Advaita Vedanta Explained

Hinduism Concepts

by Jayaram V

Advaiata Vedanta refers to the non-dualistic school of Hindu philosophy derived mostly from the Upanishads and elaborated in detail by eminent scholars like Gaudapada and Sri Adishankaracharya. According to this school of philosophy, Brahman is the one and only reality and everything else is a mere appearance or illusion. Atman, the individual self is but Brahman only. A jiva is a deluded soul under the mistaken notion of duality and separation. He is chained to the cycle of births and deaths and the laws of karma as long as he is not free from the objective reality to which he is subject. The world that we see is unreal, an appearance or illusion or a mirage that we experience because of the activties of the senses and the mind. Man can attain salvation by knowing his true nature and overcoming this duality, withdrawing his senses and developing detachment, dispassion and discretion. Advaita Vedanta believes that an enlightened guru, having the knowledge of both the scriptures and Brahman, is indispensable for any one seeking salvation. Mandukya Karika of Gaudapada is considered to be the first available treatise on Advanta Vedanta, while the monumental works of Sankaracharya constitute its core literature. Successive generations of scholars enriched the philosophy through their valuable contributions. Some important concepts of Advaita Vedanta are discussed below.

Sadhana Chatushtaaya: Any one who seeks salvation should have the following four sets of qualifications

  • Nityanitya vastu viveka: The ability to discriminate between what is eternal (nitya) and what is temporary (anitya)
  • Ihamutrartha phala bhoga viraga: Disinterestedness in enjoying the fruit of one's actions and sense objects here and here after.
  • Sama adi satka sampatti: qualities such as sama (control of internal sense organs), dama (control of external sense organs), uparati (abstinence), titiksha (quietness), sraddha (sincerity and faith) and samadhana.
  • Mumukhutva: Intense aspiration for salvation.

Pramanas: These are the means of knowledge by which one arrives at truth. According to Adavaita Vedanta, there are six primary means of knowledge, of which three were proposed by Sankaracharya and three by his followers. They are

  • Pratyaksha: knowledge that comes directly through perception. This is sensory oo objective knowledge
  • Anumana: knowledge that comes by means of inference. This is speculative knowledge.
  • Upamana: Knowledge that comes by means of analogy, comparison and contrasting. This is relative knowledge.
  • Arthapatti: knowledge obtained by meaningful assumptions based on common sense and previous experience. This is hypothetical knowledge.
  • Anupalabdhi: Knowledge gained through negation.
  • Agama: Knowledge that comes through study of scriptures. This is pure theoretical knowledge.

Theory of Causation: Advaita Vedanta recognizes two forms of causation, the material cause and the instrumental cause and considers Brahman as both the material and instrumental cause of creation. In other words, Brahman is both the creator and also the material used in creation. This is in contrast to some schools of Hindu philosophy, which argue that Brahman is the instrumental cause while Prakriti or nature is the material cause.

Cause and Effect: Sankara argued that cause is hidden in every effect, where as the opposite is not true. While a cause is not different from the effect it produces, the same cannot be argued in case of effect in relation to its cause. A cause is always part of the effect, hidden within it and so not different from it. Brahman is the cause of all creation. So the world is real only because Brahman, its cause, is hidden it and is inseparable from it. But if we look at creation purely objectively it becomes unreal and illusory or a mere effect that is going to vanish once the cause is withdrawn. Sankarcharya propounded vivartavada theory of causation according to which an effect is an outward projection of cause and hence not real. This is in contrast to the parinamavada concept according to which an effect is an evolution or transformation of cause and hence as real as the cause itself.

Maya: According to Advaita Vedanta the world is an illusion or maya, caused by the veiling power of Brahman. It is unreal or illusory from an absolute sense. It is a projection of God's consciousness and disappears when it is withdrawn. The veiling is called avarna and the projection, viksepa. Followers of this school argue that technically maya is neither unreal nor real. But since it cannot be both at the same time, it is indeterminate or indescribable (anirvachaniyam).

Brahman and Atman: Brahman is the supreme, absolute and eternal reality. The only truth. The cause of all. The only stable and permanent reality. Atman is Brahman perceived as individual self, the hidden reality in all aspects of creation. There is no difference between the two. When the self overcomes its veiling, it experiences the non-duality (advaita anubhava) of existence and realizes its non-difference from the Absolute. Brahman in his absolute state is without qualities and attributes. But in our relative state we perceive him to be of certain nature and refer Him as Iswara or the lord of the universe.

The World: According to Samkara, the world is unreal,  not because it does not exist, but because it is ever changing, unstable, impermanent and subject to destruction and decay. It is a mere appearance, a projection of God, a mirage, a mistaken reality, which our senses take for granted and which we mistakenly consider as real and permanent. It exists because of our perception of duality and will disappear when we experience non-duality or oneness with Brahman. When we overcome illusion and develop detachment from the sense objects we realize the oneness of existence and become aware of the illusory nature of the world. 

Conclusion: It is erroneous to believe that Sankaracharya derived the concepts of Advaita Vedanta from Buddhism. If there is any truth it is the other way around. What he taught was not new. It was the core of Upanishadic philosophy, to which he added more explanatory knowledge through his commentaries and compositions and gave it a definite character of his own. For the next thousand years since his time, Hindu philosophy grew measuring itself against the standards he created and espoused. The Vishishtadvaita and dvaita schools formulated many concepts of their own based on their opposition to the doctrine of monism and the inconsistencies they believed to have perceived in it.

Adi Shankara's treatises on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras are his principal and almost undeniably his own works. Although he mostly adhered to traditional means of commenting on the Brahma Sutra, there are a number of original ideas and arguments. He taught that it was only through direct knowledge of nonduality that one could be enlightened.

Adi Shankara's opponents accused him of teaching Buddhism in the garb of Hinduism. However, while the Later Buddhists arrived at a changeless, deathless, absolute truth after their insightful understanding of the unreality of samsara, historically Vedantins never liked this idea. Although Advaita also proposes the theory of Maya, explaining the universe as a "trick of a magician", Adi Shankara and his followers see this as a consequence of their basic premise that Brahman is real. Their idea of Maya emerges from their belief in the reality of Brahman, rather than the other way around. It is equally erroneous to believe that Sankaracharya contributed to the decline of Buddhism through his exposition of advaita vedanta. Buddhism was already on the decline by the time he was born. Many Buddhist monasteries were already occupied by the followers of Saivism and Vaishnavism and converted into Hindu shrines. It is true that through his debates and discussions Sankaracharya consolidated the base of modern Hinduism, which served it well when organized religions such as Islam and Christianity came to India as the religions of imperial powers such as Persia and England. Sankara's monism provided a level playing field for the Hindus during the Islamic rule and contributed to the synthesis of new movements such as Sufism.

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