Buddhist Texts

♦ To conclude on Mūlamadhyamakakārika VIII, 4: philosophical notes

In a previous post I have taken into consideration Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā VIII, 4 in its Sanskrit and Tibetan versions.

The Sanskrit texts runs thus:

hetāv asati kāryaṃ ca kāraṇaṃ ca na vidyate |

tadabhāve kriyā kartā karaṇaṃ ca na vidyate ||

That is:

If there is no cause, both effect and cause are not found; if those are not existent, activity, agent and the means of doing are not found.

The Tibetan translation is as follows:

| rgyu med na ni ’bras bu dang |

| rgyu yang ’thad par mi ’gyur ro |

| de med na ni bya ba dang |

| byed pa po dang byed mi rigs |

That is:

Without cause, both effect and cause cannot be found; if those do not exist, activity, agent and means of doing are not proper.

Note that the Tibetan version of the pādas ab, making invariably use of rgyu, does not distinguishes between the cause as hetu and the cause as kāraṇa. The presence of ’bras bu, moreover, leads us to suppose that the translator understood the term rya as meaning phala. More proper is the translation of the pādas cd, where kriyā is rendered with bya ba, kartā with byed pa po, and karaṇa with byed.

Recently, I have checked the Chinese version of this kārikā (Taishō 1564, 30.0012c04-05):

若墮於無因 則無因無果

無作無作者 無所用作法

ruò duò wū wú yīn, zé wú yīn wú guǒ,

wú zuò wú zuò zhĕ, wú suǒ yòng zuò fǎ.

This translation appears to be in line with the Tibetan text more than with the Sanskrit one: also the Chinese, indeed, makes use of (yīn) both for hetu and kāraṇa, whereas (guǒ, litt.: «fruit») translates better phala than kārya; on the other hand, kriyā is correctly rendered with (zuò), kartā with 作者 (zuò zhĕ) and karaṇa with 作法 (zuò ).

The problem is that both the Tibetan version and the Chinese one do not respect the derivation of kārya and kāraṇa from the root kṛ, whereas this derivation is respected for kriyā, kartā and karaṇa: in Tibetan with byed and its derivatives, and in Chinese with 作 (zuò) and its compounds.

Of course the problem is philosophical: in chapter VIII of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna does not deal with cause and effect in general, rather with the doer and the act (his/her act) in particular. Now, only kāraṇa conveys the sense of someone who voluntarily performs an action, kārya being his/her action; the word hetu, on the contrary, means cause in a broad sense, not necessary involving intentionality: for instance, the role of hetu can be played also by a seed which does not in itself have the intention of producing the sprout, and nonetheless it produces a sprout. Thus intentionality, a concept that can be subsumed under the semantic horizon of karman (another word derived from √kṛ!), seems to be the central point according to which this kārika has to be interpreted: it conveys a moral meaning (indeed, in kārikās VIII, 5-6 Nāgārjuna shifts the discourse on emancipation and on further existences as fruits of, respectively, good and bad actions).

A philosophical translation of Mūlamadhyamakakārika VIII, 4 could then be:

If there is no cause [that is: causality, the general law of causality], both [the karmic] effect [of human actions] and [the human being as] cause [of karman] are not found; if those are not existent, [the links/connections among] activity, agent and the means of doing are not found.


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

– May, J. (ed. and Franch trans. by), Candrakīrti Prasannapadā Madhyamakavṛtti. 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.

Chinese translation of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: Zhōnglùn 中論, Taishō 1564.

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