India (150? - 250?) Timeline
Poems by Nagarjuna
Books - Links
Nagarjuna was a leading voice in the establishment Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasized the Bodhisattva vow to work for the enlightenment and freedom from suffering of all beings and not merely oneself.
Nagarjuna lived in India in the second century CE, at about the time that Buddhism was being brought to China and other east Asian regions. He was born into a Brahmin family in Bedarwa ("The Land of the Palms") in southern India, fulfilling a prophecy attributed to the Buddha:
In the Southern region, in the Land of the Palms,
The monk Shriman of great renown,
Known by the name, 'Naga',
Will destroy the positions of existence and non-existence.
Having proclaimed to the world my vehicle,
The unsurpassed Great Vehicle,
He will accomplish the ground, Very Joyful,
And depart to the Land of Bliss.
As a young boy, Nagarjuna excelled in his studies, showing early signs of his keen intellect, which is reflected in his later writings.
A fascinating story is told of how he came to the Buddhist path. As a young man, Nagarjuna along with three friends, learned the secret of invisibility from a sorcerer. They used this ability to secretly enter the royal palace and seduce the attractive young women at court. The ruse was discovered, and the royal guards were told to attack where they saw footprints appearing without apparent cause. All three of Nagarjuna's friends were killed, and Nagarjuna survived only by staying close to the king. (An allegorical story with layers of meaning in it.)
This experience taught the young Nagarjuna how desires lead to suffering, and he fled to the mountains to become a monk, becoming the student of a Buddhist master.
He later journeyed throughout India, often engaging in theological debate with proponents of various religions, including other Buddhists who opposed the newly emerging Mahayana expression of Buddhism.
Nagarjuna eventually founded a monastery, establishing his own order of monks.
One of Nagarjuna's major contributions to Buddhist literature is the hugely influential Prajnaparamita Sutras (or Wisdom Discourses), which is a series of conversations between the Buddha and his disciples on the importance of sunyata ("emptiness") in coming to full awakening. The story is told that, one day while meditating near a lake, a naga, or water wisdom snake, came to the surface and asked him to journey to the underwater kingdom of nagas in order to teach them. He did so, and as a gift of thanks, he was entrusted with the twelve-volume Prajnaparamita Sutras, which were deemed ready to be released back into human consciousness. This event is also said to be how he came by his name, Nagarjuna.
Another important work associated with Nagarjuna is the Mulamadhyamakakarika ("Verses from the Center" or "Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way"), a series of koan-like riddles and inquiries into emptiness and the ephemeral nature of self-existence in the form of poetry.
In the iconography associated with Nagarjuna, he is often depicted seated in meditation beneath a protective canopy of nagas, the serpents associated with awakened wisdom.
Poems by Nagarjuna
Wikipedia - Nagarjuna
A very brief article on Nagarjuna's significance and philosophy, along with several links.
Verses from the Centre
The full text of Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika (or Verses from the Center) in both Tibetan and Stephen Batchelor's English translation.
The Life of Nagarjuna
A short biography of Nagarjuna.
The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna's Philosophy
An article exploring the inner meaning of sunyata or emptiness in Sunyata's work.
Notes and thoughts on Nagarjuna's life and teachings.
Nagarjuna and the Doctrine of "Skillful Means"
A scholarly paper exploring Nagarjuna's teachings on upaya or "skillful means" of attaining enlightenment while interacting with the world in a balanced, strategic way.