A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

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

This page describes the philosophy of the madhyamika or the shunyavada school.—nihilism: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the twelfth part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 12 - The Mādhyamika or the Śūnyavāda school.—Nihilism

Candrakīrtti, the commentator of Nāgārjuna’s verses known as “Mādhyamika kārikā ,” in explaining the doctrine of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) as described by Nāgārjuna starts with two interpretations of the word. According to one the word pratītyasamutpāda means the origination (utpāda) of the nonexistent (abhāva) depending on (pratītya) reasons and causes (hetupratyaya). According to the other interpretation pratītya means each and every destructible individual and pratītyasamutpāda means the origination of each and every destructible individual. But he disapproves of both these meanings. The second meaning does not suit the context in which the Pāli Scriptures generally speak of pratītyasamutpāda (e.g. cakṣuḥ pratītya rūpāni ca utpadyante cakṣurvijñānam) for it does not mean the origination of each and every destructible individual, but the originating of specific individual phenomena (e.g. perception of form by the operation in connection with the eye) depending upon certain specific conditions.

The first meaning also is equally unsuitable. Thus for example if we take the case of any origination, e.g. that of the visual percept, we see that there cannot be any contact between visual knowledge and physical sense, the eye, and so it would not be intelligible that the former should depend upon the latter. If we interpret the maxim of pratītyasamutpāda as this happening that happens, that would not explain any specific origination. All origination is false, for a thing can neither originate by itself nor by others, nor by a co-operation of both nor without any reason. For if a thing exists already it cannot originate again by itself. To suppose that it is originated by others would also mean that the origination was of a thing already existing. If again without any further qualification it is said that depending on one the other comes into being, then depending on anything any other thing could come into being—from light we could have darkness! Since a thing could not originate from itself or by others, it could not also be originated by a combination of both of them together.

A thing also could not originate without any cause, for then all things could come into being at all times. It is therefore to be acknowledged that wherever the Buddha spoke of this so-called dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) it was referred to as illusory manifestations appearing to intellects and senses stricken with ignorance. This dependent origination is not thus a real law, but only an appearance due to ignorance (avidyā). The only thing which is not lost (amoṣadharma) is nirvāṇa; but all other forms of knowledge and phenomena (saṃskāras) are false and are lost with their appearances (sarva-saṃskārāśca virsāmosadkannānah).

It is sometimes objected to this doctrine that if all appearances are false, then they do not exist at all. There are then no good or bad works and no cycle of existence, and if such is the case, then it may be argued that no philosophical discussion should be attempted. But the reply to such an objection is that the nihilistic doctrine is engaged in destroying the misplaced confidence of the people that things are true. Those who are really wise do not find anything either false or true, for to them clearly they do not exist at all and they do not trouble themselves with the question of their truth or falsehood. For him who knows thus there are neither works nor cycles of births (saṃsāra) and also he does not trouble himself about the existence or non-existence of any of the appearances. Thus it is said in the Ratnakūtasūtra that howsoever carefully one may search one cannot discover consciousness (citta)', what cannot be perceived cannot be said to exist, and what does not exist īs neither past, nor Tutu re, nor present, and as such it cannot be said to have any nature at all; and that which has no nature is subject neither to origination nor to extinction. He who through his false knowledge (viparyyāsa) does not comprehend the falsehood of all appearances, but thinks them to be real, works and suffers the cycles of rebirth (saṃsāra). Like all illusions, though false these appearances can produce all the harm of rebirth and sorrow.

It may again be objected that if there is nothing true according to the nihilists (śūnyavādins), then their statement that there is no origination or extinction is also not true. Candrakīrtti in replying to this says that with śūnyavādins the truth is absolute silence. When the Śūnyavādin sages argue, they only accept for the moment what other people regard as reasons, and deal with them in their own manner to help them to come to a right comprehension of all appearances. It is of no use to say, in spite of all arguments tending to show the falsehood of all appearances, that they are testified by our experience, for the whole thing that we call “our experience” is but false illusion inasmuch as these phenomena have no true essence.

When the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda is described as “this being that is,” what is really meant is that things can only be indicated as mere appearances one after another, for they have no essence or true nature. Nihilism (śūnyavāda) also means just this. The true meaning of pratītyasamutpāda or śūnyavāda is this, that there is no truth, no essence in all phenomena that appear[1]. As the phenomena have no essence they are neither produced nor destroyed; they really neither come nor go. They are merely the appearance of māyā or illusion. The void (śfmya) does not mean pure negation, for that is relative to some kind of position. It simply means that none of the appearances have any intrinsic nature of their own (niḥsvabhāvatvam).

The Madhyamaka or Śūnya system does not hold that anything has any essence or nature (svabhāva) of its own; even heat cannot be said to be the essence of fire; for both the heat and the fire are the result of the combination of many conditions, and what depends on many conditions cannot be said to be the nature or essence of the thing. That alone maybe said to be the true essence or nature of anything which does not depend on anything else, and since no such essence or nature can be pointed out which stands independently by itself we cannot say that it exists. If a thing has no essence or existence of its own, we cannot affirm the essence of other things to it (parabhāva). If we cannot affirm anything of anything as positive, we cannot consequently assert anything of anything as negative. If anyone first believes in things positive and afterwards discovers that they are not so, he no doubt thus takes his stand on a negation (abhāva), but in reality since we cannot speak of anything positive, we cannot speak of anything negative either[2].

It is again objected that we nevertheless perceive a process going on. To this the Madhyamaka reply is that a process of change could not be affirmed of things that are permanent. But we can hardly speak of a process with reference to momentary things; for those which are momentary are destroyed the next moment after they appear, and so there is nothing which can continue to justify a process. That which appears as being neither comes from anywhere nor goes anywhere, and that which appears as destroyed also does not come from anywhere nor go anywhere, and so a process (saṃsāra) cannot be affirmed of them. It cannot be that when the second moment arose, the first moment had suffered a change in the process, for it was not the same as the second, as there is no so-called cause-effect connection. In fact there being no relation between the two, the temporal determination as prior and later is wrong. The supposition that there is a self which suffers changes is also not valid, for howsoever we may search we find the five skandhas but no self. Moreover if the soul is a unity it cannot undergo any process or progression, for that would presuppose that the soul abandons one character and takes up another at the same identical moment which is inconceivable[3].

But then again the question arises that if there is no process, and no cycle of worldly existence of thousands of afflictions, what is then the nirvāṇa which is described as the final extinction of all afflictions (kleśa)? To this the Madhyamaka reply is that it does not agree to such a definition of nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa on the Madhyamaka theory is the absence of the essence of all phenomena, that which cannot be conceived either as anything which has ceased or as anything which is produced (aniruddham anutpannam). In nirvāṇa all phenomena are lost; we say that the phenomena cease to exist in nirvāṇa, but like the illusory snake in the rope they never existed[4]. Nirvāṇa cannot be any positive thing or any sort of state of being (bhāva), for all positive states or things are joint products of combined causes (saṃskṛta) and are liable to decay and destruction. Neither can it be a negative existence, for since we cannot speak of any positive existence, we cannot speak of a negative existence either.

The appearances or the phenomena are communicated as being in a state of change and process coming one after another, but beyond that no essence, existence, or truth can be affirmed of them. Phenomena sometimes appear to be produced and sometimes to be destroyed, but they cannot be determined as existent or non-existent. nirvāṇa is merely the cessation of the seeming phenomenal flow (prapañcapravṛtti). It cannot therefore be designated either as positive or as negative for these conceptions belong to phenomena (na cāpravṛttimātram bhāvābhāveti parikalpitum pāryyate evam na bhāvābhāvanir-vānam , M.V. 197). In this state there is nothing which is known, and even the knowledge that the phenomena have ceased to appear is not found. Even the Buddha himself is a phenomenon, a mirage or a dream, and so are all his teachings[5].

It is easy to see that in this system there cannot exist any bondage or emancipation; all phenomena are like shadows, like the mirage, the dream, the māyā, and the magic without any real nature (tiihsvabhāva). It is mere false knowledge to suppose that one is trying to win a real nirvānaḥ[6]. It is this false egoism that is to be considered as avidyā. When considered deeply it is found that there is not even the slightest trace of any positive existence. Thus it is seen that if there were no ignorance (avidyā), there would have been no conformations (saṃskāras), and if there were no conformations there would have been no consciousness, and so on; but it cannot be said of the ignorance “I am generating the saṃskāras,” and it can be said of the saṃskāras “we are being produced by the avidyā.” But there being avidyā, there come the saṃskāras and so on with other categories too. This character of the pratītyasamutpāda is known as the coming of the consequent depending on an antecedent reason (hetūpanibandha).

It can be viewed from another aspect, namely that of dependence on conglomeration or combination (pratyayopanibandha). It is by the combination (samavāya) of the four elements, space {ākāśa') and consciousness (vijñāna) that a man is made. It is due to earth (prthivī) that the body becomes solid, it is due to water that there is fat in the body, it is due to fire that there is digestion, it is due to wind that there is respiration; it is due to ākāśa that there is porosity, and it is due to vijñāna that there is mind-consciousness. It is by their mutual combination that we find a man as he is. But none of these elements think that they have done any of the functions that are considered to be allotted to them. None of these are real substances or beings or souls. It is by ignorance that these are thought of as existents and attachment is generated for them. Through ignorance thus come the saṃskāras, consisting of attachment, antipathy and thoughtlessness (rāga , dveṣa, moha) ; from these proceed the vijñāna and the four skandhas.

These with the four elements bring about name and form (nāmarūpa), from these proceed the senses (sadāyatana), from the coming together of those three comes contact (sparśa); from that feelings, from that comes desire (tṛṣnā) and so on. These flow on like the stream of a river, but there is no essence or truth behind them all or as the ground of them all[7]. The phenomena therefore cannot be said to be either existent or non-existent, and no truth can be affirmed of either eternalism (śāśvatnvādo) or nihilism (ucchedavādd), and it is for this reason that this doctrine is called the middle doctrine (madhyamaka)[8]. Existence and non-existence have only a relative truth (samvṛtisatya) in them, as in all phenomena, but there is no true reality (paramārthasatya) in them or anything else. Morality plays as high a part in this nihilistic system as it does in any other Indian system.

I quote below some stanzas from Nāgārjuna’s Suhṛllekha as translated by Wenzel (P.T.S. 1886) from the Tibetan translation.

6. Knowing that riches are unstable and void (asāro) give according to the moral precepts, to Bhikṣus, Brahmins, the poor and friends for there is no better friend than giving.

7. Exhibit morality (Jīla) faultless and sublime, unmixed and spotless, for morality is the supporting ground of all eminence, as the earth is of the moving and immovable.

8. Exercise the imponderable, transcendental virtues of charity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and likewise wisdom, in order that, having reached the farther shore of the sea of existence, you may become a Jina prince.

9. View as enemies, avarice (mātsaryyū), deceit (sāthya), duplicity (māyā), lust, indolence (kaitsīdya), pride (māna; greed ( rāga), hatred (dvesa) and pride (mada) concerning family, figure, glory, youth, or power.

15. Since nothing is so difficult of attainment as patience, open no door for anger; the Buddha has pronounced that he who renounces anger shall attain the degree of an anāgāmin (a saint who never suffers rebirth).

21. Do not look after another’s wife; but if you see her, regard her, according to age, like your mother, daughter or sister.

24. Of him who has conquered the unstable, ever moving objects of the six senses and him who has overcome the mass of his enemies in battle, the wise praise the first as the greater hero.

29. Thou who knowest the world, be equanimous against the eight worldly conditions, gain and loss, happiness and suffering, fame and dishonour, blame and praise, for they are not objects for your thoughts.

37. But one (a woman) that is gentle as a sister, winning as a friend, careful of your well being as a mother, obedient as a servant her (you must) honour as the guardian god(dess) of the family.

40. Always perfectly meditate on (turn your thoughts to) kindness, pity, joy and indifference; then if you do not obtain a higher degree you (certainly) will obtain the happiness of Brahman’s world (brahmavihāra).

41. By the four dhyānas completely abandoning desire (kāma) reflection ( vicāra), joy (prīti), and happiness and pain (sukha, duhkha) you will obtain as fruit the lot of a Brahman.

49. If you say “I am not the form, you thereby will understand I am not endowed with form, I do not dwell in form, the form does not dwell in me ; and in like manner you will understand the voidness of the other four aggregates.”

50. The aggregates do not arise from desire, nor from time, nor from nature (prakṛti), not from themselves (svabhāvāt), nor from the Lord (iśvara), nor yet are they without cause; know that they arise from ignorance (avidyā) and desire (tṛṣnā).

51. Know that attachment to religious ceremonies (śīlabrataparāmarśa), wrong views (mithyādṛṣṭi) and doubt (vicikitsā) are the three fetters.

53. Steadily instruct yourself (more and more) in the highest morality, the highest wisdom and the highest thought, for the hundred and fifty one rules (of the prātimoksa) are combined perfectly in these three.

58. Because thus (as demonstrated) all this is unstable (anitya) without substance (anātma) without help (aśarana) without protector (anātha) and without abode (asthāna) thou O Lord of men must become discontented with this worthless (asāra) kadali-tree of the orb.

104. If a fire were to seize your head or your dress you would extinguish and subdue it, even then endeavour to annihilate desire, for there is no other higher necessity than this.

105. By morality, knowledge and contemplation, attain the spotless dignity of the quieting and the subduing nirvana not subject to age, death or decay, devoid of earth, water, fire, wind, sun and moon.

107. Where there is no wisdom (prajñā) there is also no contemplation (dhyāna), where there is no contemplation there is also no wisdom; but know that for him who possesses these two the sea of existence is like a grove.

Footnotes and references:


See Mādkyamikavrtti (B.T.S.), p. 50.   


Ibid. pp. 93-100.


See Mādhycimikavrtti (B.T.S.), pp. 101-102.


Ibid. p. 194.


Ibid. pp. 162 and 201.



Ibid. pp. 209-211, quoted from Sālistambhasūtra. Vācaspatimiśra also quotes this passage in his Bhāmatī on Śaṅkara’s Brahma-sūtra.


See Mādhyamikavṛtti (B.T.S.), p. 160.