The Mahayana form of Buddhism is said to have the maximum number of followers compared to the other two forms Theravada and Vajrayana. In the Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna is considered to be the founder of the Middle Path or the Madhyamika School of Mahayana Buddhism. He is generally referred to as the Second Buddha and is said to be the greatest Buddhist teacher after Buddha himself. It is said that after the Buddha passed away, the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom)Sutras which were the principle Mahayana teachings disappeared from the world as some Nagas on receiving the teachings from Buddha had taken them to their oceanic world for safety. They later returned them to the monk Shrimantha who brought the valuable scriptures to the human world and propagated them. He cured many of the Nagas and hence he came to be known as Nagarjuna and his image is generally depicted with a canopy of Nagas crowning and shielding his head. He is said to have transmitted the teachings of the profound view of voidness from Manjushri. He was said to be a contemporary of King Gautamiputra Satakami of the Satavahana Dynasty.
It is said that his biography was written by Kumarajeevan who was the teacher of the Chinese traveller Fa Hein and translated 47 of his books into Chinese.
Birth and Early Life
The birth of Nagarjuna is said to have been predicted in various Sutras such as the Lankavatara Sutra etc. He was born in the Vidarbha kingdom in South India which is in the present day Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in the mid first or the early second century BCE. It is said that at birth he was predicted to live only for seven days but if offerings were made to a hundred monks, his life span would be extended to seven years. Fearing for his life, after his seventh year his worried parents sent him to Nalanda Buddhist monastic university in the North where he met the Buddhist Master Saraha who told him that if he became a monk and recited the Amitabh Buddha mantra regularly, he would lead a long life. Nagarjuna agreed and became a monk and was named Shrimanta.
Nagarjuna studied tantras and sutras and learning alchemy from a Brahmin could also transmute iron into gold. Using this ability, during famine he was able to feed the monks in Nalanda. Soon he was appointed the Abbott of Nalanda. He defeated five hundred non Buddhists in debate and expelled many monks who were not adhering to the monastic rules.
Concept of Shunyata
Nagarjuna’s concept of Sunyata or emptiness is that all sentient beings cannot independently exist as they have no individual power or essence on their own. Everything arises and passes away due to causal conditions. His basic aim was not to describe the world but refute ways in which man misunderstood the world.
His philosophy of Madhyamika
Nagarjuna took the middle path between existence and non existence, between ultimate and superficial truth. He taught the idea of relativity, ie shortness exists only in relation to the idea of length, Light exists in relation to darkness, the element of good exists in relation to bad etc. He stated that philosophy and the speculation of reality led to further illusion and not to knowledge. The true goal is the abandonment of all views and not a new philosophical view of life. The Ultimate Truth was not this, not that, not both and not either. A man struck by an arrow did not ponder on where the arrowhead was forged, what wood was used etc. He only needed to know how the arrow was to be removed to relieve suffering.
Works of Nagarjuna
Mulamadhyakakarika(the fundamental stanzas on the middle way) which is the core text of the Madhyamika School is one of the most important and influential texts in Mahayana Buddhism and is assigned to Nagarjuna.
The other works are-
- Śūnyatāsaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness)
- Vigrahavyāvartanī (The End of Disputes)
- Vaidalyaprakarana (Pulverizing the Categories)
- Vyavahārasiddhi (Proof of Convention)
- Yuktisāṣṭika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning)
- Catuḥstava (Hymn to the Absolute Reality)
- Ratnāvalī (Precious Garland)
- Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika (Constituents of Dependent Arising)
- Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind)
- Suhṛllekha (Letter to a Good Friend)
- Bodhisaṃbhāra (Requisites of Enlightenment)
Nagarjuna was a Master of Buddhist Doctrine. He wrote on every aspect of Buddhist philosophy and religion. His works encourage mankind to strive for liberation and he exhorts the people to contemplate on suffering, its causes and effects and the desire for salvation which can be achieved by giving up attachment to sensory objects and transcending the cycles of birth and death. He stresses on right conduct, morality and meditation to achieve this goal. He is of great importance in Buddhism and his statue is often found near the statue of Buddha, such is his fame and renown.