struggling for recognition
and acceptance.”6
The second view is that early Maháyána was fostered not so much by
the monks as by the laity. Akira Hirakawa has been the primary exponent
of this position, and his paper expounding this view remains a classic forty
years even after it was written. In it he sets forth arguments connecting
Maháyána’s origin to the laity and to stñpa worship. His arguments tying
the origins of Maháyána to the laity follow from his close readings of early
Maháyána sñtras.
Hirakawa begins by arguing against any simple identification between
Maháyána and any one nikáya. Although some common Maháyána ideas
(among which he mentions the transcendence of the Buddha and the ten
bodhisattva stages) can be found in the literature associated with the Mahásáéghika sect, others (such as the notions of vinaya and abhidharma found
in the Maháyána Maháprajñápáramitopadesa) clearly come from that of the

Locating Maháyána


Sarvástiváda.7 Hirakawa then connects Maháyána explicitly to the laity by
pointing out that, in Maháyána texts, the Buddha addresses his audiences
not as “householder” or “monk” (the common forms of address in Tripiìaka literature) but as the ambiguous kulaputra/-duhitë (= “son/daughter
of a good family ”), which could refer to either laity or monks.8 Next, he
argues that the earliest versions of the six páramitá, such as that found in
the Dasabhñmika Sñtra, the Aíìasáhasriká Prajñápáramitá, and the Ugradattaparipëcchá, explain the perfection of morality as the dasabálasôla. Hirakawa claims that these ten precepts are identical to the dasasôlas of the
Páli nikáyas—precepts that were originally lay precepts, not monastic
ones.9 He shows that even the earliest Maháyána sñtras seem to categorize
Maháyánists together with the laity since they make a distinction between
bodhisattva, on the one hand, and bhikíu or the srávaka-saégha, on the
The next part of Hirakawa’s argument is perhaps the most interesting
and the most controversial. He contends that the institutional basis that
fostered Maháyána was the stñpa. This argument has five parts. First, he illustrates the centrality of stñpa worship through early Maháyána sñtras in
which stñpa worship is extolled.11 In particular, he points out the structural similarities between the description of Sukhávatô in the Smaller Sukhávatô Sñtra and the description of a stñpa from the Mahásáéghika-vinaya.
Having made the initial connection between Maháyána and stñpas, he
shows that the stñpas were considered a space separate not only from both
the mundane world of the laity but also from the monastery. Hirakawa
believes that the early Chinese translations of these sñtras suggest that
early Buddhists regarded stñpa not just as the mound in which the relics
are buried but as the whole stñpa compound in which devotees (read bodhisattvas) could gather for worship. To show that this space was not an exclusively monastic space, he points out that worship at the stñpa involved
music and dancing. Because both activities were proscribed for monks, he
argues, such worship must have been performed by the laity. Furthermore, although the stñpas were recipients of fabulous amounts of donated wealth, the vinayas are unanimous that stñpa property formed a property category separate from other categories of property in the monastery,
and that the saégha had the obligation to maintain stñpa property, but did
not have the right to dispose of it regardless of the circumstances.12
Most of the vinayas teach that the merit earned from donations to the
stñpa was inferior to that made by donations to the saégha—the only exception to this rule being found in the Dharmagupta vinaya.13 Hirakawa
surmises that the privileging of one kind of benefaction over another was
a reflection of the resentment by monks against those who attended the


Locating Maháyána

stñpa.14 He then notes that the early translations of the Ugradattaparipëcchá Sñtra (an early Maháyána sñtra) describe the bodhisattva renunciant as
living at the stñpa and that the later translations move him into the monastery.15 Finally, he observes that whereas nikáya Buddhism revolved around
the saégha, Maháyána must have revolved around the Buddha. Hirakawa’s argument is multifaceted, but its central thesis is that Maháyána developed among the laity in the context of stñpa worship. As such, he regards the antagonism sometimes found in Maháyána sñtras as a reflection
of the antagonism of monastery-centered Buddhist traditions against
laity-centered Buddhist traditions.
The third view of early Maháyána, explained more recently by Reginald
Ray, is an extension of part of Hirakawa’s argument. Following Hirakawa’s lead, Ray points out the distinctions that early Maháyána sñtras
make between monks and bodhisattvas. Ray highlights the numerous discussions of asceticism in the same texts and contends that Maháyána originated in and was fostered by communities of “forest-dwelling monks”
(áraçyakas). These monks were, according to Ray, initially critical of monastic life and only became “monasticized” (his term) well into the Common Era. The movement he describes sought to contrast the bodhisattvas
(whom he considers forest monks) with the bhikíus (monks living in
monasteries), who, in turn, are depicted by the Maháyánists as too caught
up in scholasticism and debate to really seek liberation. In contrast to a
Maháyána centered on worship of the Buddhas (Hirakawa’s “Buddhacentered” Maháyána),16 Ray ’s Maháyánists are critical of settled monastic
life insofar as it detracts from the life of meditation.
Gregory Schopen has further suggested that the forest strand of Maháyána was a parallel development to the “embattled Maháyána monks” of
the monasteries. Schopen argues that a Maháyána that was geographically marginalized in this fashion could account for the dearth of paleographic evidence relating to Maháyána before the fifth century.17
Another fruitful line of inquiry has revolved around the question of the
geographic spread of Maháyána. Three authors in particular have written
in this vein. In 1921, Charles Eliot was perhaps the first to suggest a northwest Asian influence on (and possible origin for) Maháyána. Although he
notes that many features of Maháyána are also present in Hinduism—thus
ruling out a foreign origin for Maháyána—he does indicate that some peculiar features of Maháyána have more in common with Persian religion
than Indian. Following the line of inquiry begun by Sylvain Lévi, who argued for a Tokharian origin of the bodhisattva Mañjusrô,18 Eliot points to
the similarities between the Maháyána Buddha, Amitábha, and the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. He writes that both Ahura Mazda and Ami-

Locating Maháyána


tábha are deities residing in a paradise of light. In both cults, the practitioner is led to this paradise of light after reciting the name of the deity.
Finally, Eliot remarks on the homophony between the names of Amitábha’s paradise (Sukhávatô ) and the name of Ahura Mazda’s abode (Saukavastan).19 He summarizes his findings as follows:
Thus all the chief features of Amitábha’s paradise are Persian: only his
method of instituting it by making a vow is Buddhist. It is true that
Indian imagination had conceived numerous paradises, and that the
early Buddhist legend tells of the Tushita heaven. But Sukhávatô is not
like these abodes of bliss. It appeared suddenly in the history of Buddhism as something exotic, grafted adroitly on the parent trunk but
sometimes overgrowing it.20
Almost a century later, the hypothesis of a Persian origin for Buddhas
such as Amitábha and Kíitigarbha has yet to be either confirmed or refuted as there remains so little evidence for a cult of either of these Buddhas
in India.21
In 1954 Etienne Lamotte oªered his own study of the geographic provenance of Maháyána.22 Lamotte considers the evidence from the Kathávatthu, from Candrakôrti, and from the Tibetan doxographers Táranátha
and Buston, each of whom locate early Maháyána in Andhra Pradesh.
Lamotte finds reasons to reject all this evidence. Lingering on the question of Nágárjuna’s place of residence, he considers and then rejects a
south Indian origin.23 Lamotte then turns to the northwest and shows
that Maháyána texts, such as the Mañjusrômñlakalpa, the Mahákaruçápuçfarôka, and the Maháprajñápáramitopadesa (which, at this point in his career, he believed was composed by Nágárjuna), all contain specific references to the geography and peoples of northwestern and central Asia. He
notes that despite the numerous traditions placing Nágárjuna in the south,
the Maháprajñápáramitopadesa was clearly written in the north,24 suggesting that we take seriously Kalhaça’s Rájataraégiçô and its placement of
Nágárjuna in Kashmir.25 Finally, Lamotte surveys the records of Faxian
and Xuanzang, emphasizing that, “One can no longer doubt the important role played by the Kuíáça states in the formation of the Maháyána if
one is willing to take a good look at the census of the monasteries and the
monks drafted at the beginning of the fifth century by Faxian and of the
seventh century by Xuanzang.”26 Lamotte combs through the travel accounts of these two pilgrims to tabulate the results of their census. His
numbers reveal a predominance of Maháyánists in the north and virtually
none south of Magadha.


Locating Maháyána

The last scholar under discussion here whose work sheds light on the
geographic concentration of Maháyána is Xinru Liu, who explores the
connections between Roman trade with China and the development of
Buddhism. Liu cites a passage from the Mahávastu that mentions “seven
jewels”: “suvaça (gold), rñpya (silver), vaifñryá (lapis lazuli), spháìika
(crystal or quartz), muktá (pearl), lohitiká (a red precious stone or coral),
musáragalva (ammonite, agate or coral).”27 These texts also mention silk,
which at that point could have only come from China. In addition to
silk, she mentions coral (of Roman manufacture) and lapis (the only
lapis lazuli deposits are in Afghanistan)—commodities whose respective
provenances describe the arc of an ancient trade route between Rome
and China. She argues that all seven items were among the luxury goods
traded between Rome and China during the Kuíana dynasty. On this
route, the later Kuíanas became wealthy by acting as middlemen transferring goods from central Asia, through Kashmir, Taxila, and finally to
Barygaza on the coast of Gujarat. This route allowed the Romans to circumvent the Sassanian empire and trade their goods through Ethiopia.
Although these items are not found exclusively in Maháyána sñtras, they
play a prominent role in Maháyána sñtras (Liu cites the Saddharmapuçfarôka, in particular), suggesting that Maháyána sñtras containing references to these items were composed somewhere along that route and
addressed to an audience for whom these commodities would be significant. This would place the composition of these sñtras in the corridor
from central Asia, through Afghanistan or Kashmir, Taxila, Násik, and
on to Barygaza.
To summarize, the scholarly consensus seems to be that Maháyána had
not developed into a fully independent Buddhist institution in the first
few centuries of the Common Era. On the contrary, it either existed as a
movement within established Buddhist sects or in sectors of society outside of Buddhist institutions altogether (i.e., among the laity or as “forest
monks”). The consensus also seems to be that Maháyána began as a movement in the northwest and moved southward as it developed. To further
ground this consensus, I will review the evidence from four sources central to the study of early Maháyána: Maháyána sñtras, inscriptions, Chinese pilgrims’ accounts, and Buddhist doxographies. In order to avoid the
complications involved in defining Maháyána by identifying a few characteristic features, the discussion here is limited to evidence in which the
word “Maháyána” is actually used. My concern in this chapter is not to
define Maháyána, but to attempt to reveal something of its institutional
configuration, prominence and geographical spread.

Locating Maháyána


To the social contexts proposed by Schopen, Hirakawa, and Ray this
chapter adds a fourth context that is crucial to our understanding of
Maháyána sources, in general, and those relating to Nágárjuna, specifically. The evidence suggests that the status of some Maháyánists may have
changed around the fifth century, when it appears that they began to occupy more privileged positions in selected monasteries. The implications
of Maháyána’s early embeddedness, its spread and its subsequent emergence are developed in subsequent chapters.

The hypothesis that Maháyána was embedded in Buddhist nikáyas is supported by the Maháyána sñtras themselves. The very earliest Maháyána
sñtras translated into Chinese by Lokakíema (working between 169 and
189 c.e.) do not appear to be the works of one sect opposing another. Examining the contents of these eleven texts, Paul Harrison writes that the
movement responsible for these texts refers to itself as “Maháyána” only
rarely. In these texts, the term “maháyána” occurs only about twenty
times.28 Equally rare is the term bodhisattvayána, and the term hônayána is
used even less frequently (a total of four times). Furthermore, when these
texts are compared, something other than sectarian identity appears to be
at stake. Harrison concludes that the distinctions they are primarily concerned with are not sectarian but, rather, doctrinal.
The rarity of the terms maháyána and bodhisattvayána already invites
the conclusion that at this stage there is no rigid division of the Buddhist saégha into two hostile camps to the extent that the modern understanding of the terms “‘Maháyána” and “Hônayána” implies. . . .
Rather than speak of the Maháyána, they chose to address themselves
to those substantive issues which we have come to associate with that
movement, i.e., the doctrines of emptiness (sñnyatá), the perfection
of wisdom ( prajñápáramitá), and the five other perfections, skill-inmeans (upáyakausalya) and, above all, the career of the bodhisattva,
the aspirant to awakening or buddhahood.29
Contra Ray, many Maháyána sñtras seem to be perfectly comfortable
with settled monastic life. For examples, we might turn to the Maitreya
Mahásiåhanáda Sñtra,30 the Ugradattaparipëcchá, or the Upáliparipëcchá—
each of which seem to assume settled monastic life. The Ratnarási Sñtra31


Locating Maháyána

not only depicts Maháyána as thoroughly ensconced in monasteries, it
also presents the forest-dwelling monk as holding an important position
in the monastery itself. 32 Finally, Hirakawa himself points out that by the
time of the Bodhisattvabhñmi, it was assumed that Maháyánists were taking monastic ( prátimokía) vows before taking the bodhisattva vow.33 Hirakawa explains this away by asserting that Maháyánists moved into the
monasteries later in the movement. However, Shizuka Sasaki has taken
Hirakawa to task on this point and has demonstrated exhaustively that, although Maháyána texts criticize srávakas, none of the Maháyána texts Hirakawa presents criticize the bhikíus of sectarian Buddhism.34 Sasaki argues
that, whereas Maháyána texts pit srávakas against bodhisattvas, Hirakawa is
wrong to equate the former with bhikíus and the latter with the laity.
Given this problem with Hirakawa’s argument, we are left to assume that
the term bodhisattva in early Maháyána texts may include both monks and
Even if one asserts the monastic context of early Maháyána, there is no
reason to deny the existence of other contexts. It is undeniable that the sñtras cited by Hirakawa and Ray distinguish between the bodhisattvas and
monks, and others may stress an ascetic life outside the monasteries. Although both Ray and Hirakawa argue that, over time, Maháyána moved
into the monasteries, this does not preclude some Maháyánists from living in monasteries, while others were forest-dwellers and still others were
laypeople. Maháyána was probably never unitary, but diªered from region to region. Indeed, many scholars have suggested that each Maháyána sñtra may represent a distinct “Maháyána” community. According to
Hajime Nakamura:
Unlike the various recensions of the Hônayána canon, which were virtually closed by the early centuries of the common era and which
shared, at least ideally, a common structure . . . the Maháyána scriptures were composed in a variety of disparate social and religious environments over the course of several centuries, diverge widely from
each other in content and outlook, and were in many cases meant to
stand as individual works representing (it has been conjectured) rivals
to the entire Hônayána corpus.35
In this reading, sñtras such as the Saddharmapuçfarôka may well be the
work of communities that actually were embattled, while the Ratnarási
sñtra was produced and used by a monastic community in which there
was little tension, and the Raíìrapálaparipëcchá was produced by a community of forest-dwellers.

Locating Maháyána


The sheer number of Maháyána sñtras combined with the enormous
di‹culties involved in determining the geographic origin of texts precludes any sweeping claims about the northern origins of Maháyána based
on the provenance of Maháyána sñtras. The best that we can say is that several prominent Maháyána sñtras betray a northwestern origin. In addition
to the sñtras mentioned by Lamotte and the Amitábha, Kíitigarbha, and
Mañjusrô texts discussed by Eliot and Lévi could be added those texts
mentioning the products of trade with China. A cursory list of Maháyána
sñtras that mention either the “seven jewels” or one of the trade items
manufactured outside India during the second century (such as silk or
coral) includes the Saddharmapuçfarôka, the Pitaputrasamágama, the
Bodhisattvapiìaka, the Tathágataguhya Sñtra, the Uatasáhasrika Prajñápáramitá, and the Aíìásáhasriká Prajñápáramitá. This list sñtras is not exhaustive, but it suggests a loose correlation between the provenance of Maháyána authors and the northern trade route between Rome and China.
The most often cited counterevidence to a northern provenance of
Maháyána is the Gaçfavyñha chapter of the Avataåsaka Sñtra. According
to Nalinaksa Dutt:
The Gaçfavyuha, a work of about the 2nd or the 3rd century a.d.,
speaks of Dhányákara as a great city of Daksinapatha and a seat of
Mañjusrô, who lived in an extensive forest at Mala-dhvájavyñhacaitya
and converted a large number of Nágas and other inhabitants of that
In one of his early works, B. S. L. Hanumanathan Rao cites this passage
from Dutt and uses it to argue for a southern stronghold of Maháyána in
Andhra Pradesh.
The Gaçfavyñha of about the 3rd century a.d. informs that Mañjusrô lived in a monastery at Dhányakaìaka and converted a large number of Nágas and others of that place to Buddhism. It further mentions that a certain Sudhana visited a number of places which were
seats of Bodhisattva practices. Most of them are in South India and
the most important of them was Dhányakaìaka . . . From these accounts the following points become clear: (i) Mañjusrô lived for a
long time in Andhra and Dhányakaìaka was the centre of his activi-


Locating Maháyána

ties. (ii) Dhányakaìaka and other places in Andhra, probably under
the influence of Mañjusrô, became the seats of Bodhisattva practices.37
Using the Gaçfavyñha to argue for the early presence of Maháyána in
Andhra Pradesh presents many problems. First, the word “Dhányakaìaka”
occurs nowhere in the Gaçfavyñha, nor does Dutt claim that it does. Dutt
points out that the Sanskrit text describes a city named “Dhányákara” not
“Dhányakaìaka.” Nevertheless, Lamotte makes the same identification as
Rao when he writes: “Mañjusrô appears in the Deccan near Dhanyákara
(Kiao tch’eng [±∞], or Fou tch’eng [÷∞]), the present day Dharanikot,
in the district of Guntur.”38 Although the eagerness to identify the places
mentioned in the Gaçfavyñha with archaeological sites is understandable,
we have to proceed with caution. In a more recent discussion of Dhányakaìaka, Rao notes:
The earliest epigraphical reference to the place as Dhaånakafa occurs
in the 3rd century b.c. The other variants of the term are Dhaånakafaka, Dhánakafaka—Dhányakaìaka. Pallava Simhavarman’s inscription mentions Dhányaghaìa. Medieval inscriptions refer to the place as
Urôdhanyakaìaka, Urôdhányaghata and Dhányánkapura. Mañjusrô Mñlatantra prefixes the honorific and calls it as Urôdhányakaìaka, whereas
Sikêddisaìôka epitomizes the term simply into Urôdhnya.39
Although historically there have been variations of the name “Dhányakaìaka,” the variations of the first part of the name revolve around Sanskrit
versus Prakrit pronunciations of either dhanya (Prakrit, dhaåna) meaning
“bringing or bestowing wealth, rich . . . fortunate,”40 or dhánya, meaning
“produce of the fields, a share of which was payable to the king or landlord.”41 Kaìaka denotes a camp or capital.42 Thus the name might be translated as something like “the Fortunate Capital” or “the Capital of Graintaxes” (I am sure that this sounded more appealing in the second century),
while medieval inscriptions refer to it as “the Pot [ ghaìa] of Grain-Taxes.”
“Dhányákara” (the Place of Grain-Taxes) does not ever appear to have been
used by the locals as a variant for Dhányakaìaka. Granted, Dhányákara
and Dhányakaìaka do sound similar. This homophony might be significant if all the place names mentioned in the Gaçfavyñha corresponded to
actual place names. The author was clearly familiar with south India, and
even if a few place names are invented, they are made up by someone with
knowledge of the region. For example, the text mentions a district called
Nalayur, which is clearly a Tamil word (nalla [“beautiful” or “good”] + ñr
[“place”]).43 This may plausibly be identified with the ancient city of

Locating Maháyána


Nallñr in Tamil Nadu. The problem is that many of the other places mentioned in the sñtra appear to be fictional, and even the southern direction
that Sudhana travels seems to be more symbolic than geographic. Sudhana is always told to travel southward and yet he somehow ends up in
Magadha after visiting Laéka.
The problems are compounded by the Chinese translations. Two Chinese translations of the Gaçfavyñha date from the late fourth or early fifth
centuries. The first, Luoma gajing π E ¢ g, is a partial translation by a
Chinese monk named Shengjian in which the passage in question is absent. The second occurs as the last chapter of the Avataåsaka Sñtra translated by Buddhabhadra, a monk from central India, sometime between
408 and 419 c.e. 44 When we turn to the section in question, we find that
Buddhabhadra translates the place name as ±∞ ( juecheng, the “City of
Realization”).45 Although it is tempting to regard the extant Sanskrit text
as original (as Lamotte does) and to simply assume that ±∞ is the proper
translation of Dhányakaìaka, it is di‹cult to see how this could have
happened. In Buddhabhadra’s translation, ∞ could translate either ákara
or kaìaka. But the character ± has nothing whatsoever to do with grain,
donation, or taxes. Neither the meaning nor the etymology nor the
phonology of ± has anything in common with dhánya. All its definitions
relate to cognitive events, like learning or understanding. Unless the character in Buddhabhadra’s translation can be explained as a mistake, we have
no choice but to assume that Buddhabhadra’s original read something like
“Bodhipura” (probably a made-up name) instead of “Dhányakaìaka.” It is
not until Uikíánanda’s eighth-century translation that we find a possible
match for Dhányakaìaka.His translation (in T. 279) translates the place
name as fucheng (÷∞). Here, ÷ works well for either “fortunate” or a
gift or a donation.46 Hence, it is likely that the name Dhányákara began
to appear in manuscripts only after the eighth century. Although the
third-century author may have had his or her eye on south India, it is unlikely that Dhányakaìaka was in any way singled out by the author of the
Gaçfavyñha as a stronghold of Maháyána.
Maháyána sñtras present us with not only literary evidence about early
Maháyána but physical evidence as well. The Maháyána sñtras themselves
give the impression that Maháyánists were numerous. This picture is tempered by the archaeological record. The physical record of Maháyána manuscripts suggests that, although Maháyána may have begun in the Kuíáça
era, it may not have become established until approximately the fifth century. Kuíáça-era Buddhist manuscripts have been found spanning the
length of the Silk Route from Merv in the present-day Turkmenistan,
Haffa and Bámiyán in Afghanistan, Qizil, Subati and Soreuq, on the


Locating Maháyána

northern route and around the Takla Makan desert, and at Kohmárô
Mazar and Niya on the southern route.47 Most of these manuscripts have
been abhidharma texts, kavya works, fragments of the prátimokía, or sñtras
and their commentaries.48 Yet, of all the Kuíáça-era manuscripts found on
the Silk Route, only one manuscript of a Maháyána sñtra has so far been
This lone Maháyána sñtra manuscript is a copy of the Aíìasáhasriká Prajñápáramitá smuggled out of Bámiyán, now in the Schøyen Manuscript
collection. According to Lore Sander, the paleography of this piece places
it in the second half of the third century due to the similarity of its letters
to those of the succeeding Gupta type.49 This is the earliest manuscript
identified so far from this collection. The collection of manuscripts to which
this piece belongs contains a continuous series of paleographic types including the “square-upright” Kuíáça Brahmi of the Aíìasáhasriká (third
century), the early western Gupta style of the fourth century, and the
Gilgit/Bámiyán type I of the fifth or sixth century. The collection also
contains several other Maháyána texts that Sander considers a script “introducing the local development to Gilgit/Bámiyán type I” (fifth to sixth
Although more Maháyána manuscripts may eventually turn up from
the Bámiyán region, the absence of any Maháyána sñtras elsewhere on the
Silk Route before the fifth century is remarkable, and its paucity requires
an explanation. The earliest Maháyána sñtras translated into Chinese refer
to their own copying and preservation in books. The monks who brought
the first Maháyána sñtras to Luoyang in the second century must have acquired or memorized or at least transported Maháyána sñtras in the same
regions where other Buddhist monastic collections have been unearthed.
It is therefore di‹cult to believe that there were no written Maháyána
texts in this region before the third century. Why, then, do we find no
Maháyána books from this period when we do find other Buddhist books?
Since other sñtras do exist in the collection of manuscripts recently acquired by the British Library, dating to the same period, the absence of
corresponding Maháyána sñtras at these sites becomes more poignant. According to Richard Salomon:
Although it would be premature at this point to draw detailed conclusions about the doctrinal positions of the tradition represented by
the British Library fragments, it is worth mentioning that the preliminary studies carried out to date reveal no clear traces of Maháyána
ideas or tendencies . . . In general, the fragments seem to concern issues and subjects that are typical of “mainstream” (i.e., pre- or non-

Locating Maháyána


Maháyána) Indian Buddhism. . . . on the whole it appears that the
manuscripts come from a time and place in which Maháyána ideas had
not come into play at all, or at least were not being reflected in scholastic texts. This issue is of particular interest because these texts come
from a period and region—first-century a.d. Gandhára—which, according to some views at least, played a central role in the origins of
Maháyána. . . . as matters stand at this point, the British Library
scrolls do not oªer any support for the hypothesis of a relatively early
origin for Maháyána Buddhism.51
There are a number of sites along the Silk Route whose manuscript collections cover the same range of paleographic types as that found in the
Schøyen collection. For example, Qizil near Kuea on the northern route
contained Buddhist manuscripts dating from the second through the
eighth centuries. The catalogues of the German expeditions to this site include a total of four identifiable Maháyána manuscripts—three unidentified fragments (one in early Turkestani Brahmô, one in northern Turkestani
Brahmô, one unlisted), and part of the Kasyapaparivárta in southern Turkestani Brahmô. All are written on paper and are probably no earlier than
the sixth century.52 To the east, at Soreuq near Qarashar we find the same
pattern. The manuscript remains recovered from that site date from as
early as the third century and form a continuous series stretching into the
eighth century, when the site closes. Yet the earliest Maháyána manuscript
found at the site is a copy of the Saådhinirmocana Sñtra dating from the
late fifth century.53 Fourteen other Maháyána manuscripts have been identified from that site, and here, too, none of them date back earlier than the
sixth century.
In fact, apart from Bámiyán, no Maháyána sñtra manuscripts dating
from before the fifth century c.e. have been recovered from any of the
sites on the Silk Route where Maháyána manuscripts have so far been
recovered—Gilgit, Soreuq, Toyoq, Qizil, Sängim, Xoeo, and Murtuq on
the sorthern route54 and at Damdán-Uiliq, Khádalik, Niya, Endere, and
Dunhuang on the southern route.55 The Bámiyán manuscript seems to be
the exception to the rule. By contrast, the fifth and sixth centuries appear
to have been a watershed for the production of Maháyána manuscripts.
In addition to the Saådhinirmocana Sñtra mentioned above, a fifth- or
sixth-century Sanskrit manuscript of the Saddharmapuçfarôka Sñtra has
been discovered in Xinjiang province, China.56 Some important Maháyána sñtras have also been recovered in Old Khotanese translation. Among
Maháyána works surviving in Old Khotanese, Oktor Skjærvø lists: the
Anantamukhanirhára-dháraçô, the Bhaiíajyaguruvaifñryaprabharája, the


Locating Maháyána

Karmavibhaéga, the Kásyapaparivarta, the Saégháìa sñtra, the Uñraégamasamádhi sñtra, the Suvarçabhásottama, the Vimalakôrtinirdesa sñtra, and the
Book of Zambasta (an original Khotanese composition, not a translation).57
Indeed, one wonders whether a cultural shift signaled by the shift from
the use of Prakrit (an Indic language) for everyday interactions to Khotanese (“close to the ‘Old Middle Iranian’ type”)58 in the fifth century might
have played a role in the general acceptance of Maháyána in that region.
Absence of evidence is not, of course, evidence of absence. Countless
manuscripts have presumably been destroyed over the centuries. Furthermore, many of the manuscripts in the central Asian manuscript collections
have yet to be identified, and it is possible that more Maháyána manuscripts like the Bámiyán Prajñápáramitá text may turn up. If and when
that happens, the following observations may have to be revised. Nevertheless, the relative dearth of Maháyána manuscripts in existing collections
would still require an explanation. If one asserts that Maháyána manuscripts existed at these sites, but were subsequently destroyed, then there
must be an explanation as to why Maháyána sñtras were selectively destroyed.
If more Maháyána manuscripts come to light, then we must still explain
why Maháyána appears in so few monastic libraries and not in the majority of such libraries. Again, there may be a great deal of evidence that we
do not have, but we can only construct our theories on the evidence that
we do have.

One salient fact that all three hypotheses discussed at the beginning of the
chapter attempt to explain is the virtual invisibility of Maháyána in the
archaeological record. As mentioned above, plenty of Maháyána sñtras
were composed before the second century, so this situation stands in stark
contrast to the dearth of Maháyána manuscripts that have been found.
The same situation applies to inscriptions. Inscriptions using the word
“Maháyána” raise almost as many questions as they answer. According to
Gregory Schopen:
epigraphically—the “beginning of the Maháyána in India is not documentable until the 2nd century a.d., and that even as “late” as that
it was still an extremely limited minority movement that left almost
no mark on Buddhist epigraphy or art and was still clearly embedded
in the old established purposes of earlier Buddhist groups. What is
even more surprising still is the additional fact that even after its initial

Locating Maháyána


appearance in the public domain in the 2nd century it appears to have
remained an extremely limited minority movement—if it remained at
all—that attracted absolutely no documented public or popular support for at least two more centuries. It is again a demonstrable fact
that anything even approaching popular support for the Maháyána
cannot be documented until the 4th/5th century a.d., and even then
the support is overwhelmingly monastic, not lay, donors.59
The second-century document to which Schopen refers is a lone inscription from Mathurá dated to 104 c.e. that labels the image on which
it appears as “Amitábha Buddha.” The inscription does not mention
Maháyána by name nor have there been any other examples of a cult of
Amitábha elsewhere in Indian art of this period.60
Although Schopen’s statement about the lack of support for Maháyána
still stands per se, it needs to be nuanced in light of more recent work by
Richard Salomon. The earliest inscription actually mentioning Maháyána
by name occurs in a recently discovered Kharoíìhô inscription from Endere
in modern-day Xinjiang. Richard Salomon notes: “it is fairly likely that
the king [referred to in the inscription] was Aågoka and that the inscription was written during the earlier part of his reign, that is, sometime
around the middle of the third century c.e.”61 Salomon translates the inscription as follows:
In the year . . . of the lord, the great king, the king [of kings, the
great, victorious, pious . . .], crusher of his enemies, who is his own
army, whose (name is [well]-received), who is wor[shipped by gods
and men], who has set forth on the Great Vehicle [mahayana], who
is fixed in the true dharma, of great majesty, [the great king Aågoka] . . . The names of the supervisors [?] of ? [are] Okaripa, Uiría,
[and] Kutre.62
Since Aågoka, “who was probably the most powerful of [the kings of
Shan-shan] had . . . set forth on the Great Vehicle,” Salomon concludes,
contra Schopen “there is every reason to think that the Maháyána, rather
then being a persecuted heterodox sect, was prominent and enjoyed royal
patronage in Shan-shan.” 63
Salomon finds confirmation for this suspicion in a letter inscribed on
wood found at Niya on the southern Silk Route dating to the mid-third
century.64 It dates to a few decades after the Aågoka inscription65 and belongs roughly to the same period as the Aíìásáhasriká Prajñápáramitá
manuscript of the Schøyen collection. According to Burrow’s translation:


Locating Maháyána

At the feet of the great cozbo S.amasena, beloved of men and gods, honoured by men and gods, blessed with a good name, who has set
forth in the Maháyána, who is of infinitely pleasing aspect, the tasuca . . . makes obeisance, and sends the health of his divine body,
much, immeasurable. And for that reason first I am pleased that . . .
hearing that, you should be pleased. This is what I have to say: The
tax there . . . Pideya came . . . called Suvaåniya . . . here again . . .
this matter.66
Burrow stops translating halfway through line six. The rest of the line
reads u tha suvaåniya nama sutra. We can only guess at the import of the
letter, but a few of its elements are suggestive. First, this is a letter from a
local o‹cial to a Great Governor (cozbo) in Kroraina—hence, a letter from
a layperson to another layperson. The recipient of the letter is one who has
“entered into Maháyána” (mayáyána saåprasti[thi]ta). The sender refers
to a tax and then twice uses the word Suvaåniya, the second time in the
context of a Suvaåniya nama sutra. Although, as F. W. Thomas points
out, there is a sñtra in the Tibetan bka’ ‘gyur named gser gyi mdo67 (Suvarça
Sñtra),68 it is probable that this passage refers to a version of the Suvarçabhásottama Sñtra (Sñtra of Golden Light), an early Maháyána sñtra. The
Suvarçabhásottama Sñtra contains rather lengthy sections of advice to
kings, and it is possible at least that the author of this letter is referring to
the discussion of the king’s responsibility to uphold the law to stress the
need to uphold the local tax law.69 Since none of the other letters at Niya
indicate that the author is himself as a Maháyánist, we may tentatively assume that Maháyána texts such as the sñtra mentioned above were generally known in certain lay circles even outside the groups that considered
themselves Maháyánists.
The last of the early sources relating to Maháyána in the far north occurs in a fragment of an Avadána found in the Schøyen collection. According to Salomon, this Sanskrit fragment “is written in northwestern
Gupta Brahmô of about the fourth century a.d.,”70 and thus is later than
the Niya and Endere records. This fragment refers to the Kuíáça emperor
Huvikía, as one who “has set forth on the Great Vehicle.” Again, Salomon
sees in this fragment the possibility that Maháyána had secured o‹cial patronage in the northern regions.
Thus, the new fragment almost certainly provides, to my knowledge
for the first time, an explicit statement to the eªect that a Kuíáça emperor was—or more precisely, was claimed as—an adherent of Maháyána ideals, and this in a text which may have been composed during

Locating Maháyána


the Kuíáça period, or at the latest, not long after it. The only other
early documentary reference to a king in such terms, namely in the
aforementioned Endere inscription, dates from around the middle of
the third century or slightly later, and hence is likely to be roughly
contemporary with the text represented in the Schøyen fragment. . . .
Since the Endere inscription comes from a culture which was within
the sphere of influence, if not under the direct domination, of the
Kuíáças . . . these two new references imply a pattern of royal adherence to Maháyána ideals during the later part of the Kuíáça period,
possibly dating back, at least, to the time of Huvikía.
In this connection it is interesting to recall that the earliest clear
and unambiguous epigraphic reference to Amitábha, and hence, by
implication, to the Maháyána, comes in an inscription from Mathurá
dated during the reign of Huviíka, in the twenty-sixth year of the era
founded by Kaniíka. . . . This convergence around Huviíka of early
allusions to Maháyána concepts might be mere coincidence, but new
material seems rather to suggest that the time of Huviíka was a pivotal one in the development of the Maháyána.71
We now have five examples of early Maháyána artifacts from the second
and third centuries; the Amitábha statue from Mathurá, the Prajñápáramitá manuscript from Bámiyán, the Aåogha inscription from Xinjiang,
the Niya letter, and the Bámiyán avadána mentioning Huvikía. These
three artifacts suggest, at a minimum, that Maháyána existed in three places
at that time: Mathurá, Bámiyán, and the ancient kingdom of Shan-shan.
What can we make of the evidence so far? On the one hand, Salomon (albeit tentatively) points in the direction to a pan–northern frontier patronage of Maháyána. On the other hand, we are still left with the fact that
Maháyána manuscript collections are noticeably lacking in monasteries in
this region. Furthermore, the two artifacts from Shan-shan identify two
laypeople as Maháyánists. There are no inscriptions indicating monks or
sramáças to be Maháyánists. The only evidence for monks with a Maháyána a‹liation remains in the Bámiyán manuscripts. As for the Bámiyán
avadána fragment, Salomon quite rightly points out that the document
tells us that the author wanted the audience to believe that Huvikía was a
Maháyánist, not that Huvikía necessarily thought of himself in that manner. Until more evidence comes to light, we are better oª accepting the
assertion that Huvikía was a Maháyánist as the wishful thinking of its
For their part, inscriptions from India, Pakistan, and central Asia have
yet to reveal a Maháyána monastery before the fifth century. This confirms


Locating Maháyána

the thesis of Gregory Schopen, who demonstrates that the archaeological
record shows no evidence that monks received any donations as Maháyánists until the fifth century. Only at that time is the word used in votive
inscriptions. Furthermore, one is struck by just how few such inscriptions
there are even among later inscriptions. After searching through a rather
voluminous collection of archaeological reports from the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, Schopen could find only fourteen inscriptions in which
“Maháyána” is mentioned by name.72 The inscriptions are: one from
Ajaçìá,73 one from Nálanda,74 four from Bihar,75 two from Bengal,76 one
from Mádhya Pradesh,77 three from Sárnáth,78 one from Valabhô,79 and
one from Chittagong.80 Out of these, the inscription from Ajaçìá can no
longer be considered as Maháyánist in light recent work on it by Marilyn
Leese and Richard Cohen.81 The inscription from Nálanda dates from the
time of Mahipála I (r. 977–1027 c.e.) and records the gift of a paramopásaka originally from Kausámbhô who “traversed in the great Maháyána.”82
The four Bihar inscriptions are all from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Of the two Bengal inscriptions, one is early (506 c.e.) and one is late.83
The inscription from Gopalpur, Mádhya Pradesh, again dates from the
eleventh to twelfth centuries. The inscription from Sárnáth is from the
eleventh century, while the inscription from Valabhô in Gujarat dates to
404 c.e.
Although it is di‹cult to know how much we can infer from these inscriptions, some provisional observations can be made on the basis of
Schopen’s sample. First, it is striking how few inscriptions bearing the word
“Maháyána” have been discovered out of the thousands of inscriptions
found in India. Schopen did not look at every inscription discovered in
India, but he did examine a large sample, representing over a thousand
years and covering most states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. If the
word “Maháyána” had been prominent in inscriptions in any of these
areas, he would most likely have been aware of it. Hence, it is probably
not unreasonable to state that inscriptions bearing the word “Maháyána”
were rare.
The second observation concerns the relative ages of the Maháyána inscriptions. Although most of our inscriptions date from the tenth through
the twelfth centuries, only two votive inscriptions date from the fifth to
sixth centuries. The earliest of these inscriptions was found at Valabhô
(Vallabhipur in Gujarat). It records a donation by Dharasena IV from 404
c.e. Bhandarkar translates as follows:
Shrô Dharasena, the great Máheshvará, the great lord, the king of
kings . . . [etc.] commands all whom it may concern: Be it known to

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