Introduction to Advaita Vedanta
The term ‘Vedanta’ stands for the Upanishads as a whole, which form part of the Vedas. It would therefore be appropriate to give a general account of the Vedas before going on to deal with Vedanta.
In the Indian tradition, philosophy is termed ‘darsana’, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘seeing’ or ‘experiencing’. This indicates that the aim of philosophy in India is direct experience of the ultimate Reality and not mere intellectual speculation as in Western philosophy.
The Indian philosophical systems are classified into two broad categories known as ‘aastika darsanas’ and ‘naastika darsanas’. There are no exact equivalents to these terms in English, though the terms ‘orthodox’ and ‘unorthodox’ are sometimes used. It would be wholly misleading to use the terms ‘theistic’ and ‘atheistic’ for these categories.
The term ‘aastika’ has been defined as referring to a person who, or a system which, accepts, (1) the authority of the Vedas, (2) the doctrine of rebirth and (3) the existence of other ‘lokas’ or spheres of experience. In the category of aastika darsanas fall those systems which accept the authority of the Vedas. These are the six systems known as Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purvamimamsa and Uttaramimamsa (or Vedanta). Even among these six, it is only the last two that base themselves directly on the Vedas and accept nothing that goes against them. The other four systems are based more on independent grounds of logic and reasoning, but they too are not opposed to the Vedas.
In the category of naastika darsanas fall the four schools of Buddhism, Jainism and the Carvaka (or atheistic) school, which do not accept the authority of the Vedas. These also make up a total of six.
All the six aastika darsanas regard the Vedas as the record of the divine truths revealed to the sages (Rishis or seers) in their supra-normal consciousness. The sages are not the authors of the Vedas. They are known as ‘seers’ of the Vedic mantras.
The traditional view is that the Vedas are eternal. The word ‘Veda’ means primarily ‘knowledge’ and secondarily the books in which that knowledge is recorded. This is not knowledge of the external world, but the knowledge of the supreme Truth which cannot be attained by any effort of the human mind.
It has been categorically declared by our ancient sages that the Vedas have no validity in matters which fall within the domain of other valid means of knowledge such as perception and inference. Sri Sankara says in his Bhashya on the Bhagavadgita, ch.18, verse 66:
The validity of the Vedas holds good only with regard to matters which cannot be known through such other valid means of knowledge as direct perception, etc., because the validity of the Vedas lies in revealing what is beyond direct perception. Even a hundred Vedic statements cannot become valid if they say that fire is cold or non-luminous. If a Vedic text says that fire is cold or non-luminous, one should assume that the intended meaning of the text is different, for otherwise its validity cannot be maintained. One should not interpret it in such a way as to contradict some other valid means of knowledge.
Because of this clear demarcation of the spheres of validity of the Vedas on the one hand and the other means of knowledge relied on by science on the other, no conflict between science and the Vedas can arise, similar to those which arose between the Church and the discoveries of scientists like Copernicus and Galileo in Europe. It is this knowledge contained in the Vedas that is considered to be eternal. Just as the law of gravity existed and operated even before it was discovered by Newton, the knowledge contained in the Vedas existed even before it became known to the sages.
The Vedas are considered to be ‘apaurusheya’, i.e., they are not human compositions. Even God is not the author of the Vedas. The eternal knowledge contained in the Vedas is only revealed by God to the sages in each cycle of creation. The Vedas are ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ by the sages and recorded by them or their disciples for the benefit of posterity. The Vedas are therefore termed sruti, or ‘what is heard’. As distinguished from these are the smritis, which are all human compositions, based on the srutis.
The Itihasas and Puranas come under the category of smriti. According to Manu, the greatest lawgiver of India, the smritis should be considered as an elaboration of the Vedas. However, it is an inviolable rule that, where there is a difference between the sruti and the smriti on any matter, the sruti has to be upheld and the smriti should be interpreted in conformity with it. The truths enshrined in the Vedas have been actually experienced again and again by successive generations of great souls. The experiences of great saints like Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Bhagavan Ramana in recent times bear testimony to the authenticity of all that is stated in the Upanishads.
The Vedas are four in number– Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Each Veda consists of three parts– the karma-kanda, the upasana-kanda and the jnana-kanda. The karma-kanda is divided into samhitas and brahmanas. The samhitas are collections of mantras, or hymns in verse, most of which are praises or prayers addressed to various gods such as Indra, Varuna and Agni. They are chanted during the performance of sacrifices. The brahmanas are mostly in prose and contain detailed descriptions of sacrifices and instructions for the performance of sacrificial rites. The upasana-kanda deals with various meditations. The jnana-kanda consists of the Upanishads and this is what is denoted by the term ‘Vedanta’.
These three kandas are, however, not mutually exclusive compartments. The highest philosophical truths, similar to those expounded in the Upanishads, are found also in the samhita and brahmana portions which deal mainly with Vedic rituals. It is further noteworthy that the Isavasyopanishad appears in the samhita portion of the Sukla Yajurveda, the Brihadaranyakopanishad forms the concluding portion of the Satapathabrahmana of the Sukla Yajurveda, the Chandogyopanishad constitutes eight chapters of the Chandogyabrahmana of Samaveda and the Kenopanishad forms the ninth chapter of the Talavakarabrahmana of Samaveda. All these form part of jnanakanda, in spite of their being located right inside the samhitas or brahmanas. The term ‘Vedanta’ should therefore be understood to mean the ultimate conclusion or the highest philosophy of the Vedas and not the end portion of the Vedas.
The Triple Texts
The source books of Vedanta are the triple texts, Prasthanatraya, namely, the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and the Brahmasutras.
The word ‘Upanishad’ is derived by adding the prefixes ‘upa’ (near) and ni’ (with certainty) to the verbal root ‘sad’ meaning ‘ to destroy, to go to and to loosen’. By the word ‘Upanishad’ is meant the knowledge that destroys the seeds of worldly existence such as ignorance in the case of those seekers of liberation who, after cultivating detachment towards all enjoyments, approach (upa, sad) this knowledge and then deliberate on it with steadiness and certainty (ni).
Though this knowledge is the primary meaning of the word, it is used also to denote the book that contains this knowledge, in a secondary sense. This knowledge is known as ‘Brahmavidya’. The theme of all the Upanishads is Brahman, which is identical with the individual self. This subject is dealt with in detail later on.
It is not known with any certainty how many Upanishads existed originally, but 108 are now available to us. There are commentaries, known as ‘bhashya’ by Sri Sankara on eleven of these, namely, Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka and Nrsimhatapani upanishads. There is also a commentary on Svetasvatara upanishad, but there is difference of opinion among modern scholars about its authorship, though tradition attributes it to Sri Sankara.
This is the second of the triple texts. It forms part of the great epic Mahabharata and is given the same authority as the upanishads. As is well known, the Bhagavadgita contains the teachings of Lord Krishna to Arjuna on the battle field of Kurukshetra. Sri Sankara has described it as the essence of the Vedas.
This work is attributed to sage Veda-Vyasa. It consists of short aphorisms, called sutras. There are in all 555 aphorisms. A total of 192 topics, known as adhikaranas are dealt with in these aphorisms. The purpose of these aphorisms is to explain the real import of various terms and statements in the upanishads and to reconcile apparent contradictions. Sri Sankara has explained the meanings of these aphorisms from the Advaitic point of view in his commentaries, known as ‘Bhashya’.
The Essence of Advaita Vedanta
The philosophy of Advaita Vedanta has attracted intellectuals from all parts of the world because of the fact that it adheres to the strict rules of logic and does not demand blind faith or unquestioning acceptance. The student of Vedanta is asked to examine and think for himself before accepting the teachings of the Guru. But he must start with an open mind, a genuine desire to understand and an attitude of respect towards the scriptures.
We find in the upanishads that the student frankly puts his doubts and objections to the Guru and the Guru very patiently clarifies his doubts and answers his objections. The upanishads are not for the intellectually indolent. There is a very important place for reason in Vedanta. The fundamental principle of Vedanta is that the final testimony of truth is actual spiritual experience. This makes it a very scientific system and therefore acceptable to intellectuals of the present day who swear by reason and the scientific method.
Dr. T.M.P.Mahadevan, the great Vedantic scholar, says in his book ‘Ramana Maharshi and His Philosophy of Existence’– “We believe that Advaita is not a sectarian doctrine. It is the culmination of all doctrines, the crown of all views. Though other views may imagine themselves to be opposed to Advaita, Advaita is opposed to none.
As Gaudapada, a pre-Sankara teacher of Advaita, says, Advaita has no quarrel with any system of philosophy. While the pluralistic world-views may be in conflict with one another, Advaita is not opposed to any of them. It recognises the measure of truth that there is in each of them; but only, that truth is not the whole. Hostility arises out of partial vision. When the whole truth is realised, there can be no hostility. (Mandukya Karika, III. 17 & 18; IV. 5)”.
The essence of Advaita has been stated by Sri Sankara in half a verse thus:– Brahman is the only Reality, the universe has only apparent reality, and the individual self is non-different from Brahman.
Brahman is the only Reality. ‘Reality’ is defined as that which does not undergo any change at any time. By this test, Brahman, which is absolutely changeless and eternal, is alone real. The world keeps on changing all the time and so it cannot be considered as real. At the same time, we cannot dismiss it as unreal, because it is actually experienced by us.
The example of a rope being mistaken for a snake in dim light is used to explain this. The snake so seen produces the same reaction, such as fear and trembling of the limbs, as a real snake would. It cannot therefore be said to be totally unreal. At the same time, on examination with the help of a lamp it is found that the snake never existed and that the rope alone was there all the time.
The snake cannot be described as both real and unreal, because these two contradictory qualities cannot exist in the same substance. It must therefore be said that the snake is neither real nor unreal. Such an object is described as ‘mithya’. Just as the snake appears because of ignorance of the fact that there is only a rope, this world appears to exist because of our ignorance of Brahman. Thus the world is also neither real nor unreal; it is also ‘mithya’. Just as the snake is superimposed on the rope, the world is superimposed on Brahman.
Our ignorance of Brahman is what is called avidya or ajnaana or nescience. This ignorance not only makes us ignorant of Brahman, but it projects the world as a reality. The world has no reality apart from Brahman, just as the illusory snake has no reality apart from the rope. When the knowledge of Brahman arises, the world is seen as a mere appearance of Brahman. The illusory snake arose from the rope, was sustained by the rope and ultimately merged into the rope. Similarly, the world arises from Brahman, is sustained by Brahman and merges into Brahman on the attainment of knowledge.
Another example is also given to explain this. Ornaments of different sizes and shapes are made out of one gold bar. Their appearance and the use for which they are meant vary, but the fact that they are all really nothing but gold, in spite of their different appearances and uses, cannot be denied. The appearance may change, a bangle may be converted into rings, but the gold always remains as gold. When we begin to look upon the bangles, rings, etc., as nothing but gold in essence, the differences between bangle and ring, ring and chain, etc., cease to count though they continue to retain their different shapes.
Similarly, on the dawn of the knowledge of Brahman (which is the same as the Self), though the different forms continue to be seen by the Jnaani, the realised soul, he sees them all only as appearances of the one Brahman. Thus the perception of difference between one person and another, or one thing and another, and the consequences of such perception, such as looking upon some as favourable and others as the opposite, and the consequent efforts to retain or get what is favourable and to get rid of or avoid what is not favourable, come to an end. This is the state of liberation even while living, which is known as Jivanmukti.
Every individual identifies himself with the physical body, the sense organs and the mind. When a person describes himself as stout or lean or fair-complexioned or dark, he is looking upon himself as the physical body to which these characteristics belong. When he says ‘I see’, ‘I hear’, ‘I smell’ and so on, he is identifying himself with the organs of sense which perform these functions. When he says ‘I am happy’ or ‘I am unhappy’, he is identifying himself with his mind. The Upanishads declare that all these identifications are wrong and that the human being is in reality not the body or the sense-organs or the mind, but Brahman, which is eternal, changeless and not affected by anything that happens to the body-mind complex.
It is Brahman that appears as the jiva or individual because of identification with the body-mind complex. This body-mind complex, which makes the infinite, all-pervading Brahman appear as an individual limited to a particular body-mind complex, is known as the limiting adjunct or upadhi of Brahman. This wrong identification, which is called bondage, is due to our ignorance of our real nature. This ignorance is what is called avidya or nescience. When this ignorance is eradicated, the person remains established in his essence as the Self or Brahman-Atman. This is liberation.
Thus liberation is not the attainment of some new state in some other world after the end of the present life. It is only the realisation, in this life itself, of what one has always been, namely Brahman, by the removal of the wrong notion that one is the body-mind complex. The illusory snake never existed. What existed even when the snake was seen was only the rope.
Similarly, bondage has no real existence at all. Even when we are ignorant of Brahman and think of ourselves as limited by the body, we are really none other than the infinite Brahman. Liberation is thus only the removal of the wrong identification with the body, mind and senses. The attainment of the state of liberation-in-life or Jivanmukti is the ultimate goal of human life according to the upanishads.
Three paths are laid down in the scriptures as the means to the attainment of this ultimate goal. These are karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnaana yoga. Here the word ‘yoga’ signifies ‘the means’. That is to say, karma, bhakti and jnaana are the means to the attainment of liberation. These are, however, not independent paths, but are intrinsically bound together. Karma yoga is the performance of all duties enjoined upon one by the scriptures, as well as the duties that are incumbent on one because of one’s station in life. If these duties are performed without craving for the fruit of the actions and as an offering to God, they lead to purification of the mind by the eradication of desires and the evil consequences of desire, namely, greed, anger, jealousy and other negative emotions.
The very fact that all actions must be performed as an offering to God implies that one must have devotion to God. Thus the path of bhakti or devotion to God and the path of action, or karma yoga are intrinsically bound together and one cannot be practised without the other. Thus karma yoga and bhakti yoga form one composite whole.
As stated above, karma yoga is the means by which the mind becomes purified by the removal of all impurities in the form of desire, anger, greed, delusion, pride and jealousy. Bhakti yoga brings about concentration of mind. Only a mind which has become pure and one-pointed is capable of attaining self-knowledge. Jnaana yoga consists in hearing the exposition of the scriptures by the Guru, reflecting on what has been heard in order to remove all doubts, and meditation to realise as an actual experience what has been understood intellectually by hearing and reflection. A person who has, by this process, come to experience the truth that he is really the Atman and not the body, mind or sense-organs and remains firmly rooted in that experience is a liberated one or a Jivanmukta.
About the Author Sri S.N. Sastri
Shri S.N.Sastri is a former member of the Indian Revenue Service. He retired as Member, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Government of India.
He has authored the following books:–
1. Commentary in English on Narayaneeyam, a devotional work in Sanskrit by the devotee-poet Melpathur Narayana Bhattatiri who lived in Kerala in the 16th century A.D– Published by Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai- 72.
Second Edition- Jan 2005. Pages 761. Price Rs. 160. Contains the slokas in Devanagari script, word-by-word meaning, and detailed explanatory notes. Available at all the centres of Chinmaya Mission all over the world.
2. Commentary in English on Satasloki of Sri Adi Sankaracharya– Published by the author. Price Rs. 80.
3. Commentary in English on Hastamalakiyam of Hastamalaka, one of the four disciples of Sri Adi Sankara– Published by the author. Price Rs. 25.
Books 2 and 3 can be had from Jayalakshmi Indological Book House, 6, Appar Swamy Koil Street, (opp. Sanskrit College), Mylapore, Chennai- 600 004. Tel: 24990539.
He has edited the English translation of a monumental commentary in Malayalam on Narayaneeyam, published by The Bhaktaranjini Trust, Bangalore-94. Price Rs.800.
He has written articles on Vedantic topics which have been published in various journals.
Some of the articles written by him are posted on his website.
. These articles are written in simple language, avoiding all technical jargon. They can be easily understood even by persons who have not had any exposure to Vedanta.
Shri S.N.Sastri can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and at email@example.com.