Nagarjuna (A.D. c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is regarded by many as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism. Some people even feel that Nagarjuna is the second Buddha who The Buddha prophesied would come sometime after to clarify things. Nagarjuna did much to clarify the nature of emptiness and is responsible for the Heart Sutra.

Nagarjuna is widely considered the most important Mahayana philosophers. Along with his disciple Aryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñaparamita sutras and, in some sources, with having revealed these scriptures in the world, having recovered them from the nagas (water spirits often depicted in the form of serpent-like humans). Furthermore, he is traditionally supposed to have written several treatises on rasayana as well as serving a term as the head of Nalanda.

Nagarjuna is widely considered the most important Mahayana philosophers.

Very little is reliably known of the life of Nagarjuna, since the surviving accounts were written in Chinese and Tibetan centuries after his death. According to some accounts, Nagarjuna was originally from South India. Some scholars believe that he was an advisor to a king of the Satavahana dynasty. Archaeological evidence at Amaravati indicates that if this is true, the king may have been Yajña Sri Satakari, who ruled between A.D. 167 and 196. On the basis of this association, Nagarjuna is conventionally placed at around 150–250 CE. +

According to a 4th/5th-century biography translated by Kumarajiva, Nagarjuna was born into a Brahmin family in Vidarbha (a region of Maharashtra) and later became a Buddhist. Some sources claim that in his later years, Nagarjuna lived on the mountain of Sriparvata near the city that would later be called Nagarjunakoa (“Hill of Nagarjuna”). The ruins of Nagarjunakoa are located in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh.

Nagarjuna Writing and Philosophy

A number of influential Buddhist texts have attributed to Nagarjuna though many of the claims have dubious evidence to back them up. A lively debate over which are his authentic works continues to this day. The only work that all scholars agree is Nagarjuna’s is the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), which contains the essentials of his thought in twenty-seven chapters.

Nagarjuna and Aryadeva as Two Great Indian Buddhist Scholastics

According to Christian Lindtner, the works definitely written by Nagarjuna are: Mulamadhyamaka-karika (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way); Sunyatasaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness); Vigrahavyavartani (The End of Disputes); Vaidalyaprakaraa (Pulverizing the Categories); Vyavaharasiddhi (Proof of Convention); Yuktiaika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning); Catustava (Hymn to the Absolute Reality); Ratnavali (Precious Garland); Pratityasamutpadahdayakarika (Constituents of Dependent Arising); Sutrasamuccaya; Bodhicittavivaraa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind); Suhllekha (Letter to a Good Friend); Bodhisabhara (Requisites of Enlightenment).

“From studying his writings, it is clear that Nagarjuna was conversant with many of the Sravaka philosophies and with the Mahayana tradition. However, determining Nagarjuna’s affiliation with a specific nikaya is difficult, considering much of this material has been lost. Nagarjuna assumes a knowledge of the definitions of the sixteen categories as given in the Nyaya Sutras, the chief text of the Hindu Nyaya school.

Nagarjuna’s major thematic focus is the concept of sunyata, or “emptiness,” which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anatman “not-self” and pratityasamutpada “dependent origination”, to refute the metaphysics of some of his contemporaries.

For Nagarjuna, as for the Buddha in the early texts, it is not merely sentient beings that are “selfless” or non-substantial; all phenomena (dhammas) are without any svabhava, 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 svabhava 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. Chapter 24 verse 14 of the Mulamadhyamakakarika provides one of Nagarjuna’s most famous quotations on emptiness: “All is possible when emptiness is possible. Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.”

As part of his analysis of the emptiness of phenomena in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna critiques svabhava 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:

  1. All things (dharma) exist: affirmation of being, negation of non-being.
  2. All things (dharma) do not exist: affirmation of non-being, negation of being.
  3. All things (dharma) both exist and do not exist: both affirmation and negation.
  4. All things (dharma) neither exist nor do not exist: neither affirmation nor negation.
    Further reading:

Dualism and Non-dualism in Buddhism – click here
The Truth of Dualism in Madhyamaka Buddhism – click here