Very little is reliably known of the life of Nāgārjuna, since the surviving accounts were written in Chinese and Tibetan centuries after his death. According to some accounts, Nāgārjuna was originally from South India. Some scholars believe that Nāgārjuna was an advisor to a king of the Satavahana dynasty. Archaeological evidence at Amarāvatī indicates that if this is true, the king may have been Yajña Śrī Śātakarṇi, who ruled between 167 and 196 CE. On the basis of this association, Nāgārjuna is conventionally placed at around 150–250 CE.
According to a 4th/5th-century biography translated by Kumārajīva, Nāgārjuna was born into a Brahmin family in Vidarbha (a region of Maharashtra) and later became a Buddhist.
Some sources claim that in his later years, Nāgārjuna lived on the mountain of Śrīparvata near the city that would later be called Nāgārjunakoṇḍa ("Hill of Nāgārjuna"). The ruins of Nāgārjunakoṇḍa are located in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh. The Caitika and Bahuśrutīya nikāyas are known to have had monasteries in Nāgārjunakoṇḍa. The archaeological finds at Nagarjunakonda have not resulted in any evidence that the site was associated with Nagarjuna. The name "Nagarjunakonda" dates from the medieval period, and the 3rd-4th century inscriptions found at the site make it clear that it was known as "Vijayapuri" in the ancient period.