Shunyavada And Vedanta

Shunyavada And Vedanta

Shunyavada And Vedanta: Our exposition of Shunyavada will at once make it clear how similar it is to Vedanta. We have clearly proved that shunya does not mean a mere negation nor does Shunyavada mean nihilism. 

Shunya is used in a double sense. It means Maya as well as Brahman. Empirically it means that all dharmas or world-experiences, subjective as well as objective, are svabhava-shunya or devoid of ultimate reality.

They are pratityasamutpanna or merely relative. They are ultimately unreal because they can be called neither existent nor non-existent nor both.

They are indescribable or Maya. But the mere fact that they are appearances implies that there must be a Reality of which they are mere appearances.

This Reality or tattva is prapanchashunya or beyond all plurality. It is like Brahman. It is Bodhi or Pure Consciousness.

It is indescribable or chatuskoti-vinirmukta because all categories of the intellect fail to grasp it fully. Samvrti and paramartha correspond to vyavahara and paramartha of Vedanta.

Chandrakirti divides Samvrti into mithyasamvfti and tathya-samvjti to match parikalpita and paratantra of Vijnanavada. Mithyasamvfti, tathya-samvjti and para-Martha will now correspond to pratibhasa, vyavahara and paramartha of Vedanta.

We know that the two standpoints, empirical and absolute, are found in the Upanisads which sometimes use the word ‘Samvrti’ also.

The Mahayanasutras, Nagarjuna and his followers condemn all phenomena to be like illusion, mirage, son of a barren woman, sky-flower etc. etc. which expressions suggest that they are something absolutely unreal.

But this is not their intention. They use such expressions only to emphasize the ultimate unreality of phenomena. Their empirical reality is, as we have seen, emphatically maintained.

We know that Gaudapada and even Shankara use such expressions. They are therefore not condemned to be absolutely unreal.

We have noticed the enormous similarities between Shunyavadins on the one hand and Gaudapada, Shankara and Post-Shankarites on the other.

Their dialectical arguments are essentially similar. Their method is also essentially the same. Intellect or logic has got only negative value for them.

It has to be transformed into immediate experience so that it may embrace the Absolute. They are interested in pointing out to their opponents that even according to the canons of logic of the opponents the arguments of the opponents can be proved to be false.

Ultimate Reality is Silence. It has to be realized directly. It cannot be discussed.If the opponent accepts it, he is accepting their position.

If, on the other hand, he challenges it he is challenging the validity of his own logic. Intellect is essentially discursive or relational. It must work with its concepts and categories.

So it gives only the relative world which must be taken to be empirically real. Ultimately it is false because it is neither existent nor non-existent nor both. Rejection of all views is itself not a view; it is an attempt to rise above thought.

We have seen that Gaudapada frankly approves of the No-origination theory preached by Shunyavada. His Karika bear striking resemblances with the Karikas of Nagarjuna.

Sharikara knows very well that Shunyavada cannot be criticized and so he simply dismisses it by taking the word shunya in its popular sense of negation and dubbing Shunyavada as a self-condemned nihilism.

Shankara says that Shunyavada has no right to condemn this world as unreal unless it takes recourse to some higher reality (anyat-tattva).

We have seen that Shunyavada does take recourse to this higher reality. Nagarjunauses the very word ‘tattva’ and defines it as that which is to be directly realized, which is calm and blissful, where all plurality is merged, where all cries of intellect are satisfied, and which is the non-dual Absolute.

The Post-Shankarites, following Shankara, either condemn Shunyavada as nihilism or say that if shunya means the indescribable Maya, as it really does mean, they have no quarrel with Shunyavada. Shriharsa frankly admits that Shunyavada cannot be criticized because it is similar to Vedanta.

The only difference which he points out between Shunyavada and Vedanta is that while Shunyavada declares even Consciousness to be unreal, Vedanta makes an exception in its favour.

Shriharsa quotes a verse from the Lankavatara: ‘All things which can be known by the intellect have no reality of their own. These are therefore said to be indescribable and unreal.’

But we know that the Lankavatara itself repeatedly makes an exception in favour of Consciousness. Shunyavada condemns only the individual self to be unreal and not Pure Consciousness.

Nagarjuna’s definition of Reality clearly shows that such definition can apply only to Pure Consciousness. Nagarjunahimself in his Ratnavali identifies Reality with Pure Consciousness or Bodhi or Jnana.

Aryadeva also identifies Reality with the Pure Self or the Chitta.Shantideva in much-inspired verses praises the only Reality, the Bodhi-Chitta or the True Self which is PurConsciousness.

If the Bodhi of Nagarjuna, the Chitta of Aryadeva, and the Bodhi-Chitta of Shantideva are not the self-luminous Self which is Pure Consciousness.

what else on earth can they be?

The only difference between Shunyavada and Vedanta, therefore, is the difference of emphasis only. This difference is of a double nature.

Firstly, while Shunyavada is more keen to emphasize the ultimate unreality of all phenomena, Shankara and his followers are more keen to emphasize the empirical reality of all phenomena; and secondly while Shunyavada is less keen to develop the conception of ultimate Reality, Vedanta is more keen to develop this conception almost to perfection.

And this is not unnatural if we remember that Shunyavada represents the earlier stage while Vedanta represents the later stage of the development of the same thought.

Vijnanavada and vedanta

We have proved that Vijnanavada is neither subjective idealism nor does it advocate the reality of momentary ideas only. It is absolute idealism. The theory of momentariness is applied to phenomena only. Reality is declared to be Absolute Consciousness which is the permanent background of all changing phenomena.

This doctrine clearly has its essential roots in the Upanisadic philosophy. The parikalpita, paratantra, and Parinispanna correspond to the pratibhasa, vyavahara and paramartha of Vedanta. Vijnanavada and Vedanta both agree in maintaining that Reality is Absolute Consciousness which is the permanent background of all changing phenomena and which ultimately transcends the trinity of knowledge, knower and known. Everything, the subject as well as the object, is its appearance. The Tathagata-garbha or the Alayavijnana of the Lankavatara, the Vishuddhatman or the Mahatman or the Paramitas or the Dharma-hatu of Asanga, the Vijnaptimatra or the Dharmakaya of Vasubandhu, and the Atman or the Brahman of the Vedanta are essentially the same pure and permanent self-luminous Consciousness. The Vijnaptimatra of Vasubandhu corresponds to the Atman or the Brahman of Vedanta, his Alayavijnana to the Vedantic Ishvara, his klista-manovijnana to the Vedanticjiva, his visaya-vijnapti to the Vedantic jagat, and his parinama to the Vedantic vivarta. When the Lankavatara tries to distinguish its Tathagata garbha or Alayavijnana from the non-Buddhistic Atman, the essential difference which it points out is that while the former transcends all categories of intellect (nirvikalpa) and is to be directly realized through Spiritual Experience (nirabhasaprajna-gochara),the latter clings to the category of affirmation. But this distinction is superficial and false. The Atman as much transcends all the categories of intellect (nirguna and nirvikalpa), and is as much to be directly realized through immediate experience (jnana) as is the Tathagata garbha. The Atman does not cling to the category of affirmation. No category can adequately describe it. When it is said that Atman is Pure Existence what is meant is that thoughthe Atman cannot be grasped by the category of existence, yet when we describe it from the phenomenal point of view, we must avoid nihilism and say that the Atman exists by itself and in its own right because it is self-luminous Consciousness.

We have seen that even Shankara admits that Gaudapada accepts the arguments of Vijnanavada to prove that the world is ultimately unreal as it cannot exist independently and outside of Consciousness. Gaudapada is profoundly under the influence of Vijnanavada. We have clearly proved this. The fact stands as it is and cannot be challenged. We have also seen that real Vijnanavada, like Shunyavada, is only avoided by Shankara. The criticism of the so-called ‘Vijnanavada’ by Shankara is really the criticism of the ‘Svatantra-Vijnanavada’ school. Shankara’s criticism of real Vijnanavada— and this criticism applies to some extent to Gaudapada also— loses much of its force because, firstly, Vijnanavada and Gaudapada do not deny the objectivity of the external world as they maintain that the objects appear as objects to the knowing subject, and secondly because they hold self-luminous consciousness to be the permanent background of all phenomena. They distinguish between the parikalpita and the paratantra, and when they place the dream state and the waking state almost on a par, they do so only to emphasize the ultimate unreality of the world.

The main difference, therefore, between Vijnanavada, on the one hand, and Shankara and his followers on the other, is that the latter emphasize the empirical reality of the world and emphatically distinguish the dream state from the waking state, and that they prove the ultimate unreality of the world not by saying that it does not exist outside of thought but by saying, like Shunyavada, that it is false because it is relative and can be described neither as existent nor as non-existent nor as both. This view, as we have seen, was already presented by Gaudapada. The advance made by Shankara and his followers on Shunyavada and Gaudapada consists in the development of the view that Avidya or Maya is a positive material stuff of Ignorance which baffles all description.

Svatantra-vijnanavada and vedanta

The only fundamental and most vital difference between this school and Vijnanavada is that this school degrades the permanent Consciousness of Vijnanavada to momentary vijnanas. Reality, according to it, is a momentary Vijnana only. It is the unique momentary point-instant of Consciousness. Under the name of Vijnanavada, Shankara really criticizes this school and we have noticed that Shankara’s criticism of it is perfectly valid. Post-Shankarites also» following Shankara, criticize this school under the name of Vijnanavada and mostly repeat Shankara’s objections. A momentary idea can be neither self-luminous nor can it ideate itself. The reality of permanent self-luminous Self which is Pure Consciousness must be admitted.

We have pointed out the enormous similarities between the arguments for the refutation of other systems given by Dharmaklrti, Shantaraksita of those very systems advanced by Shankara and Post-Shankarites, on the other hand. Vedanta does not reject the criticism of other systems by the Svatantra-Vijnanavadins so far as that criticism does not militate against its own doctrine. Vedanta criticizes only their momentary Vijnana and their view that external world is unreal because it is a projection of momentary consciousness as this view well smacks of subjectivism when consciousness is reduced to momentary ideas. Vedanta points out that the arguments which the Svatantra-Vijnanavadins advance against permanent consciousness are more applicable to their own momentary consciousness. To take an example, if bondage and liberation are impossible when conscious is treated as permanent they are more so when consciousness is taken as momentary. Vedanta accepts that Consciousness is Self-luminous and that it ultimately transcends the subject-object duality and the trinity of knowledge, knower and known and all the categories of the intellect. But from the empirical standpoint, stresses Vedanta, it is far better to describe Reality as Permanent and Pure Consciousness which is at once Pure Existence and Pure Bliss, than to call it momentary for whatever is momentary is miserable and self-contradictory. The momentary Vijnana can be neither self-luminous nor can it ideate itself. It requires the Pure Self which is Pure Consciousness to know it.

Shantaraksita and Kamalashila confess that the view of the followers of the Upanisads (i.e. of Gaudapada and others) is very much similar to their own view, and that it contains very little error, its only fault is that it declares consciousness to be permanent.Vedanta may well rejoin: The view of the Svatantra-Vijnanavadins is very much similar to Vedanta; it contains very little error, its only fault is that it declares consciousness to be momentary.



It is generally said that Nairatmyavada or the No-Soul theory and Ksana-bhanga-vada or the theory of Momentariness are the two mainand vital theories which distinguish Buddhism from Vedanta. Let us now briefly summarize our views in regard to these two theories.

We maintain that by Nairatmyavada Buddhism does not deny the existence of the true Atman, the Pure Self which is Pure Consciousness and which is the only reality. Buddhism takes the word ‘Atman’ in the sense of the individual ego-complex or the Jiva atman which is a product of beginningless Avidya, Maya or Vasana and which is associated with the Antahkarana or the Buddhi. Thus Buddha and the Mahayanists have found it easy to repudiate this Atman (Jiva), while at the same time accepting its empirical reality. It is in fact ‘the self of straw’ which they have erected simply to demolish it afterwards. The real self is untouched by their criticism. They have, in one sense or the other, either implicitly or explicitly, always accepted its reality. It is called, not generally Atman, but Bodhi, Prajna, Chitta, Bodhi-chitta, Tattva, Vijnana, Chitta matra, Vijnana matra, Vijnaptimatra, Tathata, Tathagata garbha, Dharmad-hatu, Dharma-kaya or Buddhakaya. Ashvaghosa calls it Atman also. Asariga calls it Shuddh atman, Mahatman and Paramatman. Even Shantaraksita calls itVishuddhatman.

Thus it is a great irony of fate that the Buddhists and the Vedantins fought against each other. Nairatmyavada has been horribly misunderstood both by the Buddhists and by the Vedantins. And Buddha and the Buddhists themselves were greatly responsible for creating this misunderstanding.

The Upanisads have repeatedly used the word Atman as a synonym of Reality. Buddha admitted this Reality and termed it Bodhi or Prajna. But instead of frankly identifying his Bodhi with the Atman, Buddha degraded Atman to the level of the Jiva and easily condemned it as unreal. There is a famous saying of Yajnavalkya that the husband, the wife, the children, the worldly objects and all things are loved, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the Atman. Perhaps Buddha wrongly took the Atman in the sense of the ‘I’ and the ‘mine’ which is the cause of attachment and bondage. He therefore condemned it as an unreal thing imagined only by the dull. Love for the Atman is like the blind passion of a foolish lover for the most beautiful damsel (janapada-kalyani), he is represented to say in the Digha-nikaya, about whose existence, residence, colour, size and age that lover knows nothing.

The Hinayanists denied the self.’ Nagasena tells Milinda that the so-called self is nothing apart from the fleeting ideas. The Mahayana-Sutras, the Shunyavadins, the Vijnanavadins, and the Svatantra-Vijnanavadins all take the word ‘Atman’ in the sense of the notion of the T ’ and the vain-glory of the ‘Mine’ and condemn it to be ultimately unreal. Dharma-nairatmya means that all objective existents are; unreal. Nagarjuna declares that the self is neither identical nor different from the five skandhas. WhenWhen the T and the ‘mine’ cease, the cycle of birth-and-death comes to a standstill. Aryadeva says that in the beginning, evil should be avoided; in the middle, Atman should be viewed as unreal; and in the end, everything phenomenal should be taken to be unreal. Chandrakirti declares Atman to be the cause of all sufferings and demerits and says that a Yogi should deny its ultimate reality.Shantideva says that just as when one goes on taking off the layers of a plantain trunk or an onion nothing will remain, similarly if one goes on examining the self, ultimately it will be found to be nothing. Asanga says that all suffering is due to the ego and the ego itself is due to beginningless ignorance. There is no self as a substance nor even as a subject. Vasubandhu says that Consciousness transcends the duality of the subject and the object, both of which are ultimately unreal.Dharmakriti regards the self as the root-cause of attachment and misery. As long as one is attached to the Atman, so long will one revolve in the cycle of birth-and-dcath Shantaraksita clearly states that Consciousness itself when associated with the notion of the ego is called Atman. It has only empirical reality. Ultimately it denotes nothing. Thus in Buddhism, right from Buddha himself to Shantaraksita, the word Atman is generally taken in the sense of the empirical ego and its ultimate reality is denied. It is variously called as Atman, Pudgaia, Sattva or Satkaya.

But it is very important to remember that the Pure Self which is Pure Consciousness is always admitted by Buddhism to be the ultimate Reality. Buddha himself identified Reality with Bodhi or Prajna. The Tathata of Ashvaghosa is Alayavijnana or Absolute Consciousness. The Mahayana sutras identify Reality with Consciousness and call it Prapancha-Shunya, Atarkya, Sarvavagvisayatita, Advaya, Achintya, Anaksara, Anabhilapya, Atyanta vishuddha and Pratyatmavedya. It is significant to note that though Reality is not generally called Atman, it is sometimes described as Brahman. Thus we find in the Astasasharika that all things are such that they neither come in nor go out, they are neither pure nor impure, they are free from attachment and detachment, they are undefiled, unattached and uncontaminated because they are of the very nature of Brahman. The same Sutra tells that for supreme enlightenment one dwells in Brahman. The Shatasahasrika and the Lalitavistara describe Reality as Full of Bliss in the beginning, in the middle and in the end, One, Full, Pure and the Abode of Brahman. The Saddharma pundarika says that one who truly follows the teachingof the Buddha ever dwells in the Brahman, the Absolute, the Pure, the Calm, the Blissful and the Undefiled. Asanga also says that by becoming one with Pure Spirit, one realizes the last, the fourth meditation, and then one ever dwells in the blissful Brahman.Nagarjuna definition of Reality as the non-dual Absolute, Calm and Blissful and beyond all plurality applies to Pure Consciousness alone. He also openly identified Reality with Pure Consciousness and says that the empirical ego must embrace Pure Consciousness in order to be transformed into Reality. Aryadeva says that the Jewel of Self is absolutely pure and self-luminous and appears to be impure only on account of ignorance just as a white crystal appears coloured on account of a coloured thing placed near it.Shantideva says that the True Self which is Pure Consciousness or Bodhi chitta can transform an impure mortal into a pure Buddha.

TheThe Lankavatara identifies Reality with Tathagata garbha or Alayavijnana. Asanga says that the Chitta or the Pure Self is by its very nature self-luminous (prakrtiprabhasvara) and all impurities are adventitiou He calls it Shuddhatman, Mahatman and Paramatman. VasubandhuVasubandhu says that ultimate Reality is Vijnaptimatra or Absolute Consciousness which is the permanent background of all changing phenomena. Dharmakriti says that Reality is Consciousness which is beyond all words, names and concepts Shantaraksita says that Consciousness is self-luminous and free from all impositions. It is one without a second. True knowledge consists in the realization of the Pure Self (Vishuddhatman-darshana).

Thus we see that Buddhism generally means by Atman what Vedanta means by Jivatman or Buddhi or Chitta or Antahkarana. And on the other hand, Buddhism generally means by Chitta or Vijnana or Vijnapti or Bodhi or Prajna what Vedanta means by Atman or Brahman or Samvrti or Chitta. Thus the Vedantic Atman generally becomes the Buddhistic Chitta, and the Vedantic Chitta generally becomes the Buddhistic Atman. Had Buddha refrained from committing an error of66 commission in degrading the Upanisadic Atman to the level of the empirical ego and also an error of omission in not identifying his Bodhi or Prajna with the Upanisadic Atman or Brahman, the age-old battle regarding the Nairatmyavada fought without any reasonable ground by the Buddhists and the Vedantins on the soil of Indian Philosophy would have been surely avoided.



The theory of Momentariness loses all its force and significance in Buddha, Ashvaghosa, Shunyavada and Vijnanavada since it is applied to phenomena only. It presents a real problem only in Hinayana and in the Svatantra-Vijnanavada school.

The Upanisads recognized the misery and momentariness in this world. Nachiketa kicked away wealth, land, women, sons, grandsons, music, dance and long life by saying that these things simply wear away the senses. And Maitreyi, unlured by wealth, told Yajnavalkya: ‘What shall I do with that by which I cannot become immortal?’ Buddha also was deeply moved by the misery of old age, illness and death and he declared all world-objects to be momentary. The Hinayanists in their zeal over-emphasized the dark side of the picture and unreservedly declared everything, without any exception, to be merely momentary. But these people who boasted that the doctrine of momentariness (ksanikah sarvasarhskarah) is the roaring of the Sugata-lion (Saugata-simhanada) forgot that it was the Sugata (Buddha) himself who pro-claimed: The fact that things in this world appear to be born, to be changing, to be made, and to be perishable, logically implies that there is a reality which is Unborn, Immortal, Uncreated and Imperishable.They also forgot that it was the Sugata himself who called his Enlightenment, ‘the Middle Path’, which transcended both the ‘ends’ of intellect including momentariness and permanence.

Ashvaghosa realized this. He reaffirmed that everything phenomenal is momentary, fleeting and deceptive. But he proclaimed Tathata to be beyond all categories, to be neither momentary nor permanent, though phenomenally it must be called permanent. Shunyavada did the same thing. The ‘Madhyama marga’ is a path which at once transcends both the extremes as well as the middle. The Lankavatara also declares its Alayavijnana to be beyond all categories. Asanga emphasizes the momentariness of all phenomena, but maintains that Reality is the permanent background of all changing phenomena. Vasubandhu’s Vijnaptimatra is openly declared to be permanent, non-dual and blissful. Sthiramati says that whatever is momentary is misery and whatever is permanent is bliss. The theory of Momentariness is applied to phenomena only.

In the Svatantra-Vijnanavada, the theory is revived and is applied to reality also. Reality is declared to be a unique momentary point-instant of Consciousness. The Criticism of this school by Chandrakirti and Shankara is fully justified.