In the Padma Purāṇa, there is a famous verse wherein Śiva tells Parvatī that he will appear in the age of Kali as a brāhmaṇa to preach asat-śāstra:
māyāvādam asat-śāstram pracchanam-baudham ucyate
mayaiva kalpitam devim kalau brāhmaṇa rūpinaḥ
“O goddess, in the age of Kali, I will appear in the form of a brāhmaṇa to preach the false doctrine of māyāvāda which is simply covered Buddhism. (Padma Purāṇa 6.236.7)
Indisputably, the brāhmaṇa mentioned in the verse is none other than the great Indian philosopher of monistic Vedānta, Ādi Śaṅkara. A few verses later Śiva continues:
vedārthan maha-śāstram māyāvādam avaidikam
mayaiva kathitam devi jagatam naśakaranat
“This powerful doctrine of māyāvāda resembles the Vedas, but is by nature non-Vedic. O goddess, I propagate this philosophy in order to destroy the world.” (Padma Purāṇa 6.236.11)
The term ‘māyāvāda’ refers to the Advaitic theory that the appearance of this world and the duality within it is due to māyā – the illusory power of Brahman. This world is unreal and is a vivarta, or a modification through māyā. Brahman is the only reality. There are various reasons why this theory is untenable, but that is not the topic of this article.
‘Māyāvāda’ is an expression that is rarely used by Advaitins in referring to themselves or their doctrine as it carries with it a derogatory implication. Ādi Śaṅkara himself referred to his philosophy as abheda-darśana (the theory of non-difference) or as dvaitavāda-pratiṣedha (the denial of dualism). However, amongst scholars his philosophy is generally known as kevalādvaita-vada (the theory of absolute non-dualism) or simply Advaita.
From the above verses from Padma Purāṇa it is clear that even before it’s actual inception, Advaita philosophy was considered to be ‘covered Buddhism’. Śaṅkara’s opponents such as Madhva, Rāmānuja, Pārtha-sārathi Miśra and Bhāskara associated his teachings with Buddhism mainly due to his theory of nirguṇa Brahman and his concept of māyā. Such accusations have always incensed the māyāvādis and they have strongly protested against such parallels and made great efforts to distance themselves from Buddhism, condemning it as absolute nihilism.
Bhāskara (9th Century CE), the propounder of bhedābheda-siddhanta was one of the earliest Indian philosophers to attack māyāvāda. In his commentary on Vedānta-sūtra, Bhāskara does not mention Śaṅkara by name, nor does he mention the name of his philosophy. However, by reviewing his arguments against the monistic doctrine of māyā and the Advaitic concept of anirvācaniya, it is obvious who and what he is alluding to.
Bhāskara is positively vitriolic when writing about the Advaitin’s concept of māyā, referring to its adherents as bauddha-matā-valambin (those that cling to Buddhist ideology) and goes on to say that their philosophy reeks of Buddhism (bauddha-gandhin). Bhāskara concludes that, “No one but a drunkard could hold such theories” and that māyāvāda is subversive of all śāstrika knowledge:
vigitam vicchinna-mūlam māhāyānika-bauddhagāthitam māyāvādaṁ vyāvarṇayanto lokān vyāmohayanti
“Expanding on the contradictory and baseless philosophy of māyā propagated by the Mahāyānika Buddhists, the māyāvādīs have misled the whole world.” (Bhaskara’s Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣya 1.4.25)
In his Siddha-traya, the Vaiṣṇava philosopher Yāmunācārya (917–1042 CE) stated that Buddhism and māyāvāda was essentially the same thing. The only difference he could see was that while one was openly Buddhist (prakaṭa-saugata), the other was simply covered (pracchana-saugata).
Following on from Yamunācārya, his disciple Śrī Rāmānuja (1017-1137 CE) also concurred that māyāvāda was another form of Buddhism. In his Śrī Bhāṣya commentary on the Vedānta-sūtras, Rāmānuja says that to claim that non-differentiated consciousness is real and all else is false is the same as the Buddhist concept of universal void. Furthermore, Rāmānuja states that the concepts of such crypto-Buddhists make a mockery of the teachings of the Vedas (veda-vādacchadma pracchana–bauddha).
Another ācārya in the line of Rāmānuja, Vedānta Deśika (1269–1370) wrote his famous Śata-duṣinī, a text expounding one hundred flaws found in māyāvāda. In that work he refers to Śaṅkara as a rāhu-mimāmsaka (one who obscures the true meaning of Vedānta), a bhrama-bhikṣu (a confused beggar), a cadma-veśa-dhāri – one who is disguised in false garb, and goes on to assert that, “By memorizing the arguments of the Śata duṣinī like a parrot, one would be victorious over the crypto-Buddhists.”
In another work, Paramata-bhaṅgam, Vedānta Deśika refers to Śaṅkara as, “One who studied the Vedas in the shop of a Mādhyamika Buddhist” (referring to Śaṅkara’s param-guru Gauḍapāda of who, we will speak of later in this article).
Later philosophers also declared māyāvāda to be crypto-Buddhism. The Sāṅkhya philosopher Vijñāna-bhikṣu (1550–1600 CE) tried to reconcile Vedānta with Sāṅkhya philosophy and synthesize all theistic schools of Indian thought into a philosophy that he called Avibhagādvaita (indistinguishable non-dualism). He was an impartial writer who analyzed both the merits and problems of the various doctrines that he encountered. Concerning Śaṅkara’s philosophy, Vijñāna-bhikṣu states in his Sāṅkhya Pravacana Bhāṣya:
brahma-mīmāṁsāyāṁ kenāpi sūtreṇāvidyā-mātrato bandhasyānuktatāt. avibhāgo vacanāditya-sūtrair-brahma-mīmāṁsāyā abhipretas-yāvibhāga-lakṣaṇādraitasy-āvidyādivāstavatve’pyavirodhāccha. yat tu vedānta-bruvānāmādhunikasya māyāvādas-yātra liṅgaṁ drṣyate tat teṣāmapi vijñānavādyeka-deśitayā yuktameva.
“There is not a single Brahma-sūtra in which bondage is declared to be a mere deception. As to the novel theory of māyā propounded by vedānta-bruva (those who claim to be Vedāntists), it is only another type of Buddhist of the Vijñānavada school (vijñāna-vādyekadeśin). This theory has nothing to do with Vedānta and it should be understood that this doctrine of these new Buddhists, who assert the theory of māyā and reduce our bondage to mere illusion is in this way refuted.” (Sāṅkhya Pravacana Bhāṣya 1.22)
At this point in his work, Vijñāna-bhikṣu also quotes the famous verse from Padma Purāṇa (māyāvādam asat-chastram). Vijñāna-bhikṣu considered Buddhism to be nāstikavāda, or atheism, as it was opposed to Vedic thought. Thus, in effect, he was declaring māyāvādīs to be out and out atheists.
Amongst all ācāryas and philosophers, Śrī Madhvācārya was certainly the most hostile towards Śaṅkara. Throughout his campaign to establish his philosophy of Dvaitavāda, Madhva continuously attacked māyāvāda, which he considered to be the worst kind of heresy. In his Anu-vyākhyana, Brhad-bhasya and Tattvodyota, Madhva also makes the claim that the Advaitins are crypto-Buddhists – na ca śūnyavādinaḥ sakāśād vailakṣaṇyaṁ māyāvādinaḥ (there is no doctrinal difference between Buddhism and māyāvāda). He even quotes Buddhist texts and compares them to Advaitin works to prove his point.
At this point it would only be fair to see what Śaṅkara himself has to say about Buddhism.
ŚAṄKARA’S ‘CRITICISM’ OF BUDDHISM
Śaṅkara has long been glorified as being the principle architect behind Buddhism’s eventual decline in India. We do not know whether or not Śaṅkara personally debated with Buddhist scholars since all the traditional hagiographies about him were written much later between the 14th and 17th Centuries and are an inextricable combination of legend and history.
What is certain is that by the time Śaṅkara came to prominence, Buddhism was already on the wane in India. Buddhist scholars coming from China lamented the collapse of the Buddhist saṅga due to Muslim assaults and the invasion of the White Huṇās (Śveta Huṇās or Turuṣkas) in Northern India during the 6th Century CE. During this period there was a resurgence of Vedic thought due to the patronage of such royal dynasties as the Guptas. Thus Śaṅkara cannot be fully credited with the fall of Indian Buddhism.
During the time of Śaṅkara there were three main schools of Buddhism – Vijñānavāda (subjective idealism), Bahyārthavāda (representationalism) and Mādhyamika or Śūnyavāda (voidism). In his commentaries on the Upaniṣads, Śaṅkara’s arguments against Buddhism are rather tame. However, when it comes to his refutations in his Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣya, Śaṅkara is quite derogatory and pens a vitriolic character assassination of Buddha:
api ca bahyārtha vijñāna śūnyavāda trayam itaretara viruddham upadiśata sugatena spandikṛtam ātmano saṁbandha pralāpitvam, pradveṣo vā prajāsu viruddhārtha-pratipattyā vimuhyeyurimāḥ prajā iti.
“Thus by inventing three contradictory systems – the reality of the world, the reality of knowledge and total voidism – it is clear that Buddha was either a man who simply made delirious statements, or else he had a hatred for mankind that induced him to create such a stupid philosophy so that they would become confused.” (Śarirka-bhāṣya 2.2.32)
Śaṅkara indeed made efforts to refute some of the Buddhist concepts found in Vijñānavāda and Bahyārthavāda, but made no strong attempts to defeat Śūnyavāda. Śaṅkara writes in his Saririka-bhasya:
śūnyavādi-pakṣastu sarvapramāṇavipratiṣiddha iti tannirākaraṇāya nādaraḥ kriyate. nahyayaṁ sarvapramāṇaprasiddho lokavyavahāro’nyattattvamanadhigamya śakyate ‘pahnotumapavādābhāva utsarga-prasiddheḥ
“The third type of Buddhist doctrine that states that everything is void is contradicted by all means of right knowledge and thus requires no special refutation. This apparent world, whose existence is guaranteed by all means of knowledge, cannot be denied unless someone should discover some new truth (based on which he could impugn its existence) – for a general principle is proved by the absence of contrary instances.” (Śarirka-bhāṣya 2.2.31)
Śaṅkara dismisses Śūnyavāda as nihilism as it does not accept a higher reality after rejecting the phenomenal world. However, this accusation of Śaṅkara’s is false since Śūnyavāda endorses the higher reality of the present moment directly experienced here and now. This is the only real criticism that Śaṅkara makes of Śūnyavāda. Ultimately Śaṅkara simply dismisses Śūnyavāda as being unworthy of criticism.
It is obvious from his commentary that Śaṅkara attempted to distance himself from Buddhism. Yet his casual dismissal of Śūnyavada and his gross misinterpretation of its doctrine are suspicious and need to be analyzed further.
MĀYĀVĀDĪS APPLAUD BUDDHISM
It would be unreasonable to simply accuse Śaṅkara of being a crypto-Buddhist simply on the basis of what his opponents have said without further examining the reasons for such accusations.
Throughout history, māyāvādīs themselves recognised certain similarities between Buddhism and Advaitavāda and have even complimented Buddhist ideology. The Advaitin scholar, Vimuktātman (9th Century CE) agrees with Śaṅkara that Śūnyavāda Buddhism is nihilism, but admits in his famous work Iṣṭa-siddhi that if the Buddhists mean māyā when they use the term asat, then their position is similar to that of the Vedāntin.
Similarly, Sadānanda Yogīndra states that if the Buddhists define śūnya as, ‘That which is beyond the intellect,’ then the Buddhist is actually a Vedāntist.
Although the Advaitin Śrīharṣa accepts some differences between Advaita and Buddhism, he considers both schools of thought to be similar. Later, Śrīharṣa’s commentator Citsukha even comes to the rescue of the Śūnyavāda Buddhists by fending off the Vedic Mimāmsakas when they attack the Buddhist concept of ignorance (samvṛtti).
The Advaitin scholar Vacaspati Miśra (900-980 CE) shows appreciation for the Buddhists when he states in his Bhāmati commentary that the Buddhists of the Śūnyavāda school were advanced in thought (prakrstamati).
If ‘imitation is the highest form of flattery.’ then it certainly must have been true when Śaṅkara plagiarized the famous Buddhist scholar Dharmakīrti by directly lifting verses from Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇa-viniścaya and using them in his Upadeśa-sāhasri. One example is the following:
abhinno’pi hi buddhyātmā viparyāsitadarśanaiḥ
grāḥya-grāhaka-saṁittir bhedavān iva lakṣyate
“The intellect itself, though indivisible, is looked upon by deluded people as consisting of the divisions of the knower, knowing and the known.” (Upadeśa-sāhasri.18.142)
GAUḌAPĀDA – BUDDHIST OR ADVAITIN?
Śaṅkara’s doctrine of māyā has been one of the principle reasons that he has been accused of being a closet Buddhist. Yet it was actually Śaṅkara’s parama-guru, Gauḍapāda who posited the idea of māyā or ajātivāda in his famous Māṇḍukya-kārikā.
Ajātivāda refers to the theory of non-creation. In his kārikā Gauḍapāda claims that the world of appearances is actually māyā and does not factually exist. So this theory of māyā/ajātivāda does not originate with Śaṅkara.
However, it does not originate with Gauḍapāda either…
Prior to Gauḍapāda, it was Nāgārjuna that first postulated the concept of ajātivāda in his Mādhyamika-kārikās. In his Māṇḍukya-kārikā, Gauḍapāda writes:
khyāpyamānāmajātiṁ tairanumodāmahe vayam
vivadāmo na taiḥ sārdhamavivādaṁ nibodhata
“We approve of the ajāti declared them (the Buddhists). We do no quarrel with them.” (Māṇḍukya-kārikā 4.5)
It is even affirmed by Śaṅkara himself that Gauḍapāda accepted the arguments of the Buddhists regarding ajātivāda:
vijñānavādino bauddhasya vacanam bāhyārthavādi-pakṣa-pratiṣedha-param ācāryena anumoditam
The ācārya (Gauḍapāda) has accepted the words of the Vijñānavāda Buddhist (Nāgārjuna) to prove the unreality of external things. (Śaṅkara’s commentary on Gauḍapāda’s Kārikā 4.27)
Gauḍapāda’s affiliation with Buddhism does not stop there. Gauḍapāda also gives arguments that are akin to those of the Buddhist scholar Vāsubandhu in order to prove that the phenomenal world is unreal by equating the dream state with the waking state.
Furthermore, the two illustrations of the city of the Gandharvas (gandharva-nagara) and the magic elephant (māyā-hasti) that Gauḍapāda uses in his kārikā to prove the illusory nature of the world are both found in Mahāyāna Buddhist literature.
In the fourth chapter of Māṇḍukya-kārikā a case of similar terminology is found between Gauḍapāda and Nāgārjuna. Gauḍapāda writes in his kārikā (4.7):
prakrter anyathābhāvo na katham cid bhaviṣyati
And we find a similar verse in Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamaka-kārikā (15.8):
prakrter anyathābhāvo na hi jātūpapadyate
The title of the fourth chapter of his kārikā is Alataśanti (circle of fire) which is a word commonly found in Buddhist texts. But probably the biggest give-away is in the fourth chapter of the kārikā:
nivṛttasyāpravṛttasya niścalā hi tadā sthitiḥ
viśayaḥ sa hi buddhānāṁ tatsāmyamajamadvayam
“Thus, the mind freed from attachment and undistracted attains a state of immutability. Being realized by the wise, it is undifferentiated, birthless and non-dual. “(Māṇḍukya-kārikā 4.80)
jātistu deśitā buddhaiḥ ajātestrasatā sadā
“For those who, from their own experience and right conduct, believe in the existence of substantiality, and who are ever afraid of the birthless, instruction regarding birth has been imparted by the wise.” (Māṇḍukya-kārikā 4.42)
The Sanskrit word Gauḍapāda has chosen to refer to the wise is ‘buddha’!
Scholars have pointed out that Gauḍapāda’s method of dialectical analysis almost mirrors that of Nāgārjuna, thus it is obvious that Mahāyāna Buddhism heavily influenced Śaṅkara’s parama-guru. Despite glaring proof to the contrary, Gauḍapāda still tried to distance himself from Buddhism by writing at the end of the fourth Chapter of his work, naitad buddhena bhāsitam – “My views are not the views held by Buddha.”
Indeed, Gauḍapāda’s kārikā is permeated so much with Mādhyanika Buddhist thought that some scholars have suggested that he may have previously been a follower of Nāgāṛjuna.
BUDDHIST CONCEPTS WITHIN MĀYĀVĀDA
We will now examine other examples where Buddhism has infiltrated māyāvāda philosophy.
Śaṅkara postulates that there are two ways of looking at the world. There is a conventional perspective (vyavahārika-satya) where the world appears to be pluralistic, and there is the higher perspective (paramārthika satya) where one realizes that all duality is simply illusory and everything is Brahman.
However, this concept of ‘two truths’ did not originate with Śaṅkara but with the Buddhist scholar Nāgārjuna. Nāgārjuna refers to these two truths as samvṛti-satta and paramārtha-satta. Nāgārjuna’s theory was enthusiastically taken up by Śaṅkara in order to explain higher and lower fields of knowledge.
The Non-Existence of the Universe
Buddhism states that the universe is unreal (asat). Since its origin is śūnya and it ends in śūnya, logically, its interim must also be śūnya. Thus they conclude that ultimately the element of time also does not exist. This means that the sum-total of everything in the universe is śūnya.
Śaṅkara also posits the same idea when he states jagat-mithya – the universe is false. Saṅkara rejects all three phases of time (past, present and future) when he writes in his Daśa-śloki:
na jāgran na me svapnako vā suṣuptir
“I do not experience the waking state, the dream state nor the state of deep sleep.” (Daśa-śloki 6)
If one dissolves all states of being that we experience (waking, dreaming and deep sleep), then naturally this eliminates time itself and the only ‘property’ remaining is void, or śūnya.
Śaṅkara describes the ultimate cause of the universe as avidyā (ignorance). It has no past, present and future. However, conveniently, Śaṅkara explains that this avidyā cannot be fully explained philosophically because of its immense propensity – thus he calls it anirvacanīya (inexplicable). Both the asat of the Buddhist and the anirvacanīya of the māyāvādī accept the momentary ‘reality’ of the universe (vyavahārika-satya), it’s ultimate falsity (paramārthika-satya) and its incomprehensible nature – thus asat and anirvacanīya are one and the same thing.
Whereas Buddhists refer to the phenomenal universe as an impression (samskāra), Śaṅkara says that it is like a dream (svapna). However, this is just a matter of semantics –both dreams and impressions are in essence the same thing since they only occur on the mental platform.
Both the māyāvādī and the Buddhist agree that ignorance is the cause of suffering. The māyāvādī calls this avidyā and the Buddhist refers to this as samvṛtti. The māyāvādīs go to great lengths to make differentiations between the two. However, the Buddhist scholar Candrakīrti give the following etymological meaning of samvṛtti:
“Samvṛti is not knowing, caused by the veil of avidyā, common to all.” (Prasannapadā 24.8.492.10)
Thus we conclude that the two terms are actually non-different.
The māyāvādī claims that the method of achieving mokṣa is realization of the non-difference between the ātmā and Brahman. The Buddhist says that realization that everything is ultimately śūnya is the sādhana to attain liberation. Śaṅkara defines mokṣa thus:
brahma bhinnatvā-vijñānaṁ bhava-mokṣasya kāranam
yen’advitīyam ānandaṁ brahmā saṁpadyate budhaiḥ
“The realisation of one’s inseparable oneness with Brahman is the means of liberation from temporal existence, by which the wise person achieves the non-dual, blissful nature of Brahman.” (Viveka-cūdāmaṇi 223)
This theory is identical with the Buddhist concept of prajñā. In Buddhism, when the causes of bondage are eliminated one attains realisation of śūnya which leads to liberation. This realisation is known as prajña.
Mokṣa and Nirvāṇa
Advaita defines mokṣa as the removal of avidyā. Buddhists say that by the removal of samvṛtti, one attains nirvāṇa. Both conceptions of liberation are identical.
Brahman and Śūnya
Once again, the māyāvādīs go to great lengths to prove that their concept of Brahman and the Buddhist concept of śūnya are totally different. The māyāvādīs argue that by attaining Brahman one achieves ānanda, but there is no ānanda in śūnya. However, the great Dvaita scholar Raghuttama Tīrtha has shown that there is no distinction between the two:
“You māyāvādīs desire to become Brahman or to become bliss. You do not say, ‘We want to experience bliss.’ You say, ‘We want to become bliss’. When one becomes bliss, according to you, one has no consciousness of bliss. One does not enjoy bliss because you don’t believe that there is any consciousness of any enjoyment in that condition because you say the Self cannot become the object of Self-consciousness. According to you, Brahman is merely bliss and light. This cannot be the highest end. It is a state of inertness. It is thus like saying, ‘I do not want to taste sugar, or its sweetness – but I wish to become sugar.’ What is the good of one’s becoming sugar, if one has no consciousness of its sweetness? The lack of consciousness cannot be the highest end of man; in fact, there is no difference in this unconscious brahma-bhāva of the māyāvādī, and the śūnya-bhāva of the Buddhists.” (Bhāva-bodha sub-commentary of the Bṛhad-bhāṣya)
According to Advaita, Brahman is nirguṇa (without any qualities). But logically speaking, something that is without any attributes whatsoever is as good as nothing (śūnya). If something has eternal existence (as the māyāvādīs claim Brahman has) then it must have attributes, otherwise it is nothing. Since the māyāvādīs Brahman and the Buddhists śūnya have no attributes, they must be identical.
The concepts of māyā, avidyā, vyayahārika-satya and paramārthika-satya, advaya, prajñā, the unreality of the universe and time and the attributeless Brahman are all Buddhist contributions, without which there would be no Advaita philosophy. It thus becomes obvious why Śaṅkara was disinclined to launch an all-out attack upon Śūnyavāda Buddhism when he and his predecessor Gauḍapāda had appropriated so much from that doctrine.
In conclusion, by carefully analyzing the above points it would seem that Śaṅkara’s detractors were correct in assessing that his philosophy was crypto-Buddhism. It can clearly be observed that Śaṅkara and Gauḍapāda attempted to amalgamate Buddhist epistemology and psychology with the metaphysics of the Upaniṣads and Vedānta. Thus, from an orthodox standpoint, this automatically disqualifies Advaitavāda as a traditional school of Vedic thought.