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Gaudapada's Philosophy

Gaudapada was the first philosopher of the Advaita Vedanta school. This article, written by the author of a standard academic history of Indian philosophy, summarizes Gaudapada's views.


Excerpted from A History of Indian Philosophy Volume I, Chapter X. A current edition can be ordered from South Asia Books.


IT IS USELESS I THINK to attempt to bring out the meaning of the Vedanta thought as contained in the Brahma-sutras without making any reference to the commentary of Sankara or any other commentator. There is reason to believe that the Brahma-sutras were first commented upon by some Vaisnava writers who held some form of modified dualism.1 There have been more than a half dozen Vaisnava commentators of the Brahma-sutras who not only differed from Sankara's interpretation, but also differed largely amongst themselves in accordance with the different degrees of stress they laid on the different aspects of their dualistic creeds. Every one of them claimed that his interpretation was the only one that was faithful to the sutras and to the Upanisads. Should I attempt to give an interpretation myself and claim that to be the right one, it would be only just one additional view. But however that may be, I am myself inclined to believe that the dualistic interpretations of the Brahmasutras were probably more faithful to the sutras than the interpretations of Sankara.


The Srimadbhagavadgita, which itself was a work of the Ekanti (singularistic) Vaisnavas, mentions the Brahma-sutras as having the same purport as its own, giving cogent reasons.2 Professor Jacobi in discussing the date of the philosophical sutras of the Hindus has shown that the references to Buddhism found in the Brahma-sutras are not with regard to the Vijñanavada of Vasubandhu, but with regard to the Sunyavada, but he regards the composition of the Brahma-sutras to be later than Nagarjuna. I agree with the late Dr S. C. Vidyabhushana in holding that both the Yogacara system and the system of Nagarjuna evolved from the Prajnaparamita.3 Nagarjuna's merit consisted in the dialectical form of his arguments in support of Sunyavada; but so far as the essentials of Sunyavada are concerned I believe that the Tathata philosophy of Asvaghosa and the philosophy of the Prajnaparamita contained no less. There is no reason to suppose that the works of Nagarjuna were better known to the Hindu writers than the Mahayana sutras. Even in such later times as that of Vacaspati Misra, we find him quoting a passage of the Salistambha sutra to give an account of the Buddhist doctrine of pratityasamutpada.4 We could interpret any reference to Sunyavada as pointing to Nagarjuna only if his special phraseology or dialectical methods were referred to in any way. On the other hand, the reference in the Bhagavadgita to the Brahma-sutras clearly points out a date prior to that of Nagarjuna; though we may be slow to believe such an early date as has been assigned to the Bhagavadgita by Telang, yet I suppose that its date could safely be placed so far back as the first half of the first century B.C. or the last part of the second century B.C. The Brahma-sutras could thus be placed slightly earlier than the date of the Bhagavadgita. I do not know of any evidence that would come in conflict with this supposition. The fact that we do not know of any Hindu writer who held such monistic views as Gaudapada or Sankara and who interpreted the Brahma-sutras in accordance with those monistic ideas, when combined with the fact that the dualists had been writing commentaries on the Brahma-sutras, goes to show that the Brahma-sutras were originally regarded as an authoritative work of the dualists. This also explains the fact that the Bhagavadgita, the canonical work of the Ekanti Vaisnavas, should refer to it. I do not know of any Hindu writer previous to Gaudapada who attempted to give an exposition of the monistic doctrine (apart from the Upanisads), either by writing a commentary as did Sankara, or by writing an independent work as did Gaudapada. I am inclined to think therefore that as the pure monism of the Upanisads was not worked out in a coherent manner for the formation of a monistic system, it was dealt with by people who had sympathies with some form of dualism which was already developing in the later days of the Upanisads, as evidenced by the dualistic tendencies of such Upanisads as the Svetasvatara, and the like. The epic Samkya was also the result of this dualistic development.    

It seems that Badaryana, the writer of the Brama-sutras, was probably more a theist, than an absolutist like his commentator Sankara. Gaudapada seems to be the most important man, after the Upanisad sages, who revived the monistic tendencies of the Upanisads in a bold and clear form and tried to formulate them in a systematic manner. It seems very significant that no other karikas on the Upanisads were interpreted, except the Mandukyakarika by Gaudapada, who did not himself make any reference to any other writer of the monistic school, not even Badardyana. Sankara himself makes the confession that the absolutist (advaita) creed was recovered from the Vedas by Gaudapada. Thus at the conclusion of his commentary on Gaudapada's karika, he says that "he adores by falling at the feet of that great guru (teacher) the adored of his adored, who on finding all the people sinking in the ocean made dreadful by the crocodiles of rebirth, out of kindness for all people, by churning the great ocean of the Veda by his great churning rod of wisdom recovered what lay deep in the heart of the Veda, and is hardly attainable even by the immortal gods."5 It seems particularly significant that Sankara should credit Gaudapada and not Badarayana with recovering the the Upanisad creed. Gaudapada was the teacher of Govinda, the teacher of Sankara; but he was probably living when Sankara was a student, for Sankara says that he was directly influenced by his great wisdom, and also speaks of the learning, self-control and modesty of the other pupils of Gaudapada.6 There is some dispute about the date of Sankara, but accepting the date proposed by Bhandarkar, Pathak and Deussen, we may consider it to be 788 A.D.,7 and suppose that in order to be able to teach Sankara, Gaudapada must have been living till at least 800 A.D.  


Gaudapada thus flourished after all the great Buddhist teachers Asvaghosa, Nagarjuna, Asanga and Vasubandhu; and I believe that there is sufficient evidence in his karikas for thinking that he was possibly himself a Buddhist, and considered that the teachings of the Upanisads tallied with those of Buddha. Thus at the beginning of the fourth chapter of his karikas he says that he adores that great man (dvipadam varam) who by knowledge as wide as the sky realized (sambuddha) that all appearances (dharma) were like the vacuous sky (gaganopamam8). He then goes on to say that he adores him who has dictated (desita) that the touch of untouch (asparsayoga -- probably referring to Nirvana) was the good that produced happiness to all being, and that he was neither in disagreement with this doctrine nor found any contradiction in it (avivadah aviruddhasca). Some disputants hold that coming into being is of existents, whereas others quarrelling with them hold that being (jata) is of non-existents (abhutasya); there are others who quarrel with them and say that neither the existents nor non-existents are liable to being and there is one non-coming-into-being (advayamajatim). He agrees with those who hold that there is no coming into being.9 In IV. 19 of his karika he again says that the Buddhas have shown that there was no coming into being in any way (sarvatha Buddhairajatih paridipitah).



Again, in IV. 42 he says that it was for those realists (vastuvadi), who since they found things and could deal with them and were afraid of non-being, that the Buddhas had spoken of origination (jati). In IV. 90 he refers to agrayana which we know to be a name of Mahayana. Again, in IV. 98 and 99 he says that all appearances are pure and vacuous by nature. These the Buddhas, the emancipated one (mukta) and the leaders know first. It was not said by the Buddha that all appearances (dharma) were knowledge. He then closes the karikas with an adoration which in all probability also refers to the Buddha.10    

Gaudapada's work is divided into four chapters: (I) Agama (scripture), (2) Vaitathya (unreality), (3) Advaita (unity), (4) Alatasant (the extinction of the burning coal). The first chapter is more in the way of explaining the Mandukya Upanisad by virtue of which the entire work is known as Mandukyakarika. The second, third, and fourth chapters are the constructive parts of Gaudapada's work, not particularly connected with the Mandukya Upanisad.

In the first chapter Gaudapada begins with the three apparent manifestations of the self: (I) as the experiencer of the external world while we are awake (visva or vaisvanara atma), (2) as the experiencer in the dream state (taijasa atma), (3) as the experiencer in deep sleep (susupti), called the prajña when there is no determinate knowledge, but pure consciousness and pure bliss (ananda). He who knows these three as one is never attached to his experiences. Gaudapada then enumerates some theories of creation: some think that the world has proceeded as a creation from the prana (vital activity), others consider creation as an expansion (vibhuti) of that cause from which it has proceeded; others imagine that creation is like dream (svapna) and magic (maya); others, that creation proceeds simply by the will of the Lord; others that it proceeds from time; others that it is for the enjoyment of the Lord (bhogartham) or for his play only (kridartham), for such is the nature (svabhava) of the Lord, that he creates, but he cannot have any longing, as all his desires are in a state of fulfilment.

Gaudapada does not indicate his preference one way or the other, but describes the fourth state of the self as unseen (adrsta), unrelationable (avyavaharyam), ungraspable (agrahyam), indefinable (alaksana), unthinkable (acintyam), unspeakable (avyapadeskya), the essence as oneness with the self (ekatmapratyayasara), as the extinction of the appearance (prapancopasama), the quiescent (santam), the good (sivam), the one (advaita).11 The world-appearance (prapanca) would have ceased if it had existed, but, all this duality is mere maya (magic or illusion), the one is the ultimately real (paramaarthatah). In the second chapter Gaudapada says that what is meant by calling the world a dream is that all existence is unreal. That which neither exists in the beginning nor in the end cannot be said to exist in the present. Being like unreal it appears as real. The appearance has a beginning and an end and is therefore false. In dreams things are imagined internally, and in the experience that we have when we are awake things are imagined as if existing outside, but both of them are but illusory creations of the self. What is perceived in the mind is perceived as existing at the moment of perception only; external objects are supposed to have two moments of existence (namely before they are perceived, and when they begin to be perceived), but this is all mere imagination. That which is unmanifested in the mind and that which appears as distinct and manifest outside are all imaginary productions in association with the sense faculties. There is first the imagination of a perceiver or soul (jiva) and then along with it the imaginary creations of diverse inner states and the external world. Just as in darkness the rope is imagined to be a snake, so the self is also imagined by its own illusion in diverse forms. There is neither any production nor any destruction (na nirodho, na cotpattih), there is no one who is enchained, no one who is striving, no one who wants to be released.12 Imagination finds itself realized in the non-existent existents and also in the sense [p. 426] of unity; all imagination either as the many or the one (advaya) is false; it is only the oneness (advayata) that is good. There is no many, nor are things different or non-different (na nanedam... na prthag naprthak).13 The sages who have transcended attachment, fear, and anger and have gone beyond the depths of the Vedas have perceived it as the imaginationless cessation of all appearance (nirvikalpah prapancopasamah), the one.14



In the third chapter Gaudapada says that truth is like the void (akasa) which is falsely conceived as taking part in birth and death, coming and going and as existing in all bodies; but howsoever it be conceived, it is all the while not different from akasa. All things that appear as compounded are but dreams (svapna) and maya (magic). Duality is a distinction imposed upon the one (advaita) by maya. The truth is immortal, it cannot therefore by its own nature suffer change. It has no birth. All birth and death, all this manifold is but the result of an imposition of maya upon it.15 One mind appears as many in the dream, so also in the waking state one appears as many, but when the mind activity of the Togins (sages) is stopped arises this fearless state, the extinction of all sorrow, final cessation. Thinking everything to be misery (duhkham sarvam anusmrtya) one should stop all desires and enjoyments, and thinking that nothing has any birth he should not see any production at all. He should awaken the mind (citta) into its final dissolution (laya) and pacify it when distracted, he should not move it towards diverse objects when it stops. He should not taste any pleasure (sukham) and by wisdom remain unattached, by strong effort making it motionless and still. When he neither passes into dissolution nor into dis traction; when there is no sign, no appearance that is the perfect Brahman. When there is no object of knowledge to come into being, the unproduced is then called the omniscent (sarvajna).



In the fourth chapter, called the Alatasanti, Gaudapada further describes this final state.16 All the dharmas (appearances) are without death or decay.17 Gaudapada then follows a dialectical form of argument which reminds us of Nagarjuna. Gaudapada continues thus: Those who regard karana (cause) as the karyya (effect in a potential form) cannot consider the cause as truly unproduced (aja), for it suffers production; how can it be called eternal and yet changing? If it is said that things come into being from that which has no production, there is no example with which such a case may be illustrated. Nor can we consider that anything is born from that which has itself suffered production. How again can one come to a right conclusion about the regressus ad infinitum of cause and effect (hetu and phala)? Without reference to the effect there is no cause, and without reference to cause there is no effect. Nothing is born either by itself or through others; call it either being, non- being, or being-non-being, nothing suffers any birth, neither the cause nor the effect is produced out of its own nature (svabhavatah), and thus that which has no beginning anywhere cannot be said to have a production. All experience (prajnapti) is dependent on reasons, for otherwise both would vanish, and there would be none of the afflictions (samklesa) that we suffer. When we look at all things in a connected manner they seem to be dependent, but when we look at them from the point of view of reality or truth the reasons cease to be reasons. The mind (citta) does not come in touch with objects and thereby manifest them, for since things do not exist they are not different from their manifestations in knowledge. It is not in any particular case that the mind produces the manifestations of objects while they do not exist so that it could be said to be an error, for in present, past, and future the mind never comes in touch with objects which only appear by reason of their diverse manifestations. Therefore neither the mind nor the objects seen by it are ever produced. Those who perceive them to suffer production are really traversing the reason of vacuity (khe), for all production is but false imposition on the vacuity. Since the unborn is perceived as being born, the essence then is the absence of production, for it being of the nature of absence of production it could never change its nature. Everything has a beginning and an end and is therefore false. The existence of all things is like a magical or illusory elephant (mayahasti) and exists only as far as it merely appears or is related to experience. There is thus the appearance of production, movement and things, but the one knowledge (vijñana) is the unborn, unmoved, the unthingness (avastutva), the cessation (santam). As the movement of burning charcoal is perceived as straight or curved, so it is the movement (spandita) of consciousness that appears as the perceiving and the perceived. All the attributes (eg. straight or curved) are imposed upon the charcoal fire, though in reality it does not possess them; so also all the appearances are imposed upon consciousness, though in reality they do not possess them. We could never indicate any kind of causal relation between the consciousness and its appearance, which are therefore to be demonstrated as unthinkable (acintya). A thing (dravya) is the cause of a thing (dravya), and that which is not a thing may be the cause of that which is not a thing, but all the appearances are neither things nor those which are not things, so neither are appearances produced from the mind (citta), nor is the mind produced by appearances. So long as one thinks of cause and effect he has to suffer the cycle of existence (samsara), but when that notion ceases there is no samsara. All things are regarded as being produced from a relative point of view only (samtvrti), there is therefore nothing permanent (sasvata). Again, no existent things are produced, hence there cannot be any destruction (uccheda). Appearances (dharma) are produced only apparently, not in reality; their coming into being is like maya, and that maya again does not exist. All appearances are like shoots of maaic coming out of seeds of magic and are not therefore neither eternal nor destructible. As in dreams, or in magic, men are born and die, so are all appearances. That which appears as existing from an imaginary relative point of view (kalpita samvrti) is not so in reality (paramartha), for the existence depending on others, as shown in all relative appearance, is after all not a real existence. That things exist, do not exist, do exist and not exist, and neither exist nor not exist; that they are moving or steady, or none of those, are but thoughts with which fools are deluded.    

It is so obvious that these doctrines are borrowed from the Madhyamika doctrines, as found in the Nagarjuna's karikas and the Vijnavada doctrines, as found in Lahkavatara, that it is needless to attempt to prove it. Gaudapada assimilated all the Buddhist Sunyavada and Vijñanavada teachings, and thought that these held good of the ultimate truth preached by the Upanisads. It is immaterial whether he was a Hindu or a Buddhist, so long as we are sure that he had the highest respect for the Buddha and for the teachings which he believed to be his. Gaudapada took the smallest Upanisads to comment upon, probably because he wished to give his opinions unrestricted by the textual limitations of the bigger ones. His main emphasis is on the truth that he realized to be perfect. He only incidentally suggested that the great Buddhist truth of indefinable and unspeakable vijnana or vacuity would hold good of the highest atman of the Upanisads, and thus laid the foundation of a revival of the Upanisad studies on Buddhist lines. How far the Upanisads guaranteed in detail the truth of Gaudapada's views it was left for his disciple, the great Sankara, to examine and explain.    


1. This point will be dealt with in the 2nd volume, when I shall deal with the systems expounded by the Vaisnava commentators of the Brahma-sutras.

2. *"Brahmasutrapadaiscaiva hetumadbhirviniscitah" Bhagavadgita. The proofs in support of the view that the Bhagavadgita is a Vaisnava work will be discussed in the 2nd volume of the present work in the section on Bhagavadgita and its philosophy.

3. Indian Antiquary, 1915.

4. See Vacaspati Misra's Bhamati on Sankara's bhasya on Brahma-sutra, II. ii.

5. Sankara's bhasya on Gaudapada's karika, Anandasrama edition, p. 214.

6. Anandasrama edition of Sankara's bhasya on Gaudapada's karika, p.21.

7. Telang wishes to put Sankara's date somewhere in the 8th century, and Venkatesvara would have him in 805 A.D.-897 A.D., as he did not believe that Sankara could have lived only for 32 years. J.R.A.S. 1916.

8. Compare Lankavatara, p. 29, Katham ca gaganopamam.

9. Gaudapada's karika, IV. 2, 4.

10. Gaudapada's karika, IV. 100. In my translation I have not followed Sankara, for he has I think tried his level best to explain away even the most obvious references to Buddha and Buddhism in Gaudapida's karika. I have, therefore, drawn my meaning directly as Gaudapada's karikas seemed to indicate. I have followed the same principle in giving the short exposition of Gaudapada's philosophy below.

11. Compare in Nagarjuna's first karika the idea of prapanocopasamam sivam. Anirodhamanutpadamanucchedamasasvatam anekarthamananarthamanagamamanirgamam yah pratityasamutpadam prapancopasamam sivam desayamasa sambuddhastam vande vadatamvaram. Compare also Nagarjuna's Chapter on Nirvanapariksa, Purvopalambhopasamah prapancopasamah sivah na kvacit kasyacit kascit dharmmo buddhenadesitah. So far as I know the Buddhists were the first to use the words prapancopasamam sivam.

12. Compare Nagarjuna's karika, "anirodhamanutpadam" in Madhyamikavrtti, B.T.S., p. 3.

13. Compare Madhyamikakarika, B.T.S., p. 3, anekartham ananartham, etc.

14. Compare Lankavatarasutra, p. 78, Advayasamsaraparinirvanavatsarvadharmah tasmat tarhi mahamate Sunyatanutpadadvayanihsvabhavalaksane yogah karaniyah; also 8, 46, Yaduta svacittavisayavikalpadrstyanavabodhanat vijnananam svacittadrsyamatranavatarena mahamate valaprthagjanah bhavabhavasvabhavaparamarthadrstidvayavadino bhavanti.

15. Compare Nagarjuna's karika, B.T.S., p 196, Akasami sasarnganca bandhyayah putra eva ca asantascabhivyajyante tathabhavena kalpana, with Gaudapada's karika, III. 28, Asato mayaya janma tatvato naiva jayate bandhyaputro na tattvena mayaya vapi jayate.

16. The very name Alatasanti is absolutely Buddhistic. Compare Nagarjuna's karika, B.T.S, p. 206, where he quotes a verse from the Sataka.

17. The use of the word dharma in the sense of appearance or entity is peculiarly Buddhistic. The Hindu sense is that given by Jaimini, "Codanalaksanah arthah, darmah." Dharma is determined by the injunctions of the Vedas.


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This page was published on May 13, 2001.

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