A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of upanishads and buddhism: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the ninth part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 9 - Upaniṣads and Buddhism

The Upaniṣads had discovered that the true self was ānanda (bliss)[1]. We could suppose that early Buddhism tacitly presupposes some such idea. It was probably thought that if there was the self (attā) it must be bliss. The Upaniṣads had asserted that the self (ātman) was indestructible and eternal[2]. If we are allowed  to make explicit what was implicit in early Buddhism we could conceive it as holding that if there was the self it must be bliss, because it was eternal. This causal connection has not indeed been anywhere definitely pronounced in the Upaniṣads, but he who carefully reads the Upaniṣads cannot but think that the reason why the Upaniṣads speak of the self as bliss is that it is eternal. But the converse statement that what was not eternal was sorrow does not appear to be emphasized clearly in the Upaniṣads. The important postulate of the Buddha is that that which is changing is sorrow, and whatever is sorrow is not self[3]. The point at which Buddhism parted from the Upaniṣads lies in the experiences of the self.

The Upaniṣads doubtless considered that there were many experiences which we often identify with self, but which are impermanent. But the belief is found in the Upaniṣads that there was associated with these a permanent part as well, and that it was this permanent essence which was the true and unchangeable self, the blissful. They considered that this permanent self as pure bliss could not be defined as this, but could only be indicated as not this, not this (neti neti)[4]. But the early Pāli scriptures hold that we could nowhere find out such a permanent essence, any constant self, in our changing experiences. All were but changing phenomena and therefore sorrow and therefore non-self, and what was non-self was not mine, neither I belonged to it, nor did it belong to me as my self[5].

The true self was with the Upaniṣads a matter of transcendental experience as it were, for they said that it could not be described in terms of anything, but could only be pointed out as “there,” behind all the changing mental categories. The Buddha looked into the mind and saw that it did not exist. But how was it that the existence of this self was so widely spoken of as demonstrated in experience ? To this the reply of the Buddha was that what people perceived there when they said that they perceived the self was but the mental experiences either individually or together. The ignorant ordinary man did not know the noble truths and was not trained in the way of wise men, and considered himself to be endowed with form {rūpa) or found the forms in his self or the self in the forms. He experienced the thought (of the moment) as it were the self or experienced himself as being endowed with thought, or the thought in the self or the self in the thought. It is these kinds of experiences that he considered as the perception of the self[6].

The Upaniṣads did not try to establish any school of discipline or systematic thought. They revealed throughout the dawn of an experience of an immutable Reality as the self of man, as the only abiding truth behind all changes. But Buddhism holds that this immutable self of man is a delusion and a false knowledge. The first postulate of the system is that impermanence is sorrow. Ignorance about sorrow, ignorance about the way it originates, ignorance about the nature of the extinction of sorrow, and ignorance about the means of bringing about this extinction represent the fourfold ignorance (avijjā)[7]. The avidyā, which is equivalent to the Pāli word avijjā, occurs in the Upaniṣads also, but there it means ignorance about the ātman doctrine, and it is sometimes contrasted with vidyā or true knowledge about the self (atman)[8]. With the Upaniṣads the highest truth was the permanent self, the bliss, but with the Buddha there was nothing permanent; and all was change; and all change and impermanence was sorrow[9]. This is, then, the cardinal truth of Buddhism, and ignorance concerning it in the above fourfold ways represented the fourfold ignorance which stood in the way of the right comprehension of the fourfold cardinal truths (āriya saccd) —sorrow, cause of the origination of sorrow, extinction of sorrow, and the means thereto.

There is no Brahman or supreme permanent reality and no self, and this ignorance does not belong to any ego or self as we may ordinarily be led to suppose.

Thus it is said in the Visuddhimagga

“inasmuch however as ignorance is empty of stability from being subject to a coming into existence and a disappearing from existence...and is empty of a self-determining Ego from being subject to dependence,— ...or in other words inasmuch as ignorance is not an Ego, and similarly with reference to Karma and the rest—therefore is it to be understood of the wheel of existence that it is empty with a twelvefold emptiness[10].”

Footnotes and references:


Tait. 11. 5.    


Bṛh. iv. 5. 14. Katha. v. 13.


Saṃyutta Nikāya, III. pp. 44-45 ff.


See Bṛh. iv. iv. Chāndogya, viii. 7-12.    


Saṃytitta Nikāya, in. 45.


Saṃyutta Nikāya, hi. 46.    


Majjhima Nikāya, I. p. 54.


Chā. 1. 1. 10. Bṛh. iv. 3. 20. There are some passages where vidyā and avidyā have been used in a different and rather obscure sense, Iśā 9-11.


Aṅg. Nikāya, III. 85.


Warren’s Buddhism in Translations (Visuddhimagga, chap. xvii.), p. 175.