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Vedanta & Hindu Philosophy
<span style='color:red'><b>Vedanta & Hindu Philosophy</b></span>
<i>By: Veera Vaishnava</i>

<b>I. Introduction</b>

Vedanta, meaning “the end of the Veda,” is one of the six schools of traditional Hindu philosophy. It is the basis of Hinduism. Vedanta in principle based on summary of teachings of Brahma sutras.

The main schools within Vedanta are Advaita (<i>Non-Dualism or monism</i>), Vishishtadvaita (<i>Qualified Non-Dualism or qualified monism</i>) and Dvaita (<i>Dualism</i>). These three different schools of thought deal with the relationship between world, selves and Brahman and the nature of Brahman, and how to achieve liberation. Brahman is asserted as the universal soul and the absolute truth. Brahman plays multiple roles: creator, maintainer and the destroyer, all in one (<i>Trinity</i>). All three schools maintain the individual human soul (jiva-atma) originates and merges with the Brahman (<i>Parama-atma</i>), however the viewpoints and approaches on achieving the same is different.

Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya expounded the Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita philosophies respectively. In this article, as this is an effort to keep the study of Vedanta readable and understandable to a lay reader, a brief and short overview of three schools of thought and their similarities and differences are presented. Through out the article, Brahman and God are used interchangeably, but for subtle differences between the definition of Brahman and God, refer to [1].

The distinct features of Hindu philosophy/Vedanta is the unwavering focus on the spiritual realm. Except Carvaka and related schools, Hindu philosophy has always been interested in the spiritual destiny of an individual soul, and the relationship between the universe and the soul, which is also spiritual in nature. Philosophy in India was never considered as a mere intellectual exercise. The relationship between philosophical thoughts, theory and practice, has always been the focus of Hindu thought. Every hindu system seeks the truth, and not just an “academic knowledge”, as it is believed that truth shall set one free. It was and is never enough just to know the truth, but to “live” the truth. In the pursuit of truth, Hindu philosophy has always turned inward “Aatma vidya”, and not on the external, physical manifestations of the world. This does not mean, that external world was ignored, Hindus achievements in the realm of science, mathematics, medicine, architecture, astronomy, geometry and application of such knowledge to different phases and aspects of human activity is very well known, documented and acknowledged.

Hindu philosophy was not oblivious to materialism. In fact, Hindu thought knew it and has overcome it. Hindu philosophy makes extensive use of reason and intellectual knowledge but intuition is accepted as the only method through which the ultimate truth can be known. Reason and intellectual knowledge has been considered as insufficient, as to know the reality, one must have an actual experience of it [Darsana]

<b>II. Evolution – Vedas to Vedanta</b>

The Vedas are the oldest scriptures of India as well as the world. Vedas are not written by anyone, but is “experienced” knowledge. The Rishis or the seers of the Truth visualized the mantras or the text of the Vedas and stored for the benefit of the world by oral and later written tradition through the tradition of Guru and disciples (<i>Guru-parampara</i>). Vedas are personification of Brahman as words. Vedas are divided into two portions: Karma-kanda and Jnana-kanda. While Samhitas, Brahmanas, and Aranyakas form the Karma kanda, Upanishads form the Jnana Kanda. The essence of the knowledge of the Vedas is called by the name Vedanta, which comprises the Upanishads.

Hindu philosophy is highly complex and over a period of few thousands of years has gone through similarly complex developmental phases. The literature of the first period -“Vedic period” - are the above mentioned texts.

The second period - “Epic period” -saw the indirect presentation of philosophical doctrines through a medium of non-systematic and non-technical literature such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. This period also gave rise to Buddhism, Jainism, Saivism and Vaishnavism. Bhagavad-Gita, part of Mahabharata ranks among the most authoritative texts in Hindu Philosophical literature. During this period, along with Buddhism and Jainism other unorthodox philosophies such as skepticism, materialism, naturalism etc arose along with other heterodox systems. Because of this later arrival into Hindu philosophical school the earlier thoughts were labeled orthodox philosophical systems.

The third period – “Aphorism period” – is during the early centuries of Christian era, where systematical treatises of various schools of thought were written and preserved. They were preserved in the form of aphorisms, hence this period can be called Sutra period. The six systems that are presented in sutra form are: Vaisheshika, Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. Rishis Kanada, Gautama, Kapila, Patanjali, Jaimini, and Vyasa are the earliest exponents of these systems respectively.

There are certain common features to these six systems of thought; first and foremost is that they accept the authority of the Vedas, distinguishing them from philosophical schools of Buddhism and Jainism. Second important feature is that, although superficially these systems seem to have contradictions amongst them, they in fact represent a progressive development from lower to higher truth. All the six schools believe in the 'Law of Karma', rebirth, and attainment of Moksha/Liberation as the highest goal of human struggle. All the systems are concerned with the nature of true Self, the realization of which through Yoga and other spiritual disciplines makes one free.

The fourth period - “Scholastic period” - saw the advent of scholars, philosophers and commentators such as Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Kumarila, Sridhara, Vacaspati, Udayana, Bhaskara, Jayanta, Vijnanabhikshu and Raghunatha.

The three major forms of Vedanta [2] espoused by Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva although are distinct and elaborate systems, they all stem from “Vedanta Sutra” of Badarayana. This is a characteristic of Hindu philosophy in which, the exponents while maintaining respect for the past and without breaking the tradition, and recognizing the authority in philosophy, continued the development of thought as their insight, intuition and reason directed. This is quite a unique feature in Hindu philosophy.

Nyaya and Samkhya are studied widely for their powerful system of logic and reasoning. Yoga deals with disciplined meditation. Purva Mimamsa mostly deals with earlier interpretive investigations of the Vedas, relating to conduct, while the Uttara mimamsa deals with later investigations of the Vedas, relating to knowledge, also called Vedanta, the <b>end of the Vedas</b>. In the context of modern times, Yoga and Vedanta have caught the attention of students of religion, scholars, as well as lay people for their practicality, rationality, and scientific basis. All Hindus now accept Vedanta as their 'living faith'.

<b>III. Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita </b>

<b>Advaita </b>– The quintessence of Shankara’s Advaita is: “<i>Brahma Satyam Jagan Mithya Jivo Brahmaiva Na Aparah</i>—Brahman alone is real; this world is unreal; and the Jiva or the individual soul is non-different from Brahman.” Shankara believed that Brahman which is pure, eternal and absolute. Anything other than the Absolute including the manifested world, and the individuals themselves was an illusion (<i>Maya</i>). The Brahman seen by the devotee as Saguna Brahman is illusory and imaginary and seen only through <i>Maya</i>. The day to day mundane activities such as worshipping etc although seems real, ultimately there is only one reality, the Brahman, who is the impersonal God (<i>nirguna Brahman or Brahman without any attributes</i>), with which the individual soul is identical. Nirguna Brahman is also <i>nirvishesha </i>or without any characteristics and <i>nirakara </i>or without any shape and form. It is this recognition of <i>nirguna </i>Brahman that leads one to salvation, which can be obtained by meditation and knowledge.

<b>Vishishtadvaita </b>- Ramanujacharya proposed that the road to salvation was through Bhakti yoga, devoted to a personal God, namely Narayana or Vishnu. Unlike Nirguna Brahman of Advaita, Ramanuja’s Narayana/Vishnu is a complex organic whole of soul and matter in one. Soul and matter constitute the body of the Lord and they are his subordinates. Further Vishnu has attributes (<i>vishesha</i>), hence <i>Savishesha </i>Brahman is the fundamental belief of Vishishtadvaitins. Matter forms the non-conscious form of the Lord, while the soul is the conscious form. Saguna Brahman is omnipotent, omniscient and all pervasive Reality. All living beings have originated from Brahman, the origin of reality but are temporarily separated from Him. The individual soul, having origin in Brahman however was always distinct from Him. And the soul is always conscious of itself, otherwise it would cease to exist. It was one with God, but yet separate, and for this reason the Ramanuja’s school of thought is called <b>Vishishtadvaita</b>.

<b>Dvaita </b>- Madhvacharya preached that God, individual soul and matter were eternally and completely different. Liberation is the individual soul’s innate bliss and this is the final emancipation (<i>Moksha </i>or <i>mukti</i>). Madhva’s school of thought was called sad-vaishnavism as it belonged to the Vaishnava School but was different from Ramanuja’s school of Sri- Vaishnavism.

<b>IV. Main Differences and Similarities</b>

Upanishads are basically of three types” -Bheda, Abheda and Ghataka shrutis. Bheda shruti shows the difference between Paramatma and Jivatma: “I belong to the Brahman and I will not leave him”, Abheda shruthi, the opposite says Brahman and Paramatma are one and the same: “I am Brahman”, Ghataka Shruti describes the relationship between Paramatma and Jivatma and Body/Soul relationship: Antaryami (<i>Iswara being the soul of Jivatma and controls from inside</i>) Brahmana of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Subala Upanishad are examples of Ghataka Shruti. Ghataka Shruti reconciles and harmonizes the apparently contradictory passages in the Vedas. Without Ghataka approach it would be hard to interpret Abheda Shrutis. Ghataka shruti achieves that by explaining the body and soul relationship. Taken all together, the basic principle is Brahman or Iswara is the soul of Jivatma and matter and all its variations. This is the basis of Vishishtadvaita philosophy.

Advaita means “Not Two”. The advaitins say that Jivatma and Paramatma are One and identical. The father of this philosophy is Shri Adi Shankaracharya. Vishishtadvaita means “Not Two – in a special way” or “Only one – in a special way”. It maintains that Jivatma and paramatma are different, yet not different. They are different as (based on Bheda Shruti) body and soul are different, but based on Ghataka’s explanation of body/soul relationship, they are not different – they are one.

Advaitins cannot explain bheda shrutis entirely, and Dvaitins cannot explain abheda shrutis properly. Vishishtadvaita system is the only one which explains both Bheda and Abheda with the help of Ghataka Shrutis.

<b>A. Maya and Reality</b>

Advaitins believe everything is “Maya” except Paramatma. This means even the whole world is an illusion. To explain this, advaitins have three types of reality. They are
  • Apparent Reality (<i>Pratibhasika Sat</i>) – Example: Mistaking rope for a snake.
  • Relative Reality (<i>Vyavaharika Sat</i>) – Example: World, Sky, Water, Fire, Earth etc
  • Absolute Reality (<i>Paramarthika Sat</i>) – Brahman
Vishistadvaitins believe exactly the opposite. Every object, Jivatma, and the world are and even dreams very much real. Mistaking a rope for a snake is just an illusion, but the rope exists and real and so does the snake. Vishistadvaitins interpret Maya as matter (<i>prakriti</i>) and not as an illusion. Upanishads explain at great lengths the creation of cosmos and the coming about of the matter from Mahat. Upanishads say the Brahman created the world out of Maya. Some people interpret Maya as an illusion and some as matter. The reasons given by vishistadvaitins for considering the world is real are
  • Vedas describe Brahman as: Brahman is that, from whom all these beings are born, by whom all these beings live, in whom all these beings rest, after death.
  • Brahman is the material cause of the world. He therefore evolves into the world. So, how can the world, which has evolved from Brahman, be unreal?
  • Brahman is also instrumental cause of this world, he creates the world. So, how can a thing, which has been created by Brahman, be unreal?
Dvaitins believe that the world is real and the manifest world is real and eternal too, unlike Shankara’s world which is Maya. Dvaitins subscribe to five eternal differences in relationship between jiva-atman, Brahman and the world. The differences are
  • between Brahman and the individual soul
  • between soul and matter
  • between one soul and another soul
  • between the soul and matter
  • between one piece of matter and another.
This is the important distinction between Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita.

<b>B. Characteristics of Brahman</b>

There are several passages in Vedas declaring that there is only one Supreme Lord or Brahman. The advaitins also agree there is only one Brahman, Parabrahman. However, for the purposes of worship and rituals, they accept a lower Brahman. This lower Brahman again, according to advaitins, is not real; as it is only “Vyavaharika Sat”.

According to Advaitins, Parabrahman has no attributes or qualities (<i>Nirguna</i>) and has no form (<i>Niravayava </i>or <i>Nirakara Brahman</i>). The lower Brahman (<i>Apara Brahman</i>) has qualities (<i>Saguna Brahman</i>) and has a form. The lower Brahman can be worshipped in any form. After worshipping the lower Brahman, they contend that a person develops maturity of knowledge (<i>Viveka</i>) which will enable the person to understand the real Brahman – Para Brahman. With this viveka, the person will also realize that there is no difference between the lower Brahman and the Paramatma. Thus the person ultimately realizes that Jivatma and paramatma are the same.

Vishistadvaitins do not accept two Brahmans. They believe there is only one Brahman and this Brahman has a form (<i>Narayana/Vishnu</i>). Further, the Brahman has Jivatma and matter as his body. Thus Brahman as divine and auspicious body as well as the entire world, jivatmas and the matter as his body is what vishistadvaitins believe. Although there is no question that jivatma is identical to paramatma, jivatma has paramatma as Soul, and jivatma is the body of the paramatma.

Vedas as several places mentions the Brahman with good qualities and without any qualities or attributes. While advaitins talk about Nirguna Brahman, vishistadvaitins interpret this lack of attributes to, lack of sattva, rajas and tamas that is Suddha sattva. Suddha sattva is outside the three qualities, which is a quality in itself and a matter of interpretation with respect to qualities of Brahman.

Dvaitins believe that Vishnu is the Brahman (<i>Vishnusarvothamattva</i>) and Vayu is the supreme among the Jivas (<i>Vayusarvothamattva</i>). Knowledge can be obtained through perception, inference and the Vedas. (<i>Pratyaksha, Anumana and Pramana</i>). The universe is as real as God. Difference and diversity are the central characteristics of Reality. Maha Vishnu is the Supreme Being and the Brahman. Vayu is the mediator between God and individual souls.

<b>C. Moksha – Salvation/Liberation</b>

According to Advaita, liberation finally comes when Jivatma realizes that is identical with Brahman – paramatma. So it is the knowledge that leads to the salvation. Although upanishads do talk about the jivatma’s journey to ultimate salvation (paramapada) advaitins do not believe in Paramapada. They call paramapada as Krama mukti which is partial salvation. For Vishistadvaitins, ultimate salvation is to reach Sri Vaikunta and enjoy being in service to Lord Sriman Narayana and Sri Lakshmi.

In practice however, a practitioner of Jnana Yoga would experience Brahman in its non-qualified aspect, swhile a practitioner of Bhakti Yoga would perceive the same reality as Brahman with attributes of love and compassion. But when one attains highest level of Bhakti, para-bhakti as it is called, then (s)/he also becomes a Jnani. Similarly a Jnani becomes a Bhakta. Thus Jnana and Bhakti are two sides of the same coin, as eloquently expressed by Adi Shankara in Bhaja Govindam.

In Dvaita Most of the beliefs are the same as Vishishtadvaita except that they consider Lakshmi as Jivatma and do not subscribe to the concept of body/soul relationship. Devotion (<i>Bhakti</i>) is a sure route to God, to attain liberation (<i>Moksha</i>). The main belief is that each soul is a unique spiritual entity and retains its individuality forever. Each soul has its own unique karmic history and the difference among the souls is fundamental and permanent. Salvation is to be attained through rigorous study of scriptures, performance of scriptural rites in a selfless manner, good deeds and devotion to God. In the state of salvation all the souls are eternally under the protection and care of God and forever free from the worldly miseries. However they do not merge with God and they retain their individuality from each other and Brahman.

<b>V. Conclusion</b>

Although the three schools of thought, on the surface, appear to have opposing views a closer inspection shows they are just different ways of achieving the same aim and objective(s). There are further nuanced differences and view points, but this article’s effort is to present the basics of Vedanta school and Hindu philosophy.

<b>VI. References</b> <span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>Views expressed by the author are his own.</span>
Veera Vaishnava- Thanks. Great post!
Thank you Sridhar.

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