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)

upalambhatsamacaradastivastutvavadinam 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)

  • I checked Mandukya Karika 4.5, 'We approve the ajati (non-creation) thus established by them,....' in Swami Nikhilananda's tranlsation of the Upanishads. He says that 'them' refers to followers of the Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaiseshika systems. There is no mention of Buddhists. Feb 23, 2017 at 11:27
  • @PradipGangopadhyay obviously sankara sanyasins will try to defend it. all the arguments should be considered together. Feb 23, 2017 at 11:35
  • Swami Nikhilananda is probably quoting Sankaracharya. I would think that Sankara would know better than us Gaudapada's views and intent since Gaudapada was Sankara's param guru. Sankara when commenting on Gaudapada is almost certainly following traditional exegesis and not giving his personal opinion. Feb 23, 2017 at 12:11
  • @PradipGangopadhyay please see my question on Sankaras accusitions Feb 23, 2017 at 12:16
  • I didn't understand you. What exactly is your question? Feb 23, 2017 at 12:21

3 Answers 3


The theory of non-creation is older than the Buddhist Nagarjuna; it was expounded in the Upanishads. In his book, The Advaita Tradition in Indian Philosophy: A Study of Advaita in Buddhism, Vedanta and Kashmira Shaivism, Prof. Chandradhar Sharma writes (pp. 123-4):

It is contended by some that the doctrine of maya or avidya is not found in the Upanishads and it is borrowed by Shankara from Buddhism. This contention can only be made by those who are un-informed or ill-informed about the Upanishadic philosophy. The term 'maya' can be traced to the Rgveda (VI, 47, 18) where the one Supreme is said to appear in many forms through his power of maya. The Shvetashvatara (IV, 9-10) describes God as ‘mayi’, Lord of maya, and his wonder-working power of creation as maya [also see Chanogya U. 3.14.4 and 8.7.1]. The term ‘avidya’ is often used in the Upanishads in the sense of ignorance or appearance.

Indeed, the Brahma Sutras, older than the Buddhist texts, also support this. See Brahma Sutras 2.1.24-31 (available here - http://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/brahma-sutras/d/doc62753.html).

Professor Sharma also covers in Guadpapda in some 33 pages of his aforementioned book and 20 pages of that address the philosophical points of sameness and differences between Advaita and Buddhism as asserted by Gaudapada in his Karika, especially in the Fourth Chapter. Prof. Sharma points out in detail the arguments that have been made by various theistic Vedantin commentators through the ages including that Gaudapada is a crypto-Buddhist, that his commentary on the Fourth Chapter was actually written by a Buddhist, or that he was influenced by Buddhist thought. Prof. Sharma writes (p. 145-6):

Gaudapada is a highly respected teacher of Vedanta and to mistake him to be a hidden or open Buddhist is absurd. He is fully conversant with Mahayana which he calls Agrayana (a synonym of Mahayana in Buddhist literature) which flourished before him. Gaudapada, in his first three chapters of his Karika, has given a systematic exposition of Advaita Vedanta on the basis of scripture (shruti) as well as reasoning, and has composed the last fourth chapter of the Karika in order to elucidate his Advaita Vedanta by comparing it with Mahayana Buddhism. He shows the similarities and also the differences between the two by referring to and sometimes by reproducing from the Mahayana works. He discovered that these similarities were due to the fact that Buddha himself had partly assimilated the Upanishadic teachings, which were, later on, developed in the Mahayana schools of Madhyamika and Vijnanavada. He approves of some Mahayana doctrines which are in agreement with Vedanta, because these have been borrowed from the Upanishads and cannot be said to be the original contribution of Buddha or the Buddhists. He also points out the philosophical soundness of Vedanta over Mahayana. Thus, approving of the Mahayana doctrine of No-origination and the diacritical critique of causation, he points out that the Absolute must be equated with the pure non-dual Self; and approving of the arguments of Buddhist Vijnanavada in criticism of realism, he indicates that Buddhist idealism degenerates into subjectivism and pluralism, while Vedanta idealism has the merit of accommodating epistemic realism and is spiritual non-dualism.

Later on pages 152-4, Prof. Sharma lists the three points of agreement and six points of differences between Gaudapada and Vijnanavada Buddhism. The six points of differences are:

  1. Gaudapada is a teacher of Advaita Vedanta and advocates ontological realism only, while Vijnanavada is idealism par excellence—both ontologically as well as epistemologically. Gaudapada rejects epistemic idealism as illogical and unwarranted.

  2. Though Gaudapada places the world-objects on a par with dream-objects and illusory objects due to their ultimate unreality, yet he does assert the empirical differences between these; even thought the difference is only of degree yet it is important in our empirical life. Vijnanavada, on the other hand, places all objects, whether world-objects or dream-objects or illusory objects, on the same level and pronounces them as utterly unreal like a sky-flower or a barren woman’s son.

  3. Vijananvada separates the ‘form’ from the ‘content’ of consciousness, rejecting the objective ‘content’ as utterly unreal (parikalpita) and retaining the ‘form’ as relatively real (paratantra). Gaudapada rejects the distinction between parikalpita and paratantra which unnecessarily disturbs our empirical life and puts these both under samvrti or vyavahara. For him the ‘content’ and the ‘form’ of consciousness are inseparable and enjoy the same status as both arise together and vanish together.

  4. Vijananvada rejects the objective world as utterly unreal because it does not exist outside of consciousness. Gaudapada, like the Madhyamika, treats the world as ultimately unreal or false (mitya), because it is indeterminate (achintya) either as real or as unreal or as both and so is a self-contradictory appearance due to maya or avidya. The world of dream and illusion and the empirical world are perceived by us. Each works on its own sphere and is set aside only when sublating consciousness dawns.

  5. Gaudapada identifies the Absolute with the foundational Self (Atma) or Brahma [Brahman], while Vijnanavada calls it Vijnaptimatra (pure eternal non-dual consciousness), Parinispanna or Dharmadhatu.

  6. Vijnanavada believes that the Parinispanna Vijnana-matra due to beginningless and transcendental Vasana of objectivity becomes paratantra or conditioned by the wheel of causation generating the world-cycle of origination and annihilation in which momentary vijnanas and vasanas go on producing each other until paratantra is freed from the transcendental Vasana or Avidya by rooting out ‘objectivity’ from the stream of consciousness and regains its original purity as Parinispanna. Acharya Gaudapada does not accept all this. He rejects epistemic idealism and the pluralism, momentariness and creativity of vijnanas and the theory of real causation. The Real itself appears as individual subjects and also as the world of objects. The subject-object duality is to be removed by the elimination of difference (bheda); by the realization that jiva is Brahma [Brahman] and the world also is Brahma [Brahman], because Brahma [Brahman] is the ground-reality of both. This realization dawns in nirvikalpa samadhi in which knower, known, and knowledge are immediately realized as non-different in transcendental non-dual consciousness.

Finally, at the conclusion of his analysis of Gaudapada, Prof. Sharma writes (pp. 162-3):

The knowledge of the enlightened sage (Buddha) is not related to any object nor is any object related to it. And then the Acharya [Gaudapada] concludes: This has not been said by Buddha—naitad Buddhena bhasitam (Gaudapada’s Karika IV., 99.).

The above statement of Acharya Gaudapada may be interpreted in three ways. It may mean:

  1. As the Absolute preached by Buddha is beyond thought and language, he preached through silence and not through words. The Buddhist texts mention this at many places (From the time Buddha got enlightenment till the time he obtained nirvana not a single word was spoken by him: [numerous Buddhist references by Prof Sharma not included here]).

  2. Buddha preached spiritual Absolutism and epistemic idealism. The momentariness and plurality of vijnanas and their subjection to real causation leading to epistemic idealism were the fabrication of Vijnanavadins and were not taught by Buddha.

  3. The spiritual Absolutism preached by Buddha has been taken by him from the Upanishads. It is not original contribution. It is Vedanta.

All these three interpretations are justified.

The Acharya ends his Karika with a salutation to the Absolute which is unborn, eternal, non-dual, ever-the-same, free from difference, pure and fearless, very deep and difficult to be realized.

We thus see that Acharya Gaudapada’s Karika is not only the first available systemic exposition of Advaita Vedanta, but also the first available work which brings out a correct relationship between Advaita Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism.

  • I am familiar with Kashmir shaivism and is it NOT similar to SANKARA'S ADVAITA OR MADHYAMAKA Feb 23, 2017 at 9:08
  • what does Kasmir Shaivism have to do with the question or answer?? Feb 23, 2017 at 10:47
  • the book name is The Advaita Tradition in Indian Philosophy: A Study of Advaita in Buddhism, Vedanta and Kashmira Shaivism, Prof. Chandradhar Sharma writes (pp. 123- Feb 23, 2017 at 11:33
  • 1
    Yes, but the section quoted was only about Advaita and Buddhism. there is a completely separate section in the book on Shaivism.... Feb 24, 2017 at 4:37
  • @RakeshJoshi Gita 11.55 Apr 11, 2018 at 5:13

Them mentioned in the verse 4.5 of Mandukya karika and Shankara's commentary on the same refers to Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisesika philosophies, not to any Buddhism. Nikilananda in his translation clearly mention this in his explanatory notes along with the reason why the "them" mentioned here refers to those three philosophies:

Mandukya karika 4.5:

We approve the Ajāti or non-creation declared by them1. We do not quarrel with them1. Now, hear from us (the Ultimate Reality) which is free from all disputations.

Shankara's commentary:

We simply accept the view of the Ajāti or the absolute non-causation declared by them1and say,“Let it be so”. We do not quarrel with them by taking either side in the disputation. In other words, like them, we do not quarrel with each other. Hence Oh ye pupils, know from us the Ultimate Reality as taught by us, which is free from dispute.

1 Them—The followers of the Sāṃkhya as well as the Nyāya and the Vaiśeṣika systems.

Both schools by finding fault with each other’s views regarding ‘causal’ relation tend to establish the truth of Ajāti or the absolute non-manifestation of Ātman. With regard to causality, we accept that theory that is not refuted by any party, but which must be admitted by all, viz., Ajāti.

In his commentary on Mandukya Karika 4.27, Adi Shankara never said anything like you quoted. This is what his commentary is:

(Objection)—The mind appears as the jar, etc., though such objects are non-existent. Therefore there must exist false knowledge. Such being the case, there must be right knowledge somewhere (in relation to, or as distinguished from, false knowledge which we point out).

(Reply)—Our reply to this contention is as follows:—The mind certainly does not come in contact with a cause—an external object—in any of the three periods of time, past, present or future. If the mind had ever truly come in contact with such objects then such relation would give us an idea of true knowledge from the standpoint of Reality. And in relation to that knowledge the appearance of the jar, etc., in the mind, in the absence of the jar, etc., could have been termed as false knowledge. But never does the mind come in contact with an external object (which does not in reality exist). Hence how is it possible for the mind to fall into error when there is no cause for such an assumption? In other words, the mind is never subject to false knowledge. This is, indeed, the very nature of the mind that it takes the forms of the jar, etc., though in reality, such jar, etc., which may cause the mental forms, do not at all exist.

Further, to remove your confusion, Gaudapada in his Mandukya karika 4.99 says the following:

The knowledge of the wise one, who is all-light, is ever untouched by objects. All the entities as well as knowledge (which are non-different) are also ever-untouched by any object. This is not the view of the Buddha.

For which, Shankara commented the following:

The knowledge of the wise man, that is to say, of the one who has attained to the Supreme Reality, is ever unrelated to other objects or Jīvas. This knowledge is always centred in or is identical with Jīva (i.e., Ātman) like the sun and its light. The word “Tāyee”, “All-light”, in the text signifies that which is all-pervasive like Ākāśa or, it may mean that which is adorable or all knowledge. All entities, i.e., Jīvas (beings like so many Ātmans) are as unattached as the Ākāśa, and ever-un-related to anything else. Knowledge (Jñāna) which has been compared to Ākāśa in the beginning of this chapter is non-different from the knowledge of the wise one who is all-light. Therefore the Ākāśa like knowledge of the wise does not relate itself to any other object. This is also the essence of the Dharmas or all entities. The essence of all the entities is the essence of Brahman, and is, like Ākāśa, immutable, changeless, free from parts, permanent, one and without a second, unattached, non-cognizable, unthinkable and beyond hunger and thirst. The Śruti also says, “The knowledge (characteristic) of the seer is never absent.” This knowledge regarding the Ultimate Reality, non-dual and characterized by the absence of perceiver, perception and the perceived, is not the same as that declared by the Buddha. The view of the Buddha, which rejects the existence of external objects and asserts the existence of ideas alone, is said to be similar to or very near the truth of non-dual Ātman. But this knowledge of non-duality which is the Ultimate Reality can be attained through Vedānta alone.

  • this is not about sankaras commentary but gauda's commentary.. read question carefuly and edit accordingly Feb 28, 2019 at 19:05
  • In your question details, this is what you have quoted. "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)". You clearly said, Sankara's commentary on Gaudapada Karika. @Rakesh Joshi Mar 1, 2019 at 4:16
  • For verse 4.5, I clearly said "Mandukya Karika and Shankara's commentary on the same". If you want me to add Mandukya Karika verse 4.5, I am adding now. Mar 1, 2019 at 7:13
  • 80-90 percent of the answer is sankaras commentary.. Mar 1, 2019 at 12:29
  • When you posted wrong Shankara's commentary in your question details, what is wrong in posting the correct commentary in my answer? I also quoted Gaudapa's own verse along with Shankara's commentary for verses 4:99, 4:55. Mar 1, 2019 at 13:41

Hinduism predates Buddhism. If what Shankara said was already there in Buddhism, why he had to painstakingly write commentaries to the Upanishads, Brahmasutras and Bhagavadgeeta and save the >10,000 year old religion of Sanatana Dharma? Why people would have believed him? After all he being a poor human sanyasin.


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