A Summary of The Vedanta

Vedanta Philsophy of Hinduism

by Jayaram V

Vedanta (veda + anta) means the end of the Vedas. It is a specific reference to the Upanishads and the philosophy they contain. Vedanta is one of the six darshanas or philosophies of Hinduism. It is also known as Purva Mimansa, Brahma Mimansa and Sariraka Mimansa. The first systematic study of the philosophy seems to have been done by Badarayana in the Vedanta Sutras. However, scholars believes he was not the first since he himself mentioned several teachers who lived before him.

The school derives its philosophy mainly from the Vedas in general and the Upanishads in particular, the Brahma Sutras (also known as Vedanta sutras), and the Bhagavadgita. Together they are called the triple foundation (prasthana traya) of the school of Vedanta. The school recognizes the six evidences or testimonies (pramanas) to ascertain truth or valid knowledge namely, pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference), upamāṇa (comparison and analogy), arthāpatti (circumstantial evidence), anupalabdi (absence of evidence) and śabda (verbal testimony of expert knowledge). The validity of each is further determined by various other factors.

The Vedanta school is probably as old as the Upanishads themselves. Among its early proponents were prominent teachers of the Upanishads such as Uddalaka Aruni, Pippalada, Janaka, Satyakama Jabala, and Svetaketu. As civilization progressed the school drew inspiration from various other sources, such as the Saiva and Vaishnava agama and tantric texts. The principal concepts of Vedanta include the nature of reality, the status of Brahman and Atman and their relationship, the relationship between Brahman and Nature, the causes of creation, nature of bondage, means of liberation, states of consciousness, self-purification, transmigration of souls, the practice of yoga and meditation, and so on.

Vedanta is not a homogenous school. Much of the knowledge of Vedanta comes to us from the interpretation of the standard texts of Hinduism, such as the ones mentioned above, by numerous scholars from ancient times until recently. Because of differences in interpretation and understanding, it is further divided into several sub-schools ranging from nondualism to qualified nondualism and pure dualism. Each of them distinctly interprets the reality of Brahman and the realities of Nature. The following are important schools of Vedanta

Advaita

Advaita literally means a + dvaita or absence of duality. It is translated into English as nondualism or monism. As the name suggests the school believes in the unity or oneness of existence. Everything is either Brahman or a projection of Brahman. The worlds and beings are mere projections, appearances, or illusions. The individual souls (atman) are also Brahman only. Since in their embodied state they are subject to delusion and ignorance beings cannot perceive Brahman who is hidden in all, and accept the world as true, just as people often mistake a rope for a snake when they do not see the rope clearly.

Rudimentary aspects of the philosophy are found in the Upanishads themselves. However, it was given a clear shape by ancient scholars such as Gaudapada who wrote a commentary (karika) on the Mandukya Upanishad. Adi Shankaracharya was one of its chief proponents who consolidate the knowledge. He wrote extensive commentaries on the principal Upanishads and other important Vedic texts. Our current knowledge of Advaita is mainly derived from his works. His immediate disciples also contributed to its popularity by composing several texts. Prominent among them were Suresvara, Padmapada, Prakasatman, and Barathi Thirtha Vidyaranya.

Advaita Vedanta considers the Self or Brahman as the Supreme Reality. It is pure consciousness (cinmatra) and of the form of Knowledge (svarupa jnana). The mind is a mere instrument without self-awareness and comprehends the objects by assuming their mode (vritti). However, by itself it is inert and is illumined by the Self. The knowledge of the world is untrue because it changes with time. What is true is the knowledge of the Self (atmajnana) or the highest knowledge (Brahmavidya).

Advaita Vedanta sees no distinction between Brahman and Atman, the individual Self. Atman in the body is also Brahman only. Brahman cannot be known rationally or in duality, except as what he is not. However, it does not mean Brahman is nothing or emptiness. He is nirguna, without qualities, modes, and form. For the sake of creation, he whose nature is truth, consciousness, and bliss (satchidananda) projects himself as Isvara, or Brahman with qualities (saguna Brahman). There is no distinction between the two. Both are Brahman only, but one is supreme and constant, and the other is a projection and an illusion. Liberation is attained when a person overcomes the illusion of duality and division and perceives himself as eternal, supreme, universal Self.

Viśiṣṭādvaita

Literally speaking, Vishishtadvaita means distinguished nondualism or qualified nondualism. The medieval saint, Ramanujacharya (the 11th-12th century AD) was its chief proponent, who believed that Brahman was not only nirguna but also saguna. He drew inspiration from a number of Vaishnava saints, and Bhagavatas who preceded him. The school identifies three ultimate realities, Brahman (Isvara), the soul (cit) and Nature or matter (acit). It acknowledges Brahman as the supreme, reality, but differs from Advaita by attributing conditions and qualities to Brahman in his aspect as creator and the lord of the Universe (Isvara).

The individual souls and Nature are projections of Isvara but they cannot be considered mere illusions. They are dependent realities, while Isvara is an independent reality. The souls are dependent realities of Brahman and inseparable from him. He is the soul of the souls and of Nature. The souls enjoy an existence of their own for the duration of creation. They are indistinguishable from Isvara in some respects, but distinguishable in other respects. Each soul enjoys its own existence, not only when it is bound but also when it is liberated. Such superficial distinctions prevail until all the souls are withdrawn by Isvara into himself at the end of creation.

Thus, this school draws a subtle distinction between Brahman and his manifestations, acknowledging at the same time that everything is part of one supreme universal reality, which is Brahman. Although Brahman is one he appears as many, and each of his creations is somewhat distinguishable from him and from one another. Isvara is the same as Brahman but somewhat distinguishable from him due to his qualities and functions as the Supreme Lord. Same is true with regard to the souls. They are somewhat distinguishable from Isvara, and from one another. Thus, reality is one but distinguishable in some aspects. Brahman and individual souls are similar as well as dissimilar.

Dvaita

Dvaita means duality. The school holds that the duality we perceive around us real, not an illusion. It persists even after the souls attain liberation. Brahman is different from the souls, and souls are different from each other as well as from Nature. Only Brahman is the infinite, independent reality. Everything else is a finite, dependent reality. However, Brahman, souls and Nature are eternal. The school identifies five distinct dualities that characterize existence. They are the duality between Brahman and souls, between Brahman and Nature, between souls and Nature, between one soul and another soul, and between one aspect of Nature and another aspect,

The school was founded by Madhavacharya (13th Century AD), who held that the philosophy of nondualism was unacceptable because of its inherent inconsistencies and logical absurdities. He proposed that Brahman represented the highest, supreme reality, which was eternal, independent, and universal, while his creation represented the dependent reality. Everything that is part of the dependent reality represents a separate reality in itself and distinguishable from the rest not only in its essence but also in other aspect. Thus, unlike the previous schools, the Dvaita school recognizes Brahman as an eternal and distinct entity who presides over the universe as its supreme Lord and controller.

The school holds that although souls are dependent realities, they are not created by Brahman, but exist eternally. Since they are dependent upon Brahman, they may be considered his reflections or images, but not the same as him. Individual souls attain liberation when they realize their connection with Brahman and their dependence upon him not only for their existence but also for their liberation.

Dvaitādvaita

This school is also known as bheda-abheda vada. It was founded by Nimbarka, a 11th-century Vaishnava Philosopher from the South. This school identifies three types of eternal realities, Brahman, soul, and matter also known as chit, achit, and Isvara. Brahman (Isvara) is the independent reality, while the other two are dependent. They are also different from Brahman because they have qualities modes (gunas) and natural functions (svabhava) that are different from those of Brahman, who is the controller of all. However, they cannot be said to be entirely different from him since they are dependent upon him. Hence, in relation to Brahman they have otherness as well as sameness. Brahman is the highest reality and the ultimate cause of creation. He is both the ultimate cause and efficient cause, and solely responsible for the preservation and destruction of worlds and beings. Vasudeva, Sankarsana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha are his highest aspects, while he also appears in numerous other forms. In his aspect as the supreme lord he controls the worlds and in his aspect as the eternal companion of the souls, he maintains a personal connection with them.

The individual souls are made of knowledge and radiate knowledge. In their embodied state they have egos which not only prevail in deep sleep but also persist even after liberation. Even Krishna, the Supreme Lord, has a functioning ego, which imparts to him distinguishable qualities. Although individual beings seem to act on their own, in reality they depend upon God for their actions and existence. They also appear differently in different bodies, although they are atomic in nature, because of omniscience they can experience pain and pleasure in any part of the body.

Nature, achit, is the object, the one who is enjoyed, while the souls are the subjects, those who enjoy. It is of three types, prakrta (derived from Nature) with three modes of sattva, rajas and tamas, aprakrta (celestial bodies which are not derived from Nature), and kala (time). The school identifies Lord Krishna as the highest Supreme Self and his consort Radha as his companion and Nature. By surrendering to him and worshipping him with devotion and by cultivating virtues and right knowledge one can attain liberation. According to the school, upon liberation souls do not lose their individuality. They only realize their oneness with Brahman

Śuddhādvaita

The school of Śuddhādvaita or pure monism was founded by Sri Vallabhacharya (1479–1531) who is also credited with initiating the tradition (sampradāya) of Vallabha, which is also known as Puśtimārg (the path of grace). Vallabha proposed the shuddha Advaita to distinguish it from Shankara’s Kevala Advaita since he believed that the latter was impure because of its emphasis upon Maya or illusion.

The tradition worships Lord Krishna as Srinathji, whose temple is located at Govardhan hill in Braj. The school believes that Brahman and the individual souls have the same essence and represent the same reality, just as fire and the sparks have the same essence. However, they cannot be considered the same, because Brahman is the whole while the souls are his parts.

Brahman is sat (truth), chit (pure consciousness) and Ananda (bliss), whereas in souls the third aspect remains hidden. According to the school, Maya is the power of Brahman and not unreal. Brahman is both the creator and the created. All things that arise from him are eventually withdrawn by him into himself at the end of creation. The school holds that through knowledge, devotion and selfless service one can enter Vrindavan, the abode of Krishna, the highest of all worlds including Vaikuntha, and remain in his eternal service.

Acintya Bheda Abheda

This school forms part of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya (tradition) and was believed to have been taught first by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a 15th and 16th century Vaishnava teacher. The school derives its inspiration from both the Dvaita and the Vishishtadvaita schools, and rejects the school of Advaita. Achintya bheda abheda means inconceivable difference and non-difference. The supreme reality of Brahman and its distinction as well non-distinction from the individual soul are unknowable and imperceptible to the human mind and intellect. However, they can still be experienced through unconditional devotion to God, who for this school is Govinda or Krishna. They souls are not the same as Brahman, but they have a deep and eternal connection with him since he is their lord and liberator. The souls reflect only a part of his glory, but they are part of universal body and consciousness. If Brahman is like the sun, the souls are like the rays. If he is fire, the souls are like sparks. They are the same in essence, but different in appearance, size, and intensity.

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