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The Upanishads And Sri Buddha – Part 3: Anātman Theory of Buddha and Jivātman of Upanishads

Sunil Upasana hails from Kerala (India) and has been a Bengalurean for 17 years. He has had a deep yearning to understand the profound philosophy that underlies Hinduism Read More.

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.

To Read Second Part, Click Here.

Anātman Theory of Sri Buddha and Unreal Jivātman of Upanishads

Anātman theory of Sri Buddha: –

This is one of the natural outcomes of the pratītya-samutpāda theory. Since a permanent and unchanging ātman cannot fulfill the ‘relative’ characteristic of pratītya-samutpāda, this theory gave birth to the anātman (no-soul) theory. This is an important doctrine of Buddha. However, there is a lingering doubt that remains regarding this doctrine. Does Buddha propound the anātman theory only with reference to the relative, mundane (vyavahārikā) world or was he applying this theory for both the mundane and trans-mundane (paramārthika) world?

Anātman concept in the mundane plane:-

Let us take the first position. If Buddha’s position was that, there is no unchanging principle like ātman in vyavahārikā (relative plane of reality), then there is no doubt that it is in alignment with the Upanishads, since the central teaching of the Upanishads is non-duality between jīvātman and paramātman (Brahman). In fact, the Upanishads also propound that there is no ultimate individual ātman (jivātman) in human. Our supposition of an unchanging entity like ātman, which is related to a single individual only, and our presumption that this is the true ultimate reality/supreme ātman, is due to the avidyā or ignorance that resides in us. When we obtain brahma-vidyā, avidyā will be extinguished and we will realize that we are the ultimate reality, Brahman. There is no jīvātman in the ultimate sense.

Buddha also suggested that there is no ātman inside us permanently. To elaborate further, ātman is a term that we give, for the combined operation of five skandha-s and it can be annulled by knowing the four noble truths and practicing the eight fold path. Here, Buddha clearly admits that people may feel something, like an ātman inside them and they may experience this entity as unchanging. Buddha did not reject the feeling inside one, which is akin to ātman. Instead he asserted that the people may feel something like an individual ātman in them, but that thought is utterly wrong. This was Buddha’s position[i] and this is similar to the Upanishadic teaching.

The Upanishads say that the idea of an individual soul (jīvātman/ātman) in human, is a product of avidyā/ignorance[ii]. By acquiring knowledge and practicing meditation, people can get rid of the ignorance and then subsequently find release from the clutch of the individual ātman concept. He then realizes the paramātman, or the Brahman. Likewise Buddha advocated to his followers that there is no real individual ātman inside the body and if they feel so, they should know the four noble truth and practice the noble eight fold path to get rid of that feeling. The path that leads to the Ultimate Truth is almost the same in both traditions. The Upanishads accord importance to austerity, knowledge, discrimination, reflection (reasoning) and meditation (Nidhidhyāsana). The Buddhist way to Nirvāṇa/Ultimate Truth includes these in a different package like understanding the four noble truths, practicing the noble eight fold path, meditation, self control, and so on. The similarity between the paths to the Ultimate Truth, in the Upanishads and Buddha’s teaching is indeed clear.

Anātman concept in the trans-mundane plane:-

We shall now study the second stand. Was Buddha advocating that there is no Ultimate Truth, like paramātman or any such equivalent concept, beyond the realm of mundane world, by his anātman concept? In fact, the rejection of the individual ātman does not warrant the rejection of the paramātman, especially since the Buddha asserted many times that he had attained a highest level of existence, which is difficult to comprehend, which is beyond the realm of logic and which only the wise can attain[iii]. There are practical difficulties to reject an Ultimate Reality because relative, by default, indicates the existence of an Absolute. Without an Absolute, relative cannot exist and sustain. While Buddha admitted to the changing, relative character of the external world, he must have posited an Absolute realm too, without which relative cannot sustain. Furthermore, if there is no Ultimate Reality, then a mokṣa aspirant would always be in the loop of samsāra, irrespective of how faithfully and earnestly he followed the four noble truths and the noble eight fold path. A mokṣa aspirant can then never attain Nirvāṇa. Since an aspirant finds asylum from the relative mundane world in Nirvāṇa, Nirvāṇa itself has to be the Ultimate Reality.

Three Ātman Concepts and Buddha’s Anātman Theory:-

            We must also consider the different concepts of ātman that existed in India, while evaluating Buddha’s objection towards the ātman. This is a must because there are three ātman concepts in India, and from the teachings of Buddha, we can see that he rejected only two of them, leaving the third intact. The three ātman concepts are given below.

            Individual Ātman According to this concept, there is an ātman inside all of us and it is by itself eternal. There are many ātman in the universe. Each is independent of the other. They control the actions of human and enjoy happiness, sorrow and so on. After attaining mokṣa, the ātman will continue to remain independent, but in a supreme blissful state. This ātman concept is followed by Nyaya and Vaiseshika philosophies.

            Jīvātman This is the reflection of paramātman on the avidyā in an individual; i.e., paramātman in the conditioned form. This ātman vanishes when avidyā is overcome and the person realizes Brahman.

            Paramātman/Brahman This is the highest level of Truth according to the Upanishads. This is the One without a second. All that exists in the universe is simply Brahman. This is beyond the realm of logic and senses. This is the non-dual Truth and can be directly realized through śravaṇa-manana-nididhyāsana.

            Of these three ātman concepts, Buddha rejected only the first two[iv]. He could not have rejected the unconditioned Brahman, or such an equivalent Ultimate Reality because any such decision will then mean that people/mokṣa aspirant will be permanently entangled in samsāra[v]. There should be a way to overcome the hardships of samsāra. Logically, it then follows that there must be a Highest Reality. Buddha called it Nirvāṇa,  and this state akin to the Upanishadic Brahman.

(Read Fourth Part, Here…)

References: –

[i] “The Tathagata sometimes taught that the ātman exists and at other times he taught that the ātman does not exist. When he preached that the ātman exists and is to be the receiver of misery or happiness in the successive life as the reward of its own Karma, his object was to save men from falling into the heresy of Nihilism (Uccheda-vada). When he taught that there is no ātman in the sense of a creator or perceiver or an absolutely free agent, apart from the conventional name given to the aggregate of the five skandas, his object was to save men from falling into the opposite, heresy of Eternalism (Sasvata-vada). Now which of these two views represents the truth? It is doubtless the doctrine of the denial of ātman. This doctrine, which is so difficult to understand, was not intended by Buddha for the ears of those whose intellect is dull and in whom the root of goodness has not thriven. And why? Because such men by hearing the doctrine of Anātman would have been sure to fall into the heresy of Nihilism. The two doctrines were preached by Buddha for two very different objects. He taught the existence of ātman when he wanted to impart to his hearers the conventional doctrine; he taught the doctrine of anātman when he wanted to impart to them the transcendental doctrine.” (Prajnaparamita Sastra, Nagarjuna).

“The existence of the ātman and of the Dharmas (i.e, of the Ego and of the phenomenal world) is affirmed in the Sacred Canon only provisionally and hypothetically, and never in the sense of their possessing a real and permanent nature.” (Dharmapala in his commentary on the Vijnanamatra-sastra).

— Citing from Systems of Buddhistic Thought, by Yamakami Sogen. Page 19.

[ii] Upanishads says Sarvam Khalu Idam Brahman. Everything in this universe is Brahman including human beings. That means we are already Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, by essence. Yet, ironically, Upanishads instructs us to ‘attain Brahma-Vidya and realize Brahman’. People may feel this is contradictory. But in fact this is not so because Upanishads only indicates that there isan unknown entity in us that prevents us from knowing that we are Brahman.  This unknown entity is called avidyā.

[iii] “These, O brethren, are those other things, profound, difficult to realize, hard to understand, tranquillizing, sweet, not to be grasped by mere logic, subtle, comprehensible only by the wise, which the Tathagata, having himself realized and seen face to face, hath set forth; and it is concerning these that they who would rightly praise the Tathagata in accordance with the truth, should speak.”

Brahma Jwala Sutta. Dialogues of Buddha Vol 2, W T Davids. Page 30.

[iv] “The Upanishadic seers and the Advaita Vedantins use the word ātmā in the sense of the pure transcendent subject, which is at once pure consciousness and bliss. Buddha and the Buddhists, on the other hand, use the word ātmā in the sense of an empirical ego or in the sense of an eternal individual substance and reject its Ultimate Reality, while accepting its empirical validity…… In Buddha and Mahayana, the denial of the self is its denial as an eternal substance; it is not the denial of the absolute Self. Anātmavada or nairātmyavāda is really the nirahankāra-nirmama-vāda of Vedānta. It denies neither the empirical validity of the ego nor the Ultimate Reality of the Absolute Self. It is the denial only of the false notion which mistakes the empirical ego as an eternal spiritual substance and attempts to objectify the subject and realize it through thought-categories. To take the self as an eternal substance is to cling to it eternally and this is avidyā which is the root-cause of all attachment, desire, misery and bondage.”

The Advaita tradition in Indian philosophy, Chandradhar Sharma, Page 26, 27.

[v] “There is, O Bhikkhus, an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed. Were there not, O Bhikkhus, this unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed, there would be no escape from the world of the born, originated, created, formed. Since, O Bhikkhus, there is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed, therefore is there an escape from the born, originated, created, formed.”

The Udana or The Solemn Utterances of The Buddha, translated from Pali by DM Strong. Page 112.

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

1 comment on “The Upanishads And Sri Buddha – Part 3: Anātman Theory of Buddha and Jivātman of Upanishads

  1. Excellent posts!
    By chance I landed in your website. It is an ocean of knowledge that you have posted.
    First of all my kind regards to you for writing on Upanishads.
    Now a days there are very less readers and writers/ thinkers on ancient Indian philosophy.
    I must spend time on your posts.
    Regards again.

    Liked by 1 person

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