Nagarjuna in Context
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 Mahāsāṅghika 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.