- The Ethics of Śaṅkara and Śāntideva: A Selfless Response to an Illusory World by Warren Lee Todd
Warren Lee Todd’s The Ethics of Śaṅkara and Śāntideva is a study on comparative ethics focused on the exposition of Śaṅkara (Advaita Vedānta) and Śāntideva (Madhyamaka). Todd acknowledges the profound metaphysical difference at the heart of both traditions. Śankara affirms the reality of the ātman and its identity with the limitless brahman. Śāntideva, on the other hand, denies the reality of a permanent self and advocates the teaching of self-emptiness (anātman). These two positions, Todd concedes, cannot be reconciled, even when we understand Śaṅkara to require the dropping of a false self. “This is where the anātman doctrine has its force. It is indeed egoism (ahaṃkāra) that causes suffering (duḥkha), but the belief that one has a permanent centre, a true self (ātman), according to the Buddhist, increases the delusion, which itself causes egoism” (p. 78). At one point in his discussion (pp. 90–91), Todd notes the problem of translating ātman as “self,” especially in the context of Advaita Vedānta. This is a problem acknowledged by Śaṅkara himself in his commentary on the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (I.iv.7), and specifically on the use of the expression ātmetyevopāsīta in this verse:
The use of the particle ‘iti’ along with the word ‘Self,’ to which you referred, only signifies that the truth of the Self is really beyond the scope of the term and the concept ‘Self.’ Otherwise the śruti would only say, ‘One should meditate upon the Self.’ But this would imply that the term and the concept ‘Self’ were permissible with regard to the Self. That however is repugnant to śruti.1 [End Page 964]
Śaṅkara continues by citing a series of apophatic Upaniṣad texts pointing to the limits of all words in relation to ātman/brahman. Todd does not pursue further the implications of this for the Advaita-Madhyamaka comparison. The nature of ātman, as understood in Advaita, would, after all, preclude the description that one has a true self since such discourse objectifies and renders ātman as a “thing” to be possessed.
Acknowledging the metaphysical ātman/anātman gulf that separates both traditions, Todd proceeds to identify deep similarities, challenging “the commonly held view that ātman/anātman is the major distinguishing feature of these two religions” (p. 44). His highlighting of elements of a shared worldview held by Śaṅkara and Śāntideva is detailed, rich, and insightful, and constitutes a significant achievement of this work. The list is a lengthy one. Both commentators emphasize the need for renunciation, representing the world as a place of suffering. Celibacy and asceticism are prescribed and women regarded as dangerous. Both value knowledge within their traditions, the word of the Buddha, and the Vedas, respectively, even though Todd describes this knowledge “as a form of realization that is beyond the beyond the intellect” (p. 137):
Both claim that realization removes ignorance (avidyā) and leads to an end of suffering (duḥkha). Both insist that renunciation is a necessary preliminary to insight, and that some form of inquiry into reality is necessary. Both then claim that this inquiry must eventually cease, and both surprisingly devalue the rewarding bliss (ānanda) that their traditions assert arises at this juncture. And finally, both will place their knowers-of-reality in the role of teacher, whose “job” it is to show others that there is in fact no individuated self.(p. 137)
Both would claim that the truth of non-individuation needed to be thoroughly grasped and subsequently spread to others. The life-style was that of the wise and caring teacher, the compassionate guru. The initial task was to deconstruct the self so as to become selfless. The further task was to then reconstruct the suffering other, so as to be capable of empathizing with their...