Understanding Ven. Nagarjuna


of. S. Amaratunga

Ven. Nagarjuna was one of the most distinguished Indian Buddhist philosophers. Some writers have called him "The second Buddha". His treatise on "Sunyathava" or emptiness makes him one of the greatest analytical and original thinkers of the world. His method of analysis and logic has influenced both Eastern and Western thinkers. Several books have been written on his major work; "Mulamadhyamikakarika", some in praise but some critical calling it nihilistic. The other aspect of Ven. Nagarjuna’s writing which has led to controversy is whether he actually propounds "Mahayanic" thought and whether such writings could be ascribed to him. Some of the eminent Sri Lankan Buddhist scholars such as D.Kalupahana, A.Tilakaratne have written about Ven.Nagarjuna in an attempt to interpret his philosophy.

Ven. Nagarjuna it is believed was born in Andra Pradesh to a Brahamin family and had entered Buddhist priesthood early in life. He had advised both Theravada and Mahayana followers and also contributed a lot for the spread of the Dhamma and building of temples. There are several major works to his credit and several others whose authorship is uncertain though attributed to him. Mulamadhyamikakarika is his masterpiece which presents his "Sunyathavadaya"

To understand clearly Ven.Nagarjuna’s intentions in propounding his "Madhyamika" theory one has to briefly examine the background of the sectarian developments and the discourse that ensued as a result of these changes in Buddhism after the ‘parinirvana’ of the Buddha. About a century after Buddha’s parinirvana there was a major breach in the Buddhist priesthood and two schools; Theravada and Mahasangika came into being. This breakup had been due to the fact that the senior monks had been interested in pursuing the development of the Dhamma in keeping with the Buddha’s advise that Dhamma would be equal to the Buddha and should be treated as such after his parinirvana and the junior monks instead of concentrating on the Dhamma, had attempted to preserve the memory of the Buddha and elevate him to a transcendental status. Later these two schools also had splintered into several sects. For the purpose of this discussion two groups that broke away from Theravada; Sarvasthavadins and Savthanthrika are important while the two schools that came out of Mahasangika; Madhyamika and Yogachara are also important.

It is believed that Ven.Nagarjuna lived in the latter part of the 2nd century and the early part of the 3rd century of the Christian era. Almost all the schools of Buddhism that existed during this time had accepted the view that the world and life in it have no self or anything related to self and also that they are impermanent. During Buddha’s time there had been much opposition to this view and he had to fight a long and hard struggle to defeat these opinions. After his parinirvana however the Anathma theory or the non existence of a self had created problems regarding moral responsibility, and the doctrines of ‘karma’ and rebirth. Several questions were raised; if there is no individual, who would take moral responsibility, who would receive merit or demerit of karma and who is reborn? As a response to these questions the Sarvasthavadins put forward their "Swabava" Theory. This theory was to a certain degree a deviation from the early Buddhist theory of "anathma". To understand this idea another theory of the Abhidhamma called "Dhamma" Theory has to be briefly considered.

According to the Theravada Dhamma Theory all phenomena of the world can be dissected into ultimate irreducible constituents called "Dhamma" (see "Dhamma Theory" by Y. Karunadasa). The occurrence of Dhammas according to Theravadins is that, they arise, undergo change and disappear to arise again. This idea accords with the "anithya" theory.

Sarvasthavadins, however, attempted to introduce an element of substantialism into this Dhamma theory in order to overcome the afore-mentioned problem of the individual. They contented that there was an intrinsic character in all Dhammas which was imperceptible and impermanent but which exists in the past, present and the future and they called it "Swabava". Dhammas also have another component called "Karithra" which was the functional part and it existed only in the present and was perceptible.

In order to explain the impermanence of Dhammas the Sarvasthavadins put forward the "Kshana-vadaya" or the theory of momentary existence. They said the Dhammas existed only for a moment in the present. Early Buddhism and also the Theravadins had held a different view, they had said that all phenomena and the Dhammas arise, undergo change and disappear to arise again in a never ending samsaric process. Sarvasthavadins had modified this theory and added another phase to this process; "jathi’ (birth), ‘sthithi’ (static), ‘jara’(change) and ‘nasha’(death). Their "Kshana-vadaya" came in here and they said all Dhammas existed for a moment (Kshanaya) during the ‘sthithi’ (static) phase. Due to these new theories the Sarvasthavadins had to submit new interpretations for "Paticca-smuppdaya", and also for the theory of perception by sense organs and the doctrine of ‘karma’ which they did in a thorough manner. However the Theravadins rejected most of these theories.

Stronger opposition to these views came from another breakaway group of Theravada, the Savthanthrika who took strong objection to the ‘Swabawa’ theory and also to the idea that Dhammas existed in the past, the present and the future. They said all these interpretations could mean that the Dhammas are permanent and had within it a self or something related to self which meant that the theory did not conform to the Buddhist doctrine of Anithya and Anathma. But their view on physical matter and dependent co-origination was different from that of early Buddhism and did not make them less substantialist than Sarvasthavadins.

It is believed that Sarvasthavadins came into being during the time between the second and third "dharma sangayanavas" (convention of Buddhist priests to revise the Dharma) and had been quite strong and influential in the 3rd Century BC. The reason for the third Dhamma sangayanava may have been the conflict of opinion between Sarvasthavadins and Theravadins. King Dharma Asoka under the influence of Moggalliputha Tissa did not extend his patronage to Sarvasthavadins and they migrated to Gandhara – Kashmir region and developed their teaching with the help of King Kanishka.

Savthanthrika sect on the other hand began their school in the 2nd Century of the Christian era, that is, about 500 years after the Sarvasthavadins. The meaning of the word Savthanthrika is that they believe in the original ‘suthra’ and not on ‘shasthra’ for the former originated from the Buddha while the latter like the Abhidhamma originated from the monks. For this reason they did not compile their own abhidhamma while most of the other schools including Mahayana did.

While these breakaway groups of Theravada developed their teaching in a scholarly manner the other major school of Buddhism, the Mahasangika developed closer links with the people as they concentrated on worshipping of stupas and statues and enhancing the memory of the Buddha and elevating him into a metaphysical and transcendental status. During the 1st Century AD new publications expounding these ideas appeared on the scene. These writings were also critical of certain main Theravada Buddhist doctrines such as Nirvana, the path to Nirvana, Thathagatha etc. These writings referred to sutras as fodder for the dim witted.

This is how the major school of Buddhism that rival Theravada even at present namely the Mahayana came into being. They called their dharma Mahayana meaning that their vessel could take everybody to freedom. They called other schools Hinayana because according to them Hinayana could take a person a certain distance but not all the way to Nirvana where as the Mahayana could take everybody all the way. Interestingly no school had called themselves Hinayana. Further Mahayana had put forward a new theory on Nirvana and also the path to Nirvana. Unlike other schools these views were not presented as interpretations of original Buddhism but as original Buddhism itself.

This was the picture at the time Ven. Nagarjuna appeared on the scene. The Sarvasthavadins had been in existence for 500 years, Theravadins and Mahasangika had been there for a longer time and the Mahayanists and a little later the Savthanthrika had just made their appearance. Thus the Buddhist discourse had been full of conflict and contending sects though it was of a very high intellectual standard and there had been no serious animosity between the different schools.

It is not clear whether Ven.Nagarjuna originally belonged to any of these sects and it is known that he interacted with both Theravada and Mahayana schools. He had formulated his "Sunyathavadaya" based on early Buddhist preaching where the word ‘sunya’ had been used to denote the emptiness of the world of self. This word appears in Suthanipatha, Chula-sunnatha suthra and Kachchayanagotta suthra where the text clearly indicates that what is meant by ‘sunya is not the non-existence of phenomena but the impermanence and the absence of a self in all phenomena and therefore the meaninglessness of attachment to oneself, others or things

Ven.Nagarjuna therefore had several schools of thought to contend with. To reiterate these different ideas; the Theravadins had in their Abhidhamma presented a Dhamma theory which apparently was an expansion of the early Buddhist analysis of phenomena which was based on ‘skanda’, ‘ayatana’ and dhatu’. The Sarvasthavadins had modified this analysis by an introduction of their ‘swabawa’ theory and ‘kshanavadaya’. The Savthanthrika had rejected this theory and also all Abhidhamma presentations but had their own substantialism as an alternative. The Mahayanists were talking about the non-existence of all dhammas and presenting their own theory of Nirvana and the path to Nirvana. The Yogachara who are also called Vingnanavadins which was the other major school of the Mahayana sect had not yet come into the picture and when they did they mounted a strong objection against Ven. Nagarjuna’s ‘sunyathavadaya’ calling it nihilism.

The Madhyamika theory of Ven. Nagarjuna was presented in his major work "Mulamadhyamika karika". He became famous as a great original thinker not because of a view that he put forward, for he had none, but for the analytical method he adopted and the ‘chathuscoti method of logic he applied to reject the views on metaphysical issues of the different schools of Buddhism prevalent in his time. Mulamadhyamikakarika has 27 chapters and 448 verses. His method of criticism had not been used in Buddhism or elsewhere before him except by Buddha. He used the inherent contradictions of these views, one against the other, to negate or reject them. According to Dr.Asanga Thilakaratne (see "Nirvana and Ineffability") there is no coherent theory that he expounds in the ‘Mula madhyamikakarika’ but there seems to be a single objective that holds the disparate themes dealt in the different chapters and this single objective seems to be the negation of the extreme views. The discerning reader could understand that his attempt is to strengthen the early Buddhist views on selfless nature and impermanence of life and the world. The ‘swabawa’ theory of the Sarvasthavadins was particularly targeted. If the Buddha had to fight against ‘Athmavadaya’ pertaining to the individual, Ven. Nagarjuna had to fight against an apparent ‘Athmavadaya’ pertaining to ‘Dhammas’ the constituents of all phenomena.

Ven. Nagarjuna’s logic, the ‘chathuscoti’, was far advanced of its time. Buddha too had used this method on several occasions. In ‘chathuscoti’ four alternative possibilities are considered instead of the two valued logic introduced by Aristotle. Ven. Nagarjuna had used the ‘chathuscoti’ on questions that Buddha refused to answer to explain why Buddha had not answered them and also similar questions. He uses it on eight occasions in three chapters on issues such as the nature of ‘thathagata’, the liberated one, freedom, living and the dead arahath, divine beings and the physical world where he dialectically rejects all four possibilities to show that they are empty of self.

Further Ven. Nagarjuna employs ‘paticca smuppadaya’ as it appears in early Buddhism and in Theravada to strengthen his viewpoint that all phenomena are empty of self. It is significant that he did not think that any other interpretation of ‘paticca-samuppadaya’ given by other schools would suit his purpose. According to ‘paticca-samuppadaya’ all phenomena are conditioned, what is conditioned is impermanent, what is impermanent is suffering, and what causes suffering cannot have a self. Buddha did not claim that ‘paticca-samuppadaya’ is his view for it is the reality of the world and neither did Ven. Nagarjuna. This is what he meant when he said he has no point of view that needs to be proved.

Ven. Nagarjuna’s ‘sunyathavadaya’ created turmoil in the philosophical world. Some said it had brought down the whole edifice of Buddhism and that it had caused a Copernicusian revolution in Buddhism. This kind of misconception had taken place during Ven. Nagarjuna’s time too. He had to defend his treatise against the accusation of being nihilistic. He further said that ‘sunyathavadaya’ was not a philosophy and to grasp it wrongly was like grasping a snake by the wrong end.

There is hardly any major Mahayana writing that could be ascribed to Ven.Nagarjuna.

The "Mahapragnaparamitha-sastra" which carries major theories of Mahayana is attributed to Ven. Nagarjuna by those who argue that he was one of the main authors of Mahayana. Most researchers on these aspects however disagree and say that there is no evidence to support such a theory.

Further Ven. Nagajuna’s other major work the "Sardhlehka" – a letter to a friend – very closely adheres to early Buddhist doctrine in its dealing with morality, the path to freedom and the nirvana. In writing "Sardhlekha" Ven.Nagarjuna seems to have been inspired by the early discourses which the Mahayanists had dismissed as fodder for the dim witted. Hence labeling Ven. Nagarjuna as belonging to a Mahayanist school seems to be a controversial issue and some scholars believe that such a view cannot be substantiated (see D. Kalupahana; Nagarjuna – Philosophy of the Middle Way.).

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