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 2.13 - The Mahayana Madhyamika system

In the Buddhist tradition there are many Buddhas. Here we are concerned with Sakyamuni who found the wheel of Dharma, and his first Sermon is known as Dharma-Cakra-Pravarthana-Sutra. In the first stage of Buddhist religion there developed different Schools under Theravada (Popularly known as Hinayana) namely, the Vaibhashika and Sautratika.

At the Last period of spreading of Mahayana there developed two Mahayana Schools–

  1. Madhyamika School propounded by Nagarjuna and
  2. Vijnana-vada, expressed by Aryadeva, Nagarjuna’s direct disciple.

As in the case of the Advaita Vedanta which represents the heart of the Upanishads in Buddhism the teachings of Vaibhashika and Sautratika embody the teachings of Buddha, and it is the Madhyamika system that represents the heart of Buddhism.

Buddhist thought made a Copernican Revolution to the Indian thought, especially to phenomenological ideology, the doctrine of appearance. The Buddhist metaphysics has some leaning to Kantian thought that the reality of the origin of substance-motion, Avidya which is beginning-less and nonempirical. This idea are presented in Abbidharmas, which are the basic sources for further Mahayana literature. The Madhyamika system further developed by Nagarjuna and their pupils for its clear dialect. It became clear that the subjective was much deeper and wider. The categories of substance, causality, change existence, nonexistence were equally subjective. What was Avidya for the Buddhist was real to Vedanta. In Buddhism all are relative and changing. The development of subjectivity (Nairatmya) was reached in Madhyamika. The denial of all categories and doctrines of Atma (Nairatmya) are central themes of Buddhism.

In the Buddhist philosophical development there had reforming, readjusting of the truth in the light of disturbing and devastating conditions of the time and laws. Then they have to condemn of the extreme views of nihilism of Madhyamika as Shunyata. So in the particular stand point, Nagarjuna and their followers took a modification of the extraordinary critical thinking on the Madhyamika dialectical thought. In the Advaita tradition there is Pure being (Brahman) as the substance of the world phenomena. In the Buddhist view the absolute takes the form of Shunyata of Madhyamika in being transcended to thought and being accessible to non-empirical intuition. And in this concept Madhyamika Buddhism developed the device of two truths namely, Vyavaharika and Paramartika. The Madhyamika system represents the maturity of the critical consciousness within the fold of Buddhism. A member of traditional and intermediary schools teachers and doctrines paved the culmination of the Mahayana Madhyamika system. Madhyamika absolutism is itself a revolution and accomplishment in the journey of Buddhist tradition. So we can say that Madhyamika is the refined form of Buddhism.

This form of Buddhism (Mahayana Madhyamika) took its gradual development of the history and Buddhist thought legacy. Mahasanghikas developed reasoning and analogical teaching of Buddha. Therevada developed a constructive manner and emphasized the phenomenological teaching and they did not have much interest in esoteric or metaphysical question which was developed and matured after the Parinirvana of Buddha. In the metaphysical and ethical point of view Mahayana had contributed enormous literature. They emphasized and practiced in deeper levels of metaphysical questions and ideas. So Mahayana Madhyamika is the gradual and historical development of the Buddha’s theory of middle way or Shunyata. The development of Buddhist ideal became culminated or fructified in the Madhyamika system and its various schools–preached by Mahayanist teachers like Aryadeva, Dharmakirti, Ashvaghosha, Chandrakirti, Sthiramati Asanga, Vasubandhu. It is the history of Buddhist religion, practice, ethics and philosophy.[1]

The intensifying method of the development of Madhyamika system begins from Therevada System. In a course of time many Schools and teachers arose and culminated in the 3rd council consumed at Asoka’s regime in Pataliputra. Then the other systems prevailed at that time perished or put aside to other countries like Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Korea etc. and became dominant there.

This tradition produced an abundant literature in Pali as well as Sanskrit. There is extent considerable body of literature of works which constitute a veritable border land, with one by one in the Hinayana and the other in the Mahayana. The evolution of the Mahayana school and its literature begins from after the Parinirvana of Buddha. It was almost complete by later centuries more fruitful and deepest in intellectual and meaningful in ethical and metaphysical attitudes. Some major works of this period on Prajna Paramita literature are, Shatakshara Shatakam of Aryeda Samedhiraja, Vishuddhi Magga, Shiksha Samchaya, Buddhi Caryavatara, Sradhotpada Sutra (awaking of faith). Historically there developed various schools and works. Few among them are the Mahavastu, Lalita-vistara and Avadhana etc. And in this connection various Sanskrit literature are also established like Ashvaghosha’s Buddha-carita, Sundaranada’s Sari Putra Prakarana etc. These Mahayana ideal and Buddhology fully developed in the Prajna Paramita literature. And it is culminated in the works of Nagarjuna through the middle path which is developed and established by Madhyamika School of Nagarjuna. Prajna Paramita revolutionized Buddhism in all its aspects of philosophy and religion. In its metaphysics and spiritual Path it gave a new life to Buddhism. And it is the systemized form of the Shunyata doctrine. It is attributed to Ashvaghosha and wholly lost in Sanskrit but preserved in Chinese and translated by Suzuki and Richard as ‘The Awakening of Faith’ by Buddha. It expands the deeper, teaching of Buddha. The Asta Sahasrika is the oldest one and the basic and Prajna-paramita-hridaya-sutra is the shortest and the essence of its literature. One of the Prajna-paramita-hridaya-sutra reads thus: “Om gate gate paragate/ Parasangate bodhi svaha”. The absolute call of the Prajna Paramita thus is the intellect freed of concept restricted by the dialectic and is the universal nature of mind.

Prajna and Karuna

This Prajna is the philosophical knowledge of the nature of non-dual intuition. Highest wisdom in the Buddhist sense is Tathagata. It is the intuition of the real. “Shunyata is Prajna, intellectual intuition, and is identical with the ‘Absolute’. Karuna is the creative principle of compassion.”[2] Shunya and Karuna are the two principal features of the Bodhicitta which stand literally as “Prajna and Karuna”.

Six Paramitas

To attain the Prajna or intuition one should abstain from worldly passions, one should follow the six Paramitas.[3]

The six Paramitas are:

  1. Charity (danadanam),
  2. Moral Conduct (shilashilam),
  3. Patience (kshanthi),
  4. Devotion (bhakti),
  5. Contemplation (dhyanadhyanam) and
  6. Knowledge (vijnana).

And these six elements are the preparatory to Prajna.

These are the means of crossing over the Ocean of Samsara, to reach the other Shore, the Nirvana. This discipline can be devided in to two stages, Shamata (Control of mind) and Insight. Freedom is the total cessation of imagination Shunyata and Karuna are the two principal features of Buddhicitta. Spiritual culture is the Self Culture Shunyata is Prajna which is intellectual intuition of the Absolute. Karuna is the active principle of compassion. Nirvana is the transcendent life of Spirit viz., Tathagata. ‘Sarva Kalpanshayospi Nirvanam’. Absolute can be known only in intuition, Prajna Paramita’.[4]

Eternal Buddha

The real Buddha must be perceived directly by intuition. It is Cosmical order (Dharmata). His body is the cosmos.

Ontology of Madhyamika

In the concept of Nagarjuna, the Absolute is Acintya, imperishable, unimaginable and unspeakable. So, Nagarjuna named it as Shunya (Void).[5] He was not ready to tell anything about the ontological being. He really follows Buddha’s method. The silence in the absolute sense.

Spiritual Awakening

The essential pre-requisite of spiritual awakening is the awareness of the intensity and universality of suffering. Thus awareness is not complete unless it is extended infinitely. No man even an ordinary person or a king do not escape suffering in the same form or the other. In the same way everyone should experience hankering over pleasure and pain and it makes him frustrated and suffer in one way or other. Attachment and aversion results the Suffering. Buddhism laid on the first truth is suffering ‘Dukkha’. It can also Dukkha-Samudaya, passion, attachment and aversion etc.

Dukkha is Three-Fold

In the actual world dukkha can be the matter inescapability. This inescapability of suffering in the natural way of living gives the upmost vigor in the Pratitya-Samutpada doctrine accepted by Madhayamika Buddhism. In the Buddhist Psycho-physical analysis there are twelve linked causal chain in an amending continuum of suffering. This is known as ‘DvadashamukhaPratitya-Samutpada’. The Prajna or the knowledge of the ultimate truth alone can remove the root of suffering. This is the commencement of spiritual discipline and life. One should cultivate a spiritual discipline by the six Paramitas of the spiritual code of conduct for the attainment of the spiritual life. Then only, one can overcome the obstacles which always hinder in the Samsara or worldly life. So one should cultivate or purposefully make up his mind to turn towards the Bodhicitta. One should direct all his efforts towards the Bodhicitta ideal or brotherhood. So Madhyamika School emphasizes that freedom cannot be attained without the realization of the world of unreality of things (Shunya).

Footnotes and references:


T.R.V. Murti, p. 27.


Kenneth W. Morgan (ed), The path of Buddha, Colgate University, 1997, p 215.


T.R.V. Murti, Central Philosophy of Buddhism, p. 264.


Ibid. p. 304.


Here Nagarjuna uses the negative terminology as the Vedantims use to do.

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