Advaita Vedanta and Sunyavada Siddhantha Buddhism

Advaita and Sunyavada

by Jayaram V

This is a comparative analysis of the Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism and the Sunyavada Siddhantha (emptiness theory) of Buddhism

Both Advaita Vedanta and Sunyavada Siddhantha acknowledge the existence of primal, indistinguishable reality behind the apparent diversity which the mind and the senses perceive. The question on which they primarily differ is whether such reality is nothing or everything. Jayaram V


The Buddha is regarded in Hinduism as an incarnation of Vishnu. The relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism has been a kind of love hate. At one time, there was an intense rivalry between the two. Buddhism challenged the Vedic notions of Self and creator God, while Hinduism, (especially Shaivism and Vaishnavism), offered a simpler solution to the masses to work for their liberation through devotional service to their personal gods rather than through renunciation and the hardships of a monk’s life.

It appears that despite a great resistance from the Hindu orthodoxy, the Buddha earned a place of respect and reverence in Hinduism by the sheer merit of his teachings. Unable to overcome his personal appeal and the relevance of his rational and practical philosophy to resolve human suffering, Hindu scholars grudgingly admitted him into Hindu pantheon and elevated him to the status of a deity. It happened about a thousand years after his birth, and during the interlude Hinduism itself underwent tremendous transformation.

The Buddha from the Vedic perspective

Beneath such superficial and pretentious comradery, one cannot help noticing the negative attitude of ancient Vedic scholars towards the Buddha. They invented a whole lot of Puranic mythology to explain why Buddhism was neither superior nor ideal for liberation. Many Shaiva and Vaishnava Puranas suggested that God incarnated upon earth as the Buddha to delude evil people (Asuras) with his radical, perverted, and atheistic teachings to prepare them for their final destruction. They followed the same strategy with regard to Jainism and other doctrines that posed a challenge to their faith. Overall, it was a clever strategy to integrate a rival faith and subordinate it, without compromising their own.

The Chandogya Upanishad illustrates the point. It contains a story about Vairochana, the leader of the demons, and Indra, the leader of the gods. It states that they both once went to Brahma with a request to admit them as his students and teach them about the nature of the Self. Brahma did not teach them everything at once. First he made them wait for long. Then, he began his instruction with a statement that the body was the Self. Satisfied with that simple teaching, Vairochana went away and taught the demons that there was no Self other than the body. From then on they went by that philosophy and ruined themselves, wallowing in ignorance and delusion. In contrast, Indra was not satisfied with that answer. He kept learning and spent thousands of years (actually a few months in the life a god) in the pursuit, until Brahma taught him that he was neither the mind nor the body, but the eternal Self.  With that knowledge, he helped the gods realize their spiritual nature and gain an upper hand.

Hidden in this ancient legend is a subtle attempt by the Upanishadic teachers to degrade the Buddha and suggest that his teachings were meant for demonic and evil people. To those who do not understand the symbolism, here is the explanation. Vairochana, who is mentioned in the story, is another name for the Buddha. Vairochana Buddha is a popular deity in Buddhism, who personifies the entire body of the teachings (dharma kaya) of Gautama Buddha. In some Chinese, Korean and Japanese schools of Buddhism, he is considered the embodiment of emptiness. As we will see later, the idea of emptiness (Sunyavada) is a problem and a challenge for the theistic Vedantin who believes in an eternal, universal Self. Therefore, in this cleverly veiled symbolic story you cannot miss the irony as well the contempt for Vairochana, or the Buddha, who represents an antithetical view.

The synthesis of Hinduism and Buddhism

Despite such polemics and petty quarrels, no one can deny the towering presence of the Buddha and the role he played in shaping the religious and cultural history of the Indian subcontinent. For the last 2500 years, the Buddha has been an integral part of the collective consciousness of India. You may like him or hate him, but you cannot ignore him. You may follow him or not, but you will feel inspired by him. He is probably the most important historical and spiritual person to be ever born from that part of the world.

Many contemplative, ethical, and spiritual practices that you learn from the contemporary spiritual masters of India have their roots in the mindfulness techniques of the Buddha and his Eightfold Path for self-transformation. The mainstream Hinduism, in its current form, owes a lot to the Buddha and his teachings. No other religion scrutinizes the human mind with such clarity, objectivity, and realism without the weight of deluding myths and spiritual balderdash as Buddhism. Hinduism, which is essentially a speculative faith with its emphasis upon transcendental reality, benefited largely from the realistic and practical approach of Buddhism with its heavy emphasis upon empirical reality.

There might have been an intense rivalry between Buddhist and Hindu scholars in the remote past, but it is almost nonexistent now. True, there are some puritanical Buddhists outside India who may argue that Buddha had little to do with Hinduism, and some overzealous Hindus who may not be happy to read that the Buddha left an indelible mark on Hindu consciousness. It is also true that Buddhism has many schools, just as Hinduism has, and some of them do not even agree with the original teachings of the Buddha himself. The same holds true for Hinduism also.

Therefore, it is no wonder that a wide range of opinions and arguments are possible with regard to the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism, and any attempt to draw a connection between them will be viewed with a mixed reaction. Those who want to do a comparative study of the two faiths may please refer to the elaborate essay written by this author a decade ago, (the link is available at the end of this essay). For a student of comparative religions, it is still a very valuable resource. In this discussion we will briefly focus upon the similarities between Advaita Vedanta and the original teachings of the Buddha, with a particular reference to Sunyavada.

Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist Sunyavada

According to Advaita Vedanta, meaning the school of nondualism, there is only one eternal reality, and it is Brahman, or the Supreme Self. He alone is real and the rest is just a formation, projection, imagination, or dream that appears on the Self like a movie on a silver screen. Whatever duality, division or diversity that you perceive in the world is a mere appearance. In reality there is no knower and the known, or subject and object. Everything is the same supreme Self, who is untouched by any of his creations, just as the movie screen is untouched by the images that appear on it. If the Self is an ocean, the worlds and beings are like the waves that appear in it due to the winds of modifications that arise in pure consciousness (chitta vatha). Creation continues as long as the Self keeps projecting it, and it disappears when the Self withdraws it into itself.

Just as your dream is unreal, creation is also unreal, although it may last longer and give you the impression of being real. Because of the impurities of Nature, beings remain deluded and ignorant of the true nature of creation and of their own existence. Due to their deluding influence, they identify themselves with their minds and bodies, rather than with the Self and become subject to duality and individuality. As they engage in desire-ridden actions, they incur karma and become bound to the cycle of births and deaths. They remain in this deluded state until they overcome their ignorance and achieve liberation. When they attain liberation, they become completely dissolved in the oceanic self. They become empty and cease to exist as beings, while the Self that projected them until then remains as the eternal reality.

The Sunyavada school agrees with Advaita with regard to the illusory nature of the worlds and beings. However, it finds nothing eternal about them. They appear in the backdrop of emptiness or nothingness. There is no single cause or cause of causes which is responsible for them. When they cease to exist, it is forever, without leaving behind any residual reality such as an eternal Self or pure consciousness. Things emerge from emptiness and disappear into emptiness like bubbles of air that float in the midair.

The school acknowledges neither God nor Self and assigns no role to them in the appearance or disappearance of the worlds and beings. Creation happens on its own due to the aggregation of things and parts. They come together to create names, and forms and duality and diversity. The whole existence is a temporary phenomenon. When it ceases to exist, nothing remains except vast, endless, indeterminate emptiness. So are all the worlds and jivas. They are mere formations or aggregates that appear as in a dream and disappear.

However, like Advaita, Sunyavada also affirms that because of desires, ignorance, and egoism, beings are subject to karma, suffering and bondage. They can achieve liberation or Nirvana by knowing the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path. Upon liberation, they cease to exist, leaving no trace whatsoever. For the school, nirvana is a state of annihilation, not self-realization, or eternal freedom. A liberated being becomes empty and enters an indeterminate state. Nothing can be said about it, whether it is or it is not, or what it is.

Liberation, the common goal and ultimate solution

Thus, we can see that both schools view liberation as a solution to human suffering through a process of unwinding, deconstructing, and transcending ignorance and delusion. If we leave aside the universal Self, both schools agree that the worlds and beings are illusions and temporary formations, that jivas do not possess eternal souls of their own, and that they are subject to duality, delusion, ignorance and bondage. Both affirm that beings are mere phenomena, who appear and disappear like waves upon a sea of existence and subside into it leaving no trace of themselves. When they achieve liberation, they cease to exist forever, leaving no trace whatsoever of their individuality or beingness.

However, they mainly differ with regard to the supreme Self. For the Advaita the Self is everything, the center and circumstance of all. It is what is and what will remain forever, untouched, undisturbed, and untainted, whereas for the Sunyavada it does not exist at all. It goes purely by what is visible and knowable, with little reliance upon speculation or scriptural authority. Advaita Vedanta goes by the transcendental reality of self-absorption, whereas Sunyavada goes by the perceptible reality of mindfulness awareness. What is one vast, indeterminate, emptiness for a Shunyavadin, is an eternal, infinite, indestructible Supreme Self of pure consciousness for the follower of Advaita. Some say that Adi Shankara was influenced by the teachings of Acharya Nagarjuna, a great proponent of the Buddhist Sunyavada. However, we have no historical evidence.

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