Nagarjuna: Philosopher and Alchemist, Robert Beer, gouache, 1988. Courtesy Inner Traditions and Robert Beer.
Nagarjuna: Philosopher and Alchemist, Robert Beer, gouache, 1988. Courtesy Inner Traditions and Robert Beer.

Although Nagarjuna is arguably the most important figure in Buddhism after the Buddha himself, very little is known about him. All that can be said with any certainty is that he lived at some time around the second century C.E. in India and is the author of a Sanskrit work of 448 verses, divided into twenty-seven chapters entitled: Verses from the Center(Mulamadhyamakakarika). The first known account of Nagarjuna’s life was composed from Indian sources by Kumarajiva, the Central Asian scholar who translated Verses from the Center from Sanskrit into Chinese in 409 C.E.

According to Kumarajiva, Nagarjuna was born at the foot of an Arjuna tree to a brahmin family in South India. He excelled in the traditional religious and secular subjects studied by the Indian priestly caste and by the age of twenty was renowned for his learning. But the sensual side of his character was unfulfilled. He and three friends learned from a sorcerer the art of making themselves invisible. They entered the private quarters in the royal palace and seduced the women. When the king learned of this, he ordered his soldiers to occupy the palace. By aiming their swords above the footprints left by the invisible men, the soldiers were able to kill Nagarjuna’s three companions. Nagarjuna was spared only by standing close to the king.

The brush with death impressed on the young man how craving leads to anguish. He escaped from the palace and fled to the mountains, where he became a monk and studied the teachings of the Buddha. Within three months he gained mastery of the early canonical texts but found they did not adequately answer his deepest questions. He then met an old monk who introduced him to the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) was, at the time of Nagarjuna, a newly emerging movement of thought and practice whose advocates criticized the spiritual detachment and social isolation of those monks who claimed to represent the early Buddhist tradition. Such people, they claimed, placed too great an emphasis on the attainment of their own liberation and ignored the plight of the world. The Mahayanists took as their ideal the bodhisattva: one who seeks awakening not merely for his or her own sake but in order to be able to liberate others from suffering. Followers of this movement believed that such ideas were not new but had been expounded by the historical Buddha. The discourses in which Gautama taught Mahayana doctrines had, however, only been preserved in non-human realms. Now, they maintained, the time was ripe for their dissemination on earth.

Nagarjuna was sufficiently inspired by the vision of these teachings that he left his mountain retreat and wandered through India in search of other Mahayana discourses. In the course of his travels, he refined his dialectical skills against Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. He defeated those who challenged him in debate and became so convinced of his superior understanding that he finally declared: “I have no master.” He founded an order based on his own understanding and then devised a rule for his disciples to follow. It was at this point that a naga, an intelligent subaquatic serpent, had compassion for him and guided him to the bed of a lake where the Mahayana Wisdom Discourses entrusted to the nagas by the Buddha were stored.

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