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Rediscovering ‘Sunyata’: Unifying Buddhism and Vedanta

Blasphemous, some would say. Far-fetched, others may venture to say. However, if one were to base one's understanding of purely spiritual, scriptural and historical aspects, one can see why I say so

What if I say Buddha was a proponent of Vedanta?

Blasphemous, some would say. Far-fetched, others may venture to say. However, if one were to base one’s understanding of purely spiritual, scriptural and historical aspects, one can see why I say so. Buddha came at a time when one had ritualism sans investing in the essence of the rituals, on one hand, and the emergence of the materialist schools of philosophy, such as the Carvakas, on the other. From the times of the Buddha when proclaims the ignorance of Vedic seers (such as the Tevijjasutta) to the tenth to eleventh-century treatises that formulate a syllogism against the much-highlighted authorlessness of the Veda (such as the Tarkabhāṣā), Buddhists have always maintained a critical stance toward the Veda until the demise of Buddhism in most of India. Sramanicmovements had arisen since about a couple of centuries before the Buddha, in direct contradiction to the ritualists of Vedic society.  It was from this tradition of penance and austerity as the way of self- and God-realisation instead of excessive emphasis on rituals or the Vedas, that Buddhism arose.

In the enlightened being of Gautama Buddha!

Swami Vivekananda beautifully highlights the spiritual and philosophical moorings and position of the Buddha in a larger Dharmic and Vedantic tradition

Buddha was a great Vedantist (for Buddhism was really only an offshoot of Vedanta), and Shankara is often called a “hidden Buddhist.” Buddha made the analysis, Shankara made the synthesis out of it. Buddha never bowed down to anything—neither Veda, nor caste, nor priest, nor custom. He fearlessly reasoned so far as the reason could take him. Such a fearless search for truth and such love for every living thing the world has never seen. Buddha was the Washington of the religious world; he conquered a throne only to give it to the world, as Washington did to the American people. He sought nothing for himself.

Swami Vivekananda, among others, tried to reconcile the upstart tradition that the Buddhists brought forth in DharmicIndia with its Vedanticroots. Some even went so far as to include Buddha among the Vishnu Dashavatar! In this essay, however, my idea is not as much to highlight these nuances that luminaries have written on but to rather address some fundamental ideas and associated misconceptions when it comes to Buddhism.

Moksha and Nirvana

The Buddhist tradition is placed on the idea of understanding the nature of, the conditions that cause, and the methods of tackling, Dukkhaor the fundamental painfulness and unsatisfactory nature of mundane life in this material, temporal world by the eight-fold path, to move towards Nirvana, the ultimate state of soteriological release: liberation from repeated rebirth in saṃsāra, the beginningless cycle of repeated birth, existence and death. The Buddha himself speaks on Nirvanain the famous Udana8.1 (Nibbana Sutta):

There is that dimension…[…]…where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object].

This is an interesting foundation for the conception of Nirvana, particularly in the context of the idea of ‘Sunyata‘, which I shall deliberate on later. The Buddha goes on to expand on this in Udana8.3:

There is…[…]…an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned. 

If one reflects on what is being said, one sees that the ultimate reality is being spoken of as a nothingness that transcends all materialism and physicality, temporality and spatiality. The Buddha beautifully captures the inherent paradox in this conception when he says that it is neither subject to perception nor to non-perception. It is neither coming nor going nor staying. He describes it as ‘unestablished, unevolving, with support‘. What he is highlighting is that there is a lack of description or substance of the physical, material kind in the conception, constitution and nature of the ultimate reality, which is ‘unborn, unbecome, unmade and unfabricated‘.

This ultimate reality is the substratum of everything that is in reality. This ultimate layer is devoid of elements, ideas, constructs, space-time or relations. This layer of void or ‘Sunya’ is however not complete nothingness, as highlighted by Buddha himself when he says ‘there is an unborn,…’ with the key operative term being the indefinite article ‘an‘, which connotes a positive entity. It is just nothingness in the temporal and spatial world, as defined by space-time that emerges from the Sunyaunderlying it. These ideas relating to the ultimate reality are shared, almost word to word, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad! In Adhyaya3, Brahmana8, Verse 8, it says

It is this Akshara (the Imperishable)…[…]…so the knowers of Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure, neither interior nor exterior. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.

and then in Adhyaya4, Brahmana4, Verse 25, it says

Verily, that great unborn soul, undecaying, undying, immortal, fearless is Brahman.

The ultimate reality is both instances and works turn out to be the same, and therefore in line with each other. However, if the ultimate reality is nothingness in the spatial and temporal sense, how do we have the Universe, in the first place? How does something come out of this nothingness? The reality in the Universe is seen, within Buddhism, as a form of ‘projection’, resulting from vipaka (the fruition) of sankharas (karmic seeds). The same goes for Vedanta, with the idea of Adhyaropaor superimposition. Swami Sivananda of the Divine Life Society describes it beautifully thus,

Adhyaropa is superimposition! This is one of the fundamental principles of Vedanta. You cannot proceed with the study of Vedanta without understanding Adhyaropa. In reality, this world was never created. This world is superimposed on Brahman. This world is imagined where there exists only Brahman. This is Adhyaropa. This superimposition is sublated through the Yukti called Apavada.

Yuktihere refers to common-sense, the power of discernment and the intellect. So, within Vedanta, one considers creation as a superimposition on the unchanging and unborn absolute reality – Brahman, and then finally, using Jnana(true knowledge) negates this projection and superimposition as illusory. This is why the Vedic traditions had the famous aphorism ‘Neti Neti‘ or ‘Not this, not this’. This is the principle of defining the ultimate reality and also the true nature of the self is also seen in Buddhism, where instead of speaking of the Atman, the primary point of discussion is Anatta(non-self). This is primarily because the Atman is indescribable and much better described as what it is not. This is captured in the Buddhist text – the Anattalakhana Sutta:

…[…]…any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

Any kind of feeling whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

Any kind of perception whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

Any kind of determination whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.’

The self is not defined by thoughts, actions, feelings or intuitions. The true self quietly observes these fleeting and transient elements of human life. But the true self is beyond each of them. It is not defined by any of these constructs or elements. Therefore, one can much better describe it as what it is not.

What Nagarjuna gave was the ‘Doctrine of Void’ which was based on the Buddhist theory of ‘dependent origination’ – Pratitya-Samutpada. The doctrine states that whatever exists, exists as being dependent on its conditions and causes. Therefore, the void spoken of is one that relates to objects and elements not having any inherent reality or nature but one acquired as per conditions and causes. Philosophers like Chandrakirtiand Nagarjunahighlighted that this void is not relative but absolute. It was Sunyata(complete void) and not just Abhava(non-existence and void on the relative plane). While Sri Sankaracharya pondered over points such as Universal Momentarinessas expounded by Vasubandhu and Dharmakirti, I would like to see what Buddha himself said rather than comment on or negate later derivatives of those sayings and teachings. An important point to note here is that Nagarjuna himself highlights how his theory of Sunyatais derived from the theory of dependent origination, but nowhere does he imply that the two mean the same thing. He says that the objects of experience lack a nature of their own and are without an inherent essence (Sunya) because they depend for their existence on their prior conditions. Relative existence thus implies and is not literally the same as Sunyata. Therefore, Nagarjuna’s position is a derivative of the original Buddhism of Lord Buddha and not necessarily as sacrosanct as Buddhists have made it out to seem.

Even Nagarjuna himself points out how while Sunyata can be used as a tool, it must not be made into a theory of relativity itself. He dismisses the possibility of making of any theory of reality both in Madhyamikakarikaand Vigrahayavartam. In Prasannapadda, Candraklrti mentions a Buddhavacana(saying of Buddha) to explain that Sunyatavadaor Sunyavadais not appropriate in the sense of theory and refers to an observation made
by Buddha to Kasyapaabout Sunyadrsti(vision of Sunya). The Buddhavacana is that — suppose, someone is sick, the doctor gives some medicinal herbs to him and after removing all the ailments in the human system that medicinal herb somehow does not get out of the system and remains lingering. Will that person be truly relieved of sickness? Similarly, emptiness in Sunyatais the means of “getting out” of all views. But if someone takes emptiness to be a view, Buddha calls him to be ‘incurable’. This is much along the lines of what Yajnavalkya means when he says ‘neti, neti’– that Brahman can be defined Via Negativa but it cannot be defined in positive terms, either as emptiness or otherwise. No human construct or terminology can be used to define Brahman. Therefore, the Buddhist way, much like Yajnavalkya’s, is a strong refutation of all -isms, all dogma, all positive conceptions of Brahmanin human terms, but not necessarily a refutation of the Absolute Reality.

After careful reading and reflection, I would like to posit my position on this as such,

Brahman, the Ultimate Reality of Vedanta, is not manifested in its true form in the relative world, and although it assumes forms under Maya, the essence of these forms remains beyond the relative. The essence of these forms is void in the relative plane, but not in the absolute sense, where it is Brahman. This Ultimate Reality can only be defined as what it is not, in the relative world; only Via Negativa.  It is beyond all constructs, terms, conceptions and ideas of what it can be. For every such ideation, what can be said is ‘neti, neti‘ – ‘not this, not this‘. Nothing more.

This is the best antidote to all parochialism when it comes to religion. This is the best antidote to all conflict and narrow conceptions of God and Godhood. Yajnavalkya saw it as did many Vedantin as did Buddha too. True Sunyatadenies affirmative predicates (sat, bhāva)as much as negative predicates (asat, abhāva), and that is the true void (in the relative, world realm) of Brahman.

The natural questions after realising this understanding of Sunyatathen are: how do we realise that Ultimate Reality? Why must we do good? Why must we live at all? Should we not strive to attain the Ultimate Reality as soon as possible, in a very nihilistic and fatalistic twist? Buddhism is a continuation of the Vedic and Dharmic traditions preceding it, in acknowledging the role of Karma and how the relative existence relies on the truth of Samsara. Instead of allowing metaphysical speculation, as is key to strands of Jnana Yoga, the Buddhist way looks at ways of removing or reducing the effect of this Karma. Therefore, it talks of ‘quenching’ or ‘blowing out’ the worldly constraints and conditioning in the state of Nirvana.  This is because if one takes the world to have two levels: the material/relative and the absolute, the former relies on a Karmic model, which when crossed and liberated from gives the latter. Buddhism primarily focusses on how to reach that liberation without pondering on the nature of the Ultimate Reality, which whenever asked about, Buddha would only answer with silence. For in that silence lay the seed of true nothingness, beyond existence and non-existence. If Atmanor Jivais the principle of sentience, then it is just a manifestation of Brahmanand has no independent being beyond the Karmicshackles. One must do ‘good’ to only reduce the presence and influence of all that increases these shackles. At their root, the Noble Eightfold Path and Ashtanga Yoga have many similarities. Lastly, we must live because Buddha’s Right View defines, as does ancient Vedantic thought, that physical death is not absolute and does not lead to cessation of Karmic shackles. Only by naturally working one’s way through and removing the shackles of Karma can one rid oneself of these shackles.

Lastly, the final resolution of Buddhism and Vedanta comes in the conception and description of the Self. Many say that Buddhism negates the idea of the Self, as expounded in the Vedas. While the Nikāyasrefute the idea that the ‘Self exists’. However, a famous scholar of Buddhism – Peter Harvey highlights that these texts also do not admit the premise “Self does not exist” since such wording presumes the concept of “Self” prior to denying it. Therefore, it would only be right to say that the Self neither exists nor does it not-exist, paradoxical as that sounds. Since Brahmanis unchanging, indescribable, beyond the relative, it cannot have a localised form as an evolving ‘Jiva‘ or ‘Atman‘ if conceived as an entity. Using the ancient principle of Via Negativa, I will try to define what the Atman is.

Atmanis Brahmandefined as an entity by latent and emerging Karma(causative elements and actions) that makes it notcompletely one with Brahman.

It is fundamentally and essentially Brahman but does not identify with it yet. One can think of it as an ocean with ripples, which makes it move away from being water-in-equilibrium. This ‘perturbation’, caused by causative elements and actions, is defined as the five-aggregates by Buddha, which are a combination of physical and chemical processes, that keep occurring post-birth and rebirth. Negation, elimination, cessation of this leads to liberation. To peace, to calm, to realisation. To that which cannot be described, to that which neither exists nor not-exists.

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Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Mrittunjoy is a physicist, activist, writer, social worker and philosopher.

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