Buddhist Philosophy

The Upanishads And Teachings Of Sri Buddha – Part 3: Nirvāṇa and Upanishadic Brahman

This is The Third Part Of Philosophical Paper Presented By Sunil Upasana In The Swadeshi Indology Conference – 2, Held At IGNCA, New Delhi On February 2017.

About Author: –

Sunil Upasana hails from Kerala (India) and has been a Bengalurean for 13 years. He has had a deep yearning to understand the profound philosophy that underlies Hinduism Read More.


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Nirvāṇa and Upanishadic Brahman

            There were efforts to compare the ultimate realities propounded by the Upanishads and Buddha’s teaching, at all times.  In fact, if you put Brahman and Nirvāṇa side by side, there is no great discernible difference. They were very similar concepts. As stated in the Upanishads, Brahman is all that is and it is one without a second. These are descriptions about Brahman, not definition. Nobody can say what Brahman is since it is attribute-less or unqualified (from the Advaita point of view). Buddha too did not define Nirvāṇa. To all questions related to its definition, he remains silent.

            Buddha does not talk about anything comparable to an eternal truth apart from Nirvāṇa. This gives rise to an important confusion. Where is Nirvāṇa? Is it inside our body? Or is it outside? Or is it inside and outside? Or is it neither inside nor outside?

The fourth option can be rejected altogether because it will lead us to conclude that there is no Nirvāṇa at all. The problem with third option is that, if we attain Nirvāṇa from outside, then it won’t be our essence and therefore there is a chance of losing it. The second option can also be rejected for the same reason. Thus, only the first option is a possibility to consider and this position is very important because it means that Nirvāṇa attainment is permanent. The concept of Nirvāṇa is so depicted in the teachings of Buddha. If it is posited that there is a possibility of losing Nirvāṇa after attaining it once, then the aspirant needs to strive for it again. However, such an idea is surely not present in the teachings of Buddha. Nirvāṇa attainment is permanent. And in the ultimate sense, what we can attain permanently is the one which is already inside us. That is, we must be in an enlightened state, by default. Enlightenment must not come from outside.

            Buddha in Mahāparinibhāna Sutta states the same. Chandradhar Sharma (Sharma 2007:30) in his important work ‘The Advaita Tradition in Indian Philosophy’ opines as follows.

            “In a celebrated passage in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, the ailing Buddha says to Ananda:

‘O Ananda! I have taught the Dhamma (Dharma) without any reservation and have not kept anything secret like a tight-fisted teacher (āchārya-muṣti). Now I am eighty years old and am somehow pulling on (the body) like an old tattered cart bound with ropes. I am going to leave the world soon. But there is no cause for grief as the light of Dharma is there. Ananda! my message for all of you is this: Let the Self be your light (attadīpa, Skt. ātma-dīpa), let the Self be your shelter (attasaraṇa, Skt. ātma-sharaṇa); let the Dharma (the real) be your light (dhamma-dīpa, Skt. dharma-dīpa), let the Dharma be your shelter (dhamma-saraṇa, Skt. dharma-sharaṇa); do not seek light and shelter outside.”


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Even if, as some scholars do, the word attā (ātmā) in attadīpa is interpreted as meaning just oneself without any reference to an ontological reality called ‘Self’ and the phrase ‘attadīpa’ is taken to mean ‘you yourself are your light’, it has to be admitted that Buddha is asking his disciples to seek light within and not outside. Now, if there is no true ‘Self’, then who is to seek the light and where? And if all objects as Buddha says are perishable and miserable and the light is to be sought only in the subject, then the reality of the transcendent subject is clearly implied in this passage”

            This is very similar to the Brahman concept of the Upanishads[i]. The Upanishads says, we all are Brahman. So we are divine by default. But we are not aware of our divine status. There must be something, which prevents us from knowing our original divinity and which can be overcome through some specific methods. This is avidyā. We must overcome the avidyā and realize Brahman inside us. This Upanishadic concept of avidyā and Brahman is appearing in Buddhism as avidyā and Nirvāṇa. In the Upanishads the locus of avidyā is in the Brahman (according to Advaita Vedanta)[ii]. In that case one needs to understand where avidyā resides in Buddha’s teachings?

Buddha states that the Twelve Chains of Causation[iii] starts from avidyā[iv]. But avidyā, being unreal (because we can destroy/avoid it by following noble eight fold path), cannot exist by itself. Avidyā must be rooted in a Reality which can exist by itself. Buddha says that all things in the mundane world are relative and hence unreal and the cause of pain. So avidyā cannot be rooted in the mundane world. This then means, there is no Ultimate Reality, other than Nirvāṇa, about which Buddha has preached. From this, the natural conclusion is that Nirvāṇa must stand together with avidyā at the beginning of the twelve chains of causation which is akin to the Brahman-avidyā concept of the Upanishads.

The characteristics of Nirvāṇa are also similar to that of Brahman/paramātman. Chandradhar Sharma (Sharma 2007:29) continues.

Nirvāṇa, like the Upanishadic ātmā, is repeatedly described by Buddha as calm (shanta), immortal (amṛta), unproduced (akṛta), uncaused (asamskṛta), unborn (ajāta), undecaying (ajara), undying (amara), eternal (nitya), abiding (dhruva), unchanging (Shāshvata), highest joy (paramasukha), blissful (Shiva), desireless (tṛṣṇā-kṣaya), cessation of plurality (bhāva nirodha; prapanchopashama) and the fearless goal (abhaya pada)[v]. All the epithets (or their synonyms) which the Upanishadic seers use for the Atma, Buddha uses for Nirvāṇa. Atma and Nirvāṇa stand for the Inexpressible and the Ineffable Absolute which is transcendent to thought and is realized through immediate spiritual experience (bodhi or prajňa)”.

            S Radhakrishnan (Radhakrishnan 2013:319), in his Magnum Opus, Indian Philosophy quotes a verse of Buddha, from the Udana which is similar to the characteristics and idea of Brahman.

            “There is an unborn, an unoriginated, an unmade, an uncompounded; were there not, Oh mendicants, there would be no escape from the world of the born, the originated, the made and the compounded.”

            We can thus conclude that the concept of Nirvāṇa is very much similar to the Upanishadic Brahman.

Fourth Part, Coming Soon…


References / Footnotes: –

[i] It is not just Nirvāṇa that is similar to Upanishadic Brahman. Vijnjaptimatra, the Highest Reality posited by Yogacara school of Mahayana, is also very similar to Brahman. Surendranath Dasgupta writes:“As a ground of this alayavijnana we have the pure consciousness called the vijnaptimatra, which is beyond all experiences, transcendent and pure consciousness, pure bliss, eternal, unchangeable and unthinkable. It is this one pure being as pure consciousness and pure bliss, eternal and unchangeable like the Brahman of the Vedanta, that forms the ultimate ground and ultimate essence of all appearance; even the alayavijnana is an imposition of it, as are all the different states of it which make the world-order possible…… Thus we see that the ultimate reality is one, being self-identical, pure consciousness and pure bliss, which is thus different from the Tathata of Asvaghosha and very similar to the Brahman of the Upanishads.”

Indian Idealism, Surendranath Dasgupta. Page 119 – 120.

[ii] Post Sankara Advaitins are divided on this topic. This topic is outside the purview of this paper.

[iii] Twelve Chain of causation – 1) Beginning less and cosmic Ignorance, Avidyā.2) Impressions of karmic forces, Samskara. 3) Individual consciousness, Vijnana. 4) Psycho-physical organism, Namarupa. 5) Six sense-organs including manas, Saddyatana. 6) Sense-object-contact, Sparsha. 7) Sensation, Vedana. 8) Desire for sense-enjoyment. Trshna. 9) Clinging to sense enjoyment, Upadana. 10) Will to be born for experiencing sense-enjoyment, Bhava. 11) Birth including rebirth, Jati. 12) Disintegration and death, Janana-marana.

Mahanidana Sutta.

[iv] “Although there must have been existed a complicated process in formulating the Twelve Link formula, it is undeniable that it is analogous in its way of formulation to the formulas set forth by other philosophical systems of India, such as Samkhya-Yoga.”

Indian Buddhism: A survey with Bibliographical Notes, by Hajime Nakamura. Page 69.

[v] Udana, 73; Suttanipata, RatanSutta; Itivuttaka, 112; Dhammapada, 18, etc.


Featured Image Credit: https://bharatstories.in/upanishads-and-the-sramana-movement/

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