Asanga is one of the most important philosophical personalities in the history of Buddhism. His
contribution to Vijnanavada School of thought is unparalleled. The Vijnanavada school of Asanga is
also known as Yogacara. For Asanga and others, the Absolute truth, i.e. pure consciousness
(Vijnana) can only be realized by practice of yoga. That indicated the practical side of this school,
while the word “Vijnanavada” brings out its speculative features. In its practical application it is
described as Yogacara, i.e. following the path of Yoga.
The Mahayanasutralamkara by Asanga is a landmark in the development of Vijnanavada
absolutism. This is a gigantic work on Mahayana Buddhism. The title itself indicates its manifold
features of Mahayana. Putting it in Asanga’s own words, its an embellishment of Mahayana sutras.
There is no Buddhist topic which is not touched by Asanga. Various topics of Buddhism are
discussed on the lines of Mahayana in twenty-one chapters called Adhikasas with commentary.
The present book contains English translation of the Sanskrit text and commentary of the
Mahayanasutr-alamkara. The book contains notes and an index of the terms. The book is published
under Biblio theca-Indo Buddhica Series.
Asanga has been attributed with the authorship of Mahayanasutralamkara. He is one of the
great masters of Mahayana Buddhism. Though there are some differences of opinion about
the authorship of Mahayanasutralamkara among the scholars, I have accepted the popular
view that Asanga is the author of this great book which gives us briefly all the important tenets of
Asanga lived in Gandhara (modern Kandahara in Afganisthan) but his birth place is Purushapura
(Peshawar). He was born in a Kushika Brahmana family. Along with his two brothers he was
converted to Sarvastivada School of Hinayana Buddhism which could not give his spiritual
mind any solace. He was then initiated by Maitreyanatha in the 'Sunya' doctrine of Mahayana. He
mastered the spiritual contemplation and was called Suryaprabhasamadhi. With this he could
understand the essence of all the texts of the Great vehicle.
Taranatha has stated that Asanga was one of the sons of the Brahmana matron who was married to
a member of the Kshatriya community.
Hiuen-tsang has also mentioned the fact that original birth place of Asanga was Gandhara but he
goes on, without modification, to change the scene of the legend and transports it to Ayodhya.
After receiving spiritual enlightenment from Maitreyanatha, he resided in a monastary in
Dharmankura aranya, a place near Magadha Then he migrated to Usmapura vihara at Sagari and
succeeded in bringing king Gambhirapaksha in to the fold of his doctrine.
Towards the end of his life, he remained for twelve years at Nalanda and he passed away in
Rajagraha where his disciples erected a monument in his honour.
According to Dr. Bagchi “it can be deduced that Asanga was alive and active in the fifth century
A.D.". He gives Professor Lévi’s opinion that the probable date could be the first half of fifth century
and Dr. Winternitz's opinion that he “probably lived in the 4th Century and was originally an adherent
of the Sarvastivada School”.
Mr. Bagchi in his introduction to Mahayanasutralamkara has refered to the legend that
“Asanga ascended the Tusita heaven for receiving enlightenment on the mystery of the Great vehicle
from the Bodhisattva Maitreya who used to reside in that blessed region— Furthermore, it has been
placed on record that Asanga, during his sojourn in that celestial abode received
Yogacarabhumishastra, Mahayanasutralamkara, Madhyanta and other sacred texts from
Maitreyanatha. Taranatha has recounted the self same classical episode, with certain modifications
and has reiterated that Asanga mastered five teachings of Maitreya by staying in the Tusita heaven"?
Asanga has been neglected by the scholars for- a long time. He has been clouded by his brother
Vasubandhu though traditionally it is believed that Asanga was the original propounder of the
All these accounts may be the reason why modern scholars believe that Maitreyanatha propounded
the Yogacara thought. Even Hakuju Ui has attributed the authorship of Mahayanasutralamkara to
Maitreyanatha. There are other scholars who hold the view that Asanga and Maitreyanatha are not
two persons. Maitreya was also known as Asanga or Asanga was known as Maitreya.
Again Mr. Bagchi has given two opposite views regarding the authorship of this great work. He has
quoted G. Tucci from his article entitled ‘On some aspects of the doctrines of Maitreyanatha and
Asanga? G. Tucci has furnished fresh arguments to prove that Maitreyanatha is the author of the
Mahayanasutralamkara. He has observed that the authorship of the Karika portion of the six
treatises belongs to Maitreya and his disciple Asanga composed commentaries on those works. E.
Obermiller has held the view that the five works’ attributed to Maitreyanatha by the Tibetan tradition
were actually composed by Asanga and that the classical story of revelation of them to Asanga by
Maitreya in Tusita heaven is intended to give a divine sanction to the works".
The colophon of the work reveals that the original text is announced by Bodhisattva
Vyavadatasamaya. This was translated into Chinese and Tibetan adverbatim. But the real identity of
Vyavadatasamaya is not really known.
S. Lévi has split up Mahayanasutralamkara (Sanskrit text) into two separate adhikaras and
according to Dr. S. Bagchi "the order of sequence has maintained a semblance of uniformity upto the
fifteenth chapter. The remaining portion of it is bereft of the alleged division and the numerical
reconing of it. But it is curious to find that the final adhikara has been numbered the twenty-first
without any reference to the abrupt break and aberration—so there is apparent lack of organic unity
in the body of the present text due to missing link which is essential to account for the number twenty
one. According to Professor Lévi "it is probable that the previous chapter is separated into two
sections, between the verses 42 and 43. The nineteen previous verses, with their uniform refrain, •
constitute a well knit unity like a hymn of conclusion".
Mahayanasutralamkara has been distinctly divided into three parts according to Lévi.
(1) from chapters I to IX.
(2) from chapters X to XIV.
(3) from chapters XV to the end; these division bear resemblance to the arrangement of the
Bodhisattva bhumis into three yogasthanas. These ten Bodhisattva bhumis are explained i in short, in
In chapter II the portion from verse five to the end of the chapter has been translated into English by
me from the French version by S. Lévi as the Sanskrit text is not available. Even S. Lévi, has
translated verses 5 to the end of the chapter II, from the Tibeten text, for want of, or non-availability
of the original text in Sanskrit (Ref.p.20 from M.S.A. by S. Lévi).
The ‘Vijnanavada’ taught by the 'Yogacara school is one of the two schools pf Mahayana, the other
is ’M5dhym£ka’ which advocates the ‘Sunyavada'. Both these schools have a large following as
they train people to cross this tumultuous ocean of transmigration and to attain Buddhahood. Even
though the Buddhahood is attained the Buddha are not content because they think more about other.
people’s welfare. They want to be a succour to the miserable people who are caught in the
temptations of this world. They want to show people the way out of this misery and a way to real
The Buddha had already institutionalised religion for the first time in India. Many monasteries had
been built and a new community of monks could be seen. A monk had to severe all his worldly ties
and live a life of a wandering mendicant, I-le meditated and lived and led a very austere life. The
discipline of vinaya regulated his life. Even so the recitation and the principles of the Great vehicle
charmed many people and caught their imagination. So, many people were attracted to Mahayana
The first principle of Mahayana is the perfection of knowledge. When the Madhyamika School
propagated the doctrine of 'Sunya’ (Void) doubt was created in the minds of people and there was
controversy about it. Asanga renewed his effort to propagate Buddhism and his 'Vijnanavada’ was
the result. So ‘Vijnanavada’ was a doctrine which could satisfy people mentally as well as spiritually.
Time was also favourable for Asanga.
India had just recovered from the dynastic rule of the Guptas. India had her own national art,
literature and when Asanga offered his doctrine for spiritual and mental well being, it was simply
accepted and absorbed.
Asanga, who was born and brought up in Gandhara, had come in direct contact with the Iranian
world which was undergoing a religious revolution, when Zorastrianism was restored by Sassanides
and Judaism as well as Christianity were propagated by the apostles. India also needed a true
religion which could seduce the wise and attract their attention; push their thought and catch up their
imagination. It also needed a religion which could appeal to common people. And shrewd Asanga
knew what they needed was a religion which showed them a way which alleviated their sufferings not
just blindly but by understanding and analysing it. This is what Asanga has reflected upon and
delivered. Thus the doctrine of dharma is characteristic of the school of Asanga and evokes the
memory of the ‘intelligibles' taught by the Platonians.
All the same, as ‘yoga' is inherent in all Indian spirituality, Asanga searches for the principle of his
doctrine through 'Yogacara'.
‘Yoga' looks after the spiritual welfare of man, by internal observation, analysis and classification of
the mystical states. It is a well known fact that all the systems of Indian Philosophy are related
directly to ’Yoga' and ’Yogacara' is no exception. The Buddha had also propagated ‘Yoga’ to attain
supreme illumination. Hinayana too prescribes the teachings and mystic exercises directly imported
from ’Yoga'. So it is not at all surprising, that Asanga makes a thorough study of "Yoga'.
There are traditionally six organs. The five sense organs which are external; ‘manas' which is the
internal sense and is the vehicle of six sensations, 'Vijnana'. Asanga analyses and discovers that
besides the incessant flux of phenomenon, there is a novel sensation which he calls the
‘alayavijnana'. This is a permanent reservoir, where the acquired effects are stored and
transformed into causes at the right time and place. It is not the self or ‘atman', as Buddhism does not
believe in the self; it is also not the ego as the ego too is just imagination only. One can call it the
affirmation of ‘Being’ which is found enveloped in all our Judgments and sensations, it is also to an
extent the conscience. It is the ‘manas' which separates and brings about the sensation of 'I am’ or
the ego. So it is the ‘manas’ which, instead of being aware of the absolute truth replaces it with the
egoself. This sensation of ‘alayavijnana’ puts everything under its spell and makes one forget the
supreme reality. It takes everyone in, and through them it shows the permanence in what is not
permanent. Inspite of all this, one can free oneself from the captivity of this spell. So according to this
doctrine it is not a freedom obtained by mystic union. Freedom is when transformed by the internal
revolution, the sensation of 'alayavijnana' blends itself with the ‘dharmadhatu' where all the
differenciation ceases. The fictitious ‘me’ or ‘I’ (ego) is abolished and substituted by the universal
consciousness, where the sense of others and 'l' is seen as equal and identical.
The agent of this internal revulsion is the Absolute which invades and purifies the ‘alayavijnana’
bringing about the Bodhi or illumination which is at once abstract and concrete.
As the nature of Truth is one, ‘It is uniform and immovable in the multitude of infinite Buddha. It is
ineffable so it escapes the discursive reason. One cannot define it as either existence or
non—existence. It is an universal revelation, it contains all and is not seen; it is uninterrupted and is
not manifested at intervals. Its essential characteristic is fundamental unity only. It excludes all duality
as it is 'Absolute - solid Being' which 'IS'. It has a beauty of its own which surpasses the 'Hinayana
Nirvana which is total cessation. It gives a Nirvana which is apratisthita (which never stops). It gives
unusal energy which flows as passive actions. The causality of dharma has no more any hold.
But Bodhi does not come suddeny and entirely. It comes gradually to one who practices ‘Yoga' as
stated by ‘Yogacara'. Such a person (one who practices yoga) is called a Bodhisattva. A
Bodhisattva has to practice for a long time to arrive at a definite identity. One who reaches such a
state is called a 'Buddha'.
The Bodhisattva has to go through ten stages. These are called a ‘Buddha’. It is very essential to
know these ten 'Bhumis' to understand ‘Mahayanasutralamkara’. The first is 'adhimukticarya’ and
the last one in ascending order is 'Buddhabhumi’. The adhimukticarya is a joyous stage. Bodhisattva
obeys intuition which stops at the void. It makes him realise that what is apparent is void and
everything is non-substantial. There is no reality in any dharma. Dharma is just a phenomenon of the
spiritual world constructed by mums. At the same time one grasps the ‘Dharmata' (common
characteristics) of the dharma and enters in the generalisation; moving towards the Universal
Absolute. The ecclesiastical discipline transforms one at once. The second world is called
the‘immacu1ate'. One has disengaged oneself from the senses, thus going forward towards the goal
(nirvana). The mind is purified by the moral suffering and is perpetually in dhyana (meditation) and
samadhi (realisation). In the third world the 'Pure', there is a reopening in the 'world of desire',
without the study of the dharma which henceforth is non-substantial, he clarifies this for others too.
He undertakes his proper work which is the maturation of creatures. Then one passes 'to the
knowledge' (Prajna) and goes on to the fourth world 'the raft', by exercising the virtues of power and
knowledge which constitute a part of illumination (bodhipaksa). Graced with this he removes the two
obstructions which are suffering and knowables. He then clears the deflection by bending the side of
illumination towards transmigration. He puts forth, his merits which are huge, for the service of
The fifth world is ‘difficult to earn'. This is gained by superior knowledge. Here the dharma is
confined to the universals; where the development of dharma is reduced to the four sublime Truths
taught by the Buddha (suffering, origin, life and suppression). The Bodhisattva explains these to
In the sixth stage, one's mind (thought) is not enchained to the circle of causality (Pratityasamutpada).
In the transcendent, there is necessarily no good or bad, as all the personal ego) sentiment is
eliminated ‘vis-a-vis' Nirvana. At such a time one is as much near illumination as transmigration with
the acquisition of the knowledge one becomes accomplished.
The seventh world is "very critical. It is achieved only after hard work in the earlier six worlds and
there is only a bait of the new series ahead. It is in this stage that one recalls all the Bodhisattva by
indefinite repetition one after other. A subject is studied more and more without expectations of the
fruit of the anterior studies; as he goes on, more and more signs of mental revulsion are seen in him
but he rests on the impressions (abhisamskaras, the agents of mental activity which are superior and
affect the passivity of the mind.
The eighth world, ‘the immobile’ shows a complete revulsion. His work of maturation of creatures is
shown hereafter by extreme ways; his accomplishments become super- accomplishments. His ways
of apostolateship which are once again grounded are no more sterile. His formulae (dharani), his
ways, become extreme. His study embraces the complete body of dharma and has no ego sentiment;
he has definitely parted from the manaskaras. He absolutely masters the indifferenciation with no
signs or movement. He has no more need to purify his 'field’. His future domain is the ‘Buddha' as he
knows when and where he realises his nature as the Buddha; infact he receives the prophecy of a
Buddha, which fixes his term in the time and place in the myriads of Aeons and the dhatu. He enters
in a definite unsurpassability; this is the production of an Illuminated mind.
This initial act can come in anyone of the stages as they are not marked by watertight compartments.
This is accomplished by a Bodhisttva by the only joy which is maturation (vipaka). In this state he
has immovable equality. The dharma, of production dissolves (anutpada - dharma - ksanti). The
dharma, the world, the phenomenon of mind, retreat for him in his eternal Pari-Nirvana. Then he is
the possessor of all the sciences in details and integrity. He also achieves the maturation of creatures.
This is the ninth world; the world of ‘good mind’.
In the tenth world of non-substantiality of dharma, the Bodhisattva receives all the
anointing from the Buddhas who consecrate him for the Buddhahood, as he is in complete samadhi
and formulae which are the body of the dharma. In this state the marvelous metamorphosis is
exhibited and this is the highest state where one realises one’s own Buddha nature. Here he has no
obstructions of anykind nor repose, his illumination is absolute and pure.
These are the fundamentals from which Asanga has deviated in his system. (He is not
concerned with the exposition of the career of a Bodhisattva and does not follow its developments in
detail). He is only concerned about explaining the ‘mind’ and the reason of existence by arrangement
or interpretation. In fact Asanga has taken the knowledge of these ten ‘Bhumis’, by Bodhisattvas as
Language & Literature (443)
Sacred Sites (101)
Tantric Buddhism (87)
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend