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Vedanta (//; Hindustani pronunciation: [ʋeːd̪aːn̪t̪], Devanagari: वेदान्त, Vedānta) originally meant the Upanishads. By the 8th century, it came to mean all philosophical traditions concerned with interpreting the three basic texts, namely the Upanishads, the Brahman Sutras and the Bhagavadgita. At least ten schools of Vedanta are known, of which Advaita Vedanta, Vishishtadvaita, and Dvaita are the best known.
The name is a morphophonological form of Veda-anta = "Veda-end" = "the appendix to the Vedic hymns". It is also said that "Vedānta" means "the purpose or goal [end] of the Vedas".[note 1] Vedanta can also be used as a noun to describe one who has mastered all four of the original Vedas.
In earlier writings, Sanskrit 'Vedānta' simply referred to the Upanishads, the most speculative and philosophical of the Vedic texts. However, in the medieval period of Hinduism, the word Vedānta came to mean the school of philosophy that interpreted the Upanishads.
Vedānta is also called Uttarā Mīmāṃsā, or the 'latter enquiry' or 'higher enquiry', and is often paired with Purva Mīmāṃsā, the 'former enquiry'. Pūrva Mimamsa, usually simply called Mimamsa, deals with explanations of the fire-sacrifices of the Vedic mantras (in the Samhita portion of the Vedas) and Brahmanas, while Vedanta explicates the esoteric teachings of the Āraṇyakas (the "forest scriptures"), and the Upanishads, composed from the 9th century BCE until modern times.
All sub-schools of the vedanta propound their philosophy by interpreting the Prasthanatrayi, literally, three sources, the three canonical texts of Hindu philosophy, especially of the Vedanta schools. It consists of:
The Upanishads consist of twelve or thirteen major texts, with total 108 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.
All major Vedantic teachers, like Shankara, Rāmānuja, and Mādhvāchārya, have composed often extensive commentaries not only on the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras, but also on the Gita. While it is not typically thought of as a purely Vedantic text, with its syncretism of Samkhya, Yoga, and Upanishadic thought, the Bhagavad Gita has played a strong role in Vedantic thought.
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).
According to Balasubramanian, the Vedantic philosophy is as old as the Vedas, since the basic ideas of the Vedanta systems are derived from the Vedas. During the Vedic period (1500–600 BCE) the Rishis formulated their religio-philosophical and poetical visions, which are further explored in the Upanishads, the jnāna-kānda of the Vedas. The Upanishads don't contain "a rigorous philosophical inquiry identifying the doctrines and formulating the supporting arguments". 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 form the basic texts, of which Vedanta gives an interpretation.
The Brahma Sutras of Bādarāyana, also called the Vedanta Sutra,[note 2] are traditionally ascribed to Bādarāyana,[note 4] but "are best understood as a group of sutras composed by multiple authors over the course of hundreds of years". They were most likely 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".
The earliest stratum of sutras in the Brahmasutras is concerned with the interpretation of the Upanishads, especially the differences between the Chandogya Upanishad, the Brhadanyaka Upanisgad, and the Taittiriya Upanishad. Later additions were concerned with the refutation of rival philosophical schools, especially Samkhya. According to Nakamura and Dasgupta, the Brahmasutras reflect a Bhedabheda point of view, the most influential school of Vedanta before Shankara.[note 5]
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 sytematization of them in 555 sutras arranged in four chapters must have been the last attempt, most probably the best.
The cryptic aphorisms of the Vedanta Sutras are open to a variety of interpretations, resulting in the formation of numerous Vedanta schools, each interpreting the texts in its own way and producing its own sub-commentaries.
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 1] 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 6]
Gaudapada wrote or compiled the Māṇḍukya Kārikā, also known as the Gauḍapāda Kārikā and as the Āgama Śāstra.[note 7] Gaudapda took over the Buddhist doctrines that ultimate reality is pure consciousness (vijñapti-mātra) Gaudapada "wove [both doctrines] into a philosophy of the Mandukaya Upanisad, which was further developed by Shankara".
Adi Shankara (788–820), elaborated on Gaudapada's work, and is considered to be the founder of Advaita Vedanta. It was Shankara who succeeded in reading Gaudapada's mayavada[note 8] into Badarayana's Brahma Sutras, "and give it a locus classicus", against the realistic strain of the Brahma Sutras.[note 9][note 10] His interpretation, including works ascribed to him, has become the normative interpretation of Advaita Vedanta.
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.
Bhedabheda Vedanta schools played an important role in the rise of bhakti, such as Suddhadvaita, founded by Vallabha (1479–1531 CE), Achintya Bheda Abheda, founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534) and Vishishtadvaita founded by Shri Ramanuja (1017–1137 CE).
According to Nicholson, already between the 12th and the 16th century,
... certain thinkers began to treat as a single whole the diverse philosophival teachings of the Upanishads, epics, Puranas, and the schools known retrospectively as the "six systems" (saddarsana) of mainstream Hindu philosophy.[note 11]
Both the Indian and the European thinkers who developed the term "Hinduism" in the 19th century were influenced by these philosophers especially Vijnanabhiksu, a Bhedabheda Vedantin. Neo-Vedanta too was inspired by these thinkers.
The schools of Vedanta are named after the relation they see between atman and Brahman:
Sivananda gives the following explanation:
Madhva said: "Man is the servant of God," and established his Dvaita philosophy. Ramanuja said: "Man is a ray or spark of God," and established his Visishtadvaita philosophy. Sankara said: "Man is identical with Brahman or the Eternal Soul," and established his Kevala Advaita philosophy.
All schools of Vedanta subscribe to the theory of Satkāryavāda,[web 6] which means that the effect is pre-existent in the cause. But there are two different views on the status of the "effect", that is, the world. Most schools of Vedanta,[web 6] as well as Samkhya,[web 6] support Parinamavada, the idea that the world is a real transformation (parinama) of Brahman. According to Nicholson, "the Brahma Sutras also espouse the realist Parinamavada position, which appears to have been the view most common among early Vedantins". In contrast to Badarayana, Adi Shankara and Advaita Vedantists hold a different view, Vivartavada, which says that the effect, the world, is merely an unreal (vivarta) transformation of its cause, Brahman:
[A]lthough Brahman seems to undergo a transformation, in fact no real change takes place. The myriad of beings are essentially unreal, as the only real being is Brahman, that ultimate reality which is unborn, unchanging, and entirely without parts.
Even though there are many sub-schools of vedantic philosophy, all these schools share some common features, that can be called the vedantic core:
Traditional Vedānta considers scriptural evidence, or shabda pramāna, as the most authentic means of knowledge, while perception, or pratyaksa, and logical inference, or anumana, are considered to be subordinate (but valid).
|Subschools of Vedanta|
|A basic classification of the Vedanta theologies.|
The contents of the Upanishads are often couched in enigmatic language, which has left them open to various interpretations. Over a period of time, various schools of Vedanta, with different interpretations of the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras arose. There are three, four, five or six[note 12] which are prominent:
Proponents of other Vedantic schools continue to write and develop their ideas as well, although their works are not widely known outside of smaller circles of followers in India.
Bhedabheda (bheda-abheda), which means "difference and non-difference", existed as early as the 7th century CE, but Bādarāyaṇa’s Brahma Sūtra (c. 4th century CE) may also have been written from a Bhedābheda Vedāntic viewpoint. According to the Bhedābheda Vedānta schools the individual self (jīvātman) is both different and not different from Brahman. Bhakti found a place in later proponents of this school. Major names of this school are Bhāskara (8th-9th century), Rāmānuja’s teacher Yādavaprakāśa, Nimbārka (13th century) who founded the Dvaitadvaita school, Vallabha (1479–1531) who founded Shuddhadvaita, Caitanya (1486–1534) who founded the Achintya Bheda Abheda school, and Vijñānabhikṣu (16th century).
Dvaitādvaita was propounded by Nimbārka (13th century), based upon Bhedābheda, which was taught by Bhāskara. According to this school, the jīvātman is at once the same and yet different from Brahman. The jiva relation may be regarded as dvaita from one point of view and advaita from another. In this school, God is visualized as Krishna.
Shuddhadvaita was propounded by Vallabha (1479–1531 CE). This system also identifies Bhakti as the only means of liberation, 'to go to Goloka' (lit., the world of cows; the Sankrit word 'go', 'cow', also means 'star'). The world is said to be the sport (līlā) of Krishna, who is Sat-Chit-Ananda or, "eternal bliss mind".
Founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534). Achintya-Bheda-Abheda represents the philosophy of inconceivable one-ness and difference, in relation to the power creation and creator, (Krishna), svayam bhagavan. and also between God and his energies within the Gaudiya Vaishnava religious tradition. In Sanskrit achintya means 'inconceivable', bheda translates as 'difference', and abheda translates as 'one-ness'. It can be best understood as integration of strict dualist (Dvaita) view of Madhvacharya and qualified monism Vishishtadvaita of Ramanujacharya while rejecting absolute monism Advaita of Adi Sankara.
Advaita Vedanta (IAST Advaita Vedānta; Sanskrit: अद्वैत वेदान्त [əd̪ʋait̪ə ʋeːd̪ɑːnt̪ə]) was propounded by Adi Shankara (early 8th century CE) and his grand-guru Gaudapada, who described Ajativada. It is the sub-school of the Vedānta (literally, end or the goal of the Vedas, Sanskrit) school of Hindu philosophy. In the school of Vedānta, Brahman is the only reality, and the world, as it appears, is illusory. As Brahman is the sole reality, it cannot be said to possess any attributes whatsoever. An illusory power of Brahman called Māyā causes the world to arise. Ignorance of this reality is the cause of all suffering in the world and only upon true knowledge of Brahman can liberation be attained. When a person tries to know Brahman through his mind, due to the influence of Māyā, Brahman appears as God (Ishvara), separate from the world and from the individual. In reality, there is no difference between the individual soul jīvātman (see Atman) and Brahman. Liberation lies in knowing the reality of this non-difference (i.e. a-dvaita, "non-duality"). Thus, the path to liberation is finally only through knowledge (jñāna).
Vishishtadvaita was propounded by Rāmānuja (1017–1137 CE) and says that the jīvātman is a part of Brahman, and hence is similar, but not identical. The main difference from Advaita is that in Visishtadvaita, the Brahman is asserted to have attributes (Saguna brahman), including the individual conscious souls and matter. Brahman, matter and the individual souls are distinct but mutually inseparable entities. This school propounds Bhakti or devotion to God visualized as Vishnu to be the path to liberation. Māyā is seen as the creative power of God.[note 13]
Dvaita was propounded by Madhwāchārya (1199–1278 CE). It is also referred to as tatvavādā - The Philosophy of Reality. It identifies God with Brahman completely, and in turn with Vishnu or his various incarnations like Krishna, Narasimha, Srinivāsa etc. In that sense it is also known as sat-vaishnava philosophy to differentiate from the Vishishtadvaita school known by sri-vaishnavism. It regards Brahman, all individual souls (jīvātmans) and matter as eternal and mutually separate entities. This school also advocates Bhakti as the route to sattvic liberation whereas hatred (Dvesha)-literally 'twoness') and indifference towards the Lord will lead to eternal hell and eternal bondage respectively. Liberation is the state of attaining maximum joy or sorrow, which is awarded to individual souls (at the end of their sādhana), based on the souls' inherent and natural disposition towards good or evil. The achintya-adbhuta shakti (the immeasurable power) of Lord Vishnu is seen as the efficient cause of the universe and the primordial matter or prakrti is the material cause. Dvaita also propounds that all action is performed by the Lord energizing every soul from within, awarding the results to the soul but Himself not affected in the least by the results.
Neo-Vedanta is a modern interpretation of Vedanta, with a liberal attitude toward the Vedas. It reconciles dualism and non-dualism, and rejects the "universal illusionism" of Shankara, despite its reference for classical Advaita Vedanta:
Ramakrsna, Svami Vivekananda, and Aurobindo (I also include M.K. Gandhi) have been labeled "neo-Vedantists," a philosophy that rejects the Advaitins' claim that the world is illusory. Aurobindo, in his The Life Divine, declares that he has moved from Sankara's "universal illusionism" to his own "universal realism" (2005: 432), defined as metaphysical realism in the European philosophical sense of the term.
Gandhi endorsed the Jain concept of Anekantavada, the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth. This concept embraces the perspectives of both Vedānta which, according to Jainism, "recognizes substances but not process", and Buddhism, which "recognizes process but not substance". Jainism, on the other hand, pays equal attention to both substance (dravya) and process (paryaya).
Neo-Vedanta developed in the 19th century, in interaction with and response to colonialism. 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".
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". The popular understanding of Hinduism has been dominated by this neo-Vedanta,[note 14] in which mysticism, Aryan origins and the unity of Hinduism have been emphasised.
These notions also 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".
Similarities between Vedanta and Western philosophical traditions have been discussed by many authorities. Due to the colonisation of Asia by the western world, since the late 18th century an exchange of ideas has been taking place between the western world and Asia, which also influenced western religiosity. In 1785 appeared the first western translation of a Sanskrit-text. It marked the growing interest in the Indian culture and languages. The first translation of Upanishads appeared in in two parts in 1801 and 1802, which influenced Arthur Schopenhauer, who called them "the consolation of my life".[note 15] Schopenhauer drew explicit parallels between his philosophy, as set out in 'The World as Will and Representation', and that of the Vedanta philosophy ascribed to Vasya in the work of Sir William Jones. Early translations also appeared in other European languages.
The Vedanta and the Sankhya hold the key to the laws of the mind and thought process which are co-related to the Quantum Field, i.e. the operation and distribution of particles at atomic and molecular levels.
Max Müller, in his lectures, noted the striking similarities between Vedanta and the system of Spinoza, saying
[T]he Brahman, as conceived in the Upanishads and defined by Sankara, is clearly the same as Spinoza's 'Substantia'."
As to Spinoza’s Deity—natura naturans—conceived in his attributes simply and alone; and the same Deity—as natura naturata or as conceived in the endless series of modifications or correlations, the direct outflowing results from the properties of these attributes, it is the Vedantic Deity pure and simple.
The 19th-century German Sanskritist Theodore Goldstücker was one of the early figures to notice the similarities between the religious conceptions of the Vedanta and those of the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, writing that Spinoza's thought was
... so exact a representation of the ideas of the Vedanta, that we might have suspected its founder to have borrowed the fundamental principles of his system from the Hindus, did his biography not satisfy us that he was wholly unacquainted with their doctrines [...] comparing the fundamental ideas of both we should have no difficulty in proving that, had Spinoza been a Hindu, his system would in all probability mark a last phase of the Vedanta philosophy.