Nagarjuna and Samkara: Some Comparative Reflections

The main purpose of this brief essay is to show that, contrary to the widespread view of many scholars of Madhyamaka and Advaita-Vedanta, the Sunya-vada of Nagarjuna and the non-dualism of Samkara are non-different, one and the same. I am fully aware that many scholars would disagree with my thesis and even say that my understanding of Nagarjuna and Samkara is faulty and hence my thesis indefensible. Nothing would please me more than to most respectfully hear their criticisms and objections  and send my response.

Since I hear deal with the fundamental and therefore central teachings of Nagarjuna and Samkara, which, I am sure the reader knows well, I shall not burden the reader with a plethora of scholarly ornamentation, such as footnotes, references, etc. With these preliminary remarks, I shall now turn to the main task of the paper.

Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (The Middle Way)is grounded in pratitya-samutpada (Dependent Origination, Conditioned Origination), the cornerstone of Buddha’s teaching, from which logically follow all of his other teachings. What exactly is the doctrine of pratitya-samutpada? Before stating the doctrine, I need to offer the definition of “phenomenon.” Here it is: “phenomenon” is anything that is or can in principle be an object of consciousness; all objects of consciousness exist in time and some of them also exist in space. Thus tables, chairs, stars, galaxies, college professors, etc. exist in both space and time, whereas thoughts, feelings, mental images, dreams, etc. exist only in time. Now the statement of pratitya-samutpada: Every phenomenon arises in dependence upon other phenomena and passes away in dependence upon yet other phenomena.

Let me illustrate. When one plants a seed, a sprout (sapling) will show up within a few days. The question now is: Is there a sprout waiting behind the scene to appear at an appointed time? What exactly is the being of the sprout? According to pratitya-samutpada, the sprout is no more and no less than the interactions of various phenomena, such as the seed, the soil and minerals, water, sunshine, etc. The sprout has absolutely no being (existence) apart from these interactions. No phenomenon arises out of itself or passes away on its own. The sprout has no existence or nature of its own ; yes, it has dependent (conditioned) existence and nature. This teaching that no phenomenon has self (own)-existence and self (own)-nature is known as “Svabhava-sunya-dharma (sva=own, bhava=existence, nature, sunya=lacking, empty of, devoid of, dharma=teaching as to how things are).

Hence the Buddha’s declaration that all phenomena are empty of self-existence and self-nature. In other words, there are no substances either within or without the human being, “substance” being understood as that which remains unchanged in time and hence has self-existence and self-nature. There have been philosophers in India as well as in the West who subscribe to the view that there are substances and ultimate reality is substance; for example, Nyaya, Vaiseshika,  Parmenides, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, etc. Opposed to substance-philosophers, there are philosophers according to whom ultimate reality is pure process (flux), and there are absolutely no substances; for example, Heraclitus and Whitehead are process-philosophers. The Buddha is neither a substance-philosopher nor a process-philosopher. For the Buddha, ultimate reality is Sunyata (Emptiness); this teaching of the Buddha is clarified and thoroughly analyzed by Nagarjuna in his classic Madhyamaka-Karika.

To say that ultimate reality is Sunyata (Emptiness) is to say that when you take any phenomenon and analyze it, the analysis never comes to an end, where you come across something that is not further broken down and analyzable. Anything that is not further analyzable is a self-existent (with self-nature), and hence a substance. The Buddha’s teaching is that there are absolutely no substances, either within or without the human being. Ultimate reality is therefore Emptiness, which is neither process nor substance. Emptiness is not a thing; rather, it is no-thingness (not nothingness). Nagarjuna teachjes us the emptiness of Emtiness, lest people think Emptiness is a thing, an entity. He further teaches that Emptiness is at once fullness; that is, the entire universe has come into being out of the Emptiness, unborn, uncreated, where there is neither coming nor going, neither perceiving nor non-perceiving, etc., and were it not for this Emptiness, there would be no way for Enlightenment, wisdom, freedom, peace, and joy (see “Udana” and “Brahmajala-sutra,” in Buddhist Texts Through The Ages, ed. by Edward Conze, I. B. Horner, David Snellgrove, and Arthur Waley).

The question now arises: Does one have to accept Nagarjuna’s teaching that ultimate reality is Sunyata (Emptiness) merely on the basis of his superb and unsurpassed analysis (dialectic) or is there an experiential (phenomenological) procedure by which to confirm or disconfirm it? This question was dealt with by the Buddhist school of Yogacara (Vijnana-vada) which came to be several centuries after Nagarjuna. According to Yogacara, ultimate reality is of the essence of consciousness and this truth is to be realized through the practice of yoga; further, this consciousness, not being an object, is formless, nameless and is therefore empty—Emptiness. It is empty of all percepts and concepts. That is, when Nagarjuna’s teaching that ultimate reality is Sunyata (Emptiness) is experientially (phenomenologically) certified, one finds that the Emptiness is none other than pure, objectless consciousness. This point is also the central (fundamental) teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, which regards Nagarjuna and the Yogacarins Asanga and Vasubandhu as great Gurus.

I come now to the Advaita of Samkara, which, in my considered judgment, is the most faithful interpretation of the Upanishadic teaching, according to which the world is the appearance of Brahman, the ultimate reality, non-different from Atman, pure, objectless consciousness. Let me emphasize here that “Brahman” and “Atman” are not names, but merely linguistic symbols to facilitate communication. Why are they not names? Because only objects (phenomena) can have names in order for us to distinguish one object from another. Since Brahman (Atman), being formless and impartite, is not an object, it also is nameless; and that which is nameless can be referred to by any linguistic symbol for communication.

Just as Nagarjuna’s Emptiness is also fullness, so also Brahman (Atman) which is formless is also the world. Brahman, like Emptiness, is non-dual, unborn, uncreated, undying, and hence immortal and eternal. “Brahman” and “Atman” are simply two different labels for one and the same ultimate reality. Brahman, the ultimate reality, is to be directly (experientially, phenomenologically) realized as pure consciousness, in Turiya. Atman is Emptiness, devoid of any percepts and concepts. Brahman (Atman), like Emptiness, is neither a substance nor a process, transcending all categories. Brahman (Atman) is real, “real” being understood as that which always is, unlike appearances which disappear and reappear. The real is always there in all of our modes of being, waking, dreaming, and deep sleep; there is no God, world, and one’s ego in deep sleep and Turiya, since they are not real but merely appearances.

To conclude, in the last analysis Nagarjuna’s Sunyata (Emptiness) and Samkara’s Brahman (Atman) are non-different, one and the same.

Note: There is no doubt that Samkara owes a great deal to Nagarjuna. Remember that Samkara was accused by some orthodox, self-styled Vedic Hindus of being a Buddhist in disguise? It is also true that Samkara criticized Nagarjuna’s Sunya-vada as nihilism and denial of ultimate reality. I only wish to point out here that Samkara’s critique of Nagarjuna is purely political, in that Samkara’s main agenda is to restore and re-establish on firm foundations the Vedic tradition against the expanding influence of Buddhism.

Ramakrishna Puligandla
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
The University of Toledo
Toledo, Ohio, USA
Jan, 2011



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