restricted access Nāgārjuna’s Longevity
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129 Na −ga −rjuna’s Longevity Reginald A. Ray The Buddhist master Nâgârjuna (second–third century)1 is one of the greatest and most celebrated of all Indian Buddhist saints. He is identified as the founder of the Madhyamaka school, author of numerous important texts, guru of a number of important figures, and even, in some accounts, the first propounder of Mahâyâna Buddhism itself.2 Yet in spite of his important and well-documented presence within Indian Buddhism, Max Walleser, Jan Yün-hua, and other scholars who have taken up “the problem of Nâgârjuna” agree that he remains an enigmatic figure, described in a hagiography that is rampant with difficulties.3 Prominent among perplexing elements of Nâgârjuna’s story is the extraordinary life span attributed to him, in some sources several centuries, in others specified as 600, 629, or 700 years. The Mañjuùrîmûlakalpa, for example, says, “This is a prediction of the tathâgata himself—that [Nâgârjuna] will reach the grade (bhûmi) of pramuditâ, live six hundred years, obtain the charms of the Mahâmayûrî; after having thrown off his body he will re-appear in Sukhâvatî.”4 Another Indian text, the Caturaùîtisiddhaprav∑tti (Csp)5 or History of the Eighty-four Siddhas by Abhayadatta, similarly attributes to Nâgârjuna a longer than normal (but unspecified) lifespan.6 In the Csp account, one finds two additional motifs, the significance of which will presently become clear: first, he is a bodhisattva—the enlightened ideal of the Mahâyâna—and his exclusive motivation during his long life is compassion for others; second, he finally dies because he is, in effect, asked to do so: the god Brahma asks Nâgârjuna for his head and, seemingly because he is a bodhisattva and therefore unable to refuse any being’s request,7 the saint accedes. The Indian affirmations of Nâgârjuna’s long life and manner of death are repeated in Tibetan sources. Târanâtha, for example, in his History of the Seven Special Transmissions (bka’.babs.bdun.ldan [Kbdd]) (written in 1600), says that Nâgârjuna, practitioner of the long-life mantra of Amitâyus and possessor of the elixir of longevity,8 was predicted to live 600 years but fell short of this venerable age by seventy-one years owing to the following circumstances . A certain southern Indian king, Nâgârjuna’s disciple, was also very long-lived because his life span was tied to that of the Âcârya. His eldest son, desirous of gaining the throne, knew that by bringing about Nâgârjuna’s death he could also cause his father’s, so he went to the saint and asked for his head. Nâgârjuna did not refuse and, when the prince was not able to sever his head, even obliged by performing the deed himself.9 As in Nâgârjuna’s life in the History of the Eighty-four Siddhas, so here we find the theme of the bodhisattva who has the power of longevity, but whose ability to exercise it is somehow bound up with the wishes and requests of sentient beings. Scholars have attempted to explain the origin and significance of Nâgârjuna’s longevity by reference to historical idiosyncracies of his biography . Nalinaksha Dutt,10 in an extended discussion of Nâgârjuna’s long life,11 explains that the well-known second-century Buddhist figure known as Nâgârjuna was followed some six hundred years later by the appearance of another Nâgârjuna, this time a Tantric author to whom are attributed many works in the Tenjur.12 Dutt states that the Mañjuùrîmûlakalpa (Mmk), reflecting this same time period and followed by later Buddhist tradition, has taken these two Nâgârjunas “to be a single person [and] his span of life has been supposed to be of 600 years.” Thus “the Mañjuùrîmûlakalpa, belonging to a date prior to the ninth century A.D., has very probably mixed up the traditions relating to more than one person bearing the name of Nâgârjuna.”13 Other scholars discussing Nâgârjuna’s longevity have tended to accept Dutt’s explanation.14 The Indian and Tibetan sources cited above all post-date the rise of Tantric Buddhism in India, and would seem to support or at...