Mahayana Buddhism and Early Advaita Vedanta (Study)

by Asokan N. | 2018 | 48,955 words

This thesis is called: Mahayana Buddhism And Early Advaita Vedanta A Critical Study. It shows how Buddhism (especially Mahayana) was assimilated into Vedantic theorisation in due course of time. Philosophical distance between Mahayana Buddhism and Advaita-Vedanta became minimal with the advent of Gaudapada and Shankaracharya, who were both harbinge...

Chapter 1.4 - The Philosophy of Nagarjuna

Philosophy of Nagarjuna is considered as a great contribution to Indian thought. He devoted his life to expound and propagate Mahayana teachings. Nagarjuna became the revered patriarch of various Mahayana sects. The ‘twelve gate teachings-dvadasangadvara-treatise is the concise summary of Nagarjuna’s philosophy. Later his disciples and Buddhist writers have tended to embellish and fictionize him. It is difficult to arrive at a complete historical account of Nagarjuna’s life. According to Buddhist scholars, Nagarjuna has obtained the Mahayana scriptures from a Naga. Many works have been attributed to him. However, we accept the Mula-Madhyamika-karika (MMK) is an authoritative text of Nagarjuna. Buddhist historians say Nagarjuna lived in the later part of 2nd Century AD and found Madhyamika Buddhism. He is considered as one of the greatest thinkers of India and his philosophy is thought of as ‘central philosophy of Buddhism’.[1]

Central Philosophy

Nagarjuna systematized the ‘Shunyavada’ doctrine. It is known as Madhyamarga or Madhyamika darshana. According to some schools of Madhyamika, everything in the universe, animate and inanimate, performs the work of the Buddha and inspired by his spiritual influence. Truly it isneither void nor non-void. In spite of reaching, such an extreme conclusion, Nagarjuna’s doctrine is called the doctrine of ‘middle way’.

Nagarjuna’s philosophy has inspired Buddhists to create various philosophical and religious movements in Asia. It led to a new metaphysics. Madhyamikathought further developed by Aryadeva, his nearest pupil. Aryadeva believed that dialectics could also be useful to refute all other philosophies, and to criticize Brahmanism. Madhyamika then divided into two schools, Prasangika and Svatantrika. There were Madhyamika teachers like Buddhapalitha, Bhavaviveka, Chandrakirti and Shantideva contributed many works on Buddhist metaphysics. And in addition of these teachers, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Sthiranati, Vimuktisena and Haribhadra enriched the doctrine. All these teachers and their schools took Prajnaparamita (PP) literature and Mahayana sutras as their sacred sources.

Nagarjuna in his Mula-Madhyamika-karika developed one of the most devastating dialects ever written in the philosophical world and exposed as nihsvabhava nature. It is having naturelessness. And everything is devoid of its own nature and is therefore void, then the absolute reality must be void.[2]

The voidness of everything is both subjective and objective. He made Shunyavada systematic and comprehensive, and turned the void into the absolute self. If everything in this world is essentially void, the world itself is void. What we see then is only an appearance of the void, the Absolute. Appearance is the empirical truth (samvriti) the void the ultimate or absolute is Paramartha Satya. So, everything that belongs to this world is only an empirical truth.[3]

Nagarjuna’s authentic works show his extra ordinary genius succeeded in blending a high inherited moral, religious and philosophical ideas into harmonious equanimity.If we condense Nagarjuna’s teachings into one term, it is ‘Shunyata’. Shunyata is Pratityasamutpada. This Pratityasamutpada explains the summary of the vast literature of PP. Many works have been attributed to Nagarjuna.Shunyatasaptati is described to Nagarjuna by Bhavya, Chandrakirti and Shantarakshita. Vigrahavyavartani, an important work is written in simple and clear prose and is the dialectical method of Nagarjuna. Yuktishashtika, Pratityasamutpadahridayakarika, Bodhicittavivarana, Suhrillekha and Ratnavali are another works attributed to Nagarjuna.[4] Tibetan and Chinese translations of these works afford Mahayana Buddhist principles.

Besides these works, Saddharmapundarika, Dasabhumika-sutra, Vimalakirtinirdesha are attributed to him. Vimalakirtinirdesha is having the spirit of the philosophy of the Absolute. “The Vimalakirtinirdesha has a deep touch of humanity about it which speaks of the essence of the great way. It sets forth the import of the ultimacy of the undivided or non-dual dharma with regard to the determinate modes of thought and life. Life in this world, when lived in the light of the highest truth, is itself Nirvana.”[5] The whole of Nagarjuna’s teachingsshows that he was aware of the existence of various darshanas like Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Jaina and theistic systems of Indian thought. And also he was an alchemist. His works portrays his knowledge on suttas, vinayas and abhidharmas, which are the basic principles of Mahayana Epistemology. He devoted his entire life for the teaching of Mahayana principles to monks and laymen.

The ultimate nature of man is the undivided being. As an individual, man is essentially related to the rest of the world. A rise in one’s awareness from the level of finiteness to the realization of one’s ultimate nature is possible, Nagarjuna would say, and in this rise consists the fulfillment of the thirst man. The way for realization is prepared by one’s awakening to the absurdities and self-contradictoriness involved in one’s false imagination. This comprehensive understanding is to be conveyed in the philosophy of the middle way by prajna. The principle of comprehension is the middle way which rises above exclusiveness. Nagarjuna says in the karika, “Everything holds good in the case of one who is in agreement with Shunyata.” In his philosophy of middle way, determinate entities as well as specific concepts and conceptual formulations are not only accepted but taken as essential to give expression to the real in man. These are essential also for the complete realization of the ultimate reality. Nagarjuna says, “The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the mundane truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, the ultimate truth (Nirvana) cannot be realized.” Relativity or non-ultimacy of views and conditionedness or non-substantiality of entities–this is the truth that is borne out of Shunyata in reference to the mundane nature of things. In the Mula-Madhyamika-karika, Nagarjuna explains Shunyata is not nihilism but relativity and conditionedness, (i.e.) is not a rejection of the world of becoming and the meaningfulness of life but the very mundane existence is appreciated as a course of conditioned becoming as well as the way the values of life become possible of realization. For him who is in agreement with Shunyata, everything stands in harmony and for him who is not in agreement with Shunyata, nothing stands in harmony.

Nagarjuna set for himself a challenge to show how not only the unique nature of everything can go well with the ultimate truth of the undivided being, but, that the mundane existence itself becomes possible, conceivable, only on the ground of the unconditioned reality. He meets this challenge by pointing on the one hand, to the different levels of comprehensive and, on the other, to the absurdity into which one would drive oneself by mistaking the relative for the absolute. The re-interpretation of the Tathagata’s teaching is same as Right views which are the primary sources in the eightfold noble path. It itself consists in keeping free from extremes. These extremes, it must be borne in mind, are to be understood as applying not only to morals but also to correct understanding. In the path of morals the extremes are sensualism and asceticism. In the case of correct understanding, the middle way is the way that is free from the extremes of ‘is’ and ‘is not’. And the same way of the two ends of eternalism and annihilationism. Actually, nothing in the world exists absolutely and nothing perishes totally. The dialectics of Buddha as well as Nagarjuna reveals that things are neither absolutely being nor absolutely non-being, but arising and perishing, thus forming a continuity of Becoming.

In the eyes of Nagarjuna the Tathagata, Buddha was not a forerunner but very founder of the Madhyamika system. In the long run the real teaching was alterated by various teachers and commentators. Nagarjuna was thoroughly conversant with the ancient Tripitakas and without breaking the tradition he made a new reformation in the Buddha’s teachings and Nagarjuna is called as a second Buddha, saved Buddhism from shipwreck. He invented new ideas about the nature of the world and stabilized new moral behavior. His contribution to this revivalism is grouped in the Mahayana scriptures commonly known as PP. The chief of these literatures is Mula-Madhyamika-karika. The PP is developed into later works. The gist of the PP can be summarized as, fundamentally all phenomena or dharmas are void of substance or empty in nature. An individual is that as a bodhisattva gradually recognizing this fact one should live in the equanimity of universal emptiness, and at the same time, through compassion, devote oneself liberating all other beings into the idea of ‘karuna’. Earliest of these PP can be found in few monasteries in Tibet, China and Nepal.

Because of the Mohammaden invasions and Hindu revivalism from the atheist and nihilist approach, the literature of Early Buddhism was disappeared from its homeland. But some monasteries preserved and practiced the dhamma and vinaya in a degraded form. The original teachings and its compositions were re-emphasized by Nagarjuna and his disciples. The depth of insight and the profundity of its logic brought to bear upon his work as a teacher of the great vehicle (Mahayana) made a great revolution in the history of Buddhist Philosophy. This movement immensely influenced the subsequent philosophical thinking inside and outside the Buddhist world.

Theory of Void

Nagarjuna developed a theory of naturelessness (nihsvabhavata) which has a relative existence and everything is devoid of its own nature, and is therefore void, and there is nothing that is not void. Thus, the absolute reality must be void and it is both subjective and objective. Everything in the world is essentially a void because the world itself is void. What we see then is only an appearance of the void, the Absolute. The shunyata or the voidness must be the nature of everything. Nagarjuna made this philosophy of voidness comprehensive and systematic. Again, he made the world as only an appearance. Appearance is the empirical truth. Everything that belongs to the world is only empirical truth (vyavaharika). The Buddhist concept of aggregates (skandhas), the elements, bases and dharma are also empirical. It is Samvritisatya. Denying postulates two truths; Samvritisatya and Paramarthasatya. Above all the world phenomena, only an appearance of the void. That is Absolute truth, Paramarthasatya. Through these dialectics, he argues that this world is not real, though could not have been born and was, therefore never born. This doctrine is called non–birth of the world. This theory is called Ajativada. This doctrine is called the doctrine of nonbirth of the world. And this doctrine of ‘Ajativada’ is again expounded by Gaudapada, Shankara’s great guru. The theory of non-origination is the cardinal principle of Nagarjuna’s Philosophy. This philosophy further developed by Madhyamika dialecticians like Asanga and other writers.


Ultimate reality, which is the essence of everything, can be neither Being-nor non-being. It cannot be both, because they are contradictory. It cannot be neither two, so, there is no third. It is therefore, that which is devoid (shunya) of all characteristics, all determinations. It is void-shunya. The middle path taught by Buddha must be applied to metaphysics also, it will be neither to affirm nor to deny, i.e. it will deny both positive and negative characteristics. Truly it is neither void nor non-void. Thus, it is madhyamarga-the middle way (not two extremes). So, in the final analysis, Nagarjuna’s doctrine is known as ‘doctrine of void’. TRV Murty explains the Nagarjuna’s Prajnaparamita Madhyamika system as, “With the Prajnaparamita an entire new phase of Buddhism begins. Madhyamika system is the systematized form of the Shunyata doctrine of the Prajnaparamita treatises which is a severe type of Absolutism established by Nagarjuna. The Prajnaparamita revolutionized Buddhism, in all aspects of its philosophy and religion by the basic concept of Shunyata.”[6]

Footnotes and references:


P.L. Vaidya, ‘Bauddha samskrita grandavali-10 Madhyamika school of Nagarjuna-Chandrakirti’s Prasannapada’, Midhila Institute of Darbhanga, 1960


P.T. Raju, ‘Structural Depth of Indian Thought’, p. 138


M. Hiriyanna, ‘Outlines of Indian Philosophy’, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, Delhi, p. 135.


Ibid., p. 135


K. Venkata Ramanan, ‘Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as presented in the Maha Prajnaparamita Shastra’, Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan, Varanasi, 1971, p. 1.


TRV Murty, ‘The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika system’, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1960, p. 83.

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