Mayavada and Buddhism – Are They One and the Same?

Aug 23 2012 - Krishna Talk 146

In the Padma Purana, there is a famous verse wherein Siva tells Parvati that he will appear in the age of Kali as a brahmana to preach asat-sastra:

mayavadam asat-sastram
pracchanam-baudham ucyate
mayaiva kalpitam devim
kalau brahmana rupinah

O goddess, in the age of Kali, I will appear in the form of a brahmana to preach the false doctrine of Mayavada which is simply covered Buddhism. (Padma Purana 6.236.7)

Indisputably, the brahmana mentioned in the verse is none other than the great Indian philosopher of monistic Vedanta, Adi Sankara. A few verses later Siva continues:

vedarthan maha-sastram mayavadam avaidikam
mayaiva kathitam devi jagatam nasakaranat

 This powerful doctrine of Mayavada resembles the Vedas, but is by nature non-Vedic. O goddess, I propagate this philosophy in order to destroy the world. (Padma Purana 6.236.11)

 The term ‘Mayavada’ refers to the Advaitic theory that the appearance of this world and the duality within it is due to maya – the illusory power of Brahman. This world is unreal and is a vivarta, or a modification through maya. Brahman is the only reality. There are various reasons why this theory is untenable, but that is not the topic of this article.

 ‘Mayavada’ is an expression that is rarely used by Advaitins in referring to themselves or their doctrine as it carries with it a derogatory implication. Adi Sankara himself referred to his philosophy as abheda-darsana (the theory of non-difference) or as dvaitavada-pratisedha (the denial of dualism). However, amongst scholars his philosophy is generally known as kevaladvaita-vada (the theory of absolute non-dualism) or simply Advaita.

From the above verses from Padma Purana it is clear that even before it’s actual inception, Advaita philosophy was considered to be ‘covered Buddhism’. Sankara’s opponents such as Madhva, Ramanuja, Partha-sarathi Misra and Bhaskara associated his teachings with Buddhism mainly due to his theory of nirguna Brahman and his concept of maya. Such accusations have always incensed the Mayavadis and they have strongly protested against such parallels and made great efforts to distance themselves from Buddhism, condemning it as absolute nihilism.


Bhaskara (9th Century CE), the propounder of bhedabheda-siddhanta was one of the earliest Indian philosophers to attack Mayavada. In his commentary on Vedanta-sutra, Bhaskara does not mention Sankara by name, nor does he mention the name of his philosophy. However by reviewing his arguments against the monistic doctrine of maya and the Advaitic concept of anirvacaniya, it is obvious who and what he is alluding to.

Bhaskara is positively vitriolic when writing about the Advaitin’s concept of maya, referring to it’s adherents as bauddha-matavalambin (those that cling to Buddhist ideology) and goes on to say that their philosophy reeks of Buddhism (bauddha-gandhin). Bhaskara concludes that, “No one but a drunkard could hold such theories” and that Mayavada is subversive of all sastrika knowledge:

vigitam vicchinna-mulam mahayanika-bauddhagathitam mayavadam vyavarnayanto lokan vyamohayanti

Expanding on the contradictory and baseless philosophy of maya propagated by the Mahayanika Buddhists, the Mayavadis have misled the whole world. (Bhaskara’s Brahma-sutra-bhasya 1.4.25)

In his Siddha-traya, the Vaisnava philosopher Yamunacarya (917–1042 CE) stated that Buddhism and Mayavada was essentially the same thing. The only difference he could see was that while one was openly Buddhist (prakata-saugata), the other was simply covered (pracchana-saugata).

Following on from Yamunacarya, his disciple Sri Ramanuja (1017-1137 CE) also concurred that Mayavada was another form of Buddhism. In his Sri Bhashya commentary on the Vedanta-sutras, Ramanuja says that to claim that non-differentiated consciousness is real and all else is false is the same as the Buddhist concept of universal void. Furthermore, Ramanuja states that the concepts of such crypto-Buddhists make a mockery of the teachings of the Vedas (veda-vadacchadma pracchana-bauddha).

Another acarya in the line of Ramanuja, Vedanta Desika (1269–1370) wrote his famous Sata-dusini, a text expounding one hundred flaws found in Mayavada. In that work he refers to Sankara as a rahu-mimamsaka (one who obscures the true meaning of Vedanta), a bhrama-bhiksu (a confused beggar), a cadmavesa-dhari – one who is disguised in false garb, and goes on to assert that, “By memorizing the arguments of the Sata-dusini like a parrot, one would be victorious over the crypto-Buddhists.”

In another work, Paramata-bhangam, Vedanta Desika refers to Sankara as, “One who studied the Vedas in the shop of a Madhyamika Buddhist” (referring to Sankara’s param-guru Gaudapada of whom we will speak of later in this article).

Later philosophers also declared Mayavada to be crypto-Buddhism. The Sankhya philosopher Vijnana-bhiksu (1550–1600 CE) tried to reconcile Vedanta with Sankhya philosophy and synthesize all theistic schools of Indian thought into a philosophy that he called Avibhagadvaita (indistinguishable non-dualism). He was an impartial writer who analyzed both the merits and problems of the various doctrines that he encountered. Concerning Sankara’s philosophy, Vijnana-bhiksu states in his Sankhya Pravacana Bhasya:

brahma-mimamsayam kenapi sutrenavidya-matrato bandhasyanuktatat. avibhago vacanaditya-sutrair-brahma-mimamsaya abhipretas-yavibhaga-laksanadraitasy-avidyadivastavatve’pyavirodhaccha. yat tu vedanta-bruvanamadhunikasya mayavadas-yatra lingam drsyate tat tesamapi vijnanavadyeka-desitaya yuktameva.

There is not a single Brahma-sutra in which bondage is declared to be a mere deception. As to the novel theory of maya propounded by vedanta-bruva (those who claim to be Vedantists), it is only another type of Buddhist of the Vijnanavada school (vijnana-vadyekadesin). This theory has nothing to do with Vedanta and it should be understood that this doctrine of these new Buddhists, who assert the theory of maya and reduce our bondage to mere illusion is in this way refuted. (Sankhya Pravacana Bhasya 1.22)

Later on in his work, Vijnana-bhiksu also quotes the famous verse from Padma Purana (mayavadam asat-chastram). Vijnana-bhiksu considered Buddhism to be nastikavada, or atheism, as it was opposed to Vedic thought. Thus, in effect, he was declaring Mayavadis to be out and out atheists.

Amongst all acaryas and philosophers, Sri Madhvacarya was certainly the most hostile towards Sankara. Throughout his campaign to establish his philosophy of Dvaitavada, Madhva continuously attacked Mayavada, which he considered to be the worst kind of heresy. In his Anu-vyakhyana, Brhad-bhasya and Tattvodyota, Madhva also makes the claim that the Advaitins are crypto-Buddhists – na ca sunyavadinah sakasad vailaksanyam mayavadinah (there is no doctrinal difference between Buddhism and Mayavada). He even quotes Buddhist texts and compares them to Advaitin works to prove his point.

At this point it would only be fair to see what Sankara himself has to say about Buddhism.


Sankara has long been glorified as being the principle architect behind Buddhism’s eventual decline in India. We do not know whether or not Sankara personally debated with Buddhist scholars since all the traditional hagiographies about him were written much later between the 14th and 17th Centuries and are an inextricable combination of legend and history.

What is certain is that by the time Sankara came to prominence, Buddhism was already on the wane in India. Buddhist scholars coming from China lamented the collapse of the Buddhist sanga due to Muslim assaults and the invasion of the White Hunas (Sveta Hunas or Turuskas) in Northern India during the 6th Century CE. During this period there was a resurgence of Vedic thought due to the patronage of such royal dynasties as the Guptas. Thus Sankara cannot be fully credited with the fall of Indian Buddhism.

During the time of Sankara there were three main schools of Buddhism – Vijnanavada (subjective idealism), Bahyarthavada (representationalism) and Madhyamika or Sunyavada (voidism).  In his commentaries on the Upanishads, Sankara’s arguments against Buddhism are rather tame. However, when it comes to his refutations in his Brahma-sutra-bhasya, Sankara is quite derogatory and pens a vitriolic character assassination of Buddha:

api ca bahyartha vijnana sunyavada trayam itaretara viruddham upadisata sugatena spandikrtam atmano sambandha pralapitvam, pradveso va prajasu viruddhartha-pratipattya vimuhyeyurimah praja iti.

Thus by inventing three contradictory systems – the reality of the world, the reality of knowledge and total voidism – it is clear that Buddha was either a man who simply made delirious statements, or else he had a hatred for mankind that induced him to create such a stupid philosophy so that they would become confused. (Sarirka-bhasya 2.2.32)

Sankara indeed made efforts to refute some of the Buddhist concepts found in Vijnanavada and Bahyarthavada, but made no strong attempts to defeat Sunyavada. Sankara writes in his Saririka-bhasya:

sunyavadi-paksastu sarvapramanavipratisiddha iti tannirakaranaya nadarah kriyate. nahyayam sarvapramanaprasiddho lokavyavaharo’nyattattvamanadhigamya sakyate  ‘pahnotumapavadabhava utsarga-prasiddheh

The third type of Buddhist doctrine that states that everything is void is contradicted by all means of right knowledge and thus requires no special refutation. This apparent world, whose existence is guaranteed by all means of knowledge, cannot be denied unless someone should discover some new truth (based on which he could impugn its existence) – for a general principle is proved by the absence of contrary instances. (Sarirka-bhasya 2.2.31)

Sankara dismisses Sunyavada as nihilism as it does not accept a higher reality after rejecting the phenomenal world. However, this accusation of Sankara’s is false since Sunyavada endorses the higher reality of the present moment directly experienced here and now. This is the only real criticism that Sankara makes of Sunyavada. Ultimately Sankara simply dismisses Sunyavada as being unworthy of criticism.

It is obvious from his commentary that Sankara attempted to distance himself from Buddhism. Yet his casual dismissal of Sunyavada and his gross misinterpretation of its doctrine are suspicious and need to be analyzed further.


It would be unreasonable to simply accuse Sankara of being a crypto-Buddhist simply on the basis of what his opponents have said without further examining the reasons for such accusations.

Throughout history, Mayavadis themselves recognized certain similarities between Buddhism and Advaitavada and have even complimented Buddhist ideology. The Advaitin scholar, Vimuktatman (9th Century CE) agrees with Sankara that Sunyavada Buddhism is nihilism, but admits in his famous work Ista-siddhi that if the Buddhists mean maya when they use the term asat, then their position is similar to that of the Vedantin.

Similarly, Sadananda Yogindra states that if the Buddhists define sunya as, ‘That which is beyond the intellect,’ then the Buddhist is actually a Vedantist.

Although the Advaitin Sriharsa accepts some differences between Advaita and Buddhism, he considers both schools of thought to be similar. Later, Sriharsa’s commentator Citsukha even comes to the rescue of the Sunyavada Buddhists by fending off the Vedic Mimamsakas when they attack the Buddhist concept of ignorance (samvrtti).

The Advaitin scholar Vacaspati Misra (900-980 CE) shows appreciation for the Buddhists when he states in his Bhamati commentary that the Buddhists of the Sunyavada school were advanced in thought (prakrstamati).

If ‘imitation is the highest form of flattery.’ then it certainly must have been true when Sankara plagiarized the famous Buddhist scholar Dharmakirti by directly lifting verses from Dharmakirti’s Pramana-viniscaya and using them in his Upadesa-sahasri. One example is the following:

abhinno’pi hi buddhyatma viparyasitadarsanaih
grahya-grahaka-samittir bhedavan iva laksyate

The intellect itself, though indivisible, is looked upon by deluded people as consisting of the divisions of the knower, knowing and the known. (Upadesa-sahasri.18.142)


Sankara’s doctrine of maya has been one of the principle reasons that he has been accused of being a closet Buddhist. Yet it was actually Sankara’s parama-guru, Gaudapada who posited the idea of maya or ajativada in his famous Mandukya-karika.

Ajativada refers to the theory of non-creation. In his karika Gaudapada claims that the world of appearances is actually maya and does not factually exist. So this theory of maya/ajativada does not originate with Sankara.

However, it does not originate with Gaudapada either…

Prior to Gaudapada, it was Nagarjuna that first postulated the concept of ajativada in his Madhyamika-karikas. In his Mandukya-karika, Gaudapada writes:

khyapyamanamajatim tairanumodamahe vayam
vivadamo na taih sardhamavivadam nibodhata

We approve of the ajati declared them (the Buddhists). We do no quarrel with them. (Mandukya-karika 4.5)

It is even affirmed by Sankara himself that Gaudapada accepted the arguments of the Buddhists regarding ajativada:

vijnanavadino bauddhasya vacanam bahyarthavadi-paksha-pratishedha-param acaryena anumoditam

 The acarya (Gaudapada) has accepted the words of the Vijnanavada Buddhist (Nagarjuna) to prove the unreality of external things. (Sankara’s commentary on Gaudapada’s Karika 4.27)

Gaudapada’s affiliation with Buddhism does not stop there. Gaudapada also gives arguments that are akin to those of the Buddhist scholar Vasubandhu in order to prove that the phenomenal world is unreal by equating the dream state with the waking state.

Furthermore, the two illustrations of the city of the Gandharvas (gandharva-nagara) and the magic elephant (maya-hasti) that Gaudapada uses in his karika to prove the illusory nature of the world are both found in Mahayana Buddhist literature.

In the fourth chapter of Mandukya-karika a case of similar terminology is found between Gaudapada and Nagarjuna. Gaudapada writes in his karika (4.7):

prakrter anyathabhavo na katham cid bhavisyati

And we find a similar verse in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka-karika (15.8):

prakrter anyathabhavo na hi jatupapadyate

The title of the fourth chapter of his karika is Alatasanti (circle of fire) which is a word commonly found in Buddhist texts. But probably the biggest give-away is in the fourth chapter of the karika:

nivrttasyapravittasya nishcala hi tada sthitih
visayah sa hi buddhanam tatsamyamajamadvayam

Thus, the mind freed from attachment and undistracted attains a state of immutability. Being realized by the wise, it is undifferentiated, birthless and non-dual. (Mandukya-karika 4.80)

jatistu desita buddhaih ajatestrasata sada

For those who, from their own experience and right conduct, believe in the existence of substantiality, and who are ever afraid of the birthless, instruction regarding birth has been imparted by the wise. (Mandukya-karika 4.42)

The Sanskrit word Gaudapada has chosen to refer to the wise is ‘buddha’!

Scholars have pointed out that Gaudapada’s method of dialectical analysis almost mirrors that of Nagarjuna, thus it is obvious that Mahayana Buddhism heavily influenced Sankara’s parama-guru. Despite glaring proof to the contrary, Gaudapada still tried to distance himself from Buddhism by writing at the end of the fourth Chapter of his work, naitad buddhena bhasitam – “My views are not the views held by Buddha.”

Indeed, Gaudapada’s karika is permeated so much with Madhyanika Buddhist thought that some scholars have suggested that he may have previously been a follower of Nagarjuna.


We will now examine other examples where Buddhism has infiltrated Mayavada philosophy.

Two Truths

Sankara postulates that there are two ways of looking at the world. There is a conventional perspective (vyavaharika-satya) where the world appears to be pluralistic, and there is the higher perspective (paramarthika satya) where one realizes that all duality is simply illusory and everything is Brahman.

However, this concept of ‘two truths’ did not originate with Sankara but with the Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna refers to these two truths as samvrtti-satta and paramartha-satta. Nagarjuna’s theory was enthusiastically taken up by Sankara in order to explain higher and lower fields of knowledge.

The Non-Existence of the Universe

Buddhism states that the universe is unreal (asat). Since its origin is sunya and it ends in sunya, logically, its interim must also be sunya. Thus they conclude that ultimately the element of time also does not exist. This means that the sum-total of everything in the universe is sunya.

Sankara also posits the same idea when he states jagat-mithya – the universe is false. Sankara rejects all three phases of time (past, present and future) when he writes in his Dasa-sloki:

na jagran na me svapnako va susuptir

I do not experience the waking state, the dream state nor the state of deep sleep. (Dasa-sloki 6)

If one dissolves all states of being that we experience (waking, dreaming and deep sleep), then naturally this eliminates time itself and the only ‘property’ remaining is void, or sunya.

Sankara describes the ultimate cause of the universe as avidya (ignorance). It has no past, present and future. However, conveniently, Sankara explains that this avidya cannot be fully explained philosophically because of its immense propensity – thus he calls it anirvacaniya (inexplicable). Both the asat of the Buddhist and the anirvacaniya of the Mayavadi accept the momentary ‘reality’ of the universe (vyavaharika-satya), it’s ultimate falsity (paramarthika-satya) and its incomprehensible nature – thus asat and anirvacaniya are one and the same thing.

Whereas Buddhists refer to the phenomenal universe as an impression (samskara), Sankara says that it is like a dream (svapna). However, this is just a matter of semantics –both dreams and impressions are in essence the same thing since they only occur on the mental platform.


Both the Mayavadi and the Buddhist agree that ignorance is the cause of suffering. The Mayavadi calls this avidya and the Buddhist refers to this as samvrtti. The Mayavadis go to great lengths to make differentiations between the two. However, the Buddhist scholar Candrakirti give the following etymological meaning of samvrtti:

Samvrtti is not knowing, caused by the veil of avidya, common to all. (Prasannapada 24.8.492.10)

Thus we conclude that the two terms are actually non-different.


The Mayavadi claims that the method of achieving moksa is realization of the non-difference between the atma and Brahman. The Buddhist says that realization that everything is ultimately sunya is the sadhana to attain liberation. Sankara defines moksa thus:

brahma bhinnatva-vijnanam bhava-moksasya karanam
yen’advitiyam anandam brahma sampadyate budhaih

The realization of one's inseparable oneness with Brahman is the means of liberation from temporal existence, by which the wise person achieves the non-dual, blissful nature of Brahman. (Viveka-cudamani 223)

This theory is identical with the Buddhist concept of prajna.  In Buddhism, when the causes of bondage are eliminated one attains realization of sunya which leads to liberation. This realization is known as prajna.

Moksa and Nirvana

Advaita defines moksa as the removal of avidya. Buddhists say that by the removal of samvrtti, one attains nirvana. Both conceptions of liberation are identical.

Brahman and Sunya

Once again, the Mayavadis go to great lengths to prove that their concept of Brahman and the Buddhist concept of sunya are totally different. The Mayavadis argue that by attaining Brahman one achieves ananda, but there is no ananda in sunya.  However, the great Dvaita scholar Raghuttama Tirtha has shown that there is no distinction between the two:

You Mayavadis desire to become Brahman or to become bliss.  You do not say, ‘We want to experience bliss.’ You say, ‘We want to become bliss’.  When one becomes bliss, according to you, one has no consciousness of bliss.  One does not enjoy bliss because you don’t believe that there is any consciousness of any enjoyment in that condition because you say the Self cannot become the object of Self-consciousness. According to you, Brahman is merely bliss and light. This cannot be the highest end.  It is a state of inertness.  It is thus like saying, ‘I do not want to taste sugar, or its sweetness – but I wish to become sugar.’ What is the good of one’s becoming sugar, if one has no consciousness of its sweetness? The lack of consciousness cannot be the highest end of man; in fact, there is no difference in this unconscious brahma-bhava of the Mayavadi, and the sunya-bhava of the Buddhists. (Bhava-bodha sub-commentary of the Brhad-bhasya)

According to Advaita, Brahman is nirguna (without any qualities). But logically speaking, something that is without any attributes whatsoever is as good as nothing (sunya). If something has eternal existence (as the Mayavadis claim Brahman has) then it must have attributes, otherwise it is nothing. Since the Mayavadis Brahman and the Buddhists sunya have no attributes, they must be identical.


The concepts of maya, avidya, vyayaharika-satya and paramarthika-satya, advaya, prajna, the unreality of the universe and time and the attributeless Brahman are all Buddhist contributions, without which there would be no Advaita philosophy. It thus becomes obvious why Sankara was disinclined to launch an all out attack upon Sunyavada Buddhism when he and his predecessor Gaudapada had appropriated so much from that doctrine.

In conclusion, by carefully analyzing the above points it would seem that Sankara’s detractors were correct in assessing that his philosophy was crypto-Buddhism. It can clearly be observed that Sankara and Gaudapada attempted to amalgamate Buddhist epistemology and psychology with the metaphysics of the Upanishads and Vedanta. Thus, from an orthodox standpoint, this automatically disqualifies Advaitavada as a traditional school of Vedic thought.