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 1.7 - The Philosophy of Shankara

Shankara is one of the most radiant philosophers that the world has ever seen. Shankara developed and established Advaitaa-dvaita—non-dual philosophy of the Vedic religion. Vedanta philosophy is deeply rooted in the Vedas, Upanishads and Brahma-sutra. Shankara re-interpreted the Advaita philosophy through his commentaries of Sariraka Mimamsa of Badarayana Vyasa, major Upanishads and the Bhagavat-gita. The earliest commentary available on Sariraka Mimamsais that of Shankara.Shankara lived in 8th Century AD.[1] Since he refers to the various schools of Indian philosophy, including Buddhism he must have lived when the influence of Buddhist teachings was losing their impact. Shankara’s philosophy of Advaita Vedanta involves the doctrine of avidya and maya. It is based on the Prastanatraya, the triple canon of the Vedanta (the Upanishads, the Bhagavat-gita and the Brahma-sutra). The distinguishing feature of the school is the doctrine that the world is an illusion. The Ultimate reality is termed as Brahman, which is impersonal and absolute consciousness. Owing to avidya, it appears as Ishvara, jiva and the world. The true nature of Ishvara and jiva is Brahman. The universe as such is indeterminable either as real or as unreal. Ishvara can be ever realized. The jiva falsely identifies itself with the psychic and physical organisms and being prompted by passion and hatred, it engages and prescribed and interdicted in the scriptures and undergoes transmigration.[2]

By performing acts relating to one’s stage or class of life, as an offering to God, it transits the life through nityanityavasthu-viveka, ihamutrarthabhoga-viraga, shamdamadhi-sadhana-sampathi and mumukshutva. It then pursues shravana, manana and nidhidhyasana and gets the direct experience of the self which removes avidya. Such a one continues to live till the fructified deeds which have given rise to the present body is exhausted. This is the stage known as jivanmukta. When the fructified deeds are exhausted he is dissociated from the physical and psychical accompaniments and remains as Brahman and this is liberation. This is the essence of the Advaita philosophy of Shankara.

Shankara was born in Kalady, on the bank of Purna (river Periyar) near Cochin in the present central Kerala. By the blessings of Lord Vadakkunnadhan, the devout couple got an omniscient son. At the age of eight he mastered all the Vedic literature, sacred and secular learning. Then at the age of sixteen he left the native for Banaras. Before this event he received a stable and rich foundation upon all the shastras and allied subjects. Shankara was a philosopher of intellectual caliber venerable seer of divine wisdom, an authority on spiritual disciplines.

At the time of Shankara, the religious practices in Kerala were Buddhism and Jainism for the masses. People also practiced local cults of natural worship and serpant worship. Shankara wanted to suppress all these non-brahmanic trends. Shankara wanted to re-structure the religious and social disorders according to the Vedic and the Brahmanic cult. Shankara recasted the religious practices of the land and established the six phased Advaita philosophy (satayatana) of wisdom or non-dualism. It is nothing but Brahma-vidya;knowledge of the Brahman. Shankara practically made a philosophy capable of accommodating all the sections of the Hindu society. This philosophy in its nutshell is that, individual soul -world and universal soul (Brahman) are one and the same.

Through realization, he established the theory of ultimate reality, the Absolute, the Brahman who is ever present and all encompassing (Sarvamkhaluidam Brahman). All this material world is temporal, phenomenal and transitory. Only truth is the eternal Brahman, the Supreme God. (brahma satyamjagat mithya jivo brahmaiva naparah). All the existential phenomenal world is only an appearance or manifestations and it is unreal like the snake appears in a rope in the dim light. Shankara demolished all other existing beliefs and practice in the religious field through his dialectics and arguments according to the Vedas and Shrutis. Shankara’s philosophy was a new interpretation of the Brahmanic wisdom and he was a man of wisdom in the highest order. According to him, wisdom (jnana)was the sole means for the liberation (moksha) from the world. Shankara was a knower of the Absolute truth, the ‘Nirguna Brahman’. But he postulated or promoted the ‘Sagunabrahmopasana’ for all types of people. Shankara was a practical man and a theoretical philosopher. He was a seer and jnani. “Both western and Indians unanimously place Shankara as a sage and philosopher”.[3]

According to Shankara Atman or Brahman is the pure consciousness (jnana-svarupa) which is without attributes and without any form. Shankara could preach the Sanathana dharma in a span of 32 years of life. He travelled all over India and constituted four maths to study and preserve the Upanishads and Vedic wisdom. Many works have been attributed to him other than the commentaries (bhashyas). Important of them are Vivekacudamani, Upadeshasahasri, Atmabodha, Vakya-vritti, Pancikarana, Siddhanta-tatva-vindhu, Tattvabodha.Shankara was a pupil of Govindapada, and Govindapada was a pupil of Gaudapada. Thus, Gaudapada’s philosophy and his Gaudapadiya-karika has been inherited and influenced the philosophy of Shankara.“Shankara’s most important work isBrahma-sutra-bhashya, which was commented by Vacaspati Mishra in the 9th century is most illuminative”.[4] Shankara’s works were commented by his direct followers and others. A few of them are Vacaspati Mishra (Bhamati), Amalananda (Kalpataru), Sarvajnatman, Padmapada (Pancapadika), Naishkarmya-siddhi and its varthika by Sureshvara, and Prakashatman (Vivaranaprameya), Sriharsha, Citsukha, Vidyaranya, Madhusudhana and their followers.

Shankara affirmed the upanishadic wisdom through his doctrine of Advaita Vedanta. He made a strong foundation of Advaita tradition, defeating all other schools prevailing at that time. Through reasoning and the method of dialectic, he refuted all other schools including Vaibhashika and Sautrantika schools of Theravada Buddhism that was dominant at the time. In a systematic and clear analysis of the philosophy of Vedanta, we could reach the conclusion that he has been indebted to Buddhist theory of knowledge (epistemology) and psychology. Shankara was influenced by the major schools of Buddhism especially the Vijnanavada and Shunyavada of Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhist writers like Vasubandhu, Asanga, Dharmakirti, Chandrakirti, and so.Shankara re-affirmed the idealism of the Brahmavada or non-dualism. Nagarjuna’s Mula-Madhyamika-karika is an authentic text on Madhyamika philosophy. Our study goes later with the similarities and dissimilarities of the philosophy of Nagarjuna and Gaudapada, Shankara’s great guru.

The central philosophy of Advaita is ‘ajati’, non-origination. In fact, the conception of ‘ajati’ is the feature of Nagarjuna’s theory. The phenomenal world is born or non-born. This non-origination of the phenomenal world is originally the concept of Madhyamika Buddhism. Nagarjuna’s conception of non-origination (non-existence) ‘ajati’ which has undoubtedly influenced Gaudapada. This fundamental doctrine of Gaudapada’s non-origination agrees with Shunyavada doctrine of Nagarjuna.[5] The Advaitin uses the word ‘maya’ to mean the appearance of an object at a lower level, and its non-existence at a higher level. In the ropesnake analogy, the false snake is an individual illusion. This individual illusion is avidya. By nature, maya and avidya are the same. These two are identified with the Upanishadic ‘avyakrita’ (unmanifest) and ‘prakriti’ (phenomenal) respectively. Brahman limited by maya is God and as limited by avidya is the jiva (soul).

In Shankara’s philosophy, we understand the paravidya (supreme knowledge) and aparavidya (lower knowledge). It is the same as the Paramartha-satya and Samvriti-Satya of the Madhyamika Buddhism. The knowledge of Brahman is possible only through the intuitive level and the method of experiences (sadhana marga). This empirical world and its phenomena are only an appearance according to both Nagarjuna and Shankara.

Advaita is the systematic explanation of these two truths, Paramarthika and Vyavaharika. The individual souls are limited by avidya (maya). When one gets true knowledge through the cognition of one’s own atman, then one realizes ‘that’ ‘I am Brahman’ (AhamBrahmasmi). It is the principle of Advaita.[6] Shankara’s philosophy like most of Indian philosophy is oriented towards the one practical aim of moksha, bliss. Shankara accepts the authority of the Shruti as an embodiment of the highest truth and uses logic either to support his interpretation of the Upanishads or to refute other systems of thought. In his commentary on the Brahma-sutra, Shankara seeks to harmonize the apparently contradictory teachings of the Upanishads through the assumption of two points of view the ultimate (Paramartha) and the contingent (Vyavaharika). He has obviously inherited this device of argumentation from Gaudapada, his greatguru.[7] N.K. Devaraja says, “Shankara is generally considered to be the crowning achievement of the philosophical speculationsof ancient Hindu India.”[8]

Shankara represents all the Vedantic philosophies and it is the essence of Upanishadic wisdom, which is re-established in the modern age. Brahman associated with its potency (shakti-maya) appears as the qualified Brahman or Saguna Brahman or Apara Brahman as Ishvara.As an experienced, our mind is the attribute of the cosmic mind. Here the mind becomes the witness cognizer, knowing cognizer and the cognizer of willing. The witness cognizer comprehending that which is the supreme consciousness or Absolute. ‘I’ consciousness and the object of consciousness is the personal god or Ishvarawho is in the deeper level of consciousness, that is the cosmic person (Virat). In Advaita, ‘I’ consciousness continuing with the Absolute consciousness. Here the witness consciousness is witnessing as mine. This ‘I’ consciousness (which is the part of the Supreme consciousness) knows the so-called inner controller is Antaryami.This ‘I’ consciousness controls activities, senses, thinking and actions.

The ethical activity determines the character and eventually the personality. There are three stages (logos)of the inner controller, lower consciousness which is acted by our mind and senses, the Sakshi which is the observer of the performance of the activities. The Sakshicaitanya is the inner controller (antaryamin) which is closely related to being and becoming. It is the self-conscious being that remains the same through the observations of becoming. Here the real inner controller is the world person (logos). This becomes as the ontological being which is the witness consciousness of the inner controller. It makes the individuality of the persons acts and destiny. When one purifies with ethical action, he himself purifies the antahkarana, which makes him a supreme being or Gnosis.[9] So it is the witness consciousness which is controlled by the Logos or super consciousness of the Absolute.

Brahman, Maya and World

Brahman is the substratum or ground according to Shankara. The world appears though it is practical reality. He argues and establishes the dream state and the waking state as in comparison with human experience. Things seen in the dream as quite true as long as dream lasts. When we awake from the dream, things are disappeared. Similarly, when the true knowledge is raised, through the right understanding of the illusoriness of the world, the waking world also vanishes. They are the creation of jiva (jivasrsta), it is the creation of Ishvarasrishta. Jiva is only an agent or enjoyer. Avidya conceals the unity (avaranashakti) and projects names and forms by maya which is the vikshepashakti. When the jiva realizes through the right knowledge he realizes the essential unity that is nothing but Brahman. Karma(action) is subsidiary, though liberation is attained. Here jnana is the only which leads to jivanmukti in the Advaita Vedanta according toShankara.

Footnotes and references:


Rama Pisharody, ‘Shankaracarya–His Life and Work’, Adyar Library Series, Shankara lived between 788-820A.D, Shankara was a contemporary of Kumarila Bhatta.


Gaya ram Pandey, ‘Shankara’s interpretation of Upanisads’,


N.K. Devaraja, ‘An Introduction to Shankara’s Theory of Knowledge’, Motilal Banarsidass Pvt. Ltd., Delhi, 1872, p. 1.


Surendranath Dasgupta, ‘A History of Indian Philosophy’, Vol.2., Motilal Banarsidass Pvt. Ltd., Delhi, 2003, p. 81.


Richard King, ‘Shankara as representative of the “quintessence of Advaita philosophy’, p. 232


P.T. Raju, ‘Structural depths of Indian Philosophy’, p. 192


Mircae Eliade (Ed.), ‘The Encyclopedia of Religion’, Vol. 5, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, p. 431.


N.K. Devaraja, Op. cit., p. 9


P.T. Raju, Op. cit., p. 416

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