It has been suggested that this defensive rhetoric is a characteristic of small, embattled groups existing on the margins of more established, mainstream groups. This seems like a reasonable explanation, and worth consideration.
The defensive rhetoric of a marginalized group:
The following is a passage from the first chapter of Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism by Gregory Schopen. He uses excerpts from Nāgārjuna's Ratnāvalī to illustrate his assertion that the Mahāyāna was a marginalized group (or groups) struggling for acceptance at the time the Ratnāvalī was written.
- Although the Ratnāvalī is describing the Mahāyāna after it had had a century or more to develop and take shape, there is no indication in the text that this Mahāyāna had even yet successfully effected anything like what Stcherbatsky called the “radical revolution [that] had transformed the Buddhist Church.” ... Even in the hands of one of its most clever advocates it does not appear as an independent, self-confident movement sweeping all before it as, again, Stcherbatsky’s influential scenario might suggest. But rather—and as late as the second or third century—it appears as an embattled movement struggling for acceptance. It appears to have found itself in an awkward spot on several issues. Nāgārjuna, for example, wants the Mahāyāna to be “the word of the Buddha”: “The benefit of others and oneself, and the goal of release, are in brief the teaching of the Buddha (buddhaśāsanam). They are at the heart of the six perfections. Therefore this is the word of the Buddha” (te ṣaṭpāramitāgarbhās / tasmād bauddham idaṃ vacaḥ / IV.82). But a few verses later he is forced to admit that “the goal of being established in the practice which leads to awakening is not declared in the sūtra” (bodhicaryāpratiṣṭhārthaṃ na sūtre bhāṣitaṃ vacaḥ / IV.93).
To judge again by Nāgārjuna’s “defense,” the Mahāyāna had troubles not just in regard to its authenticity or not just in regard to its doctrine of emptiness. Its conception of the Buddha—what, significantly, Nāgārjuna several times calls its buddhamāhātmya—also appears to have been far from having carried the day in the second or third century. At least Nāgārjuna was still arguing for its acceptance: “From the inconceivability of his merit, like the sky, the Jina is declared to have inconceivable good qualities. As a consequence the conception of the Buddha (buddhamāhātmya) in
the Mahāyāna must be accepted!” (IV.84). But immediately following this verse asserting that the Mahāyāna conception of the Buddha must be accepted comes another that seems to tacitly admit that it was not: “Even in morality alone he [the Buddha] was beyond the range of even Śāriputra. Why then is the conception of the Buddha as inconceivable not accepted?” (yasmāt tad buddhamāhātmyam acintyaṃ kiṃ na mṛṣyate / IV.85).
The tacit admission here of the rejection of the Mahāyāna is perhaps the one unifying theme of the entire discussion in Chapter IV of the Ratnāvalī, and although Nāgārjuna—or whoever wrote the text—does occasionally muster arguments in response to the perceived rejection, the response is most commonly characterized not by the skill of the dialectician, but rather by the heavy-handed rhetoric typical of marginalized sectarian preachers. Typically the Mahāyāna is extolled without argument, and then some very unkind things are said about those who are not convinced. Verse 79 is a good example of such rhetoric: “Because of its extreme generosity and profound depth the Mahāyāna is now (adya) ridiculed by the low-spirited and unprepared. From stupidity (it is ridiculed) by those hostile to both themselves and others” (IV.79).
Again this sort of rhetoric runs like a refrain throughout the discussion. Not only are those who ridicule the Mahāyāna stupid and ill prepared, but they are also “deluded” and “hostile” (vs. 67); they have no understanding of good qualities or actually despise them (vss. 68, 69); they have no sense (vs. 78); and they are “ignorant and blind” (vs. 83). This sort of rhetoric and name calling is generally not associated with a strong, self-assured, established movement with broad support and wide acceptance. But we need not rely on general considerations of this kind to conclude that the Mahāyāna was in the second or third century a long way from having achieved any significant acceptance in Nāgārjuna’s India. Our author—again, himself a proponent of the system or movement he is characterizing—repeatedly and explicitly declares that there is “opposition,” “aversion,” or “repugnance” (pratigha) to the Mahāyāna (vs. 97); it is the object of “ridicule” or “scorn” (vss. 67, 68, 69, 78, 79); it is despised (vss. 70, 89), verbally abused (vs. 80), not tolerated (vs. 85), and not accepted (vss. 85, 87). Its position would seem to be clear....
Sectarian rhetoric—especially in isolation—is difficult to assess. What the observer sees as rhetoric the insider may see as self-evident and hold as conviction. But the fact probably remains that calling those who do not share your conviction “stupid” occurs largely in the face of a rejection that itself threatens that conviction and reflects a certain desperation. More self-confident movements are by definition more assured of their means of persuasion and do not commonly indulge in this sort of thing.
Sociologists, however, who have studied sectarian groups in a variety of contexts have shown that this sort of characterization is typical of small, embattled groups on the fringes or margins of dominant, established parent groups. Moreover, the kind of rhetoric we find in the Ratnāvalī is by no means unique—Mahāyāna literature is saturated with it. There those who do not accept the Mahāyāna are said to be not only “stupid,” but also defective, of bad karma and evil, or even possessed by Māra. Further, while we cannot be sure that those who did not accept the Mahāyāna were “stupid,” we can be reasonably sure that such people existed at the time of our author—and in large numbers. Even the logic of the rhetoric would suggest that it would be self-defeating—if not itself “stupid”—for a proponent of a movement to repeatedly claim that that movement was an object of ridicule if it were not true; it would get him nowhere and in fact would undercut any argument he might make on that basis. The statements in the Ratnāvalī, indeed, presuppose that it was widely known by its intended audience—almost certainly literate and learned monks and perhaps the king to whom it was supposedly addressed—that the Mahāyāna was not taken seriously and was in general an object of scorn. Again, the force of our author’s arguments would seem to rest on this being fact.