Nagarjuna and the Elixir of Invisibility

Update: This is a re-telling of an ancient legend from Buddhism patriarchal past, a time when attitudes about sex were quite different than they are today. It has been toned down from the original tale and retold in modern language with a lean towards satire. It’s mythological, part of the “Nagarjuna legend,” and completely implausible. It is not meant to condone or excuse sexual misconduct in any way.

Today’s post is a repeat from September of last year, with some revisions. It’s a story in which Nagarjuna learns how to become invisible, culled from a text that was translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva sometime in the early 5th century, and modified to fit what we call the “modern vernacular.” I’ve also added a few bad puns.

Sometime back, I said that Nagarjuna was a badass. If you don’t know this story, then you don’t know the half of it. Now, I don’t want to say that he was also a juvenile delinquent, but . . .

According to this account, Nagarjuna belonged to the Brahman caste. His teenage life was one of intense study, which he often found rather boring. One time he got together with three of his friends and he said to them, “Are you guys as bored as I am? Haven’t we learned just about every truth there is and uncovered every bit of wisdom to be uncovered? We could use some fun, you know? Let’s go find a alchemist and learn how to make ourselves invisible.” His friends thought it was a cool idea.

They found a alchemist, a certain Professor McGargle, and asked him to give them a formula for invisibility. As it turned out, this alchemist was more of huckster than anything else. He was such a slick salesman that, as they say, he could sell ice to Eskimos. And yet, he did have some skills in mixing up magic potions.

The alchemist Nagarjuna met bore an uncanny resemblance to W.C. Fields
The alchemist Nagarjuna met bore an uncanny resemblance to W.C. Fields

Although he realized that the four boys possessed practically every knowledge that was known, Professor McGargle still pegged them for suckers. After all, a sucker is reborn every minute. He figured that if he just gave them a magic formula, they would leave and never return, and then he wouldn’t make much money off them. So, he decided to prepare a formula in advance and call it “Professor McGargle’s Patented Magic Invisibility Elixir.”

He said, “Here you are, boys. This stuff is good for man and beast, guaranteed not only to enable invisibility, but it will also grow hair and remove warts! The first bottle’s free. Of course, if you run out and need some more, I will be obliged to pass on a small charge. The overhead in the alchemy business is pretty high, you know.”

Nagarjuna unscrewed the cap, took one sniff, and then read off to the alchemist each of the seventy ingredients in the elixir. McGargle was flabbergasted. He said, “Sufferin’ sciatica! How did you figure it out?” To which, Nagarjuna replied, “Nothing to it. I’m smarter than your average teenage Brahman.” McGargle thought to himself, “I gotta get a better elixir, or find dumber marks.”

Ancient painting of Nagarjuna and his friends climbing the palace stairs.

Nagarjuna and his friends, now in possession of the bottle of invisibility elixir and with the knowledge of how to make more, indulged themselves. They were getting into all kinds of mischief. Since they were invisible while engaging in their hijinks, they felt confident they wouldn’t get caught. Eventually, they started going over to the king’s palace whenever they wanted and having sex with the women in the king’s harem. This went on for about three months and then some of the women became pregnant. Evidently, these girls didn’t mind having lovers whom they couldn’t see.

The king was perplexed. His security was very tight and he thought it impossible for anyone to sneak in and fool around with his harem girls. He brought his advisers together and asked, “What the hell is going on here?”

One of the advisers said, “Your majesty, a few months ago there was a alchemist around town selling various magic elixirs. Personally, I thought he was little more than a snake-oil salesman, but you never know, he might have been the real deal. Perhaps he had a formula for invisibility that he sold to someone and they’ve been using it to get in and screw around with your girls.”

The king said, “Well, however they’re doing it, we have to get these guys. Any ideas?”

The adviser said, “Well, we can sprinkle some dirt around the doors and on the floor beneath the windows. If they are demons, there will no footprints and there’s not much we can do about it. But, if they are merely bewitched or using some magical potion, they are bound to leave footprints behind and we can catch them.”

“Sounds like a plan,” the king said, and he commanded that they put it in action.

The next night, a guard noticed the footprints and alerted the king who called out all the other guards and ordered them to storm the harem rooms waving their swords in every direction. Nagarjuna’s three friends were beheaded. Nagarjuna escaped by standing next to the king, as he knew no one would wield a sword anywhere near his head.  And that is how he cheated death and his karma.

Afterward, Nagarjuna “awoke to the truth that desire is the origin of suffering and the root of the crowd of calamities, and that from this comes moral ruin and bodily peril.” He resolved then to become a Buddhist and master all of the 80,000-dharma teachings.

From “A Youthful Adventure” in “The Chinese Life of Nagarjuna” by Roger Corless, Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Princeton, 1995


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