Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend

Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend

Translated by the Padamakara Translation Group with commentary by Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche
Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2005. Paperback, 208 pages. 

This is an English translation of the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit text called Suhrllekha, literally "Letter to a friend". The original letter was written in 123 four-line stanzas. Its translation and appended commentary are by the Rinpoche. For those able to read Tibetan, the original text, alternating with a running translation, is included as well as a lined index of the Tibetan text. The Sanskrit original has apparently been lost as is, unfortunately, the case with a number of other important Buddhist philosophical works. The book contains ninety-three footnotes to help the reader better understand some of the ideas. A photograph of the Tibetan translator, who died in 1975, is also included.

The friend in question was King Surabhibhadra (also known by several other names), one of several early rulers in the Andhra area of central India. And, of course, Nagarjuna was one of the most important Indian Buddhist philosophers, associated with the philosophic system known as Madhyamika ("The Middle Way"). He is credited with being the author of several other important philosophic works and a very good outline of his ideas may be found in T. R. V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (1955). He is said to have lived in South India in either the first or the second centuries of the common era. He is also supposed to have later incarnated as the Mahatma known in theosophical literature as K. H. or Kuthumi (anglicized as Koot Hoomi), one of the principal inner founders of The Theosophical Society and author of most of the letters published as The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. As such, this book ought to be of interest to serious students of theosophy. But it is not for the casual reader.

I have read some of Nagarjuna's works both in translation and in Sanskrit-as well as his letters to Sinnett and find it difficult to believe he would have written this particular poetic work, especially the rather gruesome descriptions of various hells, which read more like some Christian descriptions rather than Buddhist or theosophical ones. Perhaps the author's purpose was to make the descriptions of hell overly dramatic in order to motivate the king to adopt a benevolent policy. Since that particular king is not generally mentioned by most writers on ancient India (e.g. A. L. Basham, The Wonder that Was India, 1954), we have no way of knowing whether Nagarjuna's advice was taken.

The book is very well done and has a handsome dust jacket. The translation and commentary are lovely and easy to follow. But the book is for the serious student, not for the occasional theosophical reader.


November/December 2007