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 (a): Void the Absolute

In the Madhyamika school of thought, Nagarjuna developed one of the most impressive dialectics that the philosophical world has ever seen. This is the naturelessness or nisvabhavata and he attacked the view that everything has its own nature (sarvam svalakshanam).[1] Everything is devoid of its own nature and is therefore, is void, then the Absolute reality must also be void. This shows the voidness of everything. Everything in the world is essentially a void, the world must be a void what we see then (the world) is an appearance of the void, the Absolute Appearance is the empirical truth (smvriti sathya). As we have seen already, even before Nagarjuna there were reflections on the concept of voidness. But it is he who made the philosophy pf voidness systematic and comprehensive and turned it into the Absolute itself.

Again, discussing the Absolute PT Raju adds:

“What we see then is only an appearance of the void, the Absolute Appearance is the empirical truth (Samvriti Sathya), the void is the ultimate or Absolute truth (Paramarthika Sathya). So, everything that belongs to this world is only an empirical truth. If the world is not real, it could not have been born and was, therefore, never born. This doctrine is called the doctrine of the non-birth of the world and man (Ajativada).”[2]

So then in the dialectical analysis, the world is only an illusion (maya), due to ignorance (avidya). It is like a dream. As the void cannot be characterized as many or two or different so it is non–dual Advaya. This is the Madhyamika stand point.

“If there is no world, there is no ethical action (karma), no ethical potency, no bondage, and so no Nirvana. We find ethics of their view also in Kashmir Saivism and Advaita. The world is an illusion (Maya), is due to ignorance (Avidya), it is like a dream (Svapna tulya). As the void cannot be characterized, it is neither one nor many, it is non-dual (advaya)”[3]

This theory of Ajativada was a land mark in the Nagarjuna’s Philosophy. It is taken and interpreted later in the Gaudapada’s Philosophy in a logical dimension. So, it is one of the chief tenets which is borrowed from the Madhyamika Philosophy.

“Ultimate reality, which is the essence of everything, can be neither being nor non-being. It cannot be both because they are contradictions. It cannot be neither also, as we have only the two alternatives and there is no third. All that we can say is that we cannot characterize it any way. It is, therefore, that which is devoid (Shunya) of all characterizations, all determinations. It is the void (Shunya)”[4]

Madhyamika philosophy of Nagarjuna is explained and established through his Mula-Madhyamika-karika and other works. The dialectic analysis and illustrations are again restated or emphasized by his pupils and later developments happened in the Mahayana. Madhyamika absolutism and Nagarjuna’s philosophy is truly connected with Aryadeva, Mitreyanadha and others in profound manner.

Nagarjuna’s dialectical method protests against nihilism, for reality rejects even negative characterization. The Middle path taught by Buddha has to be applied to metaphysics also in the dialectical sense. It will be neither to affirm nor to deny, and deny both positive and negative characteristics. Nagarjuna calls himself the follower of the Buddhas middle path.

“Reality is neither suchness nor consciousness, even these two terms are characterizations. It is only Void (Shunya). Indeed even to call it Void is to characterize it. Truly, it is neither void nor non-void. In spite of reaching such as extreme conclusion, Nagarjuna’s doctrine is called doctrine of void”.

When such negatives are appeased, then a person does not get involved either in a motion of permanent self or in the theory of annihilation of all dharmas.

Here David Kalpahane adds:

“the realization arises is a realization that it is empty of a permanent substance (Sabhava Shunya). This is the middle path that avoids etarnalism and annihilation. Rely with atman one ends up in etarnalism. Rely on anatman ends up in annihilationlism. Without resorting to such an end Buddha has indicated meaning of atman and also he has spoken of the implication of anatman also. Both atman and anatman are explained Buddha postulated either permanence or impermanence. But he has known the conception of the atman and taught the doctrine of non-self.”[5]

Nagarjuna was certainly referring to the pragmatic criterion of truth based upon the notion of dependent arising. It reflects Buddha’s own conception of truth. The principle of dependent arising is merely the expression of the manner in which “dependently arisen” phenomena are explained. Nagarjuna arrived at the metaphysical interpretation of the depended arising phenomena (Pratitya Samutpada) in the tenth sutra of the Atma Pariksha.

“Pratitya yat yat bhavati nahi tavat tat evatad api tat tasman. Nacanyat nocchinnnam napi sasatam”

“Whatever that arises depending upon whatever, that is not identical nor different from it. Therefore, it is neither annihilated nor eternal”.[6]

What is arisen dependent upon (Pratitya) another, that is, the dependently arisen (Pratitya samutp panna). As taught by Buddha and emphasized by Nagarjuna is, Absolute identity involves performance and Absolute difference implies annihilation. Dependent arising is the middle way adopted by Buddha in elucidating change and causation. It is not annihilation nor eternal. It is the immortal message of the Buddha. All the things are changing and are dependently arising. This is Nagarjuna’s reflection on the epistemology of dependent arising in the Mula-Madhyamika-karika

The middle way of the Madhyamika absolution developed and systematized by Nagarjuna and it extensively explained and taught his pupil Aryadeva, Dharmakriti etc. According to Venkata Raman, after a critical examination of the Tibetan and Chinese tradition, however 20 works may be attributed to Nagarjuna.[7] After this classical period, there flourished several teachers and schools in the Nagarjunas philosophy. Some other celebrated authors are Bhavavireka Chandrakirti, Vasubandhu, Dingnaga, Santideva etc. Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika Philosophy is truly connected with later teachers and they expanded the Vijnanavada idealism in a profound manner.

Footnotes and references:


P.T. Raju, Structual Depths of Indian Thought, p.158.






T.R.V. Murty, The central philosophy of Buddhism, Delhi, 1995, p. 158.


David J Kalupahana, Mula-Madhyamika-karika of Nagarjuna, p. 267.


Ibid., 273.


Venkata Raman, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Mahaprajnaparamitasutras, Tokyo, 1966, p. 36, 37.

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