|Born||c. 150 CE|
|Died||c. 250 CE|
|Occupation||Buddhist teacher, monk and philosopher|
|Known for||Credited with founding the Madhyamaka school of Mah?y?na Buddhism|
N?g?rjuna (c. 150 - c. 250 CE; Chinese pinyin: ; Standard Tibetan: mGon-po Klu-grub) was an Indian Mah?y?na Buddhist thinker who is widely considered one of the most important Buddhist philosophers. Furthermore, according to Jan Westerhoff, he is also "one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Asian philosophy."
N?g?rjuna is widely considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka (Centrism, Middle-Way) school of Buddhist philosophy and a defender of the Mah?y?na movement. His M?lamadhyamakak?rik? (Root Verses on Madhyamaka, MMK) is the most important text on the Madhyamaka philosophy of emptiness. The MMK inspired a large number of commentaries in Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Korean and Japanese and continues to be studied today.
India in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE was divided into various states, including the Kushan Empire and the Satavahana Kingdom. At this point in Buddhist history, the Buddhist community was already divided into various Buddhist schools and had spread throughout India.
At this time, there was already a small and nascent Mah?y?na movement. Mah?y?na ideas were held by a minority of Buddhists in India at the time. As Joseph Walser writes, "Mah?y?na before the fifth century was largely invisible and probably existed only as a minority and largely unrecognized movement within the fold of nik?ya Buddhism." By the second century, early Mah?y?na S?tras such as the Aas?hasrik? Prajñ?p?ramit? were already circulating among certain Mah?y?na circles.
Very little is reliably known of the life of N?g?rjuna and modern historians do not agree on a specific date (1st to 3rd century CE) or place (multiple places in India suggested) for him. The earliest surviving accounts were written in Chinese and Tibetan centuries after his death and are mostly hagiographical accounts that are historically unverifiable.
Some scholars such as Joseph Walser argue that N?g?rjuna was an advisor to a king of the S?tav?hana dynasty which ruled the Deccan Plateau in the second century. This is supported by most of the traditional hagiographical sources as well. Archaeological evidence at Amar?vat? indicates that if this is true, the king may have been Yajña ?r? takar?i (c. second half of the 2nd century). On the basis of this association, N?g?rjuna is conventionally placed at around 150-250 CE.
Walser thinks that it is most likely that when N?g?rjuna wrote the Ratnavali, he lived in a mixed monastery (with Mah?y?nists and non-Mah?y?nists) in which Mah?y?nists were the minority. The most likely sectarian affiliation of the monastery according to Walser was Purvasailya, Aparasailya, or Caityaka (which were Mah?sghika sub-schools).
According to Walser, "the earliest extant legends about N?g?rjuna are compiled into Kum?raj?va's biography of N?g?rjuna, which he translated into Chinese in about 405 c.e." According to this biography, N?g?rjuna was born into a Brahmin family in Vidarbha (a region of Maharashtra) and later became a Buddhist. The traditional religious hagiographies place N?g?rjuna in various regions of India (Kum?raj?va and Candrakirti place him in South India, Xuanzang in south Kosala).
Traditional religious hagiographies credit N?g?rjuna with being associated with the teaching of the Prajñ?p?ramit? s?tras as well as with having revealed these scriptures to the world after they had remained hidden for some time. The sources differ on where this happened and how N?g?rjuna retrieved the sutras. Some sources say he retrieved the sutras from the land of the n?gas.
Indeed, N?g?rjuna is often depicted in composite form comprising human and n?ga characteristics. N?gas are snake-like supernatural beings of great magical power that feature in Indian mythology. N?gas are 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.
Traditional sources also claim that N?g?rjuna practiced Aryuvedic alchemy (rasay?na). Kum?raj?va's biography for example, has N?g?rjuna making an elixir of invisibility, and Bus-ton, Taranatha and Xuanzang all state that he could turn rocks into gold.
Tibetan Hagiographies also state that N?g?rjuna studied at N?landa University. However, according to Walser, this university was not a strong monastic center until about 425. Also, as Walser notes, "Xuanzang and Yijing both spent considerable time at N?landa and studied N?g?rjuna's texts there. It is strange that they would have spent so much time there and yet chose not to report any local tales of a man whose works played such an important part in the curriculum."
Some sources (Bu-ston and the other Tibetan historians) claim that in his later years, N?g?rjuna lived on the mountain of ?r?parvata near the city that would later be called N?g?rjunakoa ("Hill of N?g?rjuna"). The ruins of N?g?rjunakoa are located in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh. The Caitika and Bahu?rut?ya nik?yas are known to have had monasteries in N?g?rjunakoa. The archaeological finds at N?g?rjunakoa have not resulted in any evidence that the site was associated with Nagarjuna. The name "N?g?rjunakoa" dates from the medieval period, and the 3rd-4th century inscriptions found at the site make it clear that it was known as "Vijayapuri" in the ancient period.
There are a multitude of texts attributed to "N?g?rjuna", many of these texts date from much later periods. This has caused much confusion for the traditional Buddhist biographers and doxographers. Modern scholars are divided on how to classify these later texts and how many later writers called "N?g?rjuna" existed (the name remains still popular today in Andhra Pradesh).
Some scholars have posited that there was a separate Aryuvedic writer called N?g?rjuna which wrote numerous treatises on rasayana. Also, there is a later Tantric Buddhist author by the same name who may have been a scholar at N?land? University and wrote on Buddhist tantra.
There is also a Jain figure of the same name who was said to have traveled to the Himalayas. Walser thinks that it is possible that stories related to this figure influenced Buddhist legends as well.
There exist a number of influential texts attributed to N?g?rjuna though, as there are many pseudepigrapha attributed to him, lively controversy exists over which are his authentic works.
The M?lamadhyamakak?rik? is N?g?rjuna'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 M?lamadhyamakak?rik?, "[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) because, like a dream, they are mere projections of human consciousness. Since these imaginary fictions are experienced, they are not mere names (prajnapti)."
According to David Seyfort Ruegg, the Madhyamakasastrastuti attributed to Candrakirti (c. 600 - c. 650) refers to eight texts by Nagarjuna:
the (Madhyamaka)karikas, the Yuktisastika, the Sunyatasaptati, the Vigrahavyavartani, the Vidala (i.e. Vaidalyasutra/Vaidalyaprakarana), the Ratnavali, the Sutrasamuccaya, and Samstutis (Hymns). This list covers not only much less than the grand total of works ascribed to Nagarjuna in the Chinese and Tibetan collections, but it does not even include all such works that Candrakirti has himself cited in his writings.
According to one view, that of Christian Lindtner, the works definitely written by N?g?rjuna are:
The Tibetan historian Buston considers the first six to be the main treatises of N?g?rjuna (this is called the "yukti corpus", rigs chogs), while according to T?ran?tha only the first five are the works of N?g?rjuna. TRV Murti considers Ratnaavali, Pratitya Samutpaada Hridaya and Sutra Samuccaya to be works of N?g?rjuna as the first two are quoted profusely by Chandrakirti and the third by Shantideva.
In addition to works mentioned above, several others are attributed to N?g?rjuna. There is an ongoing, lively controversy over which of those works are authentic. Contemporary research suggest that some 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 N?g?rjuna. Several works considered important in esoteric Buddhism are attributed to N?g?rjuna and his disciples by traditional historians like T?ran?tha from 17th century Tibet. These historians try to account for chronological difficulties with various theories. For example, apropagation of later writings via mystical revelation. For a useful summary of this tradition, see Wedemeyer 2007.
According to Ruegg, "three collections of stanzas on the virtues of intelligence and moral conduct ascribed to Nagarjuna are extant in Tibetan translation": Prajñasatakaprakarana, Nitisastra-Jantuposanabindu and Niti-sastra-Prajñadanda.
Other works are extant only in Chinese, one of these is the Shih-erh-men-lun or 'Twelve-topic treatise' (*Dvadasanikaya or *Dvadasamukha-sastra); one of the three basic treatises of the Sanlun school (East Asian Madhyamaka).
Lindtner considers that the Mah?prajñ?p?ramit?upade?a (Ta-chih-tu-lun, Taisho 1509, "Commentary on the great prajñaparamita") which has been influential in Chinese Buddhism, is not a genuine work of N?g?rjuna. This work is also only attested in a Chinese translation by Kum?raj?va and is unknown in the Tibetan and Indian traditions. There is much discussion as to whether this is a work of N?g?rjuna, or someone else. Étienne Lamotte, who translated one third of the work into French, felt that it was the work of a North Indian bhik?u of the Sarv?stiv?da 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 N?g?rjuna was quite possibly the author. These two views are not necessarily in opposition and a South Indian N?g?rjuna could well have studied the northern Sarv?stiv?da. Neither of the two felt that it was composed by Kum?raj?va, which others have suggested.
Other attributed works include:
N?g?rjuna was fully acquainted with the classical Hindu philosophies of Samkhya and even the Vaiseshika. N?g?rjuna assumes a knowledge of the definitions of the sixteen categories as given in the Nyaya Sutras, the chief text of the Hindu Nyaya school, and wrote a treatise on the pramanas where he reduced the syllogism of five members into one of three. In the Vigrahavyavartani Karika, N?g?rjuna criticises the Nyaya theory of pramanas (means of knowledge) 
N?g?rjuna was conversant with many of the ?r?vaka philosophies and with the Mah?y?na tradition; however, determining N?g?rjuna's affiliation with a specific nik?ya 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 M?hay?nist, but his philosophy holds assiduously to the ?r?vaka Tripi?aka, and while he does make explicit references to Mah?y?na texts, he is always careful to stay within the parameters set out by the ?r?vaka canon.
N?g?rjuna may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the ?gamas. In the eyes of N?g?rjuna, the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Madhyamaka system. David Kalupahana sees N?g?rjuna 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.
Because of the high degree of similarity between N?g?rjuna's philosophy and Pyrrhonism, particularly the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus,Thomas McEvilley suspects that N?g?rjuna was influenced by Greek Pyrrhonist texts imported into India.Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-c. 270 BCE), the founder of this school of sceptical philosophy, was himself influenced by Indian philosophy. Pyrrho traveled to India with Alexander the Great's army and studied with the gymnosophists. According to Christopher I. Beckwith, Pyrrho's teachings are based on Buddhism, because the Greek terms adiaphora, astathm?ta and anepikrita in the Aristocles Passage resemble the Buddhist three marks of existence. According to him, the key innovative tenets of Pyrrho's scepticism were only found in Indian philosophy at the time and not in Greece.
N?g?rjuna's major thematic focus is the concept of nyat? (translated into English as "emptiness") which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly an?tman "not-self" and prat?tyasamutp?da "dependent origination", to refute the metaphysics of some of his contemporaries. For N?g?rjuna, 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 svabh?va, 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 svabh?va 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.
N?g?rjuna means by real any entity which has a nature of its own (svabh?va), which is not produced by causes (akrtaka), which is not dependent on anything else (paratra nirapeksha).
sarva? ca yujyate tasya nyat? yasya yujyate
sarva? na yujyate tasya nya? yasya na yujyate
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 M?lamadhyamakak?rik?, N?g?rjuna critiques svabh?va in several different concepts. He discusses the problems of positing any sort of inherent essence to causation, movement, change and personal identity. N?g?rjuna makes use of the Indian logical tool of the tetralemma to attack any essentialist conceptions. N?g?rjuna's logical analysis is based on four basic propositions:
To say that all things are 'empty' is to deny any kind of ontological foundation; therefore N?g?rjuna'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 N?g?rjuna's philosophical project is ultimately a soteriological one meant to correct our everyday cognitive processes which mistakenly posits svabh?va on the flow of experience.
Some scholars such as Fyodor Shcherbatskoy and T.R.V. Murti held that N?g?rjuna was the inventor of the Shunyata doctrine; however, more recent work by scholars such as Choong Mun-keat, Yin Shun and Dhammajothi Thero has argued that N?g?rjuna was not an innovator by putting forth this theory, but that, in the words of Shi Huifeng, "the connection between emptiness and dependent origination is not an innovation or creation of N?g?rjuna".
N?g?rjuna 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 (param?rtha satya) and the conventional or superficial truth (sa?v?tisatya). The ultimate truth to N?g?rjuna 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 N?g?rjuna 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 L. Garfield have argued that N?g?rjuna's view is that "the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth" (Siderits) and that N?g?rjuna 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 M?lamadhyamakak?rik?, N?g?rjuna drew on an early source in the Kacc?nagotta Sutta, which distinguishes definitive meaning (n?t?rtha) from interpretable meaning (ney?rtha):
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 M?lamadhyamakak?rik?.
Jay L. Garfield describes that N?g?rjuna approached causality from the four noble truths and dependent origination. N?g?rjuna distinguished two dependent origination views in a causal process, that which causes effects and that which causes conditions. This is predicated in the two truth doctrine, as conventional truth and ultimate truth held together, in which both are empty in existence. The distinction between effects and conditions is controversial. In N?g?rjuna's approach, cause means an event or state that has power to bring an effect. Conditions, refer to proliferating causes that bring a further event, state or process; without a metaphysical commitment to an occult connection between explaining and explanans. He argues nonexistent causes and various existing conditions. The argument draws from unreal causal power. Things conventional exist and are ultimately nonexistent to rest in the middle way in both causal existence and nonexistence as casual emptiness within the M?lamadhyamakak?rik? doctrine. Although seeming strange to Westerners, this is seen as an attack on a reified view of causality.
N?g?rjuna also taught the idea of relativity; in the Ratn?val?, 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 (svabh?va). This idea is also found in the Pali Nik?yas and Chinese ?gamas, 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 stated that action itself was the fundamental aspect of the universe. To him, human beings were not creatures with the ability to act. Rather, action itself manifested as human beings and as the entire universe.