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Advaita Vedanta[note 1] is a sub-school of the Vedanta[note 2] school of Vedic or Hindu philosophy and religious practice,[web 1] giving "a unifying interpretation of the whole body of Upanishads". The principal, though not the first, exponent of the Advaita Vedanta-interpretation was Shankara Bhagavadpada who systematised the works of preceding philosophers. Its teachings have influenced various sects of Hinduism.
The key source texts for all schools of Vedānta are the Prasthanatrayi, the canonical texts consisting of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras, of which they give a philosophical interpretation and elucidation.
Advaita (not-two in Sanskrit) refers to the identity of the true Self, Atman, which is pure consciousness[note 3], and the highest Reality, Brahman, which is also pure consciousness. [note 4] [note 5] Followers seek liberation/release by acquiring vidyā (knowledge) of the identity of Atman and Brahman. Attaining this liberation takes a long preparation and training under the guidance of a guru. Advaita thought can also be found in non-orthodox Indian religious traditions, such as the tantric Nath tradition.
Advaita Vedanta developed in a multi-faceted religious and philosophical landscape. The tradition developed in interaction with the other traditions of India, Buddhism, Vaishnavism and Shaivism, as well as the other schools of Vedanta.
In modern times, due to western Orientalism and Perennialism, and its influence on Indian Neo-Vedanta and Hindu nationalism, Advaita Vedanta has acquired a broad acceptance in Indian culture and beyond as the paradigmatic example of Hindu spirituality, despite the wide popularity of the Shaivite Vishishtadvaita and Dvaitadvaita bhakti traditions, and incorporating teachers such as Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj despite their eclectic and tantric backgrounds.
Advaita Vedanta existed prior to Shankara, but found its most influential expounder in Shankara.
Of the Vedanta-school before the composition of the Brahma Sutras (400–450 CE) almost nothing is known. Very little also is known of the period between the Brahmansutras and Shankara (first half of the 8th century CE). Only two writings of this period have survived: the Vākyapadīya, written by Bhartṛhari (second half 5th century), and the Māndūkya-kārikā written by Gaudapada (7th century CE).
The Upanishads form the basic texts, of which Vedanta gives an interpretation. The Upanishads don't contain "a rigorous philosophical inquiry identifying the doctrines and formulating the supporting arguments".[note 6] This philosophical inquiry was performed by the darsanas, the various philosophical schools. Deutsch and Dalvi point out that in the Indian context texts "are only part of a tradition which is preserved in its purest form in the oral transmission as it has been going on."
The Upanishads originated in the Sramana movements, renunciate ascetic traditions which gave birth to Yoga, Jainism, Buddhism, and some nāstika schools of Hinduism such as Cārvāka and Ājīvika, and also popular concepts in all major Indian religions such as saṃsāra (the cycle of birth and death) and moksha (liberation from that cycle).[note 7] The various traditions interacted with each other, and cannot be seen as completely separate developments. Buddhism, favored and supported by merchants and royals, developed elaborate philosophical and pedagogical texts and systems early in its history. Early in the first millennium Madhyamaka and Yogacara developed ideas about the two levels of truth and the working of the mind to which the developing Vedanta-tradition responded, but also incorporated these systems. Buddhist influence can also be found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written c. 4th century CE.
The Brahma Sutras of Bādarāyana, also called the Vedanta Sutra, were compiled in its present form around 400–450 CE, but "the great part of the Sutra must have been in existence much earlier than that". Estimates of the date of Bādarāyana's lifetime differ between 200 BCE and 200 CE.
The Brahma Sutra is a critical study of the teachings of the Upanishads. It was and is a guide-book for the great teachers of the Vedantic systems. Bādarāyana was not the first person to systematise the teachings of the Upanishads. He refers to seven Vedantic teachers before him:
From the way in which Bādarāyana cites the views of others it is obvious that the teachings of the Upanishads must have been analyzed and interpreted by quite a few before him and that his systematization of them in 555 sutras arranged in four chapters must have been the last attempt, most probably the best.
According to Nakamura, "there must have been an enormous number of other writings turned out in this period, but unfortunately all of them have been scattered or lost and have not come down to us today". In his commentaries, Shankara mentions 99 different predecessors of his Sampradaya. In the beginning of his commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Shankara salutes the teachers of the Brahmavidya Sampradaya.[web 3] Pre-Shankara doctrines and sayings can be traced in the works of the later schools, which does give insight into the development of early Vedanta philosophy.
The names of various important early Vedanta thinkers have been listed in the Siddhitraya by Yamunācārya (c.1050), the Vedārthasamgraha by Rāmānuja (c.1050–1157), and the Yatīndramatadīpikā by Śrīnivāsa-dāsa. Combined together, at least fourteen thinkers are known to have existed between the composition of the Brahman Sutras and Shankara's lifetime.[note 8]
Although Shankara is often considered to be the founder of the Advaita Vedanta school, according to Nakamura, comparison of the known teachings of these early Vedantins and Shankara's thought shows that most of the characteristics of Shankara's thought "were advocated by someone before Śankara". Shankara "was the person who synthesized the Advaita-vāda which had previously existed before him". In this synthesis, he was the rejuvenator and defender of ancient learning. He was an unequalled commentator, due to whose efforts and contributions the Advaita Vedanta assumed a dominant position within Indian philosophy.
Gaudapada wrote or compiled the Māṇḍukya Kārikā, also known as the Gauḍapāda Kārikā and as the Āgama Śāstra.[note 9] The Māṇḍukya Kārikā is a commentary in verse form on the Mandukya Upanishad, one of the shortest but most profound Upanishads, or mystical Vedas, consisting of just 13 prose sentences. In Shankara's time it was considered to be a Śruti, but not particularly important. In later periods it acquired a higher status, and eventually it was regarded as expressing the essence of the Upanisad philosophy.
The Māṇḍukya Kārikā is the earliest extent systematic treatise on Advaita Vedānta, though it is not the oldest work to present Advaita views, nor the only pre-Sankara work with the same type of teachings.
According to B.N.K. Sharma, the early commentators on the Brahma Sutras were all realists, or pantheist realists. During the same period, the 2nd-5th century CE, there was a great idealist revival in Buddhism, which countered the criticisms of the Hindu realists. The works of Buddhist thinkers like Nagasena, Buddhaghosa and Nagarjuna, all of them Brahmin converts to Buddhism, "created a great sensation and compelled admiration all around". Other Brahmins, faithful to Brahminism but equally impressed by these developments in Buddhist thought, looked for and found in some portions of the Upanishads "many striking approaches to the metaphysical idealism of the Buddhists". During the 5th and 6th centuries there was a further development of Buddhist thought with the development of the Yogacara school.
It was Gaudapada who further bridged Buddhism and Vedanta. He took over the Buddhist doctrines that ultimate reality is pure consciousness (vijñapti-mātra)[note 10] and "that the nature of the world is the four-cornered negation".[note 11] Gaudapada "wove [both doctrines] into a philosophy of the Mandukaya Upanisad, which was further developed by Shankara".[note 12] At the same time, Gaudapada emphatically rejected the epistemic idealism of the Buddhists, arguing that there was a difference between objects seen in dreams and real objects in the world, although both were ultimately unreal. He also rejected the pluralism and momentariness of consciousnesses, which were core doctrines of the Vijnanavada school, and their techniques for achieving liberation.
Gaudapada also took over the Buddhist concept of "ajāta" from Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka philosophy, which uses the term "anutpāda". [note 13] "Ajātivāda", "the Doctrine of no-origination"[note 14] or non-creation, is the fundamental philosophical doctrine of Gaudapada.
Richard King has noted that Ajativada has a radically different meaning in the context of respectively Vedanta and Buddhism. Buddhist writers take Ajativada to imply that there are no essences in factors, and therefore change is possible. Gaudapada made the opposite interpretation, advocating the absolutist position that origination and cessation were unreal, the only Ultimate reality (Brahman) being unoriginated and unchanging.
According to Gaudapada, the Absolute is not subject to birth, change and death. The Absolute is aja, the unborn eternal. The empirical world of appearances is considered unreal, and not absolutely existent.
Around 740 AD Gaudapada founded Shri Gaudapadacharya Math[note 15], also known as Kavaḷē maṭha. It is located in Kavale, Ponda, Goa, and is the oldest matha of the South Indian Saraswat Brahmins.
Unlike other mathas, Shri Gaudapadacharya matha is not a polemical center established to influence the faith of all Hindus, its jurisdiction is limited to only Dakshinatya Saraswat Brahmins.
Adi Shankara (788–820), also known as Śaṅkara Bhagavatpādācārya and Ādi Śaṅkarācārya, synthesised and rejuvenated the doctrine of Advaita. It was Shankara who succeeded in reading Gaudapada's mayavada[note 16] into Badarayana's Brahma Sutras, "and give it a locus classicus", against the realistic strain of the Brahma Sutras.[note 17][note 18] His interpretation, including works ascribed to him, has become the normative interpretation of Advaita Vedanta.
Shankara lived in the time of the so-called "Late classical Hinduism", which lasted from 650 till 1100 CE. The previous period was the "Golden Age of Hinduism" (ca. 320–650 CE), which flourished during the Gupta Empire (320 to 550 CE) until the fall of the Harsha Empire (606 to 647 CE).
Prior to this "Golden Age"[note 19] the "classical synthesis" or "Hindu synthesis" emerged, which incorporated shramanic and Buddhist influences and the emerging bhakti tradition into the Brahmanical fold via the smriti literature. This synthesis emerged under the pressure of the success of Buddhism and Jainism.
During the classical period, power was centralised, along with a growth of far distance trade, standardizarion of legal procedures, and general spread of literacy. Mahayana Buddhism flourished, but the orthodox Brahmana culture began to be rejuvenated by the patronage of the Gupta Dynasty. The position of the Brahmans was reinforced, and the first Hindu temples emerged during the late Gupta age.
After the end of the Gupta Empire and the collapse of the Harsha Empire, power became decentralised in India. Several larger kingdoms emerged, with "countless vasal states".[note 20] The kingdoms were ruled via a feudal system. Smaller kingdoms were dependent on the protection of the larger kingdoms. "The great king was remote, was exalted and deified", as reflected in the Tantric Mandala, which could also depict the king as the centre of the mandala.
The disintegration of central power also lead to regionalisation of religiosity, and religious rivalry.[note 21] Local cults and languages were enhanced, and the influence of "Brahmanic ritualistic Hinduism" was diminished. Rural and devotional movements arose, along with Shaivism, Vaisnavism, Bhakti and Tantra, though "sectarian groupings were only at the beginning of their development". Religious movements had to compete for recognition by the local lords. Buddhism lost its position, and began to disappear in India.
Buddhism, which was supported by the ancient Indian urban civilisation lost influence to the traditional religions, which were rooted in the countryside. In Bengal, Buddhism was even prosecuted. But at the same time, Buddhism was incorporated into Hinduism, when Gaudapada used Buddhist philosophy to reinterpret the Upanishads. This also marked a shift from Atman and Brahman as a "living substance" to "maya-vada"[note 16], where Atman and Brahman are seen as "pure knowledge-consciousness". According to Scheepers, it is this "maya-vada" view which has come to dominate Indian thought.
In half a couplet I state, what has been stated by scores of texts;
According to Sringeri Math, Shankara's message can be summarised even shorter:
The eternal, impersonal, consciousness Absolute is the Brahman, the one without a second.[web 11]
Adi Shankara's main works are his commentaries on the Prasthana Trayi, which consist of the Brahma Sūtras, Bhagavad Gītā and the Upanishads. According to Nakamura, Shankara's Brahma-sūtra-bhāsya, his commentary on the Brahma Sūtra, is "the most authoritative and best known work in the Vedānta philosophy". Shankara also wrote a major independent treatise, called "Upadeśa Sāhasrī", expounding his philosophy.
The authenticity of the "Vivekachudamani", a well-known work ascribed to Shankara, is doubtful, though it is "so closely interwoven into the spiritual heritage of Shankara that any analysis of his perspective which fails to consider [this work] would be incomplete".[note 24]
The name of the Bhamati-subschool is derived from Vachaspati Misra's commentary on Adi Shankara's Brahmasutra Bhashya.[web 12][web 13] According to legend, Misra's commentary was named after his wife to praise, since he neglected her during the writing of his commentary.[web 13]
Prakasatman was the first to propound the theory of mulavidya or maya as being of "positive beginningless nature".
The Vivarana-school takes an epistemological approach. It sees Brahman as the source of avidya. Critics object that Brahman is pure consciousness, so it can't be the source of avidya. Another problem is that contradictory qualities, namely knowledge and ignorance, are attributed to Brahman.[web 12]
The prominent names in the later Advaita tradition are Prakāsātman (tenth century), Vimuktātman (tenth century), Sarvajñātman (tenth century), Śrī Harṣa (twelfth century), Citsukha (twelfth century), ānandagiri (thirteenth century), Amalānandā (thirteenth century), Vidyāraņya (fourteenth century), Śaṅkarānandā (fourteenth century), Sadānandā (fifteenth century), Prakāṣānanda (sixteenth century), Nṛsiṁhāśrama (sixteenth century), Madhusūdhana Sarasvati (seventeenth century), Dharmarāja Advarindra (seventeenth century), Appaya Dīkśita (seventeenth century), Sadaśiva Brahmendra (eighteenth century), Candraśekhara Bhārati (twentieth century), and Sacchidānandendra Saraswati (twentieth century).[web 14]
According to Richard E. King,
Although it is common to find Western scholars and Hindus arguing that Sankaracarya was the most influential and important figure in the history of Hindu intellectual thought, this does not seem to be justified by the historical evidence.
According to King, until the 10th century Sankara was overshadowed by his older contemporary Mandana-Misra. In the centuries after Sankara it was Maṇḍana Miśra who was considered to be the most important representative of Vedanta.
Prior to Shankara, views similar to his already existed, but did not occupy a dominant position within the Vedanta. The early Vedanta scholars were from the upper classes of society, well-educated in traditional culture. They formed a social elite, "sharply distinguished from the general practitioners and theologians of Hinduism." Their teachings were "transmitted among a small number of selected intellectuals". Works of the early Vedanta schools do not contain references to Vishnu or Shiva. It was only after Shankara that "the theologians of the various sects of Hinduism utilized Vedanta philosophy to a greater or lesser degree to form the basis of their doctrines," for example the Nath-tradition, whereby "its theoretical influence upon the whole of Indian society became final and definitive." 
Most of the notable authors in the advaita tradition were members of the sannyasa tradition, and both sides of the tradition share the same values, attitudes and metaphysics.[web 1]
Shankara, himself considered to be an incarnation of Shiva,[web 1] established the Dashanami Sampradaya, organizing a section of the Ekadandi monks under an umbrella grouping of ten names.[web 1] Several other Hindu monastic and Ekadandi traditions remained outside the organisation of the Dasanāmis.
Adi Sankara organised the Hindu monks of these ten sects or names under four Maṭhas (Sanskrit: मठ) (monasteries), with the headquarters at Dvārakā in the West, Jagannatha Puri in the East, Sringeri in the South and Badrikashrama in the North.[web 1] Each math was headed by one of his four main disciples, who each continues the Vedanta Sampradaya.
According to Pandey, these Mathas were not established by Shankara himself, but were originally ashrams established by Vibhāņdaka and his son Ŗșyaśŗnga. Shankara inherited the ashrams at Dvārakā and Sringeri, and shifted the ashram at Śŗngaverapura to Badarikāśrama, and the ashram at Angadeśa to Jagannātha Purī.
Monks of these ten orders differ in part in their beliefs and practices, and a section of them is not considered to be restricted to specific changes made by Shankara. While the dasanāmis associated with the Sankara maths follow the procedures enumerated by Adi Śankara, some of these orders remained partly or fully independent in their belief and practices; and outside the official control of the Sankara maths.
Advaitins are non-sectarian, and they advocate worship of Siva and Visnu equally with that of the other deities of Hinduism, like Sakti, Ganapati and others.[web 1]
Nevertheless, contemporary Sankaracaryas have more influence among Saiva communities than among Vaisnava communities.[web 1] The greatest influence of the gurus of the advaita tradition has been among followers of the Smartha Tradition, who integrate the domestic Vedic ritual with devotional aspects of Hinduism.[web 1]
According to Nakamura, these mathas contributed to the influence of Shankara, which was "due to institutional factors". The mathas which he built exist until today, and preserve the teachings and influence of Shankara, "while the writings of other scholars before him came to be forgotten with the passage of time".
The table below gives an overview of the four Amnaya Mathas founded by Adi Shankara, and their details.[web 15]
|Padmapāda||East||Govardhana Pīṭhaṃ||Prajñānam brahma (Consciousness is Brahman)||Rig Veda||Bhogavala|
|Sureśvara||South||Sringeri Śārada Pīṭhaṃ||Aham brahmāsmi (I am Brahman)||Yajur Veda||Bhūrivala|
|Hastāmalakācārya||West||Dvāraka Pīṭhaṃ||Tattvamasi (That thou art)||Sama Veda||Kitavala|
|Toṭakācārya||North||Jyotirmaṭha Pīṭhaṃ||Ayamātmā brahma (This Atman is Brahman)||Atharva Veda||Nandavala|
According to the tradition in Kerala, after Sankara's samadhi at Vadakkunnathan Temple, his disciples founded four mathas in Thrissur, namely Naduvil Madhom, Thekke Madhom, Idayil Madhom and Vadakke Madhom.
Not all Brahmins specialized in this Smriti tradition. Some were influenced by Buddhism, Jainism or Charvaka tradition and philosophy. This did not mean that all these people rejected the authority of Vedas, but only that their tradition of worship and philosophy was based not on smriti texts. In time, Shankaracharya brought all the Vedic communities together. He tried to remove the non-smriti aspects that had crept into the Hindu communities. He also endeavoured to unite them by arguing that any of the different Hindu gods could be worshipped, according to the prescriptions given in the smriti texts. He established that worship of various deities are compatible with Vedas and is not contradictory, since all are different manifestations of one nirguna Brahman. Shankaracharya was instrumental in reviving interest in the smritis.[web 16]
According to Hiltebeitel, Shankara established the nondualist interpretation of the Upanishads as the touchstone of a revived smarta tradition:
Practically, Shankara fostered a rapprochement between Advaita and smarta orthodoxy, which by his time had not only continued to defend the varnasramadharma theory as defining the path of karman, but had developed the practice of pancayatanapuja ("five-shrine worship") as a solution to varied and conflicting devotional practices. Thus one could worship any one of five deities (Vishnu, Siva, Durga, Surya, Ganesa) as one's istadevata ("deity of choice").
The Sringeri monastery is still the centre of the Smarta sect. In recent times bhakti cults have increasingly become popular with the smartas, and Shiva is particularly favored. In modern times Smarta-views have been highly influential in both the Indian[web 17] and western[web 18] understanding of Hinduism via Neo-Vedanta. Vivekananda was an advocate of Smarta-views,[web 18] and Radhakrishnan was himself a Smarta-Brahman. According to iskcon.org,
Many Hindus may not strictly identify themselves as Smartas but, by adhering to Advaita Vedanta as a foundation for non-sectarianism, are indirect followers.[web 17]
With the onset of Islamic rule, hierarchical classifications of the various orthodox schools were developed to defend Hinduism against Islamic influences. According to Nicholson, already between the twelfth and the sixteenth century,
... certain thinkers began to treat as a single whole the diverse philosophical teachings of the Upanishads, epics, Puranas, and the schools known retrospectively as the "six systems" (saddarsana) of mainstream Hindu philosophy.
The tendency of "a blurring of philosophical distinctions" has also been noted by Burley. Lorenzen locates the origins of a distinct Hindu identity in the interaction between Muslims and Hindus, and a process of "mutual self-definition with a contrasting Muslim other", which started well before 1800. Both the Indian and the European thinkers who developed the term "Hinduism" in the 19th century were influenced by these philosophers.
Within these socalled doxologies Advaita Vedanta was given the highest position, since it was regarded to be most inclusive system. Vijnanabhiksu, a 16th-century philosopher and writer, is still an influential representant of these doxologies. He's been a prime influence on 19th century Hindu modernists like Vivekananda, who also tried to integrate various strands of Hindu thought, taking Advaita Vedanta as its most representative specimen.
With the onset of the British Raj, the colonialisation of India by the British, there also started a Hindu renaissance in the 19th century, which profoundly changed the understanding of Hinduism in both India and the west. Western orientalist searched for the "essence" of the Indian religions, discerning this in the Vedas, and meanwhile creating the notion of "Hinduism" as a unified body of religious praxis and the popular picture of 'mystical India'. This idea of a Vedic essence was taken over by the Hindu reformers, together with the ideas of Universalism and Perennialism, the idea that all religions share a common mystic ground. The Brahmo Samaj, who was supported for a while by the Unitarian Church, played an essential role in the introduction and spread of this new understanding of Hinduism.
Vedanta came to be regarded as the essence of Hinduism, and Advaita Vedanta came to be regarded as "then paradigmatic example of the mystical nature of the Hindu religion". These notions served well for the Hindu nationalists, who further popularised this notion of Advaita Vedanta as the pinnacle of Indian religions. It "provided an opportunity for the construction of a nationalist ideology that could unite HIndus in their struggle against colonial oppression".
A major proponent in the popularisation of this Universalist and Perennialist interpretation of Advaita Vedanta was Vivekananda, who played a major role in the revival of Hinduism, and the spread of Advaita Vedanta to the west via the Ramakrishna Mission. His interpretation of Advaita Vedanta has been called "Neo-Vedanta". Vivekananda discerned a universal religion, regarding all the apparent differences between various traditions as various manifestations of one truth. He presented karma, bhakti, jnana and raja yoga as equal means to attain moksha, to present Vedanta as a liberal and universal religion, in contrast to the exclusivism of other religions.
Vivekananda emphasised samadhi as a means to attain liberation. Yet this emphasis is not to be found in the Upanishads nor with Shankara. For Shankara, meditation and Nirvikalpa Samadhi are means to gain knowledge of the already existing unity of Brahman and Atman, not the highest goal itself:
[Y]oga is a meditative exercise of withdrawal from the particular and identification with the universal, leading to contemplation of oneself as the most universal, namely, Consciousness. This approach is different from the classical Yoga of complete thought suppression.
He also claimed that Advaita is the only religion that is in total agreement with modern science. In a talk on "The absolute and manifestation" given in at London in 1896 Swami Vivekananda said,
I may make bold to say that the only religion which agrees with, and even goes a little further than modern researchers, both on physical and moral lines is the Advaita, and that is why it appeals to modern scientists so much. They find that the old dualistic theories are not enough for them, do not satisfy their necessities. A man must have not only faith, but intellectual faith too".[web 19]
Vivekenanda's modernisation has been criticised:
Without calling into question the right of any philosopher to interpret Advaita according to his own understanding of it, ... the process of Westernization has obscured the core of this school of thought. The basic correlation of renunciation and Bliss has been lost sight of in the attempts to underscore the cognitive structure and the realistic structure which according to Samkaracarya should both belong to, and indeed constitute the realm of māyā.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan further popularized Advaita Vedanta, presenting it as the essence of Hinduism,[web 20] but neglecting the popular bhakti-traditions. Radhakrishnan saw other religions, "including what Radhakrishnan understands as lower forms of Hinduism,"[web 20] as interpretations of Advaita Vedanta, thereby Hindusizing all religions.[web 20] His metaphysics was grounded in Advaita Vedanta, but he reinterpreted Advaita Vedanta for a contemporary understanding.[web 20] He acknowledged the reality and diversity of the world of experience, which he saw as grounded in and supported by the absolute or Brahman.[web 20][note 26] Radhakrishnan also reinterpreted Shankara's notion of maya. According to Radhakrishnan, maya is not a strict absolute idealism, but "a subjective misperception of the world as ultimately real."[web 20]
Neo-Advaita is a New Religious Movement based on a popularised, western interpretation of Advaita Vedanta and the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Neo-Advaita is being criticised[note 27][note 28][note 29] for discarding the traditional prerequisites of knowledge of the scriptures and "renunciation as necessary preparation for the path of jnana-yoga". Notable neo-advaita teachers are H. W. L. Poonja, his students Gangaji Andrew Cohen[note 30], and Eckhart Tolle.
Advaita Vedanta has gained attention in western spirituality and New Age, where various traditions are seen as driven by the same non-dual experience. Nonduality points to "a primordial, natural awareness without subject or object".[web 26] It is also used to refer to interconnectedness, "the sense that all things are interconnected and not separate, while at the same time all things retain their individuality".[web 27]
The manifold universe is, in truth, a Single Reality. There is only one Great Being, which the sages call Brahman, in which all the countless forms of existence reside. That Great Being is utter Consciousness, and It is the very Essence, or Self (Atman) of all beings."[web 29][note 32]
Advaita Vedanta is based on the inquiry into the sacred texts of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras. Adi Shankara gave a systematisation and philosophical underpinning of this inquiry in his commentaries. The subsequent Advaita-tradition has further elaborated on these sruti and commentaries.
The order of precedance regarding authority of Vedic Scriptures is as follows,
If anyone of them contradicts the preceding one, then it is disqualified as an authority to judge. There is a well known Indian saying that Smṛti follows Śruti. So it was considered that in order to establish any Theistic Philosophical theory (Astika Siddhanta) one ought not contradict Śruti (Vedas).
Adi Sankara has chosen three standards, called Prasthānatrayī, literally, three points of departure (three standards). Later these were referred to as the three canonical texts of reference of Hindu philosophy by other Vedanta schools.
The Upanishads consist of twelve or thirteen major texts, with many minor texts. The Bhagavad Gītā is part of the Mahabhārata. The Brahma Sūtras (also known as the Vedānta Sūtras), systematise the doctrines taught in the Upanishads and the Gītā.
Sankara Bhagavadpāda has written Bhāshyas (commentaries) on the Prasthānatrayī. These texts are thus considered to be the basic texts of the Advaita-parampara.
Additionally there are four Siddhi-granthas that are taught in the Advaita-parampara, after study of the Prasthana-trayi:
Introductory texts from the Advaita Vedanta tradition include:
The philosophy of Advaita Vedanta is based on the sacred texts of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras. Adi Shankara gave a systematisation and philosophical underpinning of this inquiry in his commentaries, which have become central texts in the Advaita Vedanta tradition.
Due to ignorance (avidyā), Brahman is visible as the material world and its objects (nama rupa vikara). The actual Brahman is attributeless and formless. Brahman, the highest truth and all (reality), does not really change; it is only our ignorance that gives the appearance of change.
The notion of avidyā and its relationship to Brahman creates a crucial philosophical issue within Advaita Vedanta thought: how can avidyā appear in Brahman, since Brahman is pure consciousness?
Sengaku Mayeda writes, in his commentary and translation of Adi Shankara's Upadesasahasri:
Certainly the most crucial problem which Sankara left for his followers is that of avidyā. If the concept is logically analysed, it would lead the Vedanta philosophy toward dualism or nihilism and uproot its fundamental position.
Also due to avidyā, the true identity is forgotten, and material reality, which manifests at various levels, is mistaken as the only and true reality.
Ātman (IAST: ātman, Sanskrit: आत्मन्) is a Sanskrit word that means 'self'. Ātman is the first principle, the true self of an individual beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual.
When the reflection of Atman falls on avidya (ignorance), atman becomes jīva — a living being with a body and senses. Each jiva feels as if he has his own, unique and distinct Atman, called jivatman. The concept of jiva is true only in the pragmatic level. In the transcendental level, only the one Atman, equal to Brahman, is true.
Ātman is not a part of Brahman that ultimately dissolves into Brahman, but identical with Brahman. The characteristics of Atman are Consciousness, Reality and Bliss.
Atman, being the silent witness of all the modifications, is free and beyond sin and merit. It does not experience happiness or pain because it is beyond the triad of Experiencer, Experienced and Experiencing. It does not do any Karma because it is Aaptakaama. It is incorporeal and independent.
The aim of Advaita Vedanta is liberation, by knowledge of the identity of atman and Brahman. According to Adi Śankara, knowledge of Brahman springs from inquiry into the sacred texts of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras. It is obtained by following the four stages of samanyasa (self-cultivation), sravana, listening to the teachings of the sages, Manana, reflection on the teachings, and Dhyana, contemplation of the truth "that art Thou".
According to Puligandla:
Any philosophy worthy of its title should not be a mere intellectual exercise but should have practical application in enabling man to live an enlightened life. A philosophy which makes no difference to the quality and style of our life is no philosophy, but an empty intellectual construction.
Advaita Vedanta gives an elaborate path to attain moksha. It entails more than self-inquiry or bare insight into one's real nature. Practice, especially Jnana Yoga, is needed to "destroy one's tendencies (vAasanA-s)" before real insight can be attained.[web 22]
Moksha is attained by realizing the identity of Atman and Brahman. According to Potter,
8. The true Self is itself just that pure consciousness, without which nothing can be known in any way.
9. And that same true Self, pure consciousness, is not different from the ultimate world Principle, Brahman ...
11. ... Brahman (=the true Self, pure consciousness) is the only Reality (sat), since It is untinged by difference, the mark of ignorance, and since It is the one thing that is not sublimatable.
"Pure consciousness" is the translation of jnanam. Although the common translation of jnanam is "consciousness", the term has a broader meaning of "knowing"; "becoming acquainted with",[web 2] "knowledge about anything",[web 2] "awareness",[web 2] "higher knowledge".[web 2]
"Brahman" too has a broader meaning than "pure consciousness". According to Paul Deussen, Brahman is:
According to David Loy,
The knowledge of Brahman ... is not intuition of Brahman but itself is Brahman.
The same nuance can be found in satcitananda, the qualities of Brahman, which are usually translated as "Eternal Bliss Consciousness", "Absolute Bliss Consciousness",[web 44] or "Consisting of existence and thought and joy".[web 45] Satcitananda is composed of three Sanskrit words:
Advaitins believe that suffering is due to Maya (also known as Mithya or Vaitathya). Only knowledge of Brahman can destroy Maya. At the relative plane Jiva and Iswara "are regarded as different from and of a lower order of reality than the original consciousness that is the absolutely real (paaramaarthika) Brahman".[web 50] When Maya is removed, the truth of "Brahma Satyam Jagan Mithya Jivo Brahmaiva Na Aparah" is realised:[web 51]
Brahman (the Absolute) is alone real; this world is unreal; the Jiva or the individual soul is non-different from Brahman.[web 51]
The Mahavakya, or "the great sentences", remind us of the unity of Brahman and Atman, or "the inner immortal self and the great cosmic power are one and the same". There are many such sentences in the Vedas, however only one such sentence from each of the four Vedas is usually chosen.
|1||प्रज्ञानं ब्रह्म (pragñānam brahma)||Prajñānam[note 39] is Brahman[note 40]||Aitareya V.3||Rgveda|
|2.||अहं ब्रह्मास्मि (aham brahmāsmi)||I am Brahman, or I am Divine||Brhadāranyaka I.4.10||Shukla Yajurveda|
|3.||तत्त्वमसि (tat tvam asi)||That thou art||Chandogya VI.8.7||Samaveda|
|4.||अयमात्मा ब्रह्म (ayamātmā brahma)||This Atman is Brahman||Mandukya II||Atharvaveda|
According to Śankara and others, anyone seeking to follow the philosophy of Advaita Vedānta must do so under the guidance of a Guru (teacher). It is the teacher who through exegesis of Sruti and skilful handling of words generates a hitherto unknown knowledge in the disciple. The teacher does not merely provide stimulus or suggestion.
The Guru must have the following qualities (see Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.12):
The seeker must serve the Guru, and submit questions with all humility in order to remove all doubts (see Bhagavad Gita 4.34). By doing so, Advaita says, the seeker will attain Moksha ('liberation from the cycle of births and deaths').
The paths of Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga are subsidiary to jnana yoga
In Bhakti Yoga, practice centres on the worship God in any way and in any form, like Krishna or Ayyappa. Adi Shankara himself was a proponent of devotional worship or Bhakti. But Adi Shankara taught that while Vedic sacrifices, puja and devotional worship can lead one in the direction of jnana (true knowledge), they cannot lead one directly to moksha. At best, they can serve as means to obtain moksha via shukla gati.
Karma yoga is the way of doing our duties, in disregard of personal gains or losses. According to Sri Swami Sivananda,
Karma Yoga is consecration of all actions and their fruits unto the Lord. Karma Yoga is performance of actions dwelling in union with the Divine, removing attachment and remaining balanced ever in success and failure.
Karma Yoga is selfless service unto humanity. Karma Yoga is the Yoga of action which purifies the heart and prepares the Antahkarana (the heart and the mind) for the reception of Divine Light or attainment if Knowledge of the Self. The important point is that you will have to serve humanity without any attachment or egoism.[web 57]
Epistemology (from Greek ἐπιστήμη (epistēmē), meaning "knowledge, understanding", and λόγος (logos), meaning "study of") is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge.
Pramāna, (sources of knowledge, Sanskrit प्रमाण), refers to the correct knowledge, arrived at by thorough reasoning, of any object.
Pramāṇa forms one part of a tripuṭi (trio), namely,
Perception, inference and verbal testimony have the same meaning as in the Nyaya-school. Regarding comparison, postulation and non-cognition Advaita Vedanta views which somewhat differ from the Nyaya-school.
According to a common interpretation, Shankara emphasizes the role of personal experience (anubhava) in ascertaining the validity of knowledge. Anantanand Rambachan quotes several modern interpretators in defence of this interpretation, especially Radakrishnan. Yet, according to Rambacham himself, sruti is the main source of knowledge for Shankara.
According to Swami Dayananda Saraswati, anubhava has a more specific meaning than "experience", namely "direct knowledge". Interpreting anubahva as "experience" may lead to a misunderstanding of Advaita Vedanta, and a mistaken rejection of the study of the scriptures as mere intellectual understanding. Stressing the meaning of anubhava as knowledge, Saraswati makes clear that liberation comes from knowledge, not from mere experience.[note 42] Saraswati points out that "the experience of the self ... can never come because consciousness is ever-present, in and through each and every experience."[web 58]
According to Hirst, anubhava is the "non-dual realisation gained from the scriptures", which "provides the sanction and paradigm for proper reasoning", when interpreted by a self-realized Advaitin teacher. This "knowledge of Brahman, is identical with that self which is to be known as witness, not as object".
Sublation is replacement of a "truth" by a higher "truth", until no higher truth can be found. Shankara uses sublatibility as the criterion for the ontological status of any content of consciousness:
Sublition is essentially the mental process of correcting and rectifying errors of judgement. Thus one is said to sublate a previous held judgment when, in the light of a new experience which contradicts it, one either regards the judgment as false or disvalues it in some significant sense ... Not only judgment but also concepts, objects, relations, and in general any content of consciousness can be sublated.
Advaita Vedanta is a so-called substance ontology, an ontology "which holds that underlying the seeming change, variety, and multiplicity of existence there are unchanging and permanent entities (the so-called substances)". In contrast, Buddhism is a process ontology, according to which "there exists nothing permanent and unchanging, within or without man".[note 43]
Advaita took over from the Madhyamika the idea of levels of reality. Usually two levels are being mentioned, but Shankara uses sublation as the criterion to postulate an ontological hierarchy of three levels:[web 59]
Brahman is Paramarthika Satyam, "Absolute Truth". It is
the true Self, pure consciousness ... the only Reality (sat), since It is untinged by difference, the mark of ignorance, and since It is the one thing that is not sublatable".
"Brahman" has a broader meaning than "pure consciousness". According to Paul Deussen, Brahman is:
Other than Brahman, everything else, including the universe, material objects and individuals, are maya. Brahman is absolute reality, unborn and unchanging. According to Advaita Vedanta, consciousness is not a property of Brahman but its very nature. In this respect Advaita Vedanta differs from other Vedanta schools.[web 60]
Brahman is the Self-existent, the Absolute and the Imperishable. Brahman is indescribable. It is at best Satchidananda, Infinite Truth, Infinite Consciousness and Infinite Bliss.
Brahman is free from any kind of differences or differentiation. It does not have any sajātīya (homogeneous) differentiation because there is no second Brahman. It does not have any vijātīya (heterogeneous) differentiation because there is nobody in reality existing other than Brahman. It has neither svagata (internal) differences, because Brahman is itself homogeneous.
Brahman is often described as neti neti, "not this, not this" since Brahman cannot be correctly described as this or that.
Due to avidya, atman is covered by sheaths, or bodies, which hide man's true nature.
According to the Kosha system in Yogic philosophy, the nature of being human encompasses physical and psychological aspects that function as one holistic system. The Kosha system refers to these different aspects as layers of subjective experience. Layers range from the dense physical body to the more subtle levels of emotions, mind and spirit. Psychology refers to the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of our being. Together, all aspects make up our subjective experience of being alive.
From gross to fine the five sheets are:
According to Vedanta the wise man should discriminate between the self and the koshas, which are non-self.
Adi Shankara discerned three states of consciousness, based on the Mandukya Upanishad, namely waking (jågrat), dreaming (svapna), and deep sleep (suƒupti),[web 62][web 63] which correspond to the three bodies:
According to Adi Shankara, Māyā (/mɑːjɑː/) is the complex illusionary power of Brahman which causes the Brahman to be seen as the material world of separate forms. Its shelter is Brahman, but Brahman itself is untouched by the illusion of Māyā, just as a magician is not tricked by his own magic.
All sense data entering ones awareness via the five senses are Māyā. Māyā is neither completely real nor completely unreal, hence indescribable. Māyā is temporary and is transcended with "true knowledge", or perception of the more fundamental reality which permeates Māyā.
Māyā has two main functions:
Swami Vivekananda explains the concept of Māyā as follows:
Māyā of the Vedanta, in its last developed form, is neither Idealism nor Realism, nor is it a theory. It is a simple statement of facts—what we are and what we see around us ...
What does the statement of existence of the world mean then? ... It means that it has no absolute existence. It exists only in relation to my mind, to your mind and to the mind of everyone else ... We have to work in and through it. It is a mixture of existence and non-existence ... There is neither how nor why in fact; we only know it is and that we can not help it ... The very basis of our being is contradiction.
The world is both unreal and real. but something can't be both true and false at the same time; hence Adi Shankara has classified the world as indescribable.
Adi Sankara says that the world is not real (true), it is an illusion. Adi Sankara gives the following reasoning:
Adi Sankara also claims that the world is not absolutely unreal (false). It appears unreal (false) only when compared to Brahman. At the empirical or pragmatic level, the world is completely real:
The world being both unreal and real is explained by the following. A pen is placed in front of a mirror. One can see its reflection. To one's eyes, the image of the pen is perceived. Now, what should the image be called? It cannot be true, because it is an image. The truth is the pen. It cannot be false, because it is seen by our eyes.
Some claim that there is no place for ethics in Advaita, "that it turns its back on all theoretical and practical considerations of morality and, if not unethical, is at least 'a-ethical' in character".
Ethics does have a firm place in this philosophy. Ethics, which implies doing good Karma, indirectly helps in attaining true knowledge. Many Advaitins consider Karma a "necessary fiction". Karma cannot be proven to exist through any of the Pramāṇas.[note 44] However, to encourage students to strive towards Vidyā (spiritual knowledge) and combat Avidyā (ignorance), the idea of Karma is maintained.
Truth, non-violence, service of others, pity, are Dharma, and lies, violence, cheating, selfishness, greed, are adharma (sin). However, no authoritative definition of Dharma was ever formulated by any of the major exponents of Advaita Vedanta. Unlike ontological and epistemological claims, there is room for significant disagreement between Advaitins on ethical issues.
Many authorities from India and elsewhere have noted that Advaita Vedanta shows signs of influence from Mahayana Buddhism. The Mahayana schools with whom Shankara's Advaita is said to share similarities are the Madhyamaka, founded by Nagarjuna, and the Yogacara, founded by Vasubandhu and Asanga in the early centuries of the Common Era.
John Grimes writes that while Mahayana Buddhism's influence on Advaita Vedanta has been ignored for most of its history, scholars now see it as undeniable.
Eliot Deutsch and Rohit Dalvi state:
In any event a close relationship between the Mahayana schools and Vedanta did exist with the latter borrowing some of the dialectical techniques, if not the specific doctrines, of the former.
S. Mudgal noted that among some traditionalist Indian scholars, it was the accepted view that Shankara
Adopted practically all ... dialectic (of the Buddhists), their methodology, their arguments and analysis, their concepts, their terminologies and even their philosophy of the Absolute, gave all of them a Vedantic appearance, and demolished Buddhism ... Sankara embraced Buddhism, but it was a fatal embrace".
This influence goes back at least to Gaudapada:
Gaudapada rather clearly draws from Buddhist philosophical sources for many of his arguments and distinctions and even for the forms and imagery in which these arguments are cast.
Michael Comans has also demonstrated how Gaudapada, an early Vedantin, utilised some arguments and reasoning from Madhyamaka Buddhist texts by quoting them almost verbatim.
However, Comans believes there is a fundamental difference between Buddhist thought and that of Gaudapada, in that Buddhism has as its philosophical basis the doctrine of Dependent Origination, while Gaudapada does not at all rely on this principle. Gaudapada's Ajativada is an outcome of reasoning applied to an unchanging nondual reality, the fundamental teaching of the Upanishads.
In India, the similarity of Shankara's Advaita to Buddhism was brought up by his rivals from other Vedanta schools, while on the other hand, Mahayanists such as Bhavyaviveka had to defend themselves from Theravada Buddhist accusations of the Mahayana doctrine being just another form of Vedantism.[note 45]
Shankara defended himself against these accusations:
Shankara's criticisms of Buddhism are nevertheless powerful and they exhibit clearly at least how Shankara saw the difference between Buddhism and his own Vedantic philosophy.
Western scholars like N.V. Isaeva state that the Advaita and Buddhist philosophies, after being purified of accidental or historical accretions, can be safely regarded as different expressions of the same eternal absolute truth. The comparison breaks down, of course, when one realizes that Gautama the Buddha denied the existence of the Atman whereas Atman is central to Advaita Vedanta.
The exposition and spread of Advaita by Sankara spurred debate with the two main theistic schools of Vedanta philosophy that were formalised later: Vishishtadvaita (qualified nondualism), and Dvaita (dualism).
Yamunacharya, a 10th-century AD proponent of the Vishishtadvaita philosophy that opposed Shankara's Advaita, compared Advaita to Buddhism and remarked in his Siddhitraya that for both the Buddhists and the Advaitins, the distinctions of knower, known and knowledge are unreal. The Advaita traces them to Maya, while Buddhist subjectivism traces them to buddhi. Ramanujacharya, another prominent Vishishtadvaita philosopher, accused Shankara of being a Prachanna Bauddha, that is, a hidden Buddhist
The Dvaita, founded by Madhvacharya (1238–1317 AD), was partisan to Vaishnavism, building on a cogent system of Vedantic interpretation that proceeded to take on Advaita in full measure. Madhvacharya's student Narayana, in his Madhvavijaya, a hagiography of Madhva, characterised Madhva and Shankara as born-enemies, and describes Shankara as a "demon born on earth". Surendranath Dasgupta noted that some Madhva mythology went so far as to characterise the followers of Shankara as "tyrannical people who burned down monasteries, destroyed cattle and killed women and children".
Advaita Vedanta has had many teachers over the centuries in many different countries.