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Madhyamika Sunyata - A Reappraisal (A Reappraisal of Madhyamika Philosophical Enterprise with Special Reference to Nagarjuna and Candrakirti)

Madhyamika Sunyata - A Reappraisal (A Reappraisal of Madhyamika Philosophical Enterprise with Special Reference to Nagarjuna and Candrakirti)


Item Code: IDE033

by G.C. Nayak

Hardcover (Edition: 2001)

Indian Council of Philosophical Research
ISBN 81-85636-47-8

Language: English
Size: 8.8" X 5.6"
Pages: 105
Weight of book 278 gms
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From the Jacket:


This volume is a reappraisal of the Madhyamika thought with special reference to Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti. Madhyamika philosophy, specially the Madhyamika Sunyata, has been subjected to much misunderstanding and misinterpretation through the ages. Sunyata traditional has been mistaken either as void in a literal sense or even as the transcendent absolute in certain quarters because of the Tattva here being regarded as Catuskotivinirmukta. What this volume attempts at achieving is to arrive at an adequate understanding of the Madhyamika Sunyata, as it is in its right perspective, by steering clear of the Scylla of nihilism on the one hand and the Charybdis of absolutism on the other. The author aims at giving a fair deal to what he considers to be a unique philosophical enterprise which has received an unfair treatment all along for no apparent fault of it own, and he has based his arguments on the original writings mainly of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti in support of his thesis.

The volume, thus evidently tackling, with a critical and fresh insight various issues associated with the understanding of the Madhyamika thought in general and Sunyata in particular, not only makes significant contribution to the field but is also expected to provide stimulation for further fruitful research in his most interesting area of adventure with Sunyata.


About the Author:


G. C. Nayak, born at Cuttack (Orissa), India, studied at the Utkal, Allahabad, and Bristol (U.K.) Universities. He got his Ph.D. from Bristol University as a Commonwealth scholar in the year 1965. He was Professor and Head, Post Graduate Dept. of Philosophy of Utkal from 1978 to 1989. From 1989 to 1992 he was the Vice-Chancellor, Shri Jagannath Sanskrit Viswavidyalaya, Puri, Visiting Professor, Department of Religious Studies, University of Saskatchewan, Canada during 1995, Senior Fellow, ICPR during 1996-98, UGC Emeritus Fellow, Department of Philosophy and Religion, BHU, Varanasi during 1999-2000, also selected as a Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced study, Shimla in 2001.

Some of his important publications are Evil, Karma and Reincarnation (1973), Essays in Analytical Philosophy (1978), Philosophical Reflections (1987), Nehru and Indian Culture (1990), Evil and The Retributive Hypothesis (1993), Philosophical Enterprise and the Scientific Spirit (1994) and Understanding Religious Phenomenon (1997).



if I may be permitted to indulge, at the outset, in a little excursion into my past for acknowledging some of my intellectual debts while speaking about my own background that has led to my recent preoccupation with the subject, particularly the Madhyamika thought, I must admit that my interest in Buddhism and Vedanta goes as far back as my post-graduate days at Allahabad during 1995-56, when I was introduced to Buddhism mainly through the Vedantic polemics as highlighted in the scholarly presentations of works such as Mukerjee;s Nature of self as well as in the works of Sankara himself, e.g. in his Brahma Sutra Bhasya and the Upanishad Bhasyas which I had made a point in those days to study in original as a part of my daily duty, swadhyaya. At the same time, I also developed a keen interest in those days in an independent study of Buddhism as an important trend in Indian thought; the credit for this largely goes to my study of Hiriyanna's Outlines discussing in an inimitable style Buddhism along with its different schools with remarkable objectivity, impartiality, as well as clarity and also to my subsequent study of Murti's Central Philosophy of Buddhism and Stcherbatsky's conception of Buddhist Nirvana, works of seminal importance in the field.

Later, when I was preparing for the Buddha Jayanti Lectures to be delivered at the Gauhati Session of the Indian Philosophical Congress in 1977 for which I was selected, I had the occasion to go through a number of Buddhist works, in original, particularly Nagarjuna's Mula Madhyama Karika and Candrakirti's commentary, Prasannapada, in some detail. I was astounded to find through my study of the Original literature in the subject, that Madhyamika sunyata has been misinterpreted and misrepresented throughout and that it needed to be given at least a fair treatment which was long overdue.

My finding came out not only as the Buddha Jayanti lecture mentioned above but also subsequently in different forms in my articles published in Philosophy East and West and the Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research. Sunyata, I found, is not void in a literal sense and it does not subscribe to a transcendent reality or any Absolutist Ontology either.

Madhyamika philosophical enterprise is meant to give us illumination regarding the senselessness of concept as also of things; it is not meant to make us adhere to any metaphysical doctrine of sunyata. Sunyata, viewed as a doctrine or a theory (vada), defeats its own purpose. As I went deeper into the subject with my growing interest, I became more and more convinced that even to do a semblance of Justice to the Madhyamika thought one has to get rid of preconceived doctrines such as nihilism, absolutism or any such ''ism" for that matter and that the purpost of the Madhyamika dialectic also needs to be understood in the right perspective, not as mere vitanda or wrangling -an evident misinterpretation making it an easy target for the opponents. A thoroughgoing attack on essentialism and the dialectical method adopted by the Madhyamikas to arrive at their conclusion makes this philosophical activity a unique enterprise in the whole history of human thought.

Moreover, master-minds like Nagarjuna, it is to be noted, had great moral, religious and socio-cultural impact on their contemporary societies, and it was becoming more and more evident to me that it would not have been possible if the Madhyamikas were mere wranglers or advocates of sheer void which would make nonsense of their own theory. Buddhist Mahakaruna in any case, about which Santideva is so very eloquent in the Bodhicaryavatara, could not fit into the framework of sunyata as void or of the Madhyamika thinkers as mere wranglers. And at the same time the Madhyamika thinkers were always eager to point out that they were not advocating any absolutist ontology either. The moral and the religious in Madhyamika's own terms in such a way that they should fit into their sunyata framework.

There was something seriously wrong in our approach to the Madhyamika sunyata as void or even as an absolute, I was pretty sure, which needed to be rectified, and what pained me most was that a whole philosophical enterprise had received such an unfair treatment at our hands all along, for no apparent fault of its own. I was therefore in search of an opportunity to devote myself wholeheartedly to a thorough re-appraisal of the Madhyamika thought by working out in greater detail, instead of confining myself merely to the writing of some articles here and there, so that a volume could be brought out highlighting all these aspects with greater clarity perhaps, in a large canvas, as an interconnected whole. The opportunity came in the form of a senior fellowship kindly granted to me by the ICPR in the year 1996 for doing a thorough research on the subject, and the present book, I am happy to note, is an outcome of this latest research of mine on the subject, which also embodies my previous finding to the extent they are relevant. I will feel amply rewarded if it gets due attention of the learned scholars, for whatever it is worth, at least to the extent to which it is an attempt at eradicating certain misconceptions in the field and being helpful in understanding the Madhyamika enterprise, specially as it has come down to us through its eminent exponents like Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti, in the right perspective. I will be only too glad to improve upon my present performance in future of course, if mistakes and misrepresentation, if any, in the present work itself are pointed out to me by the learned scholars. There is no end to leaning from one's mistakes, which of course do not become so easily visible to one's own eyes.

I express my deep gratitude to the authorities of the ICPR both for granting me the Senior Fellowish for my latest research and also for undertaking the publication of this Volume. My well -wishers and friends are many, who have positively either helped or encouraged me in different way at different stages of my research, and although it is not possible to name them individually, to each of them I owe my heartfelt gratitude which I put on record here as a part of my sacred duty. I am particularly indebted to revered Professor D.P. Chattopadhyaya who has all along been a source of unfailing inspiration to me and also to Professor S.R. Bhatt for his constant encouragement for and during my research work. Professor R.C Pradhan, the present member-secretary of the ICPR, has kindly taken keen interest in my work always and has encouraged me also from time to time while supervising the publication work of this volume, for which I express my sincere thanks and gratitude to him. Last, but not the least, my heartfelt thanks are due to Dr. Mercy Helen, the Director In-charge of the ICPR, for all the ungrudging help given to me by her during my research as a senior fellow and also during the publication of this volume.

I am indebted to the authorities of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research who have made it possible for me to make what I consider to be an in-depth study of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti during these years and come to my own conclusions.


In trying to understand a particular philosophical enterprise like that of the Madhyamika with special reference to Nagarjuna and his commentator CandrakIrti, one gets beset at the outset, rather bewildered, by numerous problems. First of all, it becomes important to assess how far Nagarjuna is true to the Buddhist tradition itself of which he is regarded, at least in some quarters, as one of the finest, rather the most important, the most faithful representative. But this in itself is beset with a difficulty that seems to be insuperable at the very outset, viz. that of understanding Buddha's own teach- ing without taking the help of any particular Buddhist sect. It is at least as difficult as trying to understand the purport of the Upanisads without taking the help of one of the Acaryas. In the case of Buddha, however, there lies the additional and a much more intransigent difficulty in the fact that Buddha's teachings were codified only long after Bud- dha's Mahaparinirvana. Moreover, there was a controversy that is well-known, which is continuing even now, regarding the proper understanding of Buddha's teachings, and also regarding the difference made by Buddha himself between his own teachings meant for the disciples in accordance with their calibre, which reminds us of the adhikaribheda doctrine (the doctrine of eligibility) in the orthodox Indian thought. Under such circumstances, any partisan attitude to these questions would not only betray one's ignorance, any deci- sion also taken in favour of one attitude as against another is likely to be arbitrary, unless of course some fresh ar decisive evidence comes to light in this regard. The contn versy between the Mahayana and the Sthaviravada traditic that has been given the pejorative designation of Hmayai by the Mahayanists because of certain happenings in the pa are too well-known to be dilated here in a work main interested in assessing and reassessing the exact significant of the philosophical enterprise of the Madhyamikas with special reference to Nagarjuna and Candrakirti belonging 1 the Mahayana tradition. Moreover, in the Mahayana trad- tion itself, the Yogacara philosophers or Vijnanavadins are no less important and they no doubt deserve an independent treatment by themselves. And then there is the whole tradi- tion of Bhavaviveka vis-a-vis that of the prasangika Madhyamikas to which tradition Candrakirti belongs. It thus that Nagarjuna's philosophy itself has been subjected to different interpretations at the hands of Bhavaviveka and Candrakirti. All this is certainly vast as well as bewildering to say the least, and here I don't have any inclination what- soever to take up all these controversies for treatment.

Each one of these representatives of Buddhist thought claims to be the most authentic follower of the Master teachings-that is the most bewildering part of the whole issue. Then it becomes an easy, but not necessarily the right, way out to state that Buddha had elements of all such lines of thought in his teachings and then it becomes still easier either to praise the Buddha for his multi-dimensional ap- proach or even to blame him for his ambiguity. All this has been done in the past and is even now being done by schol- ars. But how can one know with certainty Buddha's mind as it was in itself, unless of course fresh historical evidence is forthcoming, when it could not be known without any trace of doubt by those who were much nearer to him in the time- scale at least? Even now there can at best be construction, reconstruction, and further reconstructions of Buddha's thought, as has been done in the past. Even this is true of venerable Mahakasyapa whose silent discourse along with the mere display of a flower to the audience was supposed. to give us the essence of Buddha's teachings. It is significant that he has been the forerunner of the Zen Buddhist thought which in the later days has been regarded as the best repre- sentative of Buddha's mind insofar as it is supposed to have been reconstructed properly and adequately in and through the Zen Buddhist technique. The point which I want to make here in this connection is that reconstruction in any case is inevitable. There has been a continuous development, it is true; sometimes the change is somewhat radical, sometimes it is not. But reconstruction of Buddha's teachings from time to time has been a regular feature from the very beginning. The doctrines of what is known as Early Buddhism are usu- ally taken as Buddha's own teachings no doubt, but here again the prevalent view amongst the Mahayanists is that Buddha had different types of audiences in his mind for whom he delivered different sermons at different times. In the words of Candrakirti, "Vyadhyanurupabhaisajyopa- samharavatte vineyajananujighrksaya yathanuruparn dharmam desayanti.(I) Reconstruction cannot be ruled out altogether when one subscribes to the view that there were three sets of sermons given for three different sets of disciples or audiences, as per their spiritual eligibility or competence, so that some of the sermons are evidently meant for highly advanced disciples or audiences-the first sermon at Samath which was essentially realistic, the second sermon on the Grdhrakuta hills at Rajagrha which preached essencelessness or sunyata of all dhannas and the last ser- mon at Vesali which was embodied in the essence of the latter-day Vijiianavada idealism. But this is equally applica- ble,I suppose, to all those who consider the doctrines of early Buddhism to be the essential Buddhism reflecting the mind of Buddha himself and the Mahayana as a mere recon- struction. Here again, we can't say that one is a reconstruc- tion out and out while the other is not. What about those later developments, moreover, within the fold of Buddhism itself-Zen Buddhism, for example, where even Nirvana and Bodhi are said to be "mere dead stumps to tie your donkey to" (2) and the revelation that Buddha, the Vadatam Vara (the best of the speakers), as he is regarded by Nagarjuna, "did not pronounce even one syllable, that he has not spo- ken, nor does he speak, nor will he speak" (Tathagatena ekamapyaksaram nodahrtam na vyahrtam napi pravyaharati napi pravyaharisyati) (3) to which Candrakirti refers with an avowed approval in his Prasannapada. Can we say with certainty that all this has absolutely no basis in Buddha's own teaching, that Buddha, the enlightened one himself did not provide the very platform on which all these different proliferations of thought could be made possible? Buddha, it seems, stood for a typical philosophical thinking in which the very tendency for its transcendence was not only imma- nent but was to an extent manifest too. I would, however, not like to enter here into the controversey regarding the relative merits of such reconstructions of Buddha's mind.

The neyartha-nitartha distinction referred to in the context of Nagarjuna, Candrakirti and others may be helpful for certain purposes within a context, but beyond this I don't think that it can be of any help. Sravaka Yana does not consider Mahayana texts as Buddhavacana or Buddha's words; in any case, they take Sravaka Pitakas alone as Buddha's own teaching; all of which, therefore, fall in the category of nitartha, while neyartha-nitartha distinction itself has a va- lidity only within the context of Mahayana where, once again, there is a controversy between the Prasangika Madhyamikas, Svatantrika Madhyamikas and Vijnanavadins regarding its exact application. The main reason why I point out these differences that seem to be so very fundamental to all these varieties of yanas vis-a-vis Buddha vacana or Buddha's own teaching is simply to show that the complicated network with which we are confronted here in Buddhism is not only vast but is also somewhat uniquely bewildering.

Under the circumstance, therefore, I have set a very lim- ited target for myself, at least for the sake of clarity. My task here would be confined simply to an attempt at understand- ing the exact significance and implications of the Madhyamika thought, with special reference to Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, which I consider to be one of the most brilliant developments of Buddhist Philosophy for what it is worth. Nagarjuna traces back all his philosophical ideas to Buddha's own teaching, as is done by all other followers of Buddha of course. But what would occupy my attention for the most part here is not the historical question of how far Nagarjuna and Candrakirti are faithful to the Buddha's own teaching (although such a ques- tion may come to be discussed by the way of course, which is inevitable), but the philosophically relevant question of what Nagarjuna and Candrakirti were actually striving at through their philosophical enterprise which they have iden- tified as Buddha's own teaching. I am not interested in the historical question but only in the philosophical assessment of the Madhyamika thought of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, that is all. Historical considerations, wherever and to the extent it would be relevant for clarifying the philosophical assessment, would, however, be taken resort to and is cer- tainly not an anathema.

Buddha's teachings as they are presented to us by the Madhyamika thinkers, in the form of philosophy of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti as well as of some others in the line like Santideva, the famous author of Bodhicaryavatara, are my concern here and I don't find any reason why Nagarjuna and Candrakirti or Santideva for that matter could be considered to be in any way less authentic in their reconstruction of Buddha's thought. But, as pointed out earlier, the relative merit of this philosophical reconstruction vis-a-vis the Theravada or even Vijnanavada doctrines is not my concern here, although I admit that this in itself could preoccupy a scholar's mind for a whole lifetime. I am only interested here to understand what these philosophers, Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, were doing with their philosophy which had originated from the Master himself. That is, I am more inter- ested here in the exact nature and implications of their philo- sophical enterprise.

True, thereby my task has been delimited to a certain extent and has been pin-pointed too, but I don't think that the task has been made quite easy for that matter. The reason lies in the varieties of interpretations, sometimes diametri- cally opposed to each other, hoisted on the philosophical enterprise of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti by scholars of the past and also in the present days. Such interpretations have been numerous, of course, and those who criticize others' interpretations are sometimes no more intelligible than the original writers on Nagarjuna and Candrakirti. The main problem lies of course in interpreting the Siinyatii of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti who follows in the footsteps of Nagarjuna, of course. Void, supervoid, synthetic void, nihilism, absolute nihilism, no reality doctrine, the doctrine that everything is tucchha, alika, all such views about the Madhyamika thought of Nagarjuna are as much prevalent even now as they were in the past in some form or the other. On the other hand, Nagarjuna's .philosophy has been interpreted with equal emphasis as a sort of philosophical absolutism which is not very much different from Advaita Vedanta, a no-view about Reality doctrine rather than a no-reality doctrine.

The task of a proper understanding and assessment of a philosophical enterprise that has occupied the attention of and has been subject to varieties of interpretations at the hands of great scholars of the past as well as present is Herculean indeed. Any so-called understanding could be a mere misunderstanding, of course. What to do? It is quite easy to toe any particular interpretation or even to part with all the varieties of accepted interpretations and take a stand of one's own simply to give one's approach an air of freshness. But this wouldn't be an understanding of the philosophical enter- prise of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, but it would at best be one's own enterprise and at worst it would be sheer wild imagination on the part of the interpreter. Under the circum- stances, I cannot assume any sanctity of my approach at the outset but I can only humbly submit that I have my own axe to grind as far as the Madhyamika philosophy of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti are concerned, and that is neither in the nihilistic line nor in the Absolutistic line of thought with which we are already familiar in a number of ways. I con- sider the philosophical enterprise of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti to be a unique one consisting of enlightenment through a typical analysis of concepts culminating in the realization of the essencelessness (nihsvabhavata) of all dharmas, of everything and every concept for that matter leaving the con- ventional truth to take care of itself in its own sphere as loka samvrti satya vis-a-vis paramartha satya. It is neither nihil- ism or a theory of absolute void in a literal sense, nor is it Vedantic absolutism in disguise. I don't find any justification either for subscribing to the view that Candrakirti has trans- formed Madhyamika thought to a sort of Vedanta, as some contemporary interpreters have tried to imagine, while Nagarjuna remains faithful to the Madhyamika tradition. Candrakirti, I find, is a faithful commentator of Nagarjuna's Karika elucidating the Prasangika Madhyamika stand but for whose commentary Nagarjuna's purpose could not have been properly elucidated, which justifies indeed the title of his treatise, viz. Prasannapada.

All this is going to preoccupy my thought in this treatise of my own where I am going to deal with these in greater details.




Preface vii
Introduction 1
Chapter 1 Sunyata - Avoiding Extremes of Nihilism and Absolutism
Chapter 2 The Significance of Madhyamika Dialectic
Chapter 3 Samvrti, Paramartha, and Nirvana
Chapter 4 The Problem of Morality and Religion in the Madhyamika Framework - Sunyata and Mahakaruna
Chapter 5 The Bodhisattva Ideal and the Vedantic Jivanamukti: A Study in Comparison and Contrast
Chapter 6 Conclusion
Index 87

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