A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

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

This page describes the philosophy of vedanta in gaudapada: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fourth part in the series called the “the shankara school of vedanta”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 4 - Vedānta in Gauḍapāda

It is useless I think to attempt to bring out the meaning of the Vedānta thought as contained in the Brahma-sūtras without making any reference to the commentary of Śaṅkara or any other commentator. There is reason to believe that the Brahma-sūtras were first commented upon by some Vaiṣṇava writers who held some form of modified dualism[1]. There have been more than a half dozen Vaiṣṇava commentators of the Brahma-sūtras who not only differed from Śaṅkara’s interpretation, but also differed largely amongst themselves in accordance with the different degrees of stress they laid on the different aspects of their dualistic creeds. Every one of them claimed that his interpretation was the only one that was faithful to the sūtras and to the Upaniṣads. Should I attempt to give an interpretation myself and claim that to be the right one, it would be only just one additional view. But however that may be, I am myself inclined to believe that the dualistic interpretations of the Brahma-sūtras were probably more faithful to the sūtras than the interpretations of Śaṅkara.

The Srīmadbhagavadgītā, which itself was a work of the Ekānti (singularistic) Vaiṣṇavas, mentions the Brahma-sūtras as having the same purport as its own, giving cogent reasons[2]. Professor Jacobi in discussing the date of the philosophical sūtras of the Hindus has shown that the references to Buddhism found in the Brahma-sūtras are not with regard to the Vijñānavāda of Vasubandhu, but with regard to the Śūnyavāda, but he regards the composition of th e Brahma-sūtras to be later than Nāgārjuna. I agree with the late Dr S. C. Vidyābhūṣhana in holding that both the Yogācāra system and the system of Nāgārjuna evolved from the Prajñāpāramitā[3]. Nāgārjuna’s merit consisted in the dialectical form of his arguments in support of Śūnyavāda ; but so far as the essentials of Śūnyavāda are concerned I believe that the Tathatā philosophy of Aśvaghoṣa and the philosophy of Xhe Prajñāpāramitā contained no less.

There is no reason to suppose that the works of Nāgārjuna were better known to the Hindu writers than the Mahāyāna sūtras. Even in such later times as that of Vācaspati Miśra, we find him quoting a passage of the Sālistambha sūtra to give an account of the Buddhist doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda[4]. We could interpret any reference to Śūnyavāda as pointing to Nāgārjuna only if his special phraseology or dialectical methods were referred to in any way. On the other hand, the reference in the Bhagavadgītā to the Brahma-sūtras clearly points out a date prior to that of Nāgārjuna; though we may be slow to believe such an early date as has been assigned to the Bhagavadgītā by Telang, yet I suppose that its date could safely be placed so far back as the first half of the first century B.C. or the last part of the second century B.C.

The Brahma-sūtras could thus be placed slightly earlier than the date of the Bhagavadgītā. I do not know of any evidence that would come in conflict with this supposition. The fact that we do not know of any Hindu writer who held such monistic views as Gauḍapāda or Śaṅkara, and who interpreted the Brahma-sūtras in accordance with those monistic ideas, when combined with the fact that the dualists had been writing commentaries on the Brahma-sūtras, goes to show that the Brahma-sūtras were originally regarded as an authoritative work of the dualists.

This also explains the fact that the Bhagavadgītā, the canonical work of the Ekānti Vaiṣṇavas, should refer to it. I do not know of any Hindu writer previous to Gauḍapāda who attempted to give an exposition of the monistic doctrine (apart from the Upaniṣads), either by writing a commentary as did Śaṅkara, or by writing an independent work as did Gauḍapāda. I am inclined to think therefore that as the pure monism of the Upaniṣads was not worked out in a coherent manner for the formation of a monistic system, it was dealt with by people who had sympathies with some form of dualism which was already developing in the later days of the Upaniṣads, as evidenced by the dualistic tendencies of such Upaniṣads as the Śvetāśvatara, and the iike. The epic Sāṃkhya was also the result of this dualistic development.

It seems that Bādarāyaṇa, the writer of the Brahma-sūtras , was probably more a theist, than an absolutist like his commentator Śaṅkara. Gauḍapāda seems to be the most important man, after the Upaniṣad sages, who revived the monistic .tendencies of the Upaniṣads in a bold and clear form and tried to formulate them in a systematic manner. It seems very significant that no other kārikās on the Upaniṣads were interpreted, except the Māndūkyakārikā by Gauḍapāda, who did not himself make any reference to any other writer of the monistic school, not even Bādarāyaṇa. Śaṅkara himself makes the confession that the absolutist (advaita) creed was recovered from the Vedas by Gauḍapāda.

Thus at the conclusion of his commentary on Gauḍapāda’s kārikā, he says that

“he adores by falling at the feet of that great guru (teacher) the adored of his adored, who on finding all the people sinking in the ocean made dreadful by the crocodiles of rebirth, out of kindness for all people, by churning the great ocean of the Veda by his great churning rod of wisdom recovered what lay deep in the heart of the Veda, and is hardly attainable even by the immortal gods[5].”

It seems particularly significant that Śaṅkara should credit Gauḍapāda and not Bādarāyaṇa with recovering the Upaniṣad creed. Gauḍapāda was the teacher of Govinda, the teacher of Śaṅkara ; but he was probably living when Śaṅkara was a student, for Śaṅkara says that he was directly influenced by his great wisdom, and also speaks of the learning, self-control and modesty of the other pupils of Gauḍapāda[6]. There is some dispute about the date of Śaṅkara, but accepting the date proposed by Bhaṇḍarkar, Pathak and Deussen, we may consider it to be 788 A.D.[7], and suppose that in order to be able to teach Śaṅkara, Gauḍapāda must have been living till at least 800 A.D.

Gauḍapāda thus flourished after all the great Buddhist teachers Aśvaghoṣa, Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu ; and I believe that there is sufficient evidence in his kārikās for thinking that he was possibly himself a Buddhist, and considered that the teachings of the Upaniṣads tallied with those of Buddha. Thus at the beginning of the fourth chapter of his kārikās he says that he adores that great man (dvipadām varam)vA\o by knowledge as wide as the sky realized (sambuddha) that all appearances (dharma ) were like the vacuous sky (gagajiopamam[8]). He then goes on to say that he adores him who has dictated (deśita) that the touch of untouch (asparśayoga —probably referring to palambhaḥ) was the good that produced happiness to all beings, and that he was neither in disagreement with this doctrine nor found any contradiction in it (avivādah aviruddhaśca).

Some disputants hold that coming into being is of existents, whereas others quarrelling with them hold that being (jāta) is of non-existents (abhūtasyā); there are others who quarrel with them and say that neither the existents nor non-existents are liable to being and there is one non-coming-into-being (advayamajātim). He agrees with those who hold that there is no coming into being[9]. In IV. 19 of his kārikā he again says that the Buddhas have shown that there was no coming into being in any way (sarvathā Buddhairajātih paridīpitah).

Again, in IV. 42 he says that it was for those realists (vastu-vādi), who since they found things and could deal with them and were afraid of non-being, that the Buddhas had spoken of origination (jāti). In IV. 90 he refers to agrayāna which we know to be a name of Mahāyāna. Again, in IV. 98 and 99 he says that all appearances are pure and vacuous by nature. These the Buddhas, the emancipated one (mukta) and the leaders know first. It was not said by the Buddha that all appearances (dharma) were knowledge. He then closes the kārikās with an adoration which in all probability also refers to the Buddha[10].

Gauḍapāda’s work is divided into four chapters:

  1. Agama (scripture),
  2. Vaitathya (unreality),
  3. Advaita (unity),
  4. Alā-taśānti (the extinction of the burning coal).

The first chapter is more in the way of explaining the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad by virtue of which the entire work is known as Māndūkyakārikā. The second, third, and fourth chapters are the constructive parts of Gauḍapāda’s work, not particularly connected with the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad.

In the first chapter Gauḍapāda begins with the three apparent manifestations of the self:

  1. as the experiencer of the external world while we are awake (viśva or vaiśvānara ātmā),
  2. as the experiencer in the dream state (taijasa ātmā),
  3. as the experiencer in deep sleep (suṣupti), called the prājña when there is no determinate knowledge, but pure consciousness and pure bliss (ānanda).

He who knows these three as one is never attached to his experiences. Gauḍapāda then enumerates some theories of creation : some think that the world has proceeded as a creation from the prāṇa (vital activity), others consider creation as an expansion (vibhūti) of that cause from which it has proceeded; others imagine that creation is like dream (svapna) and magic (māyā); others, that creation proceeds simply by the will of the Lord; others that it proceeds from time; others that it is for the enjoyment of the Lord (bhogārtham) or for his play only (krīdārtham), for such is the nature (svabhāva) of the Lord, that he creates, but he cannot have any longing, as all his desires are in a state of fulfilment.

Gauḍapāda does not indicate his preference one way or the other, but describes the fourth state of the self as

  • unseen (adṛṣṭa),
  • unrelationable (avyavaliāryam),
  • ungraspable (agrāhyam),
  • indefinable (alakṣaṇa),
  • unthinkable (acintyam),
  • unspeakable (avyapadeśya),
  • the essence as oneness with the self (ekātmapratyayasāra),
  • as the extinction of the appearance (prapañcopaśaina),
  • the quiescent (śāntam),
  • the good (swam),
  • the one (advaita)[11].

The world-appearance (prapañca) would have ceased if it had existed, but all this duality is mere māyā (magic or illusion), the one is the ultimately real (paramārthataḥ). In the second chapter Gauḍapāda says that what is meant by calling the world a dream is that all existence is unreal. That which neither exists in the beginning nor in the end cannot be said to exist in the present. Being like unreal it appears as real. The appearance has a beginning and an end and is therefore false. In dreams things are imagined internally, and in the experience that we have when we are awake things are imagined as if existing outside, but both of them are but illusory creations of the self.

What is perceived in the mind is perceived as existing at the moment of perception only; external objects are supposed to have two moments of existence (namely before they are perceived, and when they begin to be perceived), but this is all mere imagination. That which is unmanifested in the mind and that which appears as distinct and manifest outside are all imaginary productions in association with the sense faculties. There is first the imagination of a perceiver or soul (jīva) and then along with it the imaginary creations of diverse inner states and the external world. Just as in darkness the rope is imagined to be a snake, so the self is also imagined by its own illusion in diverse forms. There is neither any production nor any destruction (na nirodho, na cotpattiḥ), there is no one who is enchained, no one who is striving, no one who wants to be released[12].

Imagination finds itself realized in the non-existent existents and also in the sense of unity; all imagination either as the many or the one (advaya) is false ; it is only the oneness (advayatā) that is good. There is no many, nor are things different or non-different (na nānedam...na pṛthag nāpṛthak)[13]. The sages who have transcended attachment, fear, and anger and have gone beyond the depths of the Vedas have perceived it as the imaginationless cessation of all appearance (nirvikalpaḥ prapañcopaśaniaḥ), the one[14].

In the third chapter Gauḍapāda says that truth is like the void (ākāśa) which is falsely conceived as taking part in birth and death, coming and going and as existing in all bodies ; but howsoever it be conceived, it is all the while not different from ākāśa. All things that appear as compounded are but dreams (svapnd) and māyā (magic). Duality is a distinction imposed upon the one (advaitd) by māyā. The truth is immortal, it cannot therefore by its own nature suffer change. It has no birth. All birth and death, all this manifold is but the result of an imposition of māyā upon it[15]. One mind appears as many in the dream, so also in the waking state one appears as many, but when the mind activity of the Togins (sages) is stopped arises this fearless state, the extinction of all sorrow, final cessation.

Thinking everything to be misery (duhkham sarvam anusmṛtya) one should stop all desires and enjoyments, and thinking that nothing has any birth he should not see any production at all. He should awaken the mind (citta) into its final dissolution (layd) and pacify it when distracted; he should not move it towards diverse objects when it stops. He should not taste any pleasure (sukhani) and by wisdom remain unattached, by strong effort making it motionless and still. When he neither passes into dissolution nor into distraction ; when there is no sign, no appearance that is the perfect Brahman. When there is no object of knowledge to come into being, the unproduced is then called the omniscent (sarvajña).

In the fourth chapter, called the Alātaśānti, Gauḍapāda further describes this final state[16]. All the dharmas (appearances) are vvithout death or decay[17]. Gauḍapāda then follows a dialectical form of argument which reminds us of Nāgārjuna. Gauḍapāda continues thus: Those who regard kāraṇa (cause) as the kāryya (effect in a potential form) cannot consider the cause as truly unproduced (aja), for it suffers production ; how can it be called eternal and yet changing? If it is said that things come into being from that which has 110 production, there is no example with which such a case may be illustrated. Nor can we consider that anything is born from that which has itself suffered production. How again can one come to a right conclusion about the regressus ad infinitum of cause and effect (hetu and phala)? Without reference to the effect there is no cause, and vvithout reference to cause there is no effect.

Nothing is born either by itself or through others; call it either being, nonbeing, or being-non-being, nothing suffers any birth, neither the cause nor the effect is produced out of its own nature (svabhāvataḥ), and thus that which has no beginning anywhere cannot be said to have a production. All experience (prajñapti) is dependent on reasons, for otherwise both would vanish, and there would be none of the afflictions (saṃkleśa) that we suffer. When we look at all things in a connected manner they seem to be dependent, but when we look at them from the point of view of reality or truth the reasons cease to be reasons.

The mind (citta) does not come in touch with objects and thereby manifest them, for since things do not exist they are not different from their manifestations in knowledge. It is not in any particular case that the mind produces the manifestations of objects while they do not exist so that it could be said to be an error, for in present, past, and future the mind never comes in touch with objects which only appear by reason of their diverse manifestations. Therefore neither the mind nor the objects seen by it are ever produced. Those who perceive them to suffer production are really traversing the reason of vacuity (khe), for all production is but false imposition on the vacuity. Since the unborn is perceived as being born, the essence then is the absence of production, for it being of the nature of absence of production it could never change its nature.

Everything has a beginning and an end and is therefore false. The existence of all things is like a magical or illusory elephant (māyāhastī) and exists only as far as it merely appears or is related to experience. There is thus the appearance of production, movement and things, but the one knowledge (vijñāna) is the unborn, unmoved, the unthingness (avastutva), the cessation (śāntam). As the movement of burning charcoal is perceived as straight or curved, so it is the movement (spandita) of consciousness that appears as the perceiving and the perceived. All the attributes (e.g. straight or curved) are imposed upon the charcoal fire, though in reality it does not possess them ; so also all the appearances are imposed upon consciousness, though in reality they do not possess them.

We could never indicate any kind of causal relation between the consciousness and its appearance, which are therefore to be demonstrated as unthinkable (acintya). A thing (dravya) is the cause of a thing (dravya), and that which is not a thing may be the cause of that which is not a thing, but all the appearances are neither things nor those which are not things, so neither are appearances produced from the mind (citta), nor is the mind produced by appearances. So long as one thinks of cause and effect he has to suffer the cycle of existence (saṃsāra), but when that notion ceases there is no saṃsāra. All things are regarded as being produced from a relative point of view only (samvṛti), there is therefore nothing permanent (śāśvata). Again, no existent things are produced, hence there cannot be any destruction (uccheda).

Appearances (dharma) are produced only apparently, not in reality; their coming into being is like māyā, and that māyā again does not exist. All appearances are like shoots of magic coming out of seeds of magic and are not therefore neither eternal nor destructible. As in dreams, or in magic, men are born and die, so are all appearances. That which appears as existing from an imaginary relative point of view (kalpita samvṛti) is not so in reality (para-mārtha), for the existence depending on others, as shown in all relative appearance, is after all not a real existence. That things exist, do not exist, do exist and not exist, and neither exist nor not exist; that they are moving or steady, or none of those, are but thoughts with which fools are deluded.

It is so obvious that these doctrines are borrowed from the Mādhyamika doctrines, as found in the Nāgārjuna’s kārikās and the Vijñānavāda doctrines, as found in Laṅkāvatāra, that it is needless to attempt to prove it. Gauḍapāda assimilated all the Buddhist Sūṅyavāda and Vijñānavāda teachings, and thought that these held good of the ultimate truth preached by the Upaniṣads. It is immaterial whether he was a Hindu or a Buddhist, so long as we are sure that he had the highest respect for the Buddha and for the teachings which he believed to be his. Gauḍapāda took the smallest Upaniṣads to comment upon, probably because he wished to give his opinions unrestricted by the textual limitations of the bigger ones. His main emphasis is on the truth that he realized to be perfect. He only incidentally suggested that the great Buddhist truth of indefinable and unspeakable vijñāna or vacuity would hold good of the highest ātman of the Upaniṣads, and thus laid the foundation of a revival of the Upaniṣad studies on Buddhist lines. How far the Upaniṣads guaranteed in detail the truth of Gauḍapāda’s views it was left for his disciple, the great Śaṅkara, to examine and explain.

Footnotes and references:


This point will be dealt with in the 2nd volume, when I shall deal with the systems expounded by the Vaisnava commentators of the Brahma-sūtras.


“Brahmasūtrapadaiścaiva hetumadbhirviniścitah” Bhagavadgītā. The proofs in support of the view that the Bhagavadgītā is a Vaisnava work will be discussed in the 2nd volume of the present work in the section on Bhagavadgītā and its philosophy.


Indian Antiquary, 1915.


See Vācaspati Miśra’s Bhāmatī on Śaṅkara’s bhāsya on Brahma-sūtra , 11. ii.


Śaṅkara’s bhāsya on Gauḍapāda’s kārikā, Ānandāśrama edition, p. 214.


Ānandāśrama edition of Śaṅkara’s bhāsya on Gauḍapāda’s kārikā, p. 21.


Telang wishes to put Śaṅkara’s date somewhere in the 8th century, and Yeñka-teśvara would have him in 805 A.D.-897 A.D., as he did not believe that Śaṅkara could have lived only for 32 years. J. R. A. S. 1916.


Compare Laṅkāvatāra , p. 29, Katham ca gaganopamam.


Gauḍapāda’s kārikā, IV. 2, 4.


Gaudapācla’s kārikā, iv. 100. In my translation I have not followed Śaṅkara, for he has I think tried his level best to explain away even the most obvious references to Buddha and Buddhism in Gauḍapāda’s kārikā. I have, therefore, drawn my meaning directly as Gauḍapāda’s kārikās seemed to indicate. I have followed the same principle in giving the short exposition of Gauḍapāda’s philosophy below.


Compare in Nāgārjuna’s first kārikā the idea of prapañcopaśamam śivam. Anirodhamanutpādamanucchedamaśāśvatam anekārthamanānārthamanāgamamanirgamam yaḥ, pratītyasamutpādam prapañcopaśamam śivam deśayāmāsa sambuddhastam vande vadatāmvaram.

Compare also Nāgārjuna’s Chapter on palambhaḥparīkṣā, Pūrvopalambhopaśamaḥ prapañcopaśaniaḥ śivaḥ na kvacit kasyacit kaścit dharmmo bud-dhmadeśitaḥ.

So far as I know the Buddhists were the first to use the words prapañcopaśaman śivam.


Compare Nāgārjuna’s kārikā, “anirodhamanutpādam” in Mādhyamikavṛtti , B. T. S., p. 3.


Compare Alādhyamikakārikā, B. T. S., p. 3, anekārtham anānārtham, etc.


Compare Laṅkāvatārasūtra, p. 78, Advayāsamsāraparinirvānavatsarvadharmāh tasmāt tarhi mahāmate Śunyatānytpādādvayanihsvabhāvalakṣaṇe yogaḥ karaṇiyah ;

also 8, 46, Yaduta svacīttaviṣayavikalpadṛṣṭyānavabodhanāt vijñānānām svacittadrśyamātrānavatāreṇa mahāmate vālapṛthagjanāh bhāvābhāvasvabhāvaparamārthadṛṣṭidvayavādino bhavanti.


Compare Nāgārjuna’s kārikā, B. T. S., p. 196, Akāśam śaśaśṛṅgañca bandhyāyāḥ putra eva ca asantaścābhivyajyante tathūbhāvtna kalpanā, with Gauḍapāda’s kārikā, III. 28, Asato māyayā janma tatvato naiva jāyate bandhyāputro na tattvena māyāya vāpi jāyate.


The very name Alātaśānti is absolutely Buddhistic. Compare Nāgārjuna’s kārikā, B. T. S ., p. 206, where he quotes a verse from the Śataka.


The use of the word dharma in the sense of appearance or entity is peculiarly Buddhistic. The Hindu sense is that given by Jaimini, “Codanālaksanah arthah, dharmah.” Dharma is determined by the injunctions of the Vedas.