Was Shankara a crypto-Buddhist?

Was Shankara a crypto-Buddhist?

Was Shankara a crypto-Buddhist?

It has been recorded that Adi Shankara was vilified for his Advaita ideology by the Hindus of his time. He was labelled a crypto-Buddhist. I would like to compare and contrast Shankara’s Advaita with Buddhism, focusing on Nagarjuna’s Mahayana for the latter, and investigate the notion of Adi Shankara being a crypto-Buddhist.
Adi Shankara is the Indian philosopher most commonly associated with the teachings of Advaita, one of the three orthodox schools of thought in Hindu philosophy. Many of his works build upon the ideas of the Upanishads, a collection of important literature in Hinduism. There is uncertainty as to when he was actually alive, but many scholars point to the early portion of the eighth century as the time when Adi Shankara was alive. By this time, Buddhism was already thriving, with Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism already establishing schools in India. Shankara was exposed to an education in religious teachings from an early age, by his teacher Govinda, who was in turn supposed to have been taught by Gaudapada [1], the author of the Karikas, a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad.

Herein, we get our first connection between Shankara’s Advaita and Nagarjuna’s Buddhism; albeit an indirect one. Many of the critiques of the Upanishad in the Karikas are influenced by Nagarjuna’s own methodology and imagery. One example of Gaudapada borrowing from Nagarjuna is the distinction between two orders of truth; ‘paramartha satya’ and ‘samvritti satya’. The concept of maya, which is quintessential to Advaita, is also borrowed from Mahayana. Another very important concept is introduced here; ‘ajativada’ or the concept of non-origination. While not exactly the same as Nagarjuna’s concept of dependent origination, this is also one of the many elements of Advaita that separate it from the other two orthodox schools of Hindu thought; Visistadvaita and Dvaita. ‘Ajativada’ is an important concept in Shankara’s Advaita, and it posits that reality is non-dual, and that nothing truly exists but Brahman. This is the concept that separates Advaita from the other orthodox schools of thought, and it leans closer to Buddhist teachings than it does to Vedantic practices of that time.

Let us first examine the main similarity between Advaita and Mahayana, the rejection of duality. From Shankara’s point of view, Brahman is an entity without any qualities or essences. The world of phenomena as we experience is enshrouded by maya, and thus the idea of duality, or separateness from Brahman is erroneous. In essence, Shankara argues that there is no distinction between subject and object, wherein the former is Atman and the latter is Brahman. For Shankara, we achieve moksha, or liberation (nirvana to most Buddhists) when we realise this non-duality. Shankara demonstrates the concept of maya with his example of the rope and the snake. In a gist, a rope may appear like a snake to an unaware man, which would then cause him anxiety and fear. Upon closer inspection, the rope is revealed in its true form to the scared viewer. This example how a false awareness of reality is immediately dissipated into true consciousness upon attaining knowledge. This means that true knowledge is the knowledge that there is no difference between Atman and Brahman, and knowing this immediately invokes bliss, or satchinananda.

On the other hand, Buddha completely rejects the notion of Atman and Brahman. Instead of a duality, we are shown a concept of emptiness, or sunyata, a concept developed by Nagarjuna. In his book, Mulamadhyamakakarika, he strives to show that there is no substantiality in the perceived world of phenomena. Nagarjuna claims that all things are devoid of substance, or svabhava. In this case, substance is seen defined as a long term or permanent essence. While this may seem irrelevant to Advaita, one may also infer from such a teaching that the observable world is itself an illusion, obscuring us from the truth of sunyata. Both Shankara and Nagarjuna are convinced that there is no distinction between our world and the ultimate truth; one believes that the ultimate truth is a higher reality called Brahman, the other believes that the ultimate truth is emptiness, a quality that is itself empty. This brings to another similarity; nirguna Brahman.

While I have already mentioned that Buddhism rejects the notion of Brahman, it is curious that Brahman is quite differently defined in Shankara’s Advaita. To Shankara, Brahman is nirguna; that is, Brahman is without qualities, or, without essences, if you will. The mainstream definition of Brahman is otherwise saguna Brahman, or qualified Brahman. This is not to say that Shankara rejects saguna Brahman, but he argues that nirguna Brahman is a higher reality than saguna Brahman, by means of sublation. To Shankara, reality has a transitive hierarchy, whereby a higher level of reality sublates a lower level of reality. On this ladder of reality, unqualified Brahman sublates qualified Brahman. In other words, Shankara defines the ultimate reality as unqualified Brahman, which is not very different from Nagarjuna’s sunyata. Both are without essences, only Shankara is more forgiving of the idea of a qualified Brahman. So although the terminology may be different, both philosophers have really agreed on a common idea, that the ultimate reality is without qualities, essences or guna. To Nagarjuna and many Buddhists, this was emptiness. To Shankara, this was everything. Despite being diametrically opposed to each other on the surface, they are essentially describing the same thing. This is the fundamental reason for allegations of Shankara being a crypto-Buddhist.

To further illustrate how similar both ideas are, one can further compare Advaita with Visistadvaita and Dvaita. I have taken the liberty to demonstrate the main similarities and differences in a table:

Mahayana Advaita Visistadvaita Dvaita
No duality No duality Duality Duality
Reality without svabhava Reality without qualities Reality with qualities Reality with qualities
No Brahman Nirguna Brahman Saguna Brahman Saguna Brahman
No Atman Atman = Brahman Atman = Brahman Atman ≠ Brahman

In the first two rows, it’s easy to see that Advaita has more in common with Mahayana than it does with Visistadvaita and Dvaita. Differences occur with the concept of Brahman and Atman, not just between Advaita and Mahayana, but also between Advaita and the other two orthodox schools of Hindu thought. However this stems from the Buddha’s rejection of Atman and Brahman, so discounting those two concepts (or just one, if you are an Advaitin), Advaita really has more in common with Buddhism. Moreover, the absence of duality is the main focus of both religious philosophies. I would argue that the difference, of no Brahman versus the idea of nirguna Brahman, is a problem of perspective rather than philosophical difference. In Nagarjuna’s case, reality is empty and unqualifiable. However, Shankara has tried to view reality objectively; from an outside perspective, and has chosen to see it as one whole rather than one void of emptiness [2]. This is like the classic example of whether one sees the glass as half-full or half empty. In this case, the Mahayanists see a glass that is empty, Shankara sees the glass itself. This also conflates the second difference in relation to Atman with Brahman, where to Nagarjuna there is nothing, while to Shankara it is the same thing.

Now, this isn’t to say that Shankara himself agrees with the allegations of himself being a crypto-Buddhist. Shankara has, in fact, had his own critiques of Buddhism. For one, Shankara is adamant about the existence of Atman, for which he cites the Upanishads. This is a difference between the two whole religions, as illustrated above. Specifically against the Mahayanists, he also argues that the entire world cannot be contradicted except by a principle or content of consciousness which is qualitatively different from it.[3] To further complicate things, Nagarjuna has refused to give a concrete idea of what he sees in the metaphysical nature of the world, in part because he adheres to the Buddha’s silence. His only stance is that such views, answerable or not, do no matter in the grand scheme of things, because a person may attain nirvana without support from such a philosophy.

Yet, the two philosophies are identical in essence to non-dualism, to the point that differences are a matter of linguistic discrepancies and minor variations in ideology. The end of the line is the same for Shankara and Nagarjuna, and despite the differences, Advaita is heavily influenced by Mahayana. As such, I would agree that Shankara was, in fact, a crypto-Buddhist, although I would not go so far as to say that Advaita and Mahayana Buddhism are the same thing.

[1] Deutsch, Dalvi (2004) The Essential Vedanta, Chapter 7
[2] Loy, (1982) Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Are Nirvana and Moksha the Same?
[3] Deutsch, Dalvi (2004) The Essential Vedanta, Chapter 6

I wrote this for my GEK2027 module last semester. Got a B, wasn’t very satisfied with the grade, but the philosophy students in my class were light years ahead of me and I hadn’t written en essay in quite a while. Still, one of my favourite modules in school, even if I felt that it wasn’t as religious as I expected.

Narrative in Economics

Narrative in Economics

“The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists,” British economist Joan Robinson once piquantly remarked [1]. She isn’t very far from the truth; a running joke among economists is that for every theory posited by one, there is an economist with the exact opposite argument. This is the implication of economists making normative statements; ones with personal value judgement [2], when developing theories to make sense of raw data. Economists tell a story with graph. Narratives are subtly used to invoke a claim, so that an economist can present his theoretical hypothesis. The two are inexorably intertwined, and in this paper I will show how narrative techniques are employed by economists to make their argument.

Firstly, there is a structure within most economic theories that resemble a narrative [3]. A narrative has the following elements; characters, event, plot and conflict [4]. Economists are in a sense like poets, using graphs as metaphors for events that take place in an economy and succinctly representing that in a pictorial form. Language here can be mathematical or graphical, but the intuition is always communicated via narrative. An economist has to establish his characters (be it a country, company or an individual), events (exogenous or endogenous shocks to an economy), plot (the sequence of events and consequentiality) and conflict (misallocation of resources). It’s hard to find any economic theory without the above elements, and these are structurally ingrained in economists when they try to form a rhetorical argument as to why their theory is correct [5].

The characters in an economic theory or story are very clearly stated, even if personal names are not given. For example, take the concept of asymmetric information, where one party has more information than the other in a transaction [6]. The conflict has also been called the principal-agent problem, easily setting up both the protagonist and antagonist for an event. The principal is the director or CEO of a company, and the agent is one of the executives in the company. Since the principal is not always around to monitor his business, the agent has incentive to cheat, or misuse funds. For example, in the early days, when a merchant sends his assistant to a different village, he has no way to confirm if the assistant is being honest or pocketing the profits himself. This way, the assistant has more information than the merchant, since he is physically present with the funds and the goods, while the merchant in still at their home village. In this narrative, the protagonist is the principal, and the dishonest agent is the antagonist. These characters have motivations, usually to maximize profit, and face conflict when profits are hindered.

Events take place in economic theories all the time.  The ‘events’ can be endogenous changes, meaning that they usually happen as a direct consequence of the character’s actions in an economic model [7]. An endogenous change could arise from the fact that a goods seller chooses to increase his price of goods because there is a great demand for his goods. This is often demarcated by a movement of a point along the supply curve in a demand-supply curve. On the other hand, an exogenous change is a change that arises from variables that are not in the model. For instance, in a demand-supply graph for the price of labour (worker’s wages), an unexpected change in oil prices, or shocks, could indirectly increase the cost of operations for a company, and force them to suppress wages. This is shown with a shift of the whole supply curve to the left in the demand-supply graph (see appendix 1). Thus, the events have a temporal and consequential flow, like a plot.

If one were to use the three-constituent plot structure as a point of reference, the events in an economic theory usually have a rising action and a falling action, sometimes quite literally on the graph. Denouement, or the end point, in all economics narratives is usually a state of equilibrium [8]. On a demand supply graph, a state of equilibrium is reached only after price and quantity have adjusted to the shocks or other events. In a very minimal plot, there is a rising action (a shift of the curve upwards due to a negative oil price shock), a conflict or climax (the state of non-equilibrium from having a misallocation of resources, since the price of wages have not adjusted for this change in price of oil) and a falling action (when the price of wages fall to accommodate this change in oil prices). Each event leads logically to the next, until it reaches the equilibrium, or when the economy reaches a stable allocation of resources. In a macro-economy, equilibrium can be reflected as peace and stability, perhaps after the country has survived economic turmoil either because of a natural disaster or political incompetence. The equilibrium is the idealistic ending of a theory as in a narrative. Economists are never happy without the closure of an equilibrium, and all theories are plotted towards the equilibrium.

While the misallocation is often a source of conflict in economics, there is another source of conflict that is more concerned with micro-economic agents; uncertainty, which deals with the fact that we can never be sure of the probability of an event occurring. An economic concept that deals with uncertainty is game theory, whereby a rational individual has to make a choice between all known possible outcomes [9]. In this framework, an individual maps out all his possible actions; all his possible endings (see appendix 2). When he chooses one action, he has to completely forgo the other possible actions and hence the other possible outcomes (opportunity cost). The motivation of the character is his happiness, or as economists like to say, utility. Models assume that human beings are rational creatures that try to maximize their utility, and this resembles the basic motivations of most characters in a narrative. Utility hence becomes a measurement of how much an individual is willing to pay, or forsake, for his goal [10], and this can be interpreted as a plot device for this individual’s story. An individual calculates the risks that any action of his will bring, makes his decision, and advances the plot, hoping to reach his stable equilibrium in the end.

Who, then, narrates the story for an economic theory? The economist, as the author of his theory, assumes the role of a third person narrator, because he speaks from outside the setting in his story, telling us the characters’ motivations via exposition through economic language (utility, profits), and showing us how a series of events leads to an outcome that prove his theory or framework right. There have been multiple occurrences of economists using narratives to make their theories more compelling, the most famous (or infamous) being Karl Marx, who turns his communist theory into a rhetoric tale in The Communist Manifesto [11]. In this tale, the setting is clearly established (the post-industrial dystopia of Europe). The characters are the bourgeoisie (owners of capital, the antagonists) and the proletariat (the labourers, the oppressed, and the protagonists). Marx clearly sympathizes with the labourers, and outlines a series of events that will lead to the disintegration of the two classes: the bourgeoisie suppress wages until they cannot be suppressed => the proletariat are forced to overthrow the bourgeoisie because of the unliveable financial conditions => there are no longer any bourgeoisie and everyone lives as individuals of an equal class. Each event leads consequentially to the other, and Marx addresses the reader (he passed this manifesto as a flyer to people on the streets) in second person, imperatively telling him to rise against the oppressor, inspiring him with the promise of a free tomorrow (denouement). The theory, thus becomes a vehicle of communication between the economist and the audience. We now know of course, that the concept could not reach an equilibrium, and that the theory failed in practice, even drawing the ire of author George Orwell in Animal Farm, but this illustration shows the rhetoric nature of economic theories, as opposed to rules set in stone.


Therefore, I am certain that narrative is a huge component of economic principles. I have clearly outlined how an economic theory is structured like a narrative, and how it incorporates the same elements such as characters, settings, events, plots and endings to tell a story. The purpose of this story is to show how an economist’s theory is executed, and the ending is always a point of equilibrium. This brings us back to the beginning on why economists are always arguing. They are in essence, challenging the endings, or equilibrium, because they have a different narrative. Different economists, have different notions of equilibriums in mind because they have different settings [12]. Maybe their models accounts for an exogenous shock that the former economist failed to see, because his setting was limited. All economists tell stories with their graphs, some go further and tell it through literal narrations to make their arguments more compelling. The human element has always been ingrained in the science of economics, despite the rigidity of mathematical laws in calculations, and as long as there is a human element, there will always be a narrative element.


  1. An exogenous shift in supply curve on demand-supply graph.


2. An example of a game theory tree that maps out an individual’s actions



  1. Joan Robinson, “Contributions to Modern Economics”, Academic Press, 1978
  2. Paul A. Samuelson & William D. Nordhaus. “Economics (18th Ed)”,  Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 2004
  3. Ferdinand de Saussure, “Courses in General Linguistics”, Duckworth, 1983
  4. Seymour Chatman, “Story and Discourse”, Cornell University Press. 1978
  5. Donald N. McCloskey, “The Rhetoric of Economics”, American Economic Association, 1983
  6. Steven N. Durlauf, “ The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (2nd Ed)”, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008
  7. Jeffrey M. Wooldridge, “Introductory Econometrics (5th Ed)”, South-Western College Publications, 2012
  8. Donald N. McCloskey, “If You’re So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise”, The University of Chicago Press, 1990
  9. Roger B. Myerson, “Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict”, Harvard University Press, 1991
  10. Alfred Marshall, “Principles of Economics. An introductory volume (8th ed.)”, Macmillan, 1920
  11. Karl Marx, Selected Writings, EBSCO Publishing, 1994
  12. McCloskey, “If You’re So Smart”, 1990



I wrote this paper for my GEK1049 Narrative module. Posting it here on the suggestion of a friend who read it. Got an A, a bit higher than what I thought I’d get. It’s dry, and felt weird for me to write since it’s effectively talking about how fictional my major is. Three years devoted to fiction. Ha.