|Born||c. 150 CE
|Died||c. 250 CE
|Occupation||Buddhist teacher and philosopher|
|Known for||Credited with founding the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism|
Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is widely considered one of the most important Buddhist philosophers after Gautama Buddha. Along with his disciple Āryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Nāgārjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and, in some sources, with having revealed these scriptures in the world, having recovered them from the nāgas (snake-people). Furthermore, he is traditionally supposed to have written several treatises on rasayana as well as serving a term as the head of Nālandā.
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Very little is reliably known of the life of Nāgārjuna, since the surviving accounts were written in Chinese and Tibetan centuries after his death. According to some accounts, Nāgārjuna was originally from South India. Some scholars believe that Nāgārjuna was an advisor to a king of the Satavahana dynasty. Archaeological evidence at Amarāvatī indicates that if this is true, the king may have been Yajña Śrī Śātakarṇi, who ruled between 167 and 196 CE. On the basis of this association, Nāgārjuna is conventionally placed at around 150–250 CE.
Some sources claim that in his later years, Nāgārjuna lived on the mountain of Śrīparvata near the city that would later be called Nāgārjunakoṇḍa ("Hill of Nāgārjuna"). The ruins of Nāgārjunakoṇḍa are located in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh. The Caitika and Bahuśrutīya nikāyas are known to have had monasteries in Nāgārjunakoṇḍa.
There exist a number of influential texts attributed to Nāgārjuna though, as there are many pseudepigrapha attributed to him, lively controversy exists over which are his authentic works. The only work that all scholars agree is Nagarjuna's is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), which contains the essentials of his thought in twenty-seven chapters.
According to one view, that of Christian Lindtner, the works definitely written by Nagarjuna are:
- Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way)
- Śūnyatāsaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness)
- Vigrahavyāvartanī (The End of Disputes)
- Vaidalyaprakaraṇa (Pulverizing the Categories)
- Vyavahārasiddhi (Proof of Convention)
- Yuktiṣāṣṭika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning)
- Catuḥstava (Hymn to the Absolute Reality)
- Ratnāvalī (Precious Garland)
- Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika (Constituents of Dependent Arising)
- Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind)
- Suhṛllekha (Letter to a Good Friend)
- Bodhisaṃbhāra (Requisites of Enlightenment)
In addition to works mentioned above, several others are attributed to Nāgārjuna. There is an ongoing, lively controversy over which of those works are authentic. Contemporary research suggest that these works belong to a significantly later period, either to late 8th or early 9th century CE, and hence can not be authentic works of Nāgārjuna.
However, several works considered important in esoteric Buddhism are attributed to Nāgārjuna and his disciples by traditional historians like Tāranātha from 17th century Tibet. These historians try to account for chronological difficulties with various theories. For example, a propagation of later writings via mystical revelation. For a useful summary of this tradition, see Wedemeyer 2007.
Lindtner considers that the Māhaprajñāparamitopadeśa "Commentary on the Great Perfection of Wisdom" is not a genuine work of Nāgārjuna. This work is only attested in a Chinese translation by Kumārajīva.There is much discussion as to whether this is a work of Nāgārjuna, or someone else. Étienne Lamotte, who translated one third of the work into French, felt that it was the work of a North Indian bhikṣu of the Sarvāstivāda school who later became a convert to the Mahayana. The Chinese scholar-monk Yin Shun felt that it was the work of a South Indian and that Nāgārjuna was quite possibly the author. These two views are not necessarily in opposition and a South Indian Nāgārjuna could well have studied the northern Sarvāstivāda. Neither of the two felt that it was composed by Kumārajīva, which others have suggested.
From studying his writings, it is clear that Nāgārjuna was conversant with many of the Śrāvaka philosophies and with the Mahāyāna tradition. However, determining Nāgārjuna's affiliation with a specific nikāya is difficult, considering much of this material has been lost. If the most commonly accepted attribution of texts (that of Christian Lindtner) holds, then he was clearly a Māhayānist, but his philosophy holds assiduously to the Śrāvaka Tripiṭaka, and while he does make explicit references to Mahāyāna texts, he is always careful to stay within the parameters set out by the Śrāvaka canon.
Nagarjuna may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the āgamas. In the eyes of Nagarjuna, the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Madhyamaka system. David Kalupahana sees Nagarjuna as a successor to Moggaliputta-Tissa in being a champion of the middle-way and a reviver of the original philosophical ideals of the Buddha.
Nāgārjuna's primary contribution to Buddhist philosophy is in the use of the concept of śūnyatā, or "emptiness," which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anātman "not-self" and pratītyasamutpāda "dependent origination", to refute the metaphysics of the Sarvastivāda and Sautrāntika (extinct non-Mahayana schools). For Nāgārjuna, as for the Buddha in the early texts, it is not merely sentient beings that are "selfless" or non-substantial; all phenomena are without any svabhāva, literally "own-being", "self-nature", or "inherent existence" and thus without any underlying essence. They are empty of being independently existent; thus the heterodox theories of svabhāva circulating at the time were refuted on the basis of the doctrines of early Buddhism. This is so because all things arise always dependently: not by their own power, but by depending on conditions leading to their coming into existence, as opposed to being. As part of his analysis of the emptiness of phenomena in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nagarjuna critiques svabhāva in several different concepts. He discusses the problems of positing any sort of inherent essence to causation, movement, change and personal identity. Nagarjuna makes use of the Indian logical tool of the tetralemma to attack any essentialist conceptions. Nagarjuna’s logical analysis is based on four basic propositions:
- All things (dharma) exist: affirmation of being, negation of non-being
- All things (dharma) do not exist: affirmation of non-being, negation of being
- All things (dharma) both exist and do not exist: both affirmation and negation
- All things (dharma) neither exist nor do not exist: neither affirmation nor negation 
To say that all things are 'empty' is to deny any kind of ontological foundation, therefore Nagarjuna's view is often seen as a kind of ontological anti-foundationalism or a metaphysical anti-realism.
Understanding the nature of the emptiness of phenomena is simply a means to an end, which is nirvana. Thus Nagarjuna's philosophical project is ultimately a soteriological one meant to correct our everyday cognitive processes which mistakenly posits svabhāva on the flow of experience.
Nāgārjuna was also instrumental in the development of the two truths doctrine, which claims that there are two levels of truth in Buddhist teaching, the ultimate truth (paramārtha satya) and the conventionally or superficial truth (saṃvṛtisatya). The ultimate truth to Nagarjuna is the truth that everything is empty of essence, this includes emptiness itself ('the emptiness of emptiness'). While some (Murti, 1955) have interpreted this by positing Nagarjuna as a Neo-Kantian and thus making ultimate truth a metaphysical noumenon or an "ineffable ultimate that transcends the capacities of discursive reason", others such as Mark Siderits and Jay Garfield have argued that Nagarjuna's view is that "the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth" (Siderits) and that Nagarjuna is a "semantic anti-dualist" who posits that there are only conventional truths. Hence according to Garfield:
Suppose that we take a conventional entity, such as a table. We analyze it to demonstrate its emptiness, finding that there is no table apart from its parts […]. So we conclude that it is empty. But now let us analyze that emptiness […]. What do we find? Nothing at all but the table’s lack of inherent existence. […]. To see the table as empty […] is to see the table as conventional, as dependent.
In articulating this notion in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna drew on an early source in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, which distinguishes definitive meaning (nītārtha) from interpretable meaning (neyārtha):
By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one reads the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, "non-existence" with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one reads the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, "existence" with reference to the world does not occur to one.
By and large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings (sustenances), and biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases, or obsessions; nor is he resolved on "my self". He has no uncertainty or doubt that just stress, when arising, is arising; stress, when passing away, is passing away. In this, his knowledge is independent of others. It's to this extent, Kaccayana, that there is right view.
"Everything exists": That is one extreme. "Everything doesn't exist": That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle...
The version linked to is the one found in the nikayas, and is slightly different from the one found in the Samyuktagama. Both contain the concept of teaching via the middle between the extremes of existence and non-existence. Nagarjuna does not make reference to "everything" when he quotes the agamic text in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.
Nagarjuna also taught the idea of relativity; in the Ratnāvalī, he gives the example that shortness exists only in relation to the idea of length. The determination of a thing or object is only possible in relation to other things or objects, especially by way of contrast. He held that the relationship between the ideas of "short" and "long" is not due to intrinsic nature (svabhāva). This idea is also found in the Pali Nikāyas and Chinese Āgamas, in which the idea of relativity is expressed similarly: "That which is the element of light ... is seen to exist on account of [in relation to] darkness; that which is the element of good is seen to exist on account of bad; that which is the element of space is seen to exist on account of form."
Nagarjuna as Ayurvedic physician
According to Frank John Ninivaggi, Nagarjuna was also a practitioner of Ayurveda. First described in the Sanskrit medical treatise Sushruta Samhita, of which he was the compiler of the redaction, many of his conceptualisations, such as his descriptions of the circulatory system and blood tissue (described as rakta dhātu) and his pioneering work on the therapeutic value of specially treated minerals knowns as bhasmas, which earned him the title of the "father of iatrochemistry".
According to Jay Garfield, Nagarjuna is a 'titanic figure' in the history of Mahayana Buddhism:
...his inﬂuence in the Mahayana Buddhist world is not only unparalleled in that tradition but exceeds in that tradition the inﬂuence of any single Western philosopher. The degree to which he is taken seriously by so many eminent Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese philosophers, and lately by so many Western philosophers, alone justifies attention to his corpus.
Also Gadjin M. Nagao writes:
Nagarjuna who lived around the second or third C.E., was a great philosopher and monk-scholar second only to the Buddha. It was owing to him that Mahāyāna Buddhism got a firm philosophical foundation and almost all forms of Mahāyāna schools of later times regard and accept him as their founder.
In contrast, Richard P. Hayes writes:
Nagarjuna's writings had relatively little effect on the course of subsequent Indian Buddhist philosophy. Despite his apparent attempts to discredit some of the most fundamental concepts of abhidharma, abhidharma continued to ﬂourish for centuries, without any appreciable attempt on the part of abhidharmikas to defend their methods of analysis against Nagarjuna's criticisms. And despite Nagarjuna's radical critique of the very possibility of having grounded knowledge (pramana), the epistemological school of Dignaga and Dharmakirti dominated Indian Buddhist intellectual circles, again without any explicit attempt to answer Nagarjuna's criticisms of their agenda. Aside from a few commentators on Nagarjuna's works, who identiﬁed themselves as Madhyamikas, Indian Buddhist intellectual life continued almost as if Nagarjuna had never existed.
Today Nagarjuna is discussed by Western philosophers in the areas of language and logic.
Nāgārjuna is often depicted in composite form comprising human and nāga characteristics. Often the nāga-aspect forms a canopy crowning and shielding his human head. The notion of the naga is found throughout Indian religious culture, and typically signifies an intelligent serpent or dragon, who is responsible for the rains, lakes and other bodies of water. In Buddhism, it is a synonym for a realised arhat, or wise person in general.
The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is Nagarjuna's best-known work. It is "not only a grand commentary on the Buddha's discourse to Kaccayana, the only discourse cited by name, but also a detailed and careful analysis of most of the important discourses included in the Nikayas and the agamas, especially those of the Atthakavagga of the Sutta-nipata.
Utilizing the Buddha's theory of "dependent arising" (pratitya-samutpada), Nagarjuna demonstrated the futility of [...] metaphysical speculations. His method of dealing with such metaphysics is referred to as "middle way" (madhyama pratipad). It is the middle way that avoided the substantialism of the Sarvastivadins as well as the nominalism of the Sautrantikas.
In the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, "[A]ll experienced phenomena are empty (sunya). This did not mean that they are not experienced and, therefore, non-existent; only that they are devoid of a permanent and eternal substance (svabhava). Since they are experienced, they are not mere names (prajnapti)."
|Jones, Richard H.||Nagarjuna: Buddhism's Most Important Philosopher.||Jackson Square Books, 2014.||Translation and summary of the six works of Nagarjuna's "philosophical canon" with explanatory essays.|
|Loizzo, Joseph||Nagarjuna's Reason Sixty (Yuktisastika) with Candrakirti's Commentary (Yuktisastikavrrti)||Columbia University Press, 2007||Standing midway between his other masterpieces on philosophy and religion, in the Reason Sixty Nagarjuna describes the central thrust of his therapeutic philosophy of language – the elimination of cognitive bias and affective resistances to the gradual cultivation of nondualistic wisdom and compassion.|
|Kawamura, L.||Golden Zephyr||Dharma, 1975||Translation of the Suhrlekkha with a Tibetan commentary|
|Bhattacharya, Johnston and Kunst||The Dialectical Method of Nagarjuna||Motilal, 1978||A superb translation of the Vigrahavyavartani|
|Lindtner, C.||Master of Wisdom: Writings of the Buddhist Master Nāgārjuna||Dharma, 1986||An excellent introduction to Madhyamika, Master of Wisdom contains two hymns of praise to the Buddha, two treatises on Shunyata, and two works that clarify the connection of analysis, meditation, and moral conduct. Includes Tibetan verses in transliteration and critical editions of extant Sanskrit.
Tibetan Translation (product ID: 0-89800-286-9)
|Lindtner, C.||Nagarjuniana||Motilal, 1987 ||Contains Sanskrit or Tibetan texts and translations of the
Shunyatasaptati, Vaidalyaprakarana, Vyavaharasiddhi (fragment), Yuktisastika, Catuhstava and Bodhicittavivarana. A translation only of the Bodhisambharaka. The Sanskrit and Tibetan texts are given for the Vigrahavyavartani. In addition a table of source sutras is given for the Sutrasamuccaya.
|Komito, D. R.||Nagarjuna's "Seventy Stanzas"||Snow Lion, 1987||Translation of the Shunyatasaptati with Tibetan commentary|
|Tola, Fernando and Carmen Dragonetti||Vaidalyaprakarana||South Asia Books, 1995|
|Westerhoff, Jan||Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī: The Dispeller of Disputes||Oxford University Press, 2010.|
|Jamieson, R. C.||Nagarjuna's Verses on the Great Vehicle
and the Heart of Dependent Origination
|D.K., 2001||Translation and edited Tibetan of the Mahayanavimsika and the Pratityasamutpadahrdayakarika, including work on texts from the cave temple at Dunhuang, Gansu, China|
|Hopkins, Jeffrey||Nagarjuna's Precious Garland: Buddhist Advice for Living and Liberation||Snow Lion Publications, 2007||ISBN 1-55939-274-6|
|Brunnholzl, Karl||In Praise of Dharmadhatu||Snow Lion Publications, 2008||Translation with commentary by the 3rd Karmapa|
- Acharya Nagarjuna University
- Nagarjuna High School
- Middle way
- Sun Simiao
- Kalupahana, David. A History of Buddhist Philosophy. 1992. p. 160
- Garfield, Jay L. (1995), The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Hsing Yun, Xingyun, Tom Manzo, Shujan Cheng Infinite Compassion, Endless Wisdom: The Practice of the Bodhisattva Path Buddha's Light Publishing Hacienda Heights California
- Rongxi, Li; Dalia, Albert A. (2002). The Lives of Great Monks and Nuns, Berkeley CA: Numata Center for Translation and Research, pp. 21–30
- Buddhist Art & Antiquities of Himachal Pradesh By Omacanda Hāṇḍā (Page 97)
- Notes on the Nagarjunikonda Inscriptions, Dutt, Nalinaksha. The Indian Historical Quarterly 7:3 1931.09 pp.633–653 "..Tibetan tradition which says that Nagarjuna was born of a brahmin family of Vidarbha."
- Geri Hockfield Malandra, Unfolding A Mandala: The Buddhist Cave Temples at Ellora, SUNY Press, 1993, p. 17
- Shōhei Ichimura, Buddhist Critical Spirituality: Prajñā and Śūnyatā, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (2001), p. 67
- Bkra-śis-rnam-rgyal (Dwags-po Paṇ-chen), Takpo Tashi Namgyal, Mahamudra: The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (1993), p. 443
- Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 242
- Lindtner, C. (1982). Nagarjuniana: studies in the writings and philosophy of Nāgārjuna, Copenhagen: Akademisk forlag, page 11
- Christian Lindtner, Master of Wisdom. Dharma Publishing 1997, page 324.
- David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Motilal Banarsidass, 2005, pages 2,5.
- Dumoulin, Heinrich (1998) Zen Buddhism: a history, India and China, Macmillan Publishing, 43
- Westerhoff, Jan. Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction.
- Siderits, Mark. Nagarjuna as anti-realist, Journal of Indian Philosophy December 1988, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 311-325.
- Garfield, Jay. Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-cultural Interpretation, pp. 91.
- Siderits, Mark, On the Soteriological Significance of Emptiness, Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2003.
- Garfield, J. L. (2002). Empty words, pp. 38–39
- Kalupahana, David J. (1986). Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. State University of New York Press.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997). SN 12.15 Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right View)
- A.K. Warder, A Course in Indian Philosophy. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1998, pages 55–56
- For the full text of both versions with analysis see pages 192–195 of Choong Mun-keat, The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism: A comparative study basted on the Sutranga portion of the Pali Samyutta-Nikaya and the Chinese Samyuktagama; Harrassowitz Verlag, Weisbaden, 2000.
- David Kalupahana, Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. SUNY Press, 1986, page 232.
- David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, pages 96–97. In the Nikayas the quote is found at SN 2.150.
- Frank John Ninivaggi Ayurveda: A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional Indian Medicine for the West, page 23. (Praeger/Greenwood Press, 2008). ISBN 978-0-313-34837-2.
- Garﬁeld & Priest, Nāgārjuna and the Limits of Thought, 2002
- Nagao, Gadjin (1991). Madhyamika and Yogacara: A Study of Mahayana Philosophies. State University of New York Press. p. 173. ISBN 9780791401873.
- Hayes, Richard P. Nagarjuna: Master of Paradox, Mystic or Perpetrator of Fallacies?, 2003
- See Garfield and Priest 2003, Westerhoff 2009, and Jones 2014.
- See SN 12.15 Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right View)
- Kalupahana 1994, p. 161.
- Kalupahana 1992, p. 120.
- Garfield, Jay L. (1995), The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Garfield, Jay L. and Graham Priest (2003), “Nāgārjuna and the Limits of Thought”, Philosophy East and West 53 (January 2003): 1-21.
- Jones, Richard H. (2014), Nagarjuna: Buddhism's Most Important Philosopher, 2nd ed. New York: Jackson Square Books.
- Kalupahana, David J. (1986),The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Albany: SUNY Press.
- Kalupahana, David J. (1992), The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Delhi: ri Satguru Publications
- Kalupahana, David J. (1994), A history of Buddhist philosophy, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited
- Lamotte, E., Le Traite de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse, Vol I (1944), Vol II (1949), Vol III (1970), Vol IV (1976), Institut Orientaliste: Louvain-la-Neuve.
- Mabbett, Ian, (1998, “The problem of the historical Nagarjuna revisited”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 118(3): 332–346.
- Murti, T. R. V. (1955), The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. George Allen and Unwin, London. 2nd edition: 1960.
- Murty, K. Satchidananda (1971), Nagarjuna. National Book Trust, New Delhi. 2nd edition: 1978.
- Ramanan, K. Venkata (1966), Nāgārjuna's Philosophy. Charles E. Tuttle, Vermont and Tokyo. Reprint: Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. 1978. (This book gives an excellent and detailed examination of the range and subtleties of Nagarjuna's philosophy.)
- Ruegg, D. Seyfort (1981), The literature of the Madhyamaka school of philosophy in India (A History of Indian literature), Harrassowitz, ISBN 978-3-447-02204-0.
- Sastri, H. Chatterjee, ed. (1977), The Philosophy of Nāgārjuna as contained in the Ratnāvalī. Part I [ Containing the text and introduction only ]. Saraswat Library, Calcutta.
- Streng, Frederick J. (1967), Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
- Tuck, Andrew P. (1990), Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: on the Western Interpretation of Nāgārjuna, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Walser, Joseph (2002), Nagarjuna And The Ratnavali: New Ways To Date An Old Philosopher, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 25 (1-2), 209-262
- Walser, Joseph (2005),Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Westerhoff, Jan (2010), The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna's Vigrahavyāvartanī. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Westerhoff, Jan (2009), Nāgārjuna's Madhyamaka. A Philosophical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Wedemeyer, Christian K. (2007), Āryadeva's Lamp that Integrates the Practices: The Gradual Path of Vajrayāna Buddhism according to the Esoteric Community Noble Tradition. New York: AIBS/Columbia University Press.
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- Nāgārjuna entry by Jan Christoph Westerhoff in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Nagarjuna entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Nagarjuna: a bibliography
- Overview of traditional biographical accounts
- Online version of the Ratnāvalī (Precious Garland) in English Translated by Prof. Vidyakaraprabha and Bel-dzek
- Online version of the Suhṛllekha (Letter to a friend) in English Translated by Alexander Berzin
- Works by or about Nagarjuna at Internet Archive
- Works by Nagarjuna at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Nārāgjuna vis-à-vis the Āgama-s and Nikāya-s Byoma Kusuma Nepalese Dharmasangha
- ZenEssays: Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika
- Mula madhyamaka karika online Tibetan and English version translated by Stephen Batchelor