As with many early South Asian thinkers, little is known about Asaṅga. His importance in the history of Buddhism lies mainly in his role in the systematization of Yogācāra, to which his magnum opus, the Mahāyānasaṃgraha, testifies. Asaṅga was probably born in Puruṣapura (modern Peshawar) in the 4th century CE. Hagiographies narrate that he was the older brother of Vasubandhu, and, like him, he initially belonged to a Śrāvakayāna school. He then converted to the Mahāyāna following an encounter with the bodhisattva Maitreya, who taught him the meaning of emptiness and revealed to him a number of texts, including the monumental Yogācārabhūmi. Much of the scholarship on Asaṅga has focused on this story and its possible historical roots. Three main topics have stirred controversy: Asaṅga’s relation to Maitreya; his initial Śrāvakayāna affiliation; and the authorship of the works traditionally attributed to him, especially Asaṅga’s role in the compilation of the Yogācārabhūmi. In the course of this debate, which spanned several decades, there has been a shift from reliance on traditional accounts and attempts to rationalize their supernatural aspects, to a more cautious approach in evaluating their potential value as historical cues. Now most scholars concur that (1) Maitreya was regarded as the source of doctrinal and compositional inspiration within the Buddhist yogic communities of Northwestern India from which Yogācāra emerged; (2) the data about Asaṅga’s Śrāvakayāna affiliation are insufficient to determine exactly to which school he belonged; and (3) he composed three texts—the Mahāyānasaṃgraha, Abhidharmasamuccaya, and Xianyang shengjiao lun—although he might have also participated in the compilation of the Yogācārabhūmi. Besides helping to define Asaṅga’s corpus, the debate over the authenticity of traditional attributions has also brought about an important reconsideration of the conception of authorship in the sociohistorical context of 4th-century Indic Buddhism. Some scholars in the early 21st century refrain from conceiving of Asaṅga as an individual, historical author and prefer to leave open the possibility that various texts came to be attributed to him, even though he might have only participated in redacting them, or, perhaps, might not even have been personally involved in such editorial processes.
Rahula 1966 offers a clearly structured and well-annotated encyclopedic overview of Asaṅga. Overall, this is still a good reference for undergraduates, but some aspects of Rahula’s work have not aged well—in particular, his conceptualization of the Pali suttas as reflecting a somewhat “original” Buddhism is now problematic. Hattori 2005 (originally published in 1987) constitutes a more recent introduction to Asaṅga. This concise article summarizes the hagiographical accounts of Asaṅga’s life, describes his works, and offers a brief outline of his masterpiece, the Mahāyānasaṃgraha. Students new to the field may find Hattori’s frequent use of Sanskrit terminology intimidating. Frauwallner 2010 offers a longer but more accessible introduction to Asaṅga that is suitable to all levels of readership. It provides an overview of Asaṅga’s thought, complete with translations and explanations of selected passages from the Mahāyānasaṃgraha that will certainly help readers to get a grasp of the doctrinal dimension of this thinker. However, Frauwallner’s historical portrayal of Asaṅga is outdated in several respects. First, the German scholar accepts Asaṅga’s Mahīśāsaka affiliation, which has now been rejected (see Śrāvakayāna Affiliation). Criticism of this view can be found in Kritzer 1999, which also includes a brief historically oriented introduction to Asaṅga. Second, Frauwallner conceives of Asaṅga as a disciple of Maitreya and traces an all-too-linear historico-philosophical development from the works attributed to Maitreya to those of Asaṅga. May 2005 (originally published in 1971) explains the problems related to such interpretation of the relation between Maitreya and Asaṅga (see Relation with Maitreya) and supplies an informed, while still very accessible, historical account of Asaṅga and the early phases of Yogācāra. Sakuma 2013 offers an up-to-date introductory study of the same topic. Sakuma discusses the three main figures associated with early Yogācāra from the perspective of historiography and highlights some methodological and conceptual shortcomings that he identifies in previous literature on the subject. Demiéville 1954 and Deleanu 2006 each provide overviews of the sociohistorical background from which Yogācāra emerged—that is the Buddhist yogic communities of 4th-century Kashmir—and shed light on important aspects of Asaṅga’s cultural heritage.
Deleanu, Florin. The Chapter on the Mundane Path (Laukikamārga) in the Śrāvakabhūmi: A Trilingual Edition (Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese), Annotated Translation and Introductory Study. 2 vols. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2006.
Expands on Demiéville 1954, providing up-to-date bibliographic references to international secondary literature and suggesting a historical sketch of the early development of Yogācāra from the Sarvāstivāda yoga communities (Vol. 1, pp. 154). Intended for a postgraduate public, but accessible to anyone with some knowledge of Indic Buddhism.
Demiéville, Paul. “La Yogācārabhūmi de Saṅgharakṣa.” Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 44.2 (1954): 339–436.
This paper helps to frame Asaṅga in the context of 4th-century northwestern communities of Buddhist yoga masters. While this article is still a valuable source, Demiéville’s attribution of the Yogācārabhūmi to Asaṅga and references to the portions of this work extant in Sanskrit are now outdated. In French.
Frauwallner, Erich. The Philosophy of Buddhism. Translated by Gelong Lodrö Sangpo. Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass, 2010.
English translation of Die Philosophie des Buddhismus, originally published in 1956. This study provides an introduction to Asaṅga’s thought, complete with translation of selected passages from the Mahāyānasaṃgraha (pp. 213–230; German version, pp. 327–350). Some of Frauwallner’s points, such as the identification of Maitreya with Asaṅga’s teacher, are now outdated.
Hattori, Masaaki. “Asaṅga.” In Aaron–Attention. Vol. 1 of The Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 516–517. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005.
Provides a concise introduction to Asaṅga’s life, works, and thought; offers a brief overview of the Mahāyānasaṃgraha. The entry contains some outdated information regarding Asaṅga’s sectarian affiliation. The article was first published in Vol. 1 of The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 433–435.
Kritzer, Robert. Rebirth and Causation in the Yogācāra Abhidharma. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für tibetische und buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 1999.
Contains a historical introduction to Asaṅga that provides an overview of the scholarly debate over his sectarian affiliation and his alleged authorship of the Yogācārabhūmi (pp. 5–18). This study presupposes familiarity with South Asian Buddhism and Buddhist studies.
May, Jaques. “La philosophie bouddhique idéaliste.” In Yogācāra, the Epistemological Tradition and Tathāgatagarbha. Vol. 5 of Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies. Edited by Paul Williams, 215–258. London: Routledge, 2005.
Contains an overview of early Yogācāra and provides some background for the study of Asaṅga in his doctrinal and historical context. Suitable for students of all levels; in French, originally published in Asiatische Studien 25 (1971).
Rahula, Walpola. “Asaṅga.” In Āpa–Bhārhut. Vol. 2 of Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Edited by Gunapala P. Malalasekera, 133–146. Colombo, Ceylon: Ceylon Government Press, 1966.
Encyclopedic entry on Asaṅga and his works, suitable for undergraduates. Readers should be aware that some of Rahula’s textual attributions are outdated, his discussion of ālayavijñāna is historically unsatisfactory, and his treatment of the relation between Mahāyāna and Pali scriptures is problematic.
Sakuma, Hidenori. “Remarks on the Lineage of the Indian Masters of the Yogācāra School: Maitreya, Asaṅga, and Vasubandhu.” In The Foundation for Yoga Practitioners: The Buddhist Yogācārabhūmi Treatise and Its Adaptation in India, East Asia, and Tibet. Edited by Ulrich Timme Kragh, 330–366. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
Concise introduction to the major scholarly debates surrounding the figure of Asaṅga. This study offers copious bibliographic pointers and brief English summaries of the main arguments proffered by leading Japanese scholars. It requires prior knowledge of South Asian Buddhism and Buddhist Studies.
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