III. The Question of Concordance and Indian Scriptures
We will now look at some scriptures that refer to the question of the identity of brahman and emptiness.
In A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy, Vol. I, H. Nakamura notes that though the early Buddhist texts make mention of "Brahma" at several places, as well as to soteriological teachings associated with Brahma, they do not refer to the impersonal, neuter case "brahman." This may strike us as odd; however, the terms "brahman" and "Brahma" are used inter-changeably throughout the Upanishads. Where we do find mention of teachings concerning Brahma in the early Buddhist sources, it is almost always within the context of what the early Buddhists refer to as the "pernicious views" or drshti. In particular, "Brahma" is associated with the insidious view of permanence and eternality (shashvata-vada), that is, with the idea of an eternal (nitya) unchanging (avichalita) reality. Often, where we find mention and critique of the view relating to the motionless (kutastha) reality, we find associated with it the problematic teaching of "akriya-vada," the teaching that "nothing can nor need be done with respect to release." Here, it is worth noting that the early Buddhists are not merely criticizing a particular metaphysic when they refer to the eternality of an unchanging reality, they are also relating that metaphysic to the practice of a particular ethos, an ethos that they happen to see as anathema to the possibility of action.
In the Mahayana scriptures, we find a few references to brahman and to what would appear to be Upanishadic thought. One of the distinguishing features of Mahayana sources is use of the hermeneutic principle of "skillful means" (upaya-kaushalya), the idea that various teachings are applicable according to the differing capacities of students. Like the Advaitins, who will later adopt this strategy, the Buddhists use this principle as a basis for harmonizing seemingly incongruous materials. "Why is it," some texts ask, "that the Tathagata at times taught the existence of a self and at others of no-self?" Answer: For the nihilists and materialists, the Buddha taught the existence of a self, but that for those who already believe in the existence of a soul, he taught the ultimate remedy of "no-self."
One Mahayana work that does refer to brahman happens to be one whose metaphysic most closely approximates certain forms of Advaita Vedanta: the Lankavatara Sutra. In this work, Visnu, Shiva, and Brahma are given as names for the Tathagatagarbha. The Lankavatara adds, "The supreme state is also known as Brahma." However, when in the same work the bodhisattva Mahamati asks the Buddha, "does this not amount to atma-vada?" the Buddha replies, "This dharma is not the same as the atma-vada of the outsiders." He then goes on to explain that ultimately, the meaning of the Tathagatagarbha teaching is emptiness and nirvana, but that the bodhisattvas of the Mahayana, by their use of skillful means, teach the Tathagatagarbha for those who may be frightened of the teaching of no-self and the emptiness of all dharmas. Thus, in the Lankavatara Sutra, the teaching that "the supreme state is also known as Brahma" is merely a provisional and propaedeutic teaching subordinate to the final teaching of emptiness.
At times, it is indeed the case that we find language used by these respective traditions to be remarkably similar, not only in terms of their conceptual content, but with respect to actual terminology and turns of phrase. In some cases, it may certainly be the case that one tradition is borrowing from the other. For example, the Mandukya Upanishad contains turns of phrase that are almost certainly Buddhist in their origin. Scholars have pointed out that the term "prapancha-upashama," or "the quieting of conceptual-verbal proliferation," which occurs in the Mandukya Up, does not occur in any pre-Buddhist brahmanic works. So it is highly probable that the Mandukya Up has borrowed the term from the Mahayana lexicon, which may tell us something about how late this "Upanishad" really is, and why Shankara did not regard it as revealed scripture.
Nonetheless, the Mandukya Up is an important work in the development of the tradition of Advaita Vedanta in that it is here that we find the Upanishadic references to the "three states of consciousness" developed into a coherent doctrine. What is significant about the Mandukya Up's use of these ideas, however, is that, at the same time, it appears to incorporate ideas found in Buddhist works such as the Potthapada Sutta from the Digha Nikaya. In the Potthapada Sutta we find a description of three "selves" and the association of these selves with terms that will later be associated with the three "lokas" of Abhidharma Buddhism. The Potthapada calls the first self "gross" (olarika) and associates it with the four elements and with "food"; it is described as being "with form" (rupa). The second is also described as having "form" (rupa) but as "consisting of mind" (mano-maya). The third "self" is described as "formless" (arupa) and as consisting of "conception/consciousness" (samjna). In Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, K.N. Jayatilleke notes the resemblance here to the teaching of the five "sheaths" (kosha) found in the Taittiriya Up (p. 317-318). While there may indeed be parallels with the Taittiriya Up here, the three-fold structure referred to by the Potthapada perhaps more significantly points in two directions: to the three-fold "loka" or "dhatu" scheme of the Abhidharma, and to the "gross" (sthula), "subtle" (sukshma), "causal" (karana) structure of consciousness described by the Mandukya Upanishad.
It would appear, then, that the Potthapada is referring to certain Upanishadic teachings. But, I would suggest, it is doing so for a reason: it recasting and thematizing the Upanishadic material on its own terms. Thus, though we find a structural similarity between the Mandukya Upanishad and the Potthapada Sutta, it would be incorrect to say that the Potthapada is simply "agreeing" with the descriptions of the self found in the Upanishads. It is important to note that the Potthapada rejects the reality of these selves on the ground of their being relative to one another, or "attained" (atta-patilabha), the idea being that when one self is existent the others are not. (This idea was appropriated by Advaita Vedanta, which also speaks of the various states of consciousness as "vyabhichara," that is, as "deviating" from the self when they come and go.) Thus, the Potthapada Sutta's reference to the "three selves" should be seen as a general critique of certain Upanishadic ideas. It is for this reason that we find a resemblance between its contents and ideas found in the Upanishads: it is addressing an audience that is familiar with ideas contained in the Upanishads and making use of those ideas to steer its audience away from them. The context of their use is thus polemical, not ecumenical.
Viewing the relationship between the sources in this way, what becomes significant about the Mandukya Upanishad is its postulating of a "fourth" state beyond the other three. The Mandukya would appear to be aware of the Buddhist critique, and indeed, if it has in fact borrowed terms from the Buddhist vocabulary, it stands to reason that it was aware of Buddhist thought. The Mandukya appears to be saying: "Yes, the three states may indeed belong to conditioned reality, as you Buddhists suggest, but there is a fourth that stands beyond the other three; and that fourth is the non-dual Self, which you have not mentioned." For the Advaitin commentators, the precedent and authority for this "fourth" will be located in the Chandogya Up's apparent rejection of the formless self of dreamless sleep at 8.11.1, and the reference at 8.12.3 to the "supreme Purusha" that stands beyond the other three. Thus, while it is certainly possible that one tradition is influencing the other, or borrowing from the other, or even that they are referring to "shared structures," it is necessary to take into account the polemical context of the interaction between the two so as to see how it is that they respectively treat what might indeed be "shared" between them. Such distinctions will point to subtle yet important differences between their respective teachings.
We also cannot rule out the possibility that a more literary, rather than literal, message may be implied when we come across nearly identical expressions used by different traditions. One of the rhetorical strategies in both the scriptural and philosophic writings of India is that of taking the language of rival teachings and using it ironically. For example, both the Jain and Buddhist narratives take traditional brahmanic stories and twist their teachings around so as to suit their own moral purposes. The Jains are particularly fond of this sort of thing, and make use of puns and plays on words to humorous effect.
And it may also be the case that the matter goes in the other direction, that the brahmanic sources are making use of Buddhist teachings. The Katha Up, for example, appears to ape the story of the Buddha's dissatisfaction with worldly existence in its opening sections. It also uses the term "dharma" in a sense that is Buddhistic, though it does so in contexts that imply criticisms of the heterodox teachings of the Buddhists. Here again, we have a case in which a particular text is addressing an audience that is already familiar with specific teachings but, at the same time, is using those very teachings to persuade its audience from accepting them.
As a specific example we may note the Buddhist Udana, which contains references to a "place" where the "sun and moon do not shine," and to the stars and earth "having no footing." This may very well be an oblique reference to various teachings found in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. There, we find Yajnavalkya being asked various questions by other brahmins. Among the things he is asked is what it is that provides illumination for man once the sun has set, the moon has waned, and the ritual fire has gone out. The answer given by Yajnavalkya is that it is the self-luminous Self that ultimately serves as light for man. Yajnavalkya is also asked what the "footing" of the earth and sky is, and he answers, the ether; and when he is asked what the footing of the ether is, he answers, the Self. Thus, while it would appear that the Udana is willing to accept the Brhad Up's tendency toward "negative" descriptions of reality and transcendence, its reference to there being no "footing" for the earth and sky indicates, at the same time, that it does not accept the teaching that the supreme Self serves as the ultimate ground of existence for man and the universe.
In the Mundaka Up, at 2.2.10, we find a similar reference to the "place" where "neither the sun nor moon shine." This same verse is repeated at Katha Up. 2.2.15. The Katha and Mundaka Upanishads, which are roughly contemporary with each other, exhibit a more pronounced emphasis upon transcendence than the earlier Upanishads. This may partly be a result of an interaction with Buddhist thought and with the world-renunciatory tendencies of its day ("mundaka" means renunciate). Or it may, at the same time, reflect an internal development associated with its own form of yogic mysticism. In any case, when comparing passages from the Mundaka with those from the Udana, and pointing to their similarities, we should also take note that for the Mundaka Up, though the "sun and moon do not shine" in that transcendent "place," there is indeed a light that shines there, the Light of lights, as is stated in verse 2.2.9. This "Light of lights" is a reference to the self-luminous Self, which for the Upanishads is the source of all being, and which, as far the later Upanishads are concerned, is what the Buddhist teachings, such as those in the Udana, either omit or do not admit. So while there may appear to be a superficial similarity between the language of the Udana and the Manduka Upanishad, when we dig a little deeper into the context underlying this similarity, some rather stark differences between their respective teachings appear.
IV. The Question of Concordance according to Dualist Vedanta
While the Indian tradition has on occasion spoken of concordances, and even identities, existing between the Mahayana schools and Advaita Vedanta, such comparisons were usually made by the opponents of the two traditions, in particular, by those schools of Vedanta that opposed the non-dualist interpretation of the Brahma Sutras and Upanishads.
Here, it might be worth noting that dualist challenges of the non-dual interpretation of the Brahma Sutra have some basis in fact. A close reading of the Brahma Sutra itself shows that it was not originally non-dualist in its orientation. Its original position was almost certainly closer to that of the "identity in difference" school of Vedanta, as the Brahma Sutra refers favourably to both identity and difference throughout its text.
Curiously, today, there are no extant commentaries of the Brahma Sutra earlier than Shankara's. We do, however, find references to earlier commentaries in the works of Shankara and his disciples. It would appear from these references that in its day the non-dualist interpretation was not the received interpretation of the Brahma Sutras, as Shankara's own direct disciples at times attempt to reconcile their master's teaching with the "identity and difference" teachings. The idea that Shankara was some sort of religious and philosophical "world conquerer" (dig-vijaya) would appear to be a 15th century fabrication.
The commentatary of Bhaskara, who follows Shankara by about a century, is perhaps the closest we have to the traditional and original interpretation of the Vedanta. His school of Vedanta -- technically called "bheda-abheda," which means "identity and difference" -- posits that brahman is both the same and yet distinct from the world, just as, for example, a clay pot is the both the same and different from a lump of clay. The early Vedantavada, which Bhaskara draws upon, had posited a modal difference between brahman and the world, for reasons primarily concerned with its theodicy, to wit, if the world of samsara is basically impure and has elements of evil built into it, then brahman and the world must be distinct, for if they are the same, then brahman must share in the world's impurity and evil, for, as brahman is the cause of the world, the world must dissolve back into brahman at the end of each cosmic cycle; therefore, the two must be, in some sense, distinct. By saying that brahman and the world are both the same and different, these early Vedantins were able to safeguard brahman from the ascription of any fault. This kind of rationalization is called a "theodicy."
The bheda-abheda point of view also posits that the jiva-atman and the param-atman are also both the same and different. For Shankara, on the other hand, any real distinction between the two cannot obtain, and he rejects this doctrine on soteriological grounds. For him, the higher self and the embodied self can only be non-different (abheda) and in essence identical (tadatmya), for if this is not the case, then jivan-mukti will be impossible, since if there is any real difference between the two, the jiva will be bound to samsara for all eternity. For Shankara there can be no question of the "transformation" of the self into the supreme self, as change belongs to the realm of impermanence and samsara. The self can therefore only be "always already" identical with the supreme. This manner of thinking, which can be referred to as a kind of “logic of being,” is something that Advaita Vedanta shares with the Madhyamika.
At Brahma Sutra 2.1.14 -- which, in terms of metaphysics, is perhaps the most important and contentious sutra in the Brahma Sutra -- brahman is said to be non-other (an-anya) from the world. The idea here is that, as the material cause of the world, brahman cannot be said to be essentially distinct from the world. This means that the world is dependent upon brahman, its cause, as without brahman there would be no world. In his comments on this sutra, Shankara begins by first acknowledging the emanationism (technically called "brahma-parinamavada") of the early Vedanta. But by the end of his comments on 2.1.14, he has discarded the problematic metaphysics of emanationism altogether, along with any notion of a material causal relationship between brahman and the world (and hence, the ascription of the term "emanationism" to Shankara's cosmology is incorrect). Here, Shankara is not only responding to (and agreeing with) the Samkhya critique of Upanishadic emanationism -- namely, how can brahman, which is essentially consciousness, give rise to what is essentially insentient; the cause must share its essence with its product -- but also shows his understanding of the Madhyamika critique of the notion of causality, which had been applied by Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti to the Hindu theories of causation.
Echoing Chandrakirti, Shankara speaks of how the dualist Samkhya and Vaisheshika conceptions of causality themselves exist as a polarity, as diametrically opposed to one another. This is an idea that Gaudapada appropriates from the Prasangika Madhyamakas and transmits to Shankara. For Shankara, such polarities (Samkhya: cause and effect are the same; Vaisheshika: cause and effect are different) are instances of the inherently conflicted nature of human opinion and reasoning on the basis of that opinion. Here, a close philosophical affiliation between Shankara and Chandrakirti can be seen with respect to the issue of unrestrained speculation.
In his commentary on Brahma Sutra 2.1.1 - 2.1.27, Shankara deals repeatedly with the problems of emanationism. Finally, acknowledging that the conception of creation is inherently contradictory, Shankara, in a clever hermeneutic move, quotes Chandogya Upanishad 6.1.4: "emanation (vikara) has the word (vacam) as it is basis." In this way he is able to avoid the metaphysical quagmire that is the cosmogony of the Vedanta. Now, the traditional Vedantic interpretation of this passage had been that it refers to the idea that creation comes about due to the powers of the holy utterance (vac). But from his comments, it is clear that Shankara does not intend this idea at all. What he means -- and here he integrates Upavarsha, an early Vedantin, with the Madhyamika -- is that any mention of "creation" is but mere talk, mere words.
The traditional Vedantin Bhaskara vehemently rejects the interpretation of Vedanta provided by Shankara and his followers. In his commentary on the Brahma Sutra, he says, "No one but a drunkard would believe such a teaching (1.1.4).... This is the teaching of the maya-vadins, who rely upon the theories of the Buddhists (2.2.29).... They destroy the meaning of the Brahma Sutras and lead its students into error (3.2.3).... They teach the worthless and groundless maya-vada and mislead the entire world (1.4.25)." What annoys Bhaskara in particular is Shankara's attempt to distance himself from the Buddhists, and when Shankara begins to criticize the Buddhists by resorting to the standard refutations, Bhaskara is infuriated by Shankara's seeming conservatism.
Here, it may be worth pondering, for a moment, the term "maya-vada." Originally, the term "maya" meant a kind of creative power that the gods held and used toward their particular ends. There, though it had certain magical connotations associated with it, it did not necessarily refer to something negative. Later, however, especially under the influence of certain Mahayana philosophical works, "maya" becomes specifically associated with deception, illusion and delusion.
In the later Indian tradition, the term "maya-vada" was often used in a derogatory manner by many of the Hindu schools. At first, the term was applied to the two philosophical schools of the Mahayana; but later, when a more specific terminology came into vogue, the term "maya-vada" came to refer to the school of Advaita Vedanta in particular. As such, the term functionally parallels the terms "shunya-vada" and "vijnana-vada," which were applied to the Madhyamika and Yogachara schools respectively. All three terms, mayavada, shunyavada, and vijnanavada refer to respective answers to a particular metaphysical question, namely, "what is the ultimate status/nature of the world?" Of the three schools, only the Yogachara appropriated its appellation and happily accepted the designation, "vijnana-vada."
It is the Padma Purana, a Vaishnava text, that perhaps first calls the Advaita Vedantins -- or "maya-vadins", as they are known disparagingly -- "crypto-Buddhists" (pracchana-bauddha). Later, Yamuna, Ramanuja's forerunner, also refers to the Advaitins as "crypto-Buddhists" in his Siddhitraya. In his Shri-Bhashya commentary upon the Brahma Sutra, Ramanuja, the acharya of qualified non-dualism (vishishta-advaita), also calls the Advaitins "crypto-Buddhists" (2.2.27). Vijnana-bhikshu, who wrote one of the most important commentaries upon the Yoga Sutra, writes in another work, the Samkhya-pravacana-bhashya, that though the Advaitins calls themselves Vedantins, they are in fact "crypto-Buddhists." He then interestingly adds that they should be regarded as a sub-sect of the vijnana-vada or Yogachara. All of these teachers appear to be drawing upon the language of the Padma Purana when they refer to the Advaita Vedantins as "crypto-Buddhists".
Even more interesting are later commentaries upon the Brahma Sutra. Another important commentator, Vallabha, who founded the third of the later schools of Vedanta, says that the Advaitins are but "another incarnation of the Madhyamika" (madhyamikasya eva aparavatarah). And Madhva, the dualist Vedantin and fourth acharya of the schools of Vedanta (Bhaskara's school is no longer extant by this time) states that the emptiness of the Madhyamikas corresponds to the brahman of the Advaitins. He writes in his commentary on Brahma Sutra 2.2.9, "yad shunyavadinah shunya, tad eva brahma mayinah.... What is called emptiness by the shunyavadins, that is the brahman of the mayavadins." Here we do find an explicit declaration from the Indian tradition of the identity of brahman and emptiness.
But this statement of identity needs to be seen in the polemical context in which it occurs. Madhva is not talking about a favourable or ecumenical comparison of brahman and emptiness. He is saying that if we accept the Advaitin's teaching concerning brahman, we are putting our faith in a vacuous teaching, for as far as he is concerned, that is what the Advaitin's brahman is: no more than a nothing. As such, no Advaitin would ever take the word of Madhva as it stands, for Madhva was a most trenchant and uncompromising dualist.
Madhva's declarations also touch upon an issue of some importance. What indeed do we mean by the terms "brahman" and "emptiness?" When Madhva says that the brahman of the Advaitins is the same as the emptiness of the Madhyamika, we are inclined to think that he is referring to some kind of ultimate reality or absolute. And yet, "emptiness" primary refers to the emptiness of phenomenal reality, to the insubstantiality of all subjects and objects. In this sense, emptiness should be more of an analog to the idea of maya. We will return to this point below.
V. The Question of Concordance in Advaita Vedanta
Several scholars have noted the various ways that the earliest work of Advaita Vedanta, the Gaudapada Karikas, is indebted to Buddhist thought. Basically, the Gaudapada Karikas adopt various aspects of both Yogachara and Madhyamika thought, as well as adapt the general Mahayana strategy of interpreting certain teachings as propaedeutic. Traditional Indian philosophers have also noticed the similarity between the Advaita of the Gaudapada Karikas and Mahayana Buddhism. In the works of Shantarakshita -- an important Buddhist doxographer whose own school represents a synthesis of Yogachara, Sautrantika, Svatantrika Madhyamika, and the logicians-- we do find an admission that the teachings of Advaita approximate the teachings of the Mahayana, as well as the idea that the Advaitins have borrowed Mahayana teachings. In the Tattvasamgraha, the great compendium of Buddhist thought compiled by Shantarakshita, he says with regard to the Advaita Vedantins, "Their fault is subtle, but it consists in the fact that they teach an eternal self." Here, Shantarakshita acknowledges the proximity of early Advaita Vedanta to the Mahayana. However, from his comments it is apparent that what Shantarakshita is referring to is the proximity of early Advaita Vedanta to the teachings of the vijnanavada.
Many scholars have argued over the extent to which the Gaudapada Karikas should be called a Buddhist work, with some, like H. Nakamura and V. Bhattacharya, saying that at least the final chapter can be called Buddhist, and other more traditionally minded scholars, like T.M.P. Mahadeva and R.D. Karmakar, saying that it is not influenced by Buddhist thought at all. Both sides of the debate appear to overstate their cases and overlook the subtleties of language in this work. It is important to note that all such texts are not only philosophical but literary works as well. I tend to agree with Louis de la Vallee Poussin, who, noticing this literary aspect wrote, "One cannot but read the Gaudapadakarikas without being struck by the Buddhist character of the leading ideas and wording itself. The author seems to have used Buddhist words and sayings, and to have adjusted them to his Vedantic design: nay more, he find pleasure in double entendre." Again, we have an example of a text that is addressing an audience that is acquainted with a rival teaching and using the categories of its rival in its presentation toward a particular persuasive effect. Thus, though the Gaudapada Karikas may indeed use both Upanishadic and Buddhist ideas, it may not be as erenic or ecumenical as appears at first sight. We will return to the Gaudapada Karikas later.
Turning to Shankara's later views on the question of the relation of brahman and emptiness we find some rather interesting comments made by him in his commentary on Brahma Sutra 3.2.22. There, the question arises as to whether or not brahman as such is negated by the "neti, neti," or whether it is only the two forms of brahman that are negated. His interlocutor suggests that not only are the two forms of brahman to be negated, but brahman itself is to be negated. Either that, or brahman alone is negated, for if brahman transcends speech and the mind, then its existence is doubtful. To this Shankara replies: "It is not possible that the 'neti, neti' negates both brahman as such and all form since this would result in the undesirable consequence (prasanga) of accepting the shunya-vada (i.e., the teaching of the Madhyamika)."
He then says something else quite interesting for our present purposes:
For whenever we negate something unreal (aparamartha), like the (illusory) snake, we always do so with reference to something real (paramartha), like the rope. And this is only possible if there is some really existing entity. If everything is negated, and nothing is left, it will not be possible to negate any other thing, which will mean that something that is actually unreal will have to be accepted as real.
In other words, accepting the shunya-vada will mean the abandonment of the distinction between the real and the unreal. This kind of reductio ad absurdum is characteristic of how the other schools responded to the Madhyamika teaching of emptiness, including the Yogacharins who accused them of straying from the middle and indulging in excessive negation (apavada).
Shankara continues that, just as the passage from the Taittiriya Up, "beyond speech and mind," does not mean that brahman as such does not exist, so too the "neti, neti" of the Brhadaranyaka Up does not negate brahman as such. It means, he says, that brahman transcends speech and mind, and that it is not an object of knowledge, and this means that it can only be the unconditioned subject, the Self, which is pure consciousness. The "neti, neti," he says, denies all "discursive proliferation" (prapanca) and all form (rupa), but leaves the pure brahman as such untouched. He suggests that the repetition can be taken to mean that it denies gross form in the first instance, and all subtle form in the second, but he says that he prefers the interpretation that takes the second "neti" as added for effect, emphasizing that whatever can be thought (utpreksha) is not brahman. He concludes: "therefore, the 'neti, neti' negates all that is 'prapanca,' but leaves brahman itself untouched."
As for the later Advaitins, the most sophisticated among them, Shri Harsha, whose deconstructive efforts closely parallel those of the Prasangika Madhyamikas, himself admits that his own method of vitanda parallels the prasanga method of the Madhyamikas. But he distinguishes the respective outcomes of the two approaches: whereas his method seeks to describe reality as non-different (abheda), that is, as the self-same non-dual reality, the Prasangika attempts to demonstrate its inherent emptiness (shunyata).
The later Advaitin doxographers often made use of an "inclusivist" approach to describe their relation to the rest of the Indian tradition, an approach inspired, to some degree, by earlier conceptions put forward by the Buddhists doxographers. In the model of Indian philosophy presented by the doxographers of Advaita Vedanta, the various Indian schools and sampradayas are treated sequentially and structured hierarchically, with the traditions of Vedanta grouped near the top and the school of Advaita Vedanta standing at the very pinnacle. While it may be true that this model offers a kind of "dialectical reconciliation" of the various sub-traditions and schools of the Indian tradition, it is, at the same time, essentially a reductionist model that subordinates all other schools to the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. There is no compromise here, no abandoning of the "own-position" (sva-siddhanta) in favour of some kind of syncretic holism. Rather, the own-position of the Advaitin is elevated over all other teachings through its claim to both encompass and surpass all other traditions. The Sarva-darshana-samgraha, or "Collection of All Points of View," falsely attributed to Shankara, claims that though they may not know it, all traditions ultimately seek the Atman of the Advaitins. Though we find a semblance here of the idea that one thing is "really" another, there is also clearly implied by its expression the claim that one of the two things is "more real" than the other, that one is in fact superior to the other.
This theme of the "concordance of all philosophies" (sarva-darshana-samanvaya) continues late into the 18th century. The very late Advaitin work, Prasthanabheda, goes so far as to state that all the great sages of the Hindu tradition, Vyasa, Kapila, Patanjali, etc., taught the "same" truth, but that they adapted this "truth" in accordance with the abilities of different students -- an interpretation clearly derived from Buddhist conceptions concerning the Buddha's "skillful means" (upaya-kaushalya) and applied to the Vedic notion of "qualification" (adhikara). However, throughout the history of the doxographical works of the Advaitins, there is no attempt to truly synthesize the Buddhist teachings with the teachings of Advaita. Though the even-handed commentator Vacaspati Mishra says, in his Bhamati, that the shunya-vada is intended for the most capable of students, the heretical Buddhist tradition is, in general, treated in these works as if it were but one step removed from vulgar materialism. In the doxographies of the Vedantins, we routinely find the Buddhist schools at the bottom of the heap. The Madhyamika in particular is treated with contempt by the Vedantins, who classify the shunya-vadins as nihilists (vainashikas), and as akin to the later skeptics whose only intent is the destruction of the truth (tattva-upaplava). The doxographies of the classical Vedantins are therefore not universalist in their outlook, and they do not extend their attempts at "harmonization" to include the teachings of the Madhyamikas.
This spirit of subsumption and subordination itself can perhaps ultimately be traced back to Upanishads like the Chandogya Up, which makes use of a reductionist method when teaching the ultimate nature of the self. Like a honeybee reducing the nectar of each flower to honey, or like the ocean absorbing the waters of all the various rivers, Being or Sat, is the final end of all beings and the ultimate nature of the self. He who knows this essential Self knows the principle underlying all teachings, as he knows the "all," the all-encompassing metaphysical principle. This idea is perhaps the metaphysical inspiration of much of Indian "inclusivism." Vijnana-bhikshu himself makes use of the image of the rivers and the ocean when he argues that all the all the various paths imply the Yoga of Patanjali.
In its structure and function, the inclusivism and hierarchical modelling of doxographical works of the later Advaita Vedantins can be said to be based upon several preceding factors. One is a dialectical tendency in Indian thought, rooted in the traditions of debate and "dharma combat," that seeks to situate one's own-position within the larger tradition by referring to, and dispensing with, other points of view. In this way, the doxographies of the Vedantins can be seen as extensions and applications of strategies used in earlier debates, in particular those concerning the epistemological status of perceptual error (khyati), a problem that receives considerable attention from Advaitins after Shankara. In their attempt at resolving this particular problem, the Advaitins present their own position as a kind of final resolution of all other debates on the matter, that is, as the dialectical culmination of all preceding positions.
Another source of the tendency of the later Advaitins to think inclusively and systematise hierarchically can be found in Shankara's own conception of "samanvaya" or "concordance." "Samanvaya" in general refers to the hermeneutic strategy of attempting to resolve inconsistencies within and conflicts between scriptural sources. In Shankara's case, this "harmonization" is effected by recourse to the soteriological subordination of one set of teachings to another. Those teachings, for example, that speak of a brahman with form are related to devotion and meditation -- which, strictly speaking, are not soteriologically efficacious -- while those teachings that speak of a brahman without form are intended for the "practice" of jnana, which for Shankara is the only truly efficacious means to release. Through this act of subordination, various inconsistencies and conflicts in the statements of the Upanishads are effectively neutralized. Like the Mahayana, both Shankara and Gaudapada speak of those scriptural writings that are to be taken at face value, and those that need to be taken with a grain of salt, as it were. It is in this context that Shankara invokes the notion of a two-fold truth.
The Advaitin strategy of subsuming other traditions is perhaps first suggested by statements made by the Gaudapada Karika concerning the relation between non-dualism and the various forms of dualism. According to the GK, all duality requires non-duality. GK 3.18 says, "The non-dual is the supreme reality, and duality is said to be its effect." In other words, since all duality entails non-duality, all dualistic points of view entail non-dualism. GK 4.4 reads: "Disputing among themselves, these dualists actually demonstrate non-duality and promulgate the teaching of non-orgination!" Karika 4.5 adds ironically: "We agree with them and do not dispute this! Learn now how there is no dispute (vivada)." This last statement is a reference to the teaching of "non-conflict" (avivada), which perhaps first makes its appearance in the proto-Madhyamika literature and in the quietism of the early Indian skeptics (ajnanikas). The GK also describes non-dualism as avirodha/aviruddha (GK 3.17-18), which means non-conflicting (but also, incontestable and irrefutable). Shankara comments at GK 3.17, "Our view, the teaching of the oneness of the Self, does not conflict with other views, which are mutually contradictory (anyoyavirodha), because it is based upon the inseparability of everything (sarva-ananyatva), just as one's limbs are not in conflict with one another."
The metaphysical principle that the conditioned requires the unconditioned is also the principle that all impermanent entities are dependent upon a permanent substrate, an idea that underpins the classical critiques of the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness. The basic argument against the doctrine of momentariness is that change implies something permanent acting as a substrate for change; otherwise we would not see causal regularity in the world and sesame oil would come from sand and mango trees would yield dates. Shankara makes use of another version of this idea when he counters the Madhyamika teaching of emptiness by arguing that whenever we negate something as unreal, we do so only with reference to something real (BrSuBh 3.2.22).
The Gaudapada Karika derives the essentials of many of its arguments from the Madhyamika Karikas. This should not surprise us though, as Nagarjuna takes his own "logic of being" over from the Upanishads, wherein we first find the principle, Being cannot come from nothing (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.2). In the Madhyamika Karikas, Nagarjuna implies that the positing of self-existing entities will require that these entities be, in essence, permanent, unchanging, and non-arising. MK 15.2 describes this unchanging reality thus: " 'svabhava', self-existence, means something that is not dependent upon another (nirapeksha) and unproduced (akrtrima)." Echoing Nagarjuna, the GK says at 4.9, "self-existence (svabhava) means: that which always already established (samsiddhi), never produced (akrta), and innate (sahaja); it is that nature (prakriti) which is never abandoned." The terms "sahaja" and "akrta," are roughly synonymous with the term "akritrima" used by Nagarjuna. At MK 15.8, Nagarjuna says "a being whose nature is otherwise (prakrter anyathabhavo) is not possible." Gaudapada Karika 4.7 uses exactly the same turn of phrase: "a thing becoming otherwise than its nature (prakrter anyathabhavo) cannot be."
With this premise in hand, Nagarjuna sets to work at demolishing essentialist metaphysics. His arguments are, perhaps, not directly intended to subvert the eternalism of the Upanshads as much as they are directed at curious developments that had been occurring in the Abhidharma schools of his day. In their attempt to overcome the various problems posed by the doctrine of momentariness, certain Abhidharmists had posited an odd sort of eternalism. This development, Nagarjuna suggests, is not accidental, but the necessary outcome of the Abhidharma metaphysics, which had understood its "dharmas" (metaphysical ultimates) as possessed of a kind of inherent existence (svabhava). Nagarjuna argues that the very idea of an inherent existence implies the idea of eternal and unchanging being. Of course, a doctrine of permanence contradicts the Buddhist teachings; and besides, we see in the everyday world that there are no permanent and unchanging things; thus these "dharmas" can have no inherent existence. But this is only because all beings are already empty (shunya) of an inherent self-existence: there are no entities that exist absolutely in this manner. In this way, Nagarjuna attempts to purge the Abhidharma of what he sees as an heretical and insidious teaching: essentialism. But along the way, he has turned the Upanishadic "logic of being" against itself. We will return to Nagarjuna's use of the concept of "svabhava" below.
For his own part, Gaudapada takes the argument in another direction. He agrees that the positing of conditional entities requires the existence of a permanent and unchanging being, and that contingent beings are indeed without an inherent self-existence (GK 4.22). But, his comments seem to suggest, there must be at least one being that is not empty of its own being, and that being is none other than the supreme self of the Upanishads, which is described as self-established (Chandogya Up 7.24.1) and self-existing (Isha Up 8). The final few karikas of the GK suggest that this teaching is absent from the Buddha-dharma; GK 4.95-99 read: "Only those who have successfully realized the unborn that is the equality of all things can be said to have the supreme knowledge (mahajnana)... All dharmas are by their nature pure, released (mukta), and awakened (buddha). This the sages understand. The knowledge of the sage is untouched. But this teaching has not been declared by the Buddha." In his comments, Sankara unpacks the sense of the karika as he understands it: "The knowledge of the supreme non-dual reality is found in the Vedanta alone."
Thus, though their arguments seem, at first glance, to be very much alike, in an important way, Gaudapada and Nagarjuna are diametrically opposed to one another. Gaudapada adopts Nagarjuna's "logic of being" but turns it around, giving back to it its original Upanishadic intent. In this way, Gaudapada not only meets the challenge of the Madhyamika, but does so using the very terms set by the Madhyamakas. At the same time, Gaudapada lays the ground for an inclusivist framework with which later Vedantins will use in their attempt to "accommodate" the dualist viewpoints of the other schools.
For their own part, Nagarjuna's followers will take over Nagarjuna's idea, presented in the Bodhicittavivarana, that all metaphysical positions entail emptiness and develop it into a doxographical strategy for their encounter with other schools. This style of writing begins with the works of Bhavaviveka and it is to his Madhymakahrdaya that we will turn to next.