Arya Nagarjuna lived after the Buddha’s time and became the founder of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in ancient India. It was from this great being that the lineage on wisdom, or the teachings on the profound view of Emptiness, descended based on his pure visions of Manjushri. Even before his time, there were numerous accounts in several Sutras that prophesied the coming of Nagarjuna, such as those in the Lankavatara Sutra amongst many others. On the other hand, Nagarjuna in the Tibetan tradition is regarded as one of the previous incarnations of Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug School.
It is said that when Nagarjuna was giving teachings on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, six nagas appeared behind him and formed a parasol over his head to shield him from the sun. This image became popularised in statues and thangkas of him. His name can be broken up into the words ‘naga’ – which reflects his encounters with these beings and ‘arjuna’ – the name of a famous archer from the Bhagavad Gita, a befitting epithet for the precise manner in which he delivered the finer aspects of the teachings much in the same meticulous manner as an archer. Thus, he was known as Nagarjuna.
In the ancient texts, Nagarjuna was born into a Brahmin family in the ancient kingdom of Vidarbha of South India. As soon as he was born, he was customarily presented to a soothsayer who proclaimed him a holy being due to auspicious signs on his body. However, the soothsayer also said that the signs indicated that the baby would not live past the seventh day. He added that it was possible to extend the baby’s life up to seven years if the parents made offerings to a hundred Buddhist monks. The parents immediately obliged and Nagarjuna lived to seven years old. On the seventh year, the soothsayer’s prediction came back to haunt them.
The parents feared the worst and so they resorted to sending the little boy to the great Nalanda Monastery, where he came under the care of the great master Saraha. The master Saraha explained to Nagarjuna that there was a way to extend his life. The method was becoming ordained as a monk and engaging in the sadhana of the Buddha of Boundless Life, Amitayus. The boy was relieved, accepted his teacher’s advice, received the initiation and practised the sadhana diligently. Thus, he outlived his seventh year.
Subsequently, Nagarjuna received his novice vows and began his education in Nalanda. He was exceptionally intelligent in his studies, gradually rising to become a pandit or master in all the major fields of study. Therefore, his teacher Saraha initiated him into the esoteric Tantric teachings beginning with the Guhyasamaja initiation and personally gave the explanation to this Tantric system along with other teachings. Nagarjuna absorbed these teachings easily.
As he reached the permitted age, Nagarjuna returned to his parents and asked for their permission to become ordained. He was given permission and so he returned and was duly ordained by the abbot of the monastery according to the tradition of the Vinaya. As was customary, Nagarjuna was given the ordination name of Sriman (in Tibetan, the name is Palden). His yidam was Manjushri and so he was under the Wisdom Buddha’s care as he had been in previous lives.
There was a time when the master Saraha had instructed his student Nagarjuna to sustain the monastery during the time of a great famine. So, he magically transported himself to an island and studied the art of alchemy from a hermit who lived there. Upon his return, he became celebrated as the provider of the monastery through the knowledge he had learnt.
Nagarjuna eventually became a highly respected pandit-scholar and was elected to the position of Abbot of Nalanda. During his tenure, he was known as an abbot who was practical and levelheaded. In particular, he established a system in which the three higher trainings of moral discipline, concentration and wisdom were emphasised. He also dealt with wayward monks accordingly and would have no problems expelling monk who had broken their core vows.
On the aspect of his teachings, Nagarjuna had his fair share of critics. There was a scholar who went by the name of Sankara who composed a text called Ornament of Knowledge that refuted Nagarjuna’s teachings in 12,000 stanzas. There was also a Hinayana monk by the name of Sendah who refuted the validity of the Mahayana tradition that Nagarjuna taught. Needless to say, Nagarjuna refuted the views held in these texts and many others that propagated wrong views.
One day, Nagarjuna was giving teachings to a large audience when two strangers appeared and joined the crowd while infusing the air with a strong scent of sandalwood. The great master was observing the strangers and when a chance came up for him to speak with them, he began to ask who they were and where they had come from. The strangers explained that they were actually serpentine nagas in human guise and were princes of the Naga King Taksaka. They had anointed themselves with sandalwood oil so they could be amongst men without feeling revulsion at their scent. Nagarjuna immediately requested the assistance of the naga princes to procure sandalwood to be carved into an image of Tara and also the nagas’ help in temple construction.
The naga princes replied that they would ask the permission of their father first and promised to return. The next day, the naga princes did return and asked to meet with Acharya Nagarjuna. They brought a message from the Naga King, their father, stating that he was willing to make the offerings but that Nagarjuna must first follow the two princes to the land of the nagas. Acharya Nagarjuna pondered upon this and felt that traveling to the naga realm would be beneficial for sentient beings. So he accepted the invitation and followed the naga princes into their realm.
Upon his arrival in their realm, Nagarjuna was accorded the deepest respect as a Guru. He soon discovered that the Naga King and his subjects were predisposed towards virtue and the teachings of the Buddha. The king proceeded to make numerous offerings to the Acharya, requesting him to bestow teachings upon them. Needless to say, the Acharya accepted and gave extensive teachings to the delight of the king and his subjects.
Soon, it was time for Acharya Nagarjuna to return to the monastery but the king and a few of his subjects begged him to remain. However, Nagarjuna said he was not able to stay as he only had permission from the monastery for the short duration that was necessary to acquire and return with sandalwood, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra and the agreement that the nagas would assist in the construction of temples and stupas. In the end, the king relented as the Acharya promised to return.
The Acharya returned to the monastery triumphantly holding the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in One Hundred Thousand Lines along with several shorter versions of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra and several dharanis. Aside from the texts, he also brought back sandalwood and naga clay meant for the construction of temples and stupas.
The origins of the Sutra were traced back to the time of the Buddha, when he first gave the teaching on the Perfection of Wisdom. It is said that various versions of the teaching were each given to the nagas, gods and yakshas. However, the copy of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra that Nagarjuna brought back with him had two missing chapters at the end. Apparently, the nagas withheld the last two chapters in hopes that he would return to teach them and retrieve the missing chapters. However, the last two chapters were filled in with the last two chapters of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines instead.
Having acquired the precious texts, Nagarjuna studied it and began to establish what would become the Madhyamaka tradition that later spread all over India. Madhyamaka is translated as the ‘Middle Way’ and the teachings became the cornerstone of Mahayana Buddhism. In order to elaborate the view, the Acharya also composed various other treatises and commentaries on the Perfection of Wisdom, Buddhist logic and the Guhyasamaja Tantra.
Throughout his life, Nagarjuna acquired many illustrious students. From among them, there were four primary spiritual sons and three close sons. The four primary sons were Sakyamitra, Nagabodhi, Aryadeva and Matanga and his close sons were Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka and Ashvagosha. The Acharya also met another student who would become his foremost disciple when he was older and he said to him,
To my last disciple Chandrakirti, I shall show the ultimate Dharma which is not born.
Chandrakirti would become a great scholar, was highly attained and developed the Prasangika tradition based on Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka teachings.
In his earlier years, Nagarjuna traveled to the northern continent to give teachings. On his journey, he came across some children playing on the side of the road. He noticed a boy that stood out by the name of Jetaka. Nagarjuna prophesied that he would one day be king. The Acharya went on his way and would not return until many years later. By then, the boy had grown up and was the king of a sprawling kingdom in South India.
The king, recognising the Acharya, invited him to his palace to be his tutor. This is the king that Nagarjuna wrote ‘A Letter to a Friend’ to and is referred to as King Udayibhadra of the Satavahana Dynasty. Members of the Satavahana were great patrons of the Amaravati Stupa where the Buddha first taught the Kalachakra Tantra. This was close to Shri Parvata, where Nagarjuna often engaged in retreats and the place where he penned a lot of his writings.
The king had a son, Prince Kumara Shaktiman who was power hungry and coveted the throne for himself. Unfortunately, his mother told him he would never inherit the throne until Nagarjuna was dead because she felt that there was a deep connection between the Acharya and the king. His mother said to ask the Acharya for his head and he would definitely agree since he is a Bodhisattva.
When the prince did make the request, he was unable to decapitate Nagarjuna with an ordinary sword. In the end, Nagarjuna revealed that in his previous life, he had killed an ant while cutting grass. Consequently, he would succumb to the blade of a kusha grass. So the prince quickly ran to acquire it and severed Nagarjuna’s head. It is said that the blood turned into milk and just before dying, the Acharya exclaimed,
Now I will go to Sukhavati Pure Land, but I will enter this body again…
The prince decided to clean up the scene and disposed of the Acharya’s head a great distance from his body. It is said that each year, the head and body are inching closer together and will reach a point where they will rejoin. When that happens, the Acharya will return to teach again. According to traditional accounts, Nagarjuna lived for 600 years but modern scholars state that he lived for a hundred years between 150 to 250 CE.
In Tibet, Lama Tsongkhapa asked a pure vision of Manjushri if he could rely on Chandrakirti’s commentaries in order to grasp Nagarjuna’s view. Manjushri then replied that the purpose of Chandrakirti appearing on Earth was to clarify Nagarjuna’s excellent view. Therefore, Lama Tsongkhapa could have full faith in Chandrakirti because he had clearly understood Nagarjuna’s complete view of Emptiness.
Later, Lama Tsongkhapa finally gained the complete realisation of Emptiness through his study and meditation on Buddhapalita’s text, which was also highly regarded by Chandrakirti who shared the same view. Both of these great masters were the students of Nagarjuna. Then, Lama Tsongkhapa infused his own writings and teachings with his realisations as defined through Chandrakirti and Buddhapalita’s commentaries.
According to traditional belief, those who follow Lama Tsongkhapa’s writings and lineage will be blessed by Manjushri to develop faster realisations. Furthermore, Dorje Shugden arose principally to assist and protect this special uncommon lineage of Nagarjuna’s view. Hence, Dorje Shugden wears the round yellow hat as a physical representation of Nagarjuna’s view that he had realised and he had sworn to safeguard.
In conclusion, Nagarjuna is widely known as the founding father of the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras brought from the realm of the nagas is the main text on which Nagarjuna had based his Madhyamaka or Middle Way view. This philosophical view is the basis from which innumerable yogis, geshes, tulkus and great masters achieved the complete realisation of Emptiness, which is known as Shunyata in Sanskrit. In the Tibetan monasteries today, the study of the Perfection of Wisdom texts and Madhyamaka are an integral part of Tibetan monastic curriculum and the doctrinal basis for contemplation and practice. The realisations of Emptiness and Bodhicitta are two means by which one becomes a fully enlightened being.
- Lobsang N. Tsonawa (1984), Indian Buddhist Pundits
- New Delhi. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
- Berzin Archives
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