Nagarjuna, one of India's greatest philosophers, is the most influential thinker in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. While his philosophy has been the subject of numerous studies and translations, Joseph Walser provides the first examination of Nagarjuna's life and writings within the social, religious, and institutional contexts of the early history of Buddhism.
Walser locates Nagarjuna's second-century writings at a critical juncture in the development and spread of Mahayana Buddhism. At this time, Mahayanist writings and teachings were regarded with great suspicion, and its followers were subject to legal censure. Walser explores how Nagarjuna's writings, including his most famous works, "The Jeweled Garland" and "Foundational Stanzas," established a connection between the authority of the existing Buddhist canon and Mahayana teachings. In doing so, Nagarjuna was able to demonstrate the legality of Mahayana interpretation within the strictures of Buddhist monastic law. This established a place for Mahayana in the Buddhist tradition and insured the reproduction and transmission of the sect's central texts.
Walser's analysis draws on close readings of Nagarjuna's texts, particularly their treatment of the "three baskets" of the Buddhist canon: "Vinaya" (Buddhist monastic law), "Sutra" (the sermons of the Buddha), and "Abhidharma" (Buddhist sectarian treatises). Walser also examines how the philosopher forged alliances with the laity and other Buddhist sects -- alliances that proved pivotal in insuring the survival of Mahyna teachings.
In addition to his analysis of Nagarjuna's writings, Walser explores a range of Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources, as well as art historicaland epigraphic evidence to offer a creative and original contribution to the understanding of Nagarjuna and the early history of Buddhism.