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 4.1 - Reality in Madhyamika Philosophy (Introduction)

According to Buddhism, the Self is not different from the body-mind complex as is commonly understood. There is no self other than the bodymind complex human personality. This consists of five factors (Skandhas), one of which is the Physical body (rupa) and the remaining are the different phases of mind (manah).

These are:

  1. Vedana: Sensation or feeling of the momentary emotional state,
  2. Samja-Perception,
  3. Samkara–differentiation, disposition, inclination and volitions the Congeries of mental properties and propensities which together make up ones awareness, vijnana—all that we ordinarily mean by consciousness.[1]

The blend of the five Skandhas or the Psycho-Physical organism stands for the phenomenal ego or the self.

In the Madhyamika Philosophy several terms are used to denote the Absolute reality. Shunyata, Nirvana, Tathata (Suchness), Advaya (Non-dual), antaprajna, nirvikapla (Non-discrimination) dharmathatu (essence of being) nishprapamcah, yathabhuta, sathya (truth) aparapratyaya (reality which one must realize within oneself).[2]

In the Mula Madhyamika Karika (Mula-Madhyamika-karika) Nagarjuna explains how the Absolute is transcendent to both thought and speech; neither bhava nor abhava. Absolute cannot be abhava, if so it would be subject to origination decay and death: Absolute which is free of all and has no empirical existence. Sutra five of Mula-Madhyamika-karika describes that bhava itself is proved to be inapplicable to Reality and abhava is known only as the disappearance of bhava ‘when the concepts of bhava and abhava cannot be applied to the Absolute, than question of applying any other concepts depend upon the above two. In one word, the Absolute is transcendent to thought, because, it is inexpressible. Absolute is Silence. Phenomena have no independent, substantial reality of their own nature or appearance. Relativity or dependence is the main characteristic of Phenomena. The relative is not real in the Supreme Sense. The Absolute and the world are not two different sets of reality. Phenomena viewed as relative, as governed by causes and conditions constitute the world. Free of all these conditions is the Absolute. Absolute is always of uniform nature. Nirvana or Absolute is not something produced or achieved. Nirvana means the doing away with of all fabrications of discursive thoughts.

Phenomena are appearances. These appearances point to their reality. Veil or Maya gives a hint of that which is veiled. The Super imposed character of Phenomena veils the noumenon. When the super imposed character is removed, the veil of ignorance is also removed. Then there is only experiences as reality. The feature of Madhyamika or the central philosophy of it is Shunyata. It is known as Shunyavada. Shunyata is the characterization of reality. Non-Buddhist schools interpreted it only as nihilism.

Etymologically the word is derived from the root ‘Shush’ which means to swell or to expand. In such a meaning, it is similar to the word “Brahman”. Buddha is said to be seated on “Shunya Tattva”. Shunya has been used in an analogical sense. In this sense ‘Shunya’ is ‘void’-which is also fullness. Because it is nothing of everything. It has been identified as Nirvana (void).

Nirvana with the Absolute, Paramartha, the Supreme reality. Nagarjuna says in the Mula-Madhyamika-karika in the Atma Pariksha:

Apara pratyayam Santam Prapancair aprapaeitam Nirvikalpam ananartham etat tatt vasya laksanam” (18:9

“Independently realized peaceful, un-obsessed by obsessions, without discriminations and a variety of meanings such is the characteristic of truth.”[3]

It is aparapratyayam: The experience which cannot be imparted to any one by another. It has to be realized by everyone for oneself. It is shantam. It is attitude unaffected by the empirical mind.

The word ‘Shunya’ has to be understood from two viewpoints: Svabhava Shunya and Prapanca Shunya. Firstly, Svabhava Shunya means empty or devoid of independent, substantial reality. Second is Prapanca Shunya. There is no real Production. There is only manifestation of a thing contingent on causes and conditions. There is no real causal relation between entities; there is only mutual dependence between entities which means, in other words, entities are devoid of independent Selfhood (Svabava). Therefore, causal relation does mean a sequence, realities but only as sequence of appearances. Everything in the world is depended upon the Sum-total of its conditions. Things are merely appearances. Here Nagarjuna does use the twelve linked depending Phenomenon of arising. Hence ‘Pratitya Sumutpada’ is equated with Shunyata or relativity. The world phenomena is simply a process, and things are simply events. A thing by itself is nothing at all. This is what is meant by Shunyata or Prapanca Shunyata (Svabhava Shunyata). This is what is the Shunyata or emptiness of all dharmas.

Again, in Atma pariksha Nagarjuna discusses

Karna Klesa–Ksayan Moksa, Karna Klesa Vikalpa tah,
Te prapancat prapancas tuShunyatayam nirudhyate”

“On the waning of defilements of action, there is release. Defilements of action belong to one who discriminates and these in turn result from obsession. Obsession, in its turn, ceases within the context of emptiness”[4]

Nagarjuna uses the dialectics as a criticism of all theories without any theory of his own. By the use of his dialectic, he reaches the conclusion that all the dharmas are of Shunya or nisvabhava nature, devoid of any independent, substantial reality. The true nature of things at the different levels, mundane and trans-mundane is also called dharmata at two different levels. The unique nature and capacity of every specific thing which comes to know through analysis of things with a non-clinging mind can be called the mundane dharmata. The limitless dharma, the ultimate reality may be called the trans-mundane or the ultimate dharmata. This distinction between the mundane and the trans-mundane nature of things is also described in terms of dharma-lakshana.

Shunyata is taught not for its own Sake, but for leading the mind to reality by restraining its conceptualizing tendency. Madhyamika dialectic leading to Shunyata is not mere negative. It does not simply negate all affirmations about reality; it also negates all negations about reality. And Nagarjuna says that reality is neither sat nor asat. The Absolute can be realized in non-dual, transcendental wisdom. Without realizing the Absolute truth one cannot attain Nirvana. Madhyamika only points to the relativity of things and this doctrine transcends both negation and affirmation. It is not a rejection of the world of becoming but an explication of its inner implication. Those who accepts Shunyata, then everything stands in its proper place within the harmonious whole. Nagarjuna only insists that the relative must be taken as the relative and not as the Absolute and then there is proper appraisal of values and appreciation of the meaningfulness of life.

Footnotes and references:


N. Wadia, The Message of Buddha, p. 82.


Jayadeva Singh, An Introduction to Madhyamika Philosophy, p. 51.


David J. Kalupahana, Mula Madhyamika Karika of Nagarjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way, MLBD, Delhi, 1991, P-270.


David J Kalupahana, Mula-Madhyamika-karika of Nagarjuna, Delhi, 1991, p. 266.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: