Dharma Demystified: Nagarjuna, the Founder of the Mahayana Tradition

A traditional depiction of Arya Nagarjuna with a parasol of nagas over his head and a naga below offering the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra

After the Buddha’s passing, Arya Nagarjuna became one of the main pioneers of the Mahayana tradition in India. From Nagarjuna descended the lineage of teachings on wisdom or the profound view of emptiness via his sacred communion with Bodhisattva Manjushri. Before Nagarjuna’s birth, there were numerous predictions of his coming that were recorded in various sutras, such as the Lankavatra Sutra and so forth. Nagarjuna is also traditionally accepted as one of Lama Tsongkhapa’s earlier incarnations.

According to scriptural sources, Nagarjuna was born to a Brahmin family from the ancient kingdom of Vidarbha in the southern part of India. Upon being presented with the newborn baby, the soothsayer observed auspicious signs of a holy being but also made an ominous prediction that the baby would not live past the seventh day. However, he added that the parents could prolong the baby’s life by up to 7 years if they made offerings to a hundred Buddhist monks. Naturally, the parents obliged and the young Nagarjuna lived to seven years of age. During his seventh year, Nagarjuna’s parents feared for his life and they decided to send him to the renowned Nalanda Monastery, where he met the great master Saraha.

Saraha, a great Indian Mahasiddha

Saraha told Nagarjuna that he could extend his life if he was ordained as a monk and engaged in the meditational practice of Amitayus. The boy gladly accepted and was given the Amitayus initiation, which he diligently practiced. He was thus able to survive past his seventh year.

The following year, Nagarjuna received his novice vows and began his life at Nalanda. He turned out to be brilliant in his studies and quickly became an expert in all the major fields of learning at Nalanda. Saraha, his tutor, also initiated him into the Tantric teachings, first with the initiation of Guhyasamaja, and personally taught him the commentary to this Tantra along with other oral teachings, which Nagarjuna gradually mastered.

When he came of age, Nagarjuna returned to his parents and sought their permission to be ordained. Permission was granted and he returned to the monastery where he was ordained according to the Vinaya by the Abbot of Nalanda and given the ordination name of Sriman (Tibetan equivalent, Palden).

Over the years, Manjushri cared for him as he had done in his previous lives. Once, Saraha requested Nagarjuna’s assistance to provide for the monastery during a time of great famine. Nagarjuna traveled to an island by means of his spiritual powers and he learnt the art of alchemy from a hermit there. Upon his return, he was able to provide for the entire monastery with the knowledge he had gained.

As he grew older, Nagarjuna became so highly respected that he was eventually appointed as the Abbot of Nalanda. Fair governance of the monastery characterized his abbotship and he always ensured that monks who upheld the three higher trainings (discipline, meditation and wisdom) were honored and given due recognition. He was also very strict with errant monks and had no qualms expelling monks who had violated their vows.

However, Nagarjuna was not without his detractors. There was a monk by the name of Sankara who composed a text called Ornament of Knowledge, criticizing Nagarjuna’s teachings in twelve thousand stanzas. There was also a text written by a Hinayana monk, Sendah, who refuted the validity of the Mahayana tradition that Nagarjuna upheld. Nagarjuna easily refuted these two texts along with many other texts that spread wrong views.

Once, while Nagarjuna was teaching to a great assembly, two strange men joined the teachings, bringing with them a powerful scent of sandalwood that permeated the hall. The Acharya noticed the two strangers and asked them who they were. The strangers revealed that they were nagas in disguise and that they were sons of the Naga King Taksaka. They added that they had anointed themselves with the essence of sandalwood so that they could enter into the presence of men without being repelled by their smell. Nagarjuna immediately requested for sandalwood to be carved into an image of Tara and for the nagas’ assistance in building a temple.

The Naga Princes said they would first enquire with their father and promised to revert to the Acharya. The next day, the two Naga Princes returned and sought audience with Nagarjuna, telling him that their father had agreed to help the Acharya, but only if he would follow them to the Land of the Nagas. The Acharya pondered and it dawned on him that traveling to the Naga realm would be beneficial for the welfare of all beings. Therefore, he agreed and was brought to the Land of the Nagas by the two Princes, where he was warmly received and accorded the deepest respect.

Nagarjuna discovered that the Naga King and his subjects were all inclined towards virtue. They made many offerings to the Acharya requesting him to turn the wheel of Dharma, to which the Acharya obliged, much to the delight of the Naga Kings and his subjects.

Finally, the Acharya said he needed to return and the Naga King along with subjects begged him to remain. However, Nagarjuna said he could not stay as he came to bring back the sandalwood, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra and the Nagas’ assistance in building temples and stupas. The Naga King finally consented when the Acharya said that he might return one day.

Nagarjuna returned to the monastery, bringing with him the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in One Hundred Thousand Verses, other abbreviated forms of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and several other dharanis. The Acharya also brought back sandalwood and naga clay, and built many temples and stupas with these materials.

When the Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, it was believed that the nagas took one version back to their realm for safekeeping, the gods another, and the yakshas who were lords of wealth took yet another. The version of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra that Nagarjuna carried with him were missing the last two chapters, which were withheld by the Nagas in the hopes that he would one day return to teach them further. However, the last two chapters were filled with the last two chapters of The Eight Thousand Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra instead.

With these precious texts, Nagarjuna firmly established the Madhyamaka tradition and spread it all over India. Madhyamaka literally means ‘Middle Way’ and it quickly became the central philosophy of the Mahayana tradition. In order to perpetuate the Mahayana, the Acharya also composed various treatises and commentaries on the Perfection of Wisdom, Buddhist Logic and the Guhyasamaja Tantra.

Once, while Nagarjuna was expounding the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, six nagas came and formed a parasol over his head to shield him from the sun – a scene which has since been immortalized in traditional depictions of him.

The first half of his name – ‘Naga’ – was derived from his close encounters with these serpentine beings. The second half of his name – ‘Arjuna’ – was given to him because of the precise manner in which he delivered his teachings, likened to the famous archer of the same name in the Hindu epic, Bhagavad-Gita. Thus with both names, he became known as Nagarjuna.

In his lifetime, Nagarjuna had many illustrious students but amongst them, there were four primary spiritual sons and three close sons. The Acharya’s four primary sons were Sakyamitra, Nagabodhi, Aryadeva and Matanga while his three close sons were Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka and Asvagosha. The Acharya also met another of his foremost students, Chandrakirti, when he was older and said to him,

To my last disciple Chandrakirti, I shall show the ultimate Dharma which is not born.

And the Acharya taught the Sutra and Tantra to this promising student. Chandrakirti would later become highly attained and eventually propagated a view of emptiness called the Prasangika tradition based on Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka teachings.

Nagarjuna later traveled to the Northern Continent to teach. Along the way, he came across some children playing by the wayside. Noticing one with an unusual countenance by the name of Jetaka, Nagarjuna prophesied that he would one day be a king. Then, the Acharya went on his way and did not return for many years.

By the time Nagarjuna returned, the little boy had grown up and had become the king of a large and powerful kingdom in South India. The Acharya was invited by this king to stay with him and be his tutor. This was the same king to whom Nagarjuna wrote ‘A Letter to a Friend’ and he referred to King Udayibhadra of the Shatavahana Dynasty. The Shatavahanas were patrons of the stupa in Amaravati, where Buddha had first taught The Kalachakra Tantra and which was also close to Shri Parvata, the place where Nagarjuna engaged in retreats and composed many of his great treatises.

Shatavahana Dynasty

King Udayibhadra had a son, Kumara Shaktiman, who was power hungry and wanted to become king. However, his mother told him that he could never become king until Nagarjuna died because the Acharya and the King were deeply connected.

His mother then told him to ask the Acharya for his head and since he was a Bodhisattva, he would undoubtedly consent. Nagarjuna did in fact agree, but Kumara could not decapitate him with a sword. Nagarjuna then revealed that 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 went on to procure kusha grass and decapitated Nagarjuna. It is said that the blood from the severed head turned into milk and just before dying, the Acharya said,

Now I will go to Sukhavati Pure Land, but I will enter this body again…

Kumara disposed of Nagarjuna’s head a great distance away from the body, but it is said that the head and the body are coming closer together each year and will eventually rejoin; when this happens, the Acharya will return and teach again. According to traditional accounts, Nagarjuna lived for 600 years.

Much later, when Lama Tsongkapa asked Manjushri if he could rely on Chandrakirti’s text in order to comprehend Nagarjuna’s view, Manjushri replied that Chandrakirti’s purposes in appearing on earth was to clarify Nagarjuna’s excellent view. Manjushri then added that Lama Tsongkapa could have full faith in Chandrakirti because he had clearly understood Nagarjuna’s complete view of emptiness.

Lama Tsongkapa finally gained full direct perception of emptiness through his study and meditation on Buddhapalita’s text, which was praised by Chandrakirti who shared the same view. Then, Lama Tsongkapa infused his own writings and teachings with the same, based on his own exhaustive study and divine teachings from Manjushri.

It is said that those who follow Lama Tsongkapa’s writings and lineage would be blessed by Manjushri to gain quicker realizations of emptiness. Thus, Dorje Shugden arose as a Dharma Protector to assist and protect this special uncommon lineage. That is why Dorje Shugden wears the round yellow hat, which is a physical representation of Nagarjuna’s view that he had sworn to protect.

Arya Chandrakirti, one of Nagarjuna’s foremost students

Thus, Nagarjuna is remembered and revered as the founding father of the Mahayana Tradition. The Prajnaparamita Sutras recovered from the realm of the nagas form the doctrinal basis of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka or Middle Way view. Its philosophical view quickly became the basis from which innumerable practitioners, yogis and great masters achieved direct perception of emptiness of inherent existence, which is known as Shunyata in Sanskrit. Realization of emptiness and Bodhichitta are the means from which a practitioner becomes fully enlightened. Therefore, the study of the Perfection of Wisdom texts and Madhyamaka from an integral part of Tibetan monastic curriculum and the doctrinal basis for contemplation and practice.



  1. Lobsang N. Tsonawa (1984), Indian Buddhist Pundits
  2. New Delhi. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
  3. Berzin Archives
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9 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Homage to Nagarjuna whose view that Dorje Shugden has sworn to protect.

  2. Very interesting and detailed write up on Nagarjuna. We really have to appreciate the journey of these great masters into our world to give rise to such precious teachings as that of the Prasangika Madhyamaka, Middle Way view which many practitioners around the world are studying.

  3. It interesting to note that there is a close ‘bond’ between Nagarjuna, Lama Tsongkhapa and Dorje Shugden. Manjushri is the ‘common factor’. Nagarjuna had a close and sacred bond with Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. So did Lama Tsongkhapa. Both communicated with Manjushri, who advised and guided them. Nagarjuna, with the Wisdom Buddha’s wise guidance, formulated the Middle View of Emptiness, known as the Madhyamaka, based on the Perfection of Wisdom texts he received from the Naga King upon his visiting the realm of the Nagas.

    Manjushri told Tsongkhapa that Chandakirti had arisen to clarify Nagarjuna’s view and thus when Tsongkhapa studied the Madhyamaka, adopting Candakirti’s Prasangika approach, he was able to understand and subsequently propound it in a clear and an unexcelled manner, with the guidance of Manjushri..

    Madhyamaka as the Middle View , neither nihilistic nor substantial,is the Correct View of Emptiness. Thus Lama Tsongkhapa, in propounding this Middle(Correct View of Emptiness) provided the direct antidote to counter Ignorance, the prevailing delusion of this degenerate age.

    Dorje Shugden arose as the Wisdom Protector particularly to protect Lama Tsongkhapa’s unexcelled propounding of Nagarjuna’s Middle(Correct) View of Emptiness. Thus the round yellow hat that Dorje Shugden wears is a physical representation of Nagarjuna’s view.

  4. The pure and untainted ESSENCE of the Prasangika Madhyamaka view of emptiness taught by the Great Sage Buddha, is crucial to maintain. This view is best suited to those living in the degenerate aeon. Hence, the Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden was ushered in to protect this precious teaching, without which we will find it hard to be Enlightened !

  5. Dorje Shugden’s round hat representing Nagarjuna’s middle path view, and he has arose as protector to protect particularly this teachings. Many renowned teachers are trained and study under the Gelug lineage, thanks to all the great master, like Nagarjuna who gives expounding dharma teaching, many has gain wisdom and insight of emptiness. I wish i will have the merits to study this subject too.

  6. Nāgārjuna was also instrumental in the development of the two truths doctrine, which claims that there are two levels of truth in Buddhist teaching, the ultimate truth and the conventional/superficial/relativel truth.
    .Relative or common-sense truth which describes our daily experience of a concrete world, and
    Ultimate truth which describes the ultimate reality as sunyata, empty of concrete and inherent characteristics.

  7. Dear DS.com

    Thank you for this article. Nagarjuna has been one of my favourite historical figures for many years. I was hooked on him when I found his book “Letter to A Friend.” At the time, I was quite fascinated with reading books on how to govern like Machiavelli’s Il Principe or The Prince because I would like to know how the kings and rulers of the past were basing their thoughts and behaviours. However, Nagarjuna work in “Letter to A Friend” offered me a completely different perspective on governing and treating other people and I immediately connected to his work and respect him as the men of intelligence.

    Therefore, I am very happy to see the biography of this great masters being included in this website.


  8. Nagarjuna is widely considered one of the most important Buddhist philosophers after Gautama Buddha. Along with his disciple Āryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Madhyamaka literally means ‘Middle Way’ and it quickly became the central philosophy of the Mahayana tradition.

    Thank you for this write up that gives us the details of Nagarjuna. It is important that we learn up about Him.

  9. Dear Dalai Lama,

    Since you started the cruel ban against the 350 year Dorje Shugden practice, how has it benefit your Tibetan society and Buddhism in the world? Things have become worse and most educated Tibetans can see this. They don’t speak out not because they don’t see your ban as wrong, but you instill fear in them and not respect. It is like fear of a dictator. I am sorry to say so. Everyone is divided. There is no harmony. Before your ban there was more harmony and unity.

    By enacting the ban, you split the monasteries, split so many families, split regions in Tibet apart, split your disciples from you, split your own gurus from you, split Tibetan Buddhism apart. You have created so much disharmony.

    It is not democratic what you have done to ban a religion within your community. You always talk of tolerance and acceptance and democracy and yet you do not accept and tolerate something different from your beliefs. When people practice Dorje Shugden you ostracize them, ban them from seeing you, ban them from using Tibetan facilities. You know you have done that. There are videos that capture your speech and prove this point. You even had people expelled from monasteries just because they practice Dorje Shugden. Some of the monks you expelled have been in the monastery for over 40 years. Many older monks shed tears because of this.

    Many young educated Tibetans lost confidence in you as they saw the damage the Dorje Shugden ban created and they lose hope. Many have become free thinkers. They reject what you have done. So many people in the west left Buddhism because of the confusion you created with this ban against Dorje Shugden which is immoral.

    You could of had millions of people who practice Dorje Shugden to support, love and follow you, but you scared them away. They are hurt and very disappointed. They loved you and respected you deeply before the ban. It has been 60 years and you have failed to get Tibet back. Your biggest failure is not getting Tibet back after 57 years in exile. Now you are begging China to allow you to return to Tibet to the disappointment of thousands of people who fought for a free Tibet believing in you. So many self-immolated for a free Tibet and now you want Tibet to be a part of China with no referendum from Tibetans. Just like a dictator, you decide on your own. It was your government and you that lost Tibet in the first place. Your policies and style of doing things do not benefit Tibet and Buddhism. You have been the sole ruler of Tibet your whole life and you still have not gotten our country of Tibet back for us. Our families and us are separated. Yet you create more pain by creating a ban to further divide people. Please have compassion.

    No other Buddhist leader has banned or condemned any religion except for you. It looks very bad. You are a Nobel laureate and this is not fitting of a laureate. You should unite people and not separate them by religious differences.

    You said Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi did not do right to the Rohingya people in Myanmar due to religious differences, but you are doing the same thing to the Shugden Buddhists within your own society. There is a parallel in this. You separate the Shugden Buddhists from the others in Tibetan society.

    You have lost so many people who would have loved and supported you. You have lost so much support around the world. The Shugden Buddhists who love you number in the millions. When you are fast losing support from governments and private people, it will not do you well to lose more.

    After you are passed away in the future, the rift you created between the Dorje Shugden and non-Dorje Shugden people will remain for a while and that will be your legacy. Disharmony. You will be remembered for this. Not as a hero but a disharmony creator.

    Dorje Shugden will spread and further grow, but you will be no more as you are a human. No one wishes you bad and in fact we hope you have a long and healthy life, but we have lost so much hope and have so much despair because of you. All the hundreds of Dorje Shugden lamas, tulkus and geshes are maturing and there are hundreds of Dorje Shugden monasteries in Tibet who will not give up Dorje Shugden. You have made a mistake. These hundreds of teachers and teachers to be will spread Dorje Shugden further in the future.

    The gurus that gave us Dorje Shugden as a spiritual practice and you have called these holy gurus wrong and they are mistaken in giving us Dorje Shugden. How can you insult our gurus whom we respect so much? If they can be wrong, then you can be wrong. Then all gurus can be wrong. So no one needs to listen to any guru? You have created this trend. It is not healthy. Your own gurus practiced Dorje Shugden their whole lives. Your own gurus were exemplary and highly learned.

    Dalai Lama you have created so much pain with this ban against so many people due to religion. You are ageing fast. Are you going to do anything about it or stay stubborn, hard and un-moving. You show a smile and preach peace and harmony wherever you go. But will you do the same to your own people? Please rectify the wrong you have done. Please before it is too late. You can create harmony again or you can pass away in the future with this legacy of peace. May you live long and think carefully and admit what was a mistake in having this unethical ban against Dorje Shugden religion.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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