The figures of classical Indian philosophy are generally known to us only in the stylized terms of traditional hagiographies, which seldom give confidence that we are in touch with a historical personage. Aiming to overcome the limitations of our biographical knowledge about one of the most famous Indian philosophers, Joseph Walser’s ambitious Nāgārjuna in Context seeks to locate the progenitor of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist thought (generally taken to have flourished around 150 CE) with historical precision. Nāgārjuna’s influential but enigmatic works were composed, Walser argues, “in a Mahāsāhghika monastery in or near an urban center in the Lower Krishna River Valley in [what is now] modern Andhra Pradesh” (14), probably between 175 and 204 CE (86–87). Walser’s care in developing a cumulative case for this unusually precise conclusion sheds welcome light on the context of early Mahāyāna Buddhism—but it is also interpretively problematic.
Walser starts by showing, based on epigraphic and other evidence, that around the time of Nāgārjuna’s accepted dates, “Mahāyāna was a relatively small, in some places embattled, movement within Buddhism with no independent institutional status” (16). There is arguably a category mistake here, since Mahāyāna never really had any “independent institutional status”; if, e.g., adherence to a particular vinaya is the criterion of institutional identity, there never were any “Mahāyāna” monasteries—Tibetan Buddhists, e.g., use the vinaya of the (“Hīnayāna”) Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition. Walser is not unaware of this, and he accepts a widely held view of Mahāyāna as a “‘school’ or a ‘philosophical movement,’” which therefore does not involve “the full institutional apparatus, both material and ideological, of affiliated monasteries” (17). But this point is often neglected; despite the fact that philosophical positions do not seem to have been “institutionalized” in Indian Buddhism, Walser’s argument centrally involves questions of institutional status. [End Page 684]
Walser begins to narrow in on Nāgārjuna’s specific location through the application of a problematic hermeneutical principle: “Any detail present in a legend for the purposes of spiritual edification or … legitimation may be hypothesized to tell us more about the needs of the compilers of the legend than about the subject of the legend itself” (68). This not implausible idea supports the conclusion that biographical details that are clearly not for “purposes of spiritual edification or legitimation” are likely to be authentic—but it also presupposes that the recognition of the “motivated” aspects of a story is a straightforward matter.
Be that as it may, Walser concludes from this that we can confidently take Nāgārjuna to have had a Sātavāhana king as his patron. Walser cleverly dovetails this finding with a suggestive, if thin, piece of evidence: the apparent reference, in Nāgārjuna’s Ratnāvalī, to religious practices involving images of the Buddha seated on a lotus. Walser accordingly canvasses the art-historical literature in search of Indian regions where, for the time of their administration by a Sātavāhana king, the availability of such images is attested. The limited co-extensiveness of these factors basically constitutes the case for Walser’s relatively precise spatio-temporal placing of Nāgārjuna.
More difficult to substantiate is the claim, developed over most of the remaining chapters, that we can locate Nāgārjuna specifically in some kind of Mahāsahghika monastery. The guiding insight here is, to an extent, undeniable: “The history of textual reproduction forms the hidden backbone of the history of Buddhist philosophy itself…. it should not be forgotten that the (premo-dern) Buddhist philosophy available to modern scholarship is coextensive with what has been preserved textually” (123). That is, Nāgārjuna’s texts are now available as objects of inquiry only insofar as they were, in the first instance, preserved and reproduced.
This fact drives Walser’s basic interpretive question: why might any Buddhist community think itself committed to reproducing...