Critical Podium Dewanand Hinduism
Vedanta & Hindu Philosophy By: Veera Vaishnava
Sacrificer Veera Vaishnava
Sacrifice code wfor0271
Sacrifice date 25 march 2009
Vedanta & Hindu Philosophy
By: Veera Vaishnava
Vedanta, meaning "the end of the Veda," is one of the six schools
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 (Non-Dualism or monism),
Vishistadvaita (Qualified Non-Dualism or qualified monism) and
Dvaita (Dualism). 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 (Trinity).
All three schools maintain the individual human soul (jiva-atman)
originates and merges with the Brahman (Parama-atman), however the
viewpoints and approaches on achieving the same is different.
Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya expounded the
Advaita, Vishistadvaita 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 .
The distinct features of Hindu philosophy/Vedanta is the unwavering
focus on the spiritual realm. Except Carvaka and related schools,
hindu philosophy is always 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, not
just an "academic knowledge" as it is believed that truth shall
one free. It was never enough to just 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. 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 of human activity is very well known, documented
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]
II. Evolution - Vedas to Vedanta
The Vedas are the oldest scriptures of India as well as the world.
Vedas are not written by anyone, but is "experienced" knowledge.
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.
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" -
above mentioned texts.
The second period - "Epic period" -saw the indirect presentation
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
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
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 Sankara,
Ramanuja, Madhva, Kumarila, Sridhara, Vacaspati, Udayana, Bhaskara,
Jayanta, Vijnanabhikshu and Raghunatha.
The three major forms of Vedanta  espoused by Sankara, Ramanuja
and Madhva although are distinct and elaborate systems, they all
stem from "Vedanta Sutra" of Badarayana. This is a characteristic
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 end of the Vedas. In the context of modern
times, Vaisheshika is not of great importance, while 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
III. Advaita, Vishistadvaita and Dvaita
Advaita - The quintessence of Shankara's Advaita is: "Brahma Satyam
Jagan Mithya Jivo Brahmaiva Na Aparah-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 (Maya). The Brahman seen by the devotee as Saguna
Brahman is illusory and imaginary and seen only through Maya. 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 (nirguna Brahman or Brahman without any attributes),
with which the individual soul is identical(Advaita). Nirguna
Brahman is also nirvishesha or without any characteristics and
nirakara or without any shape and form. It is this recognition of
nirguna Brahman that leads one to salvation, which can be obtained
by meditation and knowledge.
Vishistadvaita - 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 (vishesha). Hence
Savishesha Brahman for 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 form
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 Vishistadvaita.
Dvaita - 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
(Moksha or mukti). Madhva's school of thought was called
sadvaishnavism as it belonged to the Vaishnava School but was
different from Ramanuja's school of Sri- Vaishnavism.
IV. Main Differences and Similarities among three schools of thought
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",
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
(Iswara being the soul of Jivatma and controls from inside) 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 Vishistadvaita philosophy.
Advaita means "Not Two". The advaitins say that Jivatma and
Paramatma are One and identical. The father of this philosophy is
Shri Adi Sankaracharya. Vishistadvaita means "Not Two - in a special
way" or "Only one - in a special way". It maintains that
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. Vishistadvaita system is the only
one which explains both Bheda and Abheda with the help of Ghataka
A. Maya and Reality
Advaitins believe everything is "Maya" (Illusion) except Paramatma.
This means even the whole world is an illusion. To explain this,
advaitins have three types of reality. They are
o Apparent Reality (Pratibhasika Sat) - Example: Mistaking
rope for a snake.
o Relative Reality (Vyavaharika Sat) - Example: World, Sky,
Water, Fire, Earth etc
o Absolute Reality (Paramarthika Sat) - 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
(prakriti) 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
o 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.
o 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?
o Brahman is also instrumental cause of this world, he creates
the world. So, how can a thing, which has been created by Brahman,
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
o between Brahman and the individual soul (Jiva -atma)
o between soul and matter
o between one Jiva-atma and another Jiva-atma
o between the Jiva-atma and matter
o between one piece of matter and another.
This is the important distinction between Vishistadvaita and dvaita.
B. One Brahman or Many Brahmans
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
According to Advaitins, Parabrahman has no attributes or qualities
(Nirguna) and has no form (Niravayava or Nirakara Brahman). The
lower Brahman (Apara Brahman) has qualities (Saguna Brahman) 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 (Viveka) 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 (Narayana/Vishnu).
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
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 (Vishnusarvothamattva)
and Vayu is thesupreme among the Jivas (Vayusarvothamattva).
Knowledge can be obtained through perception, inference and the
Vedas. (Pratyaksha, Anumana and Pramana). 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.
C. Moksha - Salvation/Liberation
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, while 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 Sankara in
In Dvaita Most of the beliefs are the same as vishistadvaita except
that they consider Lakshmi as Jivatma and do not subscribe to the
concept of body/soul relationship. Devotion (Bhakti) is a sure route
to God, to attain liberation (Moksha). 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.
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
1. Is God a good translation for Brahman - http://www.faithnet.org.uk
2. The three great Acharyas -
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