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

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vsundaresan at HOTMAIL.COM
Wed May 17 19:23:43 CDT 2000

>Perfect. But where does NAgArjuna say that Shunyata itself is the reality?
>Shunyata is restricted only to human conception. The world is only the
>that we *know*. And all this *knowing* is ultimately unintelligible and
>hence it is shunya. In this *knowing* falls both the categories of samsAra
>and nirvAna and that's the reason they too are shunya. But *paramArtha* is
>the ultimate truth and that is beyond *knowing*. By implication it cannot

Nagarjuna's stand is that the paramArtha perspective is just that things are
SUnya. It is not as if there is another, different, higher reality that is
not SUnya. That is what is meant by tathatA in his works.

>defined as "absolute", since absolutism itself is a conception. But again
>this is only logical quibbling and doesn't matter much in a sense of
>spiritual realization.

I think it goes beyond logical quibbling. It goes down to far more
fundamental principles of how we understand the universe around us, and
thereby how we think about ultimate reality.

I don't doubt at all the spiritual realization of the Buddhist masters. What
I don't get is why we should insist that what the Buddhist realizes is the
same as what the Vedantin realizes, in terms of the ontology of the state
of realization. Or at the very least, in how they describe their own

>further accentuated with the MAdhyamika's exclusive concentration on the
>unintelligibility (shunya) of the phenomenal world. NirvAna is used by
>NAgArjuna only as the *conception of reality* and that like other
>conceptions are shunya. ParamArtha is what he refers to as reality and it's
>the thing in itself beyond human conception.

The correct Buddhist answer to this would be, "To say that paramArtha
exists, as a thing in itself, beyond human conception, is itself a human
conception." Thus, they would avoid the extreme of absolutism. The Vedantin
counter-response would be, "To deny that there exists such an ultimate thing
in itself would lead eventually to nihilism."

>the Reality (Brahman). But both have so much in common that the great
>Advaita dialectician Sri Harsha himself admits that he's no problem with
>MAdhyamika if they're absolutists. As mentioned before, it's only logical
>quibbling that makes the Bauddha shy away from absolutism.

*If* they are absolutists. But the Buddhist would deny this. So why should
modern readers of both systems thrust an absolutism upon the unwilling

>And about ShankarAchArya being anti-Bauddha, again let me say that he's no
>serious problems with either the MAdhyamika or the VijnAnavAdin. While he
>brushes aside the MAdhyamika as a nihilist (which he definitely is not),

He does not brush it aside at all. His remark is cryptic, and not at all
well understood - to say that things are SUnya, without also postulating an
Absolute Higher Reality that is not, would lead to nihilism. If the
Madhyamaka were to say, "Of course, I do postulate a Higher Reality,"
Sankara would have no argument against it, but that is precisely not what
the Madhyamaka would say, for he does not postulate an Absolute, the way we
are prone to interpret SUnyatA or paramArtha today.

>Ofcourse in the days of yore when there was a need for taking a strong
>with tradition, such deliberate mistakes might have been necessary. But now
>in this present day, when the situation is different and all the facts are
>there for us to see and gauge, there's no need for dogmatism.

Rather than seeing this in terms of deliberate mistakes for the sake of
sampradaya or caste based politics, we should allow for deep philosophical
differences. Not everything in life is political or sociological. Moreover,
to see the mutual criticisms of Advaita and Madhyamaka against each other in
terms of deliberate mistakes is an insult to the intelligence and integrity
of the very spiritual masters whose realization you claim to respect and
learn from. That everybody said the same thing is the modern dogma. Why not
realize that different traditions said different, if perhaps related,
things, and benefit from all of them appropriately?

The Vedantin can learn and has learnt a lot from the Buddhist, and vice
versa. But we need not go about thinking that their philosophically subtle
differences were driven by non-philosophical factors. Finally, from a purely
pragmatic perspective, and this is for Sri Malhotra, if Hindu Indians say
that the Madhyamaka and Advaita are really only the same thing, it will be
seen as yet another instance of neo-Vedantic inclusivism, which
simultaneously seeks to disempowers that which is so included. That would be
self-defeating for your purpose of influencing academic studies and
perceptions, I should think. We may point out the similarities, but we
should also honor the differences in thought. After all, from a non-dual
perspective, either Advaita Vedantic or Madhyamaka Buddhist, all words are
only conceptual, and where there is conception, there is room for
difference. So even if one thinks that the ultimate reality is the same for
both schools, one has to take seriously the different ways in which each
seeks to describe it, and account for it properly. Caste is too easy and pat
a reason. I don't think it alone explains every such thing in India.


bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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