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 3.1 - The Mandukya-karika or Gaudapadiya-karika


The first historic philosopher of the system of Vedanta (Advaita Vedanta) and the expounder of the non-dualism is Gaudapada, the great teacher of Shankara. His date is about 7th-8th century C.E.[1] He was a great teacher in the lineage of sages and poets. He has been attributed to some other works which are Uttara-gita, Sankhya-karika, Mithakshara, a gloss on Mandukya-karika by himself.[2] Shankara’s philosophy is really a re-affirmation of Gaudapada. Gaudapada gave a firm foundation for Advaita. His conception on reality is pure-consciousness and bliss. TMP Mahadevan says “It is unborn and eternal Brahman”.[3] He emphasizes the reality is Brahman;It has no dissolution, no bondage and origination. It is beyond all three states of waking, dreaming and deep-sleep. The Atman which requires no light other than its self-illuminosity. It is the supreme nature of happiness. It is unborn and eternal. It is ‘ajati’ (non-originated) and is the supreme truth.


Mandukya-karika (MK) which is also known as Gaudapadiya-karika is in fact a continuation of Yajnavalkya’s thought. It is one of the authentic texts of Advaita Vedanta. It has been studied and criticized so far as various scholars of Indian and Western philosophy. In a clear analysis, we can trace the source of Gaudapadiya-karika from the Vedas, Upanishads and other systems of philosophy including Buddhist works. In the theistic side, the Upanishadic sources are Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya and Mandukya Upanishads.[4] Mandukya Upanishad (hereafter MU) is verily the chief source of Agama-shastra of Gaudapada. Theistic and Buddhistic sources also can be traced in the Mandukya-karika The major works of Buddhist sources are Mahaparinirvana-sutra, Srimaladevi-sriunbanada-sutra, Abhidharmika and Prajnaparamita-sutra etc. There were several Advaita teachers before Gaudapada with different views. Yet, Gaudapadiya-karika is a unique text, which philosophically analyses the Advaita doctrine in a clear manner. Gaudapadiya-karika distinctly teaches and elaborately enlightens the truths of Mandukya Upanishad

Mandukya Upanishad is one of the major upanishads, which describes the reality of the Brahman which is the Ultimate Reality. It speaks in its twelve mantras, the structure of the phenomenal world and systematic experience of the reality. It sings on ‘Pranava’ or ‘Omkara’. Omkara consists of three syllables A, U, M and then the fourth is to be attained by progressive and rigorous spiritual practices.

According to traditional belief, Mandukya Upanishad alone is enough to attain the moksha. In the Mandukya-karika, Gaudapada exposes his arguments through logical and analytical methods in a sequential manner. Shankara later developed this philosophy of Advaita into elaborated form through his works. Doctrinally there is no difference whatsoever between what is taught by Gaudapada in the Mandukya-karika and what is expounded by Shankara in his extensive works. Not only did Gaudapada teach that the ultimate reality is the non-dual spirit and the world of plurality is an appearance thereof, but also as did Shankara later on, that the principal means to release is jnana or knowledge.[5]

Gaudapadiya-karika can be stated as a milestone in the historical development of the Vedanta system thanks to its interpretations that are hermeneutical and historical.

TMP Mahadevan says

“Gaudapada lived and taught in an age when Mahayanism was having great hold on the minds of people. The task of a teacher of Vedanta at such a time would naturally be two-fold-to convince the followers of the Upanishads that their path was sound and to spread the knowledge of the Vedanta, among the Buddhists themselves”.[6]

It is understood that Vedanta philosophy particularly Advaita Vedanta is an admixture of earlier schools of Indian thought especially the Buddhist schools of Mahayana, Vijnanavada and Yogacara. The earliest references to Vedanta or Vedanta darshana can be found in ‘Madhyamika-hridyakarika’. Other texts which represent the historicity of Vedanta are some Mahayana Buddhist literature.[7]

Formerly, Vedantic thought is analysed by the pre-Advaitin sages. They are Badarayana, Asmarthya, Kasakrishna, Jaimini and others.

“No system of thought can be completely autonomous and it is important to recognize that in India, as much as anywhere else, the dynamic interplay between differing religions and philosophical traditions is a major feature in the development of any given system of thought.”[8]

So while one analysing the Advaitic doctrine, he can find that it was influenced by the Buddhist Mahayana sources. And again in this context, the doctrine of ajati or non-origination is one of the important themes of Gaudapadiya-karika This concept of ajati is developed by Buddhist writers and its philosophers.

Mahadevan says in his preface on the book Early Vedanta that,

“Advaita is nothing but a veiled form of Buddhism. Gaudapada is only an expounder of Vedanta by his reasoning and logical techniques through the influence of Buddhism, Mahayana, Madhyamika.”

Structure of Gaudapadiya-karika

Gaudapada as a Vedantist, through his master piece, Agama-shastra, establishes and re-oriented the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. The doctrine of Mandukya-karika is a gloss or an elaboration of Mandukya Upanishad Gaudapada’s philosophy is an admixture of Upanishads, Uddata and Buddhism.

Agama-shastra of Gaudapada or Gaudapadiya-karika is having four divisions. They are:

  1. Agama-prakarana,
  2. Vaithathya-prakarana,
  3. Advaita-prakarana and
  4. Alatashanti-prakarana.

Some critics say, the prakaranas have different characteristics and have different authorships. Alatashantiprakarana emphasizes the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. In the fourth prakarana, Gaudapada establishes the quintessence of Vedanta philosophy. Alatashanti deserves more attention in philosophical argumentation and reasoning with its logical as well as psychological point of view. It gives a better picture on the amalgamations of pre-Vedantic schools and Upanishadic wisdom. The central philosophical problem of the Vedanta is the conception of Brahman, the nature of its causality, its relation with maya and the phenomenal world or world appearance and with individual persons.[9]

(1) Agama-prakarana:

Agamaprakarana is the name of the Agama-shastra. It consists of the twelve mantras of the Mandukya Upanishad which is a part of the Atharvaveda. According to puranic mythology, the mantras are handed down by Varuna, in the form of a Manduka (frog) to his disciples. Mandukya Upanishad explains the pranava in its four quarters. In the Karika of the Upanishad, Gaudapada elaborates the interpretation of its syllables and padas (quarters). There are four syllables. Actually, they are three in number, A, U, M. the fourth is silent and it is the Turiya, which transcends to the deep meditation. Here Gaudapada developed the silent one, which is to be understood by unutterable, and it is known as ‘Asparsha yoga’ in his expository verses.

(2) Vaithathya-prakarana:

The second one is named as Vaithathiya-prakarana. It explains the illusory nature of dream magic, maya and so on. It has thirty-eight mantras and describes the non-existence or illusoriness of the world of phenomenal experiences. It is real continuation of the Agamaprakarana referring to argumentation through the dialectics of Advaita and sense perceptions. The sense perceptions are illusory in nature and reality proceeds to the reasoning intellect. By stating the intellectual nature of the world, it is compared to a dream. The object perceived in the waking also must be an illusory in nature. Similar to those of seen in a dream. Therefore, Gaudapada argues entire world is mistaken as a rope-snake illusion and has an illusory nature or non-reality. Here he proves that the world seems as maya or non-real in nature-illusion.

(3) Advaita-prakarana:

Advaita-prakarana articulates the non-illusoriness of non-duality. This prakarana has forty-eight mantras. Gaudapada tells about the nonorigination or ajati. Non-origination is one of the central points of Advaita and also the central question of Madhyamika influence. Here Gaudapada establishes the doctrine of non-origination and discusses and concludes the uttama-sathya or paranortha-sathya, according to the Vedantic terminology, Brahman-jivatman.[10] Here Gaudapada explains in a philosophical acme to argue and the non-origination theory, the truth of non-duality in large scale. In this sense Gaudapada tries-not any quarrel with other systems of philosophies, prevailed at that time. The jiva-brahma dictum is the aim of the Advaita philosophy of Gaudapada.

(4) Alatashanti-prakarana:

Alatashanti is the fourth book or part of the Gaudapadiya-karika Alatashanti presents a new vision, the amalgamation of the previous conceptions of his philosophical venture. In the last part of the text Gaudapada discusses the theory in various dialects which are often a re-production of Mahayana ideology, a re-interpretation in a Vedantic mode. Here Gaudapada uses and introduces the Buddhist analogy of fire-band theory, Alatacakra. It is waving the fire-band and the illusory nature of the illusory world, as if an imagination by the sense faculties and the mind.

In the Asparsha yoga, the practice of absorption of senses and the mind viz. citta reaches a stage of mental equipoise to attain the supreme bliss that is the summom bonum, the moksha in the Advaita Vedanta.

Footnotes and references:


Michael Comans, ‘The Method of Early Advaita Vedanta’, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers Private Limited, Delhi, 2000, p. 125.


Thomas E. Wood, ‘The MandukyaUpanishad and the Agama-shastra’, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, Delhi, 1990, p. 159.


TMP Mahadevan, ‘Gaudapada: A Study in Early Vedanta’, University of Madras, Madras, 1952, p. 146.


Major upanishads are Isha, Kena, Katha Prashna, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Mandukya, Mundaka, Taittiriya, Aitreya. These are considered as important because Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva commented on these 10 upanishads.


TMP Mahadevan, Op.cit. p. 232.


Ibid. p. 267


Richard King, Mahaparinirvana-sutra, p. 239 Ratna-gotravibhaga-sutra, tathagota-grabha and Srimaladevi-simhanada-sutra.


Richard King, Op cit. p. 2.


S.N. Dasgupta, ‘History of Indian Philosophy’, Vol. II, p. 46.


Jivatmanor-brahmatrinaikyam ital

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