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Gaudapada (and Advaita Vedanta)

Legendary Life

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).


Later Influences

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.


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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.


Born and raised in South India in 1017 CE, Ramanuja was a philosopher and a theologian whose ideas and writings have had a lasting impact on Indian religious practices. Ramanuja is attributed with the theology of qualified non-dualism, which can be contrasted to Sankara’s radical non-dualism and Madhva’s dualism (see Rodrigues 373-379). Ramanuja belonged to the Vadama caste, within the Brahmin class, who are claimed to uphold the scholarly study of the Vedas (Carman 28). As a result, he was very learned in the Vedic texts and as such left his first guru early because he could not follow his teaching (Carman 29). He later attempted to become a disciple of two non-Brahmin gurus before he was finally able to find another non-Brahmin guru who would take him as a disciple even though he was a Brahmin (Carman 30-31). He became a samnyasi fairly early in life and established a monastic house but soon became very prominent in the Srirangam temple where he started out and came back to many years later (Carman 34, 44).Ramanuja was a devout follower Visnu; furthermore, throughout his life he was very adamant in promoting devotion only to Visnu (Carman 34, 37-44).

The most widely known text that Ramanuja wrote is the Sribhasya, which is a comprehensive commentary on the Vedanta Sutras (Carman 49). However, Ramanuja is also credited with writing a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, a work titled Vedarthasamgraha (“The Summary of the Meaning of the Vedas”), two commentaries on the Vedanta Sutras, three Gadyas (prose hymns), and the Nityagrantha (a manual of daily worship) (Carman 49). All of these writing were in Sanskrit although Ramanuja’s native language (and the one he taught in) was Tamil (Carman 49-50).

Ramanuja is most widely known for his philosophical and theological teachings. He taught a philosophy called Visistadvaita, which means qualified non-dualism. Sankara taught that the only thing that is real is Brahman, and Madhava taught that there are three entities, Brahman, the soul, and matter (see Rodrigues 373-379). Ramanuja, by contrast, taught that the universe is the body of Brahman, which is the unchanging foundation of reality (Edattukaran 179). He also describes the body as a substance completely controlled by the soul (Iturbe 42), however, they are inseparable (Edattukaran 185). Ramanuja uses the concepts of prakrti and purusa to explain the link between the body and the soul. He says that the body, which is linked to the primordial matter (prakrti,) is governed by purusa (the sentient soul), in a relationship where prakrti is entirely subordinate to purusa (Iturbe 42). The existence of these two related but distinct entities is the grounds for qualified non-dualism. This is also classified as qualified non-dualism because Brahman is not identical with the universe even though it is real (compared to illusory objects as identified by Sankara) and thus remains the eternal changeless single reality while the souls and matter – which are the modes and expressions of Brahman – are constantly undergoing modifications (Edattukaran 190). Ramanuja thus assigns qualities to Brahman, which makes his philosophy qualified non-dualism (see Rodrigues 376-377). Ramanuja has fused some of the previous traditions together by explaining “the body as the essential mode of Brahman’s being” (Edattukaran 187).

Ramanuja also talks about God as the activator while humans are the activated (Iturbe 49). This happens by God seeing humans’ good efforts and granting grace so that humans can properly perform their actions (Iturbe 49). Actions are primarily dependent on humans’ own efforts, but God needs to grant permission for those actions to be performed (Iturbe 48). God allows humans to make their own actions; however, he is favourable to those who are devoted to him (Singh 159). As well, God must choose to reveal himself to someone, and has to be invoked to do so (Raghavachar 388). Ramanuja says that bhakti (loving devotion) is the path that leads one to invoke God to reveal himself to you (Raghavachar 388). This can be accomplished through spending time meditating (dhyana) on God (Raghavachar 388). Through dhyana and bhaki, one can achieve moksa, which is liberation from the cycles of samsara.

Yoga, according to Ramanuja, is the way to attain moksa (Vadakethala 36). Through the practice of yoga, one can learn how to lovingly devote him-/herself to God and how to meditate on God (bhakti and dhyana). There are three types of yoga that are the way to final release, karmayoga (the yoga of work), jnanajoga (the yoga of knowledge), and bhaktiyoga (the yoga of loving devotion) (Vadakethala 36). Karmayoga means to do actions of spiritual detachment, which is a renunciation in action but not of action (Vadakethala 40). This means acting dispassionately and renouncing all attachment to material things and performing the action without becoming attached in any way (emotionally, for example) to the act of performing the action (Vadakethala 42). Jnanayoga means achieving the knowledge of the self; Ramanuja only prescribes jnanayoga to those who already have advanced knowledge (Vadakethala 43-45). Higher than these two yogas is bhaktiyoga, which leads man to a “blissful communion with God” (Vadakethala 45). This loving devotion to God (bhakti) is what draws one away from the material world (allows for someone to detach from the world) and achieve union with God (Vadakethala 49). Bhakti is thus the means of achieving moksa, however through bhakti all three yogas are interrelated because bhakti is shown through karmayoga and jnanayoga (Vadakethala 43). In other words, loving devotion to God is demonstrated through one’s actions and one’s knowledge, however a person’s prime motive should be to lovingly devote his-/herself to God and thus detach his-/herself from the world.

However, if someone does not have the knowledge required for bhakti, or the ability to wait for its progressive maturation (for example, he is from a lower class), he can resort to prapatti, which is the “surrender or taking to God for refuge” (Raghavachar 389-390). This means that anybody has the means to be freed from samsara because if he cannot practice bhakti, he can resort to prapatti and still attain moksa. Thus, Ramanuja claims that because class distinctions do not touch the nature of the soul, anybody can attain moksa (Singh 157). However, there is a weakness in prapatti because the person will desire knowledge, the power of action, and spiritual patience (Raghavachar 391). This desire will draw that person away from the purpose of the trying to attain moksa because it will keep them attached to this world (where the main goal is to detach from the world). However, it is ultimately God who decides who gets liberated, which means that in prapatti the person must stop human initiative in order to prepare for passing the initiative entirely to the Divine (Raghavachar 391). In this way, someone who is using prapatti may attain moksa.

Ramanuja’s theology is one of qualified non-dualism in which Brahman is the ultimate reality in which humans strive for union with, but Brahman has qualities that make this theology qualified (see Rodrigues 376-377). According to Ramanuja, God chooses who he wants to liberate from samsara based on their karma, jnana, and bhakti (Raghavachar 388, 391). Yoga is the means of attaining union with the divine, and bhaktiyoga is claimed as superior to karmayoga and jnanayoga (however all three types of yoga are interrelated) (Vadakethala 36, 45). Ramanuja also states the prapatti is another path that can lead to liberation, however it is a weaker path (Raghavachar 391). Ramanuja’s ideas have made a significant impact on Hindu religious practice and have thus been compared and contrasted with the ideas of many other great thinkers.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Carman, John Braisted (1974) The Theology of Ramanuja: An Essay in Interreligious Understanding. London: Yale University Press.

Edattukaran, Wilson (2002) “Consciousness Incarnate: Concept of Body in Merleau- Ponty and Ramanuja.” Journal of Dharma, 27, no. 2: 178-192.

Iturbe, Mariano (2003) “The Concept of Human Action in Ramanuja and Thomas Aquinas.” Philosophy, Culture, and Traditions: A Journal of the World Union of Catholic Philosophical Societies 2: 39-55.

Raghavachar, SS (1978) “Concept of Moksha According to Sri Ramanuja.” Vedanta Kesari, 65: 384-391.

Rodriques, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The e-Book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Singh, Abha (2004) “Social Philosophy of Ramanuja vis-à-vis Professor Sangam Lal Pandey.” Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 21, no. 1: 153-164.

Tsoukalas, Steven (2006) Krsna and Christ: Body-Divine Relation in the Thought of Sankara, Ramanuja, & Classical Christian Orthodoxy. Milton Keynes: UK.

Vadakethala, Francis (1977) “A Yoga for Liberation: Ramanuja’s Approach.” Journal of Dharma 2: 35-52.

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The Bhagavad Gita



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Article written by Kelsey McMullen (Spring 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.