The palanquin of the dowager Queen Madhari, escorted by her son, Madhariputra Sakti Sena and a small group of courtiers stopped at the eastern arch of Mahachaitya.
The Ayaka platforms overflowed with votive offerings of citizens, thanking Lord Buddha for saving the life of Acharya Nagarjuna. On the Pradakshina Patham built by him, hundreds of monks were making perambulations of the Mahachaitya that housed the relics of The Enlightened One. The legend had it that the Lord Gautama himself had visited at the city and preached the tenets of ‘The Wheel of Time’ there.
After the ‘Great Passing Away’, the remains of the Enlightened One were carried here by Mahadeva Bhikshu, who had built a chaitya here and had set up the Mahasangha. From that day on, for over seven hundred years, the Mahachaitya had been the center of Chaityaka School and the life spring of Mahayana philosophy. Today, thousands of monks and lay-worshippers from across the world come here to learn from the grand masters, and carry back the light of ‘The Path’ to their respective homes. And, the grandest of the masters was none other than the Abbot of Sriparvata.
The entourage of the queen hurried up the path that led to the Arama of Nagasena, the winter retreat of the abbot. A company of guards was posted there by the king headed by his son Prince Vijaya Sri, who approached the lady now.
‘Elder Mother,’ he addressed her and bowed respectfully, ‘Acharya is expecting you and had instructed me to convey you and the brother to him right away.’ Madhari nodded and kept her head bent for a few moments longer to hide her surprise. She had not informed anyone about her visit, yet the clairvoyant monk knows.
Now the irony was plain to her … If there is someone who can save her son, it’s the abbot and none other. Appealing to the compassion of the monk to save the very person who tried to have him killed, was the only option she had.
The hall was brightly lit. The assassin was stretched out on a bed being attended by two saffron clad monks, one was holding his heavily bandaged hand and rhythmically moving its lifeless fingers and another was squeezing drops of liquid into his half open lips. The abbot known for his surgical skills, miraculous sometimes, had stitched the severed hand to the stump just above his wrist, bone to bone, nerve to nerve and vein to vein; when it healed, he might have the full function of his hand; and until then he was completely immobilized and kept in an induced state of sleep.
Certainly there wasn’t any time to interrogate him about who was behind the assassination attempt, the queen surmised. Her son might be safe for the moment. But she wanted to ascertain.
The abbot sitting on a raised stand, legs crossed in usual lotus position, was watching her, his smile pleasant and fixed. She looked at him, her doubt plain on her face.
‘Yes milady, he hadn’t spoken yet,’ he answered even before she could speak.
But she knew … it’s time for confession not deceit. She’s there to appeal to his kindness and not to argue a case. She bowed low and asked, her voice contrite, ‘Lord, doesn’t the truth exist irrespective, whether revealed or not?’ It was a familiar declamation to those who followed his teachings.
‘Yes and no, milady,’ the abbot nodded, ‘What’s revealed at times need not be true and what’s hidden need not be false. Time alone can change everything.’
‘But, do we have time, my lord, for my son and me?’
‘Isn’t it relative? What you think adequate may be too short, and what you see as the twinkling of an eye may turn out be a lifetime,’ the abbot continued, ‘Don’t actions at the right moments stretch or shrink the time?’
The queen knew … it was time to come to the point, ‘Milord, may I ask you to light our path?’
‘The Path, milady, is well lit,’ he replied, ‘but the choices one makes may obscure it.’
‘At my age, milord, the choice is not mine to make. It’s my son, who needs your divine guidance,’ the queen pointed at the prince patiently waiting at his feet. ‘He wants to inherit what is his right. At times he was impatient and had done such deeds, only a mother’s heart can sympathize with. Now, I’m here to appeal to your compassion.’
The wizened old monk looked at the prince. He had seen him growing up as he did even his father.
‘Let me tell you a story and hope it helps make your choice,’ he said. ‘There was a time when the Enlightened One visited Kapilavastu, the place of his birth. His son, Rahula, forsaken by his father when he was still a child, approached him and sought his inheritance. The Lord gave him a choice … between the material wealth that he himself had discarded as a prince in search of meaning; and, the seven true and noble treasures that he possessed now.’
‘And Rahula, a true son that he was, sought the latter.’ The monk paused.
‘Now, the Seven Treasures are Dharma, Seela, Dana, Dhyana, Vinaya, Kshanti and Pragna. They are Faith, Morality, Charity, Focus, Modesty, Humility and Wisdom. I can teach you the first six and set you on the Path of Perfect Wisdom,’ the abbot touched his head. ‘Now it’s your decision.’
The prince fell at his feet, his remorse true.
The queen let out a sigh, finally relieved that her son was safe, knowing well that shelter of the Sangha was the only choice left to keep him alive.
And the abbot rose, ‘now I must seek the permission of the king, patriarch of your family to release you to the order.’
‘Wait Lord,’ the queen came in his way, anxious once again, ‘Will my brother in law, the king, let an offender go free? Isn’t he duty-bound to punish him?’
‘Then I shall implore him to pardon him, rest assured milady,’ he smiled understanding her plight.
‘Sire, knowing him, he may even pardon the attempts on his life, but the one on your life is inexcusable, he may not agree.’
‘Then I shall remind him that the purpose of law is not to take retribution for the offence, but to reform the offender.’
The Abbot of Sriparvata strode out purposefully, confident that Yagna Sri Satakarni, his pupil would always heed his advice.
In the 7th century AD, half a millennium after the life of Ācārya Nāgārjuna, a Chinese monk called I-Tsing visited India and he had noticed that students, even children, across the length and breadth of the country, were reciting the verses from Suhṛllēkha, a collection of letters written by Nāgārjuna to a Śātavāhana king, probably Yajñaśrī Śātakarṇi. Dr. Peter Della Santina, who translated Suhṛllēkha, says that it is an immense instruction in morality and compassion, suitable not only to the kings but to the commonest of citizens. The story of Buddha’s instruction to his son Rāhula was often utilized by him to illustrate his teachings on morality, especially the Seven Noble Treasures, considered more precious than the material wealth. The scope of the book is not limited to moral instruction but transcends to include a commentary on social responsibility and common welfare.
In the words of Dr. Santina, “Nagarjuna also displays a keen sense of social consciousness and … calls for the blind, the sick, the poor, the homeless, and the crippled to be always provided with food and drink. In other words, Nagarjuna in the 2nd century C.E. called for an extensive system of social welfare to be established by the state. … He even concerned himself with the treatment of prisoners. … He expresses a concept that only dawned upon western social philosophers at the time of the 18th century so-called ‘enlightenment’ in Europe, i.e., wrong doers should be punished with the sole wish to reform them, not with the wish to exact revenge. Like sons who have gone astray, prisoners should be punished in such a way as to make them once again worthy members of society.”
Ācārya Nāgārjuna is a colossal figure, stands tallest among the men who had nurtured the human mind in the history of civilized world. The list of books attributed to him runs a mile long and straddles a multitude of subjects. It is no wonder the Chinese and Tibetan monks believed that he had lived longer than six hundred years, which only shows that it is unimaginable that such a large corpus of works was created by an individual in a lifetime. Some historians believe that Nāgārjuna was not a single individual but many. Legends associate him with Gautamīputra Śātakarṇi who lived in the 1st Century, Yajñaśrī who lived at the end of the 2nd, and Cāntamūla of Śrīparvata Išvākus a century later. Śrīparvata (Nagārjuni Konda) was also the seat of one of the largest centers of learning and the reports of travelers like Fa-Hsien and Xuanzang tell us that it had attracted tens of thousands of students, monks and laypersons, from across the civilized world from as far as Europe and Japan. They came to learn not only the tenets of Buddhism, especially of Mahayana School, but, secular sciences like medicine, alchemy and metallurgy. At least seven texts on Madhyamika School are attributable with certainty to a single person based on the language, philosophy and style. The medical texts and the commentaries on surgery also belonged to the same person. But it doesn’t end there, his commentaries on contemporary sociopolitical scene, like Ratnāvaḷi and Suhṛllēkha show a completely different facet of his mind. It is easier to imagine that Nagarjuna is not a single person but a series of successive individuals who held the same title, probably the deans or abbots who were in charge of the great university at Śrīparvata.
Here is an incomplete list of books written by the Abbot of Śrīparvata on Logic, Religion Philosophy and the secular sciences like Medicine, Surgery, Alchemy and Metallurgy.
Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, Śūnyatāsaptati, Vigrahavyāvartanī, Vaidalyaprakaraṇa, Vyavahārasiddhi, Yuktiṣāṣṭika, Catuḥstava, Ratnāvalī, Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika, Māhaprajñāparamitopadeśa, Sūtrasamuccaya, Bodhicittavivaraṇa, Suhṛllekha, Bodhisaṃbhāra, Prajñāmūlaśāstratīka, Prajñāpradīpaśāstrakārika, Madhyāṁtanugama, Dvādaśanikāya, Vivādasamāna, Pramāṇavihētana, Upāyakauśalyahṛdaya, Daśabhūmivibhāṣa, Ārōgyamaṁjari, Suśrutasaṁhita-Pīṭhika, Rasaratnākaraṁ.
There are hundreds of other books attributed to Nagarjuna in many a monastery and library across Asia and Europe. And, the fact that he was born on the banks of Krishna in the new Amaravati Capital Region, makes every Telugu heart swell with pride.