Origins of the "double-truth"

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vsundaresan at HOTMAIL.COM
Wed Dec 20 03:18:37 UTC 2000

Stephen Hodge <s.hodge at PADMACHOLING.FREESERVE.CO.UK> wrote:

>contradictions is dealt, rather with the terms "neyaartha"
>(provisional "truth") and niitaartha (definitive "truth").  Buddhists,
>on the whole are more concerned with epistemology that ontology
>although that did not stop some schools from dabbling in ontology and
>were severely criticized for such. I don't know too much about
>Vedaanta, but if it ontologizes the "two truths" then it is talking
>about something different to most early and Mahayana Buddhists.

Ah, there lies the crux of the issue. Almost everybody
who talks of Gaudapada and Sankara as crypto-Buddhists,
and of Vedanta "stealing" the notion of two truths from
Buddhism ignores this.

First, they think zUnyatA is an "Absolute", and equate
it with the upanishadic brahman. Thus, they completely
misunderstand Nagarjuna. Next, they criticize Sankara,
whose criticism of "zUnyavAda" is precisely that it
does not accept an ontological absolute behind phenomena.
Thus, they completely misunderstand Sankara too. Having
committed themselves to this double-error, they now say
the Vedantin misrepresents the Buddhist, and see his
criticism as nothing more than an attempt to hide his
supposed "surreptitious borrowing" of the two truths
from Buddhism.

Ultimately, in Vedanta, to know is to be/become. At
some stage, epistemology and ontology have to collapse
together. The Vedanta schools differ on whether it is
being or becoming that is ontologically sound. The
Advaitin accepts "realist" epistemology and "idealist"
ontology. (The quotation marks are important; I use
these terms with reservations.) For the Advaitin, the
non-dual Brahman is an ontological absolute reality,
and is itself the paramArtha satya. Important to note,
however, is that he does not ontologize Brahman via
"reason", but receives it from "revelation", i.e. the
upanishads. He cannot and does not rely solely on
"revelation" as an argument against the Buddhist, but
according to his lights, the Madhyamaka's refusal to
accept an ontological absolute leads to nihilism. Now,
according to Buddhist principles, it does not, but that
is where the mutual debate turns. The Vedantin cannot
agree with paratantra svabhAva, or pratItya samutpAda,
or with the Madhyamaka's ultimate equation of saMsAra
and nirvANa, and presents numerous reasons why he
rejects these Buddhist concepts.

However, those who say X borrowed from Y, and make this
as an accusation/judgement, completely miss the point of
the above old debate, and misunderstand both X and Y. In
my opinion, this arises from viewing Indian systems of
thought primarily through Kantian and/or Hegelian prisms,
a dominant feature of the 19th and much of the 20th cent.
It is only in recent times that Western scholars have
begun to treat Buddhism and its philosphical schools on
their own terms. I hope Hinduism and its schools receive
the same respect eventually. Non-Indians have to do it
first, before Indians interested in Indian philosophies
will accept it. Except for the traditional Pundits, a
highly reviled class nowadays, most Indians interested
in these issues do not know enough Sanskrit to read the
primary texts and make their own conclusions. They rely
predominantly on the secondary literature, of which more
quality work is produced from Europe, USA and Japan, than
from India. My take on these issues is easy to dismiss -
the reaction is that I am "only interested in defending
Sankara". I hope there is some scholar out there, who is
ready to write on "What is and isn't Advaita Vedanta"!


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