Not Gaudapada, but Buddha!

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Mon Feb 9 12:01:14 CST 1998

> I'm confused here! I thought the middle path referred to a path neither
> materialistic nor ascetic. I wasn't aware of it having any significance with
> respect to the definition of the divine.

To the two positions, "everything exists" and "nothing exists" - the
middle path refuses to endorse either side. This has far greater
philosophical implications than a simple materialistic vs. ascetic way of
life. And contrary to the quoted statement, an ascetic path is very, very
important in Buddhism. Far from being neither materialist nor ascetic,
Buddhism gives top priority to asceticism, and regulates the life of the
laity accordingly.

The modern attempt, and a peculiarly Indian attempt, at describing
Buddhism as a socialist/anti-casteist philosophy does not do much justice
to the spiritual side of Buddhism, which is its most important feature.

> But can the environs in the Bharath during Shankara's time and the purpose
> of his mission be ignored, when referring to his statements? And is there
> any argument that Shankara was actively propogating Advaitam at the cost of
> other schools of thought? Vivekachoodamani, for example, positively refutes
> the other five schools of Hindu philosophy. And one can't but be aware that
> in all his texts there's hardly a mention of Buddhism, which was the
> predominant school of thought at that time.

??? Sankara's bhAshyas are full of arguments against sautrAntika,
vijnAnavAda and madhyamaka schools of Buddhism. It is not as if there is
hardly a mention of Buddhism in his texts. Texts like vivekacUDAmaNi are
addressed to a predominantly Brahminical audience, so it is no surprise
that Buddhist thought is not paid much attention.

> Quite right. But if there's even some doubt that Gaudapada was referring to
> the Buddha, this question begs an answer!

Not really. That there is no tradition about it *is* the answer. The
situation is that not even the rival vedAnta schools, which describe
advaita as "Buddhism in disguise" - pracanna bauddham, not even these
schools say that gauDapAda explicitly salutes the Buddha. madhva does
not say so, vedAnta deSika does not say so, vijnAnabhikshu does not say
so. (Contrary to popular myth, rAmAnuja does not say that advaitam is
pracanna bauddham.) This is largely a supposition begun by Vidhusekhara
Bhattacarya and BNK Sharma, in the early 20th century, which later authors
cite or repeat as their own. There are many myths created by modern
historians, but the vedAnta traditions are in no way affected by them.

> By Buddhism, I refer only to Indian variety. The religion seems to have
> undergone remarkable transformation in other lands where it was spread -

What *is* the Indian variety of Buddhism, now or in centuries past? There
are the neo-Buddhists, followers of Ambedkar, who are very new to
Buddhism, as their name implies. In Ladakh and in north-east India, the
Buddhism is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. The theravAda, which
is historically the oldest, is more or less extinct, and survives in Sri
Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar.

Buddhism also underwent remarkable transformation in India itself, before
and during its transmission to other lands. Except for Zen, all schools of
Buddhist thought had their original propounders in India. And even in Zen,
they cite Bodhidharma, a south Indian, as a big authority.

Finally, if we postulate that Bharat refers to the ancient world where
Hindu civilization held sway, can we legitimately leave Sri Lanka,
Thailand and Myanmar out of it? Only if we do so, can we talk of them as
being "other lands". And in that case, ancient Bharat will again become
more or less confined to the Indian subcontinent, perhaps including Nepal,
Pakistan and Bangladesh in its geographical conception. We will have to
leave out Afghanistan, Iran and places further to the west, as these
were not part of Bharat in the Buddha's time (~ 500 CE), whatever their
connections to Bharat may have been in 3000 BCE.

> some developments which seem to be in direct contradiction to the original
> teachings of the compassionate one. And it seems unreasonable that one can
> get a correct grasp of Buddhist history and philosophy without understanding
> the Vedic way. When the Upanishads say that the Brahman defies description,
> can the Buddha's silence about God be interpreted in any other way?

The Buddha was not silent *only* about God. He was also silent about the
existence of the individual self. Most of his followers interpreted this
to mean that it did not exist, and anattA (anAtmatA) became a big
principle in Buddhist thought. This, and the principle of momentariness
guided Buddhism for many centuries, and continue to do so. And here, the
Upanishads follow a completely different track.

> The fact
> that it was, by his later followers, again considering the environs during
> that time, seems to be a deliberate anti-Vedic and anti-Brahmin stance. And
> I remember you, Vidya, saying sometime back that if the Buddhists hadn't
> been so anti-Vedic, the Buddha's teachings would've been amalgamated with
> the Vedic scriptures. This also seems to be the reason, Shankara and other
> Vedic philosophers were anti Buddhist.

The early anti-Vedic and anti-Brahmin stance of the Buddhists was a
deliberate reaction to the ritualism that permeated Vedic religion. And
Sankara himself rejects the ritualistic philosophy as a means to ultimate
liberation. Whereas the pUrva mImAmsakas chastize the Buddhists and the
Jains primarily for their rejection of the Vedas, Sankara makes the effort
to address Buddhists on *philosophical* grounds. He does not dismiss them
as being merely anti-Vedic, and unworthy of response.

There is more to Sankara's argument against Buddhist thought than a mere
attitudinal problem, caused due to historical accident.

> >Those of us who do so, end up being neither here nor there, and may
> >eventually end up creating a third tradition, which tries to combine both.
> As long as it's the truth, does it matter whether it's Advaitam or Buddhism?

It does, for the sake of the integrity of both traditions. A sincere study
of both would reveal that there are irreconcilable differences, which
cannot simply be wished away. Yes, there are similarities, and points of
agreement too, but these are not the only important features of each
strand of thought.

In any case, if the philosophical truth of either Buddhism or advaita or
both is a universal truth, there is not much point in describing the
Buddha as a Bharatiya philosopher, is there? Such a description only
assumes significance in light of describing Sankara as a Bharatiya
philosopher, and advaita as a Bharatiya philosophy. Why does this
particular (Bharat) suddenly assume significance, if our concern is the

Finally, I am not simply being argumentative here. There are two separate
issues involved. One is that of historical relations between Brahmanism
and Buddhism, a subset of which is whether gauDapAda is saluting the
Buddha and whether the Buddha is the first Advaita teacher. As far as this
question is concerned, let us get our chronology, sources of history and
traditional accounts straight, before we make any assumptions.

The second issue, as I see it, is a modern, primarily political, issue of
acknowledging/appropriating the Buddha. There is a vague, underlying
feeling that somehow India did not appreciate the Buddha in the long run,
and that this must be remedied now. You may not have intended it in
political terms, but there are political consequences nonetheless. It does
not matter whether the Buddha was a Bharatiya teacher or not. At the very
least, affirming that the Buddha was a great Bharatiya philosopher should
not be based on the false premise that what he taught was nothing but
Advaita, or the second false premise that his silence was only about the
existence of God, or the third false premise that the middle path is more
about an ascetic/non-ascetic way of life than about fundamental
philosophical thought, or the fourth false premise that his *original*
teaching was somehow changed totally out of character in later centuries.
Yes, there must have been definitely some changes, but nowhere has the
core of his teaching been changed/lost by his followers. And it is in that
core that the philosophical disagreements of Buddhist thought with
upanishadic thought and advaita vedAnta lie. To ignore this would be quite


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