Upanishad Notes: How Advaita refutes Buddhism

Photo by Ganesh Kumar B N on Unsplash

While there were debates among the astikas (who abides by Vedas), there were similar debates between astikas and nastikas (Buddhists, Jains).

The prerequisite of these debates was that you would understand the opponent’s position well enough to state it and then debate. Let’s understand the process better — let’s look at a refutation that happened 1300 years back. Here, it was Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s guru’s guru) refuting four schools of Buddhism.

Different schools of Buddhism

These were the Srautrantika, Vaibhashika, Yogachara Vijñānavāda, and the Shunyavada. All of them explored the question: is there an external world apart from us and came up with different points of view. We are a species that delight in metaphysical observations and can come up with darshanas that captivate and startle. In a dharmic venture, there is no monotheistic understanding. Instead, in trying to understand the world, these ambitious mind explorers came up with different explanations of reality.

The srautrantikas believed that when you perceive something it exists out there. For example, if you see a flower, it means that there is a flower right there in front of you. We also have unique experiences based on the object; the experience you have when you eat a mango differs from the experience you have when you eat roasted cashew.

This is what we experience daily, and it is natural to wonder how could anyone even have a position other than this? That’s where the Vaibhashika person comes and says hold on. We don’t see the flower just because it is out there, but because of the process that happens because of it. When you look at a flower, the eyes process that, and the mind creates an image of the flower. This is like the modern position that light waves hit our retina, resulting in some electrical activity in the brain creating the perception of the flower. The biological software processes signals from the biological hardware.

On hearing this, you can accept that it is a detailed and refined view than the srautrantika position. Now that we are here, what could be a position that could be a refinement of this?

The Vijñānavādin, brings a radical perspective — there is no external object. It is not like saying 2+2 = 5. The Vijñānavādin is saying there is no 2 or 5. Everything you perceive is just in your mind and what you feel as real is just an illusion. For example, in your dream, you will see new worlds and old friends, but the moment you wake up, all of that disappears. Vijñānavādin says the actual world too is similar, an illusion. If you thought that was rad, just see what the Shunyavadin has to say. The Shunyavadin takes it up a notch further and says that nothing exists. There is no external world, no mind. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Everything is shunya.

If your mind goes into DEFCON 2,  no one will blame you. We have ninety billion neurons entangled in a network of one hundred trillion synaptic connections. Only rishis with neurons which have seen the flashes of light between the extremities of darkness can come up with such darshanas.

To summarize, the Srautrantikas and Vaibhashikas, called the realists, agree that there is an external object, while the Vijñānavādins and Shunyavadins (the idealists) don’t. From now we will use this terminology.

Advaita is similar to Vijñānavāda. Gaudapada also argues that your waking world is like the dream world – a projection of the ultimate reality — Brahman. All of us, all the surrounding things are all are just names, forms, and behavior of Brahman. Now that the positions are clear, it’s time for Advaita to refute them.For that, Gaudapada uses a simple technique. Since the various Buddhist schools have been debating each other, he piggybacks on those arguments.

And so it starts.

The realist poses this question to the idealist. If you say that there is no external object, but just awareness, it seems odd. I can touch flowers, fruits, and feel happy seeing the Ram Mandir getting built. Each of these is a different perception inside me. If you say that there is one consciousness, then that conciseness is homogeneous. If consciousness is homogeneous, then the experience should also be homogeneous. Instead, our daily experience shows that diverse objects give us diverse perceptions. This means that there is a secondary object apart from this consciousness thing.

The idealist refutes it. The idealist rejects this from the standpoint of absolute reality. Look at a pot. If you have an external view, it will look like an object which exists. Now consider the same pot from the point of view of clay. There is nothing called pot, it is just a name, form, and behavior. Take a piece of cloth. It cannot exist without the thread, and you can say that the thread is the reality. The cloth is just a name and form imposed on the thread. Does the thread exist though? It is made of fibers and the thread is a name/form superimposition on the thread. Take it deep and deep and you end up with consciousness as the substratum on which everything else is a name and form. Hence, when you stand at the point of consciousness and look around, there is nothing else that differs from it.

The idealist continues: Hey, you realist, you had mentioned that it is diverse external objects which cause diverse experiences for you. In your dream world, you can eat an apple, drink lemon-soda, and experience happiness of the bhumi puja of Ram Mandir. In your sleep, all your sense organs have shut down. Your eyes are not seeing, your tongue is not tasting, and yet you have such diverse experiences such as all these. So saying that an external world causes diverse experiences is not true.

That works for the dream world, but what about the real world? Are we living in a Matrix to say that this is an illusion? Is this consensual hallucination? Gaudapada says, yes. Your waking world does not differ from the dream world. There is nothing apart from Brahman and whatever you see, feel and perceive is just Brahman with name, form, and behavior. This difference between the external and internal is all in the mind.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Now that the realists have been taken care of, Gaudapada turns towards the Vijñānavādins. So far he used the arguments by Vijñānavādins to refute the realists, but now it is time to take care of them. It might seem that Vijñānavādins and Advaitins were twins lost at the Kumbh Mela. Both of them claim that the world is illusory.

While that looks similar, there is one major difference. While Advaita says that Brahman is unborn, unchanging, and deathless, Vijñānavādins say that consciousness is momentary. If Advaitins think of Brahman as sunlight, always present and always shining, Vijñānavādins think of it as a strobe light, which flashes on and off. Reality is nothing but a stream of this consciousness hitting you at a fast rate creating an illusion of reality.

The problem here is that Vijñānavādins do not distinguish between consciousness and mind. They use the same word (Chittam) for both. When you experience a flower, a vritti is formed in your Chitta. When you smell the flower, you get another vritti. This happens at such a fast rate that it seems continuous. It is like a packet with awareness and context hitting you constantly. With meditation, you can slow down your awareness and see this happen in slow motion.

The Advaitin then asks, if consciousness is constantly born and dies, what leads to its birth again? Is it born from something which exists or something non-existing? Also, if what we perceive are flashes of consciousness, then how do you perceive the gap between two events? Is it blank? This does not sound right. The Advaita position is that just the vritti dies, but the consciousness never dies. Those who say that consciousness dies are looking for footprints of flying birds.

With all the three gone, the remaining one is the Shunyavadin. Gaudapada does not refute Shunyavada explicitly. Shankara in his commentary just mentions that they are like people who are trying to grasp the sky with their hands. A later debater says that if everything is empty, then you, Shunyavadin are also empty and hence there is no need to debate you.

These back-and-forth arguments illustrate the rigor of arguments among the various darshanas. Going through this process helps us understand each of the darshanas clearly. The people who discovered these darshanas because of their tapas are no longer with us, but these discoveries are still being talked about and they still captivate and startle.


Upanishad Notes: How Advaita refutes Samkhya

6 darshanas in sanatana dharma

Though the six darshanas in Hinduism disagreed with each other, no one was excommunicated, put in house arrest, or burned at the stake. Instead, proponents of these darshanas would fight virulently but verbally. They would study the opponent’s position, debate and refute it. Let’s look at an example when an Advaitin refuted Samkhya 1300 years back.

If you observe our world, you will see creation and destruction happening. From the seed appears a tree. At some point, the tree dies but creating new seeds before that. Animals are born from few cells, and they die, but they create new animals as well. Mountains are formed from the earth and later they become part of the earth. Observing this pattern of cause and effect, a few millennia back, Kapila proposed the system of Samkhya.

Samkhya is one of the oldest darshanas with its main premise being the concept of pre-existence and transformation. For example, a tree comes from a seed, and thus you can say that the tree pre-existed in the seed. The effect (tree) pre-existed in the cause( seed) in an unmanifest form. With the birth of the tree, the cause transformed into the effect with a new name and properties similar to curd manifesting from milk. All the colors that later appear on the plumes of a peacock, pre-existed in the egg of the peahen. Extrapolating this, we can say that the entire universe pre-existed in cause from which it manifested.

The tree or curd are not something new coming into existence, but a change in the seed or milk. In Samkhya, each one of us, the Purusha, came from Prakriti. Prakriti is eternal unborn and undying. The Purusha which was unmanifest manifests with separate pure consciousness with a difference.

Compared to Samkhya, the Advaita advocated by Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s guru’s guru) is quite radical. According to him, the entire experience we have is a projection. Think of a movie screen showing Uri: A surgical strike. In the movie, there is cause and effect and karma, but the screen is unaffected by the movie. Today it could be Uri, tomorrow it could be Bahubali. Now think of your dream world. You manifest a brand new world during sleep and this world disappears when you wake up. Gaudapada argues that even your waking world is similar to the dream world – a projection of the ultimate reality — Brahman.

In this darshana, there is no unmanifest manifesting. It is not like Brahman is the cause and the universe is the effect. Instead, think of it this way. You see a snake on the road, but on closer examination, you find that it was a rope. You see some water in the desert, but on closer examination, you find that it was a mirage. The assumed reality is found to be an error. Similarly, the world is a projection that we take to be real.

If everything is a projection, then what is real? Think of a necklace and a ring which are two separate things, both made of gold. The gold does not disappear when the necklace appears like how the seed disappears when the tree appears. Instead, the necklace is just a name and form imposed on the gold. Nothing new is born.

To show the superiority of Advaita, Gaudapada uses two techniques to refute Samkhya. The first one is a logical argument and the second one, a technical one.

According to Samkhya, the cause is transformed into effect. Prakriti is eternal and is neither born nor destroyed. The effect, Purusha (think humans), is born and dies. If the effect is created from an unborn, immortal cause, then the effect should also be unborn and immortal. Instead, the final fate of every Purusha is a foregone conclusion. From planets to stars, solar systems to galaxies, black holes to swirling nebulae, amoeba to homo sapiens, nothing is everlasting. According to Gaudapada, the immortal Prakriti transforming into a mortal Purusha is illogical.

The second refutation is done using nyāya. In nyāya, the logic has to be illustrated with an example. According to Samkhya, there is a cause and an effect. Gaudapada argues that if Samkhyans say that Purusha came from Prakriti, one can ask where the Prakriti itself came from? If that Prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that Prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause. See this article for more details.

Even though these debates happened and victories were claimed, none of these darshanas disappeared. Samkhyans never were forced to accept Advaita as supreme. No committee met and decided what is kosher and what is not. No one was declared as a heretic and excommunicated. Just open the Gita and check the name of the second chapter.


Upanishad Notes: Difference between Greek logic and Nyāya

A simplified example of Greek logic is as follows

  • All men die
  • Socrates is a man
  • Socrates will die

Compared to this, Hindu Nyāya has some additional steps. The most common example used is that of the fire in the mountain. The steps are as follows

QuestionNyāya statementNyāya term
StatementThere is fire in the hillPratijñā
WhyThere is smokeHetu
So what?If there is smoke, there is fire, like in the kitchenUdāhārana
And?There is smoke in the hillUpanaya
So?Hence there is fire in the hillNigamana

One important step in Nyāya is udāhārana and just because one could not be provided an entire darshana can be refuted. An example of that would be Gaudapada (Adi Shankara’s teacher’s teacher) refuting Samkhya.

According to Samkya, the effect pre-exists in the cause, similar to how a tree pre-exists in the seed. Like how the tree is born from the seed, purusha manifests from prakriti. Gaudapada disagrees with this and among the many tactics he deploys to refute Samkhya, one of them is the lack of udāhārana.

He argues that if Samkhyans say that purusha came from prakriti, one can ask where the prakriti itself came from? If that prakriti came from another cause, it can go backward endlessly (recursion without a terminating condition or anavastha dosha). Or if you argue that prakriti is a causeless cause, he says that won’t work as well, as there is no udāhārana of a causeless cause.


अजाद्वै जायते यस्य दृष्टान्तस्तस्य नास्ति वै ।
जाताच्च जायामानस्य न व्यवस्था प्रसज्यते ॥ १३ ॥

There is no illustration to support the view of him who says that the effect is born from the unborn cause. Again, if it be said that the effect is produced from a cause which is itself born then it leads to a regressus ad infinitum.

Was Buddhism a social reformation of Hinduism?

Hinduism and Buddhism by Ananda CoomaraswamyThere is an academic notion that Buddha was not just a religious teacher, but a social critic and a revolutionary social theorist. He is also considered a social reformer who challenged the Brahmin orthodoxy. Buddha also reacted against the social structure made up of the four castes, which denied individual autonomy and human freedom.
This narrative fits well with the notion of a linear process where a new system differentiates from an existing system. It is similar to how Martin Luther reformed the ritualistic Catholicism and how Christianity came out of Judaism. But was Buddhism a social reformation of Hinduism?
According to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, it was not. In his book, Hinduism and Buddhism, he writes that the distinction can be found only by people who study Buddhism superficially. A student with deep knowledge will not. According to him, there is nothing he could find which could be called as social reform or a protest against the caste system. Instead, AKC says  Buddha can be called a reformer because he had discovered the ancient ways of the awakened. The Buddha also praised the Brahmins who remembered the old path of the contemplatives that led to Brahma.
Both the Upanishads and Buddhist doctrines were born in the forest where they continued with purity. As time passed, the Brahmins moved to the courts and got corrupted by power, grandeur, and rituals. They became Brahmins by birth as opposed to those who knew Brahma.
The intention of both sets of doctrines was to restore the truths that were known before. The problem is that people admire Buddhism for what it is not and what scholars think Buddha should have said.
At the same time, there is selective suppression of what Buddha said. In lectures by American Buddhists, there is rarely a mention of reincarnation or supernatural powers. The talks mostly revolve around contemplative practices. These techniques are popular in the Western world; in a recent podcast, may high achievers admitted to following the practice.  It is lucrative to remove “otherworldly mumbo-jumbo” from Buddhism and sell it as “mindfulness”. This does not mean that the Buddha did not advocate mindfulness. For him, it was not something you carried in your pocket and used occasionally. Mindfulness was part of life and he warned against doing things absent-mindedly. Buddha believed in reincarnation too. Siddhartha Gautama was seventh in a series of prophetic incarnations.
When it comes to the discussion of the Self, there is little distinction to be found between the two traditions (“for those who have attained, there is naught dearer than the self”, “the Self is the lord of the self and its goal”, says the Buddha). Both traditions are experiential and understanding the concepts logically was insufficient. The goal was to transcend the senses and experience the Self. Like in the Upanishads, the goal of an Arhat is brahma-bhutena-atmana or “with the self that is Brahma-become”. The question which leads to that answer is quite familiar: By which self (kena-atmana) does one attain the Brahma world? Take a look at the first line of Kena Upanishad and see what it says. Buddha also discovered early on that what is now known as cogito ergo sum is delusional and proposed anatmya or the non-existence of permanent ego.
The concept of Brahman is achieved by a process of elimination. No one can define what Brahman is; it is defined by saying neti neti (not this, not this). In Buddhist tradition, the physical and mental factors are analyzed, perceived and observed. Finally, the observer separates from the thoughts and feelings and says, “That is not my self”. In the Upanishad tradition, we know our senses say what the reality is. Finally, we transcend that reality and reach a state where we perceive other states of existence. The Autobiography of a Yogi and Sri M’s book details various experiences that a spiritual person passes through.
Another imagery that is common in both traditions is that of the chariot and charioteer. Through various techniques, both traditions help us understand the Self and what the Self is not. In both traditions, we are not wanderers guided by events like a ship in a storm, but beings capable of knowing the Self and experiencing it.