Bhāviveka (c. 490-570 CE), also known as Bhavya or Bhāvaviveka - was an Indian Buddhist philosopher and historian, and founder of the Svātantrika-Madhyamaka School:
Born to a royal family in Malyara, in South India (although some Chinese sources claim it was in Magadha, in North India), Bhāviveka studied both sūtra and śāstra literatures during his formative years.
Having excelled in the art of debate, especially against Hindu apologists of the Saṁkhyā School, he is said to have been the abbot of some 50 monasteries in South India.
His chief influences were the writings of Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE), the founder of the Madhyamaka, and treatises on logic from the traditions of Buddhism (especially Dignāga’s works) and Hinduism (especially the Nyāyapraveśa).
His chief philosophical contribution was his attempt at formulating a synthesis of Madhyamaka dialectics and the logical conventions of his time.
As all of Bhāviveka’s works are lost in the original Sanskrit and preserved only in Tibetan translations, the scholarly world came to know of him only through Candrakīrti (c. 580-650 CE), who refuted Bhāviveka’s position in the 1st chapter of the Prasannapadā (Clear words).
It could therefore be argued that current understanding of the Madhyamaka in general has suffered from a one-sided perspective that relies solely on Candrakīrti’s rival school, the Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka.
However, contemporary scholarship no longer neglects Tibetan sources, and thus a more balanced approach has ensued, one that reads Nāgārjuna’s seminal writings through the commentaries of both the Prāsaṅgikas and the Svātantrika.
Nāgārjuna, especially as read through the commentaries of Buddhapālita (c. 470-550 CE),
was characterized by many Indian philosophers as a vaitaṇḍika, a nihilist who refused to assume any thesis (pratijñā) in the course of the on-going dialogue between Hindu thinkers of various schools and the Buddhists:
While Madhyamaka thought had not asserted any claim about ultimate truth/reality (param-ārtha-satya),
Bhāviveka’s independent reasoning (sva-tantra-anumāna) was applied to conventional truth/reality (saṁvṛti-satya)
as a means of rescuing logico-linguistic conventions (vyavahāra) from a systematic negation (prasaṅga) that opened the school to charges of nihilism:
While Bhāviveka accepted the Madhyamaka view that ultimately (paramārthataḥ) no entities could be predicated with any form of existence,
he was willing to employ such predication on a conventional level:
In order to maintain the reality and utility of traditional Buddhist categories for talking about the path of spiritual growth while denying the ultimate reality of such categories,
he employed a syllogistic thesis (pratijñā),
a philosophic strategy that was nearly incomprehensible to scholars of the Madhyamaka, who knew this school only through Candrakīrti’s Prāsaṅgika systematization.
In order to affirm a thesis on the conventional level while denying it ultimately, Bhāviveka creatively reinterpreted the key Madhyamaka doctrine of the 2 truths (satya-dvaya):
In his Madhyam-ārtha-saṁgraha, he propounds 2 levels of ultimacy:
1) - a highest ultimate that is beyond all predication and specification (aparyāya-paramārtha), in conformity with all Madhyamaka teachings, and
2) - an ultimate that can be inferred logically and specified meaningfully (paryāya-paramārtha);
- this latter level was a bold innovation in the history of Madhyamaka thought.
Of course, such a distinction was operative only within the realm of conventional thought.
Again one must employ Bhāviveka’s crucial adverbial codicil, paramārthataḥ, and follow him in claiming that such a distinction, like all distinctions, is ultimately unreal although conventionally useful.
Bhāviveka’s 2 main philosophic contributions –
- his affirmation of a thesis on a conventional level and - his reinterpretation of the 2-truths doctrine
- are evaluated diversely by contemporary scholars.
Those unsympathetic to him see his work as an unhappy concession to the logical conventions of his day, a concession that dilutes the rigor of the Madhyamaka dialectic.
Those with more sympathy see his contributions as a creative surge that rescued Buddhist religious philosophies from those dialectical negations that threatened the integrity of the Buddhist path itself.
Within the evolved Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Bhāviveka is especially known for 2 other contributions:
His refutations of the rival Yogācāra School are considered to be among the clearest ever written:
The 5th chapter of his Tarka-jvālā, the “Yogācārattvaviniścaya,” refutes both the existence of the absolute and the non-existence of the conventional, both seminal Yogācāra positions.
He is also the forerunner of the literary style known as siddhānta, which became enormously popular within Tibetan scholarly circles:
A siddhānta text devotes ordered chapters to analysing the philosophic positions (siddhāntas) of rival schools, both Buddhist and Hindu.
His Tarka-jvālā (Blaze of Reasoning) contains systematic critiques
of the positions held by the Hīnayāna and the Yogācāra, both Buddhist schools, and the Saṁkhyā, Vaiśeṣika, Vedanta, and Mīmāṁsā schools of Hindu philosophy.
Bhāviveka was also a keen historian:
His Nikāya-bheda-vibhaṅga-vyākhyāna remains one of the most important and reliable sources for the early history of the Buddhist order, and for information on the schisms within its ranks.