Vedanta and the Advaita Philosophy

A Brief Guide to the Understanding of the Core of Hindu Philosophy

Adi Shankaracharya
Shri Adi Shankaracharya, one of the principal exponents of the Vedanta philopsophy. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

The Vedanta, also known as Uttara Mimamsa or ‘higher inquiry,’ is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy or Darshanas. The term Veda means ‘knowledge’ and anta ‘the end of’ or ‘the goal of’ which points to search for Self-Knowledge as well as the search for God.

What Constitutes the Vedanta Philosophy?

In order to understand the concept of Vedanta, we must look back at the original texts of Hindu scriptures – the Vedas.

In his interpretation of the Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda mentions about the two distinct portions into which the Vedas are divided:

  1. The Karmakanda – the work-portion, i.e., the hymns and rituals or Brahmanas
  2. The Jnanakanda – the knowledge-portion, i.e., spiritual matters apart from ceremonials, or the Upanishads.

Let’s focus on the second, i.e., the Upanishads, which gave birth to the very term ‘Vedanta’ that literally refers to “the appendix to the Vedas.” In this sense, Vedanta used to be equated with the Upanishads per se. But in modern times, Vedanta has evolved to include later texts as it morphed into a distinct school of thought that combines the three fundamental Hindu scriptures: 1. The Upanishads; 2. A summary of the teachings of the later Upanishads, called the Brahma Sutras; and 3. The Bhagavad Gita

What Does Vedanta Teach Us?

The core message of the Vedanta is that the real nature of every being is divine.

It teaches us that God resides in our inner Self and we are part of God. God, according to the Vedas, is infinite existence, infinite consciousness and infinite bliss or ‘Sat, Chit and Ananda,’ and dwells within our hearts as the divine Self, or Atman. Vedanta asserts that the goal of human life is to realize and manifest one’s divinity.

Vedanta explicates the obscure teachings of the Aranyakas or the forest scriptures from the 9th century BCE until modern times. These scriptures, which have been progressive through the ages, begin with the idea of Dvaita or duality and ends with Advaita or non-duality, the two ways of approaching the interpretation and understanding of Reality or Absolute Truth.

What is Advaita Vendanta?

Advaita is best-known and the oldest extant school of the Vedanta philosophy. The term ‘advaita,’ which literally mean ‘not two’ in Sanskrit, postulates that the Atman, i.e., our soul or the true self, is the same as the Absolute Truth of the Supreme Being, which we refer to as the Brahman.

Advaita Vendanta provides "a unifying interpretation of the whole body of Upanishads", writes Japanese Indologist, Hajime Nakamura in his A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy (1990). The 8th century Indian scholar Adi Shankaracharaya, who was a major force behind the collation, organization and interpretation of the teachings of the Advaita Vendanta, is considered the main proponent of this philosophy. Over the centuries, this school of Vedantic thought not only influenced the various sects of Hinduism but also lent itself to the development of the core ideas of Jainism, Buddhism.

Today, Advaita Vedanta has acquired “a broad acceptance in Indian culture and beyond as the paradigmatic example of Hindu spirituality,” as Richard King writes in his book (2002).

What are the Main Tenets of Advaita Vendanta?

Advaita Vedantists deal with the following beliefs about Mind, Soul and God.

  1. Mind: Our mind is a product of our sense organs or indriya, our intellect or buddhi, which sees and interprets the entire universe – from the most esoteric to the grossest objects.
  2. Soul: The Advaita Vedantists generalize the whole universe into one whole and believes that the atman, i.e., our soul or individual consciousness is part of the Brahman or collective consciousness, and preaches: “Love everyone as your own self, because the whole universe is one.”
  3. God: They believe that the whole universe is the apparent evolution of God, and that it is absolute and unchangeable. The changes are only apparent, caused by time and space, name and form. The Advaita Vedantists believe in the concept of Maya or illusion and advocates that we must give up ignorance to be one with the universe and attain jivan mukti, the living freedom. This will lead one to our ultimate goal as human beings: Sat, Chit and Ananda – the state of Absolute Existence, Absolute Knowledge and Absolute Bliss.