A World-renowned Philosopher and Rationalist from Ancient India
Acharya Nagarjuna who lived in South India in the 2nd Century AD is world renowned as one of the greatest philosophers and rationalists. It remains an irony that here in India we grew up never hearing about him! For the Mahayana Buddhists, he is the second Buddha, the pioneer who made Mahayana into a mass movement of awakening, with the greatest sense of social responsibility. Within the Buddhist context, he is revered as an important master in a multitude of practice lineages – spanning from the most direct Zen and Dzogchen to the most intricate Maha-Yoga / Anuttara-tantras. In the global philosophical context of today, with its post-modern tendencies of deconstruction, Nagarjuna is regarded as one of the most profound philosophers and rationalists who deconstructed every possible philosophical view — using reason and logic to break down all philosophical systems.
He is the master of the Madhyamaka (Middle-way) thinking that frees one from the limitations of all views and systems including all Buddhist systems. He used dialectic as a method to deconstruct all systems and reveal the finest and the most direct nature of things. For the world at large, this made him one of the tallest figures of rationality and critical thinking — the grand pioneer of philosophical deconstruction who established that the ultimate groundlessness of everything is the greatest freedom. The deconstruction of all views brought him such an open expanse, that he became a champion of kindness and compassion – through his advocacy for the protection of all forms of life, research on medicine and teachings to the mankind on ways to discover freedom. This is to be contrasted with the post-modern tendencies in philosophy where deconstruction and deeper thinking are unfortunately leading to depression and despair.
One of the most influential neuro-scientists of the modern times, Francisco Varela, who is well-known for his works on embodied cognition, derived great inspiration from the works of Nagarjuna, and expressed the following uniqueness about his Madhyamaka approach of deconstruction [from ‘The Embodied Mind : Cognitive Science and Human Experience’],
There is a profound discovery of groundlessness in our culture — in science, in the humanities, in society, and in the uncertainties of people’s daily lives. … Taking groundlessness as negative, as a loss, leads to a sense of alienation, despair, loss of heart, and nihilism. The cure that is generally espoused in our culture is to find a new grounding (or a return to older grounds).… In Buddhism, we have a case study showing that when groundlessness is embraced and followed through to its ultimate conclusions, the outcome is an unconditional sense of intrinsic goodness that manifests itself in the world as spontaneous compassion.
Very little is known about his background and years of development and there are many accounts of his life story. The Indian biography translated by the renowned translator Kumarajiva from the original Sanskrit to Chinese in the 4th century is the oldest available. The Tibetan Tantric version of Nagarjuna’s biography contained in the “Life stories of 84 Mahasiddhas” accords with this with and provides additional details of him as a Tantric adept. Another one is the popular account among Tibetan masters like Buton and Taranatha, which focuses primarily on how Nagarjuna was groomed as a philosopher in the ancient Nalanda University. It differs from the former sources with regard to the early part of Nagarjuna’s life. The version presented in Kumarajiva’s and the Tibetan Tantric account seems more extensive and authentic. For one it is the oldest account. For the second, conventional university training alone cannot set the background for his path breaking works. And for the third it brings out the rebellious and unbounded character of Nagarjuna which made him into a great philosopher, rationalist and mystic at the same time. Nagarjuna’s adventurous spirit and energy, and his penetrating intelligence that deeply cut through all philosophical views brought him out of the shackles of tradition, to discovering the essence of the perfection of wisdom teachings. Let us first look at a summary of his story before moving onto his works and impacts.
During the 2nd century AD in India, Buddhism was widespread throughout the subcontinent and there were many in pursuit of the lasting peace of nirvana. At the same time a great revolution was in the making, as the seeds of Mahayana were beginning to sprout. Till then, most aspirants focused on individual liberation that is the Nirvana of eliminating one’s own suffering. Only a very few went beyond to attain the perfect and complete awakening just the way the Buddha did. For example, the Buddha’s direct disciple Mahakashyapa, is said to have understood the profound meaning when the Buddha just showed a lotus flower. It was widely presumed that perfect Buddhahood is beyond the reach for the most.
Later, a few Mahayana sutras began to surface expounding the message of boundless compassion of the sublime bodhisattvas. In these sutras the Buddha explained that these Bodhisattvas were not contended with the mere peace of Nirvana for oneself, and aspired to stay in the world, striving for perfect awakening. They wanted to help every being to get out of their own suffering. These Mahayana sutras also explained in experiential terms why this is indeed possible. It showed that all our experiences are merely illusory and empty in nature. They are like a dream, a mirage, a rainbow. For example it is expressed in Prajña-pāramita-Hrdaya sutra that a sublime Bodhisattva sees, “there is no suffering, no origin (of suffering), no cessation (of suffering), no path, no pristine wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment…since Bodhisattvas have nothing to attain, they abide in reliance upon Prajnāpāramita.” Hearing these lines can directly awaken a few to the meaning of Buddhahood, yet for most others it remained beyond comprehension. As ordinary beings, we have experiences of suffering. Then, how do we make sense of sayings such as there is no suffering? How do we follow it as a path? This was not very evident at that time. The deep and profound meaning of these sutras thus remained hidden. Hidden, till the great Acharya Nagarjuna appeared.
Nagarjuna was born in South India. He was extremely intelligent. Following his family tradition, he first mastered the three Vedas and Sciences of that day. His scholarship became widely acclaimed catapulting him into pride and arrogance. However all this scholarship and fame did not give him any contentment. He felt claustrophobic, restless and life was becoming monotonous. So he and his friends explored ways to have some fun. They learnt some tricks from a magician. Making use of this they stealthily entered a royal palace and tried to seduce the women of the palace. Somehow the guards got a scent of the strangers in the palace. They soon managed to chase and kill three of his friends and he alone escaped at a hair’s breadth. This incident shocked the young Nagarjuna thoroughly. He felt that however much scholarship, acclaim and magical skills one has, there is still a lingering sense of deeper discontentment leading to all kinds suffering. This prompts him to leave home in search of the true meaning of life.
Set out on an explorative journey he comes across the teachings of the Buddha. He ordains as a monastic. Within a few months’ time he masters the three Pitakas of Sravakayana including Abhidharma. At that time the wandering Nagarjuna happens to hear the Mahayana sutras recited by an elderly monk in the mountains. He was so inspired that even merely hearing these sutras transports one to a spacious expanse. This propels him to study them in detail, but he was not able to penetrate deep into its meaning. So, he travels widely in search of masters who can further clarify the meaning. He discusses and debates with many Buddhist and Non-buddhist scholars during his travels. They weren’t satisfactory. He is convinced by then that he has better insight than others on this matter. At this point Nagarjuna even thinks of establishing a new order of philosophy since none of the existing systems seems to explain everything to his satisfaction. Things change all of a sudden when he happens to discover a vast array of the words of the Buddha (sutras) that remained hidden from mankind for that long. This includes Prajña-pāramita-śata-sahasrika(Perfection of wisdom in 100,000 verses). The legend says that it was discovered from the realm of the Nagas. (Around this time, he also meets a Mahayana master named Kapimala from whom he receives essential instructions on referenceless awakening)
These sutras instill fresh insight in him on the entire teachings of the Buddha and how all of it fits together nicely. Nagarjuna realizes the one essential meaning of these sutras. The recognition of the unborn nature dawns in him. This utterly transforms him and he is overcome with compassion for others. From the experiences of his own search, he felt that for the Madhayamaka view as presented in the sutras needs to be made accessible through elucidation in terms of logic and reason. With this in mind, he wrote many treatises including Mula-madhyamaka-karika (Root verses of the middle way). He showed that that all forms of experiences and conceptualization are meaningful only within the limits of certain framework of relative thinking (conventional truth). Beyond that, in an ultimate sense (ultimate truth) it is void.. Through logic he showed how the conventions of causation, production, birth and cessation are all essentially empty. They are merely conventional and remain valid only within a relative context. Our world-view can change completely if we change this relative context. He also showed how the gap between our perception and that of the sublime bodhisattva’s can be bridged by cutting through conventionalities with reasoning. With the kindness of Nagarjuna, the emerging sprouts of Mahayana flourished, becoming a huge banyan tree with branches and roots spreading all over India and many other countries.
Nagarjuna did not remain a mere scholar. He did many years of meditation retreat in the southern mountain of Sriparvata (now known as Nagarjunakonda in Andhra). It is said that he attained the realization of an Arya Bodhisattva. His disciples like Aryadeva (from Srilanka) and Nagabodhi (from South India) met him there and received teachings. According to noted historian S.N.Sadasivam, Nagarjuna also wandered around the Marutuamala hills (near Kanyakumari) of southern Tamil Nadu, bordering Kerala, for ten years doing meditation and exploring medicinal herbs (I couldn’t find enough evidence for this though). From the stream of his overflowing wisdom many yogic practice lineages flourished. It is interesting to see his role in these varieties of practice and philosophical lineages.
According to the Mahayoga system of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, Acharya Nagarjuna is one of the eight great Vidyadhara gurus (accomplished tantric masters of wisdom awareness) of India. Blessings of these eight Vidyadharas are also invoked in the Dzogchen lineage of Nyingma as an inner aspect of Guru-Yoga (a method of meditation where one mingles one’s mind with the wisdom mind of the Guru to discover the pure and empty nature of one’s own awareness). In the later schools (Sarma) of Tibetan Buddhism, Nagarjuna is counted as one of the 84 Mahasiddhas of India (These 84 are greatly accomplished masters who cut through all conceptuality. They play in the wisdom awareness demonstrating many magical feats). His commentaries on Guhyasamaja Tantra, one of the Anuttara Yoga Tantras, is widely studied by the Sarma schools for their practice.
Shingon Buddhists of Japan (Yoga Tantra schools transmitted by Vajra Bodhi from India to China, and later spreading to Japan) also rever him as a lineage master. Nagarjuna’s direct disciple Nagabodhi taught this lineage to Vajra Bodhi. Nagarjuna is also one of the early lineage masters of the Zen school popular world over today. The very renowned Bodhidharma who took Chan (dhyana) style of Buddhism to China (which later became Zen in Japan) comes in the lineage of disciples of Acharya Nagarjuna.
Among the rationalists the world has ever seen, Acharya Nagarjuna is probably one of the most far-reaching in his insight. Typically, a modern day rationalist stops at deconstructing religious notions of creator-god, self, soul, etc. Then, they try to explain everything with the building blocks of matter. Nagarjuna went further to show that even mind and matter lack their own essence. Everything arises in dependence upon others. There is not even the minutest trace of object or subject that can exist by its own power. Nagarjuna’s arguments on dependent arising show that nothing ‘exists’ by itself. He also showed that it cannot be viewed as ‘non-existent’ because at a relative level things are experienced. Whichever building blocks we choose to explain the rest of the world – no matter whether it is atom, quarks, ideas, mind, etc. – it only helps in building a relative worldview to build something within a context. At a deeper level, it definitely fails because the building block assumed to be the foundation for the world, in turn depends upon other factors. In reality, everything depends upon causes and conditions that lead to the origination of some phenomena from some others. He was bold to go further and show that even such principles of causes and conditions are not absolute. Through dialectic method he showed that while we do see causes and conditions producing effects, the power for a cause to produce effect is also not its inherent aspect, but conditionally arising. Thus ultimately, nothing, including the laws of nature, exists by its own power. This he reveals as the meaning of ‘emptiness’ that the Buddha taught. He further shows that even Emptiness is empty, as it does not exist as a reified substance. Sword of Nagarjuna’s dialectical reasoning does not even leave the notions of space and time aside. Thus, Nagarjuna revealed the utter groundlessness of all phenomena through the refutation of all metaphysical entities while at a relative level they all arise inter-dependently.
Nagarjuna’s far-reaching rational insight that cuts idealism and realism in a single stroke remains very relevant in modern world, even in the frontiers of science and philosophy. It shows that an ultimate science should explain everything without assuming any building blocks or principles as fundamental and ever-existing. This is clearly the direction the latest science is taking.
Acharya Nagarjuna is indeed the founding father also of the scholastic tradition of Buddhism. The scholasticism of the famed Nalanda University set stage for the scholastic interest in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the scholastic schools of Chinese Buddhism. According to the Tibetan accounts, Nagarjuna is one of the earliest abbots of Nalanda. Much of the scholastic work by the Buddhist scholars of India and Tibet for the next 19 Centuries have been for clarifying the finer points of Nagarjuna’s rational and dialectic view of Madhyamaka. Much of the debates within the Buddhist scholastic circles and between schools are about the finer errors that people make while presumably cutting beyond the extremes of existence and non-existence, and the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Highly path-breaking works of Aryadeva, Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, Candrakirti, Shantarakshita, etc. in India, and Rongzom Pandita, Shakya Pandita, Longchen Rabjam, Tsong Khapa, Jamngon Mipham, etc. in Tibet came as the continuation of Nagarjuna’s dialectic tradition to find the finer middle free from all philosophical extremes, and then turning them into practically useful methods in the path.
Nagarjuna through his treatises revealed the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings and made it accessible to all. In Mūlamadhyamika kārika he introduced the logic of the profound, in which the dawn of wisdom is not through the mastery of a view, but through the deconstruction of all views. Nagarjuna used the sword of reason to cut all views. Through his works he demolishes the substantiality of all notions like origination, time, space, movement and even four noble truths and emptiness itself. He shows that the essential meaning is not understood until we deeply see the sameness of emptiness (śunyata), interdependence (pratītyasamutpāda) and conditional cognition (upadayaprajnapti).
In another renowned text, Vigrahavyavartani (refutation of objections), he responds to the possible objections to the Madhyamaka treatise from both Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools. He also deals with epistemology, and philosophy of language here. In Dharmadhātu-stava, he elaborates on the pure nature of mind as presented in the third turning teachings of the Buddha.
His works are not limited to scholarly treatises alone. He teaches compassion beautifully in Sattvārādhana stava (link) elucidating Buddha’s words on how worshipping and taking care of all sentient beings is the highest and the only authentic way to worship or follow the Buddhas.
Some of his other works are Śunyatā-saptatī (Seventy verses on emptiness), Vaidalya-prakaraṇa (Refutation of Nyaya system of Logic), Vyavahāra-siddhi (Establishing conventions), Yuktiśaṣṭika (Sixty verses on reasoning), Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Exposition on Bodhicitta), Suhṛlekha (Letter to a friend), Ratnāvali (Precious Garland), Catuḥstava (Four praises clarifying the ultimate – Lokatita [beyond worldly], Niroupamya [Incomparable], Achintya [Inconceivable], Paramārtha [Ultimate]), etc.
Nagarjuna did not remain just a reclusive hermit and out of his great compassion tried to help humanity in a variety of ways. In his text named Ratnavali (Precious garland), he gave practical advice to his friend, the Satavahana king on the policies for building a welfare state. He advises the king to be very considerate to the needy, the poor, the elderly, and infirm and to take care of them in all ways. His views on crime and punishment are very notable. He tells the king to consider those who have committed grievous crimes as one’s own erring children. So punishment should be carried out with the intent of reforming them and not with the attitude of hatred. He also emphasizes the value of education and encourages the king to give land for schools throughout the country and to support teachers everywhere in the country. He advises the king to be compassionate to all sentient beings including animals and insects. It went to the minutest details such as suggesting to provide food to even ants in anthills. He says it is wiser that way when one ponders on the finer interdependence of how all beings exist. He also advises to provide rest houses, hospitals etc. to both humans and animals throughout the country. In another text named Suhrlekha, Acharya advices the king on how to practice the essence of Buddhism even in the midst of all worldly responsibilities and busy life of a king.
He also mastered Medicine (Ayurveda) and Chemistry (Rasayana). He is famous as an Ayurveda physician who wrote many treatises including a commentary to Sushruta samhita. As of now, the earliest available version of Sushruta Samhita is within his commentary. Acharya Nagarjuna was also an adept in Rasayana (Chemistry for Medicines) with many treatises written by him on the subject like Rasaratanakara. His text on medicinal herbs and associated chemistry is even now widely studied bythe practitioners of Ayurveda.
In his later life he settled in Sri parvata (Nagarjuna-konda). XuanZang the illustrious Chinese monk-traveler mentions that the Satavahana king bore through the rock mountain of Bhramaragiri (identified as Sriparvata at Nagarjunakonda) and made a grand monastery for Nagarjuna to reside. According to Kumarajiva’s translation, during his last days Nagarjuna shut himself in a room and when it was later opened the room was empty. This probably signifies this great master dissolving his corporeal body and mind into dharmadhatu and attaining Samyaksambodhi – in line with the attainment of rainbow body in Dzogchen.