Vedanta has been called the science of spirituality. It’s one of the six schools of Indian philosophy and takes its inspiration from the literature of the Upanishads. Upanishad means to sit nearby. It suggests the texts contain the secret knowledge of the sages. The Upanishads give the conclusions of India’s sacred Vedic literature.
Veda means knowledge and Vedanta means the end of knowledge, or the goal of knowledge. From those conclusions in the Upanishads, Vedanta gives a commentary. Vedanta isn’t only a summary of the wisdom of the Veda, it also tells us what that means for us personally.
A characteristic of Indian philosophy is its connection of theory and practice. Hinduism thinks the goal of philosophy is to find truth, and the goal of finding truth is its impact on your personal destiny. Who you are, why you are here, and what that means for how you should live are perennial human questions. In the West we separate philosophy and religion, in India they are seen as indissolubly linked.
Vedanta is based on 3 texts: the Upanishads, the Vedanta Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita. Every school of Vedanta has commentaries on these 3 texts.
The Vedanta Sutra begins with the verse: “Now, let us inquire into Brahman”.
Brahman is a Sanskrit word which means to grow, to expand. It gives us the idea of a conscious dynamic substance which underlies all reality and is also immanent within it. Vedanta‘s quest to understand Brahman, is a quest to understand the foundation of existence, the source of all things, the quintessence of reality.
“Knowing which, everything else becomes known.”
Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.3
The main focus of both the Upanishads and Vedanta is knowledge of Brahman or the absolute; the individual self; the material world; and the relationship between them.
Brahman in its unlimited feature has similarities with the monotheist idea of God. It is the foundation of existence, the unlimited conscious principle animating all things. It’s defined as eternal, conscious, bliss (sat, chit, ananda).
The Upanishads tell us that the individual soul, the jiva or atman, is also Brahman. One of the most famous aphorisms of the Veda is Tat Tvam Asi which means, You Are That.
“Now that which is that subtle essence (the root of all), in it all that exists has its self. It is the true. It is the self and you are that.“
Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7
But if we are Brahman, and Brahman is eternal bliss, then why do we suffer and die? We know our existence is temporary, death is certain. We also know suffering is unavoidable in this world.
How can we understand the Upanishad teaching we are Brahman?
The various schools of Vedanta give different answers. All the schools agree on the nature of Brahman and the soul, they agree Brahman is the absolute foundation of existence and unlimited, but they give different explanations about the relationship between Brahman or God, and the soul.
The different answers from the schools of Vedanta
Bheda-abheda — The same and different
One of the oldest schools of Vedanta is bheda-abheda which means different and non-different. There are a variety of interpretations within this school, but the general idea is that God and the soul are of the same nature, but also differ in some way.
The usual examples to explain this are a fire and its sparks or the sun and its rays. The sun isn’t complete without its rays, they are one thing, but there is also a distinction between the sun and the rays.
The most well-known traditions among the bheda-abheda schools are those established by Bhaskara, Nimbarka, Vallabha and Chaitanya. They focus on devotion to God (bhakti yoga) as the method of achieving liberation from the material world (moksha).
Advaita — non-duality
Advaita Vedanta is a monist school attributed to Shankara. It argues the self and God are exactly the same thing. Advaita literally means not two and is a non-dual or monistic interpretation of Vedanta They argue the multiplicity of our reality we inhabit is relative and an incomplete understanding.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s not an existential nihilism, but we’re in illusion when we think there are different things. All of it is Brahman and one unified thing. Brahman is said to be without attributes (nirguna) and so this school is an absolute monism.
Liberation from the material world is achieved through knowledge, jnana yoga. While worship of deities is among the religious practices, it’s understood that deities are a means to an end, not the ultimate goal in themselves.
Dvaita — duality
At the other end of the spectrum is the Dvaita school attributed to Madhva. Dvaita means two or dual. They argue that Brahman, the self and the world are fundamentally separated. There is a distinction between God and matter, God and the soul, between each soul, the soul and matter and lastly between various types of matter. Dvaita is a devotional school (bhakti yoga), ultimately liberation is achieved through worship of God.
Vishishtadvaita — qualified non-duality
Vishishtadvaita is attributed to the sage Ramanuja. This school qualifies the monism of Advaita. Ramanuja rejects that Brahman has no attributes, but instead there is God as Vishnu (all pervading) who has properties like will and power.
The soul is within God but also controlled by God. The world and the soul are like the body of God. God is the controller of his body like we are the controllers of our bodies, but they are still a part of us. This school is called qualified monism. It is the philosophy of most Vaishnava’s, worshipers of Vishnu. It is also a devotional school and we achieve liberation by the divine grace of God.
Vedanta allows for a diversity of opinion and theology, all based on interpretations of the same literature. The philosophical framework also allows for freedom of individual worship practices. Brahman is understood to have many forms, or avatars.
While there is disagreement on the ultimate form of Brahman, no one denies Brahman has many forms. The religious practices are determined by the personal preference or faith of the worshiper and their chosen goal. The appropriate method of worship arises from the desires and choices of the soul, it’s not a method imposed on the soul by God.