In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Vasubandhu

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and General Overviews
  • Commentaries to the Mahayana Sutras

Buddhism Vasubandhu
Roy Tzohar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0164


Vasubandhu (typically dated to around the late 4th- to early 5th-century CE), is one of the most influential Buddhist philosophical thinkers, having left an enduring mark both on subsequent generations of Indian Buddhist philosophers and on the traditions of the Mahayana outside India. According to the traditional biographies, Vasubandhu’s life, during the Gupta reign in India, was marked by two acts of conversion: first from the Sarvāstivāda to the Sautrāntika school of Abhidharma, and then to the Mahayana and the Yogācāra school, of which he is considered the founder, along with his brother (or half-brother), Asaṅga. In all these schools of thought, Vasubandhu is ascribed authorship of influential textual works in a variety of genres. His seminal Abhidharma-kośa-bhāṣya (Commentary on the Treasury of Abhidharma) is an encyclopedic source of information on the various Buddhist and non-Buddhist doctrines of his time, and continues to be an important source for the study of Abhidharma thought for all Mahayana schools. His short and poignant philosophical treatises, such as the Viṃśatikā (Twenty Verses) and the Triṃśika (Thirty Verses), succeed in encapsulating the entire Yogācāra philosophical worldview, and are at the same time notable for their sophistication and polemical style. Vasubandhu is also traditionally ascribed authorship of several important commentaries on the Maitreya-Asaṅga texts, as well as on some Mahayana sutras. He is also said to have written a short piece on logic, and his famous manual of commentarial writing, the Vyākhyāyukti (The Principles of Exegesis) lay bare his unique skill as a commentator.

Reference Works and General Overviews

Gold 2011 offers a lucid introduction to Vasubandhu’s thought. The Vasubandhu section of Potter’s Bibliography of Indian Philosophies, in conjunction with Powers 1991 and the General Bibliography on Yogācāra (Muller 2010) provide an ample and relatively up-to-date list of sources. Potter 1999 contains informative, if brief, synopses of most of the works ascribed to Vasubandhu. While many scholarly works draw out the thematic and theoretical links between Vasubandhu’s various works, there is not yet a monograph that systematically tracks the development of his ideas across the main body of his philosophical output. To some extent, an attempt at such an integrated interpretation underlies the various collected translations of Vasubandhu’s shorter philosophical treatises, such as Kochumuttom 1982 and Anacker 1984. There is a vast and important body of Japanese literature on Vasubandhu, only a few of which are mentioned here. Works in Western languages that survey and list these sources have been indicated.

  • Anacker, Stefan. Seven Works of Vasubandhu, the Buddhist Psychological Doctor. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984.

    This is still the most extensive collection of workable translations of Vasubandhu’s works, including the Vādavidhi, Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa, Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa, Viṃśatikā, Triṃśikā, Madhyānta-vibhāga-bhāṣya, and Trisvabhāva-nirdeśa. It may serve as a suitable textbook for his study (although the introductions preceding each translation are not, in most cases, comprehensive). The Sanskrit versions, when available, are reproduced from other editions.

  • Gold, Jonathan C. “Vasubandhu.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2011.

    An excellent introduction to the thought of Vasubandhu, as well as to the current state of scholarship on him. Gold surveys the main positions articulated in Vasubandhu’s prominent texts and the current scholarly debates regarding his dating, life, authorship, and the proper interpretation of his doctrines.

  • Kochumuttom, Thomas A. A Buddhist Doctrine of Experience: A New Translation and Interpretation of the Works of Vasubandhu, the Yogacarin. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.

    Kochumuttom was one of the earliest voices to criticize the understanding of Vasubandhu as a metaphysical idealist, and this thesis underlies his translations of Vasubandhu’s Viṃśatikā, Triṃśikā, Madhyānta-vibhāga-bhāṣya (first chapter), and Trisvabhāva-nirdeśa. Unfortunately, frequent misprints and idiosyncrasies undermine the reliability of these translations.

  • Muller, Charles. General Bibliography on Yogācāra. Yogācāra Buddhism Research Association, 2010.

    A general bibliography on Yogācāra. Lists also sources by Japanese and Korean scholars that are not available in European languages.

  • Potter, Karl H., ed. “Vasubandhu.” No. 175 in The Bibliography of Indian Philosophies. Compiled by Karl Potter.

    Lists the major works ascribed to Vasubandhu and, for each title, supplies information about manuscript editions, translations, and secondary literature. Updated regularly but with some delay (up to two years in some cases).

  • Potter, Karl H. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Vol. 8, Buddhist Philosophy from 100 to 350 A.D. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999.

    Lists most of the works ascribed to Vasuabndhu and supplies useful outlines and synopses. The volume’s introduction contextualizes the early Yogācāra thought, setting it against the background of the developments in Buddhist doctrine in India from the 2nd century CE.

  • Powers, John. The Yogācāra School of Buddhism: A Bibliography. ATLA Bibliography Series 27. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1991.

    The most informative and comprehensive bibliographical source in English on the Yogācāra works in Sanskrit and in Chinese and Tibetan traditional translations. Also, though it reaches only to 1991, still an important reference source on the modern secondary sources in both European and Oriental languages.

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