Mahayana Buddhism and Early Advaita Vedanta (Study)

by Asokan N. | 2018 | 48,955 words

This thesis is called: Mahayana Buddhism And Early Advaita Vedanta A Critical Study. It shows how Buddhism (especially Mahayana) was assimilated into Vedantic theorisation in due course of time. Philosophical distance between Mahayana Buddhism and Advaita-Vedanta became minimal with the advent of Gaudapada and Shankaracharya, who were both harbinge...

Chapter 1.5 - The Philosophy of Gaudapada

Gaudapada, Shankara’s great guru, according to tradition became deep in meditation at Badarikashrama, experiencing the teachings of Vedantic wisdom. Gaudapadiya-karika (GK) is a verse exposition (commentary) on Mandukya Upanishad (MU). It is also called as Agamashastra. Gaudapada chooses Mandukya Upanishad as his primary text to expound the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. It is told that Mandukya Upanishad alone is enough for the realization of Brahman. Historians accept Gaudapada was the great guru of Shankara, the great Advaitin. Tradition says that Shankara lived in late 8thcentury A.D. So, we have to assume that Gaudapada lived between 7th and8thcentury A.D. Some influence of Mahayana literature shows that he lived after Nagarjuna, Aryadeva and Vasubandhu. Certainly, Madhyamika philosophy made a deep impression on later Vedantic writers. Surely Gaudapada was not a Buddhist teacher but influenced by the Buddhist ideology and arguments.

Apart from Gaudapadiya-karika, many works have been attributed to Gaudapada. They are A Commentary on Sankhya-karika of Ishvara Krishna, A Commentary on Uthara-gita, Subhagodaya on Sri Vidya, Durga-saptashati-tika and Anugita etc., Among these works GKcan be said as his masterpiece and it is a great manual on Advaita. T.M.P Mahadevan says Gaudapadiya-karika has four prakaranas or separate books. It was belonged to a school called as Gauda School. The Gauda School which was propagating the Vedas, Upanishads and other doctrines was later systematized into the Advaita Vedanta. And about the authorship of the prakaranas there are different opinions. Anyway most of the students of Vedanta consider it as a unique work of Gaudapada, the teacher of Govindapada. Gaudapadiya-karika is considered as authentic work on Advaita Vedanta and later advatins like Sureshvaracarya quotes this in Naishkarmyasiddhi, Vidyaranya refers in the Pancadashi and Sadanandayati quotes in the Vedantasara. Shankara also made a gloss on Gaudapadiya-karika and considered Gaudapadacarya as the disciple of Shuka. According to Vidhusekhara Bhattacarya, Gaudapada was a Gaudiya and he might have lived in North Bengal before 7th century A.D.


The ten Upanishads are considered as the principal because the Acaryas had commented and interpreted only these Upanishads, according to Vedantic sources. They are: Isha, Mandukya, Prashna, Katha, Kena, Taitiriya, Mundaka, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brihadaranyaka. But later time some other Upanishads are added as the principal Upanishads. They are Shvetashvatara, Maitri, Kaushitaki and Nrisimhatapani etc. The expanding of Vedic and spiritual wisdom made the increase in the number of Upanishads into more than hundred. In addition to these, the teachers like Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha and other celebrated sages commented the Bhagavat-gita (BG)which is the essence of all Upanishads. At the preface of BG, the great sage Vyasa says, “All the Upanishads are like mulching cows the son of the cowherd (Krishna) is the milker, and the partha (Arjuna) is the calf, and the purified intellect are the drinkers, and the supreme nectar, Gita is the milk.”[1] The first and the very important text on Vedanta is the Sariraka-sutra (Brahma-sutra) of Badarayana Vyasa. The Upanishads, the Bhagavat-gita, and the Brahma-sutra are the triple canon consists the ‘Prasthanatraya’. These are the source of wisdom and it is known as ‘Shruti’, because it is apaurusheya. Later Vedantic literatures have been developed on these texts. We can also trace seeds of Vedantic ideas in the Vedas. But it became a concrete form in Post-veda period. A systematic development can be seen in the works of Gaudapada.

Gaudapada’s philosophy is not only based on the Prasthanatraya but also has the influence of Buddhist ideas which was flourished before him. Among the Buddhist schools, Mahayanism was flourished at the time. So, the great Mahayana teachers like Nagarjuna, Asvaghosha, Vasubandhu and others have influenced Gaudapada. Gaudapada establishes his philosophy and teaching after a few centuries from the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Some critics argue that Gaudapada is a crypto Buddhist. Gaudapadiya-karika is made up of the Vedantic terminology and at the same time he uses the Mahayanists technical terms and ideas to emphasize his thesis on Vedanta. From a clear analysis of both the systems it is evident that Gaudapada must have preached Vedanta idealism, but his cultural background is entirely Buddhistic. The Agamashastra of Gaudapada is an admixture of shastras and theologies prevalent in Indian sub-continent. So, we have to assume that both the teachings are in one way or other rooted in the Upanishads.

Teachings of Gaudapada

Gaudapada as an Advaita teacher established the theory that the Atman and the Brahman are one. “It should be realized by the practice of Omkara. Pranava is to be realized as Brahman. He advocates pranavopasana as a means to achieve the realization of Brahman. Ajati or non-origination is one of the major theories of Gaudapada. Here he is undoubtedly influenced by Buddhist Vijnanavadims”.[2]

Non-origination and Asparshayoga

The major tenets of the philosophy of Gaudapada are the nonorigination or ajati and Asparsha-yoga. Gaudapada agrees with Vijnanavadims in maintaining that origination in the absolute point is impossible. He examines various theories of creations and rejects them all. Creation is the sport of god or the enjoyment of God but creation is the very nature of God. It is his inherent nature. It emanates from Him and it only appears to be so. In fact there is no creation at all. Duality is only an appearance. Non-duality is the real truth. The absolute Brahman alone is the real truth. Reality is Nonorigination.

Asparsha yoga

Aparshayogais the yoga of transcendence.Through thisone realizes the supra-relational reality.Aparshayoga is a new invention of Gaudapada. It has a super sensible or metaphysical reality.It is devoid of sparsha. It is a meditation technique and when he narrates the three avasthas, theory of sadhana is practiced in the transcendental level. The mind has notouch or sparsha with any external object. It reaches in an absolute state of experience, which is equal to Asamprajnata-samadhi.It is the moksha in the Vedantic sense.It is the absolute realization of non-duality. When writing the detailed exposition of the Mandukyopanishad through his Gaudapadiya-karika, he aimed the reaffirmation of the Upanishadic wisdom.Gaudapada quotes many passages from the Brihdaranyaka Upanishad. Brahman is Ishvara. There are Apara Brahman and Para Brahman. Apara Brahman (lower Brahman) is Ishvara who is seated in the hearts of all. In the Gaudapadiya-karika, he describes the three states of existence which correspond to the padas of Omkara. He says the world is non-real and all the appearances are only the illusions of the mind. It is maya or avidya. Non-duality is the truth.


Gaudapada and other advaitins accept the concept of maya. The Brahman is limited by maya. God limited by avidya is the soul. The soul or jiva is the indwelling principle of the world appearance. God is the cosmic person or Ishvara. Jiva is the individual soul. From advaitins perspective, God is Brahman limited by maya and the soul is the Brahman limited by the inner instrument (antahkarana) which is a product of maya.

There is a historical development in the Vedanta, through the preVedantic philosophy of Sankhya and other systems including Buddhist Vijnanavada. In the Gaudapadiya-karika, the forth chapter Alathasanthi-prakarana uses Buddhist terminology. The Ultimate reality is pure consciousness and the nature of the world is the four-cornered negation which is the structure of maya. TRV Murti writes that “the conclusion is irresistible that Gaudapada, a Vedantic philosopher is attempting an advaitic interpretation of Vedanta in the light of the Madhyamika and Yogacara doctrines”.[3]

In the book ‘A Study in Early Vedanta’, TMP Mahadevan writes, “there are no similarities between the Buddhist Shunyavada that explains the unreality or non-origination of the world and the mayavada of Gaudapada”.[4] At the same time, he also explains that Gaudapada did not ignore the empirical differences between the things of the waking world and the contents in dream world. “Gaudapada concedes to the world of waking relative objectivity and universality which do not belong to the world of dreams”.[5] Moreover, the self, according to Gaudapada and Advaita is of the nature of consciousness and not the same as the void or Shunyata of the Vijnanavada.

Footnotes and references:


Swami Swarupananda, ‘Srimad Bhagavat-gita’, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkatta, 2004.


Vidhusekara Bhattacarya, ‘Agamashastra of Gaudapada’, p. 175.


TRV Murti, Op. cit. p. 114-115


TMP Mahadevan, ‘A Study in Early Advaita’, p. 190-191


Ibid., p. 203

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