Hodgson’s Schools of Nepalese Buddhism Identified with Particular Reference to the Swābhāvikas
The school of the Nepalese Swābhāvikas described in Brian Hodgson’s pioneering essays on Buddhism in Nepal is of some significance in the thought-world of the early Theosophical Society. H.P. Blavatsky wrote about this school in Isis Unveiled and had described herself as a Swābhāvika, “a Buddhist Pantheist, if anything at all.” Further, she described her guru M as “a Buddhist, but not of the dogmatic Church, but belongs to the Svabhavikas, the so-called Nepal Atheists.” Another member of the same fraternity, K.H., had recommended the study of the doctrines of this school to his correspondent A.O. Hume: “Study the laws and doctrines of the Nepaulese Swabhavikas, the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India, and you will find them the most learned as the most scientifically logical wranglers in the world. Their plastic invisible eternal omnipresent and unconscious Swabhavat is Force or Motion ever generating its electricity which is life.” So the identity of this school is of some interest to students of Theosophy.
In addition to the Swābhāvikas, Hodgson also wrote about three other schools of Nepalese Buddhism: the Aiśwarikas, Kārmikas, and Yātnikas. Unfortunately for followers of the Theosophical teachings, who understand H.P.B. to be a genuine emissary of genuine Mahatmas, it is now well-accepted among specialists thanks to the research of David Gellner that there are no schools of Buddhism, Nepalese or otherwise, that bear these names. That being the case, Gellner pronounced the issue a “blind alley.” The late Nepalese researcher Harihar Raj Joshi, on the other hand, had a different intuition; rather than being a “blind alley,” it is perhaps a case of “the blind man and the elephant.” A “new chapter” could be written by carefully parsing, analyzing, and researching what Hodgson wrote and what his informant, Pandit Amṛtānanda Vajrācārya, actually said to him. What follows is that new chapter.
It must be conceded up front that Gellner’s primary conclusion is indisputable; there are indeed no Buddhist schools that go under these monikers. After pioneering French scholar of Buddhism Eugène Burnouf had observed that the canonical “four schools” of Indian Buddhism were actually Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogācāra, and Madhyamaka, Hodgson was compelled to considerably clarify the nature of his own four Nepalese schools for the readers of his collected Essays. “My Bauddha pandit,” he writes, “assigned these titles to the Extract made from his Sástras, and always used them in his discussions with me. Hence I erroneously presumed them to be derived from the Sástras, and preferable to Mádyámika, &c., which he did not use, and which, though the scriptural denominations, were postponed to those here used on his authority as being less diagnostic. In making the extracts we ought to reach the leading doctrines, and therein I think we succeeded.” What are the “leading doctrines” that these titles are “diagnostic” to? Hodgson writes that these doctrines concern “the origin of the world, the nature of a first cause, and the nature and destiny of the soul.” In other words, they primarily concern cosmology. This is further verified in Hodgson’s papers where the four schools are actually called the four types of worlds or world-systems (caturvidhasamsāra). But where did the names of these diagnostic cosmogonies or “schools” come from?
Hodgson reproduces one of these discussions with Amṛtānanda on cosmology and it is here that we discover the origin of the school titles. He asks, “Is matter an independent existence, or derived from God?” In his answer, Amṛtānanda largely paraphrases a segment of Aśvagoṣa’s epic poem, the Buddhacarita, in which emissaries of the Buddha’s father, who had been sent with the purpose of persuading the future Buddha to return to his princely duties, present various theories as to whether the body and the world (samsāra or “sansára” in Hogson’s rendering) derive from intrinsic nature or swabhāva (“Swábhávaka”), God or Īśvara (“Aiswarika”), or karma (“Kármika”).
Concerning this Gellner writes, “The religious positions the minister is describing are in fact non-Buddhist doctrines which Sarvārthasidda (the future Buddha) rejects as inadequate.” While the future Buddha was obviously not persuaded by this line of argumentation he did not, as Gellner asserts, reject these cosmological theories out of hand either. Rather, he refused to pronounce on them, having not yet obtained enlightenment on these issues. “As for this disputed question of existence and non-existence in this universe, no decision is possible for me on the strength of another’s words. I will arrive at the truth for myself by asceticism and quietude and will accept what is determined accordingly in this manner.” This statement of the future Buddha will serve as Amṛtānanda justification for the use of these titles; at the end of his reply to Hodgson’s query on matter and God, Amṛtānanda loosely paraphrases it as follows: “Some persons say that Sansára is Swábhávaka, some that it is Kármika, and some that it is Aiśwarika and Atmaka; for myself, I can tell you nothing of these matters. Do you address your meditations to the Buddha; and when you have attained Bodhijnána, you will know the truth yourselves.”
Amṛtānanda was quite aware that these doctrines in their original signification were non-Buddhist, however. This comes across very clearly in his own 1830 recension of the Buddhacarita. The Sanskrit Buddhacarita had lost its original concluding cantos and Amṛtānanda wrote four new ones to finish the work. In one of these cantos, the now fully enlightened Buddha refutes the doctrines given by his father’s minister in their non-Buddhist sense. So there is no question of a misunderstanding, contra Gellner. Rather, these non-Buddhist cosmogonies appear to serve a heuristic function for Amṛtānanda, as they have close parallels to cosmogonies represented in Buddhist scriptures he was aware of.
We get a more detailed look at these cosmogonies in a later essay wherein Hodgson attempts to prove the accuracy of his description of the Buddhist schools via direct quotations from scripture provided to him by Amṛtānanda. The success of that endeavor can charitably be said to be of a mixed character since, as Burnouf noticed in going over his references in the Sanskrit manuscripts provided to him by Hodgson, many of these texts do not contain what Hodgson says they contain. Burnouf attributes this to title transposition, something that Hodgson had already complained of. That something like this must have occurred is ironically demonstrated by the fact that the copy of Candrakīrti’s Prasannapadā that Burnouf himself quotes from is also under an incorrect title. Further, many of these mistitled texts show signs of being medieval Newar Sanskrit compositions (called the “Garland literature”) rather than Indian originals. So although we are unable to accurately trace many of these citations they are still illustrative of these cosmogonies as understood in Newar Buddhism and among them are scattered various “comments” that emanate from unnamed commentators (probably Amṛtānanda himself in many instances) and are extremely illuminating.
The Swābhāvika doctrine presented in the Buddhacarita is that of the ancient materialistic and atheistic Cārvāka school. They held that the elements of which the world is composed "are earth, water, fire, and air” and that these “elements move through original impulse," or swabhāva. This is paralleled in a comment on a Buddhist “Swábhávika” scripture in which an account is given of the world arising from the elements out of ākāśa (space or ether) in the descending order of air, fire, water, and earth. From earth comes Mount Sumeru “with its own substance of gold” (qualified elsewhere as a “wheel of gold”) and from Mount Sumeru “all the various kinds of trees and vegetables; and from them all the variety of colors, shapes, flavors, and fragrances, in leaves, flowers, and the fruits.” The world revolves out of being into ākāśa in reverse order. “Such is the Swábhávika Sansára; which Sansára (universe) constantly revolves between Pravritti and Nirvritti, like a potter’s wheel.”
This generation (and dissolution) of the world from the great material elements (“mahābhūta”) is recognizably an aspect of the classical Buddhist account, to be found in both the Abhidharma and Kālacakra systems, in which “world systems come into being from subtle particles of earth, water, fire, and wind, which are the basis for the initial formation of the universe, together with the collective karma of sentient beings.” The last element of this account, the collective karma of sentient beings, is essentially the Kārmika cosmogony of the world arising from universal avidyā which leads to the saṃskāras and the rest of the karmic chain of dependent origination. In the Abhidharma account this collective karma takes the form of a primal wind which brings about the manifestation of the elements. Thus the Swābhāvika and Kārmika cosmogonies are actually isolates of the classical cosmogony that is more or less accepted by all traditional Buddhist schools.
The theistic Aiśwarika account, on the other hand, is clearly the Vajrayāna Tantric understanding of the world arising from a personified Absolute, the Ādi-Buddha, who goes under various names (Amṛtānanda lists many of them). Hodgson himself notes the linkage between this system and Tantra. B. Allan Wallace, a translator and acknowledged expert on Tibetan Buddhist meditation, has drawn attention to the correspondences between this standard Tantric understanding and the very sophisticated theistic accounts in other non-Buddhist traditions such as Vedānta and neo-Platonic Christianity. On this basis Wallace questions whether it is entirely appropriate to say that Buddhism is non-theistic. So it is perhaps not so absurd for Amṛtānanda and Hodgson to present a Buddhist “school” based on Īśvara.
This comparison is not naive, however. Buddhism has ever refuted the literalistic belief in a supreme personality who fashions the world in the same way a potter might, such as we find in the Hebrew Bible, and in line with this Hodgson notes that the Aiśwarikas deny “Providence or dominion” to this deity. Indeed, Hodgson finds this to be the “great defect” of all of his schools. A further distinguishing feature of the Ādi-Buddha system which Hodgson found quite disagreeable is that Ādi-Buddha is not a distinct entity from “the world with all it containeth.” Ādi-Buddha is in fact the monistic reality behind all pluralistic phenomena. “Adi-Buddha, though he comprehends all living things, is yet one. He is the soul, and they are but the limbs and outward members, of this monad. Such is nirvritti, which, being deeply studied, is found to be unity,” according to Amṛtānanda.
The Yātnika doctrine, which Hodgson presents as something of an adjunct to the Aiśwarika doctrine, is more obscure. Yatna means effort and could not be said to be a word of much doctrinal significance in any school of Buddhism but it is to be found in the same section of the Buddhacarita that the other school titles derive from. Hodgson defines yatna as “intellect, intellectual force, and resource.” This intellectual force is of a clearly meditative sort as it brings about liberation. In a comment on a Yātnika scripture, a cosmogony in terms of Īśvara (or Ādi-Buddha) producing five jñānas and five Dhyāni Buddhas by means of yatna is given. Amṛtānanda says elsewhere that Ādi-Buddha is “merely light.” A scriptural citation is also given from the Guṇakāraṇḍavyūha, a Newar Sanskrit composition, describing Ādi-Buddha as “stainless” and “revealed in the form of flame or light.” This account of the revelation of Ādi-Buddha as flame or light is also to be found in another Newar composition, the Swāyambhū Purāṇa. The Sanskrit word used in this text for this light is prabhāsvara, commonly rendered as “luminosity” or “clear light.” This clear light is the ultimate nature of mind or consciousness. Consciousness and light are intimately linked as they share the same “quality of illumination."
A cosmogony in terms of prabhāsvara is to be found detailed in the Guhyasamāja Tantra, “a very holy Tantra” and one of the navadharma or navagrantha, nine scriptures held to be especially sacred in Newar Buddhism, and its commentaries. As a Vajrācārya, or recognized Vajrayāna master and lineage holder, Amṛtānanda was quite knowledgeable about these matters; he had even composed Vajrayāna literature himself. In keeping with the secrecy of this tradition, Amṛtānanda had initially feigned that the Guhyasamāja was unavailable in Nepal but Hodgson did eventually succeed in obtaining it. In this account, the stainless prabhāsvara in concert with the energy-winds that are its steed creates the phenomenal universe. These energy-winds may be identified with the collective karmic winds of the standard Abhidharma account. So it seems that in the prabhāsvara cosmogony we have the origin of the Yātnika system.
Burnouf had perceptively noted of these schools that “the same texts serve as the foundation for all the doctrines; only the explication of these texts marks their naturalist, theist, moral, or intellectual tendency.” In line with this observation, what we earlier noted of the Swābhāvika and Kārmika accounts holds true of the other cosmogonies. None of them really contradict each other but are in fact complementary; Ādi-Buddha is prabhāsvara who rides the karmic winds, which stir up the elements. And as regards the “the nature and destiny of the soul” all alike teach “metempsychosis and absorption,” as Hodgson notes. But for all that, these cosmogonies do not often all appear together in one place as a unified account and are distinct in emphasis. Nor would all Buddhists find every element acceptable, particularly as it concerns Ādi-Buddha.
The identification of the school titles with cosmogonies is only a necessary preliminary endeavor, however, for we are not dealing only with cosmogonies. Hodgson has a great deal more to say about the Swābhāvikas in particular and gets into issues of ontology, metaphysics, and epistemology, such as we would expect to find in a doctrinal school. Burnouf had written that to “determine up to which point the four sects enumerated by Mr. Hodgson are included in those mentioned by the Abhidharmakośa [the canonical Indo-Tibetan four], or to show that there are quite different sects who later shared the heritage of primitive beliefs, is a task for which we need new assistance.” Despite the advance of over 150 years of Buddhist scholarship since the time of Hodgson and Burnouf, very few have taken up this request for assistance save Gellner, who pronounced negatively on both alternatives and effectively settled the question for many. New assistance can be given and a much more positive conclusion reached, however. By correlating the material on Swābhāvika epistemology and metaphysics given by Hodgson with this more recent scholarship, identifications can be made with canonical schools and made definitively.
It must first be noted that Hodgson actually writes of two different Swābhāvika schools; there are the primitive simple Swābhāvikas and the Prājñika Swābhāvikas. This distinction is highly revealing and crucial for our endeavor. The Swābhāvikas simpliciter believe that matter is divisible into various “powers” and that these powers always exist, whether in pravṛtti or nivṛtti. The Prājñikas, however, “unitize the powers” in nivṛtti and “make that unit, deity” which is “their proper modality.” Whereas the Prājñikas “unitize the active and intelligent powers of nature” the Swābhāvikas simpliciter “do not unitize them.” What we have then is a pluralistic philosophy on the one hand and a monistic or non-dual philosophy on the other.
Before proceeding with our identifications it will also be useful to get a better understanding of Hogson’s conception of matter since he identifies the Swābhāvikas as a materialist school. This has been a source of understandable confusion for many commentators since Buddhism is not particularly concerned with matter as such, and certainly not in the modern sense. First, it must be pointed out that Hodgson uses “nature” or “system of nature” as a synonym for matter in many instances. Further, he writes that the various “forces” or powers of matter are both “intellectual and physical.” So these “powers” encompass both the physical and the non-physical or mind-like. When Hodgson writes of “matter” he means primarily to contrast these doctrines with “immateriality” by which he designates God and/or pure idealism; in other words, the supernatural. All the powers and “energies” which are extrinsic to the system of nature in theistic cosmogonies are intrinsic for the Swābhāvikas.
Now the classical Buddhist cosmogony given as that of the Swābhāvikas is very crucial for our search; behind this cosmogony stands the Abhidharma and behind the Abhidharma is a scholasticism that is highly concerned with metaphysical and epistemological issues. For the physical and intellectual “powers” of nature that Hodgson speaks of are the individual dharmas or elements of existence to be found in the Abhidharma literature, among which are the great elements which generate the world. Hodgson writes that the “powers” of matter are symbolized by various letters and when we turn to the scriptural citations given to illustrate the Swābhāvika school we find that these powers designated by various letters are the same primary material elements. Hodgson also gives out the epistemological theory of dharmas in terms of the six cognitive senses or indriyas and six objects or āyatanas (also called simply the twelve āyatanas) as a doctrine of the Swābhāvikas. He writes that in the Swābhāvika understanding, the forms of the sense objects are ephemeral in manifestation (or pravṛtti) qua forms but eternal and transcendental in the state of nivṛtti. Elsewhere Hodgson gives the great elements a correspondence with the twelve āyatanas.
In arguing with those who denied the influence of karma, the Buddha had said in a scripture of the canon of Northern Buddhism that “everything exists” (sarvāstitva). When pressed further on the matter of what the “everything” that existed was, he defined it as the twelve āyatanas. The six sensory objects of the twelve are further subdivided so that a vast quantity of dharmas are encompassed. In fact “everything” is encompassed by the twelve āyatanas; “everything” and the āyatanas are synonymous. A school of Buddhism would take the declaration that “everything exists” literally and derive their name from it. This was the Sarvāstivāda (also known as Vaibhāṣika), once “the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India.” They were also the most influential codifiers of Abhidharma in Northern Buddhism; among the texts that Hodgson passed along to Burnouf was Yaśomitra’s sub-commentary on Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa-Bhāṣya, an auto-commentary on his compilation of Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, which is an extremely crucial text for the transmission of these teachings. So Amṛtānanda would doubtless have been quite familiar with the Sarvāstivāda doctrines.
The pluralistic philosophy of this school is a good match for the Swābhāvikas simpliciter. Indeed, they have been described as a “swabhāvavāda” by a modern commentator and, like the Swābhāvikas of the Buddhacarita, would be able to assert that the sharpness of the “thorns of the desert” and so on derive from their inherent swabhāva, and not Īśvara. The Sarvāstivādins posited that the swabhāvas of the dharmas existed in the three times (past, present, and future). This, however, applies only to the swabhāva as such and not to its manifestation, or lakṣaṇa, which is only a momentary point-instant; the continuous series of these momentary flashings constitute motion. Even when a dharma has fallen out of manifestation and is taken up into Nirvāṇa (or nivṛtti) the swabhāva of the dharma remains; its true nature is mysterious and transcendental. Thus, these transcendental swabhāvas exist forever, just as do the swabhāvas of the Swābhāvikas simpliciter which exist through “an eternal revolution of entity and non-entity.”
The manifestation of the dharmas constitutes duḥkha (“suffering” or “commotion” in Stcherbatsky’s rendering). Through the refinement of the dharma prajñā, the manifestation of consciousness and sensory input come to an end and this constitutes Nirvāṇa. Commenting on the attainment of the Swābhāvika Nirvāṇa, Hodgson notes along these lines that “Plotinus contended that the most perfect worship of the Deity consisted in a certain mysterious self-annihilation or total extinction of all our faculties.” For the Sarvāstivāda, Nirvāṇa is not a pure nothing as it has a swabhāva. It is “sometimes, especially in popular literature, characterized as bliss, but this bliss consists in the cessation of unrest (duḥkha). Bliss is a feeling, and in the absolute there neither is a feeling, nor conception, nor volition, nor even consciousness.” Likewise, Hodgson writes that there was some dispute as to the nature of Nirvāṇa among the Swābhāvikas simpliciter as to whether it had a more positive content or a purely negative one, although even if the content was purely of an annihilative nature it would still be a supreme good as it is the ceasing of suffering.
The Sarvāstivāda may at one time have been able to lay claim to the title of “the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India,” and their swabhāvas are certainly “plastic,” “eternal,” and, absent manifestation, “invisible” and “unconscious.” They are not, however, an omnipresent singular swabhāva, as in Mahatma K.H.’s description of the Swābhāvika philosophy, for Theosophy is a non-dual worldview. Turning to the Prājñika Swābhāvikas, we meet with a much closer match.
The Prājñika school “seems to have considered matter as the sole entity, to have ascribed to it all the attributes of deity, and to have assigned to it two modalities; one termed nirvritti, and the other pravritti.” These two modes, Hodgson informs us, correspond to the categories of abstract and concrete. To the concrete belong all the “powers” of nature or dharmas. This is the realm of “action, multiplicity, change, pain” and it is “the contingent mode.” The abstract is the “proper modality” in which these powers exist in “unity, immutability, rest, bliss.” This “proper modality” is “the great secret (Súnyatá) of nature” and “man’s summum bonum,” which is not “a vague and doubtful association to the state of Nirvritti; but a specific and certain absorption into Prajná, the sum of all the powers, active and intellectual, of the universe.”
What is this śūnyatā or emptiness? According to Hodgson it is “the modus existendi of all things in the state of quiescence and abstraction from phenomenal being” since Buddhists “deem… all phænomena to be as purely illusory as do the Vedantists.” In this state the “energy of nature… is considered to be void of all those qualities which necessarily imply perishableness, and, which is the same thing, of all those qualities which are cognizable or distinguishable, and hence the energy in that state is typed by pure space.” Clarifying this further in a handwritten annotation in a copy of his Essays, Hodgson writes that “Herbert Spencer’s Unknowable is the nearest equivalent of the Buddhist nirvana and sunyata.” Spencer’s “Unknowable” is famously an Absolute non-conceptual noumenon that stands behind the relative. So for Hodgson śūnyatā entails the illusoriness and unreality of all phenomena and a state of monistic Absoluteness on the ultimate level which is void or empty of everything phenomenal. It is “eternally, unchangeably, and essentially one.” This proper modality is “symbolized by the Yoni, and personified as a female divinity Adi-Prajná and Adi-Dharmá.”
This “female divinity Adi-Prajná” of the Prājñika system is the goddess Prajñāpāramitā, or Perfection of Wisdom, the Buddhist equivalent of the Gnostic Sophia and a representative of the ancient mother goddess archetype. She has a vast class of literature and Hodgson quotes some of it in his scriptural citations for the Swābhāvika school and for the concept of “Adi-Dharmá.” Most prominent among these is the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, or Prajñāpāramitā in 8,000 Lines, which is one of the navadharma and the original scripture of the Prajñāpāramitā class. “This is a work of philosophy rather than religion, and its spirit is skeptical to the very verge of pyrrhonism,” writes Hodgson.
Pyrrhonism, the “skepticism” propagated by Pyrrho in ancient Greece, is an apt comparison with the view of the Prajñāpāramitā, and one that was also made by Edward Conze, the preeminent authority on this class of scriptures. The Prajñāpāramitā is noted for deconstructing every aspect of conventional reality, which is declared to be empty. What is infrequently noted by modern commentators amidst all the deconstruction, however, is that the description of conventional reality in terms of the dharmas is regarded by the Prajñāpāramitā literature as superior to the naive view of the average person who accepts entities such as a permanent self which is actually just composed of dharmas (the five skandhas in this case). Distinguishing the dharmas, getting them “into view,” is a necessary step to achieving real insight on the spiritual path. According to the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, if an entity is not a dharma it does not exist.
The Prajñāpāramitā also follows the Sarvāstivādins in asserting that these dharmas have a swabhāva. It is denied, however, that all the dharmas have their own unique swabhāva for “there are not two essential natures of dharmas, but just one single is the essential nature of all dharmas.” The final swabhāva of the dharmas is “that which looks only to itself, and not to anything outside. It is what we call the ‘Absolute,’ compared with which all separate dharmas are parabhāva (relative). The mark (lakṣaṇa) of that own-being is that it is not contingent, not conditioned, not related to anything other than itself.” This swabhāva which is Absolute is emptiness or śūnyatā. It is described in one Prajñāpāramitā scripture as “the unbroken unity of all dharmas.” This emptiness can also be described as monism “since all multiplicity is relegated to a lower plane and denied ultimate validity.”
Nāgārjuna is traditionally said to have retrieved the Prajñāpāramitā scriptures from the realm of the Nāgas and it is his Madhyamaka school that is held to provide their definitive exegesis. This school would go on to displace the Sarvāstivāda as “the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India” and become the mainstream and dominant understanding of the Tibetan inheritors of Indian Buddhism. In the non-theistic “system of nature” taught by Nāgārjuna, matter (the four great elements or mahābhūta) and mind (vijñāna) are dependently originated and mutually supportive; neither has primacy and neither can manifest without the other. The ultimate nature of both is the dharmadhātu, the Absolute reality, the “basic element” which is “held to be the basis of all dharmas.”A Prajñāpāramitā scripture says of the dharmadhātu: “The Dharma-element would be upset (vikopita), if there were any other Dharma outside it. But no other dharma can be apprehended outside it. If one could be apprehended, there would be an upsetting of the Dharma-element.”
For Nagarjuna, realization of the dharmadhātu is identical with Nirvāṇa and this Nirvāṇa is not a “doubtful” entity as in the Sarvāstivāda teachings; rather it is the “sum of all the powers, active and intellectual, of the universe.” For as Stcherbatsky writes, “Nāgārjuna gives a new orientation to Nirvāṇa. The Vaibhāṣika maintained that Nirvāṇa was something real (dharma) in which consciousness and life were extinct for ever: the Sautrāntika believed that it was the simple cessation of the world process. In both cases, something real was assumed to exist before Nirvāṇa and to disappear afterwards. This made Nirvāṇa a product of causes (saṁskṛta). Nāgārjuna asserted that there was not a shade of difference between the Absolute and the Phenomenal, between Nirvāṇa and Śaṁsāra. The universe viewed as a whole is the Absolute, viewed as a process, it is the phenomenal.” Nirvāṇa is called variously tathātā (Suchness), tattva (Reality), or Prajñāpāramitā and “Prajñāpāramitā as non-dual Intuition is the Absolute.”
This in any case is the once dominant academic understanding of Madhyamaka as an Absolutism. It has lately fallen out of fashion and given way to an interpretation of the Madhyamaka ultimate truth as being a semantic conventionalism that eschews anything particularly mystical, metaphysical, or transcendental; the ultimate truth is a mere conventional truth. The “semantic interpretation” probably tells us a great deal more about the concerns of certain modern western academics than it does about Nāgārjuna. For our present purposes of identification, however, it is not necessary to refute this view’s claim to be the correct interpretation of Nāgārjuna. It is only necessary to point out that the Absolutist or monistic interpretation is also the interpretation of a great many traditional Buddhist schools and scholars of past ages and the present.
In sum then the Prājñika Swābhāvikas of Nepal may be identified with the Madhyamaka school. But which Madhyamaka school? The two best known sub-schools of Madhyamaka are Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika. They are typically understood in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism to teach a transcendent non-conceptual ultimate reality with “a form that transcends all manifoldness” to be realized directly by āryas in meditative equipoise through nondual gnosis (jñāna), which is something totally other than mundane consciousness (vijñāna). This ultimate and Absolute śūnyatā or swabhāva transcends manifoldness and all conventional words and concepts so completely that it is regarded as self-empty; the dharmadhātu is “empty” of the four extremes of existence, non-existence, both, and neither. This is the famed “emptiness of emptiness.” “The Absolute is Śūnya as it is utterly devoid of the conceptual distinctions of ‘is’ and ‘not-is’, free from all subjectivity (nirvikalpa, niṣprapañca).”
There is another Madhyamaka school, however, with a very distinctive presentation of the Absolute noumenon. This is the Great Madhyamaka. This school, like Theosophy, integrates Yogācāra and Madhyamaka terminology, as well as Vajrayāna doctrines from Tantras such as the Kālacakra, into a unified whole. It is asserted that the primary authorities of both Yogācāra and Madhyamaka actually belonged to one single school and taught the same doctrine of other-emptiness. This teaching was expounded most prominently by the Lama Dölpopa and his Jonang sect. Although Dölpopa agreed that the primordial jñāna realized in meditative equipoise transcends the manifoldness of the four extremes, he taught that in post-meditation and in the context of conventional discourse the Absolute is to be regarded as not empty of itself but rather empty of everything other than itself; it is “other” than all conventional dichotomies or dualistic fabrications. It is an other-emptiness, not a self-emptiness, and it has a swabhāva that is truly established and truly existent. This “partless pervader” of Dölpopa, the truly established swabhāva, is in essence identical with the “Swabhavat” of K.H.
In contrast to the Prāsaṅgikas, the Great Madhyamaka presents the relationship between the Absolute swabhāva and the phenomenal world, the “pervader” and “pervaded,” as a hierarchical relationship much like the relationship between Brahman and māyā in Advaita Vedānta; it is an “appearance-reality distinction.” The Absolute appears as samsāra to the unenlightened although it is not so in reality. Thus, the Absolute is necessary for samsāra to exist but it is not the case that samsāra is necessary for the Absolute to exist, because samsāra is contingent and unreal in and of itself. Samsāra is a mere superimposition and the Absolute can do very well without it, as it is empty of the unreal. This “appearance-reality distinction” of the Great Madhyamaka is paralleled in Hodgson’s distinction between the illusory “contingent” and Absolute “proper” modes of swabhāva.
Ironically, we will have to turn to the “theistic” Vajrayāna Aiswarika doctrine to really nail down the true identity of the Madhyamaka doctrine of the “atheistic” Nepalese Swābhāvikas, for Newar Buddhism is of a Vajrayāna character and the “Vajrayana doctrine of Nepal is usually based on Madhyamika as well as Yogacara doctrines,” like the teachings of Great Madhyamaka. One of Hodgson and Amṛtānanda’s Swābhāvika scriptural citations asserts that in relation to the illusory phenomenal universe, swabhāva and Īśvara (or Ādi-Buddha) are “essentially one, differing only in name.” In addition, the five “Dhyāni Buddhas” which Hodgson associates especially with the Aiśwarika system belong just as much to the Swābhāvika system, if not more so, as Burnouf perceptively observed. So the difference between these two systems is truly semantic. In this connection, Theosophical researcher Don Shepherd has shown that the Swayaṃbhunāth stūpa dedicated to Ādi-Buddha and the five celestial Buddhas, the most sacred religious site of the Newar Buddhists, symbolically embodies the Swābhāvika doctrine. This self-same doctrine of “a ‘basic element’ of ‘five self-arisen pristine wisdoms’ that dwelt ‘pervasively in all the stable and the moving’ as the ‘great life of all living beings’” is to be found in the writings of Great Madhyamaka masters and Swayaṃbhunāth itself has been intertwined with the promulgation of this doctrine from the time of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu down to the 19th century.
There are some overlooked statements in Hodgson’s Essays that considerably strengthen this conclusion. In one instance, swabhāva or śūnyatā is identified as Ātman and this is also an appellation applied to the Absolute by the Jonang tradition. Elsewhere, Amṛtānanda asserts that Ādi-Buddha, who encompasses the phenomenal universe in non-dual unity and is the only true monad, is the sustainer of samsāra and if he “averts his face” from it, samsāra would be “annihilated” and only Ādi-Buddha would remain. As it is the nature of an illusion to disappear when investigated, so it may also be said that those who have realized their identity with Ādi-Buddha or swabhāva have indeed averted their face from samsāra and “annihilated” it, as they have returned to their “proper modality.” So swabhāva (the pervader) can do well enough without the unreal illusory world of phenomena (the pervaded) but phenomena can’t do without swabhāva. In other words, swabhāva is other-empty and we may identify the Nepalese Swābhāvikas with the Great Madhyamaka tradition.
 John Algeo, comp., The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky Vol 1 (Wheaton: Quest Book, 2003), 370.
 Algeo, comp., Letters, 353.
 A.T. Barker, comp., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. & K.H. 2nd Ed (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 2021) 140.
 David N. Gellner, “Hodgson’s Blind Alley? On the So-Called Schools of Nepalese Buddhism,” The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 12:1 (1989).
 Harihar Raj Joshi and Indu Joshi, Harihar-Indu’s Bibliography of Hodgson: A Descriptive Bibliography of Fugitive but Extant Materials But Not On Public Holdings Belonging to Brian Houghton Hodgson Annotated and Corrected by Hodgson Himself (Kathmandu: The Nepal Studies: Past and Present, 2002), 28.
 Harihar Raj Joshi and Indu Joshi, Pandit Amritananda Shakya (Bandya): The Redactor of Buddhacarita of Asvoghosha (Kathmandu: The Nepal Studies: Past and Present, 2003), 16.
 Eugène Burnouf, Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism, trans. Katia Buffetrille and Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 417-423.
 Brian H. Hodgson, Essays on the Languages, Literature, and Religion of Nepál and Tibet: Together with Further Papers on the Geography, Ethnology, and Commerce of those Countries (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 23.
 See the University of Cambridge’s online inventory of Hodgson’s papers (http://catalogue2.socanth.cam.ac.uk:8080/exist/servlet/db/Hodgson/hodgson.xq), particularly 29.11 and cross references.
 Hodgson, Essays, 44-45. This list of world-causes is actually an example of relatively common trope in ancient Indian texts, among which swabhāva frequently figures.
 Gellner, “Hodgson’s Blind Alley?,” 11.
 E.H. Johnston, trans., The Buddhacarita or, Acts of the Buddha Part II (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1936), 138. Retrieved from archive.org.
 Hodgson, Essays, 45.
 See E.B. Cowell, trans., “The Buddha-Karita of Asvagosha,” The Sacred Books of the East Vol. 49, ed. Max Müller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), x-xi, 175-177. Retrieved from archive.org.
 Burnouf, Introduction, 19, 154-155.
 See Will Tuladhar-Douglas, Remaking Buddhism for Medieval Nepal: The Fifteenth-Century Reformation of Newar Buddhism (New York: Routledge, 2006) on this literature, much of which had been edited and translated into the vernacular by Amṛtānanda himself.
 David Reigle, “Prehistoric Svabhāvavāda,” The Book of Dzyan – The Quest for an Original Text of the Book of Dzyan (blog), February 26, 2012, http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/prehistoric-svabhavavada/.
 Wilhelm Halbfass, “Competing Causalities: Karma, Vedic Rituals, and the Natural World,” Tradition and Reflection: Explorations in Indian Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 293.
 Hodgson, Essays, 76, 105.
 Hodgson, Essays, 74.
 Thupten Jinpa, ed., Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics Vol. 1 (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2017), 296.
 Hodgson, Essays, 79, 106. cf. Bhāvaviveka: “Therefore we maintain that avidyā is the ‘God’ that creates the karma of the saṃskāras, and the saṃskāras are the ‘God’ that establishes the world,” qtd. in Perry Schmidt-Leukel, “The Unbridgeable Gulf? Towards a Buddhist-Christian Theology of Creation,” in Perry Schmidt-Leukel ed., Buddhism, Christianity and the Question of Creation: Karmic or Divine? (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006), 125.
 David Reigle, “Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Abhidharmakośa,” The Book of Dzyan – The Quest for an Original Text of the Book of Dzyan (blog), November 17, 2013, http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/creation-stories-the-cosmogony-account-from-the-abhidharmakosa/.
 Hodgson, Essays, 112. Hodgson is at pains to note that Ādi-Buddha is not only to be found in Tantric works. However, the works he cites are native Newar compositions and given the heavy Vajrayāna influence in Newar Buddhism this is not saying much.
 B.A. Wallace, “Is Buddhism Really Nontheistic?,” Snow Lion Newsletter, 15:1 (2000), 1, 12-13. Retrieved from shambhala.org.
 Hodgson, Essays, 25.
 Hodgson, Essays, 56.
 Hodgson, Essays, 46.
 Hodgson, Essays, 26.
 Hodgson, Essays, 82.
 Hodgson, Essays, 46.
 Hodgson, Essays, 83.
 Min Bahadur Shakya, The Iconography of Nepalese Buddhism (Kathmandu: Handcraft Association of Nepal, 1994), 44. Retrieved from buddhanet.net/.
 Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (New York: Morgan Road Books, 2005), 125.
 Joshi and Joshi, Pandit Amritananda, 49.
 Hodgson, Essays, 49.
 David Reigle, “Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Buddhist Tantras,” The Book of Dzyan – The Quest for an Original Text of the Book of Dzyan (blog), December 25, 2013, http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/creation-stories-the-cosmogony-account-from-the-buddhist-tantras/ and “Prabhāsvara in the Canonical Texts and Cosmogony,” The Book of Dzyan – The Quest for an Original Text of the Book of Dzyan (blog), February 25, 2014, updated June 5, 2015, http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/prabhasvara-in-the-canonical-texts-and-in-cosmogony/.
 Burnouf, Introduction, 416.
 Hodgson, Essays, 24, 26.
 Burnouf, Introduction, 422.
 Hodgson, Essays, 25.
 Hodgson, Essays, 56.
 Hodgson, Essays, 55.
 Hodgson, Essays, 55.
 Hodgson, Essays, 56.
 Hodgson, Essays, 24-25, 79, 89.
 Hodgson, Essays, 58. This very non-standard understanding of matter is paralleled in K.H.’s usage. See Koot Hoomi Lal Singh, “What Is Matter and What Is Force? (excerpts)” (1882). Retrieved from easterntradition.org.
 Hodgson, Essays, 55.
 Hodgson, Essays, 73.
 Hodgson, Essays, 79-81.
 Theodore Stcherbatsky, The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word “Dharma” (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2018), 4-9.
 Burnouf, Introduction, 18, 512.
 David Reigle, “A Svabhavika School of Buddhism?,” The Book of Dzyan – The Quest for an Original Text of the Book of Dzyan (blog), March 3, 2012, http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/a-svabhavika-school-of-buddhism/.
 Hodgson, Essays, 45.
 This atheistic school pioneered many of the Buddhist arguments against God. See Ernst Steinkellner, “Hindu Doctrines of Creation and Their Buddhist Critiques,” in Perry Schmidt-Leukel ed., Buddhism, Christianity and the Question of Creation: Karmic or Divine? (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006), 25.
 Stcherbatsky, Central Conception, 37-43, 75.
 Hodgson, Essays, 55.
 Stcherbatsky, Central Conception, 48-54.
 Hodgson, Essays, 24.
 Stcherbatsky, Central Conception, 53.
 Hodgson, Essays, 24. Notably the Sautrāntikas denied that Nirvāṇa, or any dharma, had any swabhāva at all and was thus a pure annihilation. So Hodgson’s discussion may also have some reference to this dispute.
 Hodgson, Essays, 55.
 Hodgson, Essays, 56.
 Hodgson, Essays, 61.
 Hodgson, Essays, 56.
 Hodgson, Essays, 81.
 Joshi and Joshi, Harihar-Indu’s Bibliography, 30.
 Elijah Jordan, “The Unknowable of Herbert Spencer,” The Philosophical Review, 20:3 (1911). 291-309. Retrieved from jstor.org. See H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine Vol. 1 (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 2019), 14-15, 19, 54 and Barker, comp., Mahatma Letters, 159 for Theosophical commentary on this doctrine of Spencer.
 Hodgson, Essays, 56.
 Edward Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959), 142-143 and “Prajñā and Sophia,” Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1967), 207-209.
 Edward Conze, “The Development of Prajñāpāramitā Thought,” Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1967), 125.
 Hodgson, Essays, 60.
 Conze, Buddhism, 140-142 and “Buddhist Philosophy and its European Parallels,” Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1967), 217-220. See H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled Vol. 2 (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1988), 531-532 for her view on Pyrrho, who’s philosophy she believes parallels that of the Swābhāvikas.
 Edward Conze, “The Ontology of the Prajñāpāramitā,” Philosophy East and West, 3:2 (1953), 118-119. Retrieved from jstor.org.
 Johannes Bronkhorst, “Reflections on the origins of Mahāyanā,” Séptimo Centenario de los Estudios Orientales en Salamanca (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2012), 494-495. Retrieved from researchgate.net. Bronkhorst maintains that this scripture (and others of the Prajñāpāramitā class) “is largely built on the scholastic achievements” of the Abhidharma ontologists of Greater Gandhāra, who were perhaps the Sarvāstivādins (p. 493-494). Noteworthy also is that the earliest extant manuscripts of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā are from Greater Gandhāra (p. 492). Further reinforcing this connection, K.L. Dhammajoti, the uncontested modern expert on Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, writes that the “early Prajñāpāramitā scriptures (e.g. the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikāprañāpāramitā)… display, from the beginning, an unmistakable familiarity with Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma doctrines. These include (at least, in respect of enumeration, terminology, and broad outline): the contrast between the perfected wisdom (particularly the notion of sarvākārajñatā) and compassion (mahākarunā) of the Buddha and those of the two yānas (pratyekabuddha and śrāvaka); the process of abandoning contaminations, divided into darśanamārga (including the distinctive Sarvāstivādin scheme of the 16 kṣaṇas and the 16 ākāras of the four noble truths) and bhāvanāmārga, the path of cultivation; meditative attainment such as the nine anupūrvavihārasamāpattis; contamination (kleśa) vs habitual residue (vāsanā), and that the Buddha alone was able to completely abandon all kleśas together with the vāsanā; etc.” See K.L. Dhammajoti, “The Contribution of Saṃghabhadra to Our Understanding of Abhidharma Doctrines,” in Bart Dessein and Weijen Teng ed., Text, History, and Philosophy: Abhidharma across Buddhist Scholastic Traditions (Boston: Brill, 2016), 223-224. Retrieved from researchgate.net.
 Conze, “Ontology,” 121.
 Conze, “Ontology,” 120.
 Conze, “Ontology,” 121.
 H.P.B informs us that these Nāgas or Serpents are “the ancient Initiates.” See H.P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 2015), vi.
 Jan Westerhoff, “Nāgārjuna’s Yogācāra,” in Jay L. Garfield and Jan Westerhoff ed., Madhyamaka and Yogacara: Allies or Rivals? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 165-183.
 Nāgārjuna, In Praise of Dharmadhātu, trans. Karl Brunnhölzl (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2007), 119. The dharmadhātu is also prabhāsvara. See Jacques Mahnich, “Dharmadhâtu = Buddha Nature = Clear Light,” The Book of Dzyan – The Quest for an Original Text of the Book of Dzyan (blog), April 12, 2012, http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/dharmadhatu-buddha-nature-clear-light/.
 Conze, “Ontology,” 128.
 Hodgson, Essays, 56.
 Theodore Stcherbatsky, The Conception of Buddhist Nirvāṇa (With Sanskrit Text of Madhyamaka-Kārikā), ed. by Jaideva Singh (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2018), 71.
 T.R.V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Mādhyamika System (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2020), 228.
 See Sonam Thakchoe, The Two Truths Debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the Middle Way (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2007) for an analysis of the two primary (and opposing) streams of Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka analysis in Tibet. The “monistic and absolutist view” (p. 43) of Gorampa is essentially that of Murti and Stcherbatsky and is paradigmatic for his own Sakya tradition and also very well represented in the Nyingma and Kagyü traditions. The other stream, the Gelugpa tradition that originates with Tsongkhapa, is often presented as non-Absolutist (including by Thakchoe) because the ultimate truth for Tsongkhapa is intimately tied in with conventional truth and totally explicable in that context. But see Yaroslav Komarovski, Tibetan Buddhism and Mystical Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 161-240 for a cogent argument that Gorampa and Tsongkhapa “refer primarily to conflicting descriptions of the similar conceptual conditioning/deconstructive processes leading to the nonconceptual realization of reality” (p. 10).
 See H.P. Blavatsky, The Esoteric Writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky: A Synthesis of Science, Philosophy, and Religion (Wheaton: Quest Books, 1980), 336-337 for her perspective on these two schools of Madhyamaka.
 Anne Macdonald, “Knowing Nothing: Candrakīrti and Yogic Perception,” Yogic Perception, Meditation and Altered States of Consciousness (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen akademie der Wissenschaften, 2009), 163-164. Retrieved from academia.edu. This description, deriving as it does from the preeminent Prāsaṅgika authority Candrakīrti, is agreeable to both Tsongkhapa and Gorampa although they differ as to the epistemology that this entails. See Thakchoe, Two Truths, 101-131.
 Jose Ignacio Cabezon and Geshe Lobsang Dargyay, trans., Freedom from Extremes: Gorampa’s “Distinguishing the Views” and the Polemics of Emptiness, Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006), 214-217. On the ultimate swabhāva in the Prāsaṅgika understanding, see William L. Ames, “The Notion of Svabhāva in the Thought of Candrakīrti,” Journal of Indian Philosophy, 10 (1982), 161-177. Retrieved from http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/wp-content/uploads/Svabh%C4%81va-in-the-Thought-of-Candrak%C4%ABrti.pdf.
 See Nāgārjuna, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, trans. Jay Garfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 353, 357 for the opinion of several modern Gelugpa authorities (including the current Dalai Lama) that a presentation such as Gorampa’s, also known as the “no-thesis” view, is valid for ultimate truth as directly realized. On a conventional level, however, the uncompounded suchness (tathātā), or noumenon, is conventionally real but ultimately empty. See Jeffrey Hopkins, Tsong-kha-pa’s Final Exposition of Wisdom (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2008) 331-343.
 Murti, Central Philosophy, 142. cf. Cabezon and Dargyay, trans., Freedom, 92-95.
 See Karl Brunnhölzl, Prajñāpāramitā, Indian "gzhan stong pas", and the Beginning of Tibetan gzhan stong, Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde 74 (Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 2011) and David Reigle, “The Three Natures in the Pañcaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā,” The Book of Dzyan – The Quest for an Original Text of the Book of Dzyan (blog), September 7, 2017, http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/the-three-natures-in-the-pancasatika-prajnaparamita/ for substantial evidence of an other-empty reading of the Prajñāpāramitā in terms of the Yogācāra three natures from Indian Buddhist sources.
 David Reigle, “The Doctrinal Position of the Wisdom Tradition: Great Madhyamaka,” Studies in the Wisdom Tradition (Cotopaxi: Eastern School Press, 2015), 185-231.
 Douglas Duckworth, “Other-Emptiness in the Jonang School: The Theo-Logic of Buddhist Dualism,” Philosophy East and West, 65:2 (2015), 489.
 Douglas Duckworth, Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy of Mind and Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 79.
 David Reigle, “Dolpopa on svabhāva,” The Book of Dzyan – The Quest for an Original Text of the Book of Dzyan (blog), November 29, 2018, http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/dolpopa-on-svabhava/.
 Don Shepherd, “Theosophy and the Nepalese Swābhāvikas,” Theosophical History, 19:2 (2018), 68-69.
 Duckworth, “Other-Emptiness,” 486.
 Duckworth, Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy, 78-80.
 Hodgson, Essays, 56.
 Shakya, Iconography, 77.
 Hodgson, Essays, 73. This equivalence holds true in Mahatma K.H.’s usage. See Barker, comp., Mahatma Letters, 90, 346. David Reigle has also noted that swabhāva in the cosmogony of the Stanzas of Dzyan has an analogous function to prabhāsvara, which, as we have seen, is itself synonymous with Ādi-Buddha. See Reigle, Prabhāsvara.
 Burnouf, Introduction, 152-153.
 Shepherd, “Theosophy,” 60-79.
 Hodgson, Essays, 75.
 Don Shepherd, “Buddhism: Theosophy and an Indeterminant Self,” Theosophy Downunder, 136 (2020), 37. Retrieved from theosophydownunder.org.
 Hodgson, Essays, 46.