Penetrative researcher and radical interpreter

A Tribute to Prof. David Kalupahana


Prof. David Kalupahana (1933-2014)

by Prof Desmond Mallikarachchi

University of Peradeniya

We are publishing for the benefit of our readers the speech delivered by Dr. Desmond Mallikarachchi, former Professor & Head, Department of Philosophy and Psychology, at the Commemoration Ceremony held for the late Prof. D.J. Kalupahana on the 2nd of April, at the Seminar Room, University of Peradeniya.

It is our bounden duty and obligation to pay our personal homage and academic tribute to our departed colleagues. Two world renowned Sri Lankan scholars, Prof. David Kalupahana and Prof. Stanley Tambiah, died in January this year, one on the 15th and the other on the 19th respectively. Both of them were products of our university who brought name and fame to Sri Lanka in general and to Peradeniya University (formerly, University of Ceylon) in particular. For this and a multitude of other reasons, commemorating these deceased senior academics and appreciating their contributions to the furtherance of knowledge, is not only a commendable but also exemplary act. The department of philosophy therefore, deserves the warm appreciation of all of us for initiating and conducting this commemoration ceremony for the late Prof. Kalupahana. On this solemn occasion let me register my personal-cum-professional appreciation of Prof. Kalupahana who died in Honolulu, Hawaii on the 15th of January, 2014.

David Kalupahana was a student of the late professor K.N. Jayathilleke. I am also a student of K.N, but I came under his tutelage eight years later. Kalupahana studied Pali, Sanskrit and Philosophy at the university and then pursued a special degree in Pali. He completed his undergraduate studies in 1959 with a first class honors pass and later obtained two post-graduate degrees M.A. from the University of Ceylon (1962) and Ph.D. from the University of London (1966). University of Peradeniya awarded him honorary degree of D.Litt in 2013 a year before his demise. All these achievements and honors stand as substantial proofs for his academic caliber and scholarship.

He was a pedantic reader of Pali texts and indeed this was one of his notable skills. He paid great attention to the etymology (nirutti) of Pali terms. His proficiency in languages, however, was not confined to Pali alone for he was also fluent in Sanskrit, Classical Chinese, Tibetan and of course Sinhala and English. The secret of his versatility and scholarship lay in his remarkable aptitude for languages. His translations of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhayamakarika and Sahrdilekha stand as testimonies to the above claim.

During his long academic career spanning over five decades, Kalupahana produced over twenty scholarly works dealing with a variety of topics such as Philosophy, History, Language, Psychology, and Ethics. All his works, though subjected to criticism, are of high academic quality and untainted in their originality. At least for me, however, only four works by him stand out as scholarly, radical, controversial and polemical. They are in my view, the best of Kalupahana. Put in chronological order, they are:

1. Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism

2. Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhgayamakarika: The Philosophy of the Middle Way

3. Nagarjuna’s Moral Philosophy and Sinhala Buddhism (Sahrdlekha and Lovadasangarava)

4. The Dhammapada

Though the topics and issues Kalupahana addressed in these four books were different from one another, not only did he treat them all with the same critical acumen, but also he presented them all with identical innovative radicalism. For this reason, Kalupahana’s interpretations or exegeses have often been subjected to criticisms. But Kalupahana was unshakable; he once silenced his critics by saying "this is why I am Kalupahana".

Let me make a synoptic observation on four of Prof. Kalaupahana’s original and best known, yet rather controversial works.

1. Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism

Out of all early Buddhist concepts, Prof. Kalupahana had manifested a great interest in causality since his youth. As Prof. Wimal Dissanayake recalls even as a student in the university during the mid-1950’s the theme of one of his earliest articles he had submitted to the student’s magazine was causality (In Memorium: David Kalupahana) . His work on Causality was an outgrowth of his thesis submitted to the University of London in 1966. His version of early Buddhist causality is considerably different from the interpretation provided for the same by T. R. V. Murti in his major work The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, and from the scholars such as Mario Bunge who explained causality via philosophy of natural science. Kalupahana’s originality lies in the fact that he assigns a moral character to causality and argues cogently that this was what the Buddha too intended in his theory of patticchasamuppada. Despite the controversy generated by his ethical interpretation of causality, it presented scholars with a novel perspective from which to view causality, the central concept of early Buddhist philosophy.


Another example of his penetrative and meticulous engagement in research is his magnum opus namely, ‘Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way’. For Prof.Wimal Dissanayake, however, Kalupahana’s magnum opus is his Causality. But my reasons for assigning magnum opus status to Karika over Causality are:

1. A significant number of scholars were hesitant in agreeing with his interpretation of Causality in early Buddhism.

2. At a later stage he even became somewhat skeptical of his own interpretation.

3. Though his work on Nagarjuna had not been immune to criticism, my impression is that he was successful in achieving his two main objectives; (1) casting away the misconceptions about Nagarjuna, (the major one being that he was a Mahayanist ) and, (2) tracing Nagarjuna’s philosophical roots in early Buddhist texts.

It is a well known fact that Professor Kalupahana presented a new interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhamakakarika. Unlike his work on Causality, his eloquent and skilled translation of Nagarjuna’s Karika, with his annotations and novel commentaries, is in my view, unique. Kalupahana quite confidently establishes the point that Nagarjuna and the Karika remained faithful to the Buddha’s early teaching of Patticchasamuppada and the Middle-Path. He confidently argues his way to this conclusion and the argument seems to me to be quite valid and extremely convincing. According to many reviewers, Karika is a classic in early Buddhist studies in the 20th century and I unreservedly agree with the reviewers.

His radical reading of Karika and other bold and controversial interpretations that he articulated forced him to confess thus: ‘Analysis of early Buddhist doctrines without adopting a Hinayanist or Mahayanist perspective has led me to form some unfavorable views regarding the nature of early Buddhism’. Despite this, he was not regarded as an outright heretic for his unconventional hermeneutic reading of early Buddhist texts, and in fact has been admired and respected, even by his academic opponents, as a radical and penetrative interpreter of early Buddhist texts and Hinayana beliefs. But there were a few adversaries who labeled him as an ‘unorthodox early Buddhist scholar’. Of course, Kalupahana never saw anything wrong in this particular labeling, as he had proved himself to be somewhat unorthodox right from the beginning of his academic career.

I will now consider the other two works of Prof. Kalupahana.

3. Nagarjuna’s Moral Philosophy and Sinhala Buddhism (Sahrdlekha and Lovadasangarava)

Kalupahana published Nagarjuna’s Moral Philosophy and Sinhala Buddhism in 1995. He desired this to be read as a companion volume to his Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way published in 1986. He presents in this work the English translation of Nagarjuna’s Sahrdlekha with a view to bolstering the thesis he advanced in Karika. While tracing in Sahrdlekha a moral philosophy similar to early Buddhism he also emphasizes its influence on Veedagama Maithreeya Thero’s famous poetic anthology Lovadasangarava, written around the 15th century. This is indicative of Kalupahana’s academic caliber and his practice of high quality research.

Not only has he related Nagarjuna’s work Mulamadhyamakarika compiled in the 2nd century A.D. to early Pali Buddhist traditions of the 6th century but via his translation of Nagarjuna’s Sahrdlekha he very convincingly demonstrated the diffusion of Nagarajuna’s moral views even into the Sinhala Buddhism of the 15th century. Veedagama Maithreeya Thero’s Lovadasangarava, for Kalupahana, is a case in point.

Through this translation of Sahrdlekha, what Kalupahana tried to establish was that Nagarjuna had been engaged only in one project; the project of strengthening and intensifying the moral philosophy underlying early Buddhism. Mulamadhaymakarika and Sahrdlekha for Kalupahana, therefore, are not two separate works but two parts or two volumes of a single treatise dealing with moral issues and ethical questions.

4. The Dhammapada

Finally, let me turn to Kalupahana’s radical re-interpretation of another very popular early Buddhist text, the Dhammapada.

The Dhammapada has been translated into over 20 languages by renowned scholars such as Max Muller, Woodward, Samuel Beal, Radhakrishnan, Balangoda Ananda Maithree Thero, Eknath Eashvaran and Carter and Palihavadana. Kalupahana has also translated the Dhammapada, but we should not view it as just another translation added to the list. What Kalupahana does is that, he selects the verses from the early discourses and rearranges them thematically in order to serve as a refutation of the moral philosophy of the Bhagavatgita, the master text of Hinduism. He argues very cogently and convincingly that, if the Dhammapada is read carefully, along with other early Buddhist moral discourses, the Dhammapada can be seen as a text which opposes the underlying deterministic philosophy of the Bhagavatgita. The uniqueness of his translation lies in the fact that, unlike other translators, he situates the Dhammapada within the larger framework of early Buddhist ethics.

It is an indisputable fact that Prof. Kalupahana was a very versatile and prolific scholar who had been endowed with a pair of penetrative eyes to see through words and a probing mind to read beyond the given. Despite his work being radical and therefore polemical , many generations of future scholars of Buddhist philosophy will continue to rely on same as a starting point either to march forward with him to go beyond him, or to turn the discourse in different directions. As I understand it, this is how Prof. Kalupahana’s works would be read and remembered for decades to come. Kalupahana’s interpretations may be erroneous or inadequate or perhaps even nothing more than surmises, but he dares us to refute him and entices us to come up with a better interpretation if we believe he is wrong. This is the challenge the late Prof. Kalupahana has placed before us. May he attain Nibbana .

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