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By Devik Balami at
Vasubandhu Indian Buddhist monk

Vasubandhu, an influential Buddhist monk, was born in a Brahmin family in Peshawar, present-day Pakistan. The word Vasubandhu means the Kinsman of Abundance. He was the half-brother of Asanga, an eminent Buddhist monk who contributed to establishing Yogacara philosophy. Vasubandhu and Asanga were the members of the Six Ornaments or Six great commentators on the teachings of Buddha. It is believed that Vasubandhu was from 4th century since he was contemporaneous with Chandragupta I, father of Samudragupta. As a biography of Vasubandhu mentions that he initially studied under the Buddhist Sarvastivada school which was more popularized in Gandhara during that time. Later on, he moved to Kashmir to study under the orthodox Sarvastivada branch. After completion, he returned home and then started to give the discourse on Abhidharma. He side by side also composed the Abhidharmakosakarika or Verses on the Treasury of the Abhidharma. This verse distilled the Sarvastivada Abhidharma teachings which are an analysis of all factors of experience into its constituent dharmas. Even though he was active in giving the discourse, he had also questions regarding Sarvastivada orthodoxy. Therefore he again studied with the Sautantrika teacher Manoratha. Later he publishes an auto-commentary to his own verses in which he criticizes the Sarvastivada system from a Sautrantika viewpoint which is also called Darstantika.

Vasubandhu's work

Later, under the influence of his brother Asanga, he converted to Mahayana Buddhism. He then composed a number of treatises, especially on Yogacara doctrines and Mahayana sutras. Among his works, most influential one is the Vimsatikavijnaptimatratasiddhi or Twenty Verses on Representation Only. His other works are Vimsatikavrtti, the Trimsika-vijnaptimatrata, the Thirty Verse on Representation only and the Three Natures Exposition or Trisvabhavanirdesa. Along with these texts, he also wrote texts on Buddhist Hermeneutics, the Proper Mode of Exposition or Vyakhyayukti.

Thus with the hard work, he finally became a major Mahayana Master, Scholar, and debater. One of the famous debate that has been recorded in his life is with the Samkhya philosophers. This debate was conducted in front of the Gupta King Chandragupta II at Ayodhya and upon winning the debate, Vasubandhu received 300,000 pieces of gold. It is recorded that the rewards that Vasubandhu received from debate victories, and Royal Patronage were used to build Buddhist monasteries and hospitals.

His other writing apart from mentioned above is:

  • Pañcaskandhaprakaraṇa or Explanation of the Five Aggregates

  • Karmasiddhiprakarana or A Treatise on Karma

  • Vyākhyāyukti or Proper Mode of Exposition

  • Vādavidhi or Rules for Debate

  • Catuhśataka-śāstra

  • Mahāyāna śatadharmā-prakāśamukha śāstra

  • Amitayus sutropadeśa or Instruction on the Amitabha Sutra

  • Discourse on the Pure Land Buddhism

  • Vijnaptimatrata Sastra or Treatise on representation only

  • Commentary to the Summary of the Great Vehicle of Asanga or Mahāyānasaṃgrahabhāṣya

  • Commentary on Distinguishing Elements from Reality or Dharmadharmatāvibhāgavṛtti

  • Commentary on Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes or Madhyāntavibhāgabhāṣya

  • Commentary on the Ornament to the Great Vehicle Discourses or Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkārabhāṣya

  • Commentary on the Ten Stages Sutra or Dasabhūmikabhāsya

  • Commentary on the Aksayamatinirdesa-sutra

  • Commentary on the Diamond Sutra

  • Commentary on the Lotus Sutra

  • Paramärthasaptati, a critique of Samkhya

Two Vasubandhus- a Yogacaran and a Sautrantika

It is clear that Vasubandhu is related to two theories or principles and that's Yogacaran and Sautrantika. Therefore, there has been the theory of having two Vasubandhus, one developed Yogacaran while other developed Sautrantika. The mid 20th century Buddhologist, Erich Frauwallner sought to find the differences while a critique of the Abhidharmakosakarika, anonymous Abhidharma-dipa identifies Vasubandhu as the sole author of both groups of writings. Dan Lusthaus, the author also stressed that the theory of having two Vasubandhus has little merit since the texts have a similarity of vocabulary and style of argument are very much close and apparent.

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