The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is generally regarded as the masterwork of the 2nd- to 3rd-century Indian Buddhist master Nāgārjuna and has been used by scholars as the test case against which other texts are judged to be authentic compositions of Nāgārjuna. Its subject matter consists of a series of examinations of Buddhist doctrinal concepts. In every case, the concept under consideration is revealed to be without reality at the ultimate level and thoroughly lacking in any unique substantial existence. To put it in Nāgārjuna’s own terms, everything is empty (śūnya) of inherent existence (svabhāva) because everything has arisen dependently (pratītysamutpāda). The world appears to the senses and the mind as composed of real, independent entities, but while this might be true from the conventional perspective (samvrtti), it is revealed to be ultimately (paramārtha) false. Nāgārjuna states that distinguishing between these two levels of knowing is crucial to understanding the teachings of the Buddha and for understanding what Nāgārjuna is doing in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Realizing ultimate truth is what brings the attainment of nirvana. The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā consists of 447 verses in twenty-seven chapters, though some modern scholars argue that the text originally ended with chapter 25. Typical of the kārikā genre, the subject matter is presented in a concise style. Like other such texts, numerous commentaries were composed to elucidate the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. By the end of the 12th century, at which time Buddhism’s popularity was beginning to fade in India, there were numerous commentaries by Indian masters on the text, including one attributed to Nāgārjuna himself. Chinese and subsequent Japanese traditions also accept a commentary by Piṅgala and one by Asaṅga. Several of the early commentaries were by important masters traditionally understood to belong to the Yogācāra school, so the very idea of exclusive, discrete philosophical schools should be treated cautiously. Only a few of the commentaries, however, endured and influenced the development of Madhyamaka schools of thought in China and Tibet. The text exists in Sanskrit, embedded in Candrakīrti’s 7th-century commentary, the Prasannapadā, which was translated into Tibetan in the 11th century. In Tibet, and in much of Western scholarship, Nāgārjuna’s text has been seen through the lens of Candrakīrti’s interpretation and frequently through the further interpretive lens of the commentaries of the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism. In China, however, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is found embedded in the commentary attributed to the early-5th-century Indian master Piṅgala. This version and its legacy have been much less studied.
Reference Works and Textbooks
For an overview of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and Nāgārjuna in the broader Indian religious and philosophical context, Hamilton 2001 is an excellent place to start. Williams 2009 places the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and Nāgārjuna more specifically in their Indian Buddhist context and includes brief examinations of three chapters of the text. Carpenter 2014 examines Buddhist philosophy from the time of the Buddha to the 8th century, specifically discussing Nāgārjuna’s contributions and later reactions to them. Ruegg 1981 is perhaps the definitive concise source on Nāgārjuna, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, and the subsequent commentators and traditions of Madhyamaka. Westerhoff 2010 is a useful online source that discusses Nāgārjuna’s philosophy with an emphasis on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Potter 1999 contains a concise but authoritative article by Christian Lindtner on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.
Carpenter, Amber. Indian Buddhist Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
This sophisticated yet highly readable work engages Buddhist thought through the lens of philosophy. Chapter 4 is dedicated to Nāgārjuna and Madhyamaka, and subsequent chapters examine later developments in Madhyamaka and challenges to it.
Hamilton, Sue. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
This wonderfully clear and concise book on Indian philosophy has an excellent discussion of Nāgārjuna’s thought as laid out in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and connects it to the religious and philosophical context in India.
Potter, Karl, ed. The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Vol. 8, Buddhist Philosophy from 100–350. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999.
The reader will find here a discussion and summary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Madhyamaka scholar Christian Lindtner (pp. 98–124).
Ruegg, David Seyfort. The Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in India. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1981.
Contains an authoritative chapter on Nāgārjuna and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, as well as the other works of Nāgārjuna (see pp. 4–57).
Westerhoff, Jan Christoph. “Nāgārjuna.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2010.
This is a brief yet thorough overview of Nāgārjuna’s thought, especially useful for the philosophically inclined who may not have training in Indology or Buddhist studies. Much of the discussion here focuses on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.
Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.
The Madhyamaka chapter of this indispensable work (pp. 63–83) is primarily based on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, including a discussion of Nāgārjuna’s logical method in this work and synopses of the chapters on causality, the self, and nirvana. There are also sections on meditation and emptiness and the influence of Madhyamaka in East Asia.
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