Vedanta (Devanagari: वेदान्त, Vedānta) is a school of philosophy within Hinduism dealing with the nature of reality, one of the six orthodox systems (darshans) of Indian philosophy and the one that forms the basis of most modern schools of Hinduism. The word Vedanta is a compound of veda, "knowledge;" and anta, "end, conclusion;" translating to "the culmination of the Vedas." It applies to the Upanishads, which were commentaries on the Vedas, the earliest sacred literature of India, and to the school arising from the “study” (mimamsa) of the Upanishads." An alternative reading is of anta as "essence," "core," or "inside," rendering the term "Vedānta": "the essence of the Vedas." Vedānta is also called "Uttara Mimamsa," or the 'latter' or 'higher enquiry', and is often paired with Purva Mimamsa, the 'former enquiry'. Pūrva Mimamsa, usually called Mimamsa, deals with explanations of the fire-sacrifices of the Vedic mantras (in the Samhita portion of the Vedas) and Brahmanas, while Vedanta explicates the esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas (the "forest scriptures"), and the Upanishads, composed from around the sixth century B.C.E. until modern times.
Vedanta schools have a number of doctrines in common, including transmigration of the self (samsara) and the desirability of being released from the cycle of rebirths; the authority of the Veda; the understanding that Brahman is both the material (upadana) and the instrumental (nimitta) cause of the world; and the concept of the self (atman) as the agent of its own actions (karma) and, therefore, the recipient of the consequences, of those actions (phala). A number of Vedanta sub-schools, including Advaita Vedanta, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita, Dvaitādvaita, Shuddhadvaita, and Achintya Bhedābheda are differentiated by the way in which they define the relationship between the individual self (atman) and the absolute (Brahman).
Etymologically, veda means "knowledge" and anta means "end," so the literal meaning of the term "Vedānta" is "the end of knowledge" or "the ultimate knowledge" or "matter appended to the Veda." In earlier writings, Sanskrit 'Vedānta' simply referred to the Upanishads, the most speculative and philosophical of the Vedic texts. However, in the medieval period of Hinduism, the word Vedanta came to mean the school of philosophy that interpreted the Upanishads. Traditional Vedanta considers scriptural evidence, or shabda pramana, as the most authentic means of knowledge, while perception, or pratyakssa, and logical inference, or anumana, are considered to be valid but subordinate.
The schools of Vedanta are knowledge-centered mystical streams of Vedic religion that emphasize meditation, self-discipline and spiritual connectivity rather than rituals such as sacrifices and ceremonies.
The systematization of Vedantic ideas into one coherent treatise was undertaken by Badarayana in the Vedanta Sutra(200 B.C.E.), or Brahma Sutra. The cryptic aphorisms of the Vedanta Sutras are open to a variety of interpretations, resulting in the formation of numerous Vedanta schools, each interpreting the texts in its own way and producing its own sub-commentaries claiming to be faithful to the original. Consistent throughout Vedanta, however, is the exhortation that ritual be eschewed in favor of the individual's quest for truth through meditation governed by a loving morality, secure in the knowledge that infinite bliss awaits the seeker. Nearly all existing sects of Hinduism are directly or indirectly influenced by the thought systems developed by Vedantic thinkers. Hinduism to a great extent owes its survival to the formation of the coherent and logically advanced systems of Vedanta.
All forms of Vedanta are drawn primarily from the Upanishads (usually the longer and older ones such as the Brhadaranyaka, the Chandogya, the Taittiriya, and the Katha), a set of philosophical and instructive Vedic scriptures, which deal mainly with forms of meditation; the Brahma-sutras (Vedanta-sutras), very brief interpretations of the doctrine of the Upanishads; and the famous poetic dialogue, the Bhagavadgita (“Song of the Lord”), which, because of its popularity, was drawn upon for support of the doctrines found in the Upanishads. The Upanishads are commentaries on the Vedas, their putative end and essence, and thus known as Vedānta, “End of the Veda.” They are considered the fundamental essence of all the Vedas and although they form the backbone of Vedanta, portions of Vedantic thought are also derived from some of the earlier Aranyakas.
The primary philosophy captured in the Upanishads, that of the one absolute reality termed Brahman, is the main principle of Vedanta. The sage Vyasa was one of the major proponents of this philosophy and author of the Brahma Sūtras based on the Upanishads. The concept of Brahman, the Supreme Spirit or the eternal, self existent, immanent and transcendent Supreme and Ultimate Reality which is the divine ground of all Being, is central to most schools of Vedānta. There is also a concept of God or Ishvara, and the Vedantic sub-schools differ mainly in the manner in which they define the relationship between God (Ishvara) and Brahman.
The contents of the Upanishads are often couched in enigmatic language, which has left them open to various interpretations. Over a period of time, several scholars interpreted the texts of the Upanishads and other scriptures like the Brahma Sutras according to their own understandings and the needs of their time. Several schools of Vedānta emerged, with different conceptions of the nature of the relationship, and the degree of identity, between the individual self (Atman) and the absolute (Brahman). These schools of thought include the nondualism (Advaita Vedanta), of the eighth-century philosopher Shri Adi Shankara, the theism (Visistadvaita) of the eleventh and twelfth-century thinker Shri Ramanuja (Vishishtadvaita) and the dualism (Dvaita) of the thirteenth-century thinker Shri Madhvacharya.
The Vedanta schools have a number of beliefs in common. These include transmigration of the self (samsara) and the desirability of being released from the cycle of rebirths; the authority of the Veda regarding the means in which this release can be achieved; the understanding that Brahman is both the material (upadana) and the instrumental (nimitta) cause of the world; and the concept of the self (atman) as the agent of its own actions (karma) and, therefore, the recipient of the fruits, or consequences, of those actions (phala). The heterodox (nastika) philosophies of Buddhism and Jainism, and the ideas of the other orthodox (astika) schools (Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga, and, to some extent, the Purva-Mimamsa), are rejected by all the Vedanta schools.
It should be noted, however, that the Indian pre-Shankara Buddhist writer Bhavya, in the Madhyamakahrdaya Karika, describes the Vedanta philosophy as "Bhedabheda." Proponents of other Vedantic schools continue to write and develop their ideas as well, although their works are not widely known outside of smaller circles of followers in India.
While it is not typically thought of as a purely Vedantic text, the Bhagavad Gita has played a strong role in Vedantic thought, with its representative syncretism of Samkhya, Yoga, and Upanishadic thought. It is itself called an "upanishad" and all major Vedantic teachers (such as Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhvacharya) have taken it upon themselves to compose often extensive commentaries not only on the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras, but also on the Gita. In such a manner, Vedantists have historically attested to the Gita's importance to the development of Vedantic thought and practice.
Sub-schools of Vedanta
Advaita Vedānta is the most influential school of all, and has influenced many philosopers, both Indian and Western. It was propounded by Adi Sankara (mid-eighth century), a renowned Hindu philosopher, and his ParamaGuru Gaudapada, who described Ajativada. According to this school of Vedānta, Brahman is the only reality, and the world, as it appears, is illusory. As Brahman is the sole reality, it cannot be said to possess any attributes whatsoever. An illusionary power of Brahman called Māyā causes the world to arise. Ignorance of this reality is the cause of all suffering in the world, and only upon true knowledge of Brahman can liberation be attained. When a person tries to know Brahman through his mind, due to the influence of Māyā, Brahman appears as God (Ishvara), separate from the world and from the individual. In reality, there is no difference between the individual soul jīvātman (see Atman) and Brahman. Liberation lies in knowing the reality of this non-difference (a-dvaita, "not-two"-ness). Thus, the path to liberation is finally only through knowledge (jñāna).
Vishishtadvaita was propounded by Ramanuja (1017 -1137) and says that the jīvātman (individual soul) is a part of Brahman, and hence is similar, but not identical. The main difference from Advaita is that in Visishtadvaita, Brahman is asserted to have attributes, including individual conscious souls and matter. Brahman, matter and the individual souls are distinct but mutually inseparable entities. This school propounds Bhakti, or devotion to God visualized as Vishnu, to be the path to liberation. Māyā is seen as the creative power of God.
Dvaita was propounded by Madhva (1238- 1317). It identifies God with Brahman completely, and in turn with Vishnu or his incarnation Krishna. It regards Brahman, all individual souls (jīvātmans), and matter as eternal and mutually separate entities. This school also advocated Bhakti as the route to liberation. There is no concept of Māyā as an illusionary power behind the world.
Dvaitādvaita was propounded by Nimbārka, based upon an earlier school called Bhedābheda, which was taught by Bhāskara. According to this school, the jīvātman is at once the same and yet different from Brahman. The relationship of jiva with Brahman may be regarded as dvaita from one point of view and advaita from another. There are three categories of existence, cit, acit, and Isvara. Isvara is independent and exists by Himself, while the existence of ci and acit is dependent upon Him. At the same time, cit and acit are different from Isvara, in the sense that they have attributes (guna) and capacities (swabhaava), which are different from those of Isvara. Difference means a kind of existence which is separate but dependent, (para-tantra-satta-bhava) while non-difference means the impossibility of independent existence (svatantra-satta-bhava).
Shuddhadvaita propounded by Vallabha (1479 - 1531). This system also encouraged Bhakti as the only means of liberation to go to Goloka (lit., the world of cows; the Sankrit word 'go', 'cow', also means 'star'). The world is said to be the sport (Leela) of Krishna, who is Sat-Chit-Ananda. According to the version of Vaishnava Theology he espoused; the glorious Krishna in His "sacchidananda" form is the Absolute Brahman. He is permanently playing out His sport (leela) from His seat in the goloka which is even beyond the divine Vaikuntha, the abode of Vishnu and Satya-loka, the abode of Brahma the Creator, and Kailas, the abode of Shiva. Creation is His sport.
Achintya Bhedābheda propounded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (Bengal, 1486-1534). This doctrine of inconceivable one-ness and difference states that the living soul is intrinsically linked with the Supreme Lord, and yet at the same time is not the same as God, the exact nature of this relationship being inconceivable to the human mind…
While Adi Shankara propounded the Smārta denomination; all the other acharyas were strongly Vaishnavite in orientation. The Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Mimamsa (i.e., purva-) have their epistemology in common.
Purnadvaita or Integral Advaita
Sri Aurobindo (1872 - 1950), in his The Life Divine, synthesized all the exant schools of Vedanta and gave a comprehensive resolution, integrating elements from Western metaphysics and modern science.
The term "modern Vedanta" is sometimes used to describe the interpretation of Advaita Vedanta given by Swami Vivekananda (1863 - 1902) of the Ramakrishna order of monks. He emphasized that though God was the absolute reality, the relative reality of the world should not be ignored; that only when abject poverty was eliminated would people be able to turn their minds to God; and that all religions were striving in their own ways to reach the ultimate truth. Vivekananda traveled to the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1893, and became an influential figure in synthesizing Eastern and Western thought. His travel to the West was criticized by some orthodox Hindus. He presented the Vedanta, not as a dry or esoteric philosophy, but as a living approach to the quest for self-knowledge.
Influence in the West
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel referred to Indian thought reminiscent of Advaita-Vedanta in his introduction to his The Phenomenology of Spirit and in his Science of Logic. Arthur Schopenhauer was influenced by the Vedas and Upanishads; in his own words: "If the reader has also received the benefit of the Vedas, the access to which by means of the Upanishads is in my eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century (1818) may claim before all previous centuries, if then the reader, I say, has received his initiation in primeval Indian wisdom, and received it with an open heart, he will be prepared in the very best way for hearing what I have to tell him." (The World as Will and Representation) Other western figures who have been influenced by or who commented on Vedanta are Max Müller, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Romain Rolland, Alan Watts, Eugene Wigner, Arnold Toynbee, Joseph Campbell, Hermann Hesse, and Will Durant.
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