Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Problem of the Historical Nagarjuna Revisited

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Problem of the Historical Nagarjuna Revisited

Article excerpt

Claims about the life of Nagarjuna are often asserted as if the facts were known and secure, when they are not. Those who explore the evidence in quest of more secure facts come up with contradictory conclusions.

Even the century or centuries in which Nagarjuna lived cannot be confidently identified. Scholarly references to Nagarjuna frequently take it as given that he lived in the second century, sometimes specifying the latter half of it.(2) On the basis of the archaeological evidence reported by K. R. Subramanian, whose 1932 publication is cited above, Venkata Ramanan drew the conclusion that Nagarjuna flourished within the period A.D. 50-120.(3) A recent account of Buddhist philosophy, by D. Kalupahana, similarly takes Subramanian as an authority, yet (citing Nakamura) assigns Nagarjuna to A.D. 150-250.(4) Shohei Ichimura claims that Nagarjuna lived from about A.D. 50 to about 150.(5) He says: "The earliest dates ever postulated for the times of Nagarjuna were proposed by Prof. H. Ui as A.D. 113 and 213"(6) but as we have seen this is wrong.

Substantially later dates also find their protagonists. For example. E. Lamotte was influenced by Chinese evidence, interpreted by him to entail that Nagarjuna's dates were A.D. 243-c. 300.(7) Prima facie, Chinese sources appear more useful than Indian ones (although as we shall see the results for the biography of Nagarjuna are disappointing), and this chronology, supported also by J. May,(8) should not be ignored.

Chronologies proposed vary freely between the first and third centuries.(9) One scholar, indeed, has claimed that "we do not think it an impossibility or absurdity to assign to him an age of about two hundred years," and assigns Nagarjuna's life to a period from the early first century B.C. to the early second A.D.(10)

Nagarjuna's career has been variously located in widely different parts of India, often in the south (the late Satavahana stronghold along the Krishna, or further north in "Daksinakosala"), but sometimes in the west, the northwest, or the northeast. Again, for some, there is only one Nagarjuna, while for others there are two, three, or four.(11)

There is no need, however, to engage in any extended survey of the modern scholarship. It is clear that what has proved "baffling to the most brainy" is the quest for knowledge about Nagarjuna's life. Is the present state of confusion caused by any defect in scholarly method or rigor, or is it caused by the sheer inadequacy of the evidence to support any one convincing interpretation?

This question needs to be confronted squarely. If (as I believe) the second answer is the correct one, a demonstration of the limits of the evidence can serve a valuable purpose. The common habit of assigning Nagarjuna to the second century is not properly justified; it is a self-validating majority vote, or a median possibility, rather than a demonstrable probability. I am inclined to believe that Nagarjuna may have lived later, but this cannot be proved; the purpose of the following survey is chiefly to show that claims commonly made are not well founded.

This is not, of course, the only sort of purpose that might be served by a study of the sources bearing on Nagarjuna's life. An important set of questions, not addressed here, concerns the role of hagiography in religious history, a topic that has been attracting increasing attention. The treatment of Nagarjuna as a supernatural figure is itself a phenomenon to be investigated.(12) However, my interest is not in those sources which present the fantastic but in those most likely to furnish historical evidence.

In what follows, a positive methodological contribution is also intended. It concerns our treatment of the many later works, mostly more or less tantric, which are traditionally credited to "Nagarjuna" but are unlikely to be by the original madhyamika philosopher. The later works in question were written by real people, but it is perhaps an error to suppose that they must all be attributable to some unique individual (or even two or three distinguishable individuals) who happened, confusingly, to have also the name Nagarjuna. …

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