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Biography of Nagarjuna

Nagarjuna (Klu-grub), together with Asanga (Thogs-med), were the two great pioneers of the Mahayana tradition. Nagarjuna transmitted the lineage teachings of the profound view of voidness from Manjushri, while Asanga transmitted the lineage teachings of the extensive bodhisattva practices from Maitreya.

Nagarjuna was born into a brahmin family probably around the mid-first or early second century C.E. in South India in Vidarbha, a kingdom lying in present-day Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. He was predicted in various sutras, such as The Descent into Lanka Sutra (Lan-kar gshegs-pa’i mdo, Skt. Lankavatara Sutra). At birth, a soothsayer predicted he would live only seven days, but if his parents made offerings to a hundred monks, he could live to be seven years old. Fearing for his life, at age seven, his parents sent Nagarjuna to Nalanda Monastic University in North India, where he met the Buddhist master Saraha. Saraha told him that if he became a renunciate and recited the Amitabha mantra, he would lead a long life. Nagarjuna did so and then joined the monastery, receiving the name “Shrimanta.”

At Nalanda, Nagarjuna studied sutra and tantra with Ratnamati – an emanation of Manjushri – and, with Saraha, especially The Guhyasamaja Tantra (dPal gsang-ba ‘dus-pa’i rgyud). In addition, he learned alchemy from a brahmin, and gained the ability to transmute iron into gold. Using this ability, he was able to feed the Nalanda monks during famine. Eventually, Nagarjuna became the abbot of Nalanda. There, he expelled eight thousand monks who were not keeping the vinaya monastic rules of discipline properly. He also defeated five hundred non-Buddhists in debate.

Two youths, who were emanations of the sons of the naga king, came to Nalanda. They had about them the natural fragrance of sandalwood. Nagarjuna asked how this was so and they confessed to him who they were. Nagarjuna then asked for sandalwood scent for a statue of Tara and the nagas’ help in constructing temples. They returned to the naga realm and asked their father, who said he could help only if Nagarjuna came to their realm beneath the sea to teach them. Nagarjuna went, made many offerings, and taught the nagas.

Nagarjuna had known that the nagas had The Hundred Thousand Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa stong-pa brgya-pa, Skt. Shatasahasrika-prajnaparamita Sutra) and requested a copy. When Buddha had taught Prajnaparamita, far-reaching discriminating awareness (the perfection of wisdom), the nagas had taken one version of it back to their realm for safekeeping, the gods another, and the yaksha lords of wealth yet another. Nagarjuna brought back the hundred thousand verse version, although the nagas kept the last two chapters to ensure that he would return and teach them further. Later, the last two chapters were filled in with the last two chapters of The Eight Thousand Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra (Shes-rab-kyi pha-rol-tu phyin-pa brgyad stong-pa, Skt. Ashtasahasrika-prajnaparamita Sutra) . This is why the last two chapters of these two recensions are the same. Nagarjuna also brought back naga clay and built many temples and stupas with it.

Once, when Nagarjuna was teaching Prajnaparamita, six nagas came and formed an umbrella over his head to protect him from the sun. Because of this, the iconographic representation of Nagarjuna has the six nagas over his head. From this event, he got the name Naga. And from the fact that his skill in teaching Dharma went straight to the point, like the arrows of the famous archer Arjuna (the name of the hero in the Hindu classic, Bhagavad Gita), he got the name Arjuna. Thus, he became called “Nagarjuna.”

Nagarjuna later traveled to the Northern Island (Northern Continent) to teach. On the way, he met some children playing on the road. He prophesied that one of them, named Jetaka, would become a king. When Nagarjuna returned from the Northern Island, the boy had in fact grown up and become the king of a large kingdom in South India. Nagarjuna stayed with him for three years, teaching him, and then spent his last years elsewhere in his kingdom, at Shri Parvata, the holy mountain overlooking modern-day Nagarjunakonda. Nagarjuna wrote for the King A Precious Garland (Rin-chen ‘phreng-ba, Skt. Ratnavali). This was the same king to whom Nagarjuna wrote A Letter to a Friend (bShes-pa’i spring-yig, Skt. Suhrllekha), namely King Udayibhadra (bDe-spyod bzang-po).

Some Western scholars identify King Udayibhadra with King Gautamiputra Shatakarni (ruled 106 – 130 C.E.) of the Shatavahana Dynasty (230 B.C.E. – 199 C.E.) in present-day Andhra Pradesh. Some identify him with the next king, Vashishtiputra Pulumayi (130 – 158 C.E.). It is difficult to identify him exactly. The Shatavahanas were patrons of the stupa in Amaravati, where Buddha had first taught The Kalachakra Tantra and which was close to Shri Parvata.

King Udayibhadra had a son, Kumara Shaktiman, who wanted to become king. His mother told him that he could never become king until Nagarjuna died, since Nagarjuna and the King have the same lifespan. His mother said to ask Nagarjuna for his head and since Nagarjuna was so compassionate, he would undoubtedly agree to give it to him. Nagarjuna did in fact agree, but Kumara could not cut his head off with a sword. Nagarjuna said in a previous life, he had killed an ant while cutting grass. As a karmic result, his head could only be cut off with a blade of kusha grass. Kumara did this and Nagarjuna died. The blood from the severed head turned into milk and the head said, “Now I will go to Sukhavati Pure Land, but I will enter this body again.” Kumara took the head far away from the body, but it is said that the head and the body are coming closer together each year. When they join, Nagarjuna will return and teach again. All in all, Nagarjuna lived six hundred years.

Among the many texts on sutra topics that Nagarjuna wrote are his Collections of Reasoning (Rigs-pa’i tshogs), Collections of Praises (bsTod-pa’i tshogs), and Collections of Didactic Explanations (gTam-pa’i tshogs).

The Six Collections of Reasoning (Rigs-tshogs drug) are:

Included among his Collections of Praise are:

Included among Nagarjuna’s Collections of Didactic Explanations are:

Also attributed to Nagarjuna are several two commentaries to The Guhyasamaja Tantra, including:

Nagarjuna’s most famous disciple was Aryadeva (‘ Phags-pa lha), author of Four Hundred Verse Treatise on the Actions of a Bodhisattva’s Yoga (Byang-chub sems-dpa’i rnal-‘byor spyod-pa bzhi-brgya-pa’i bstan-bcos kyi tshig-le’ur byas-pa, Skt. Bodhisattvayogacarya-catu:shatakashastra-karika) and several commentaries on The Guhyasamaja Tantra.


Alexander Berzin
February 2006


Nagarjuna (klu grub). An Indian master of philosophy and a tantric siddha. One of the Eight Vidyadharas; receiver of the tantras of Lotus Speech such as Supreme Steed Display. He is said to have taken birth in the southern part of India around four hundred years after the Buddha’s nirvana. Having received ordination at Nalanda Monastery, he later acted as preceptor for the monks. He knew alchemy, stayed alive for six hundred years and transformed ordinary materials into gold in order to sustain the sangha. At Bodhgaya he erected pillars and stone walls to protect the Bodhi Tree and constructed 108 stupas. From the realm of the nagas he brought back the extensive Prajnaparamita scriptures. He was the life pillar for the Mahayana, but specifically he was a major exponent of the Unexcelled Vehicle of Vajrayana. Having attained realization of Hayagriva, he transmitted the lineage to Padmasambhava.


Nagarjuna (klu sgrub) In accordance with many prophecies found in both sutras and tantras, Nagarjuna; (klu sgrub) was born in a Brahmin family in the south Indian land of Beda. An astrologer predicted that in the best case (if he practiced the dharma), the child would live for no more than seven years. When seven years were almost gone, the parents sent their son away on pilgrimage with a servant, because they could not bear the thought of seeing his corpse. However Nagarjuna reached Nalanda and meet Saraha who told him that he could escape death if he were ordained as a monk. Nagarjuna also receive the initiation into the mandala of Amitayus and practicing the mantra recitation through the last night of his seventh year, he could free himself from the fear of death. The following year Nagarjuna received the initial monk ordination and became proficient in all the branches of knowledge in both the Hinayana and Mahayana sutras. Saraha also gave him many teachings upon the secret Mantrayana.
Having mastered all these teachings Nagarjuna returned to see his parents again. He then took the full monastic vows. Once, a terrible famine broke out in Magadha and continued for twelve years. Saraha asked Nagarjuna to provide for the monks of Nalanda who lacked all necessities. Nagarjuna decided to find out how to make gold. He took two sandalwood leaves and, with the appropriate mantras, gave them the power to instantly transport a person to wherever he wished to go. Holding one leaf in his hand and concealing the other in the sole of his sandal, he traveled across the ocean to an island where a famous alchemist lived. Nagarjuna requested instructions in the making of gold. Now the alchemist realized that Nagarjuna must have come across the water by a secret technique, so hoping to acquire this secret he said, "Let us exchange either our crafts or our wealth." "We should exchange our crafts," answered Nagarjuna, and gave him the leaf he held in his hand.
The alchemist, thinking that Nagarjuna was no longer able to leave the island taught him how to make gold. Then Nagarjuna, by means of the sandalwood leaf he had hidden in his sandal, returned to India. There he turned a lot of iron into gold and provided the whole Sangha with all their needs. Later Nagarjuna became abbot of Nalanda. He repeatedly defeated all his opponents, both the heretics, such as Shankara, who ridiculed the Madhyamika view and the shravaka who asserted the invalidity of the Mahayana. Some Nagas came to attend to Nagarjuna's teachings and requested him to visit the Land the Nagas. Having taught the Naga King and his subjects, Nagarjuna returned with the text of the Prajnaparamita in One Hundred Thousand Verses and its abbreviated form. With these scriptures he revived the Mahayana tradition. He himself composed many treatises elucidating the view of the Madhyamika and setting a reference point to the whole Mahayana philosophy on relative and absolute truths.
In accordance with the prediction of Arya Tara, Nagarjuna went to leave and teach in South India. There, too, he composed many treatises. His teachings on Vinaya were equaled to Lord Buddha's First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, his teachings on emptiness to the Second Turning, and his Collection of Praises (such as the Praise to the Absolute Expanse) to the Third Turning. Once a young prince, who coveted his father's kingdom, was told by his mother, "Your father's life is linked to that of Master Nagarjuna who himself attained eternal life. Therefore, you will never rule the kingdom." Later not bearing her son's unhappiness, the queen added, "Nagarjuna is a Bodhisattva, if you ask him for his head, he will give to you." The prince did accordingly, and Nagarjuna consented to give his head. But although the prince struck with his sword again and again, the master's neck could not be severed. Nagarjuna said, "Once when I was cutting kusha grass I cut off the head of an insect.
The karmic consequence of this act can still affect me and you can easily kill me with a blade of kusha grass." The prince tried and at the first stroke the masters' head fell on the ground. Milk, not blood, poured out and the severed head spoke: "I shall now go to Tushita heaven, but later I shall return in this very same body." Afraid, the prince, threw the head far away. However both the head and body of Nagarjuna turned into stone and it is said that the head, slowly but surely, moves closer to its trunk and that eventually, when the two reunite, Nagarjuna will revive and perform vast deeds for the benefit of the Doctrine and beings. Nagarjuna had four principal spiritual sons, Shakyamitra, Nagabodhi, Aryadeva, and Matanga, as well as three close sons, Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, and Ashvagosha.

—from Mathieu Ricard


Acharya Nagarjuna is one of the most important figures of early Buddhism. His significance is emphasized by the fact that he is sometimes referred to as "the Second Buddha."

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. Unlike other Buddhist teachers of the time, he taught from his own direct insight, rather than simply restating and recategorizing the sacred literature that had been passed down.

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 the 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.