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Skin In The Game I

Skin In The Game I

Sadnanth: Eh in that Joe Rogan interview, Peterson basically equates religion to aesthetics in a broader sense of the word, which i’m still not sure is reconcilable with the rest of religion itself.

Sadnanth: Ok nvm he answers it later.

Depressshiva: I think he makes a very strong case for the aesthetic and religious connection. For example the reason comic books have not taken off as strongly in India is because of the local folklore or stories that we have on Ramayan or Mahabharat. It maybe even be argued that we need flights of fancy rather than being purely factual.

Sadnanth: But the issue I have with that is again that all religions make certain truth claims without providing evidence for those claims. And while viewing it all as aesthetics is nice, aesthetics by definition is subjective, it’s an appreciation of beauty, not a factual statement about the world. Not saying it doesn’t have its place, just saying that it doesn’t really address any of the issues i have with religion satisfactorily, haha.

Depresshiva: Tell me one non subjective truth claim that Eastern religions make Sadnanth?

Sadnanth: Reincarnation, that enlightenment is a thing, karma.

Depresshiva: Six schools of thought all disagree on the three concepts above. And all of those issues have to be experiential hence subjectively experienced before you accept it. You haven’t experience karma or being in the flow then reject lah. Reincarnation is predicated on those ideas what pretty much

Sadnanth: Predicated on what ideas?

Depresshiva: Karma reincarnation and enlightenment. They are all intertwined. If you reject karma and enlightenment because you don’t have any subjective notion of it, then there isn’t a need to hold onto reincarnation either… Obviously I don’t. Because I have experienced karma and enlightenment very strongly in my life. The truth claim is a nominal one and not a prescriptive one. But you can’t do it any of these truth claims without any experience of it. Its very easy to reject it otherwise. Basically cavemen, tribal or christian ideology suffices.

Sadnanth: Or no ideology… But fair enough ah I never teased apart that relation this finely.

Depresshiva: There is no such thing as no ideology. Nature hates vacuums. Try as you might, you, your kids, your family, your community will end up accepting something. Think about Communist China and Christianity. 10k new converts a month with a membership larger than the communist party that single handedly brought the masses out of poverty. Which is why i like Jordan Peterson and Nietzsche. You see the abyss, you gotta overcome it. Somehow. It’s never nothing, if you look at it, its a fullness of sort.

Sadnanth: I disagree that people will end up accepting something by default. Perhaps I’m in the minority and due to confirmation bias have only really interacted with people without much of a religious inclination, but I disagree that people need to have an overarching framework to follow. Not everyone subscribes to an all encompassing worldview like religion. Most people have simpler motivations. You work a job you hate for your wife and kids. You see other kids suffering, your empathetic connection for your own kids extends to color that observation, and you decide to contribute to a children’s hospital. But it’s small, little actions that provide meaning rather than an overarching framework of metaphysics and morality. Definitely my own experience, btw. In my view anyone who tells you that X is how it is in totality is wrong, because things are complicated and morality is confusing, for the most part. I subscribe to no religious worldview, but definitely have aesthetic preferences, which is why reducing religion to aesthetics seems odd and incorrect.

Sadnanth: Tldr; you don’t need religion or an ideology to overcome nihilism, only a collection of small actions and impulses that you later band together. In fact I would argue that ideologies are often the imperfect attempt at synthesizing this collection of actions into something ‘whole’. Life has no meaning save the one you give it.

Depresshiva: No way to resolve it because we disagree about data-sets⁠⁠⁠⁠.

Sadnanth: I don’t think it’s that simple man. People tend to be lazy, and figuring out a cohesive worldview to guide your actions is hard work. Think about all the people who nominally identify with a religious group. Fake Christians, fake Hindus, what have you. They say they subscribe to it but really don’t, instead going by the heuristic approach (i.e. the collection of actions). Definitely got a lot more nominally religious people than deeply religious people. Ergo more people follow the heuristic than otherwise. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong.

Depresshiva: Your small set of impulses and actions have to come from somewhere. If you are lucky enough to have an upbringing where your parents don’t screw you over you might be able to be a productive member of society. But in the trenches or when shit goes horribly wrong that pastor will walk by your death bed to offer a quick fix. And most people will take it since it’s an easy way out. Which is why I agree with Jordan Peterson when we don’t have that sense of transcendence or divinity things start to go wrong in a sense. If you aren’t educated or don’t have many prospects in life, all this is wishful thinking. I am not saying that your phenomenon doesn’t exist. What we are arguing whether its in the majority or minority. So like I said; data-set disagreements.

Sadnanth: Again, you’re not talking about religion, you’re talking about community. If you’ve had a messed up childhood and you get taken under the church’s wing, you get positively rewarded for following behaviors at first, which you then later synthesize to construct the worldview. No two interpretations of Christianity are the same, but when you ask most people why they follow what they follow, it’s because it makes them feel good and gives their actions meaning. But that’s the important thing, their actions are given meaning, and that is doable without religion. The collection of impulses (which i’m just gonna refer to as a morality heuristic) might come from religion (which, again, is not necessarily true), but that doesn’t exactly refute my point

Depresshiva: You are making conflicting statements Sadnanth. 1. People are lazy 2. Coming up with a metaphysical framework is hard work 3. Their actions need some sort of meaning. But somehow you make the leap that people come up with meaning at the end of the day. Which you will and also you will be sian and lonely, therefore is isn’t tenable. Religion is basically spirituality in community what, so is morality which is individual ethics in society. If you didn’t have society you wouldn’t need either. All this is secondary to the aesthetic experience of religion which pretty much lights up the same parts of your brain as a good concert. Why do I care whether you are atheist or not. Because the eastern or atheism is not a self propagating ideology. At the end of the day, you will have a society or empire that believes in one god and you are fucked. Has happened before, will happen again.


Depresshiva: So the fairy tale that humans are naive and the unnecessary religious doctrines will wither out is misplaced. It happens sporadically. Which is why to draw a full circle. Jordan Peterson is awesome even though he needs to reference Hindu archetypes more. Especially since he is obsessed about mythology.

Sadnanth: Don’t really see how any of those statements are conflicting, to be honest. All I’m saying is that there exists a significant subset of the population who do not derive meaning from religious life or worldviews, but instead give their actions meaning by using useful proxies at a much smaller scale, i.e. the notion of acting according to a grand unified theory of reality is appealing to some, but not to all.

Depresshiva: I agree but it’s not the mainstream nor is it viable. Only the educated and successful do that. To paraphrase Taleb: YOU ARE THE ABERRATION RATHER THAN THE NORM.

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.