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gauDapAda is the first historically known author in the advaita vedAnta tradition, whose work is still available to us. He may be said to be the pioneer of the ajAti vAda school in advaita vedAnta. gauDapAda is traditionally said to have been the guru of govinda bhagavatpAda, who was the guru of SankarAcArya. Not much is known about gauDapAda, the person. The name gauDa indicates that he was a north Indian by birth, and many places, from Kashmir to Bengal, have been postulated as his home. The sArasvata brAhmaNas of Goa and northern (coastal) Karnataka, who are said to have immigrated from north India, trace the lineage of the Kavale maTha to gauDapAda, but not through SankarAcArya. However, one branch of the sArasvata brAhmaNa community is affiliated to the citrapura maTha, the lineage of which is traced through SankarAcArya, while yet other (gauDa) sArasvata groups are followers of the dvaita school.

gauDapAda composed the gauDapAdIya kArikAs (GK), which constitute an expository text on the mANDUkya upanishad. The GK is divided into four books (prakaraNas), titled Agama-prakaraNa, vaitathya-prakaraNa, advaita-prakaraNa and alAtaSAnti-prakaraNa respectively. The kArikAs of the first book are traditionally found interspersed with the prose passages of the mANDUkya upanishad, while the other three books are separated from the body of the upanishad. Other works that are attributed to gauDapAda are: sAm.khyakArikA bhAshya, uttaragItA bhAshya, nRsimhottaratApanI upanishad bhAshya, and a couple of works on SrIvidyA upAsanA - subhAgodaya and SrIvidyAratnasUtra.

There is a lot of controversy in modern critical scholarship about the identity and the philosophy of the author(s) of the GK. Thus, there is one opinion that each book is probably written by a different author. And there is another opinion that all books are written by the same author. [1] One author traces connections between gauDapAda's kArikAs and the later pratyabhijnA school of Kashmir Saivism. [2] From the various vedAnta schools comes another kind of controversy. According to the advaita school, all four prakaraNas are writings of a human author named gauDapAda, and are therefore not regarded as Sruti, even though the first prakaraNa is found interspersed with the sentences of the mANDUkya upanishad. According to the dvaita school, however, 27 kArikAs of the first prakaraNa are not compositions of a human author, and are therefore as much Sruti as the prose passages of the mANDUkya upanishad.

The most notorious controversy about the GK is about the influence of mahAyAna buddhism on its author. Curiously enough, even those rival vedAnta schools which criticize advaita as pracanna-bauddham (buddhism in disguise) do not quote the GK to substantiate their criticism. However, among modern scholars who are interested in studying Eastern philosophies such as advaita vedAnta and mahAyAna buddhism, this has been a hot topic for debate. [3]

It is clear that the GK has been written in the context of a vedAntic dialogue with various schools of mahAyAna buddhism, more prominently the yogAcAra and madhyamaka schools. GK IV (alAtaSAnti prakaraNa) refers to the mahAyAna school of buddhism as agrAyana. Moreover, the very metaphor of the alAtacakra is a peculiarly buddhist one. The alAtacakra is a burning firebrand that is waved in a circle, creating an impression of a continuous circle of fire. It is interesting to note here that gauDapAda characteristically inverts the use of the buddhist metaphor. The buddhist uses the metaphor to insist that the impression of a continuous circle is an illusion, there being nothing more than the momentary spatial positions of the burning brand. Hence, from the buddhist prespective, it is plainly an error to see the burning circle as having any svabhAva - "own-nature". gauDapAda on the other hand points out that the burning brand is itself the substratum of its momentary spatial positions and the illusion of a burning circle caused by waving the brand. Hence, according to him, even if the burning circle is an illusion, its svabhAva is nothing other than that of the burning brand.

Seen in context, the entire discussion in the GK seems to be a continuation of the age-old svabhAva vs. nihsvabhAvatA and Atman vs. nairAtmya debates between vedAntic and buddhist schools. According to Sankara's commentary on these kArikAs, gauDapAda uses buddhist metaphor and buddhist terminology to come to vedAntic conclusions regarding the ultimate existence of the Atman = brahman as the substratum (adhishThAna) of all experience. That he speaks the buddhist language does not mean that he is a buddhist in disguise. Moreover, it is not very surprising that gauDapAda, a vedAntin, is very familiar with buddhist doctrine. Tradition recounts that the famous pUrva-mImAm.saka, kumArila bhaTTa, learnt from bauddha and jaina teachers, with a view to understanding their schools before he wrote his own works on mImAm.sA. Besides, by its very nature, classical Indian philosophical writing proceeds by means of demarcating one's own position from that of another's, pointing out where they are similar and on what issues they differ. An intimate knowledge of the other's philosophical system is necessary for such refutation to take place.

The contention of some modern scholars that gauDapAda's philosophy is nothing more than buddhism clothed in vedAntic colors is based on two errors, that do not do justice to either mahAyAna buddhism or to advaita vedAnta.

It is also important to remember that the development of both mahAyAna buddhism and vedAnta took place more or less simultaneously, and within the same larger geographical area. It would be foolhardy to expect that there would not have been some interaction between the two most powerful streams (brAhmaNa and bauddha) of Indian philosophical thought. It is clear from the history of Indian philosophical thought that both brAhmaNa and bauddha sides held steadfastly to their basic axioms, although the individual systems within each stream held diverse opinions on various philosophical issues. On the whole, it seems as if reading too much mahAyAna buddhism into the GK is jumping to conclusions. This is not a chauvinistic defense of advaita vedAnta with respect to buddhism. I only want to point out that there are many subtle points which make the two systems very different, although both systems describe Reality as being beyond name and form. It would be well to remember that the converse criticism, i.e. that mahAyAna buddhism is but vedAnta clothed in buddhist colors, has been addressed by as early a buddhist writer as bhAvaviveka (6th century CE).


Last updated on May 5, 1999.

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