The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System

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  • Book Name The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System
  • Author T. R. V. Murti
  • Language, Pages English
  • Last Updated 2022 / 08 / 03
  • ISBN 9788120840072, 812084007

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The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System
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The Vastness of Buddhism is surprisingly immense. An extensive and varied literature, covering a period of more than fifteen centuries, is scattered in a score of languages. Its complexity is no less formidable; its school and sub-schools are bewildering in their number and in the twists and turns of their thought. The greatest difficulty facing the student is the lack of an accredited tradition of interpretation.

Buddhism and its religious philosophy have frequently undergone periods of major regeneration. White this willingness to reformulate periods of major regeneration. While this willingness to reformulate the insights of the Buddha for a different cultural context is one of its outstanding virtues, it is also a source of difficulties for the unguided Western student who often becomes lost and confused in the midst of this richness of ideas.

In his study of the Madhyamika School, founded in the 2nd century by Nagarjuna, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, T.R.V. Murti presents the central doctrine of Buddhism, which is the absence of any autonomous existence in individuals and phenomena. Drawing on a wealth of documentation the author analyses the development of Buddhist thought in India and its parallels with certain Western philosophies, and he finally illuminates the relevance of the ancient doctrine to the present day.

About the Author(s)

Tirupattur Rameseshayyar Venkatachala Murti (15th June, 1902-18th March 1986) was born in a South Indian middle-class Brahmana family. He was educated first at Tiruppattur and later at Tiruchirapalli where his early undergraduate study was undertaken at the then Bishop Heber College.

After a gap of several years spent in the cause of gandhi's Nationalist movement, in 1925 he joined the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). The presence of both the Sanskrit College and the Hindu University side by side in Banaras allowed him the unique advantage of pursuing classical Sanskrit training and Western style University study. (This dual background qualified Prof. Murti for important service on the "Sanskrit Commission" (1956-57) Constituted by the Indian Government to review the scope and future of Sanskrit vis a vis higher education in India.)


“ALTHOUGH a hundred years have elapsed since the scientific study of Buddhism has been initiated in Europe, we are nevertheless still in the dark about the fundamental teachings of this religion and its philosophy. Certainly no other religion has proved so refractory to clear formulation." This observation of the late Professor Stcherbatsky made in 1927 (The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana, p. r) remains no less true today. It is also a measure of the difficulties which one encounters in this field. The vastness of Buddhism is surprisingly immense. An extensive and varied literature, canonical, exegetical and systematic, covering a period of more than fifteen centuries, is scattered in a score of languages, Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese and several Mongolian languages. Its complexity is no less formidable; its schools and sub-schools are bewildering in their number and in the twists and turns of their thought. The greatest difficulty encountered is the lack of an accredited tradition of interpretation which might set aright many inaccuracies and shortcomings in our understanding. In spite of these admitted difficulties, a determined attempt should be made to understand Buddhism. This is essential for a correct and fruitful understanding of Indian philosophy and religion on which Buddhism has exercised a profound and permanent influence. Moreover, Buddhism forms the staple culture of the south, east and far-east Asian countries. A study of Buddhism should also prove valuable as a contribution to world-culture. And this may not be without significance in the context of the present-day world.

The Madhyamika philosophy claims our attention as the system which created a revolution in Buddhism and through that in the whole range of Indian philosophy. The entire Buddhist thought turned on the Stinyata doctrine of the Madhyamika. The earlier pluralistic phase of Buddhism, its rejection of substance and the rather uncritical erection of a theory of elements, was clearly a preparation for the fully critical and self-conscious dialectic of Nagai-- Jana_ The Yogacara-Vijiianavada Idealism explicitly accepts the slinyata of the Madhyamika, and gives it an idealistic turn. The aitical and absolutist trend in Brahmanical thought is also trace-able to the Madhyamika.

Considering the role and the importance of the Madhyamika, I have ventured to appraise it as the Central Philosophy of Buddhism. Modem literature on the subject is neither too plentiful nor free from misunderstanding. Our standard text-books on Indian philo-sophy content themselves with a perfunctory treatment of the system. There is a tendency on the part of some critics and historians of thought to dismiss it as nihilism; many even identify it with the Vedanta. Such criticism is as uninformed as it is misleading. Stcherbatsky's book, The Conception of Buddhist Niroduce, is an exception to this. But it is hardly to be expected that in the course of about to pages, most of which are devoted to polemic and the elucidation of the conception of nirvana, anything like an adequate exposition of the Madhyamika philosophy could be made. The present work is an attempt to fill this gap in our lmowledge. It is a full study of the Mfidhyamika philosophy in all its important aspects.

The book falls into three well-defined but connected parts of unequal length. The first is mainly historical: it traces the origin and development of the Madhyamika philosophy, its dialectic, as the attempt to resolve the conflict that was engendered by the two main traditions of Indian philosophy, the athrevada (substance view of reality) and the anatmavada (modal view of reality). The anticipations of the dialectic are to be found in the celebrated 'silence of Buddha, in his refusal to speculate and to predicate empirical cate-godes of the transcendent reality. The development of the Madhyamika stages and schools of thought and their literature is dealt with at some considerable length. The possible influence of the Madhyamika on later philosophy, especially on the ViKlanavada and the Vedanta, is also indicated. The second and main part is devoted to a full and critical exposition of the Madhyamika philosophy, the structure of its dialectic, the application of the dialectic to categories of thought, its conception of the Absolute, and its ethics and religion. The chapter on the Application of the Dialectic is chiefly of historical interest and is somewhat technical; it may be omitted on the first reading. The but part of the book compares the Midltyamika with some of the well-known dialectical systems of the West (Kant, Hegel and Bradley), and undertakes a short study of the different absolutisms (Madhyamika, Vijiianavada and the Vedanta) whose different standpoints are not generally appreciated. There is a measure of risk in comparative studies. No two systems of thought or even aspects of them are quite identical or similar. On the other hand, if they were absolutely unique, we could not differentiate or understand them.


This reprinting of T.R.V. Murti’s classic exposition of Madhyamika on the sixtieth anniversary of its original publication will undoubtedly spark renewed interest in the work and in the study of Mildhyamika philosophy in South Asia. With this reprinting, Motilal Banarsidass continues its laudatory work of promoting the study of Indian philosophy and Buddhism. Upon publication, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism was widely heralded as the finest synthesis of Madhyamika then available. Writing in the Journal a/Asian Studies in 1956, the celebrated American Sanskritist Daniel Ingalls called it "the best exposition of Sunyavada philosophy that has been written in English." Murti's work offers a bold and erudite attempt to place Madhyamika in the history of Indian thought and to present it in a philosophically attuned manner. His efforts to position Nagarjuna’s views in dialogue with European philosophical traditions promoted both leamed interest in Madhyamika and research into its textual foundations. The book helped Madhyamika receive the serious attention it so deserves.

Following in the line of Stcherbatsky, Murti rightfully rejected the nihilistic interpretation of Madhyamika that had flourished in European readings of it for many decades prior to his workand that still crops up today. He drew attention to the broader implications of negation in the texts of Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, and Candrakirti, showing the "destructive" character of their arguments against rival philosophical positions and common sense views to be in service of the attainment ofprajiia, which he translated as "intuition." He can further be credited with working out a solution to the seeming contradiction that M5dhyamikas, on the one hand, frequently describe the ultimate (paramartha) as surpassing the realm of the mind (buddhi, which he renders as "Reason") but, on the other hand, utilize rational thinking as part and parcel of their presentation of Buddhist teachings and as essential to religious pursuits. Mufti's resolution of the conundrum as a dialectic that aims at surpassing "Reason" in aim of an "Absolute" clearly bore the influence of his interests in Kant, Hegel, and Sankara and cannot now be supported. However, he deserves our admiration for his identification of this and a good many other tensions in Madhyamika thinking and for his intellectual creativity in attempting a coherent resolution of them.

While many have pointed out that Murti offers a view of Madhyamika at odds with that of the authors on whom he relies, the frequency with which his work has been cited attests to its continued importance. Indeed, a true sign of scholarly contribution lies in the ability to net an agenda for future research, to remain at the center of investigation and refutation. After reading Mures work a remarkable five times over, Jeffrey Hopkins credits it with inspiring his authorship of Meditation on Emptiness, a work that shows how the Tibetan Gelukpa (dge lugs pa) Prasa.gfica-Midhyamika tradition embraces reason as a tool of insight and as useful in meditation (showing that reasoned analysis is, in fact, a kind of meditation), and so responds to some of Murti's central claims.

In the sixty years since this work was first published, the study of Indian and Buddhist philosophy has provided progressively greater detail on all manner of issues, with greater scrutiny directed at individual authors, texts, doctrines, and social and historical relationships. This makes Murti's grand portrayal of a dialectic driving the history of Indian thought — sweeping up the Upani ads, the Buddha, SA.Ichya, Abhidharma, Madhyamika, Yogacara, and Vedanta—all the more striking. These broad strokes Mori works in have been found in many cases to be lacking support from a close study of the texts in question, as has the Hegelian dialectic he proposes m a framework for Indian philosophy. His work, though, forces us to consider the merits of sketching the "big picture": sixty years later, is it time to take up the challenge Murti took for himself? Are we ready for a new grand vision of Indian philosophy? Of Madliyamika? If so, we would do well to resist the temptation to import a ready-made framework into which we fit these hard-won details. Few now would attempt a Hegelian model for the history of European philosophy; even less would it be appropriate for Indian thought, which Hegel himself falsely believed was not "real" philosophy.

That said, Murti's engagement in comparative philosophy is commendable, as are ongoing efforts to create dialog between disparate traditions. We should keep in mind the long list of western philosophers to whom Nagarjuna has been declared the Indian forerunner, remembering that comparison is always a matter of "fit" and "unfit," to adopt Jonathan Z. Smith's language. Comparison will illuminate aspects of a given figure's views, bringing to the fore previously unnoticed qualities and, at its best, offer solutions to the difficulties in a given philosophy. However, we will always find an element of "unfit"the alignment between distinct thinkers will never be perfect; unique aspects will remain. Nagarjuna will never be Kant (or Hegel, or Schopenhauer, or Wittgenstein), nor should we want him to be. In placing Madhyamika next to Kant, Hegel, and F.H. Bradley, The Central sophy of Buddhism rightfully situates it as a philosophy every bit as rigorous and sophisticated as its westem counterparts, one that, we should note, has a great many current practitioners for whom Madhyamika constitutes a way of life.

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