Nirvana in Candrakirti's Prasannapada: A Study in the Madhyamika Concept of Nirvana in the Context of Indian Thought
by G.C. Nayak. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2006. Pages 107. Rs 200.
History has seen many revolutions that aimed to usher in an ideal state where all would be happy. All such political, economic and religious revolutions failed in their aim, and will continue to fail because changing the external conditions alone does not lead to happiness. Until the inner core of the individual undergoes a qualitative change, a person would be unhappy even in a 'Utopia'. The inner transformation is the real freedom, i.e., moksha, mukti or nirvana.
Saints and philosophers have spoken about this ultimate freedom for centuries, yet the idea is not easy to grasp. Expressions like 'attaining nirvana', 'reaching a stage of nirvana', and 'getting nirvana' are all linguistic expressions, and are misleading. We think about nirvana or moksha like other worldly things and objects that have to be 'attained' or 'got'. Misled by language, people go on 'looking' for nirvana as if it is some object, or 'trying to reach' nirvana, as if it is a destination.
Buddha showed that to attain nirvana, one has to transcend the mind, which is a source of all misery and bondage. Our mind is full of avidya (ignorance) as it is conditioned to see the world in polarities: happiness-sorrow, good-bad, big-small, and so on. So long as these dvandas or polarities remain, there cannot be any freedom, for polarities are inseparable. We seek happiness, but happiness does not come alone, sorrow comes along in equal measure; we want light, but shadow also comes along. We can't choose to have a coin with only one side. What can one do? Is there no way out?
The present work deals with such questions from the Buddhist point of view. G. C. Nayak explores Candrakirti's exposition in great depth in about 100 pages, something rare in academic circles.
Elaborating on the Buddha's ideas, Nagarjuna (second century) wrote Mula Madhyama Karika and later Candrakirti (seventh century) wrote Prasannapada, a profound commentary on this work in Sanskrit in which he redefined nirvana itself.
Candrakirti argues that by understanding the workings of pratityasamutpada (conditioned existence of things), one can end all thought constructions and experience shunyata or nishvabhavata, i.e., a state of essencelessness. Candrakirti calls it sarva kalpana ksaya or the cessation of all essentialist thought constructions. Essentialist thought construction means a belief that all things in universe have an 'essence'. An essence is that quality of a thing without which that thing would not be the same. In Indian philosophy, words like guna, svabhava have been used in this sense. This philosophical position about essences is dominant in Indian as well as Greek tradition.
It is this essentialist belief that Candrakirti attacked, arguing that the concept of essences is untenable. Madhyamika's hold that svabhava can neither be created nor does it arise from an agent, it is intrinsic to the object. Chandrakirti demolishes his opponent's argument by showing their ultimate inconsistency.
The central argument is that one cannot attain ananda in the clutches of essentialist thought constructions. As already mentioned, the mind cannot see beyond dvandas or polarities and pluralities. We have to break free from the mind and experience the Absolute which is devoid of all dvandas. This is the state of the ultimate freedom that the Buddha talked about.
The way to go beyond the physical world of polarities is to reach a state of silence or void. This state cannot be expressed in words. No language can talk about it as language has its limits.
In many, the idea of nirvana evokes a kind of negative feeling. This negative connotation is unwarranted. The critics are making the mistake of thinking about these terms in spacio-temporal realms. Absolute freedom is neither temporal nor spatial, it transcends all. Far from being life-negating, a person does more work for the society more efficiently as he is not governed by any self-interest. Buddha himself lived for over 50 years teaching and helping the miserable after attaining nirvana.