Of the many philosophers in the history of Hinduism, Gaudapada is one of whom little is known, although he had a large effect on the tradition as a whole. His origin is the most prominent feature in legends concerning him; however, due to liberties taken in the oral tradition, they are rarely a strong source of factual information (Pande 96). For example, some legends state that Patanjali himself taught Gaudapada, and due to his disobedience, had cursed him until Gaudapada could find a suitable student (Pande 96). Of course, there is great scepticism surrounding this story, as the timelines in which Patanjali and Gaudapada are proposed to have lived are separated by hundreds of years (Pande 96). Other sources seem to believe that he was, at some point, the student of a sage named Suka. However not much is known about Suka, other than he was believed to be the son of the legendary Vyasa (Comans 2). As such, Gaudapada emerges as more of a pseudo-legendary person, than a concrete historical figure. There is virtually no indication of his existence other than his works, or reference to him by his students later in history (Comans 1).
The estimated periods when Gaudapada lived varies greatly, according to different sources. Generally, it is calculated in relation to the dates of his distant student Sankara, who was believed to live around 780-820 CE. This placed Gaudapada at around 680 CE, although it shifts based on estimation of Sankara’s life time (Isayeva 15). Scholars also examine motifs used by Gaudapada in his works, which seem to reflect particular Buddhist values. They thus propose that Gaudapada had lived during the time when certain Buddhist philosophies flourished (Isayeva 15).
Similarly, we are uncertain as to where Gaudapada came from or lived. Some propose that he lived in northern Bengal, near the Hiraravati River, where a tribe known as the Gaudas resided. As such, some propose Gaudapada lived as a master, taking his name from the tribe of which he was a part of (Isayeva 15).
Although we know little about how, when, or where he lived, we know more about whom he influenced via his philosophical ideas. The most well-known of these is the great thinker Sankara, whos strong influence from Gaudapada is evident in his own work (Isayeva 14). The time gap between Sankara and Gaudapada leads scholars to generally agree that Gaudapada perhaps taught a man named Govinda, who went on to teach Sankara (Isayeva 14).
Gaudapada is most well-known for his commentary on the Mandukya Upanisad. Of the ten Upanisads, the Mandukya is the shortest, and deals with cosmology as well as absolute truth known as brahman (Isayeva 16). His works, known as the Mandukya-Karika, is made up of four chapters: “treatise concerning the scriptural text”, “treatise concerning unreality”, “treatise on non-duality”, and “treatise on the quelling of the fire brand” (Comans 2). Of the four chapters, only the first is tied to a text, which Gaudapada discusses, namely the Mandukya Upanisad. The other three chapters are not involved directly with any other text, but expand on the ideas developed in the first chapter (Comans 2).
The basis of Gaudapada’s philosophy, which makes up Advaita Vedanta, is concerned with the illusory nature of things. In particular, this stem of Hindu philosophy focuses on absolute reality, brahman, the inner self, atman, and maya, which is the illusion that holds us in the cycle of samsara, rebirth (Rodrigues 94). Gaudapada explains four stages, or steps, that one would go through in order to achieve the state of absolute reality. As well, he holds that the concept of absolute truth or reality is already in each individual (Isayeva 23).
The first stage, called vaisvanara, means waking self or waking state (Comans 3). This stage pertains to the self as it lives within the illusion of maya, unaware of its illusory nature (Isayeva 21). In essence, it is the spiritual ignorance of the self that this stage speaks of. The Mandukya Upanisad describes atman here as having “seven limbs, nineteen mouths, and who experiences gross objects” (Comans 3). Gaudapada explains that it is these extremities that the atman uses to experience illusory existence. In this waking state, the atman is unaware and so it thrashes about, attempting to experience everything it can. In this way, the consciousness of the atman is seen as external here (Comans 3).
The next stage pertains to the dream like state, taijasa, where the atman notices the illusory nature of everything (Comans 4). In this state, Gaudapada would maintain that consciousness begins to move inward as it starts to realize the nature of itself (Comans 4). It is essentially at this stage that one could say the atman, previously external and ignorant, begins its journey inward towards truth, as it begins to see the existence of maya (Isayeva 21).
Prajna, stage three, speaks of deep sleep, or slumber (Comans 4). In this stage, Gaudapada holds that one is saved from illusion, though not truly liberated (Isayeva 22). In contrast to the previous two states, in which the self is separated due to its interaction with illusion, self, illusion, and consciousness all become one here; just one “lump of consciousness” (Isayeva 22). Instead, he cautions about this stage because those on their way to truth may get caught up in the bliss of freedom from maya, thinking they are liberated just because they have become aware that they were ignorant before. He says that although it is a wonderful state to be in, even greater bliss comes from full understanding of the nature of the atman, which cannot be obtained whilst in this stage (Isayeva 22).
Finally, the last stage is where the main concept of advaita emerges. Advaita means non-dualism, and refers to absolute truth, or brahman (Isayeva 23). In essence, brahman is seen as the only thing, rather than multiple aspects of reality, as described in more dualistic philosophies of Hinduism like Sankhya (Rodrigues 199). This stage is called turiya, although Gaudapada would argue that even giving this state a name undermines the very idea of it (Comans 5). Examples such as, “brahman is neither here nor there”, “living nor dead”, “waking or asleep”, are all given by Gaudapada to illustrate this view. As an absolute truth, there is nothing but it, which in turn means it is all, and it is nothing (Comans 5). This is the essence of what advaita means as well, which conflicts with the general dualistic orthodox view of brahman and atman (Absolute Reality, and Self) being two different things (Rodrigues 71).
Hundreds of years after his time, Gaudapada’s philosophies live on through his students. The most noted of these distant students was Sankara, whose teacher was taught by Gaudapada. Within Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta, we see many parallels between the two philosophers. A major similarity is that Sankara proposed that the only absolutely real thing is brahman, which is the only thing in existence (Rodrigues 374). Although this may seem completely identical to Gaudapada’s belief, the emphasis Gaudapada put on the paradoxical nature of brahman varies slightly with Sankara’s viewpoint. Instead Gaudapada held that brahman neither exists, or exists, among other examples of his extreme non-dualistic viewpoint or darsana (Comans 5). Sankara still held many other core values that were quite similar to Gaudapada’s viewpoint. The concept of neti-neti, meaning not one or the other, in regards to absolute truth (Rodrigues 374). This is more aligned with the idea that Gaudapada seems to be conveying in regards to brahman, as well as the abstract concept of understanding brahman. It is in this unification of brahman that causes Advaita Vedanta to be considered so radical. Many other philosophies, such as Sankhya, propose that brahman is made up of many aspects that make up our reality. In the particular example of Sankya, prakrti and purusa, the creator and observer (Rodrigues 199). Although Advaita Vedanta seems to undermine philosophies such as this, the Vedas themselves are not openly criticized, and as such Advaita Vedanta is accepted within the Hindu orthodoxy (Rodrigues 376).
Comans, Michael (2000) The Method of Early Advaita Vedanta: A Study of Gaudapada, Sankara, Suresvara and Padmapada. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Isayeva, Natalia (1995) From Early Vedanta to Kashmir Shaivism: Gaudapada, Bhartrhari, and Abhinavagupta. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Pande, Govind (1994) Life and Thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: the EBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.
Tenzin, Kencho (2006) Shankara: A Hindu Revivalist or a Crypto-Buddhist? Atlanta: Georgia State University.
Noteworthy Websites / Additional Readings
Banerji, Sures (1989) A Companion to Sanskrit Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Dvivedi, Manilal (trans.) (1894) Mandukya-karika. Boimbay: Tatva-vivechaka Press.
Karmarkar, Raghunath (trans.) (1953) Mandukya-karika. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
Lochetfeld, James (2002) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism. The Rosen Publishing Group.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. Abingdon: Routledge.
Wilson, Horace (trans.) (1837) Samkhya-karika. London: Valpy.
Article written by: Jordan Wingfield (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.