Why is Sankaracharya accused as Pracchana Bauddha (crypto-buddhist) by many Vedantins?
Irrespective of whether Buddhism (mAdhyamika and yogAcAra, specifically) is similar to or not similar to advaita-vedAnta, the above accusations will not hold water if it can be shown that the doctrine propounded by Adi Shankaracharya can be derived purely from the prasthAna traya – the Upanishads, the Bhagavad GIta and the BrahmasUtras.
In this context, the main objection of the non-advaitic vedAntins is towards the advaita teaching that the world is not real. It will be shown that this idea is present in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Only a few examples will be taken in the interest of space and time.
Unreality of the world can be derived from Bhagavad Gita
The first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, deals with Arjuna vishAda yoga. The real teaching of Bhagavad Gita begins with the 11th sloka of the 2nd chapter (sAmkhya yoga) with the upadesa of Sri Krishna paramAtma. Right at the beginning of the upadesa itself, in Sloka 2.16, Bhagawan Krishna presents the idea that the world is not real. So it is worthwhile looking at the summary of the Gita from the beginning till this point. (All references to Gita slokas and commentary of Shankara and translation by Swami Gambhirananda are from the Gita supersite website)
Chapter 1 and upto Chapter 2 Sloka 10 – Mostly Arjuna vishAda. Arjuna’s sorrow
Because Arjuna is sorrowful, it would make sense for Bhagavan Krishna to address the source of the sorrow.
Sloka 2.11 – The pandits do not grieve for those who are departed or not departed. You (Arjuna) should not grieve.
Sloka 2.12 – (Why should there be no grief?) Because you (Arjuna), me (Krishna) and others always existed and will always exist.
Sloka 2.13 – Rebirth is a state just like boyhood, youth, old age. (The Self is eternal. Therefore, there is no need to grieve over this matter of birth and death).
Sloka 2.14 – (If the Self is eternal, then what is non-eternal? Here, Bhagavan talks about what is non-eternal.) The contacts of the organs with their objects produce happiness and sorrow. One must bear them with the idea that they have a beginning and an end and are transient.
Sloka 2.15 – The person for whom these transient things like happiness and sorrow are the same, is fit for moksha. (Interesting thing is that Bhagavan has so far not spoken about any yogas like bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, karma yoga, he has barely started talking about the Self and here itself he has shown a path to moksha! This idea of remaining the same in happiness and sorrow, under praise and insult and other opposites, is reiterated at multiple places in the Gita.)
Sloka 2.16 – This is the sloka of interest here. In previous slokas Bhagavan has mentioned that the Self is eternal and that happiness and sorrow, heat and cold are non-eternal. Bhagavan, in this sloka, gives a big reason why one must bear happiness and sorrow – it is because whatever is transient or non-eternal is unreal.
nāsatō vidyatē bhāvō nābhāvō vidyatē sataḥ.
na asataH vidyate bhAvaH – the asat has no bhAva (the unreal has no existence)
na abhAvaH vidyate sataH – the sat has no abhAva (the real has no non-existence)
But the nature of both these, indeed, has been realized by the seers of Truth. (tattva darsibhih)
Bhagavan has talked about what is non-eternal and what is eternal in the previous Slokas. In this Sloka, he is giving an additional reason why one must bear happiness and sorrow. It is because the happiness and sorrow, are unreal! They are considered unreal because they are transient (their impermanence is mentioned in previous slokas). Because they are unreal and do not have an existence, Bhagavan is asking Arjuna to bear the pairs of opposites. This Sloka is very significant because it equates whatever is transient to whatever is unreal. The world, being transient, is thus also unreal.
The second part of the sloka talks about the people who see tattva (or truth). The seers of truth (tattva) are those who can discriminate between the real (sat) and the unreal (asat). This is exactly what advaita teaches!
In the above sloka it is implied that the world, along with transient phenomena like happiness and sorrow are asat. What then is sat or reality? Bhagavan answers this in the next sloka.
avināśi tu tadviddhi yēna sarvamidaṅ tatam.
vināśamavyayasyāsya na kaśicat kartumarhati৷৷2.17৷৷
2.17 But know That to be indestructible by which all this is pervaded. None can bring about the destruction of this Immutable.
Bhagavan mentions here that the Atman, being eternal (cannot be destroyed), is sat or reality.
These slokas then, from 2.11-2.17, at the beginning of Krishna paramAtma’s upadesa, already contain one of the fundamental doctrines of advaita that only Atman (eternal) is real and the entire world (everything that is non-Atman and hence non-eternal) is unreal.
Unreality of the world can be derived from the ChhAndogya upanishad
ChhAndoya Upanishad 6.1, Sanskrit text and translations are from Wisdomlib website for chhandogya upanishad
Svetaketu has studied all the Vedas (presumably minus the Upanishads or he studied just the Karma kanda or may be he did not pay much attention or may be his teachers did not teach him or for whatever reason), and still does not know anything about brahman, so his father Uddalaka starts to teach him.
śvetaketo yannu somyedaṃ mahāmanā anūcānamānī stabdho'syuta tamādeśamaprākṣyaḥ yenāśrutaṃ śrutaṃ bhavatyamataṃ matamavijñātaṃ vijñātamiti kathaṃ nu bhagavaḥ sa ādeśo bhavatīti || 6.1.3 ||
3.‘—(Did you ask your teacher for) that teaching by which what is never heard becomes heard, what is never thought of becomes thought of, what is never known becomes known?’ [Śvetaketu asked,] ‘Sir, what is that teaching?’.
yathā somyaikena mṛtpiṇḍena sarvaṃ mṛnmayaṃ vijñātaṃ syādvācārambhaṇaṃ vikāro nāmadheyaṃ mṛttiketyeva satyam || 6.1.4 ||
- O Somya, it is like this: By knowing a single lump of earth you know all objects made of earth. All changes are mere words, in name only. But earth is the reality.
yathā somyaikena lohamaṇinā sarvaṃ lohamayaṃ vijñātaṃ syādvācārambhaṇaṃ vikāro nāmadheyaṃ lohamityeva satyam || 6.1.5 ||
- O Somya, it is like this: By knowing a single lump of gold you know all objects made of gold. All changes are mere words, in name only. But gold is the reality.
yathā somyikena nakhanikṛntanena sarvaṃ kārṣṇāyasaṃ vijñātaṃ syādvācārambhaṇaṃ vikāro nāmadheyaṃ kṛṣṇāyasamityeva satyamevaṃsomya sa ādeśo bhavatīti || 6.1.6 ||
- O Somya, it is like this: By knowing a single nail-cutter you know all objects made of iron. All changes are mere words, in name only. But iron is the reality. O Somya, this is the teaching I spoke of.
This chapter of chhAndogya Upanishad, thus presents some of the most important ideas of vedAnta. The importance is known because of repetition of the same ideas multiple times. The Upanishad further goes on and mentions –
sadeva somyedamagra āsīdekamevādvitīyam | .........Somya, before this world was manifest there was only existence, one without a second. (6.2.1)
tadaikṣata bahu syāṃ prajāyeyeti.....That Existence decided: ‘I shall be many. I shall be born (6.2.3)
Thus the summary of the position of the Upanishad is as follows –
- Just as lump of earth is the material cause all objects made from lump of earth, brahman is the material cause of the universe (one without a second).
- However, even though brahman is the material cause, the Upanishad says that only the lump of the earth (brahman) is the reality. Thus, only brahman is real. All transformations of brahman are just figures of speech, meaning, they are just conventions (all changes are mere words). Since Upanishads mention at multiple other places that brahman is changeless, it must be the case that these transformations are unreal (this is also directly hinted by the Upanishad when it says that only the lump of earth etc are real). Hence, the world is just an apparent transformation of brahman and not a real transformation.
- This doctrine is the vivarta vAda of advaita and it implies that the world is not real.
- The Upanishad also implies that all transformations are unreal. Hence, only the changeless and eternal is real (it is the same as the logic of the Gita).
The culmination of this entire teaching is that all duality is unreal and jIva and brahman have no bheda. No wonder starting from 6.8.7, the Upanishad repeats “tat tvam asi” 9 times, showing that jIva is none other than brahman and showing the importance of this teaching.
Unreality of the world can be derived from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
Sanskrit text and Translations are from wisdomlib website for Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
1.4.10. brahma vā idamagra āsīt, tadātmānamevāvet, aham brahmāsmīti | tasmāttatsarvamabhavat; tadyo yo devānām pratyabubhyata sa eva tadabhavat, tathārṣīṇām, tathā manuṣyāṇām; taddhaitatpaśyannṛṣirvāmadevaḥ pratipede, aham manurabhavaṃ sūryaśceti | tadidamapyetarhi ya evaṃ veda, aham brahmāsmīti, sa idaṃ sarvam bhavati tasya ha na devāścanābhūtyā īśate, ātmā hyeṣāṃ sa bhavati; atha yo'nyāṃ devatāmupāste, anyo'sāvanyo'hamasmīti, na sa veda, yathā paśurevam sa devānām | ….
- This (self) was indeed brahman in the beginning. It knew only itself as. ‘I am Brahmaṇ.’ Therefore It became all. And whoever among the gods knew It all became That; and the same with sages and so on. The sage Vāmadeva, while realising this self as That, knew, ‘I was Manu, and the sun’ And to this day whoever in like manner knows It as, ‘I am Brahman,’ becomes all this (universe) Even the gods cannot prevail against him, for he becomes their self. While one who worships another god thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another,’ does not know. He is like an animal to the gods…
Here are some gems from Shankara’s most excellent commentary on this –
There is no such thing in the world that really assumes a different state through some cause and still is eternal. Similarly, if identity with all be due to the knowledge of Brahman, it cannot at the same time be eternal. And if it be transitory, it would be, as we have already said, like the result of an action. But if by identity with all you mean the cessation, through the knowledge of Brahman, of that idea of not being all which is due to ignorance, then it would be futile to understand by the term ‘Brahman’ a man who will be Brahman. Even before knowing Brahman, everybody, being Brahman, is really always identical with all, but ignorance superimposes on him the idea that he is not Brahman and not all, as a mother-of-pearl is mistaken for silver, or as the sky is imagined to be concave, or blue, or the like.
This knowledge has never been observed either directly to remove some characteristic of a thing or to create one. But everywhere it is seen to remove ignorance. Similarly here also let the idea of not being Brahman and not being all that is due to ignorance, be removed by the knowledge of Brahman, but it can neither create nor put a stop to a real entity.
The Upanishad says that by knowledge of oneself being brahman, one becomes everything. Shankara’s logic above is that knowledge is only seen to remove ignorance and it cannot create or stop a real entity. Thus, one doesn’t really “become everything” as such due to knowledge, but only that as a result of the knowledge of brahman, one loses that incorrect idea, due to ignorance, that one is not everything.
For example, it is impossible for Karna to become the son of Surya, if he was not really the son of Surya. Karna was always the son of Surya, whether he knew it or not. Thus, knowledge of Karna as the son of Surya, is only removing Karna’s ignorance on the matter and it does not produce something which is not already there. No amount of knowledge can, for example, make Duryodhana as the son of Surya.
Thus, when the Upanishad says that it is knowledge of brahman which leads to identity with everything, it implies that knowledge only removes the current state of ignorance which is currently making us to believe in the duality of the world (and the duality between brahman and oneself). Thus, the current duality of the world, is not real.
The non-duality (not only in the future, but also in the present) is confirmed by the Upanishad when it says - While one who worships another god thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another,’ does not know. He is like an animal to the gods.
That the world of duality is transient (and hence unreal, by the logic of ChhAndogya Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita) is also mentioned at other places in the Brihadaranyaka upanishad (notably 2.4.14) –
yatra hi dvaitamiva bhavati taditara itaraṃ jighrati, taditara itaraṃ paśyati, taditara itaram śrṇoti, taditara itaramabhivadati, taditara itaram manute, taditara itaraṃ vijānāti; yatra vā asya sarvamātmāivābhūttatkena kaṃ jighret, tatkena kaṃ paśyet, tatkena kaṃ śṛṇuyat, tatkena kamabhivadet, tatkena kaṃ manvīta, tatkena kaṃ vijānīyāt? yenedam sarvaṃ vijānāti, taṃ kena vijānīyāt? vijñātāram are kena vijānīyāditi || 14 ||
- Because when there is duality, as it were, then one smells something, one sees something, one hears something, one speaks something, one thinks something, one knows something. (But) when to the knower of Brahman everything has become the Self, then what should one smell and through what, what should one see and through what, what should one hear and through what, what should one speak and through what, what should one think and through what, what should one know and through what? Through what should one know That owing to which all this is known—through what, O Maitreyī, should one know the Knower?
Unreality of the world can be derived from the taittirIya upanishad
TaittirIya upanishad defines brahman as – satyam, jnAnam, anantam brahma (2.1.1)
Shankara mentions that these words, when they are taken together, seek to define brahman. These three words, serve to distinguish brahman from everything else, because a definition should distinguish something from everything else.
Here, we will confine ourselves to Satyam. What is Satyam? That which does not change (Bhagavad Gita and ChhAndogya Upanishad logic) is Satyam. Why should this be the case? In normal usage, we think the world is real, so we think that a pot that exists, for example, is real. The existence of the pot being true. But if brahman is Satyam in the same sense as a worldly pot, then Satyam jnAnam anantam brahma does not give us any distinguishing knowledge or definition of brahman. Hence brahman is Satyam is not in the same sense as a pot is Satyam. Brahman is Satyam in the sense that brahman does not change (it is never contradicted and is true in all periods of time). Whatever changes (the world) is then not real (not satyam).
Unreality of the world from other upanishads
Aitareya upanishad 1.3.12
tasya traya avasathAH trayaH svapnAH
This refers to the three states of Atman (jAgrut, svapna, sushupti or waking, dream and deep sleep) and equates all the three states to dreams. Thus indicating that the world is unreal.
Katha Upanishad 2.1.10-11
yadeveha tadamutra yadamutra tadanviha .
mṛtyoḥ sa mṛtyumāpnoti ya iha nāneva paśyati .. 10..
manasaivedamāptavyaṃ neha nānā'sti kiṃcana .
mṛtyoḥ sa mṛtyuṃ gacchati ya iha nāneva paśyati .. 11..
There is no difference here. Whoever sees difference here goes from death to death. The saying, which is already repeated twice is also mentioned in Brihadaranyaka upanishad 4.4.19 –
manasaivānudraṣṭavyaṃ, neha nānāsti kiṃcana |
mṛtyoḥ sa mṛtyumāpnoti ya iha nāneva paśyati || 19 ||
It shows the importance of this teaching that denies all differences. The denial of differences implies that the world that we perceive currently is not real.
Enough examples have been given to show that the word being unreal is a doctrine of prasthAna traya. Hence, the charge of Shankara being crypto-buddhist does not hold water.
The question mentions -
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.”
Ignoring all the personal attacks on Adi Shankara, there is no historical evidence that Visistha-advaitins (the school to which Vedanta Desika belongs) have consistently been successful in debates with advaitins, in the post-Desika period, by merely repeating Desika’s arguments like a parrot. Hence, the above claim and all similar claims may be taken with a pinch of salt.
PS: These points have been debated endlessly for centuries by various schools of vedAnta, without reaching any consensus. Hence, I will refrain from debates on this topic. One who does not like this answer is free to downvote.