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.


2 thoughts on “Was Shankara a crypto-Buddhist?

    1. Hi Kevin, there are no notes for this module. No slides, the professor just writes on the board. All the readings have to be manually photocopied from the library and I have no idea where my mine have gone.


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