Life of Nāgārjuna from Tibetan and Chinese Sources by M. Walleser
“Nagarjuna, the Fourteenth Patriarch” from The Record of Transmitting the Light by Zen Master Keizan, tr. by Francis Dojun Cook
The Problem of the Historical Nāgārjuna by Ian Mabbett
Life of Nagarjuna, from Ocean of Nectar by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
Traditional Biographical Sources
There are limited biographical sources on Nagarjuna, most written many centuries after his life. The above biographies cite some of these in their attempt to piece together what historical fragments we can.
It is not easy to come up with a precise list of texts Nāgārjuna composed. This is partly due to the fact that different authors bearing the name “Nāgārjuna” might have lived during different periods of the development of Buddhist thought in India, and partly due to the tendency of attributing newly composed works to the great authorities of the past. For the present purposes, however, we can divide Nāgārjuna’s works into three main groups (further discussion can be found in Ruegg 1981). In the list I give here the ascription of the works mentioned to Nāgārjuna is largely uncontested.
- The argumentative works
- The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (MMK) (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā). This is the most important of Nāgārjuna’s works. In its 450 stanzas it expounds the entire compass of his thought and constitutes the central text of the “philosophy of the Middle Way”. It has been commented upon by a large number of later authors.
- The Sixty Stanzas on Reasoning (Yuktiṣaṣṭikā). A shorter treatise, discussing the notions of emptiness and dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda).
- The Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (Śūnyatāsaptati). Another short treatise, dealing in addition with questions of agency and the two truths.
- The Dispeller of Disputes (Vigrahavyāvartanī). In this work of seventy verses with an autocommentary in prose Nāgārjuna responds to a set of specific objections raised against his system. These objections come both from Buddhist and non-Buddhist opponents and initiate discussions of topics which do not get much coverage in Nāgārjuna’s other works (in particular epistemology and the philosophy of language).
- The Treatise on Pulverization (Vaidalyaprakaraṇa). A very interesting and difficult work in which Nāgārjuna sets out to refute the logical categories of the non-Buddhist Nyāya school. Like d. this text has never attracted the attention of classical commentators.
- The Precious Garland (Ratnāvalī). A long text addressed to a king containing a comprehensive discussion of ethical questions. Because discussion of the theory of emptiness plays a comparatively minor role in this text it is sometimes subsumed under the epistolary works (see below).
- The hymns (Catuḥstava). There is some discussion which of the various hymns ascribed to Nāgārjuna actually make up the quartet of ‘four hymns’ often referred to in the commentarial literature. They differ in interesting respects from the works mentioned in the preceding section. Common to many of them is a positive conception of ultimate truth which ascribes specific qualities to it and gets close to the theory of Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha) that became very important in the later development of Buddhist thought.
- The epistolary works. The Friendly Letter (Suhṛllekha), like the Precious Garland (Ratnāvalī), which is sometimes assigned to this group is a work addressed to a king. This fact may explain why the text is primarily concerned with ethical matters. It devotes relatively little space to the kind of philosophical discussion which is Nāgārjuna’s most characteristic contribution to Buddhist thought.
The works of Nagarjuna, according to Christian Lindtner are:
- Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way)
- Śūnyatāsaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness)
- Vigrahavyāvartanī (The End of Disputes)
- Vaidalyaprakaraṇa (Pulverizing the Categories)
- Vyavahārasiddhi (Proof of Convention)
- Yuktiṣāṣṭika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning)
- Catuḥstava (Hymn to the Absolute Reality)
- Ratnāvalī (Precious Garland)
- Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika (Constituents of Dependent Arising)
- Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind)
- Suhṛllekha (Letter to a Good Friend)
- Bodhisaṃbhāra (Requisites of Enlightenment)
(source: Nagarjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nagarjuna, Chr. Lidtner)
A table of all the works traditionally accredited to Nagarjuna would need to include a very large number of texts extant in Tibetan and Chinese, as well as those in Sanskrit, but many of these are not taken seriously and need not concern us. There is no space here for a review of the case for including or excluding particular works in a bibliography of Nagarjuna; we can only note that the attributions of modern scholars all differ, as can be seen from a comparison of the conclusions of a number of writers: Winternitz,(14) Robinson,(15) T. R.V. Murti,(16) D. Seyfort Ruegg,(17) C. Lindtner,(18) and P. L. Vaidya.(19)
There is perhaps only a small core of the philosophical texts that clearly belong with the Mulamadhyamakakarikas as the work of one author. Of the works credited to Nagarjuna in the Tibetan tradition, six (the Mulamadhyamakakarikah, Sunyatasaptati, Vigrahavyavartani, Vaidalyaprakarana, Vyavaharasiddhi and Yuktisastika) are listed together as works of Nagarjuna by Buston (thirteenth to fourteenth centuries); these are specifically philosophical works. Elsewhere, as has sometimes been overlooked, he mentions others – the Ratnavali, Sutrasamuccaya, Bodhisambhara[ka], Suhrllekha, and the Svapnacintamaniparikatha.(20) The credentials of the Sunyatasaptati, the Vigrahavydvartani and the Yuktisastika are rarely disputed. It is difficult to study the Vigrahavyavartani, for example, without recognizing the essential identity of thought behind it and the Karikas. The Catuhstava, also commonly attributed to Nagarjuna I, is a special case which will be noticed further below; it is a set of four devotional hymns, thus quite different in genre from the others mentioned, and there is doubt about which particular four hymns constitute it. Also significant is the attribution of the Sutrasamuccaya to Nagarjuna by Santideva in his Bodhicaryavatara,(21) which constitutes a relatively early attribution of one core text.
Some of the works traditionally attributed to Nagarjuna (and accepted as his works by C. Lindtner(22)), such as the Bodhicittavivarana and the Vaidalyaprakarana, have had their authenticity seriously questioned.(23) The attribution to Nagarjuna of the Suhrllekha, a manual largely of ethical teachings in the form of a letter to a friend, a king, has been contested.(24) As for the Ratnavali, T. Vetter’s analysis of its metrical characteristics and word frequency casts doubt upon it too.(25)
Among the miscellaneous works of chemistry and medicine traditionally ascribed to Nagarjuna, it should be noted that the Yogasataka, a medical text, has been accepted by Filliozat,(26) but the attribution is arguably implausible.(27)
The Mahaprajnaparamitopadesa has long been treated as an authentic work of Nagarjuna, but in fact is unlikely to be by him despite the weight of tradition; Lamotte originally accepted the tradition but changed his mind before he edited the third volume of his study and translation.(28)
The only conclusion that can be advanced here is that relatively few works can be treated with any confidence as authentic creations of the master.
— The Problem of the Historical Nāgārjuna by Ian Mabbett
Selected Articles related to Nagarjuna and Madhyamaka