Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Gaudapada's Karika on the Mandukya Upanishad

P.J.Mazumdar


(This is an analysis of the metaphysics of the Karika of Gaudapada, if you are looking for the full text of the Karika, please go here: Karika Full Text)

The Mandukya Upanishad is a short Upanishad, comprising of only 12 sutras. These Sutras describe the importance of the word Aum.

The mandukya would be considered a minor Upanishad by all yardsticks. Yet it has become an important Upanishad, important enough to be considered one of the ten major Upanishads, due to the Karika (exposition) written on it by Gaudapada.

Gaudapada was the guru of Govinda, and Govinda was the guru of Sankaracharya. Thus his importance in the evolution of Advaita is great. The Karika must have been written in the 7th century CE, much later than the Upanishads themselves.

The Karika comprises of 4 sections, the Agama Prakarana, the Vaitathya Prakarana, the Adavaita Prakarana and the Alatasanti Prakarana.

The first section gives a description of the sutras of the Mandukya Upanishad, the second describeds the nature of illusion, the third establishes non-duality and the fourth describes mystical experience in terms of Advaita.

The first section gives a description of the sutras of the Mandukya Upanishad, the second describes the nature of illusion, the third establishes non-duality and the fourth describes mystical experience in terms of Advaita.

There is no doubt that Gaudapada was deeply influenced by Buddhism. In his Karika, he has used many of the same arguments that was used by Buddhists in their scriptures. The terms and definitions were also often the same. This led Advaita open to the charge that it was nothing more than Mahayana Buddhism, in particular Yogachara Buddhism.

This charge was made by both the philosophers of other Vedanta schools and by Buddhists. Other Vedantists like Madhava and Ramanuja attacked Advaita as nothing more than Mahayana Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhists also frequently charged Advaita as being nothing more than their own philosophy in different words.

This charge stems from the way Advaita is defined in Gaudapada’s Karika. There is no doubt that an initial reading of the Karika does give an impression that it is nothing more than Idealistic Metaphysics.

Idealistic Metaphysics starts from taking the ‘I’ or the subject as the sole independent reality. The reality of the world outside is then interpreted from the viewpoint of this ‘I’ or our consciousness. But we know that our mind is also capable of seeing dreams although the dream world is unreal. We are then left with no way of proving that the world is more real than a dream; we are forced to say that the world may be just a dream dreamt in our consciousness and it has no independent reality apart from our consciousness.

Realistic Metaphysics on the other hand, takes as existing simultaneously and independently both the ‘I’ and the objects; both our consciousnes and the world. The world does not depend on our consciousness for its existence, it exists independently of our minds.

The Mahayana school of Buddhism starts from Idealistic Metaphysics. It takes as the first entity the existence of the ‘I’. The world then is seen as an illusion only, as nothing more than a dream.

Starting from this viewpoint, Yogachara school of Mahayana such as the Zen school says that the world is but a dream of the Suchness, or the Absolute Mind. The world is like clouds floating across the sky of the Suchness. The goal of our spiritual quest is to control our thoughts, so that the clouds do not come into our mind. Our minds will then be free of the world and we will exist only as the Suchness.

The Madhyamika school of Mahayana is a nihilistic school and goes one step further than this. It says that our minds do not have any existence apart from our thoughts and sensations of the world, and if the world is imaginary, then so are our thoughts and sensations and therefore, so is our mind. Thus in this school, there is no existence at all and the only truth is Sunyata, or Nothingness.

The criticism against Gaudapada is that in his version of Advaita, he substitutes Brahman for the Suchness of Yogachara Buddhism by saying that the thoughts and sensations, etc. are conceived by Brahman, and it is Brahman which appears as the mind when the reflections of thoughts-sensations fall on it.

Thus Gaudapada here apparently says that the world is an illusion, a dream, just as in Yogachara Buddhism. Hence the criticism that the Advaita of the Karika is nothing more than Buddhism in disguise.

Because of this, Advaitins are often described as nothing but ‘prachchhanna-Bauddha’ or secret followers of Buddhism, and Advaita as only a branch of Mahayana Buddhism

However, this is a false view of Advaita. Advaita does not depend on Idealistic but on Realistic Metaphysics. The world and its objects have independent existence and are not dependent on our consciousness. Of course, this is not a naive realism in that the world is not believed to exist in an absolutely real state but only as a relative or ambiguous reality.

This interpretation of Advaita Vedanta is put forward forcefully by Sankaracharya. In his commentary on the Karika, he relies on Gaudapada’s sutras and propounds what on first sight can seem to be idealistic metaphysics. However, in all other parts of Sankaracharya’s commentary on the Upanishads, we see that it is always a realistic metaphysics which is defined. Idealism is never countenanced and it is firmly rejected by Sankaracharya when he says that the world is not like ‘the horns of a hare’ or ‘the son of a barren woman’, that is, the world is not non–existent.

The Upanishads themselves are of course clearly Realistic, and never is any form of Idealism suggested in the Upanishads. Hence the definition of Brahman also is quite different and quite clear. The Advaita philosophy derived from the Upanishads is very strong in logic and impermeable to any attacks. There is also no question of confusing it with Buddhism, indeed it is diametrically opposite to Buddhism.

However, although the Karika on an initial reading does seem to suggest an Idealistic interpretation, many scholars have also suggested that it is not correct and that the Karika is Realistic in its heart. The prime objective of Gaudapada was to challenge the Buddhists, and for this he adopted many of their analogies and other terms into his own philosophy. But it resembles Buddhism only upto a point, upto declaring the world as unreal, but from thereon Gaudapada develops a Realistic interpretation.

That this is likely to be true is most strongly suggested by the fact that Shankaracharya who developed his philosophical position came from the same tradition, and his philosophy was strongly Realistic.

But it is true that a broad reading of the Karika does suggest an Idealistic viewpoint. Although scholars have tried to twist the Karika’s sutras into a Realistic interpretation, this does not seem suited to the actual meaning of the Sutras which suggests Idealism. The Karika indeed would tend to confuse entirely anyone who is starting out on the journey of learning Advaita and takes this as the only authorative text. This text more than any other has led many to misunderstand Advaita philosophy and has led to beliefs like Advaita is another form of Buddhism. A true understanding of Advaita leaves no ground whatsoever to confuse the two so opposite philosophies.

In the context of this section, I would limit myself to showing how the Karika takes the viewpoint of idealistic metaphysics. An extract of some verses is quite sufficient to show this.

These verses are from the Vaitathya Prakarana (The Chapter on Illusion).

1 Harih Aum. The wise declare the unreality of all entities seen in dreams, because they are located within the body and the space therein is confined.

2 The dreamer, on account of the shortness of the time involved, cannot go out of the body and see the dream objects. Nor does he, when awakened, find himself in the places seen in the dream.

3 Scripture, on rational grounds, declares the non—existence of the chariots etc. perceived in dreams. Therefore the wise say that the unreality established by reason is proclaimed by scripture.

4 The different objects seen in the confined space of dreams are unreal on account of their being perceived. For the same reason i.e. on account of their being perceived, the objects seen in the waking state are also unreal. The same condition i.e. the state of being perceived exists in both waking and dreaming. The only difference is the limitation of space associated with dream objects.

5 Thoughtful persons speak of the sameness of the waking and dream states on account of the similarity of the objects perceived in both states on the grounds already mentioned.

6 If a thing is non—existent both in the beginning and in the end, it is necessarily non—existent in the present. The objects that we see are really like illusions; still they are regarded as real.

7 The utility of the objects of waking experience is contradicted in dreams; therefore they are certainly unreal. Thus both experiences, having a beginning and an end, are unreal.

8 The objects perceived by the dreamer, not usually seen in the waking state, owe their existence to the peculiar conditions under which the cognizer i.e. the mind functions for the time being, as with those residing in heaven. The dreamer, associating himself with the dream conditions, perceives those objects, even as a man, well instructed here, goes from one place to another and sees the peculiar objects belonging to those places.

9—10 In dreams, what is imagined within the mind is illusory and what is cognized outside by the mind, real; but truly, both are known to be unreal. Similarly, in the waking state, what is imagined within by the mind is illusory and what is cognized outside by the mind, real; but both should be held, on rational grounds, to be unreal.

11 If the objects perceived in both waking and dreaming are illusory, who perceives all these objects and who, again, imagines them?

12 It is the self—luminous Atman who, through the power of Its own maya, imagines in Itself by Itself all the objects that the subject experiences within and without. It alone is the cognizer of objects. This is the decision of Vedanta.

13 The Lord (Atman), with His mind turned outward, imagines in diverse forms various objects either permanent, such as the earth, or impermanent, such as lightning, which are already in His mind in the form of vasanas, or desires. Again, He turns His mind within and imagines various ideas.

The verses are quite self explanatory, we can see clearly how Gaudapada declares the waking world as unreal because it corresponds to the dream world which we know already is unreal. He then goes on to say that it is the Brahman which is doing all this dreaming.

This is clearly like Yogachara Buddhism, and not at all true Advaita Philosophy. The logic is totally unsatisfactory. Many questions immediately leap to the mind such as :Is all this existence just a dream of Brahman, are each of us a different dream of Brahman and do we all not really exist just as the universe does not exist, why the Brahman should dream so many unreal dreams, etc. Gaudapada bases his theory on different sutras, quoting one or the other to support his various hypotheses. However, the theory remains open to many logical questions, and also goes against all reason and rationality.

The Karika contradicts the philosophy of Advaita as described in the Upanishads itself. Although it is sometimes reinterpreted as meaning a Realistic metaphysics, my personal opinion is that this does not seem to be the purport of the text. It would be best to go for the clear message of Advaita delivered by the Upanishads and Shankaracharya and disregard this Karika. This view of Gaudapada has often caused confusion as to what Advaita philosophy really means.The views expressed in this work should be separated from our thinking on Advaita and instead we should go directly to the Upanishads and Shankaracharya. The upanishads teach us a strong logical and rational form of Advaita philosophy and this is the true meaning of Advaita.



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