THE concept of Sunyata was a turning point in the history of Buddhism. It is central to Nagarjuna’s philosophy. It launched a revolution in Buddhist thinking. It also made a great impact on Hindu thought. Result? Buddhism became popular. The reforms have sustained a stable civilisation for centuries in the greater parts of Asia.
Nagarjuna was born in Kanchi (Tamil Nadu) and had his education in Kanchi and Taxila. He became a preceptor to the Satavahana dynasty and presided ever the 4th Buddhist Council in Kashmir under the patronage of Emperor Kanishka (1st c AD) Nagarjuna became a critic of Buddhist orthodoxy. He travelled extensively in India preaching his Madhyamika (Middle Path) doctrines. He had considerable influence on Tathagata Badra, who hailed from Tamil Nadu and was a professor at Nalanda University. As chief disciple of Nagarjuna, he visited China as a missionary and Buddha Dhamma, who introduced Chen Buddhism into China, to mention a few.
Kanchi was the most important Buddhist centre in the South. Legend has it that the Buddha visited Kanchi. (Heun Tsang, the Chinese student affirms it.) Buddha Ghosha, also from Tamil Nadu, was India’s greatest Pali author.
It was the 2nd Buddhist Council held in year 242 BC under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka which laid down the Buddhist orthodoxy. It spread rapidly in the South. It was almost atheistic.
Ashoka was a great Buddhist missionary. His empire was the first “welfare state”, and was dotted with his edicts on Buddhism. He also built viharas all over the country, especially in Kashmir and Karnataka. Which explains why Kashmir became the 2nd largest Buddhist centre in India.
It is not true that Buddha was anti-Hindu. He retained many important aspects of Hinduism. For example, the theory of Karma. And to him, God was the final stage in the evolution of man. Thus, there is no sharp difference between man and god.
Buddha told has chief disciple Ananda: “If by absolute, God is meant something out of relation to all known things, its existence cannot be established by any reasoning”. The universe is a system of relations, he said, and God must be either outside the system or within the system. Both are not logical.
By the way, there is an impression that Buddhism consists of original ideas. It is not true. It is first of all derived from Sankhya of Kapila. Then the concept of Sunyata is derived from a discourse of the Buddha. Buddha says: “Verily, there is a realm where there is neither solid nor fluid, neither heat nor motion….This I call neither rising nor passing away”. This reminds one of the Chinese idea of the perfect movement which should appear neither coming nor going.
In the same manner Kapila’s Sankhya has influenced many including the Buddha. Kapila propounds his doctrine of materialism and rejects the belief in a creator. Kapila says that the universe has been eternal.
To Nagarjuna, the ultimate reality is formless, empty and void. But this emptiness is not to be taken for mere nothingness. It is, on the contrary, the source of all forms and life. It is a living void, which gave birth to all forms in the phenomenal world. We find very similar ideas in Chinese philosophy.
The first nuclear explosion gave us the idea that an atom consists of heat, light, sound and motion. We may infer from this, as the Buddha said, there is no substance. It is in this sense that Nagarjuna meant by doctrine of Sunyata.
There is much confusion on the word Nirvana. It calls for a few words. Nirvana does not mean death. It means achieving what the Buddha has achieved. For example, freedom from desire and passions, perfect peace, wisdom, goodness and so on.
Rhys Davids, the famous Buddhist commentator, has the following view. He says: Nirvana means a virtuous life, here and now.