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BirthplaceSouthern India
Buddhist teacher and philosopher
Known for Credited with founding the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism.


Madhyamika (mädyŭˈmĭkə) [Skt.,=of the middle], philosophical school of Mahayana Buddhism, based on the teaching of “emptiness” (see sunyata) and named for its adherence to the “middle path” between the views of existence or eternalism and nonexistence or nihilism. The school was founded by Nagarjuna (2d cent. A.D.) who came from S India to the Buddhist university of Nalanda and entered into debate with other schools including the Hindu logic school, or Nyaya, and the Buddhist Abhidharma. About 25 works are attributed to Nagarjuna, the most important being the Middle Stanzas (Madhyamika Karika). Nagarjuna took key ideas from early Mahayana scriptures and expounded them using a rigorous dialectic. He attacked the concept of essence or “self-nature” (svabhava) as self-contradictory, holding that nothing self-existent can be subject to change. He then refuted all possible answers to philosophical problems such as causality, identity, and change by showing their logical inconsistency, with the aim of freeing the mind from all speculative views, which are the source of attachment that prevents enlightenment. He claimed to have no view of his own and to be attempting only to refute the views of his opponents. Nagarjuna's ultimate principle of emptiness was equated by him with “dependent co-arising,” the causally conditioned, relative nature of all phenomena. He declared that there is no distinction between nirvana and samsara (bondage in birth-and-death) when the latter is seen without delusory concepts. He recognized two levels of truth, the absolute and the conventional. Thus his system does not deny the validity of empirical experience in its own sphere, although it does not accept the possibility of statements about absolute reality, which is beyond conceptualization. Nagarjuna's immediate disciple Aryadeva carried on his teaching. About A.D. 500 Bhavaviveka, heading the Svatantrika school of the Madhyamika, held that the Buddhist position can be put forward by positive argument. The Prasanga school, championed by Candrakirti, opposed him and reaffirmed the simple refutation of opponents by reductio ad absurdum as the true Madhyamika position. Santideva (691–743) wrote the philosophical and inspirational classic Bodhicaryavatara (tr. by M. L. Matics, Entering the Path of Enlightenment, 1970). Santaraksita and Kamalasila were the chief representatives of the Madhyamika's last phase, a syncretism with the Yogacara school that was transmitted to Tibet. Madhyamika was also transmitted to China as the San-lun, or Three Treatises, school, introduced by Kumarajiva.


See T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (2d ed. 1960, repr. 1970); D. T. Suzuki, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (1963); R. H. Robinson, Early Madhyamika in India and China (1967); F. Streng, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (1967).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



Lived in the second century. Indian thinker whose influence pervaded the second 500 years of the religious and philosophical history of Buddhism.

In his treatise Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamentals of the Middle Way), Nagarjuna used an analysis of the philosophical teachings of his time to provide models of a dialectical method applicable to the theory of knowledge. Refusing to define his own philosophical position, Nagarjuna proposed methods of negative criticism that could be applied to any theory. These methods he called sunyavada, or “the teaching about the emptiness (of all points of view)”; they could be used to demonstrate the contradictoriness of the categories and concepts of any philosophical system. According to Nagarjuna, any statement about the nature of reality and about the existence of objects given in experience, or of the bearer of this experience, is unprovable.

The Madhyamika school, which Nagarjuna founded, was the earliest in the history of philosophy to single out methodology as a separate study, inasmuch as the school’s field of investigation was not reality itself, but the various theories of reality.

Nagarjuna’s dialectical methodology was a powerful incentive to philosophical and scientific thought in India. In particular, in mathematics, the concept of zero as the difference in points of view from the absolute point of view was first defined under the influence of his methodology. Nagarjuna’s methodology underwent further development in the Prajnyaparamita Sutras (Perfection of Wisdom Verses), which contains the teaching about emptiness as a place absolutely free of consciousness. His relativist ethics was later thoroughly elaborated in Tantrism and Zen Buddhism. Finally, Nagarjuna’s dialectical method was taken out of its specifically Buddhist context and used as the basis for the systematic philosophy of the advaita vedanta created by Shankara.


Mulamadhyamakakarikas (Madhyamikasutras). St. Petersburg, 1903–13. (Bibliotheca Buddhica, vol. 4.)
In Russian translation:
Shcherbatskoi, F. I. Buddiiskii filosof o edinobozhii. St. Petersburg, 1904.


Walleser, M. “The Life of Nagarjuna.” Asia Major, London [1923].
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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