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Madhyamaka Schools in India, by Peter Della Santina




As has been stressed, the Madhyamaka is a philosophy of a qualitatively different order. The Madhyamaka seeks to dismantle the phenomenal universe which is constructed by imagination through sustained dialectical analysis. In this way, the Madhyamaka attempts to reveal the unconditioned and non-differentiated nature of the ultimately real.

The Madhyamaka philosophy expresses the quintessence of the teaching of the Buddha Shakyamuni. In the Madhyamaka the full extent of the Buddha's characteristic philosophical attitude is disclosed and elaborated. Thus the Madhyamaka constitutes a complete and systematic critical philosophy.

Through the expedients of concepts and language, the Madhyamaka attempts to indicate the actual nature of ultimate reality, which transcends thought and expression. The conception of the ultimately real offered by the Madhyamaka is a revolutionary one. It is for this reason that the advent of the Madhyamaka system represented a significant turning point in the development of Indian philosophy. Indeed, it may be said without fear of contradiction that nearly all the major philosophical systems of India were profoundly affected by the appearance of the Madhyamaka.

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The fundamental characteristics of the Madhyamaka account, in large part, for the influence which the system had upon Indian philosophy as a whole. The Madhyamaka was, in the first place, acutely aware of the subjective character of thought which, according to the Madhyamaka conception, fabricates the universe of appearance. This awareness led, more or less directly, to a conception of ultimate reality as a state in which appearance is dispelled through the extinction of subjective imagination. Thus, it may be said that the cessation of subjective imagination results in the dissolution of the universe of appearance which obscures the non-differentiated and non-dual nature of the ultimately real.

The revolutionary character of these conceptions will be appreciated if it is recalled that no philosophy prior to the Madhyamaka realised the universality of the activity of subjective imagination or conceived of reality as an ineffable and unconditioned state altogether free from duality. Hence, the Madhyamaka clearly represents the first systematic formulation of a philosophy of absolute non-duality in India.

It is, however, important to remember that the implications of these conceptions elaborated in the Madhyamaka extend beyond the limits of what may be termed scholastic philosophy. The Madhyamaka, as it has been emphasised, is above all a soteriological philosophy. It is intended to produce an existential transformation in the individual. Philosophy, therefore, for the Madhyamaka is more than simply an intellectual exercise. On the contrary, philosophy supplies a means of achieving an actual transition from a condition of ignorance and bondage to one of knowledge and freedom. It is the critical awareness of the subjective origin of the universe of appearance which enables one to remove the subjective illusion which obscures the actual nature of the ultimately real.

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It is a primary concern with any soteriological philosophy that it be successfully communicated to others. The extraordinary knowledge which has, in the case of the philosopher, engendered the desired existential transformation must be communicated to those who are ignorant of it. This communication must necessarily be accomplished through concepts and language, even when the extraordinary knowledge which is to be communicated ultimately transcends thought and expression. In this context, it is clear that the process of communication is an especially difficult one for the Madhyamaka, because, as it has been noted, the Madhyamaka is a philosophy of a radically different order.

The approach of the Madhyamaka to the problem of communicating the extraordinary knowledge achieved through philosophy to the uninitiated tends to be rational or analytical, rather than symbolic or suggestive. Thus, it is that the Madhyamaka philosopher employs various arguments which conform, to a greater or lesser degree, to the conventionally accepted patterns of logical discourse. Through these arguments, the Madhyamaka seeks to lead the uninitiated gradually to a comprehension of the existential import of the Madhyamaka philosophy.

In the process of communicating the extraordinary knowledge initially available only to the philosopher, ordinary facts must necessarily be employed. Only then can the extraordinary knowledge achieved by the philosopher be successfully communicated to the uninitiated. The arguments employed by the Prasangika and Svatantrika schools of the Madhyamaka system, therefore, represent attempts to communicate the extraordinary knowledge embodied in the Madhyamaka philosophy to the uninitiated through concepts and language.

Yet when the philosopher attempts to express extraordinary knowledge through concepts and language, amenable to the understanding of the uninitiated, he must take great care to preserve the essential purity of the extraordinary philosophical knowledge which he is anxious to communicate. Otherwise, the clarity and precision of his extraordinary philosophical vision will become obscured and distorted in the process of communication. If this occurs, the extraordinary knowledge embodied in the Madhyamaka philosophy will be only imperfectly communicated. Perhaps even more importantly, there exists the danger that the philosopher himself may unconsciously forsake, in some degree, the perfection of the extraordinary knowledge which it was his intention to communicate. The controversy between the Prasangika and Svatantrika schools must, in the final analysis, be seen in the light of this fundamental problem. The exponents of both schools clearly desired to communicate the extraordinary knowledge embodied in the Madhyamaka philosophy to the uninitiated. In their attempt to do so, they resorted to divergent modes of argument. The success or failure of their respective approaches to the problem of communication must be measured within the twofold context suggested earlier. It must be judged to what degree the arguments employed by the two schools succeed in communicating effectively the extraordinary knowledge embodied in the Madhyamaka philosophy, while, at the same time, preserving the purity and perfection of that very extraordinary knowledge.

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The verdict delivered by the history of the development of the Madhyamaka philosophy eventually favoured the Prasangikas. Over the course of centuries, the approach adopted by the Prasangikas emerged as the predominantly accepted one. The Svatantrika interpretation, on the other hand, steadily lost ground after the collapse of Buddhism in India until, at present, only vestiges of it are preserved in the living Buddhist traditions of Tibet and Mongolia.

Though the controversy with which this study has been largely concerned may have been decided by the history of philosophy, the central problem which has been indicated in these concluding pages continues even today to be a very relevant one. Indeed, all those who are at present engaged in the communication of the knowledge contained in the ancient and now, for the most part, fragmented philosophical traditions of India to modern men cannot afford to ignore the central problem which divided the two Madhyamaka schools. Thus it is that all attempts to communicate the essential import of ancient Indian philosophical systems through concepts and language amenable to the comprehension of modern men must be judged within the twofold context which has been suggested. All such attempts must seek to accomplish satisfactorily two indispensable objectives. They must seek to communicate effectively the knowledge embodied in ancient Indian philosophy in contemporary concepts and language, while at the same time preserving the purity of the ancient philosophical vision. Only then will it be possible to ensure the vitality, purity and continuity of the philosophical wisdom of ancient India.

© Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi (India)

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(updated 26 January 2021)

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