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Nagarjuna, depicted in thangka by Shawo Thar, 2003

Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is widely considered one of the most important Mahayana philosophers. His writings, along with those of his disciple Āryadeva, are the foundational texts 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]

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").[12] The ruins of Nāgārjunakoṇḍa are located in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh. The Caitika and Bahuśrutīya nikāyas are known to have had monasteries in Nāgārjunakoṇḍa.[12]

Traditional accounts

Jan Westerhoff states:

Nāgārjuna’s biography is transmitted to us in a variety of accounts that abound with hagiographical detail. But Nāgārjuna has entered the history of Buddhist thought even before we get to these biographies. If we follow traditional Buddhist accounts, the arising of the Madhyamaka school was no historical accident, but a development already predicted by the historical Buddha Śakyamuni. Nāgārjuna (referred to just as Nāga) is mentioned at various places in the Mahāyāna sūtras and tantras. The most famous of these is a prophecy in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra. Addressing the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, the Buddha declares that:
In Vedalī, in the southern part, there will be a monk widely known as Śrīmān, who will be called Nāga. Destroying the positions of existence and non-existence he will teach my vehicle, the unsurpassed Mahāyāna to the world. He will attain the stage called muditā [‘joyful’, the first Bodhisattva ground] and will pass on to the pure realm of Sukhāvatī.23
Other scriptures add detail to this, such as that Nāgārjuna is going to be born 400 years after the death of the historical Buddha, or that he will live for 600 years, but what makes this prophecy particularly interesting is that it says Nāgārjuna will achieve the first Bodhisattva ground (bhūmi). This achievement requires realization of emptiness. It ensures that Nāgārjuna not only knows what he is talking about, but has realized it directly.
The majority of details of Nāgārjuna’s life are transmitted to us in a variety of colourful accounts from later writers such as Kumārajīva, Bu ston, and Tāranātha, accounts that exhibit surprisingly little agreement with each other. Jan Yün-Hua gives a succinct account of the common themes, and points out that:
he came from a Brahminical family, was well versed in magic power, and had a romantic life when he was young. After renouncing his worldly life and being initiated into the Buddhist Saṅgha, he studied Mahāyāna texts on the Snow Mountain, went to and obtained more important Mahāyāna scriptures from the palace of the Nāgas under the sea, and won the mind and support of the king of Sātavāhana dynasty. These sources also say that he settled in South India until the last days of his life. He had a long life, lasting several hundred years.[13]

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."[14]
    • English translation: Li Rongxi, trans. (2017) The Lives of Great Monks and Nuns, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 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.[15] 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:[16]

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) - an expansion of the first section of the Fundamental Verses on ‘Examining Conditions’

3) Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (Skt. Śūnyatāsaptatikārikā) - 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) - 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་)


Statue of Nāgārjuna in Tibetan monastery near Kullu, India

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Jan Westerhoff states:

The central concept around which all of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy is built is the notion of emptiness (śūnyatā). Emptiness is of course always the emptiness of something, and the something Nāgārjuna has in mind here is svabhāva. Different terms have been used to translate this word into English: “inherent existence” and “intrinsic nature” appear to be the more popular choices, but “substance” and “essence” have also been proposed. None of these cover the full complexity of the term, however. We therefore have to give some more detailed account of the way svabhāva is characterized in Nāgārjuna’s thought. By understanding what empty things are supposed to be empty of we simultaneously gain a more precise understanding of the concept of emptiness.
We can distinguish two main conceptual dimensions of the concept of svabhāva, an ontological one, which refers to a particular way in which objects exist, and a cognitive one, which refers to a way in which objects are conceptualized by human beings. Within the ontological dimension we can distinguish three different understandings of svabhāva: in terms of essence, in terms of substance, and in terms of absolute reality. (Even though this distinction is largely based on Madhyamaka authors later than Nāgārjuna it is still a useful heuristic tool for understanding the philosophical point he was trying to make.)
If we understand svabhāva in terms of essence it has to be considered a property an object could not lose without ceasing to be that very object: the svabhāva of fire is to be hot, the svabhāva of water to be wet: whatever ceases to be hot is no longer fire, whatever ceases to be wet is no longer water. According to this understading svabhāva is also identified with the kind of specific qualities (svalakṣaṇa) that allow an observer to distinguish an object from other things: by knowing that something is hot, together with a variety of other svalakṣaṇas we know that what we have in front of us is fire rather than something else. It is important to note that this concept of svabhāva (which plays only a small role in Nāgārjuna’s writings but becomes more important in later Madhyamaka writers) is not the target of the Madhyamaka critique. When Nāgārjuna argues that things are empty of svabhāva it is not this notion of essence he is concerned with. The philosophically more important understanding of svabhāva is an understanding in terms of substance.
In Buddhist philosophical thought preceding Nāgārjuna we find the distinction between primary existents (dravyasat) and secondary existents (prajñaptisat). Primary existents constitute the objective and irreducible constituents of the world out there while secondary existents depend on our conceptual and linguistic practices. Early schools of Buddhist metapysics hold that only irreducible dharmas (entities that may be conceptualized analogous to particularized properties or tropes (see Goodman 2004) are really real whereas everything else, including shoes and ships and sealing-wax is a mere aggregate of such dharmas constructed by our conceptualizing mind. According to this theory the entire world around us would be relegated to the status of mere secondary existents, apart from the property particulars which are primary existents. In this context svabhāva is equated with primary existence and denotes a specific ontological status: to exist with svabhāva means to be part of the basic furniture of the world, independent of anything else that also happens to exist. Such objects provide the ontological rock-bottom on which the diverse world of phenomena rests. They provide the end-point of a chain of ontological dependence relations.
Nāgārjuna argues, however, that there is no such end-point and denies the existence of an ontological foundation (see Westerhoff 2017. For the relation of this idea to the debate about the well-foundedness of grounding in contemporary metaphysics see chapter 3 of Westerhoff 2020). This fact is sometimes used as support of the accusation that Madhyamaka is really a nihilistic doctrine, a doctrine that nothing exists. For if the secondary existent is reduced to the primary, and if there is no primary, what is there left? This interpretation has a relatively long history, beginning in ancient India and continuing to find supporters nowadays (see Spackman 2014, Westerhoff 2016). Nevertheless, there are powerful systematic and historical reasons against it. First of all, it is not clear that this kind of ontological nihilism is in fact a consistent position (if there is nothing, is there not at least the fact that there is nothing, i.e. something? See, however, Westerhoff 2021). Secondly, the Mādhyamikas themselves are very clear that their position avoids both of the extreme views, the view that believes in the existence of svabhāva as well as its nihilistic opposite.
It is the understanding of svabhāva as a primary existent or substance that constitutes the main target of Nāgārjuna’s philosophical criticism. Before we have a closer look at the form this criticism takes we must briefly mention the final ontological understanding of svabhāva, namely svabhāva as absolute reality. If svabhāva is regarded as the true nature of phenomena it is sometimes characterized as not brought about by any causal process, as unchangeable and as independent of any other object. The interesting problem arising here is that for the Madhyamaka the true nature of phenomena is emptiness, i.e. the absence of svabhāva understood as substance, and that svabhāva understood in this way is also characterized as not brought about by any causal process, as unchangeable and as independent of any other object. So it seems to be the case that something that has all these properties must exist (since there is svabhāva which is the true nature of phenomena) and must not exist (since, the Madhyamaka argues, svabhāva understood as substance does not exist). In the Buddhist commentarial literature we find several different ways of dissolving this contradiction (for more discussion see Westerhoff 2009: 40–46). One way of tackling the issue is by differentiating two senses in which svabhāva can be “independent of any other object”. This can be understood as the familiar understanding of substance as a primary existent noted above. But it can also be understood as meaning “not dependent on any specific phenomenon”. We could then argue that emptiness as the true nature of phenomena is to be understood as svabhāva and thus as independent only in the second, but not in the first sense. This is due to the fact that svabhāva in the sense rejected by Madhyamaka thinkers is regarded as a superimposition mistakenly projected onto objects which in fact lack it (see below). Thus emptiness only exists as long as svabhāva understood as substance is mistakenly projected onto some object or other. Emptiness does not depend on any specific phenomenon to exist, but there has to be some phenomenon mistakenly conceived for emptiness to exist. Emptiness is not some kind of primordial reality ante rem but a corrective to a mistaken view of how the world exists. This account boils down to saying that there really are only two ways of understanding svabhāva: as essence and as substance. What was earlier called svabhāva as absolute reality is only a specific form of svabhāva understood as essence: in the same way as heat is an essential quality of fire emptiness is an essential quality of all phenomena. Things could not be the things they are without being empty.
In concluding our exposition of the different conceptual dimensions that make up the concept of svabhāva in Madhyamaka thought we finally have to consider the cognitive understanding of the term. This constitutes an indispensable component of Nāgārjuna’s concept since for him the purpose of determining the existence or non-existence of svabhāva is not just to arrive at a theoretically satisfactory understanding of reality but is taken to have far more comprehensive implications for how we interact with the world. Realization of the non-existence of svabhāva is supposed to have important soteriological consequences as part of Buddhist practice; ultimately it is understood to be the way to the liberation from existential suffering, the final of the famous four noble truths expounded by the Buddha. It is important to realize that svabhāva understood as substance that Nāgārjuna rejects is not a theoretical posit, an entity an insufficiently sophisticated philosopher might postulate, but a kind of cognitive default, a way of superimposing something onto the world that is automatic and immediate and not the result of detailed theoretical reflection. We carry out such superimpositions when we regard the rapidly changing set of psycho-physical aggregates that constitutes us as a single, permanent, independent self but also in our daily interaction with other persons, medium-sized dry goods, linguistic representations and so forth. These then lead to all sorts of painful emotional entanglements and constitute the key source of suffering described in the Buddhist teachings. It is crucial to keep in mind in this context that the Madhyamaka distinguishes between the understanding of the absence of svabhāva or emptiness and its realization. The former is a purely intellectual response resulting from being convinced by the Madhyamaka arguments; it does not entail that phenomena will no longer appear as having svabhāva. They will only cease to appear in this way as a result of the realization of emptiness. The aim of Madhyamaka thought is therefore not simply to present an accurate account of the nature of the world, but to bring about a cognitive shift, a change in the way in which the world appears to us. It is useful to compare this situation with the perception of an optical illusion such as the Müller-Lyer illusion in which two lines of equal length appear to be of different length. By using a ruler we can convince ourselves that our perception deceives us; by learning more about perceptive mechanisms we can understand why we perceive the lines in the way they do. But none of this implies that the lines will in the end look as if they are equally long.[17]
Further reading
  • Westerhoff, Jan (2022), Sep-man-red.png Nāgārjuna, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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. 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 2022.
  11. Williams 2002, p. 141.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. 2007. p. 242
  13. Westerhoff 2018, Chapter 2.
  14. Rongxi 2002, p. 18.
  15. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso 2003, Introduction.
  16. *LotsawaHouse-tag.png A Preliminary to the Explanation of the Prajñāpāramitā by Khenpo Tsöndrü, Lotsawa House
  17. Westerhoff 2022, Section 2.


  • 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 
  • 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 (2022), Zalta, Edward N., ed., "Nāgārjuna", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 ed.) 
  • Book icoline.svg Westerhoff, Jan (2018), The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy, Oxford University Press 
  • Williams, Paul (2002), Buddhist Thought (Kindle ed.), Taylor & Francis 

Further reading

  • 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.


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