Asaṅga or Āryāsaṅga (Sanskrit: असङ्ग) was a major exponent of the Yogācāra tradition in India. He and his half-brother Vasubandhu are regarded as the founders of this school. Current scholarship places him in the fourth century CE. However, Mme. Blavatsky argued that he lived before the Common Era. This name was also adopted by A. J. Hamerster in his later years.
According to modern scholarship, Asaṅga was born a brahmin in the fourth century CE, and had a half-brother called Vasubandhu. He converted to Buddhism and spent twelve years in serious meditation alone in a cave (other versions say a forest) but his efforts were fruitless. When, in desperation Asaṅga was ready to quit, the Bodhisattva Maitreya appeared and took him to Tuṣita Heaven where he instructed Asaṅga in Yogācārin works, that Asaṅga then introduced to his fellow Buddhists.
Asaṅga wrote many of the key Yogācāra treatises such as the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra, the Mahāyāna-saṃgraha the Abhidharma-samuccaya and others, and some of his works were attributed to Maitreya. It is not very clear precisely which texts these are, since the Chinese and Tibetan traditions assign different works to Maitreya.
Mme. Blavatsky rejected the traditional view that Aryasanga lived in the fourth century CE, postulating that were two Aryasangas:
Aryâsanga was a pre-Christian Adept and founder of a Buddhist esoteric school, though Csoma di Köros places him, for some reasons of his own, in the seventh century A.D. There was another Aryâsanga, who lived during the first centuries of our era.
According to her, the first Aryasanga was the founder of an esoteric school, while the latter founded an exoteric version of it:
Âryasangha (Sk.). The Founder of the first Yogâchârya School. This Arhat, a direct disciple of Gautama, the Buddha, is most unaccountably mixed up and confounded with a personage of the same name, who is said to have lived in Ayôdhya (Oude) about the fifth or sixth century of our era, and taught Tântrika worship in addition to the Yogâchârya system. Those who sought to make it popular, claimed that he was the same Âryasangha, that had been a follower of Sâkyamuni, and that he was 1,000 years old. Internal evidence alone is sufficient to show that the works written by him and translated about the year 600 of our era, works full of Tantra worship, ritualism, and tenets followed now considerably by the “red-cap” sects in Sikhim, Bhutan, and Little Tibet, cannot be the same as the lofty system of the early Yogâchârya school of pure Buddhism, which is neither northern nor southern, but absolutely esoteric. Though none of the genunine Yogâchârya books (the Narjol chodpa) have ever been made public or marketable, yet one finds in the Yogâchârya Bhûmi Shâstra of the pseudo-Âryasangha a great deal from the older system, into the tenets of which he may have been initiated. It is, however, so mixed up with Sivaism and Tantrika magic and superstitions, that the work defeats its own end, notwithstanding its remarkable dialectical subtilty. How unreliable are the conclusions at which our Orientalists arrive, and how contradictory the dates assigned by them, may be seen in the case in hand. While Csoma de Körös (who, by-the-bye, never became acquainted with the Gelukpa (yellow-caps), but got all his information from “red-cap” lamas of the Borderland), places the pseudo-Âryasangha in the seventh century of our era; Wassiljew, who passed most of his life in China, proves him to have lived much earlier; and Wilson (see Roy. As. Soc., Vol. VI., p. 240), speaking of the period when Âryasangha’s works, which are still extant in Sanskrit, were written, believes it now “established, that they have been written at the latest, from a century and a half before, to as much after, the era of Christianity”. At all events since it is beyond dispute that the Mahayana religious works were all written far before Âryasangha's time-whether he lived in the “second century B.C.”, or the “seventh A.D.”--and that these contain all and far more of the fundamental tenets of the Yogâchârya system, so disfigured by the Ayôdhyan imitator--the inference is that there must exist somewhere a genuine rendering free from popular Sivaism and left-hand magic.
This possibility is not out of question. Scholar Dan Lusthaus recognizes that the Yogacara teachings existed much before the historical Asanga:
Though the founding of Yogācāra is traditionally ascribed to two half-brothers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu (fourth-fifth century C.E.), most of its fundamental doctrines had already appeared in a number of scriptures a century or more earlier, most notably the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra (Elucidating the Hidden Connections).
. . .Since the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra offers highly sophisticated, well-developed doctrines, it is reasonable to assume that these ideas had been under development for some time, possibly centuries, before this scripture emerged. Since Asaṅga and Vasubandhu lived a century or more after the Saṅdhinirmocana appeared, it is also reasonable to assume that these ideas had been further refined by others in the interim. Thus the traditional claim that the two brothers are the founders of Yogācāra is at best a half-truth.
Chagpa-Thog-med is the Tibetan name of Âryâsanga, the founder of the Yogacharyâ or Naljorchodpa School. This Sage and Initiate is said to have been taught “Wisdom” by Maitreya Buddha Himself, the Buddha of the Sixth Race, at Tushita (a celestial region presided over by Him), and as having received from Him the five books of Champai-chos-nga. The Secret Doctrine teaches, however, that he came from Dejung, or Shambhala, called the “source of happiness” (“wisdom-acquired”) and declared by some Orientalists to be a “fabulous” place.
The five books mentioned by Mme. Blavatsky are known as the "Five treatises of Maitreya". According to scholar David Reigle there is a certain connection between one of these, the Ratnagotravibhaga, and the Stanzas of Dzyan.
- Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 49-50, fn.
- Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Theosophical Glossary (Krotona, CA: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 32-33.
- See What is and isn't Yogācāra by Dan Lusthaus
- Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XIV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1995), 451, fn.
- See Theosophy in Tibet: The Teachings of the Jonangpa School by David Reigle