Nāgārjuna is the most influential and revered author and religious figure in many of the the Mahayana Buddhist traditions. Chinese and Tibetan sources credit Nāgārjuna with retrieving the Mahayana sutras from the realm of the submarine serpent/dragon beings, the Nāgās, from which Nāgārjuna gets his name, and he is generally regarded as the founder of the Madhyamaka school of thought. With Nāgārjuna claimed by Vajrayāna, Ch’an/Zen, Shingon, and Pure Land traditions, it is clear that adherents of the major lineages that identified themselves as Mahayana long believed it important to claim this figure and regarded him as embodying more than philosophical brilliance. It is generally accepted that Nāgārjuna lived in South India in the 2nd or 3rd century CE, and he is widely regarded as the first great philosopher of the Madhyamaka school of philosophy and as the first great intellectual figure of the Mahayana developments of Buddhism in India. Buddhist tradition credits him with the authorship of a great many texts, including philosophical works, ethical advice, hymns to the Buddha, and, in the Esoteric Buddhist schools, tantric works. Though the various Mahayana traditions that claim him frequently emphasize his miraculous powers and exceptionally long life, it is primarily his philosophical works that have received the most attention among modern scholars. Due at least in part to the terse and difficult style of these works, his thought has often been approached through his Indian interpreters, especially (in Tibet) Candrakīrti. His writings have also spawned numerous commentaries, mostly in China and Tibet. Schools and sects in these lands have often been defined by their understanding of or relative emphasis on Nāgārjuna’s works and the Madhyamaka school of philosophy.
There has been a growing number of dependable online resources for the study of Buddhism and Indian philosophy—most being comparable in quality to print resources. For the student of Nāgārjuna, Westerhoff 2009 (in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) is an excellent first stop. The bibliography on Madhyamaka in the Bibliography of Indian Philosophies provides an exhaustive listing of books and articles that pertain to Nāgārjuna and his works. Potter 2002 contains numerous articles on Nāgārjuna’s works by recognized authorities in the field. Hamilton 2001 is a valuable resource that provides the historical and philosophical contexts for understanding Nāgārjuna’s texts. Robinson 2005 remains the best single-volume survey text on Buddhist traditions in general, with excellent coverage of Nāgārjuna and Madhyamaka in India and beyond. Williams 2008 is the best overall text on Mahayana Buddhism, covering its origins and development in India and its impact on Buddhism in Tibet and East Asia. Carpenter 2014 situates Nāgārjuna’s works in their broader Buddhist contexts and evaluates them in terms of their metaphysical, ethical and epistemological positions.
Carpenter, Amber. Indian Buddhist Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
This thoughtful and readable work interrogates Buddhist thought from a modern philosophical perspective. Chapter four deals specifically with Nāgārjuna and Madhyamaka.
Hamilton, Sue. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
An excellent overview of Indian philosophy that skillfully locates Nāgārjuna’s thought in its wider context.
Potter, Karl, ed. The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Vol 8, Buddhist Philosophy from 100–350. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2002.
The reader will find synopses and analyses of most of Nāgārjuna’s works here (pp. 97–184), written by experts such as Christian Lindtner, Kamaleshwar Bhattacharya, and Peter Della Santina. The entries for several of the shorter works include translations.
Potter, Karl, ed. “Madhyamaka Buddhism, Including the Prajñāpāramitā Literature.” Bibliography of Indian Philosophies.
A chronological listing of works on Madhyamaka up to 2008. There are numerous works listed here dealing specifically with Nāgārjuna and his writings.
Robinson, Richard, et al. Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005.
This work is probably the best historical survey of Buddhist traditions. Chapter 4, “The Period of the Three Vehicles,” is an unusually good short treatment of the development of the trends in Buddhism that informed the advent of the Mahayana. Pages 94–98 discuss Nāgārjuna and his contributions to this development.
Westerhoff, Jan Christoph. “Nāgārjuna.” In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2009.
This is a brief yet thorough overview of Nāgārjuna’s thought, along with a short bibliography. Especially useful for the philosophically inclined who may not have training in Indology or Buddhist studies.
Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.
Williams’s book is the best book-length treatment of Mahayana Buddhism. The whole work is useful for understanding the context of Nāgārjuna and his thought, but chapter 3 specifically discusses Nāgārjuna and Madhyamaka.
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