It takes me forty minutes to reach my office on a bike. As I travel during rush hour, traffic jams are common. There are times when the brownian motion of vehicles impelled by the tyranny of office hours, makes one question the meaning of life and what we are doing with it.

And so, what better time to listen to a podcast on Philosophy, the History of Philosophy in India, by Peter Adamson and Jonardhan Goneri? I had picked up the podcast series as it began and have pondered through its ideas at traffic signals and other interminable hold-ups.

The past few episodes have been on a remarkable Buddhist thinker, Nagarjuna, and his Madhyamika approach to Buddhist thought. At first brush, his sceptical approach to philosophy sounds like nihilism — the idea that there is nothing of value. Yet, he calls his approach Madhyamika — the middle path. In writing this post, I hope to see if explication will help me understand it better, or perhaps come back to it later to see if my ideas have changed (as I notice they tend to).

image from the Wired

A few years ago, a Blue (or Gold?) dress went viral. Millions of people seeing it on their screens saw either a Blue-and-Black dress or a Gold-and-White one. The dress raises the question: irrespective of what we see, the dress must have a true set of colours that are independent of us. Everything, the dress and its colours for example, are independent of our perception and have an innate essence — Sva-bhava, if you will. If we employ the right tools, we should then be able to perceive this reality.


Nagarjuna challenges this idea. His central argument, building on Buddhist principles, is that all apparent reality is Shunya — empty. But it is a particular kind of emptiness. Nagarjuna argues that all things lack Sva-bhava; an intrinsic nature or an essence. Sva-bhava also connotes the semantic (that language matches the structure of reality and is therefore able to describe it) and the cognitive (a view we may be projecting onto the world) aspects of reality. Nagarjuna asserts that Sva-bhava does not exist in every aspect.

Nagarjuna is building on Buddha’s teaching that everything in this world is interdependent. Meaning accrues relative to the relationship between objects, so there is nothing that is permanent or essential. My bike’s black colour depends on two things: my ability to see it and my bike’s ability to be seen. All things in this world, Nagarjuna argues, have “dependent origination” — that is, they are empty of any independent value.

“Whatever is dependently co-arisen that is explained to be emptiness. That being the dependent designation, is itself, the middle way”. — Peter Adamson, reading from The Verses on the Middle Way

What is Nagarjuna challenging here? Not that my bike is black, but only that my bike’s blackness is intrinsic to it. This distinction is important to understand why his strongly sceptical approach is called Madhyamika, the middle way. It sits in between two extreme positions — Eternalism (that believes in the immutable essence of objects) and Annihilationism (that believes objects don’t exist at all). This school of thought argues, as before, that an object’s nature and subsistence is related to the relationship with other objects. Meaning arises from this interdependence.

Peter Adamson speaks of a wonderful line of argument by Bimal Matilal; Objects are like the ‘zero’ in a number, say, 105. The zero here has no absolute value, its value is in relation to the position it appears in that number, relative to the other numbers.


Nagarjuna is famous for his Prasanga style of argument. He uses it to demolish pretty much every philosophical theory of his time — including his own. He picks up a concept, shows that it is riddled with contradictions, especially if one argues that it has an independent reality or essence.

Before we dive in to Prasanga, it is important to clarify that Madhyamika separates our reality into two: Samvriddhi Sat (conventional and daily-use reality) and Paramardha Sat (deeper reality). They have no trouble with daily-use “short-cuts”, but take issue when used to explain higher-order reality. This is common to the Buddhist approach (and to Wittgenstein, says Peter); for example the idea that Buddha talked about Karma and re-birth to people who were not ready to engage with the deeper idea that such things don’t really exist, and that everything is empty.

Do note, Nagarjuna argues that both realities are empty, though some schools of madhyamika thought are more nuanced in their approach to conventional reality. Why does Nagarjuna believe that reality is empty? Some argue that Nagarjuna is interested in showing that ultimate reality is an incoherent idea. Or that we do not have the intellectual prowess to grasp it. Or that current approaches are inadequate to explaining reality. Or simply, that Nagarjuna is a thorough sceptic whose approach is dialectic — that is, responds in criticism instead of offering a better alternative.

Nagarjuna is also keenly dissecting the structure of grammar in Sanskrit and the way verbal roots in Sanskrit refer to actions and/or events. In Sanskrit grammar, actions and events may be located where the agent is, or the object of the verb is.

On to Prasanga! To recap, pick a concept — say vision — and show it is full of contradictions thereby showing it is inadequate to reflect reality.

How do I know that what I am looking at is true? I can only recognise my black bike (prameya) by looking at it, therefore my vision is a Pramana, an instrument of knowing. However, how do I know I can trust my sight (after all, nearly 20% of the world’s population has issues with their vision)? There are two modes of validation: intrinsic and external.

Intrinsic validation could be verifying it with another source, for example a vision chart to ascertain my visual acuity. However, this is prone to infinite regress — how can I trust that chart? One could argue that pramanas or sources don’t need validation. But then how do you know which is a pramana and which is a prameya? After all, my vision is a pramana when it is used to recognise my bike — becomes a prameya itself when I’m staring at a vision chart. One could also argue that pramanas are self-validating — I would know if I can’t see! — but even that is not true. Many people, especially children, don’t know they need spectacles until their vision deteriorates to a strong power.

Ok, external validation. We could argue that the source can be validated by its objects. Or that the sources of knowledge and the objects are interdependent — which is pretty close to Nagarjuna’s position. But both fall apart too for they pre-suppose positions that Nagarjuna does not accept (that they have an inherent value that can be identified).

Nagarjuna rejects them all. So, can nothing be known? Nagarjuna would argue that we can’t say — our philosophical tools and the language systems we use to deploy them are inadequate to describe reality. All our tools and systems — including the Madhyamika — are Shunya.

Chatuskoti or the Tetralemma

Central to Nagarjuna’s philosophical sledge-hammer is the tetralemma. An ancient and complex philosophical tool used by Buddhist thinkers, Nagarjuna was a master of the tetralemma. He shows that any position has four possibilities — and he disproves all four! For example, take my bike. It could be:

  1. A black bike
  2. Not a black bike — that is, a white bike
  3. Both black and white (like a Zebra)
  4. Neither black nor white.

All reasonable positions. How can my bike NOT be all four? Especially because Nagarjuna insists that we should not break the “law” of non-contradiction? It could, because the four possibilities pre-suppose that my bike has some colour on it (instead of being a grungy, steampunk contraption).

There is another wonderful example: if you blow out a candle, where does the flame go — East, West, North or South? Or the (in)famous question: “Have you stopped beating your wife”? Unless you negate the pre-supposition that fire goes somewhere when it is blown out or that one beats his wife, there is no right (or honourable) answer. Nagarjuna applies the tetralemma to his own theory of emptiness; here is how it goes:

  • Emptiness should not be asserted (as there is no ultimate theory of reality)
  • Non-emptiness should not be asserted (i.e Sva-bhava — for obvious reasons)
  • Both Emptiness and non-emptiness should not be asserted (as things can’t be both)
  • Neither emptiness nor non-emptiness should not be asserted (which is a contradiction)

There! If Madhyamika cannot be asserted, and is itself empty, then what is the point? But, just as an empty Uber cab can take me and others to the office, so can Madhyamika deliver value.

One powerful question that his Hindu interlocutors ask Nagarjuna (and other Buddhist thinkers) is how do we explain memory and identity continuing over time. Am I the same person when I began this post, to where I am now, if I have no sva-bhava that holds me together? Nagarjuna and other Buddhist thinkers had a few arguments in their arsenal. Madhyamika would argue, say, that conventional reality would continue to work irrespective of the underlying truth. For example, you cannot control what you dream about. The dream may have its own dream-logic, but you are bound to it and have little control over its rules. Yet, you would not argue that dreams are real. So is conventional reality.

Nagarjuna is believed to have been active in the 2nd-3rd century CE. Probably somewhere in Southern India. We know very little about him, but his ideas gave rise to Tibetan buddhism and is an important step in the progress of buddhist thought.

The ideas here are from episodes 44–47 of the History of Philosophy in India podcast. I urge you to listen to them — more detail, much more humourous.

“It is only in consciousness, it seems, that we experience time at all. A little baby has no time; he can’t distance himself from the past and understand how it relates to his present, or plan how his present may relate to his future. He does not know time passes; he does not understand death. The unconscious mind of the adult is like that still. In a dream there is no time, and succession is all changed about, and cause and effect are all mixed together… And so, when the mystic makes the reconnection of his reason and his unconscious, he sees all becoming as one being…”

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed.

As I stride quickly into office, late, I hope these are not empty words.

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