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The main difference (I know) between Hinduism and Buddhism is that the first defends Ātman theory whereas the second defends Anātman theory.
Shankara is known for having debated (and won) with Buddhists on this difference.

Question: What are the main arguments in favor of the Ātman view over the Anātman view?


I reside in India since almost two years, and I've discussed about Buddhism with some Hindu friends. Most of them think that Buddhism is a part of Hinduism, in the sense that one aspect of Hinduism can defend the Ātman view whereas another aspect can defend the Anātman view. The Hinduism does not state that the Ātman view is the truth and the Anātman view is wrong, but the Hinduism (in its purest aspect) questions every dogma in one sense or another. When Shankara fought against Buddhism, I didn't fight against the Anātman view, he fought against the Anātman dogma.

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Buddhists say that the Hindu Atman theory is about the ego which in their view is non-existent. Hence they call their no-ego theory Anatman (not Atman). Hindus of course do not accept that Atman is the same as ego. So who is right? There is no way to intellectually decide who is right.

I am adding this material to essentially answer the question in the comment section. Sankara attacks Buddhists on other grounds not directly on the Atman-Anatman theories.I will quote Sankara's Brahma Sutra Bhasya II.ii.31 where he attacks all three Buddhist Idealists (Vijnanabada), Buddhist Realists (Sarvastitvavadins) and Buddhist Nihilists (Sarvasunyavadins or Madhyamikas) to give a flavour of his argument:

As for the ego-consciousness that is assumed to be the abode of disposition (or tendency), that too has no stable form, since you postulate its momentariness like sense-perception. Hence it cannot be the abode of tendencies. For unless there be some principle running through everything and abiding through all the three periods of time or some unchanging witness of all, there can be no human dealing involving remembrance, recognition, etc, which are contingent on past impressions that are stored up in conformity with environment, time and causation. If the ego-consciousness be (assumed to be) unchanging by nature, your doctrine (of momentariness) will be set at naught. Moreover since the theory of momentariness is upheld equally in Vijnanavada, all the defects arising from momentariness that were levelled (by us) against the theory of these (Buddhists) who believe in the existence of (momentary) external things, viz those shown under the aphorisms starting from, "And because the earlier is negated when the later emerges" (II.ii.20) are to be remembered in this context as well. Thus are refuted both these Buddhist points of view - of both those who believe in external things and those who believe in (subjective) consciousness). As for the view of the absolute nihilist, no attempt is made for its refutation since it is opposed to all means of valid knowledge. For human behaviour, conforming as it does to all right means of valid knowledge, cannot be denied so long as a different order of reality is not realized; for unless there be an exception, the general rule prevails.

You notice how he brings in the Atman theory (bolded sentence) indirectly. What does Shankara mean? He is attacking Buddhists who think of the 'I' sense in the following manner: I .... I.... I (where the 'I' sense does not exist during the dotted time period). What Sankara is arguing is that how do these Buddhists know that the series is not I1...I2...I3 etc where I1, I2, I3 are three different ego-consciousnesses? How can there be a stable personality which remembers a unique past or recognises old friends if the ego is unstable? In fact it is these Buddhists who need an unchanging principle (the Atman) that witnesses everything for all time (i.e. even during the gaps in ego-consciousness). Only if this Atman exists can Buddhists avoid problems regarding stability of personality. Otherwise a person who is Rama at one moment will consider himself Lakshmana in the next moment after the ego comes back. If these Buddhists now say that the ego-consciousness is stable and not momentary in order to save themselves from this conundrum then they have refuted themselves. Sankara then goes on to say that he can give a similar argument refuting Buddhists who regard the external world to exist momentarily. Even in this case of a momentary external world you will need an Atman (an unchanging witness for all time) to give stability to our perception. So in either case you need the Atman principle to make sense of our experience.

  • If there is no such a way, in what sense Shankara won his debates? – Sebastien Palcoux Jul 28 '14 at 15:12
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    Even if there is no definitive way to determine who is right (which I'm not totally willing to accept), the question is still asking for what arguments have been made in favor of the atman view over the a atman view. – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 28 '14 at 15:49
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    Read the bolded sentence of the quote where Shankara supports the Atman (the eternal witness) to refute the Buddhists position. – Pradip Gangopadhyay Jul 28 '14 at 15:51
  • Could you explain this argument of Sankara with your own words ? – Sebastien Palcoux Jul 28 '14 at 21:22
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    These Buddhists do not believe that the 'I' sense exists continuously. They claim that if you plot the 'I' sense against time, then periodically the 'I' disappears. This is what they mean by momentary ego-consciousness. What Sankara is asking is how is it that the 'I' sense that reappears after disappearing is the same as the previous 'I'? Why doesn't Rama think he is Lakshmana after his ego reappears? That is, how does a momentary ego explain the stability of personality that we actually see? – Pradip Gangopadhyay Jul 30 '14 at 13:45
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Since your question is not limited only to arguments of Shankara, I am going to explain an argument in this answer. But I am not sure whether this has been used by anyone or not to argue against the anatman view.

Buddhist view accepts existence of Karma and rebirth. And it is a simple principle of the system of Karma that the doer of the action and the experiencer of the results, both are the same person. And when a person dies, he takes birth again to experience the results of his unexpereinced actions. Now the question is, what is common between the deceased person and the reborn one that you say this new born one is the reincarnation of the deceased one?

Certainly, the body is not common, nor also the mind. If the mind were common, then the new born one would have the exact same tendencies and memories. So when the body and mind are not common, then certainly there must be something else common between the two that their reincarnation is accepted. And Hinduism says, it is the atman that is common in both the bodies. But as per Buddhism there is this missing gap.

So if we accept anatman view then the question of identity would arise. Buddhists just say the new body is an effect of actions done by the past body. But effect being something different than the cause, there identity should not be accepted. But nevertheless they do so. For example, His Holiness Dalai Lama is believed to reincarnate once He leaves His old body. Hence, after the death of His Holiness, they start the search for His Holiness's reincarnation.

I don't know any textual reference but I believe Buddha just didn't acknowledge the existence of Atman. He didn't completely deny it's existence. The existence of an eternal self can cause attachment in people's mind. And because attachment of any form leads to suffering, Buddha didn't acknowledge its existence. Because the concept of whole of Buddhism is to reduce suffering. During His time in Hinduism yajna, animal sacrifices, etc. were high in practice for the purpose of acquiring a good position for the atman in the afterlife . It is probably because of that He preached an anatman view.

  • Hi Jabahar, I'm sorry to contact you like this, but I've no choice. Keshav Srinivasan suggests me to contact you (see here and there). I know you're in Odisha, but are you close to the Jagannath Temple of Puri? Can you go to this Temple for scanning the archive texts about the visit of Jesus, or do you know someone who can be agree to do this? Best regards, Sebastien Palcoux. – Sebastien Palcoux Oct 12 '14 at 16:02
  • @SébastienPalcoux Hi..it's fine. But unfortunately the temple archives are inaccessible for common people. I am just a common guy so don't know any higher authorities in the temple who can do this. I live around 70km away from the temple and visit it occasionally once or twice every couple of months. But I'll try to find out more about it the next time I visit. The weather here is bad due to cyclone, flood, etc. so can't go this month. Sorry to reply late as I was away, I'll leave you a message when I go there. – Be Happy Oct 13 '14 at 3:19
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It totally depends on which theory you believe in, its not about which theory is better. Buddhism also takes you to the path to liberation,after meditation from which one comes to know about himself/herself(gets knowledge/gyan) from one of the Buddhist theories whereas same thing has been told in Bhagwat Geeta by Lord krishna that you can get liberation and meet the supreme lord by Gyan Yog

Hence both are better as both lead you to the path of liberation and peace, it mainly depends on which theory you believe in.

To understand it in a better way consider the following example

Person A is author and earns(say 50,000 amount) by writing books and there is a person B who is a cricketer and earns(say 50,000 amount) by playing cricket. Now here comes the question, What to opt for? Become an author and earn money or do the same by playing cricket. The answer is simple choose in which you believe and excel in as in both you are earning. I hope you got my point.

  • I get your point, there are different paths adapted to different persons, what is important is to find the path you believe in, i.e. the path which will drive to Realization. But then, what are the purpose of Shankara's debates with Buddhists? – Sebastien Palcoux Jul 28 '14 at 15:18
  • @SébastienPalcoux : if I'm not wrong your question is What are the main arguments showing that Ātman theory is better than Anātman theory? to which i answered. Your question wasn't what are the purpose of Shankara's debates with Buddhists? . You can ask another question regarding that query of yours by referencing this question in your new question. – Sid M Jul 28 '14 at 15:21
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    Yes precisely, and you didn't write any argument, you just wrote your opinion that none is better than the other. But Shankara gave arguments, so such arguments exist. I'm not looking for just the arguments of Shankara, I'm looking for arguments. – Sebastien Palcoux Jul 28 '14 at 15:34
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    The question isn't about which theory you should believe in or which theory is better. The question is what arguments have been made in favor of the atman view over the anatman view, and your answer doesn't address that. – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 28 '14 at 15:52
  • @KeshavSrinivasan: yes it's exactly that! I will replace my formulation by yours, because it's clearer. – Sebastien Palcoux Jul 28 '14 at 16:02

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