In the west, the names like Michael Maier and Paracelsus appear over and over in the history of alchemy. In the lands of India and Tibet, the name Nagarjuna appears. There, and even further east, his name inspires the same thoughts as do Aristotle, Galen, and Aquinas in the west. Nagarjuna is honored as philosopher, mystic, physician, alchemist, and saint.
He was born around the year A.D.100 in southern India, in the area now known as Andhra. Like many early saints and mystics, details of his life are sketchy, many of them surrounded by mystery and legend. Perhaps this is even more the case with regard to India, because prior to the middle Ages, she had few historians. Consequently, many aspects of Nagarjuna’s life are still hotly debated in all the legends or not, one cannot doubt their impression on the minds of millions in Asia, even today.
The earliest datable biography of Nagarjuna comes from Kumarjiva, a Buddhist missionary in China who lived in the fourth century. He states that a youth, Nagarjuna studied magic and became skilled in the art of invisibility. However, after a mishap involving the king’s harem that resulted in a narrow escape, he decided it would be best to take the vows of a Buddhist monk.
Another story, the one most accepted by the Tibetans, says that Nagarjuna became a novice monk while a boy, a common practice in Asia. The story says that when Nagarjuna was born, his parents took him to a seer who predicted that the boy would die in seven days. The death, he said, could be avoided for seven years if the parents would provide a banquet for a hundred monks. This was done and the baby survived. When the boy approached the seven of seven, his parents sent him a trip. It was on this trip that Nagarjuna met his future teacher, Saraha, who recommended that the child be trained as a monk. It was believed that the karma from such an act would help the child avoid death.
Under Sahara, Nagarjuna became adept at both meditation and medicine. He also developed considerable psychic abilities. Nagarjuna used these abilities in conjunction with a vast intellect. This combination enabled him to make his great contributions to Asian thought.
An important example of this is the story behind his name, Nagarjuna, which means “Conqueror of nagas.” Nagas are a class of beings who are half-serpent and half-human. They are supposed to dwell in or near watery places. Common in Indian myth, these beings are believed by some scholars to have been the original mermen and mermaids of later European myth.
Legend states that the Buddha [563-483B.C] hid a number of treaties among the nagas which were to be discovered at a time when people were ready to receive them. These treaties were collectively known as the PRAJNAPARAMITA, a Sanskrit name meaning “The Perfection of Wisdom.”
Once the king of the nagas fell seriously ill. Nagarjuna, who by this time was a famous physician, was sent for. He came and with his skill cured the king. In gratitude, the king let Nagarjuna study the sacred texts. So the Prajnaparamita eventually came to the human world again, and Nagarjuna acquired his name.
The texts discuss the path to enlightenment and in particular dwell on the concept of emptiness. They became a cornerstone for Asian philosophy. Nagarjuna spent many years interpreting these texts, and his work eventually became the basis for the most influential schools of metaphysics in Tibet.
In other fields, Nagarjuna also had equal impact. As a physician, Nagarjuna is said to have been the chief redactor of the Sushruta Samhita. This book is still being widely printed in India and is considered one of the pillars of classical Indian medicine. Its chapters range from surgical techniques to the diagnosis and treatment of varied diseases. Included are chapters on toxicology, pediatrics, mental disorders, and theories on pharmacology.