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Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is widely considered one of the most important Mahayana philosophers. Along with his disciple Āryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Nāgārjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and, in some sources, with having revealed these scriptures in the world, having recovered them from the nāgas.

Furthermore, he is traditionally supposed to have written several treatises on rasayana as well as serving a term as the head of Nālandā.[1]


Historical account

Golden statue of Nāgārjuna at Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery, Scotland.

Contemporary scholars generally place Nagarjuna in South India between the first and third centuries CE.[note 1]

Contemporary scholar David Kalupahana suggests that Nāgārjuna might have been an advisor to a king of the Satavahana dynasty.[5] Archaeological evidence at Amarāvatī indicates that if this is true, the king may have been Yajña Śrī Śātakarṇi, who ruled between 167 and 196 CE. On the basis of this association, Kalupahana and other scholars place Nagarjuna at around 150–250 CE.[5]

Traditional accounts

The surviving traditional accounts of Nagarjuna's life are written in Chinese[12] and Tibetan; these accounts were written centuries after his death.

According to a 4th/5th-century biography translated by Kumārajīva, Nāgārjuna was born into a Brahmin family[13] in Vidarbha[14][15][16] (a region of Maharashtra) and later became a Buddhist.

Some sources claim that in his later years, Nāgārjuna lived on the mountain of Śrīparvata near the city that would later be called Nāgārjunakoṇḍa ("Hill of Nāgārjuna").[17] The ruins of Nāgārjunakoṇḍa are located in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh. The Caitika and Bahuśrutīya nikāyas are known to have had monasteries in Nāgārjunakoṇḍa.[17]

Traditional biographies

  • Life of Nagarjuna Bodhisattva - translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva
    • This text is "said to have been translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva from 401 to 409 C.E., is actually the last part of Chapter Five of the Record of the Origin of Transmitting the Dharma-pi†aka, translated into Chinese by Kekaya and Tanyao of the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). Kumarajiva’s version is practically identical in wording with the Record."[18]
    • English translation: The Lives of Great Monks and Nuns, pp. 17–30


Nagarjuna's writings mainly employ reasoning in order to clarify the view and the conduct of the Buddhist teachings. Tibetan scholars categorize his writings into three collections, corresponding to the three turnings of the wheel of the Dharma.[19] These three collections are listed below.

Collection of Advice

Nagarjuna's Collection of Advice (Tib. གཏམ་ཚོགས་, Wyl. gtam tshogs) refers to texts by Nagarjuna in which he provides advice to householders and the ordained on how to follow the Buddhist path. These instructions are likened to Buddha's first turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

The texts in this collection are:

  • Precious Garland (Skt. Ratnāvalī or Ratnamāla; Tib. རིན་ཆེན་ཕྲེང་བ་)
  • Letter to a Friend (Skt. Suhṛllekha; Tib. བཤེས་པའི་སྤྲིང་ཡིག་)
  • Tree of Wisdom (Skt. Nītiśāstraprajñādaṇḍa, Tib. ལུགས་ཀྱི་བསྟན་བཅོས་ཤེས་རབ་སྡོང་པོ་)
  • A Hundred Wisdoms (Skt. Prajñāsataka)
  • Drops for Healing Beings (Skt. Janaposanabindu)
  • Commentary on Bodhichitta (Skt. Bodhicittavivāraṇa; Tib. བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་ཀྱི་འགྲེལ་པ་)
  • Compendium of Sutras (Skt. Sutrasamucchaya; Tib. མདོ་ཀུན་ལས་བཏུས་པ་)

Collection of Middle Way Reasoning

Nagarjuna's Collection of Middle Way Reasoning (Skt. yuktikāya; Tib. དབུ་མ་རིགས་ཚོགས་) are identified with the second turning of the wheel. Some say that there are five texts in the collection, while others say six, but there is no consensus on the identity of the sixth text.

The texts in this collection are likened to the second turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

Five texts

According to Tibetan teacher Khenpo Tsöndrü, the five texts in this collection are:[20]

1) Root Verses of the Middle Way on Wisdom (Skt. Mulamadhyamaka-karika) - the main body-like treatise that refutes the views other traditions.

Then there are the two subsidiary treatises derived from this:

2) Refutation of Objections (Skt. Vigrahavyāvartanī; Tib. རྟྩྩོད་པ་ཟླློག་པ་) - an expansion of the first section of the Fundamental Verses on ‘Examining Conditions’

3) Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (Skt. Śūnyatāsaptatikārikā; Tib. སྟོང་ཉིད་བདུན་བཅུ་པ་) - an expansion of the seventh section of the Fundamental Verses on ‘Examining Arising, Dwelling and Ceasing’

Then there are:

4) Sixty Stanzas on Reasoning (Skt. Yuktiṣaṣṭikākārika; Tib. རིགས་པ་དྲུག་ཅུ་པའི་ཚིག་ལེའུར་བྱས་པ་) - a refutation of some within our own (Buddhist) tradition in particular; and

5) Crushing the Categories (Skt. Vaidalyaprakaraṇa) - a refutation of the establishing logic known as the ‘sixteen words and meanings of the logicians.’

The Sixth Text

Some scholars such as Butön Rinchen Drup (1290-1364) and Longchenpa added Conventional Existence to the other five, and some more recent scholars have added Precious Garland (Ratnavali), but this is usually included among the Collection of Advice.

Collection of Praises

Nagarjuna's Collection of Praises (Tib. བསྟོད་ཚོགས་, Wyl. bstod tshogs) are likened to the third turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

It is said that towards the end of his life, acting on advice from Tara, Nagarjuna returned to Southern India and dwelt at a place called Mount Splendour, where he gave extensive teachings on both the sutras and tantras, and composed many more texts. These writings are known as the Collection of Praises.

The texts in this collection include:

  • Praise of the Dharmadhatu (Skt. Dharmadhātustava; Tib. ཆོས་ཀྱི་དབྱིངས་སུ་བསྟོད་པ་)
  • Praise of the Supramundane (Skt. Lokātītastava; Tib. འཇིག་རྟེན་ལས་འདས་པར་བསྟོད་པ་)
  • Praise of the Inconceivable (Skt. Acintyastava; Tib. བསམ་གྱིས་མི་ཁྱབ་པར་བསྟོད་པ་)
  • Praise of the Ultimate (Skt. Paramārthastava; Tib. དོན་དམ་པར་བསྟོད་པ་)

Traditional biographies

  • Life of Nagarjuna Bodhisattva - translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva
    • This text is "said to have been translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva from 401 to 409 C.E., is actually the last part of Chapter Five of the Record of the Origin of Transmitting the Dharma-pi†aka, translated into Chinese by Kekaya and Tanyao of the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). Kumarajiva’s version is practically identical in wording with the Record."[21]
    • English translation: The Lives of Great Monks and Nuns, pp. 21–30


Statue of Nāgārjuna in Tibetan monastery near Kullu, India

From studying his writings, it is clear that Nāgārjuna was conversant with many of the Śrāvaka philosophies and with the Mahāyāna tradition. However, determining Nāgārjuna's affiliation with a specific nikāya 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 Māhayānist, but his philosophy holds assiduously to the Śrāvaka Tripiṭaka, and while he does make explicit references to Mahāyāna texts, he is always careful to stay within the parameters set out by the Śrāvaka canon.

Nāgārjuna may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the āgamas. In the eyes of Nāgārjuna, the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Madhyamaka system.[22] David Kalupahana sees Nāgārjuna 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.[23]

Nāgārjuna 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, Nāgārjuna criticizes the Nyaya theory of pramanas (means of knowledge) [24]

Nāgārjuna was fully acquainted with the classical Hindu philosophies of Samkhya and even the Vaiseshika.[25]

Because of the high degree of similarity between Nāgārjuna's philosophy and Pyrrhonism, particularly the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus[26] Thomas McEvilley suspects that Nāgārjuna was influenced by Greek Pyrrhonists texts imported into India.[27] Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-c. 270 BCE), who is usually credited with founding this school of skeptical philosophy, was himself influenced by Indian philosophy, when he traveled to India with Alexander the Great's army and studied with the gymnosophists.

See also


  1. Scholars have suggested the following dates for the life of Nagarjuna:
    • Buswell: during the second century[2]
    • Garfield: approximately the first century[3]
    • Harvey: 150-250 CE[4]
    • Kalupahana:150-250 CE[5]
    • Jones: second or third centuries CE[6]
    • Keown: around 150 CE[7]
    • Rongxi: the second half of the second century CE[8]
    • Smith and Novak: third century CE[9]
    • Westerhoff: ca 150-250 CE[10]
    • Williams: circa second century CE[11]


  1. Hsing Yun, Xingyun, Tom Manzo, Shujan Cheng Infinite Compassion, Endless Wisdom: The Practice of the Bodhisattva Path Buddha's Light Publishing Hacienda Heights California
  2. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Nagarjuna
  3. Garfield 1994.
  4. Harvey 2013, p. 115.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Kalupahana 1992, p. 160.
  6. Jones 2014, Preface.
  7. Keown 2000, Chap 5.
  8. Rongxi 2002, p. 17.
  9. Smith & Novak 2009, p. 189.
  10. Westerhoff 2019.
  11. Williams 2002, p. 141.
  12. Rongxi, Li; Dalia, Albert A. (2002). The Lives of Great Monks and Nuns, Berkeley CA: Numata Center for Translation and Research, pp. 21–30
  13. Notes on the Nagarjunikonda Inscriptions, Dutt, Nalinaksha. The Indian Historical Quarterly 7:3 1931.09 pp.633–653 "..Tibetan tradition which says that Nāgārjuna was born of a brahmin family of Vidarbha."
  14. Geri Hockfield Malandra, Unfolding A Mandala: The Buddhist Cave Temples at Ellora, SUNY Press, 1993, p. 17
  15. Shōhei Ichimura, Buddhist Critical Spirituality: Prajñā and Śūnyatā, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (2001), p. 67
  16. Bkra-śis-rnam-rgyal (Dwags-po Paṇ-chen), Takpo Tashi Namgyal, Mahamudra: The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (1993), p. 443
  17. 17.0 17.1 Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 242
  18. Rongxi 2002, p. 18.
  19. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso 2003, Introduction.
  20. *LotsawaHouse-tag.png A Preliminary to the Explanation of the Prajñāpāramitā by Khenpo Tsöndrü, Lotsawa House
  21. Rongxi, Li; Dalia, Albert A. (2002). The Lives of Great Monks and Nuns, Berkeley CA: Numata Center for Translation and Research, pp. 21–30
  22. Christian Lindtner, Master of Wisdom. Dharma Publishing 1997, page 324.
  23. David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Motilal Banarsidass, 2005, pages 2,5.
  24. S.Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy Volume 1, page 644
  25. TRV Murti, The central philosophy of Buddhism, page 92
  26. Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism 2008
  27. Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought 2002 pp499-505


  • Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press 
  • Harvey, Peter (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press 
  • Jones, Richard (2014), Nagarjuna: Buddhism's Most Important Philosopher (Kindle ed.), Jackson Square Books 
  • Kalupahana, David J. (1992b), The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Delhi: ri Satguru Publications 
  • Keown, Damien (2000), Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Kindle ed.), Oxford University Press 
  • Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (2003), The Sun of Wisdom, translated by Goldfield, Ari (Kindle ed.), Shambhala 
  • Murti, T. R. V. (1955), The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. George Allen and Unwin, London. 2nd edition: 1960.
  • Murty, K. Satchidananda (1971), Nagarjuna. National Book Trust, New Delhi. 2nd edition: 1978.
  • Ramanan, K. Venkata (1966), Nāgārjuna's Philosophy. Charles E. Tuttle, Vermont and Tokyo. Reprint: Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. 1978. (This book gives an excellent and detailed examination of the range and subtleties of Nagarjuna's philosophy.)
  • Ruegg, D. Seyfort (1981), The literature of the Madhyamaka school of philosophy in India (A History of Indian literature), Harrassowitz, ISBN 978-3-447-02204-0.
  • Sastri, H. Chatterjee, ed. (1977), The Philosophy of Nāgārjuna as contained in the Ratnāvalī. Part I [ Containing the text and introduction only ]. Saraswat Library, Calcutta.
  • Smith, Huston; Novak, Philip (2009), Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (Kindle ed.), HarperOne 
  • Streng, Frederick J. (1967), Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
  • Tuck, Andrew P. (1990), Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: on the Western Interpretation of Nāgārjuna, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Walser, Joseph (2002), Nagarjuna And The Ratnavali: New Ways To Date An Old Philosopher, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 25 (1-2), 209-262
  • Walser, Joseph (2005),Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Wedemeyer, Christian K. (2007), Āryadeva's Lamp that Integrates the Practices: The Gradual Path of Vajrayāna Buddhism according to the Esoteric Community Noble Tradition. New York: AIBS/Columbia University Press.
  • Westerhoff, Jan (2010), The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna's Vigrahavyāvartanī. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Westerhoff, Jan (2009), Nāgārjuna's Madhyamaka. A Philosophical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Westerhoff, Jan Christoph (2019), Zalta, Edward N., ed., "Nāgārjuna", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 ed.) 
  • Williams, Paul (2002), Buddhist Thought (Kindle ed.), Taylor & Francis 


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