An Overview of Nagarjuna

Nagarjuna is often referred to as the second greatest philosopher to have ever come out of Asia after Buddha. He founded the philosophy of Madhyamaka (The Middle Way) and was the first to articulate Sunyata (the doctrine of emptiness) correctly. Popularly known as “the second Buddha,” Nagarjuna writings and philosophy became a source of reference for Buddhists in both South and East Asia. In fact, the Tibetan Buddhists adopted an aspect of Nagarjuna philosophy called Prasagika-Madhyamaka, as its official philosophical position.
In this article, we would take a closer look at the life and times of one of history’s greatest philosophers:
Most of the records about Nagarjuna’s life are non-existent. The only two biographies of his life (Tibetan and Chinese) were written many centuries after his death. Besides, they both contain exaggerations, myths, and inaccurate accounts of his life. But it is generally accepted that Nagarjuna was a Buddhist monk who lived in Southern Andhra region of India between 150 and 250AD. There are reports that Nagarjuna was also an adviser to Gautamiputra Satakarni, a king of the northern Satavahana dynasty.

  • Sunyata: Nagarjuna’s philosophy is founded on the central theme of the doctrine of emptiness (Sunyata). This philosophy was seen as a challenge to the then school of thought that analyzed the earth in terms of essences and fixed substances. To counter this idea, Nagarjuna proposed that the earth has no fixed nature or essence. And it is because of this lack of essence that things can change from one form to another. Therefore, the only way for a thing to come into existence is through a lack of inherent existence (Svabhava).
  • Causation: Nagarjuna gave the Buddha’s catsukoti (four errors) a more logical and refined meaning. He believed that even though causation cannot be verified empirically or rationally, it is still not impossible. He assumed that the reason for the lack of verification must be as a result of a faulty logic in humans. This teaching was in direct contrast to the Buddha’s claim that causation is empirical, eternally, and universally valid. As a result of this approach, Nagarjuna acquired the label of a skeptic.
  • Relativity: In the Ratnavali, Nagarjuna taught about relativity. According to him, the only way to determine an object or thing is in relation to other contrasting objects or things. Citing an example, he said the term “shortness” only existed when it is contrasted with the idea of length. He also believed that Svabhava (the inherent existence) does not determine the relationship between short and long.

Nagarjuna was a physician who practiced Ayurvedic medicine. He was the first to pioneer the act of using specially treated minerals for therapy. He also wrote many descriptions of the blood tissue and circulatory system. All these feats earned him the title, “father of iatrochemistry.”
Some of Nagarjuna’s works include the following:

  • The Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (Sunyatasaptati).
  • The Dispeller of Disputes (Vigrahavyavartani).
  • The Precious Garland (Ratnavali).
  • The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (MMK) (Mulamadhyamakakarika).

Nagarjuna was one of the most influential thinkers in the history of Asia. He introduced a whole new perspective into the existing philosophy. He also challenged the standard thoughts of his day. And because of him, the character of Buddhism was molded and refined forever.
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