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4. Shankara and Buddhism
Sometimes Shankara's advaita-vedanta commentary is presented in books about Hinduism as if it were the original and only vedanta philosophy. But in fact Shankara's philosophy is more akin to Buddhism than vedanta. Buddhism is a nastika, or non-Vedic, religion. Before 600 AD, the time of Shankara's appearance, most Vedantist scholars did not endorse a doctrine of impersonalism. Evidence gathered from the writings of pre-Shankara Buddhist scholars shows that their Vedantist contemporaries were Purusa-vadins (purusa = "person", vadin = "philosopher"). Purusavadins taught that the goal of Vedanta philosophy is the Mahapurusa (Greatest Person). Bhavya, an Indian Buddhist author who lived centuries before Shankara, wrote in the Madhyamika-hrdaya-karika that the Vedantists of his time were adherents of the doctrine of bhedabheda (difference and nondifference). That Shankara borrowed Buddhistic ideas was noted by the Buddhists themselves. A Buddhist writer named Bhartrhari, a contemporary of Shankara, expressed some surprise that although Shankara was a brahmana scholar of the Vedas, his impersonal teachings resembled Buddhism. This is admitted by the followers of Shankara themselves. Pandit Dr. Rajmani Tigunait of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga is a present-day exponent of advaita-vedanta; in his book, Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy, he writes that the ideas of the Buddhist Sunyavada (voidist) philosophers are very close to Shankara's. Shankara inserted into Vedantic discourse the Buddhistic idea of ultimate emptiness, substituting the Upanisadic word brahman ("the Absolute") for sunya ("the void"). Because Shankara argued that all names, forms, qualities, activities and relationships are creations of maya (illusion), even divine names and forms, his philosophy is called mayavada (the doctrine of illusion).
However, to compare Brahman with the void is philosophically untenable. The Vedanta-sutra defines Brahman, not Maya, as the cause of everything (janmadyasya-yatah, Vedanta-sutra 1.1.2). How can that which lacks name, form, quality, and activity be the cause of that which possesses these features? Nil posse creari de nilo: "Nothing can be created out of nothing." Mayavadi vedanta avoids the issue of causation by arguing that the world, though empirically real, is ultimately a dream. But dreams also have elaborate causes.