Adi Shankara’s critique of Buddhism

March 31, 2021 Authored by: Sthaneshwar Timalsina

Sankara identifies three distinct Buddhist philosophical viewpoints to be refuted in his commentary upon the Brahmasutras: those of the Sarvastivada, Vijñanavada, and yenyavada. Among the Sutras identified by Sankara as the criticism of the Buddhist positions, four of them primarily relate to the criticism of the Yogacara position. At a certain level, many of these arguments can also be directed against the Advaita position of Drstisrsti, the doctrine considered in this study.

In his criticism to Vijñanavada, Sankara presents select arguments as the prima facieposition that can be identified as those of Vasubandhu, Dinnaga, and Dharmakirti. They are:

1. Entities cannot be confirmed either as ‘part,’ in the form of atoms, or as ‘whole,’ composed of atoms.

2. Entities are determined due to cognition. This position, as summarized by Ingalls, is that “the particularization need actually be only of the cognition, not of the thing.

3. Since cognition and their correspondents are simultaneous, there exists no difference between them.

4. Just as dreaming does not require the external existence of the dream objects, so also are the entities of the waking state.

5. Consciousness can arise due to the rise of various ‘impressions’ (vasana).

Sankara initiates his response to the above arguments with the statement that an external entity cannot be denied because it is cognized in every act of knowledge.11 If this criticism were to confirm the reality of the objects of perception independent of Brahman, that would repudiate the very Advaita doctrine that something exists other than Brahman. 

Advaitins respond to this objection by adopting two or three degrees of reality, wherein the reality of external entities applies only to conventional (vyavahara) or illusory (pratibhasa) states of consciousness and is not applicable to the highest state of non-dual awareness.

The stark contrast between Sankara’s Advaita and Yogacara becomes clearly apparent during an examination of their respective doctrines of perception: The Advaitins understand Brahman to be the highest universal (mahasamanya), and to be directly apprehended in the first flash of perception, whereas the Buddhist epistemology developed by Dinnaga determines that the particular (svalaksana) is the object of perception and that the universal (samanya-laksana) is the object of inference. 

It is noteworthy that these two philosophies interpret the universal (samanya) differently. For the Advaitins this is a universal generalization, whereas for the Yogacarins, it is a mental construct. Dinnaga identifies perception as the act that is free from conceptual construction. According to Advaita, only the realization of Brahman is free from conceptual constructs.

It is also noteworthy that Sankara criticizes the Yogacara position that is compatible to the doctrine of momentariness. It is not necessarily the case that all the Yogacarins adopt this position. For instance, the Lankavatarasutra (LAS) of the Yogacara tradition stands apart from the Asanga/ Maitreya position in maintaining that the Alayavijñana is non-momentary insofar as it is pervaded by undefiled factors.

The second objection of the Vijñanavadins, that it is actually cognition and not an object that is particularized in the mode of awareness, raises the issue of the self-reflexive nature of consciousness. Just as the doctrines of cinmatra and cittamatra appear similar, so also do the concepts of self-awareness (svaprakasata) of the Advaitins and self-cognition (svasamvedana) of the Yogacarins. 

Sankara, however, rejects the Yogacara concept of svasamvedana. This rejection is crucial to understanding the distinctions between the nature of consciousness as recognized in these two schools of thought. Although there are subtle inner differences, all the Advaitins agree that the awareness that is identical to the self is svaprakasa. Sankara’s rejection of svasamvedana, therefore, requires a closer examination.

Sankara raises multiple arguments against the concept of svasamvedana. He finds it problematic that the momentary nature of consciousness as recognized in the doctrine of cittamatra can be self-cognizing. He argues, the consciousness that lasts for one moment collapses by just cognizing itself and it cannot find itself in the forms of the subject and object of cognition. 

Sankara’s next argument against the self-cognizing nature of consciousness compares consciousness to the flame of a lamp. Sankara argues that there is a contradiction in accepting the cognizing act itself as the object of cognition. To cognize is a transitive action; it is to be aware of something. Sankara finds it problematic to accept this action to also be the object of cognition. He demonstrates this contradiction with the example that ‘fire burns itself.’ What is identified as vijñapti in the Yogacara school and also identified as self-cognizing, is explicitly not the Advaitins’ consciousness (cit) that is self-aware. The vijñaptithat is being criticized by Sankara to be self-cognizing is synonymous to pratyayavikalpabuddhivrtti, or buddhivrtti. in the philosophy of Sankara. And following the Advaitins, pratyayas are not considered to be self-aware. The awareness that is self-aware in the Advaita doctrine is not the momentary consciousness identified by the Buddhists.

Sankara replies to the Vijñanavada argument that accepting consciousness being revealed by another consciousness leads to infinite regress, with a statement that the witnessing self is not an object of perception and so it does not require another subject to be perceived. Sankara further argues that the self is self-evident and is not dependent upon any means of knowledge for its confirmation. Sankara also rejects the argument that the consciousness that is momentary is also reflexive. The example he provides is the comparison to a lamp, suggesting that in the absence of a conscious self, a lamp cannot reveal anything. This objection relies on the difference between Advaita and Vijñanavada: 

According to the Advaitins, there exists a permanent self that witnesses the rise and collapse of mental modifications, whereas following the Vijñanavadins, there is no self as substrate, apart from the very consciousness that is simultaneously grasped as subject and object.

The concept of self-cognition, with its terminology of svasamvedana, is attributed to Dinnaga, and most of Sankara’s arguments appear to encounter Dinnaga’s position. Hattori’s translation of the passage from Dinnaga’s Pramana Samuccaya that addresses svasamvedana follows:

There is also mental [perception, which is of two kinds:] awareness of an [external] object and self-awareness of [such subordinate mental activities as] desire and the like, [both of which are] free from conceptual construction.

The self-cognition, as identified here by Dinnaga, includes desire, anger, ignorance, pleasure, pain, etc., that are mental states. This passage does not explicitly address the self-cognizing nature of all instances of cognition. Another passage, explicitly the passage from the Vrtti, makes the broader claim of svasamvedana:

Or [it can be maintained that] the self-cognition or the cognition cognizing itself (svasamvedana) is here the result [of the act of cognizing]. Every cognition is produced with a twofold appearance, namely, that of itself [as subject] (svabhasa), and that of the object (visaya bhasa). The cognizing of itself as [possessing] these two appearances or the self-cognition (svasamvitti) is the result [of the cognitive act].

Both the arguments of Sankara, 

1) that the momentary nature of cognition cannot be self-cognizing while manifesting itself in the forms of grahya and grahaka, and 

2) that there is a contradiction in accepting a single cognition to be both action and object, can be considered to be the Advaita response to Dinnaga’s position cited above. 

Sankara refutes the argument that there is infinite regress in accepting a higher order consciousness that is aware of cognitions. This objection is raised by Dinnaga in this very sequence.

Some of the objections Sankara raises concerning svasamvedana already appear earlier within Buddhism itself. For instance, Bhavya points out that Dinnaga’s assumption that cognition manifests as both subject and object contradicts Dinnaga’s very own theory that the resulting cognition is self-cognition. Similar to Sankara’s argument that cognition revealing itself would identify action with its object, Vaibhasikas refute the argument of self-cognition, saying that this is similar to a finger-tip touching itself, or knife-blade cutting itself. When commenting upon the self-cognizing nature of consciousness, Sankara cites the example of a lamp. 

This example, found early in Mahavibhasa in the process of presenting the Mahasangika view, appears in the context of explaining svasamvedana in Vinita deva’s commentary on Nyaya bindu. Sankara’s critique of this example resonates with the Vaibhasika objections that a lamp is made of material particles whereas consciousness is not, that a lamp cannot make something as its object, and that awareness is a faculty of a sentient being.

Sankara’s refutation of the definition of ‘object’ while countering Vijñanavada is explicitly the position of Dinnaga. The definition under consideration is:

Antarjneyarupam tu bhairvad avabhasate so ‘rthah/

The object [of cognition] is that which appears as if outside [although] is inside, in the form of knowable. The objection of Sankara to this definition is, what is it that is referred to by ‘as if outside’ (bahirvad)? The heart of the objection is that, if there are no real externals, how can there be something that is ‘as if’ external? This objection of Sankara can be compared to that of Bhavya, who says that there is no valid example (drstanta) in Dinnaga’s rejection of external objects.

The third argument of Vijñanavadins examined by Sankara is the concept of sahopalambha. In refutation of this concept, Sankara argues that the simultaneity of cognition and its referent is determined due to the relationship of sense–object and its concept as cause and effect, and not because of the identity between cognition and its referent.

Jñanottama’s refutation of ‘identity’ (abheda) addresses the subsequent Advaita arguments criticizing sahopalambha.

Although Sankara does not distinguish between Sakara and Nirakara doctrines of Vijñanavada, the arguments he has criticized up to this point are primarily those of the Sakaravadins, who held that perception does not grasp the object directly but through the intermediary of image (Akara). On the contrary, the Vijñanavadins adopting the Nirakara position held that cognition is free from image. The prominent philosophers such as Dinnaga, Dharmapala, and Dharmakirti are identified with the first school, whereas philosophers such as Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Sthiramati are identified with the second school. Although the two objections that Sankara subsequently raised and are discussed below represent the position shared by all the Vijñanavadins, these primarily represent the philosophy of the Nirakaravadins.

Sankara’s rejection of the identification of the waking state with dream relies on two arguments. One, the contents of the dream state do not exist in the waking state whereas the entities of waking state are not negated the same way. Next, he argues that perception and memory are two different faculties of consciousness, and he compares dream to memory, and consciousness in the waking state to perception. 

Just as the analysis of dream is crucial to understanding Sankara’s own Advaita system, it is equally important in knowing the distinction between the application of dream in the systems of Advaita and Yogacara. In refuting the dream analogy of Vasubandhu, Sankara’s critique relies on the notion of ‘externality,’ that if there were no externals as such, any denial of such experience would be implausible. While maintaining the existence of only Brahman in the absolute sense, Sankara posits that the experience of the world is not invalid at the time of that experience.

The problem here is that although Advaitins such as Sankara may have a different stance from that of Vasubandhu and may make a distinction between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ experiences and analyze dream as distinct from the waking state, it is difficult to make the same distinction for the Advaitins adopting the doctrine of Drstisrsti (DS), as they are explicit in denying the existence of the entities out of the domain of cognition. Sankara himself is in a dilemma. 

On one hand he rejects the dream analogy of Vasubandhu, and on the other, he accepts Gaudapada, who is explicit in utilizing dream to reject the reality of the external world, as an authority on Advaita. When additionally considering texts such as Paramarthasara of Adisesa or the Yogavasistha, and the school of Abhasa, all of which indiscriminately apply dream analogy in their establishment of Advaita, Sankara himself may be in the minority in rejecting such an analogy.

The distinction between the analyses of dream found in these two systems can be made on the ground that the arguments found in Advaita texts are Upayic, in a sense that they are meant to instruct one in the reality of Brahman. ‘Rejection of the world’ found in the Advaita literature is not rejecting the world per se, but is meant only to allow one to realize the true nature of the self. Just as the objective of Vasubandhu is not to merely analyze dreams but to confirm the ‘nature of dharma that is devoid of essence’ (dharmanairatmya), the goal of such analysis found in Advaita texts is to confirm the Brahman. The linguistic difference at the absolute level in these two systems is explicit: Advaitins utilize the language of negation in order to confirm Brahman as a positive entity, whereas this negation culminates with the negation of dharmas in the Yogacara context.

The exalted meaning of drsti found in the concept of DS does not refer to the consciousness that is conditioned by ignorance. The drsti of the Advaitins refers to the essential nature of awareness that is the foundation of the duality of subject and object. This ‘seeing’ of the Advaitins, therefore, is the changeless substrate upon which concepts, the products of ignorance that last momentarily, are imposed.

The final objection that Sankara raises concerns the Vijñanavada response that although there are no externals, it is due to impressions (vasana) that dreams or concepts arise. Sankara argues that impressions (vasana) cannot rise in the absence of external objects, as these are their imprints. He then argues, if impressions (vasana) are independent of external entities for generating impressions, this will lead to infinite regress. Sankara adheres to the existence of external objects in this sequence for the reasons that impressions (vasana) cannot arise in the absence of external objects whereas external entities can be perceived even in the absence of impressions (vasanas). According to Sankara, impressions are properties that require the property holder, the substrate, for them to exist.

Sankara is aware of the Vijñanavada response to the criticism of the momentary nature of consciousness that Alaya consciousness (Alayavijñana) functions as the substrate for the rise of functioning consciousness (pravrttivijñana). Sankara argues that the Alayaconsciousness that in itself is momentary cannot be the foundation for impressions (vasana).

It has been pointed out that the concept of Alaya-consciousness arises in the yogic context. To the question, when mind enters through absorption into the cessation of all thought, how can it not be withdrawn from the body, the Yogacara response is, there is no cessation of Alaya-consciousness and this is what gives rise to the functioning consciousness (pravrtti-vijñana). The concept of Alaya-consciousness does not initially appear in order to reject external entities. In the words of Schmithausen, ‘the sense-faculties are not only not taught to be mere images in Alaya consciousness but, on the contrary, Alaya consciousness is expressly taught to stick in the material sense faculties.’ 46 The arguments raised by Sankara rest upon the Vijñanavada interpretation of Alaya-consciousness found in Vasubandhu’s Trimsika.


Sthaneswar Timalsina, Consciousness in Indian Philosophy the Advaita Doctrine of Awareness Only (Routledge Hindu Studies Series), p. 127-132.


Cinmatra and cittamatra: The Advaita critique of Yogacara

1. For Ramanuja and Madhava’s criticism of Sankara as a Crypto-Buddhist, see Sharma 1981, 64, 145.

2. Stcherbatsky, cited in Murti 1998, 311. Ram-Prasad 2002, 38–92.

3. For Gaudapada and Buddhism, see Bhattacharya 1992; King 1995.

4. The Bhasya of Sankara on the Brahmasutra II.2.18. The section of the Brahmasutra.

II.2.18–32 is dedicated to the criticism of various Buddhist positions.

5. Brahmasutra II.2.28–31. Murti has presented a brief analysis of Sankara’s criticism of Vijñanavada. See Murti 1998.

6. Compare this position with that of Vasubandhu in VMS 11–15.

7. Ingalls 1954, 300. Compare this position with that of Vasubandhu in VMS 16.

8. This point is closer to Dharmakirti’s position of sahopalambha.

9. This is found repeatedly in Vasubandhu’s VMS. See VMS 3 for the example of dream. For causal efficiency in dream, see VMS 4. The particular argument presented here is closer to the description of perception of entities without them actually existing out, found in VMS 16. The analogy of dream is found further in VMS 17–18.

10. This position is more explicit in Vasubandhu’s VMST. Although the application of the specific term vasana is found only in VMST 19, the inner conditions for the rise of ‘externals’ is discussed throughout the text in VMST. For discussion in detail of Sankara’s criticism, see Murti 1998, 311–317; Darling 1987, 305–308.

11. upalabhyate hi pratipratyayam bahyo ’rthah stambhh kudyam ghatah pata iti | BSuBh II.2.28.

12. The Pramana Samuccaya of Dinnaga, section 1 verses 2–3. See Hattori 1968, 24.

13. The definition of pratyaksa as ‘kalpanapodha’ appears in Dinnaga’s Pramanasamuccaya, section 1, verse 3.

14. Rospatt 1995, 82–84.

15. api ca dvayor jñanayoh purvottarakalayoh svasamvedanenaiva upaksinayor itaretaragrahyagrahakatvanupapattih | BSuBh II.2.28.

16. atha vijñanam prakasatmakatvat pradipavat svayam evanubhuyate na tatha bahyo ’py artha iti ced atyantaviruddham svatmani kriyam abhyupagachasi agnir Atmanam dahatitivat | BSuBh II.2.28.

17. For discussion on Sankara’s application of these terms, see the second chapter of this text.

18. Sankara on BSuBh II.2.28.

19. svayamsiddhasya ca saksino ’pratyakhyeyatvat | BSuBh II.2.28.

20. Sankara on BSuBh II.2.28.

21. Pramana Samuccaya, 1:6. Hattori 1968, 27.

22. Pramana Samuccaya, 1:9 ab, and the Vrtti thereon. Hattori 1968, 28.

23. Pramana Samuccaya, 1:12, and the Vrtti thereon. Hattori 1968, 30.

24. Madhyamakaratnapradipa, section IV.3.4. See Lindtner, Christian, ‘Bhavya’s Critique of Yogacara in the Madhyamakaratnapradipa, Chapter IV,’ in Matilal and Evans 1986, 243.

25. See Yao 2005, 52–55.

26. Mahavibhasa passage cited in Yao, 2005.

27. Tika of Vinitadeva in the Nyayabindu 1.10.

28. Yao 2005, 53–55.

29. This passage is cited in Tattvasangrahapañjika and is identified as that of Dinnaga by Hattori. See Hattori 1968, 102.

30. See Lindtner, Christian, ‘Bhavya’s Critique of Yogacara in the Madhyamakaratnapradipa, Chapter IV,’ in Matilal and Evans 1986, 243.

31. ata eva sahopalambhaniyamo’pi pratyayavisayayor upayopeyabhavahetukahnabhedahetuka ity abhyupagantavyam | Sankara on BSuBh II.2.28.

32. For Sakaravada and Nirakaravada distinction, see Dreyfus 1997, 100–103, 254–57, 335–39; Yao 2005, 121–25.

33. Yao 2005, 122.

34 Sankara on BSuBh II.2.29.

35. Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s analysis of dream in two chapters, ‘Sankara, Vasubandhu and the idealist use of dreaming,’ and ‘Sankara, dreaming and non-realism,’ (Ram-Prasad 2002, 38–92) is the most extensive one to my knowledge.

36. For a systematic analysis of the logical failure demonstrated by Sankara, see Ram-Prasad 2002, 56–58.

37. Ram-Prasad 2002, 89.

38. The Agamasastra of Gaudapada is full of dream analogy. The most important passage is the verses 1–10 of the second section, Vaitathyaprakarana.

39. See the Vrtti of Vasubandhu in VMS 10.

40. Sankara on BSuBh II.2.30–31.

41. na bhavo vasananam upapaddyate tvatpakse ’nupalabdher bahyanam arthanam | Sankara on BSuBh II.2.30.

42. Sankara on BSuBh II.2.30.

43. api ca vasana nama samskaravisesah samskaras ca nasrayam antarenavakalpante evam loke drstatvat na ca tava vasanasrayah kascid asti pramanato ’nupalabdheh | Sankara on BSuBh II.2.30.

44. Sankara on BSuBh II.2.31.

45. Schmithausen 1987, 18.

46. Schmithausen 1987, 32. Italics mine.

47. VMST 2 is the explicit reference for Alayavijñana.

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