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An eminent philosopher from the Madhyamaka Buddhist school of thought, Nagarjuna composed some brilliant philosophical treatises which expounded on propositions like the Chatuskoti. His renown extended to parts of modern Tibet, from where many of his disciples hailed.

Buddhism’s indubitable significance in Indian history can never be understated, particularly because of the influence Buddha’s message continues to exercise on the lives of countless people. Buddhist philosophy also richly attests to the intellectual contributions of this community. The Mahayana sect consists of two rival philosophical schools. These are Madhyamaka and Yogachara. The most prominent Madhyamaka philosopher was NAGARJUNA.

While details of Nagarjuna’s life can’t be pieced together easily, scholars have suggested that he may have operated out of the eastern Deccan. Moreover, the mention of the word ‘padmapitha’ in verse 232 of Ratnavali- which alludes to Buddha sitting on a lotus- suggests that he may have been patronised by a Satavahana king. This could have been Yajna Sri Satakarni, and that helps us roughly ascertain his dates as being somewhere towards the end of the 2nd century CE. His two major Madhyamaka treatises are Mula-madhyamaka-karika (Fundamental verses of the middle way) and vigraha-vyavartani (Dispeller of objections). Nagarjuna is largely known to us because of numerous commentaries on his works, composed by both his students as well as Tibetan scholars. These include Santideva, Candrakiriti and Bhavaviveka.

Madhyamaka stands for ‘Middle path’ and is broadly characterised by the concept of emptiness (shunyata). It stands opposed to the two extremes of eternalism- one that emphasises on an eternal essence (svabhava) and the other than professes annihilationism, suggesting that the ‘essence’ of a substance gets annihilated when it loses its existence. Nagarjuna denies the existence of ‘svabhava’ as his emptiness essentially translates to emptiness of ‘innate existence’. Another powerful concept that Nagarjuna dealt with was that of Catuskoti (or tetralemma), which consists of four aspects- a statement, its negation, their conjunction and their disjunction. He discussed these positions in great detail, and even pointed out situations wherein none of the four apply. 

Nagarjuna’s postulations laid the foundations for the dissemination of Buddhism beyond the frontiers of the Indian subcontinent, as they penetrated Tibet, China and Japan, indirectly triggering the rise of Zen Buddhism in east Asia. Thus, Nagarjuna was one of the greatest philosophers in ancient India, and definitely among the most significant from the Buddhist community. [ref]


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