Understanding Ven. Nagarjuna
Posted on January 4th, 2012

Prof. N. A. de S. Amaratunga

Ven. Nagarjuna was one of the most distinguished Indian Buddhist philosophers. His treatise on “Sunyathava” or emptiness which he claims is not a philosophy but which appears to be a negation of the various interpretations by the various schools of Buddhism on subjects such as Thatagatha, self, infinite world etc. 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. Some of the eminent Sri Lankan Buddhist scholars such as D.Kalupahana, A.Tllakaratne 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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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), “ƒ”¹…”sthithi’ (static), “ƒ”¹…”jara'(change) and “ƒ”¹…”nasha'(death). Their “Kshana-vadaya” came in here and they said all Dhammas existed for a moment (Kshanaya) during the “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”suthra’ and not on “ƒ”¹…”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 every body 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 every body 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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 may have been influenced by the early Mahayana texts also. In his work titled “Asta-sahasrika-prangna-paramitha” for instance he has said that all Dhammas are signless, wishless, unaffected, unproduced, unoriginated and non-existent which seems to be a denial of reality which is a Mahayanist thought. 

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 “ƒ”¹…”skanda’, “ƒ”¹…”ayatana’ and dhatu’. The Sarvasthavadins had modified this analysis by an introduction of their “ƒ”¹…”swabawa’ theory and “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”swabawa’ theory of the Sarvasthavadins was particularly targeted. If the Buddha had to fight against “ƒ”¹…”Athmavadaya’ pertaining to the individual, Ven.Nagarjuna had to fight against an apparent “ƒ”¹…”Athmavadaya’ pertaining to “ƒ”¹…”Dhammas’ the constituents of all phenomena.

Ven.Nagarjuna’s logic, the “ƒ”¹…”chathuscoti’, was far advanced of its time. Buddha too had used this method on several occasions. In “ƒ”¹…”chathuscoti’ four alternative possibilities are considered instead of the two valued logic introduced by Aristotle. Ven.Nagarjuna had used the “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”paticca-samuppadaya’ given by other schools would suit his purpose. According to “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”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 “ƒ”¹…”sunyathavadaya’ was not a philosophy.

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.).  

Prof N. A. de S. Amaratunga

13 Responses to “Understanding Ven. Nagarjuna”

  1. Bodhi Says:

    Nagarjuna’s views are most close to the original sermons of the Buddha, where Anatta is the key concept. It is precisely this that we explored in our blog:
    http://this-life-buddhism.blogspot.com/2011/08/early-buddhist-sermons-are-independent.html?spref=tw
    I am glad that Amaratunga has written this article, especially emphasizing that these Buddhists discussed concepts like rebirth, Nirvana, and even considered there place (or lack of a place) in buddhism. When such matters are discussed today vocal “buddhists” come forward with the “Kithul Polla” and vulgar words, ‘Gon’, ‘meeharak’ epithets etc., to shut out such discussion, or invent Musaavada or engage in Fascist behaviour.

    The non-theravaada idea of a subbava is been pushed to the extreme and the soul has been brough back as “consciousness” which passes from the dying person into the foetus of a new born’s “brain”. Bhikku Samahita even claims that this consciousness is sitting in the brain like beer in a bottel, and even moves out and becomes non-local at imes. Such internet Buddhists have taken the phrase “Mano puubbam …” from the Dhammapada out of context and claims that “the minde is all there is”, and that “it is supreme”. So nagarjuna should be studied by everyone who indulges in Metaphysics.

    The chatuscoti logic (4-valued logic) is often presented as something more advanced than the two-valued logic. However, the 4-valued logic can be simply rewritten using the two-valued logic as we do today in every computer. The binary sequences 00, 01,10,11 ican be used in a chartuscoti made from two binary bits. In fact, it has been understood since the adoption of arabic numerals that a binary logic is all you need when place values are included. Thus, all computers today used binary units (bits), and two binary bits can be used for four valued logic operations, and 3 binary units for 8-valued logics etc., etc.

    The ancients (and some moderns who talk of chatuscoti logic) need to learn some maths and how modern Boolian operations are constructed.
    Even non-commutative logic operations can be constructed from two-valued logic gates as is commonly done in matrix multiplication. That is the essence of quantum computing where bits are replaced by qbits where a qubit is a binary matrix. So qbit manipulation becomes manipulation of (Pauli) matrices.

  2. Dham Says:

    Bodhi,
    I am the one gave the suitable name Gon Silva to a person who avoids logical arguments repeats the same falsehood.
    Gon Silva is not presentting his theory like what you are doing but brings in false statements repeatedly to call all Sinhala Buddhists to change the Buddhism to his own religion of Athiesm. He is not only interseted in teaching his religion but also want to change Buddhism to his religion by imposing a false fear ( which I must call GON THEORY) in Sinhal Buddhist people.
    People presenting facts is one thing and people presenting new theories is another thing. What prof. Amarathung has done here is presenting facts not theories.
    Anyone is fress to present a theory but asking repeatedly Sinhala Buddhist to give up the core of the teaching which is 100% logical and existed for 2600 years is pure stupidness.

  3. Bodhi Says:

    Dham
    If you look at the danda sutta Buddha explains how to deal with hostile arguments. Also, in all the dealings of the buddha with his opponents, both wise, stupid or not, the Buddha never used such epithets. So, as follwers of the buddha, we must also avoid such language. If you think Ben Silav’s arguments are wrong, you just explain it and leave it at that.

    Ben silva says that the Indians have “dumped Buddhism, Nirvana, rebirth, Karma etc”. here is being careless and in fact incorrect. The Indians have retained all that, as well as the caste system (dumped by the Buddha). What the Indians dumped are all the good ideas contained in the Kaalama Sutta, Gnana Sutta, Brahmajala sutta, which require you to evaluate yourself any belief critically, within your experience .

    The constitute the scientific method.

    So the Indians dumped all the good things in Buddhism. They retained the traditional material like rebirth, Aathma, Sarvaggna-claim of Indian Munis and Rishis etc., Karma acting through cycles of rebirth as well as the exploitative caste system founded on karma and Brahminic creation of castes. Buddhism as practiced by relatively uneducated people have got polluted by these Hindu beliefs as well. The ordinary person wants some external power to prey for help when they feel that they are faced with adversity.

    I think Ben is trying to argue against these Hindu beliefs held by many people, but sometimes in his enthusiasm he goes overboard.

  4. Dham Says:

    Bodhi,
    Everything you said above is correct but the last sentence is very wrong. It is just the opposite. You should follow his writings can comments fully.
    He has no problems with Hindu traditions, even though logically it does not make sense he thinks there is no harm done. To him, Buddhism in its purest form is the enemy for progress of Sri lanka because, as he argues, people become lazy, backward, negative etc, because of the “idea” of nibbana. He came out with all these stupid arguments mainly after finishing the LTTE war. Gon Silva does not like Anichcha, Dukkha, Anathma and Nibbana. He implied Buddha a looser . Let us not talk about this fool any more.
    I believe modern Hinduism has copied many ideas from Buddhism. Buddhas time there was no Hinduism but Vedic traditions ( Braminism). Brhamins used to sacrifice animals those days and nowadays Brahmins are vegetarians ! Karma was an ancient word but in Hindusm it is destiny. Krishna said “your karma is my karma”. Athman is Hinduism is similar to soul. Buddhist should not use the word Aathma at all. Buddhism was not 2600 years old but it’s a teaching which will disappear with time and reappear again. We need not worry too much about protecting Buddhism, Buddhist need not fight to please Buddha or to preserve Buddhism. It is a wonderful teaching which people with slight wisdom and with a free and open mind can understand and live happily. What if Buddha, as he originally thought did not teach Dhamma ? People like Aralakalama were wise, good teachers but simply went along in the wrong path.

  5. callistus Says:

    Dham, ‘I believe modern Hinduism has copied many ideas from Buddhism’. You are definitely confused. Hinduism was there long before Buddha.

  6. Dham Says:

    Callistus,
    I am not confused. It is a fact. In Gautama Buddhas time there was only Brahaminism amoung other teachers. Show me a single sutta where Buddha mentioned “Hindu”.
    Remember there were numerous Buddhas before Gautam Buddha.

  7. Dham Says:

    Callistue,
    There were vedhas and scriptures those days. Only Bhramins learned the scriputures. They also resorted to animal sacrifices ( in mass scale). Please show me evidence of a single Bhramin who was vegitarian. Bhramins were thought to be born out of mouth of the Maha Brahma. Buddha dismissed all these. He said, “by action only one will become a Bhramin”. This was Bhraminism , not Hinduism. Don’t get confused by Indian fools who are so unfortunate not to igive the appropriate repect their greatest citizen. They value Gandhi than Buddha.
    India was a Buddhist country. It was Dravidians who gave birth to a new religion called Hinduism, which copies Ahimsa from Buddhism.

  8. Ben_silva Says:

    My opinion is that brain is superior to the mind and the mind is simply manifestation of brain activity. The brain should be used to survive and win rather than aim for extinction. As Chandrasoma pointed out Nirvana and rebirth are ancient unproven Indian myths. Time to learn, evolve and move on rather than hang on to ancient Indian myths.

  9. mjaya Says:

    Well Ben your arguments are hilarious. Can you argue that a car chassis is superior to a car engine? Without a brain there is no brain activity but just having a brain isn’t enough either or else cattle and donkeys would be able to solve algebraic equations.

    **The brain should be used to survive and win rather than aim for extinction.**
    Again, that has been done for 2500 years since the time of King Dutugemunu. Are you suffering from amnesia? Did you forget how the LTTE was defeated so soon?

    **Time to learn, evolve and move on rather than hang on to ancient Indian myths.**
    Thats where the Kalama Sutra comes in.

    As usual regardless of where you start you end up in the same place with the same repeat telecast. It is pretty obvious that you are not at all worried about the Sinhalese people you are just working for your hidden agenda.

  10. Dham Says:

    Fools have a brain. They can even have an average IQ level. But who are the “Fools” ?
    Fools are the Namarupas showing unbelieveable capacity to be just keep on arguing for the arguments sake without using brain.
    Fools think brain ( intelligence) occur by chance. Fools cannot understand why different beings have different levels of intelligence despite the phisical size of the brain. Fools cannot understand why poor peole in africa are born to suffer but people in Sri Lanka are better off.
    Fools think they cannnot get sick if they use the brain and strive hard not to get sick. They think deceases like cancer can be avoided if you use the brain well, strive hard , fight with people and win.
    Fools think people will not get old and die regardless of their lifetime achievements.

    Though all through life the fool
    might wait upon the wise,
    no more Dhamma can he sense
    than spoon the taste of soup.

    Explanation: The fool, even if he kept the company of a wise person intimately over a life-time, will not become aware of the nature of experience, just as a spoon will not know the taste of soup.

  11. knsl Says:

    There were, no doubt, great Buddhist philosophers in ancient times in India as well as Sri Lanka. Nalanda and Abhayagiri were great seats of learning. This is comparable to ancient Greece. There too were great thinkers. They served their times. But we should not forget that with the passage of time knowledge evolves and improves. In this process some of the “generally accepted truths” are shed. For example, the geo-centric solar system was the accepted norm from the times of Aristotle till the late 16th century. That “truth” was discarded because it was evident that the solar system was a helio-centric one. Likewise, “generally accepted truths” in the times of Nagarjuna, like Nirvana & rebirth, are no longer accepted as truths. But this in no sense diminishes the value of Buddhism as a philosophy which correctly describes human behaviour.

  12. Dham Says:

    Mjaya,
    It is very strange how fools try to communicate.

    Brain is superior to mind = Inteligence is superior to mind ?
    mind is simply manifestation of brain activity = mind is simply manifestation of chemical and electical activity in the brain ? If so where does the inteligence come from ? Not from the same activity ?
    If inteligence come from chemical/electrical activity why can’t “sceintist” inject something to cure Gon Silva ?

    The Fool should understand that Nirvana is not extinction but “True Living”. Buddha live for 50 years after seeing nibbana.
    Parinirvana is nirvana ( the same true living) without body and mind.

  13. Dham Says:

    The FOOL is coming back with different names to prove his nakedness.

    The core of Buddhism is not morality. The core of Buddhism is not Nagarguna. The core of Buddhism is Four Noble Truth.
    The third noble truth is “Cesation of Suffering”= Nibbana ( in Buddhism). There could be another Nirvana in Indian myths.
    First Noble truth is “There is suffering”.
    Only fools will say “there is no suffering” and only fools will say “there is no cesation of suffering”.

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