Nagarjuna was a Buddhist philosopher who is considered to be the founder of the ‘Madhyamaka’ tradition of ‘Mahayana’ Buddhist philosophy and practice. He also composed the foundational text of the Madhyamaka School, named ‘Mulamadhyamakakarika’ (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way). Many historical findings have credited Nagarjuna for the establishment of ‘Prajnaparamita’, a central concept in Mahayana Buddhism. He articulated the Buddhist concept of ‘Sunyata’, which is translated to ‘emptiness’ or ‘voidness’ in English. The doctrine of ‘Sunyata’ provides multiple complex meanings and is fascinating. Nagarjuna and his disciple Aryadeva are considered to be the most influential Buddhist philosophers as they composed some of the most important Buddhist doctrines. His popular works provide strong evidence of the influence he had on the ‘Sravaka’ philosophies and the ‘Mahayana’ tradition. He revived Buddha’s original philosophies and gave a new perspective to the great sage’s doctrine of ‘Madhyamaka’, a middle way of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
Childhood & Early Life
There are many conflicting documents regarding the timeline of Nagarjuna’s existence. It is believed that he was born in 150 CE, somewhere in the southern part of India, Asia.
He was probably born in a Brahmin family and had served Yajna Sri Satakarni, the Satavahana King, as an advisor.
There are multiple claims that Nagarjuna spent a significant period of his life in Nagarjunakonda, a historical city in the district of Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. However, no archaeological findings could ever connect Nagarjuna with Nagarjunakonda. The city is believed to exist from the medieval ages and the inscriptions found in archaeological surveys indicate it was named ‘Vijayapuri’ during that time.
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Nagarjuna is credited for his greatest work, the ‘Mulamadhyamakakarika’, which consists of fundamental verses on Buddha’s doctrine of the middle way. The collection of the foundational texts is based on the Madhyamaka school of the Mahayana philosophy. He revived Buddhism with this text which is considered to be the most influential in spreading Buddhism in Tibet and other regions in East Asia.
The text of ‘Mulamadhyamakakarika’ was written in Sanskrit and contains 27 chapters, 12 early chapters and 15 later chapters. Nagarjuna had refuted the claims of all the anti-Madhyamaka charges from the Buddhist text ‘Abhidharma’ in ‘Mulamadhyamakakarika’. The verses of the text explain all the phenomena experienced by humans are nothing but projections of their own consciousness.
Several historians have argued about the works done by Nagarjuna and there are conflicts regarding several Sanskrit treatises composed by him on Buddhism. Important treatises like ‘Sunyatasaptati’, ‘Vaidalyaprakaraṇa’, ‘Bodhisaṃbhara Sastra’, ‘Sutrasamuccaya’, ‘Bodhicittavivaraṇa’, and ‘Pratityasamutpadahrdayakarika’ are considered to be composed by him.
Belgian professor Etienne Paul Marie Lamotte and Buddhist monk Yin Shun had disagreements over the treatise ‘Mahaprajnaparamitaupadesa’. While Yin Shun believed it was composed by a south Indian, indicating Nagarjuna, Lamotte argued this was a work of someone belonging to the Sarvastivada school. Since there is no concrete evidence of Nagarjuna’s education, it wouldn’t be wrong to believe Nagarjuna could have been a Sarvastivada scholar.
Nagarjuna is also credited for composing treatises or commentaries on ‘Bhavasamkranti’, ‘Dharmadhatustava’, ‘Salistambakarikas’, ‘Mahayanavimsika’, ‘Ekaslokasastra’, and ‘Isvarakartrtvanirakrtih’. He is also believed to have composed a commentary on the Mahayana Buddist scripture ‘Dashabhumikasutra’.
Nagarjuna had composed several verses and commentaries defending the Mahayana sutras. He credited the Buddha for founding the Madhyamaka system and revived his middle-way ideas. Nagarjuna composed a treatise on the ‘Nyaya Sutras’ and in one of the verses he criticized the theory of pramanas.
Nagarjuna emphasized on the ‘Sunyata’ concept and connected the two doctrines ‘pratityasamutpada’ and ‘anatman’. In his analysis of ‘Sunyata’, he evaluated ‘svabhava’ in ‘Mulamadhyamakakarika’. His assessment of ‘Sunyata’ is often seen as anti-foundationalism.
Multiple scholars and historians argue if Nagarjuna actually invented the Sunyata doctrine. The common belief is that he reformed the doctrine but didn’t invent it.
The doctrine of ‘the two truths’ is explained differently in various Buddhist schools. In the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna explained the doctrine as the two levels of ‘Satya’ (truth). In the phenomenal world, the characters are considered to be neither real nor unreal. All the characters are accorded to be indeterminable, making them empty of essence.
Nagarjuna explained the Madhyamaka position in two levels of truths, stating that the reality is divided into two levels. The two levels are referred to as the absolute level and the relative level. Based on this doctrine, ‘Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra’ also talks about an essential truth besides the two truths doctrine and the emptiness (Sunyata).
Using the concept of ‘svabhava’, Nagarjuna had explained the idea of relativity. In his explanation of relativity, Nagarjuna said the length, whether it is short or long, depends on other things in a contrasting nature.
Nagarjuna also explained ‘causality’ using the two truths doctrine. Explaining the origin of the “cause and effect” doctrine, he concluded that both the ultimate truth and the conventional truth are empty. In his assessment, the cause is nothing but an event capable of creating an event that has an effect.
Nagarjuna is believed to have lived until 250 CE. He had served as the head of the Buddhist monastery ‘Nalanda’ for a brief period. He is regarded as the most critical thinker in the history of Buddhism after the great sage Buddha.
As the study on ‘Mulamadhyamakakarika’ continued, Nagarjuna’s philosophy became a topic of great interest for research. Although his views didn’t impress the western minds who viewed him as a nihilist, Nagarjuna’s philosophies have impressed the larger mass. He is regarded as one of the most sophisticated philosophers to have ever lived and his views are ageless.