Nagarjuna (A.D. c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is regarded by many as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism.

For some, Nagarjuna embodies the awaited second Buddha, fulfilling the prophesy of clarity foretold by the Buddha himself. His teachings, especially on emptiness, resonate deeply, shaping the essence of the Heart Sutra.

Nagarjuna is widely considered one of the most important Mahayana philosophers. Along with his disciple Aryadeva, he is believed to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism.

Nagarjuna is praised for expanding the Prajñaparamita sutras, believed by some to be revealed by him after retrieval from nagas, mythical water spirits. Additionally, he’s credited with writing treatises on rasayana and leading Nalanda.

Life of Nagarjuna

Very little is reliably known about Nagarjuna’s life because the accounts we have were written in Chinese and Tibetan languages disappeared after he passed away. Some people think he originally came from South India. There’s a theory that he might have been an advisor to a king of the Satavahana dynasty. And based on some evidence found at Amaravati, it’s suggested that this king could have been Yajña Sri Satakari, who ruled between A.D. 167 and 196. So, based on this link, Nagarjuna is usually thought to have lived 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 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.”

Nagarjuna & Emptiness

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:

Body-Mind Duality in Buddhism – click here
The Truth of Dualism in Madhyamaka Buddhism – click here