Antiquity of Advaita Vedanta (was Re: An Open Letter to All)

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vsundaresan at HOTMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 8 14:49:04 CDT 2000

nanda chandran <vpcnk at HOTMAIL.COM> wrote:

>The MulamAdhyamaka KArika is a purely epistemological treatise. Hence the
>conclusion that everything is shUnyam. If one bases NAgArjuna's teachings
>this text alone, there's a chance that one can come to the conclusion that
>there's no ontological basis for the MAdhyamika.

For sure, one needs to distinguish between ontology and epistemology, but
within a philosophical system, its ontology and its epistemology have to be
consistent. And again, for sure, Nagarjuna is consistent, but that does not
make his thought equivalent to Advaita. And the contention is not that the
Madhyamaka has no ontological basis whatsoever. The contention is that the
Madhyamaka does not have the Absolute non-dual Brahman as its ontological

>See - even according to NAgArjuna's logic which works on opposites, to
>negate the world, you need something to negate it on. Why is the world

And equally so according to his logic, that on which the world is negated,
is itself negated by the world. It is a mutual negation, and does not accept
an absolute substratum on which negation takes place. The Advaita Vedantin's
view of negation is a hierachical one, i.e. that on which the world is
negated is not negated by anything else. The difference is like that between
a scalar quantity and a vector quantity. At the innermost level, there is a
directionality to the negation in Advaita Vedanta, which is not acceptable
to the Madhyamaka. That this has far reaching consequences for each school,
does not seem to be appreciated at all, leading to a great amount of

One can write an entire encyclopedia on the nature of negation in various
schools of thought. It seems to me that you have just not understood the
sense in which Nagarjuna understands negation, nor the sense in which the
Advaita Vedantin understands negation. If you think it is I who
misunderstands this issue, do explain how.

>shUnya? Because it is dependently originated. But just because something is
>dependently originated why should it be unreal? Yeah, sure the whole world
>is temporary, but so what? That temporary world itself is the reality for
>us. So why should it be shUnya?

So, the temporary world is not SUnya? What is Nagarjuna talking about then?
You seem to be the expert on his thought. Do let us know.

>Because it is the spiritual experience of Gautama Siddhartha against which
>the temporary world is pitted against. The Buddha is different from the
>normal man. So what is it that makes him different - he's beyond pratitya
>samutpAda. (Those who do not understand the MAdhyamaka dialectic, please do
>not argue that for NAgArjuna even the Buddha is unreal. Please try to
>understand the distinction between ontology and epistemology).

Ha, hear we come to the crux of the matter.

1. The Buddha is different from the normal man. Why, and in what way? The
difference cannot be intrinsic to Buddha and normal men, because there are
ultimately no intrinsic differences. So, the difference has to be because of
the spiritual experience.

2. Obviously, because of the spiritual experience, the "normal man" becomes
the Buddha. Every living being has the potential to be a Buddha, right? Even
Siddhartha Gautama was only a "normal man" before be became a Buddha. And he
had to be a Bodhisattva on the route from the state of being a "normal man"
to Buddhahood.

2. Now, the spiritual experience is supposed to take you beyond pratItya
samutpAda. Where does the spiritual experience come from? Is it knowledge?
If so, what is the pramANa which generates this knowledge? And what about
its validity? Is it based on no pramANa whatsoever? Is the spiritual
experience itself a pramANa? Is this spritual experience self-valid? If so,
it is different from all other pramANas. In what sense is it different then?
If not, it carries no greater force than any other pramANa. Then what makes
it so special as to take one beyond codependent origination? How does one
know that it does? In short, what is the epistemological status of this
spiritual experience? Turning to ontology, if this experience/knowledge is
generated, i.e. has a birth, will it also not get decayed or degenerated,
i.e. have a death? If not, why not?

4. (The following is not correct within Madhyamaka, but is a possibility
that needs to be covered.) If, in your attempt at ontology, you say that the
Buddha always was, is and will be beyond pratItya samutpAda, and that that
constitutes his spiritual experience, then by definition, "normal men" are
different, and doomed to never-ending pratItya samutpAda and samsAra. They
can never obtain the spiritual experience that will take them beyond it, for
that is closed to "normal men" and is accessible only to the Buddha.

5. If, however, there are no intrinsic differences between the Buddha and
"normal men", it should follow that every "normal man" also always was, is
and will be beyond pratItya samutpAda, and beyond samsAra. Is this what
Nagarjuna says? If so, in what sense is the "normal man" beyond samsAra? Is
there an essence that remains unchanged by pratItya samutpAda?

6. If however, following the entire tradition of nairAtmya-vAda of the
Buddhist, there is no such enduring essence, it follows that there can exist
no such thing that "always was, is and will be" beyond pratItya samutpAda.
Indeed, if you read Nagarjuna correctly, this is itself what is said to be
the spiritual experience of the Buddha.

7. Therefore, even after pitting the temporary nature of the world against
the spiritual experience of the Buddha, the sort of absolutist conclusion
that you infer in Nagarjuna does not follow. Unless you can give me a
quotation from Nagarjuna that says, "Yes, this is the absolute, this always
endures, this is eternal, this is my own Self, this is indeed the same Self
in all beings", you cannot view him as being equivalent to an Advaitin. This
is precisely the traditional Advaita criticism of Madhyamaka - that the
Madhyamaka does not postulate/infer the supreme Self as a higher reality
that remains unchanged and is eternal.

I rest my case,

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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