Buddhist philosophy and psychology · Buddhist Texts · indica lingua · lingua tibetica

♦ Some open reflections on Mūlamadhyamakakārikā VIII, 4ab

Let us consider Mūlamadhyamakakārikā VIII, 4ab, where Nāgārjuna seems to accept a sort of “priority” of hetu on both pratyaya and utpanna: hetāv asati kāryaṃ ca kāraṇaṃ ca na vidyate | («when the [primary] cause does not exist, both the effect and the [secondary] cause are not evident»). Jacques May, reflecting on this half a stanza, has pointed out that it presents serious problems of interpretation: «Je ne trouve nulle part que kāraṇa tout seul puisse signifier “(cause) auxiliaire”; mais il est en effet glosé sahakāri kāraṇaṃ, […] le scr. a kāraṇaṃ, le tib. byed rgyu = sahākari kāraṇaṃ».1 On the basis of his perplexity, May translates this half a verse as: «Sans causalité, il n’existe ni effet, ni cause». Nonetheless, the text has the term hetu («cause»), and not hetutva or hetutā («causality»).2

May refers, here, to Candrakīrti’s commentary which interprets kāraṇa as pratyaya. It runs as follows:

saty eva hi hetor abhyupagame hetunā yanniṣpādyate tatkāryaṃ tasya ca yo niṣpādakaḥ tatkāraṇam iti yujyate | tadyathā ghaṭasya mṛdā hetur ghaṭaḥ kāryaṃ tasya ca cakrādayaḥ sahakāri kāraṇaṃ ||

Indeed, only if the cause is admitted to exist, it is proper [to say] that that which is originated by means of the cause is the effect and that which originates that [effect] is the cause. For instance: the cause of the pot is the clay, the effect is the pot and the co-operating cause is the [potter’s] wheel, etc.3

We can note how, besides and before Candrakīrti, both Buddhapālita and Bhāviveka have suggested the interpretation of the term kāraṇa in this kārikā as meaning «secondary condition» (or «auxiliary cause»). Buddhapālita indeed writes:

| rgyu med na ni ’bras bu dang | rgyu yang ’thad par mi gyur ro | | rgyu med na ’bras bu cung zad kyang ’thad par mi ’gyur te | rgyu med pa la ’bras bu ji ltar ’thad par gyur | ci ste ’thad na ni glo bur du thams cad ’byung bar ’gyur zhing | rtsom pa thams cad don med pa nyid du yang ’gyur bas de ni mi ’dod de | de lta bas na rgyu med na ’bras bu cung zad kyang ’thad par mi ’gyur ro | | rgyu yang ’thad par mi gyur ro | | zhes bya ba ni rgyu med na rkyen kyang ’thad par mi ’gyur ro | | zhes bya ba’i tha tshig go | de yang ji ltar zhe na | dngos po rgyu las byung ba rnams la rkyen kyang phan ’dogs par byed pa yin na rgyu med cing de nyid mi ’byung na rkyen rnams kyis gang la phan ’dogs par ’gyur ro | | phan ’dogs par mi byed na ni ji ltar rkyen rnams su ’gyur | de lta bas na rgyu med na ’bras bu yang ’thad par mi gyur la | rgyu yang ’thad par mi ’gyur ro ||

This can be translated more or less as follows:

«When the [primary] cause does not exist, both the effect and the [secondary] cause are not evident». If the cause (hetu) does not exist, not even a little effect (phala) is evident: in which way is an effect evident from a non-existing cause? But if it were admitted [that an effect can exist without a cause, in this case], because all [effects could] originate immediately [i.e., by themselves], every coming to be [of the effects] would be without reason (vaiyarthya), [and] this is not accepted; thus, if the cause does not exist, not even a little effect is evident. «And the [secondary] cause is not evident» means that, if the cause does not exist, the condition (pratyaya) too is not evident. And how is that [explained]? Conditions, being [them] subsidiary (upakāraka) for the events (bhāva) originated by a cause, if the cause does not exist and those very [events] do not originate, by means of what conditions is there assistence [to the cause]? If assistence [to the cause] is not performed, in which way are the conditions [supposed to exist]? Hence, when the cause does not exist, both the effect is not evitent and the [secondary] cause is not evident.4

And Bhāviveka:

de ltar rgyu med na ni ’bras bu dang | rgyu yang ’thad par mi ’gyur ro | | rgyu dang rkyen so sor nges pa’i mthus bya ba nyid kyis ’bras bu zhes bya zhing | lhan cig byed pa’i rgyu tshogs su zin kyang de yod na ’byung ba nyid kyis ’bras bu’i rgyu zhes bya na | bltos pa med pa la ni rgyu med pa yang rgyur mi rung la | de’i ’bras bu med pa yang ’bras bur mi rung ngo ||

That is:

Thus, «when the [primary] cause does not exist, both the effect and the [secondary] cause are not evident». [It is] called “effect” (phala) [that which comes to be] by reason of the power of [certain] fixed (pratiniyata) cause (hetu) and conditions (pratyaya); moreover, [it is] called “cause” of the effect for its becoming that (tadbhāva-bhāvitā) [effect, which is] grasped in the assemblage of the co-operating causes (sahakāri-hetu); but if the [primary] cause does not exist, an independent [secondary] cause is not admitted (na yujyate), and if the effect of that [primary cause] does not exist, an[other] independent effect is not admitted.5

Thus, it seems that Buddhapālita, Bhāviveka and Candrakīrti, because of their reading Mūlamadhyamakakārikā VIII, 4ab from an identical perspective (kāraṇa = pratyaya), make May’s position unjustified.6 Nonetheless, May’s doubt seems to be confirmed by the Akutobhayā which glosses our half a kārikā as follows: rgyu med pa nyid yin na ’bras bu dang rgyu dag med par thal bar ’gyur ro ||.7 Unfotunately, also this passage presents a possible problem of interpretation, because rgyu med pa nyid can be intended as meaning ahetutā – in this case we translate: «if there is not causality (ahetutā), it follows [that there is also] absence of effect and of cause» –  or it can be interpreted as rgyu’i med pa nyid – thus we have: «if there is absence (nāstitva) of cause, it follows [that there is also] absence of effect and of [secondary] cause». The first reading seems to confirm May’s doubts, whereas the second one is in line with the unanimous interpretation of the other three commentators. Thus, as far as Mūlamadhyamakakārikā VIII, 4ab is concerned, the problem remains open.


(1) May (1959:146, note 422).

(2) May (1959:146).

(3) de la Vallée Poussin (1903:182). As general remark, and for a better understanding of the philosophical extent adumbrated by Nāgārjunian terminology, we can recall here Bugault (1983:24): «Going from YUJ to upa-PAD, and then to VID, one passes from logical possibility to real possibility (or logical and real possibility). And with VID, to simply effective reality».

(4) Peking bsTan-’gyur, dBu-ma, TSHa, ff. 224b7-225a2. Xylograph reproduced in Pandeya (1988).

(5) Peking bsTan-’gyur, dBu-ma, TSHa, ff. 142a8-142b1. Xylograph reproduced in Pandeya (1988).

(6) Compare with Vasubandhu’s (IV-V century C.E.) Abhidharmakośabhāṣya: sati kāraṇe kāraṇāntarasyābhāve kāryasyābhāvo dṛṣṭo bhāve ca punarbhavaḥ tadyathā aṅkurasya («in the existence of the [external] cause, and in the absence of the internal cause, the presence of the effect is not manifested; in the presence [of the internal cause], however, the appearance [of the effect occurs], as in the case of the sprout»). Śāstrī (1998:923-924). The Tibetan translation of this passage is (sDe-dge bsTan-’gyur, mNGon-pa, Ku, 82a4): rgyu yod kyang rgyu gzhan med na ’bras bu med par mthong la yod na ni yang yod par mthong ba ste | dper na myu gu lta bu’o ||. Note that: rgyu = kāraṇa (= pratyaya), rgyu gzhan = kāraṇāntara (= hetu).

(7) Peking bsTan-’gyur, dBu-ma, TSHa, ff. 59b3. Xylograph reproduced in Pandeya (1988).


– Bugault, G., Logic and Dialectics in the Madhyamakakārikās, «Journal of Indian Philosophy» 11 (1983), pp. 7-76.

– de la Vallée Poussin, L. (ed. by), Mūlamadhyamakakārikās (Mādhyamikasūtras) de Nāgārjuna avec la Prasannapadā commentaire de Candrakīrti, Bibliotheca Buddhica IV, St.-Petersbourg 1903-1913.

– de La Vallée Poussin, M.L., Théorie des Douze Causes, Luzac & Co., London 1913.

– May, J. (ed. and Franch trans. by), Candrakīrti Prasannapadā Madhyamakavrtti. Douze chapitres traduits du sanscrit et du tibétain, accompagnés d’une introduction, de notes, et d’une édition critique de la version tibétaine, A. Maisonneuve, Paris 1959.

– Pandeya, R. (ed. by), Madhyamakaśāstram of Nāgārjuna. With the Commentaries Akutobhayā by Nāgārjuna, Madhyamakavṛtti by Buddhapālita, Prajñāpradīpavṛtti by Bhāvaviveka, Prasannapadāvṛtti by Candrakīrti, Critically Reconstructed (2 vols.), Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1988.

– Śāstrī, D. (ed. by), Abhidharmakośa & Bhāṣya of Ācārya Vasubandhu with Sphuṭārthā Commentary of Ācārya Yaśomitra (2 vols.), Bauddha Bharati, Varanasi 1998.


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