Before the Buddha left his mortal body on the earth, he made a prediction that another soul would be born to uphold the teachings of Buddha in the land of Bharath. True to that prediction, 400 years after Buddha, the second Buddha had arrived.
In the Nalgonda district in Andhra Pradesh, a married couple were really upset because the town oracle had predicted that their newly born baby boy was going to live only for seven years. The couple was devastated to hear this. When the boy turned five, they were very sad and were not ready to see him die, so they sent him away on a pilgrimage with several other Buddhist monks who were visiting the town. This little boy sincerely followed the monks around and learnt all the mantras and yogic practices. The monks taught the boy a special mantra called the Amitabha mantra. Amitabha means eternal light and health. The boy sincerely repeated this mantra day and night, and lo! He turned seven, and was still alive! The Amitabha mantra had given him an extended life. This is the first of the many miracles that happened in this boy’s life.
As this little boy began to slowly get initiated in the order of the monks, he attained deep spiritual realization and became a profound spiritual master himself! He went to Nalanda, the world famous university and taught there. Enabled by his keen intellect and composed mind, not only did he achieved great levels of mastery in all the tantras (practices) and sutras (books and teachings), while at Nalanda, he also helped his fellow monks attain similar levels of spiritual growth.
After the time of the Buddha, some of the most important sutras had disappeared from the earth. It was believed that the naga kings had taken the sutras to their land for safekeeping. The nagas are serpent people and they are believed to live in the nether world, not on earth. Additionally, they were known to be not so friendly either. This little boy who had conquered death, bravely undertook the journey to the naga land and brought back the lost sutras belonging to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Because of this brave deed, he was given the title Nagarjuna. (The arjuna part of his name came into being because just like the shower of arrows that spread far and wide out of Arjuna’s bow, Nagarjuna spread the message of the sutras far and wide)
Nagarjuna was the author of hundreds of philosophical texts in the Mahayana Budhhist tradition. His works were predominantly in Sanskrit. Nagarjuna devised the concept of SuNyatA, or emptiness. Additionally, Nagarjuna was also the founder of the Madhyamika path (the middle path) of philosophy. The Madhyamika philosophy essentially signifies a median path equidistant from extreme ended paths. Nagarjuna’s teachings spread to Tibet, China, Japan and to the islands of south east Asia. Nagarjuna’s teachings and philosophy is the principle cause behind the popularity of Buddhism in East Asia today.
In the latter parts of his life, Nagarjuna returned to Andhra Pradesh, where he was born, to continue preaching. The only wordly possessions Nagarjuna ever had was a golden begging bowl that the king has given to him with great devotion. Just as he was retreating to bed one night, he heard a thief outside his hut, and not wanting to get killed, he told the thief that he could take the golden begging bowl, as there was nothing else to give to him. The thief made off with the begging bowl, but returned the next day with the begging bowl and a request. When Nagarjuna asked him what he wanted, he replied “Oh monk! When you gave me the begging bowl, it made me realize how empty I am and how empty my life is. You displayed such a great sense of detachment from these wordly things that I was drawn to come back and learn from you.” The thief also joined Nagarjuna’s order and became a monk himself, after giving up his lowly way of life. This anecdote describes the effect that Nagarjuna had on people; even if they only interacted with him briefly, they felt cleansed of their sins.
Nagarjuna lived for nearly 600 years, and little is known about how he gave up his body. In honor of this great monk, the Andhra Pradesh government named the magnificent dam on River Krishna – the Nagarjuna Sagar.