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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Vasubandhu (vah-sew-BAHN-dew), Brahman by birth, was a great Buddhist scholar and native of Purusapura (Peshāwar), capital of Gandhāra in northwest India. A leading authority on Sarvāstivāda, the realist school of Theravāda Buddhism, he was persuaded by his brother Asanga to espouse Yogācāra, the metaphysical idealist school of Mahāyāna. He served as minister to the Gupta monarch Samudragupta, whose patronage he enjoyed. He lived in various parts of India, most notably in Ayodhyā, where he died at age eighty. According to his biographer, Paramārtha, Vasubandhu had a distinguished career as abbot of Nālandā with numerous disciples as his followers, the most notable being Dināga. He and Asanga were allotted the status of bodhisattvas, or potential buddhas, by Mahāyānists.

Vasubandhu’s writings earned him great respect in both Buddhist schools. His greatest work, Abhidharmakośa (fourth or fifth century c.e.; The Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu, 1983), is a learned treatise on ethics, psychology, and metaphysics. As the quintessence of all Abhidharma texts and most important compendium of Sarvāstivāda tenets, it is treated as an authoritative work by all Buddhist sects. He also wrote Paramārthasaptati, a refutation of Sāmkhya philosophy; Vijñāptimatratasiddhi (fourth or fifth century c.e.; Vasubandhu’s Vijñapti-matrata-siddhi, 1980), the most important document of Yogāchāra; Dashabhūmikashastra (fourth or fifth century c.e.; English translation in A Buddhist Doctrine of Experience, 1982), a treatise on rebirth in Yogāchāra; and Sukhāvativyuhopadesha, a study of Pure Land philosophy.


Vasubandhu, the chief expounder of Mahāyāna after philosopher Nāgārjuna, strongly influenced Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. He is considered the twentieth patriarch of twenty-seven listed in Buddhist sources.

Further Reading:

Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967. A widely available paperback by the greatest English student of Buddhism. Although brief on Vasubandhu, Conze places Mahāyāna Yogācāra in developmental context, and illuminates characteristic differences between Eastern and Western thinking. Notes and index.

Griffiths, Paul J. On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1986. In this excellent but demanding work, Griffiths examines the detailed philosophical argumentation of both of Vasubandhu’s positions. The scholarly apparatus—glossary, appendices, notes, textual and interpretative bibliographies, and index—is extremely useful.

Kalupahana, David J. Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1976. A brief but comprehensive scholarly treatment, available in paperback. Vasubandhu receives significant notice. Kalupahana pays particular attention to the meaning of Buddhist philosophical terms. Notes, bibliographies, and index.

Pandit, Moti Lal. Sunyata: The Essence of Mahāyāna Spirituality . New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal...

(The entire section is 670 words.)