Nagarjuna’s Anti-Substantialism

Authors:  Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa), Melanie Coughlin (Carleton University)

Nagarjuna’s central work, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), is a classic of Indian Buddhist philosophy that has generated a wealth of commentarial literature. Likely composed in the 2nd or 3rd century CE, it offers a critique of the idea of svabhava, a Sanskrit term literally meaning “own-nature” and suggesting independent or substantial existence. Through a series of arguments designed to show the incoherence of any such concept of existence, Nagarjuna seeks to demonstrate that nothing whatsoever possesses svabhava, in the sense that nothing can be identified as a logical and ontological isolate. In other words, upon analysis, nothing, including ourselves, can be understood independently of a relation to other things. This is Nagarjuna’s version of the fundamental Buddhist thesis that all things are dependently originated, which he identifies with the Mahayana concept of the emptiness (sunyata) of all phenomena. Nagarjuna thereby claims to offer a ‘middle path’ between the extremes of eternalism and nihilism, in that emptiness is not an absolute that supports the ultimate reality of phenomena, yet neither does it imply that phenomena lack all reality.  Nagarjuna’s terse and rather cryptic Sanskrit verses are open to a variety of interpretations. Current English-language philosophical commentaries relating Nagarjuna’s position to familiar Western options have characterized it variously as anti-realist, realist, anti-foundationalist, relativist, deconstructionist and idealist.


Primary Sources
Secondary Sources – Online
Secondary Sources – Books and Articles
Compare/Contrast with

Primary Sources:

The text of the Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way is relatively short, but virtually impossible to decipher without the help of commentaries. Chapters that could serve as a good base for classroom presentation and discussion are:

Chapter 1, “Examination of conditions”
Chapter 2, “Examination of motion”
Chapter 13, “Examination of compounded Phenomena”
Chapter 15, “Examination of essence”
[Chapter titles from translation by Jay Garfield; see below]

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Jay Garfield, The fundamental wisdom of the middle way : Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (New York: Oxford University Press 1995). With detailed commentary.

Mark Siderits and Shorya Katsura, Nagarjuna’s Middle Way: The Mulamadhyamakakarika (Boston, Mass.: Wisdom Publications 2013). Contains transliterated Sanskrit with English translation and commentary.

Kenneth K. Inada, Nāgārjuna : A translation of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā with an introductory essay (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1970).

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Secondary Sources – Online:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Secondary Sources – Books and Articles:

Jan Westerhoff, Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).   A comprehensive philosophical presentation and analysis of Nagarjuna’s critique of svabhava, seeking to situate Nagarjuna’s philosophy in its own context while at the same time relating his ideas to themes and positions familiar to Western philosophers. The introduction provides a helpful survey of phases in the history of philosophical interpretations of Nagarjuna and the options they represent. The conclusion contains a concise summary of Westerhoff’s argument, and can be read on its own.

B.K. Matilal, “A Critique of the Madhyamaka Position,” in Two Truths in Buddhism and Vedanta, ed. M. Sprung (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1973), pp. 54-63.  More an interpretation than a “critique” of the “middle way” of Buddhism, with a primary focus on Nagarjuna. Matilal argues that it is important not to lose sight of the soteriological significance of Nagarujuna’s idea of “emptiness,” which is part of a religious philosophy. On Matilal’s interpretation, Nagarjuna uses a negative dialectic to undermine false views while bringing home the ultimate truth, whose realization results in a state of “perfect freedom, joy and bliss.”

David Burton, “Is Madhyamaka Buddhism really the middle way? Emptiness and the problem of nihilism,” Contemporary Buddhism, 2:2 (2001), 177-190, DOI: 10.1080/14639940108573749.  A critical examination of some different ways of interpreting Nagarjuna’s position. A longer critical appraisal is given in Burton’s monograph, Emptiness Appraised: A Critical Study of Nagarjuna’s Philosophy (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 2001).

Dan Arnold, Buddhists, Brahmins and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), Part III, “The Metaphysical Arguments of Madhyamaka.” Interprets Nagarjuna as a kind of realist, disagreeing with the reading of him as an idealist by, for instance, David Burton in Emptiness Appraised (see above).

See also the commentaries by Garfield and by Siderits in the translations cited above.

Gadjin Nagao, “Ontology in Mahāyāna Buddhism,” in Mādhyamika and Yogācāra: A Study of Mahāyāna Philosophies (SUNY 1991). A relatively non-technical but sophisticated essay by a former chair of Buddhist Studies at Kyoto University. Covers key points of Nagarjuna’s Mādhyamika philosophy, such as the identity of dependent origination and emptiness and the theory of the two truths. The comparison of Mādhyamika with other Asian ontologies is not extensive, and readers are encouraged to consult other sources on those topics, but Nagao’s description of Mādhyamika itself is concise and accessible.

Gadjin Nagao, The Foundational Standpoint of Mādhyamika Philosophy (SUNY 1989). Provides a more detailed and technical justification for Nagao’s reading of Nagarjuna’s Mādhyamika standpoint, situtated in relation to two diverse streams of historical interpretation. On the one hand, the work is a polemic against the Sānlùn stream of interpretation, as Nagao understands it, attributed to the Chinese Buddhist philosopher Jizang (549-623) and taken to be largely representative of East Asian traditions of Buddhism. On the other hand, Nagao’s interpretation offers a new defense of the Tibetan stream of interpretation as represented by his understanding of Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419).

T.R.V. Murti, The central philosophy of Buddhism: a study of the Mādhyamika system. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1960).
A classic in the English language study of Buddhist ideas, this work provides an exposition of Madhyamika philosophy through an interpretive history of ideas, an analysis of key concepts, as well as a series of comparisons with Kant, Hegel, Bradley, Vijnanaveda, and Vedanta. Attributing a distinct dialectical method as well as a notion of spiritual intuition to Nagarjuna, Murti argues for an absolutist interpretation of Madhyamika that denies maintaining any particular view. This reads Nagarjuna as using a negative method to reach a positive result: the negation of intellectual views is believed to uncover an intuition of the absolute that transcends thought.

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Compare/Contrast with:

Foundationalist metaphysical theories within Indian or Western philosophy; linguistic theories such as deconstruction.

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