Vedanta Definition, Purpose and Importance

Shankaracharya

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is a review of the literary, philosophical and spiritual definitions of Vedanta School and its relevance and significance in modern times.


Traditionally, Vedanta has three specific meanings or definitions. The first meaning or definition is in reference to the end parts of the Vedas, which contain the Upanishads. The second definition is about a particular school or philosophy of Hinduism, which goes by the same name. The third definition points to the end purpose or the final goal of the Vedas, which is Brahman, knowing Brahman, or achieving liberation. Thus, Vedanta has a literary definition, a philosophical definition and a spiritual definition. In the following discussion, we shall examine all the three definitions. Finally, we will also discuss how some aspects of Vedanta agree with the discoveries of modern science.

The literary definition of the Vedanta

The Vedas are divided into four parts, the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. Being the fourth, the Upanishads constitute the end part of the Vedas or Vedanta. “Veda + Anta” is Vedanta. Anta means the end. Thus, Vedanta is a direct reference to the Upanishadic knowledge. Each of the four Vedas, namely the Rigveda, Samaveda, the Yajurveda and the Atharvaveda, has its own collection of Upanishads. They were composed at different times, some in the early Vedic period, and some as recently as a few hundred years ago. The Upanishads contain the secret knowledge of Brahman (God), Atman (soul), rebirth, the ritual and spiritual significance of some Vedic beliefs and practices, the configuration of the human personality, the realities (tattvas) and modes (gunas) of Nature and so on. Upanishad means sitting near. They are so called because they contain secret knowledge, which was traditionally taught in person and in secrecy by a teacher to a few trustworthy students.

The philosophical definition of Vedanta

Vedanta also means a school or philosophy of Hinduism. It is one of the six Darshanas or viewpoints of Hinduism. As the name implies, Vedanta is based solely on the knowledge of the Upanishads. It is a theistic philosophy rooted in the knowledge and authority of the Vedas. It is also considered a Mimansa, which means a logical enquiry into the nature of reality according to the percepts of the Vedas. Mimansa has two divisions, Purva Mimansa, which is based upon the knowledge of the Samhitas and the Brahmanas, and Uttara Mimansa which is an alternative term for Vedanta, which has its source in the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. Since it deals with the knowledge of Brahman and derived from the Brahmasutras, it is also known as Brahma Mimansa.

The roots of Vedanta could be found in the ancient teachings of Yajnavalkya and in a commentary (karika) on the Mandukya Upanishad by an ancient teacher named Gaudapada. The Vedanta Sutra of Badarayana (5th Century BC) is perhaps the earliest known systematic study of the Upanishads and thereby of Vedanta also. It deals with the knowledge of Brahman, the means to attain it, and the rewards of liberation. Apart from it, the Bhagavadgita and the Upanishads are considered the major sources of the school. Together, the three are considered the triple foundations for the great journey of liberation (prastana traya) by the path of Vedanta.

However, as a major philosophical system, the Vedanta school developed much later, which approximately coincided with the development of Vaishnavism and Shaivism as the major sects of Hinduism. Its philosophy is not homogenous and contains several sub-schools, of which three are most important, and the rest are their variations. They all acknowledge the Vedas as the indisputable sources of verbal testimony (sabda pramana) concerning the metaphysical truths of existence. The major sub schools of Vedanta are listed below.

1. Advaita, the school of nondualism: It holds that Brahman is the singular, transcendental reality and everything else is either a projection or delusion. Upon their liberation, individual souls disappear into Brahman and cease to exit. Adi Shankaracharya (8th-9th Century AD) was one of the major proponents of it, which still has many adherents.

2. Vishishtadvaita or the school of qualified non-dualism: The school holds that there are three universal, eternal realities, instead of one. They are Brahman (Isvara), individual souls (cit) and Nature (acit). Of them Brahman is independent, but the other two are dependent. There is also a notional duality between Brahman and the souls. Upon their liberation, souls enter the world of Brahman and exist eternally as freed souls (muktas). Sri Ramanujacharya was its major proponent. The school is also very popular in many parts of India.

3. Dvaita, or the school of dualism: The school holds that there are many eternal realities, not just one or three. There is a permanent duality between Brahman and souls, souls and souls, Brahman and Nature, souls and Nature, and one reality (tattvas) of Nature and another. The worlds of Brahman are not projections or illusions, but real. The dualities of existence are also very real. So is the diversity in creation. Madhavacharya, a medieval saint (12th-13th Century AD) was its major proponent. According to the school, God is not a passive witness, but an active controller who is responsible for the liberation of beings. The souls remain diverse and different even after they enter the world of Brahman.

4. Other schools of Vedanta: The other important schools of Vedanta are variations of the main ones. They are listed below.

  1. Dvaita Advaita: It was founded by Nimbarka (11th Century AD). It holds that the souls and Nature are both distinct (Dvaita) and not-distinct (Advaita) from Brahman, who is the only independent reality.
  2. Suddha Advaita: The school holds that the relationship between Krishna, the highest reality and his creation, the dependent reality, is one of pure non-difference. The world is a transformation of God, not his projection as held by Shankara. Hence, it is not unreal. The school was founded by Vallabha (15th-16th Century AD).
  3. Achintya Bhedabheda: It is based on the teachings of Chaitanya (5th Century AD) and was made popular by Jiva Gosvami. It regards Krishna as the highest supreme Brahman, who has numerous forms and manifestations and who in essence is truth, consciousness and bliss (sat-chit-ananda). The souls are eternal, but separate from God. However, they are different as well as not different. Liberation can be achieved by knowledge or by devotion. Of the two, devotion is superior.

The spiritual definition of Vedanta

In a popular sense, Vedanta means the end of the Vedas. However, it is not the only meaning. Veda also means knowledge. Therefore, Vedanta literally means the end of knowledge or knowing. What is the end of knowledge? The end of scriptural knowledge is the beginning of transcendental knowledge, which is beyond the mind and the senses. It is the knowledge of the Self or Brahman or both, which leads to liberation. In Hinduism, liberation is the highest goal of human life. The Vedas facilitate it by providing the right knowledge and methods to achieve it.

In Vedic times, students used to spend about 25 or more years to study the scriptures and memorize all the knowledge of the Samhitas, Brahmans and related subjects, which would prepare them for the life of householders. However, what they learned was lower knowledge (avidya), which would help them achieve name and fame, but not liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. For that, having mastered all the ritual knowledge, they had to go back to study again from a spiritual master, in a forest or a secluded place, and learn from him the utmost secrets of the Vedas, whereby their knowing would come to its logical and spiritual end. Most people did it in the later age, during Vanaprastha, as forest dwellers, after retiring from the active duties of a householder.

Even today, if you want to achieve liberation, you have to renounce the world and pursue Brahman with single minded resolve. For that, self-study (svadhyaya) or initiation by a spiritual master are considered necessary. When you know Brahman, there is nothing else to know. You reach the boundaries of human knowledge and enter a mysterious realm, which is indeterminate, inexplicable and incomprehensible to the human mind. The scriptures affirm that when you achieve oneness with the Self, you will enter an ocean of infinite knowledge and bliss, where knowing has no purpose, no end, and no duality of subject and object.

Vedanta teaches you how to enter that state, and by what means you can transcend your limitations to experience union with Brahman. You are incomplete as a knower, incomplete with empirical knowing, and incomplete without knowing also. You are complete and perfect (siddha) only when you transcend your ignorance and attain the supreme knowledge of the Self. This is the final aim and purpose of the knowledge which is contained in the Vedas. It is what they promise to deliver if you are serious about achieving it.

Thus, Vedanta brings an end to your spiritual quest and your life as a mortal being who is subject to repeated births and deaths. It ends your doubts and despair, your seeking and striving, your knowing, your existence as a bound soul, your awareness of duality, your worldly knowledge as well as spiritual ignorance, your relationship with the objective world, your bonds and attachments, your misery and suffering, and all that futile effort you make to have and to be to deal with your fears and the impermanence of the world. With the study of the Vedas, you reach the end of knowing and the end of mortal existence because after learning about Brahman, what else is there to learn? You become aware of your essential nature and the true purpose of your existence, and through effort and by the grace of Isvara you enter the realm of pure, consciousness, which is eternal, indestructible and infinite

Vedanta and modern science

In a modern sense, Vedanta can be defined as the study of the gross and subtle aspects of the universe in which we live to understand our purpose in it and our relationship with it. Science currently explores the material and physical aspects of the universe. However, at some point in future it may explore the metaphysical realms, as our knowledge of quantum science and of the transformation of particle energy crosses the threshold and accidentally takes us into the subtle and subatomic realms of consciousness that are now beyond the reach of science.

In modern times, Vedanta has been made popular by the writings and works of Swami Vivekananda and numerous other spiritual masters and secular scholars. It is currently the most popular and well-known school of Hinduism. The other schools such as Samkhya, and Vaisheshika are studied for academic purpose and do not have active followers, whereas the schools of Vedanta attract a wide following. For all practical purposes. in the spiritual field Vedanta has become synonymous with the spiritual aspect of Hinduism.

In recent times many scholars studied Vedanta from scientific purpose and drew some parallels. Because of their efforts, we currently know that the material universe is singular and infinite. It may be probably one of the many universes (Brahmandas). Just as the Vedas affirm, the universe has days and nights that last for billions of years and appear and disappear cyclically with long intervals in between. We also know that Time is relative to the world in which it functions. The Vedas confirm it. For example, a day in the life of gods is equal to a year in the world of mortals. In the higher realms, Time becomes even slower, making a day of Brahma last for billions of human years. Thus Eternity is Time, which is free from the bounds of mortality or Death.

We also know from science that the universe has numerous aspects and dimensions, which are mathematically or rationally indescribable and incomprehensible to the human mind. Just as our Vedas declare, matter (rayi) in its pure essence is energy or Shakti. Just as the Vedas affirm that there are gods and demons in the worlds above and below, science suggests that the universe is filled with numerous worlds of light and darkness, and positive and negative energies. If there is matter in some parts of the universe, there is anti-matter in some parts. We also know now that existence is not possible and creation would not have happened without such dualities.

Just as the Vedas state that the body and soul are different, science confirms that the body is the seat of consciousness, which can hypothetically be separated from the body and eternally stored in a suitable receptacle or environment. As in Vedanta, Science also recognizes that Nature is a dependent reality of the universe and subject to numerous modifications, movements and transformations. As the Vedas suggest, science also confirms that the universal laws of Nature are inviolable, which ensure the order and regularity of the worlds and keep them free from chaos.

From the Vedas we learn that creation began billions of years ago. It is now corroborated by modern studies. They suggest that the universe began with a big bang about 14 billion years ago and may continue for a few more billions years before it is completely dissolved into a giant mass of black energy, which will eventually become a cosmic egg (Hiranyagarbha) with unimaginable gravitational force, in which Time returns to its constant, before it break out again into infinite divisions during the explosion of the egg. After a few billion years, a new universe may arise from that cosmic egg and expand again in all direction, like the net or the spider’s web of Brahman, creating new worlds and new universal order. Once again, death, destruction and renewal become an integral part of the new universe and its order and regularity (rta).

The Vedas identify Time as an aspect of God and an eternal constant, which appears as having the divisions of past, present and future to the human mind due to illusion, and keeps changing according to the world. It theory of Time has some similarities with the modern theories of relativity, and time and space. According to them, Time is a dimension that changes with its location in the space, but at the speed of light it remains a universal constant. However, it appears differently at different points in space time continuum due to the relative motion of things. Further, it is theoretically possible to change time with suitable force and move it forward or backward by manipulating the space and time continuum and the motion of celestial objects. According to the Vedas God has that power and the knowledge of the past, present and future. In absolute Brahman, Time is still present but has no motion.

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