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Some time back I got a perception that "Shunyata" (absolute nothingness) of Buddhism and "Me" (ParamAtma / True self) referred by Krishna are same. Because both refer to the ultimate reality in an objective way. I have referred this concept in many of my answers, based on this.
Couple of years back, to verify that, I had even purchased an Amazon e-book from our fellow member @BeHappy/Jabahar who happens to believe in "Shunya-vada" originated in Orissa, India.

Has Shunyata been referenced in direct or indirect way in any other Hindu philosophy?

  • If we interpret properly, what Buddha said is close to Advaita Vedanta. Professor Chandradar Sharma explains that in this book archive.org/details/… Mahayana Buddhism is close to what Buddha said. – The Destroyer Mar 1 '18 at 5:43
  • first it depends upon whether you are taking Theravedic (Hinayana) or Mahayana Buddhism. In Hinayana it is interpreted as meaning void. In Mahayana its mean the absolute nothingness of the perceived world - maya. See - hinduism.stackexchange.com/questions/17249/… – Swami Vishwananda Mar 1 '18 at 10:47
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TL;DR version

Shunyata which is Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna's "emptiness of emptiness" in his Madhyamaka philosophy is completely incompatible with the concept of Brahman in Hinduism.

I take here the concept of Brahman in Advaita, since Nirguna Brahman, the Supreme God in Advaita, is formless and without qualities, may be considered a "void" as in void of qualities but this void is different from shunyata, which is a void of substance.

So, while some Hindus may have interpreted both voids to mean the same void, but from a detailed philosophical analysis, we find that void of qualities and void of substance don't mean the same thing.

This is supported by Banaras Hindu University Professor T. R. V. Murti's statement (quoted below) in this book chapter: Murti T.R.V. (1973) Saṁvṛti and Paramārtha in Mādhyamika and Advaita Vedānta. In: Sprung M. (eds) The Problem of Two Truths in Buddhism and Vedānta. Springer, Dordrecht

It has been the fashion to consider that the differences between the Madhyamika śūnyatā and Brahman are rather superficial and even verbal, and that the two systems of philosophy are almost identical. At least Professor Radhakrishnan thinks so, and Stcherbatsky's and Dasgupta's views are not very different. I hold a contrary view altogether: that in spite of superficial similarities in form and terminology, the differences between them are deep and pervasive.

Long version

Concept of Brahman in Advaita

We can see this from Adi Shankaracharya's own compositions:

ब्रह्म सत्यं जगन्मिथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः
brahma satyam jaganmithyA jIvo brahmaiva nAparah
Brahman is real, the universe is an illusion. The jiva is Brahman itself and not different. (Brahmajnanavalimala 20)

This Atman is a self-cognised entity because It is cognised by Itself. Hence the individual soul is itself and directly the Supreme Brahman, and nothing else. (Vivekachudamani 216)

There exists no other material cause of this phenomenal universe except Brahman. Hence this whole universe is but Brahman and nothing else. (Aparokshanubhuti 45)

The pot, wall, etc., are all nothing but clay. Likewise, the entire universe is nothing but Brahman. (Brahmajnanavalimala 19)

Brahman is Existence, Knowledge, Infinity, pure, supreme, self-existent, eternal and indivisible Bliss, not different (in reality) from the individual soul, and devoid of interior or exterior. It is (ever) triumphant. It is this Supreme Oneness which alone is real, since there is nothing else but the Self. Verily, there remains no other independent entity in the state of realisation of the highest Truth. All this universe which through ignorance appears as of diverse forms, is nothing else but Brahman which is absolutely free from all the limitations of human thought. A jar, though a modification of clay, is not different from it; everywhere the jar is essentially the same as the clay. Why then call it a jar ? It is fictitious, a fancied name merely. None can demonstrate that the essence of a jar is something other than the clay (of which it is made). Hence the jar is merely imagined (as separate) through delusion, and the component clay alone is the abiding reality in respect of it. Similarly, the whole universe, being the effect of the real Brahman, is in reality nothing but Brahman. Its essence is That, and it does not exist apart from It. He who says it does is still under delusion - he babbles like one asleep. This universe is verily Brahman - such is the august pronouncement of the Atharva Veda. Therefore this universe is nothing but Brahman, for that which is superimposed (on something) has no separate existence from its substratum. (Vivekachudamani 225-231)

Therefore the universe does not exist apart from the Supreme Self; and the perception of its separateness is false like the qualities (of blueness etc., in the sky). Has a superimposed attribute any meaning apart from its substratum? It is the substratum which appears like that through delusion. (Vivekachudamani 235)

Becoming thyself the self-effulgent Brahman, the substratum of all phenomena - as that Reality give up both the macrocosm and the microcosm, like two filthy receptacles. (Vivekachudamani 289)

The above quotes clearly show the teaching of eternalism.

Brahman is eternal, infinite, self-existent and transcendental absolute reality. Brahman is the substratum or foundation of the universe. Brahman is the material cause of the universe. Brahman is the only thing that is permanent and ultimately real, while the universe is ultimately an illusion.

The individual soul, which is a self-cognized entity, is ultimately the same as Brahman.

While Brahman is without qualities, it appears as the universe and individuals with qualities, through delusion.

This summarizes the nature of reality according to Advaita Vedanta.

Emptiness according to Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka

While the Buddha stopped at describing the "middle way" and emptiness with respect to the nature of the self, Nagarjuna expanded these concepts to cover the nature of the universe and all reality. He did this in his magnum opus, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, whose name itself means "Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way". Nagarjuna did not contradict the Buddha's teachings, but rather, expanded it.

The Wikipedia article on Madhyamaka (which contains its own citations) summarized Nagarjuna's teachings very well:

Central to Madhyamaka philosophy is śūnyatā, "emptiness." The term refers to the "emptiness" of inherent existence: all phenomena are empty of "substance" or "essence" (Sanskrit: svabhāva) or inherent existence, because they are dependently co-arisen. At a conventional level, "things" do exist, but ultimately they are "empty" of inherent existence. But this "emptiness" itself is also "empty": it does not have an existence on its own, nor does it refer to a transcendental reality beyond or above phenomenal reality.

Nagarjuna's critique of the notion of own-nature (svabhāva) argues that anything which arises according to conditions, as all phenomena do, can have no inherent nature, for what is depends on what conditions it. Moreover, if there is nothing with own-nature, there can be nothing with 'other-nature' (para-bhāva), i.e. something which is dependent for its existence and nature on something else which has own-nature. Furthermore, if there is neither own-nature nor other-nature, there cannot be anything with a true, substantial existent nature (bhāva). If there is no true existent, then there can be no non-existent (abhāva).

Rather than the annihilationism that nothing exists or the eternalism that something exists eternally, Nagarjuna taught the "middle way" that all phenomena is empty of its own "inherent existence" or "substance" or "essence" (what he called svabhāva).

If nothing has inherent substance, then nothing can depend on something else for substance, so there is no other inherent substance (para-bhāva).

Nagarjuna's unique philosophy however, is that even this emptiness is empty i.e. this emptiness does not have its own inherent substance. This means that there is no transcendental reality beyond phenomenal reality. This is what is implied by ultimate reality not being absolute reality.

A very nice and simplified explanation of the Madhyamaka emptiness can be found in Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's writing, "The Fullness of Emptiness".

Comparing Advaita's Brahman and Madhyamaka's Shunyata

Comparing what Adi Shankaracharya taught and what Nagarjuna taught, we come to see very clearly that both are not the same and in fact, completely incompatible:

  • Shankara said Brahman is eternal and absolute. Meanwhile, Nagarjuna said nothing is eternal and absolute.
  • Shankara's Brahman (clay analogy) implies that it is the only thing that has a true inherent substance (what Nagarjuna called svabhāva). Meanwhile, Nagarjuna says nothing has inherent substance.
  • Shankara's Brahman is the material cause (again, clay analogy) of the universe. Meanwhile, Nagarjuna's emptiness is not a material cause for anything including itself.
  • Shankara said that the universe depends on Brahman as its substratum (what Nagarjuna called para-bhāva). Meanwhile, Nagarjuna said there is no other inherent substance (para-bhāva) i.e. no substratum for anything else.
  • Shankara's Brahman is the Ultimate Reality that is the Transcendental Absolute Reality. Meanwhile, Nagarjuna's Ultimate Reality is an "emptiness of emptiness" that is devoid of transcendental or absolute reality.

What is common between Advaita and Madhyamaka is that both proclaim the non-dualism between the Ultimate Reality and the phenomenal reality. However, Advaita's Ultimate Reality is a Transcendental Absolute Reality, while Madhyamaka's Ultimate Reality is the "emptiness of emptiness" that is devoid of any transcendental or absolute reality.

My conclusion is that Adi Shankaracharya's Nirguna Brahman and Madhyamaka's "emptiness of emptiness" (shunyata) are not the same and in fact, completely incompatible.

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Sri Sankaracharya interprets the concept of shunyata as nihilism. However, Brahman or the Self has been described as sunyah or void in the Upanishads.

He, who is reputed as standing aloof amidst qualities, like those of vigorous chastity, he indeed is pure, clean, void, tranquil, breathless, mindless, endless, undecaying, steadfast, eternal, unborn, independent. He abides in his own greatness. By him this body is set up as possessing intelligence or in other words, this one, verily, is its driver. Then they said, 'How Revered sir, by this kind of desireless being, is this sort of thing set up as possessing intelligence, or in other words, how is this one its mover?' Then he said to them.

Maitri Upanishad II.4 translated by Radhakrishnan

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    It doesn't mean void as non existent, but void as in all existent, having no material qualities. – Anubhav Jha Mar 1 '18 at 7:51
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    Vyasa refutes shunyavaad in brahma sutras. Void of all bad qualities not void-non existent. – Anubhav Jha Mar 1 '18 at 7:52
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    @AnubhavJha by saying such you are only supporting buddhism by propagating as very ancient – Rakesh Joshi Mar 1 '18 at 11:06
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    @RakeshJoshi shramanas are ancient people, but that doesn't mean that thay are better, their philosophy is non Vedic thus false, even some upanishads mention shramanas. – Anubhav Jha Mar 1 '18 at 11:08
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    @AnubhavJha why did the Buddhists decide to use the term shunyata when they could have used the term Purna? – Pradip Gangopadhyay Mar 1 '18 at 12:11
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Prof Chandradhar Sharma writes in his book A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy (available here - https://archive.org/details/IndianPhilosophyACriticalSurvey) on pp 321-2:

The only difference between Shunyavada and Vedanta, therefore, is the difference of emphasis only. This difference is of a double nature. Firstly, while Shunyavada is more keen to emphasize the ultimate unreality of all phenomena, Shankara and his followers are more keen to emphasize the empirical reality of all phenomena; and secondly while Shunyavada is less keen to develop the conception of ultimate Reality, Vedanta is more keen to develop this conception almost to perfection. And this is not unnatural if we remember that Shunyavada represents the earlier stage while Vedanta represents the later stage of the development of the same thought.

And on pp 324-5:

It is generally said that Nairatmyavada or the No-Soul theory and Ksana-bhanga-vada or the theory of Momentariness are the two main and vital theories which distinguish Buddhism from Vedanta. let us briefly summarize our views in regard to these two theories.

We maintain that by Nairatmyavada Buddhism does not deny the existence of a true Atman, the Pure Self which is Pure Consciousness and which is the only reality. Buddhism takes the the word "Atman" in the sense of the individual ego-complex or the Jivatman which is a product of beginningless Avidya, Maya or Vasana and which is associated with the Antahkarana or the Buddhi. thus Buddha and the Mahayanists have found it easy to repudiate this Atman (Jiva), while at the same time accepting its empirical reality. It is in fact 'the self of straw' which they have erected simply to demolish it afterwards. The real self is untouched by their criticism. They have, in one sense or the other, either implicitly or explicitly, always accepted its reality. It is called, not generally Atman, but Bodhi, Prajna, Chitta, Bodhi-chitta, Tattva, Vijnana, Chittamatra, Vijnanamatra, Vijnaptimatra, Tathata, Tathagatagarbha, Dharmadhatu, Dharma-kaya or Buddhakaya. Ashvaghosa calls it Atman also. Asanga calls it Shuddhatman, Mamatman and Paramatman. Even Shantaraksita calls it Vishuddhatman.

Thus it is a great irony of fate that the Buddhists and the Vedantins fought against each other. Nairatmyavada has been horribly misunderstood both by the Buddhists and by the Vedantins. And Buddha and the Buddhists themselves were greatly responsible for creating this misunderstanding.

And in summary on p 327:

Thus we see that Buddhism generally means by Atman what Vedanta means by Jivatman or Buddhi or Chitta or Antahkarana. And on the other hand, Buddhism generally means by Chitta or Vijnana or Vijnapti or Bodhi or Prajna what Vedanta means by Atman or Brahman or Samvit or Chit. Thus the Vedantic Atman generally becomes the Buddhistic Chitta, and the Vedantic Chitta generally becomes the Buddhistic Atman. had Buddha refrained from committing an error of commission in degrading the Upanishadic Atman to the level of the empirical ego and also an error of omission in not identifying his Bodhi or Prajna with the Upanishadic Atman or Brahmnan, the age-old battle regarding the Nairatmyavada fought without any reasonable ground by the Buddhists and the Vedantins on the soil of Indian Philosophy would have been surely avoided.

And on pp 333-334:

Then came the great Shankara in that very eighth century just after Shantaraksita. He gave the final death-blow to Buddhistic philosophy. We have seen that Shankara was greatly influenced by Buddhism. But the vital error of the Svatantra-Vijnanavadins together with other things which degraded Buddhism changed the love and respect towards Buddhism shown by Gaudapada into the outward animosity and hatred exhibited by Shankara. We have seen that Shankara does not critise Shunyavada and real Vijnanavada. Svatantra-Vijnanavada is the only school of Mahayana rightly criticized and rightly refuted by Shankara...

Most of the Post-Shankaraites, following Shankara, do the same thing and repeat his arguments. But when Buddhism was ousted and the struggle died down. people began to think dispassionately about Buddhism. thus we find some psot-Shankarites remarking that is Shunyavada is not nihilism they have no quarrel with it for then it is merged in Vedanta, and is Vijnanavada is not subjectivism advocating the the reality of momentary vijnanas but is absolute idealism, they have no quarrel with it for then it also embraces Vedanta. We find in the same school aneminent person like Shriharsa openly admitting the similarities between Buddhism and Vedanta.

Even in the present time Buddhism is generally misunderstood. We have tried to clear the misunderstandings about it and pointed out that throughout it is rooted in Vedanta. Mahayana Buddhism and Vedanta should now be viewed, not as tow opposed systems, but only as different stages in the development of the same Upanishadic thought.

I would encourage anyone interested in the subject to read all the pages between 318-334. It is still a great misunderstanding between both Buddhist teachers and Vedantic teachers. Buddhist teachers have been taught by their Buddhist teachers about Vedanta and Vedantic teachers have been taught about Buddhism from their Vedantic teachers which has only continued the misunderstandings through the centuries.

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