It is thought that the great Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, was probably born in Southern India and that he came from Brahman (priestly) stock. His time is estimated somewhere between 150–250 CE. There are no historical facts about his parents, his upbringing, education, career, and so on. But there are stories . . .
One of the legends says that his parents had long desired children but had been unable to produce any. One night, his father had a dream that caused him to pray fervently to 100 Brahmans for a son. 10 months later, a son was born. The boy was taken to a soothsayer who told the parents that he was destined to die in 7 days. The soothsayer advised them that the only thing that could be done was to give a feast for 100 persons. That would allow the boy 7 more days of life. But if they also gave a feast to 100 monks, he would live for 7 years. That, however, would be the end of it. There was no way to prolong his life further.
Naturally, his parents gave these feasts, and thus, extended Nagarjuna’s life. But as the 7th year drew near, his mother and father felt they would not be able to bear the sight of their son’s corpse, so they sent him on a journey, accompanied by a number of servants. After some traveling, he reached Magadha, where the great monastic university called Nalanda was located. There he met a teacher named Saraha, who gave him a special mantra that would allow him to overcome the destiny of a short life.
Interaction with Saraha inspired Nagarjuna to become ordained as a monk. After his ordination, he mastered all the Buddhist teachings, and Saraha initiated him into the secrets of Mantrayana.
This is Interesting, considering Nagarjuna’s alleged tantric connections, as there was a monk named Saraha in the 8th century who is considered to be the founder of Tantra. Whether the Saraha in the Nagarjuna story is supposed to be the same person is anyone’s guess.
Another account of Nagarjuna’s early life has him abandoning worldly life by taking the Buddhist vows of renunciation at the age of 8. According to Bu-ston (1290–1364), a Tibetan historian, after studying with Saraha, he studied with the abbot of Nalanda, Rhaulabhadra. Another source, however, says that Nagarjuna first studied Sarvastivada, an early Buddhist school that held to the theory “all dharmas exist.” At a later date, Nagarjuna asked Saraha to give him instruction in the esoteric Guhya Samaja practice, considered to be the supreme tantric teaching. The legends also say that he received teachings from Ratna Mati, a bodhisattva who was a manifestation of Manjusri Buddha.
One story says that there came a time when Magadha was hit with a severe famine lasting 12 years. Because food was scarce, the prices were very high, more than the poor Nalanda monks could afford. Nagarjuna is said to have kept them alive through his knowledge of alchemy. By reciting special mantras over two sandalwood leaves, Nagarjuna gained the power to teleport, to materialize wherever he wished. Just like in Star Trek.
He placed one sandalwood leaf in the sole of his sandal, and held the other in his hand, and traveled to a distant island where he met a Brahmin who knew how to concoct an elixir that transformed common metals into gold. Nagarjuna asked the Brahmin to teach him how to prepare the elixir. The Brahmin, who was no dope and a bit shady, realized that Nagarjuna must have reached the island through some technique of magic or alchemy. He said, “I will teach you my technique, if you will share with me the method you used to come across the water.” Nagarjuna agreed. He gave the Brahmin the leaf he held in his hand.
Now, the Brahmin really didn’t want to share his secret of the elixir. However, he assumed that since he now had possession of the leaf, Nagarjuna would never be able to leave the island. So, thinking he had nothing to lose, he showed Nagarjuna how to prepare the gold-making elixir.
But, of course, Nagarjuna had the second leaf hidden in his sandal, and used it to leave the island and return to Nalanda. He made the elixir to transform iron into gold and was able to provide the monks with the means to purchase the food they so desperately needed.
It’s told that Nagarjuna eventually became abbot of Nalanda, that he defeated five hundred non-Buddhists in debate, and once expelled over 8,000 monks who were amoral and did not properly observe the precepts.
Modern scholars do not believe Nagarjuna ever studied at Nalanda. There is archaeological evidence that the site was not occupied until sometime after the 4th century (remember Nagarjuna lived in the 2nd or 3rd century) and further, that the university was not even established until the 5th century.
Evidently, many of Nagarjuna’s myth-makers decided there was no reason to let a few facts get in the way of a good story.