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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Preaching/Teaching in Buddhism Studies
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese