The Nirvanic Realm, Here and Now (from Nagarjuna, A Translation of his Mulamadhyamakakarika, by Prof. Kenneth K. Inada, 1970, Delhi 1993)
It is sometimes said that Nagarjuna appeared at the right moment and at the right place in Buddhist history to provide the necessary corrective measures to Buddhist philosophical analysis of man’s nature and thereby initiated a ‘new’ movement within the Mahayana tradition. First of all, however, it must be remembered that he did not appear out of a vacuum but rather that he came after a long period of Buddhist activity in India proper. At least six or seven centuries had transpired between the historical Buddha (6th century B.C.) and Nagarjuna (circa 2nd-3rd centuries A.D.), a time in which Buddhists actively explored, criticized, and propagated the Buddhist truth. This is the period which produced the eighteen contending schools of the Abhidharmika system discussed earlier and also the time which saw the germs of the break in the interpretation of the nature of the summum bonum (Nirvana) between the Hinayana (inclusive of modern Theravada) and Mahayana traditions.
At the same time, secondly, it should be noted that the Mahayana tradition in its earliest phase, i.e. pre-Christian period, had already produced some of the most attractive and arresting thoughts in Buddhist history, thoughts which are considered most fundamental to all subsequent developments in the tradition. Sutras relative to this period concentrate on the universal and extensive sameness (samata, tathata) in the nature of man, his supreme wisdom (prajña) and compassion (karuna), all of which describe the concept of a bodhisattva or enlightened being. They expound ad infinitum the purity, beauty and ultimate rewards of the realization of this supreme realm of being in language which is at once esthetic, poetic and dramatic but which at times are painfully frustrating to the searching rational mind.
For example, the empirically oriented mind would not be able to accept and adapt simple identities of the order (or realm) of wordly (mundane) and unworldly (supermundane), empirical and nonempirical, common everyday life (Samsara) and uncommon enlightened life (Nirvana), pure (sukha) and impure (asukha), and finally, form (rupa) and emptiness (shunyata). In the final identity of form and emptiness, a climax in the ideological development is reached where the sutras, in particular the whole Prajñaparamita Sutras, elaborate on the point that all forms are in the nature of void (shunya). Thus, such forms in the nature of a sentient creature or being (sattva), a soul or vital force (jiva), a self (atman), a personal identity (pudgala) and separate ‘elements’ (dharmas) are all essentially devoid of any characterization (animitta, alaksana). The quest for voidness or emptiness is thoroughgoing with the aim being the nongrasping (agrahya) and at once the emptiness of the personal experiential components (pudgala-shunyata) and of the personal ideational components (dharma-shunyata). This is the final goal of the Nirvanic realm, here and now, without residues (anupadhishesa-nirvana-dhatu) and achievable to all.
Needless to say, the understanding of the above identities is the constant challenge and the most profound feature of the Mahayana, if not the whole Buddhist philosophy. Unquestionably, Nagarjuna was faithful to this lineage of ideas and he tried his hand in cristalizing the prevailing ideas. He came to bundle up the loosely spread ideas, so to speak, and gave a definite direction in the quest of man.