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A Selfless Response to an Illusory World: A Comparative Study of Śāntideva and Śaṅkara

A Selfless Response to an Illusory World: A Comparative Study of Śāntideva and Śaṅkara
Warren Lee Todd


Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YW, UNITED KINGDOM.


This thesis compares the ethical theories of two 8th century Indian philosophers, Śāntideva and Śaṅkara. In order to construct their ethics from philosophical premises, a metaphysical approach has been taken. A comparison of these two philosophers has never been made, nor has there been any major comparative study of the ethics of their two traditions, Indian Madhyamaka Buddhism and Advaita Vedānta. In opening the way for further comparisons between these two schools, I wish to question the manner in which scholars have consistently divided them along self/non-self (ātman/anātman) lines. The key to the comparison is thus the notion of individuated self (jīva) rather than the less personal ātman.

Once the full implications of Advaita metaphysics are understood, whereby all consciousness is ultimately that of the one brahman, then, at the individuated level of consciousness, the ethical situation is strangely similar to the Buddhist with their notion of non-self (anātman). We thus have two rival schools positing a radical notion of the individual as having no unified centre of moral agency. Both schools adopt a methodology of Two Truths, the relative and the ultimate, in order to allow for both a provisional ethical framework and the potential for world transcendence.

It was decided that the most convenient form of ethical comparison was a qualified form of altruism, here called “constructive altruism”. This is a form of other-regarding ethics which allows for the concept of a non-giver, i.e. a person who has realised selflessness and has seen through the "illusion" of individuation. This person then takes it upon himself to construct the other so as to gain a focus for the compassionate activity of teaching. The aim of such teaching is the liberation (mokṣa) of freedom-seeking disciples from this cyclic existence (saṃsāra) and its prevalent potential for suffering (duḥkha).