Introducing Vedanta



The Theist Revolt

Brahma Sutra

The Karika

The Great Teachers







The word vedanta is normally read as a combination of two words: veda and anta, end. The upanishads are sometimes called vedanta since they are seen as the end and the fulfilment of the Veda. The Vedanta Viewpoint is a family of philosophical schools which take up the issues discussed in the upanishads; the nature of the self, the relation of the Ultimate Self to Ultimate Reality, Atman to Brahman,the status of the world given inexperience, the relation of the world we experience to Brahman..

MOKSHA is the central aim of all schools of Indian Philosophy. This determines the attitude with which we approach philosophy, its subject matter and the way we view great philosophical teachers. The Indian philosophical tradition is ancient going back to the Vedas. Even the hymn books, the Rk and Saman Vedas show signs of genuine philosophical questioning.

The philosophical teachings of the Veda were challenged from the fifth century BCE by the Great heresy - Buddhism. From the Brahminical tradition, Buddhist teaching is seen as atheistic, anti-personalist, ethical, monastic, meditative, socially reformist, anti-Vedic, anti-Brahminical. Praiseworthy as aspects of the Buddhist religion might seem to Brahmins, it remained a great challenge to their status and authority, and to the authority of the Vedas.

The Buddhist missionaries spread the religion so effectively it came to dominate Indian life at the highest levels for a millenium.

Nonetheless, Astika philosophy survived, and some of its greatest products were written in the Buddhist period - e.g. Vedanta Sutra. By the eighth century CE a major Astika Reaction was underway, led by Gaudapada and Sankara, both of whom are conscious opponents of Buddhism, despite the fact they adopt a great deal of Buddhist terminology and many Buddhist philosophical arguments. The success and failure of Advaita Vedanta lies in this: it offers a philosophical basis for Brahminical religious doctrine and practice as sophisticated as that which Buddhist philosophers offered, but retaining a Vedic basis, affirming the reality of the Self, and justifying the cult of the Gods; but it is an austere and intellectualist creed which, while it made place for popular religion, explains it as belonging to a lower & limited level of consciousness


The Theist Revolt

Advaita Vedanta made a significant contribution to the Hindu battle against the dominance of Buddhism. Some devout worshippers of the Gods, however, saw, and have always seen, Advaita Vedantins as themselves no more than "shame-faced Buddhists," they saw the Advaita Vedanta as having taken on so much of the fundamental position of Mahayana Buddhism that it had merely wrapped a core of Buddhist teaching in Hindu garments. The rise of strong devotional Hindu movements in South India led by schools of religious poets and hymnographers went hand in hand with the rise of theistic philosophical schools which rejected the Advaita Vedanta as vehemently as they rejected Buddhism. Indeed, as the Hindu Revival in the South and the slaughter of monks and destruction of monasteries and universities by the Muslim invaders in the North led to the waning and eventually the extinction of Indian Buddhism, the Theistic philosophical schools came to see the Advaita Vedantins as their most significant opponents.

The Theist Agenda

A common fundamental religious agenda is visible across the various Theistic philosophical schools, despite their very considerable differences from each other. This common agenda can be summarised as follows:










Leading Theist Philosophers

The principal Theistic schools of Vedanta were founded by:

Ramanuja 1017-1127 Visistadvaita the Modified Non-dualist school.

Madhva 1197-1273 Dvaita the Dualist school.

Nimbarka late C13? Dvaitadvaita the Dualist-non-dualist school.

Vallabha c1480-c1530 Shudda Advaita the Pure Advaita school.

Caitanya 1485-1533 AcintyaBhedabheda Incomprehensible Distinction-Non-distictionism.

Baladeva early C18th AcintyaBhedabheda follower of Caitanya.

Ramanuja was the first theistic philosopher to mount a sustained attack on the Advaita Vedanta, but, powerful as his arguments are against Sankara's position, historically it is the school of Madhva that emerged as the most powerful opponent of Sankara's school.


Brahma Sutra

The foundation texts of the Vedanta Viewpoint are the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and the Brahma Sutra or Vedanta Sutra. The first two are received as scripture, the Brahma Sutra is a collection of terse, apophthegmatic sutras which explore the nature of Brahman and the path to liberation. The author of the Brahma Sutra is traditionally identified as Badarayana. His date, however, is unknown. Scholars have attributed the text to a range of dates varying from 500 BCE to 450 CE.

The Brahma Sutras contain references to a number of early philosophers and teachers some of whom are known from other texts, but others unknown or virtually unknown to us. We can gather very little about their views from the Brahma Sutra, but the number mentioned makes it clear that there was a substantial tradition of Vedanta philosophy before the Brahma Sutra was written.

The Brahma Sutra as it stands is almost unintelligible. This is because:

the sutras are extremely terse, so that it is not easy to interpret exactly what they mean,

the sutras relate to specific scriptural texts. Knowing the text a sutra relates to helps us interpret that sutra. Unfortunately the sutras do not identify the texts they relate to: in the case of some sutras scholars agree which texts are being discussed, but in the case of others there is no agreement.

many sutras are directed against philosophical adversaries, but the adversary against which a sutra is directed is not always identified, and even when the adversary is identified by name, it is sometimes someone we know only from the Brahma Sutra text.

many sutras are ambiguous and open to different interpretations.

With all these difficulties, one is easily tempted seem better to leave the Brahma Sutra on the bookshelf and find something a bit easier to read!


The Karika

Fortunately the second important text of the Vedanta tradition that has survived is a much easier text to read and understand. The Karika of Gaudapada is a verse commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad. In it, Gaudapada presents a Non-Dualist theory, which sees all becoming as illusory, and everyday experience as essentially similar to a dream. For Gaudapada the world of everyday waking consciousness is ultimately as unreal as the world of dreams; all that truly exists if Brahman.


The Great Teachers

According to tradition, Gaudapada was the philosophical grandfather of Shankara whom Western scholars believe probably lived somewhere about 800 C.E. though this date is disputed. Shankara is the greatest teacher, acharya, of the Advaita Vedanta, the Non-Dual Vedanta. He wrote extensively. His commentaries are of particular interest: he wrote commentaries on eleven of the upanishads, a commentary on the Bhagavadgita and on the Brahma Sutra.

Shankaracharya’s commentary on the Brahma Sutra is a lengthy work, the translation by Swami Gambhirananda runs to some 900 pages. Shankara expound his own philosophical position at length in the commentary, using the original sutras as pegs on which to hang his arguments.

Shankara’s greatest opponent were Ramanuja (1027-11?? ) the teacher of Qualified Non-Dualism and Madhva (1199-1278) the founder of the Dualist school.



1. The philosopher Sankara was born in Kerala, the son of a Yajurvedi Brahmin. In his youth he became a celibate ascetic (traditionally at the age of 8.) His life was devoted to the study of philosophy and to religious preaching, debate & reform, he travelled widely, founding monasteries all over India. He is generally believed to have been taught by GOVINDA a pupil of GAUDAPADA, but it is at least possible that Gaudapada lived much earlier. By tradition he died at 32, having founded an organised monastic order, established monasteries at the four points of the compass and written an astonishing body of works..


i. Brahma Sutra Commentary

ii. Commentaries on Eleven Upanisads

iii Other works: the authorship of some, especially the devotional writings, is disputed - the great scholar Das Gupta says some may be by another Sankaracarya. Three short texts, the "Upadesa Sahasri," "Vivekacudamani" and "Atmabodha" are of particular historical and philosophical importance.

b. AIM

i. Gaudapada had presented a monist Hindu philosophy using Buddhist concepts and arguments. The fact that he wrote a Karika on Mandukya Upanisad shows he wished to link his thought to early Hindu tradition, but the flavour of his work is strongly Buddhist. Sankara is in the tradition of Gaudapada, but shows less sympathy for Buddhist thought. His exposition of Advaita philosophy avoids Buddhist terminology and directly attacks Buddhist doctrine.

ii. Every Darsana has its Sutra - the Brahma Sutra or Vedanta Sutra of Badarayana is the sutra of the Vedanta schools. Sankara is keen to draw Vedanta beyond the Sutra back to the Upanisads - hence his systematic commentaries on the principal Upanisads.


1. Sankara is more concerned to demolish opposing philosophical systems than to build up a systematic positive presentation of this own. He takes the reality of ATMAN as a given -"no-one thinks 'I do not exist!'"

(1) and literally incontrovertible:

(2) not an object of knowledge

(3) incapable of rational proof, but the precondition of all thought and consciousness - and therefore of any attempt at disproof!

(4) the true SELF is not the EGO

(5) nor is it the AGENT

(6) it is the WITNESS - the abiding, pure, self-luminous consciousness.

2. and sees the whole phenomenal world as a complex of appearances produced by MAYA

iii. but unlike Gaudapada he lays great emphasis on the distinction between waking consciousness and dream and therefore on the layers of irreality in the illusory world of experience.

iv. since ATMAN cannot be an object of consciousness, the Yogic method of meditation on the Self is utterly futile

v. once we KNOW that "I am Brahman" "One without a second" the basis of the world illusion is undermined. - i.e. when we know not merely intellectually, conceptually, by understanding the words, but when we realise ...

6. Nonetheless, the illusory world has its own logic, and its own VYAVAHARIKA truth - not the PARAMARTHA, absolute, ultimate truth that expresses genuine Brahma-Vidya, but a relative, practical truth which enables us to transact business about the world of appearances: we distinguish, for example, between

1. Illusory Reality

Dreams, hallucinations, fantasies which are merely subjective, totally devoid objective reality.

[The same applies to, for example, the silver I seem to see -but which turns out on closer inspection to be mere shell. Illusory reality is discerned as illusory when we check the illusory appearance against the more consistent and coherent patterns given in our more general range of waking experiences.]


2. Empirical Reality

The individual, material objects, the whole natural world are empirically real. They are NOT mere subjective illusions. The vase on the table continues to exist whether or not there is someone in the room to perceive it.

Empirical reality is not a collection of subjective illusions. It has a consistency that illusory reality does not have. Empirical reality can be an object of scientific study, and consistent theoretical accounts can be offered of the pattern of relations and interactions existing in the empirical world. However: Empirical reality is not absolutely real. It is the product of MAYA.

7. Sankara's emphasis on the difference between the Dream state and the waking state marks him off from his predecessor Gaudapada. It means that unlike Gaudapada he cannot be accused of identifying the material world with the dream world and teaching a simple subjectivist idealism.

Empirical Reality is relatively and conventionally real. Brahman is the absolute reality underlying it: empirical reality is the Maya which covers over the reality of Brahman.

8. Absolute Reality

Brahman/Atman alone is absolutely real. Brahman is pure, undifferentiated consciousness. Brahman has no attributes. Brahman is given in all experience as the pure, self-luminous subject that is the ground of all awareness.

The distinction of knower/knowledge/known belongs to the level of Empirical Reality: no such distinctions exist at the level of Absolute Reality).

Brahman cannot be attained by discursive reasoning, logical inference, rational analysis. Brahman is given as the precondition of all possible experience, as the pure subject, as the self-luminous witness of all cognition - given, not inferred.

Ultimately, Atman/Brahman alone is real. Everything that appears to exist, everything given in experience is produced by MAYA.


The world has no reality apart from Brahman. The World and Brahman are non-different. In one sense Brahman and the world are identical: Brahman alone is absolutely real and is the sole reality underlying all appearances. In another sense we cannot identify Brahman with the World since the world undergoes change and Brahman does not: the world is marked by multiplicity and Brahman is not.

Ultimately, there is no intelligible relation between Brahman and the World. Like Gaudapada, Sankara is holds to the AJATA doctrine: ultimately there is no becoming.

We make use of the concept of MAYA to mark the mystery of the world's dependence on Brahman/Atman. It's significance is complex.

(i) Absolutely Brahman alone is real, but empirically the world is real: the term MAYA expresses the fact the world has no reality other than Brahman, and yet seems to have attributes Brahman does not have.

(ii) At the level of Empirical Reality, MAYA is the creative power of God.

(iii) MAYA has no beginning.

(iv) MAYA cannot be understood.

(v) MAYA is the cause of the multiplicity in the empirical world - a multiplicity based on difference of NAME and FORM.

(vi) MAYA is in the Lord as heat is in fire; it is an inherent power of God.

(vii) God, by MAYA, brings the World into being in an ordered sequence: the World is not mere multiplicity, it is a cosmos having order and structure.

AVIDYA: All our "knowledge" of the empirical world is ultimately sublated by the intuition of the absolute reality of Brahman/Atman. Only the intuition of Brahman is true knowledge - and Brahmavidya is ineffable. "Knowledge" of the Empirical World is, from the absolute viewpoint, AVIDYA - unknowing, nescience.

AVIDYA is not a mere nothing, a mere absence of true knowledge: it is a positive (but relative) reality:

(i) it has content

(ii) it tells us we are finite and limited

(iii) it 'covers over' the ultimate reality (Atman)



Ramanuja, the leading philosopher of the Visistadvaita school, was born 1017. He was a South Indian Brahmin and lived, according to tradition till 1137. He took up monastic life about 1049. Ramanuja was a fierce opponent of the Advaita Vedanta of Sankara, and his objections to the Advaita system gave rise to centuries of controversy, though in later years it was to be the followers of the Dualist teacher Madhva who took the leading role in representing theism against the Advaitins.

Ramanuja's most important work is the Sri Bhasya, his great commentary on the Brahma Sutras. It is written in direct opposition to Sankara's commentary. An early section of the book, the Great Purvapaksa, presents the Advaita doctrine of Brahman: the account Ramanuja gives is widely recognised by Advaitins as a fair, honest and accurate portrait of Sankara's doctrine. The following section of the book, the Great Siddhanta, is a ferocious onslaught on Sankara's doctrine. It is an astonishingly dense and tersely written piece of work, written at a very high level of philosophical sophistication, which in several cases leads Ramanuja to anticipate directly positions adopted by modern European philosophers, particularly in his analysis of the nature of consciousness.

Sankara teaches that "there exists in reality, only eternal, non-changing Consciousness, which is bereft of all plurality and whose nature is pure, non-differentiated Intelligence, which, however, due to error appears as manifold." (S.B.,1.1.1.) Brahman alone is real, the world we experience whether in waking or sleep is a product of MAYA, which in turn is grounded in AVIDYA. Liberation from the world of ignorance and illusion is attained by the knowledge of my identity with Brahman.

Ramanuja finds Sankara's Brahman-doctrine completely unacceptable. "No proof can be adduced to establish non-differentiated objects. All sources of knowledge prove the existence only of objects qualified by difference."

Indeed, he asserts that " ... consciousness always involves cognition of difference." "Consciousness cannot be existence, since the latter is an object of consciousness .... this experience of the difference between the two is not sublated at any time, and so they cannot be one."

"Again, it is not correct to say that consciousness is eternal, because its previous non-existence cannot be proved; for such non-existence of consciousness is experienced by consciousness." We wake from sleep knowing we have returned to consciousness and were unconscious only a short while before. " ... pure consciousness devoid of all objects does not exist, for it is not experienced. .... It is not a fact that pure consciousness is experienced in deep sleep. If it were .... we would remember it on waking up ..."

Ramanuja argues that experience discloses the Self as the knower, the possessor of consciousness, not as identical with consciousness, but as "self-luminous" precisely because it possesses consciousness. "It is not true that the 'I' does not exist in deep sleep but only consciousness .... One who gets up from deep sleep does not say 'I was pure consciousness,' but ... 'I slept well.'"


Ramanuja picks out what he sees as seven fundamental flaws in the Advaita philosophy for special attack: he sees them as so fundamental to the Advaita position that if he is right in identifying them as involving doctrinal contradictions, then Sankara's entire system collapses. He argues:

I. The nature of Avidya. Avidya must be either real or unreal; there is no other possibility. But neither of these is possible. If Avidya is real, non-dualism collapses into dualism. If it is unreal, we are driven to self-contradiction or infinite regress.

II. The incomprehensibility of Avidya. Advaitins claim that Avidya is neither real nor unreal but incomprehensible, {anirvacaniya.} All cognition is either of the real or the unreal: the Advaitin claim flies in the face of experience, and accepting it would call into question all cognition and render it unsafe.

III. The grounds of knowledge of Avidya. No pramana can establish Avidya in the sense the Advaitin requires. Advaita philosophy presents Avidya not as a mere lack of knowledge, as something purely negative, but as an obscuring layer which covers Brahman and is removed by true Brahma-vidya. Avidya is positive nescience not mere ignorance. Ramanuja argues that positive nescience is established neither by perception, nor by inference, nor by scriptural testimony. On the contrary, Ramanuja argues, all cognition is of the real.

IV. The locus of Avidya. Where is the Avidya that gives rise to the (false) impression of the reality of the perceived world? There are two possibilities; it could be Brahman's Avidya or the individual soul's {jiva.} Neither is possible. Brahman is knowledge; Avidya cannot co-exist as an attribute with a nature utterly incompatible with it. Nor can the individual soul be the locus of Avidya: the existence of the individual soul is due to Avidya; this would lead to a vicious circle.

V. Avidya's obscuration of the nature of Brahman. Sankara would have us believe that the true nature of Brahman is somehow covered-over or obscured by Avidya. Ramanuja regards this as an absurdity: given that Advaita claims that Brahman is pure self-luminous consciousness, obscuration must mean either preventing the origination of this (impossible since Brahman is eternal) or the destruction of it - equally absurd.

VI. The removal of Avidya by Brahma-vidya. Advaita claims that Avidya has no beginning, but it is terminated and removed by Brahma-vidya, the intuition of the reality of Brahman as pure, undifferentiated consciousness. But Ramanuja denies the existence of undifferentiated {nirguna} Brahman, arguing that whatever exists has attributes: Brahman has infinite auspicious attributes. Liberation is a matter of Divine Grace: no amount of learning or wisdom will deliver us.

VII. The removal of Avidya. For the Advaitin, the bondage in which we dwell before the attainment of Moksa is caused by Maya and Avidya; knowledge of reality (Brahma-vidya) releases us. Ramanuja, however, asserts that bondage is real. No kind of knowledge can remove what is real. On the contrary, knowledge discloses the real; it does not destroy it. And what exactly is the saving knowledge that delivers us from bondage to Maya? If it is real then non-duality collapses into duality; if it is unreal, then we face an utter absurdity.


Ramanuja sees Brahman as threefold, God + cit + acit, i.e.

God + minds + matter. his doctrinal position can be summarised as follows:

1)Theism: the world is the body of the Lord the Lord alone is truly independent, all else exists depending on Him.

In the state of Pralaya: He exists alone, encompassing Prakriti within Himself in its most subtle form;

2)Creation: Involves the evolving of the world of matter and souls by His action, as Prakriti takes on new qualities.

3)Individual Souls: Are atomic in size but their knowledge spreads throughout the body (as rays of a lamp shine out)

4)Occasionalism: Souls cannot affect the world directly: Ishvara Himself accomplishes their desires. He indwells the soul as its inner controller, moving it by His grace if it merits His favour.

5)Freedom: The soul is free to desire what it wishes, to strive (SB ii.3) to accomplish its desires, to attain whatever knowledge it can.

6)Avidya: Ignorance affects the soul as a result of its contact with matter - but ignorance is not a positive something as it is for Sankara. All cognition for Ramanuja is cognition of the real: even erroneous or illusory perceptions are of the real, the errors we make derive from the incorrect inferences we make about the objects and contents of our perceptions.

7)Moksha Release is attained by selfless devotion and the attainment of true knowledge.

8)Prakrti: the original matter of the universe - it posses the three qualities, sattwa rajas and tamas.

Before anything is manifest it is in the state of


then emerges

AHANKARA (and the three differentiated gunas)

The Creation - process is the progressive differentiation of prakriti via the the tan-matras (in which elemental qualities are not yet manifest) and the elements, which are correlative to the sensory capacities of living being

CREATION is Isvara's field of play, it is where individual souls merit and attain fruit by their actions.

9)The Existence of God: for Ramanuja is unprovable and is believed from scriptural evidence


for Sankara

Brahman is pure intelligence/consciousness without qualities: MAYA occludes our perception of Brahman, the World is a complex, layered array of illusions which cover over Brahman.

In the end only Brahman is real:

for Ramanuja:

the effects are real - but dependent,

the world is not illusory MAYA but mutable and dependent

Brahman is absolutely real

souls and matter are real,

but dependent on Brahman

Before creation Brahman exists in

His Causal state Karanavastha

In Creation he is in

His effect state Karyavastha.



Although it is the philosophical work of Ramanuja that marks the first major attack on the Non-Dualist Vedanta, historically it is the Dualist school of Madhvacharya that provided the most determined and resolute opposition to the Advaitins.

The philosophical views of Madhva and Ramanuja can be distinguished as follows:

i) The Nature of Knowledge

R & M both recognise experience, inference and sabda as pramanas:

M also recognises memory & dream as pramanas.

For R all experience is of the real; For M there is genuine error.


ii) The Nature of the World

The World is real: Matter and souls are eternal; they are real but dependant. R & M both accept the Samkhya account of the transformations of Prakrti.


3) The Creation of the World

the World is God's field of Lila, (play): to Western ears the idea of Lila as sport or play sometimes seems odd, but it points to the absolute freedom from need that marks divine action, divine creativity.

i) God is the Creator and cause of the World

ii) R sees God as instrumental and material cause; M denies God is the material cause.


4) The Relation of the World to God

i) R: the World is the Body of God

ii) M: there is an absolute fivefold distinction,

God is distict from souls

God is distinct from Matter

Soul is distinct from Matter

This soul is distinct from that soul

This matter is distinct from that matter.

but despite the absolute distinction - the highest souls are part of the body of God..


5) Souls

i) R: in nature souls are exactly like God, except that they are atomic in size and limited in creativity.

ii) M: souls are images of God.

iii) R: all souls are identical in nature, but three categories of soul can be distinguished in relation to Moksha.

iv) M: Souls are different in nature, and the differences in nature determine the different ways individuals behave. There are Four kinds of soul - one of which is damned eternally.

v) Both R & M see Lakshmi as the highest created soul.


6) Bandha

We are in bondage through Maya and Avidya

Maya is God's creative power as experienced from the standpoint of human sin and imperfection

By Avidya we identify with the body and fail to see our dependence on and path of return to God.

God uses our Karma to teach us in the field of morality

and reveals truth to us (by Scripture) and Himself comes into World as Avatara.

R sees three kinds of Avatara:

a] Gaunya e.g. Brahma, Rudra, Vyasa

b] Mukhya e.g. Rama, Krsna

c] Image-avatars

M denies the existence of Image avatars.

The aim of all avatars is (as the Gita states) to defend the righteous, defeat the evil, and establish reign of dharma


7) Moksha

is attained by Bhakti, Recognition of dependence on God, worship, morality, service &c.

or by Prapatti,Utter devotion.


8) Fruits of Moksha

i) for R: we become like God save for 2 things, Atomic Size, limited creativity.

ii) for M: there are four grades of Moksha:

salokya: beatific vision of God in Heaven.

samapiya: living close to God, like the Sages.

sarupya: life as an attendat of God, like Him in form.

sayujya: entrance into the body of God - the privilege of the gods.




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