The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Advaita Vedānta

Advaita Vedānta is one version of Vedānta. Vedānta is nominally a school of Indian philosophy, although in reality it is a label for any hermeneutics that attempts to provide a consistent interpretation of the philosophy of the Upaniṣads or, more formally, the canonical summary of the Upaniṣads, Bādarāyaņa’s Brahma Sūtra. Advaita is often translated as “non-dualism” though it literally means “non-secondness.” Although Śaṅkara is regarded as the promoter of Advaita Vedānta as a distinct school of Indian philosophy, the origins of this school predate Śaṅkara. The existence of an Advaita tradition is acknowledged by Śaṅkara in his commentaries. The names of Upanṣadic teachers such as Yajñavalkya, Uddalaka, and Bādarāyaņa, the author of the Brahma Sūtra, could be considered as representing the thoughts of early Advaita. The essential philosophy of Advaita is an idealist monism, and is considered to be presented first in the Upaniṣads and consolidated in the Brahma Sūtra by this tradition. According to Advaita metaphysics, Brahman—the ultimate, transcendent and imminent God of the latter Vedas—appears as the world because of its creative energy (māyā). The world has no separate existence apart from Brahman. The experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (ātman) are in reality identical (both are Brahman), though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such. These cardinal doctrines are represented in the anonymous verse “brahma satyam jagan mithya; jīvo brahmaiva na aparah” (Brahman is alone True, and this world of plurality is an error; the individual self is not different from Brahman). Plurality is experienced because of error in judgments (mithya) and ignorance (avidya). Knowledge of Brahman removes these errors and causes liberation from the cycle of transmigration and worldly bondage.

Table of Contents (Clicking on the links below will take you to those parts of this article)

1. History of Advaita Vedānta

It is possible that an Advaita tradition existed in the early part of the first millennium C.E., as indicated by Śaṅkara himself with his reference to tradition (sampradāya). But the only two names that could have some historical certainty are Gaudapāda and Govinda Bhagavadpāda, mentioned as Śaṅkara’s teacher’s teacher and the latter Śaṅkara’s teacher. The first complete Advaitic work is considered to be the Mandukya Kārikā, a commentary on the Mandukya Upanṣad, authored by Gaudapāda. Śaṅkara, as many scholars believe, lived in the eight century. His life, travel, and works, as we understand from the digvijaya texts are almost of a superhuman quality. Though he lived only for 32 years, Śaṅkara’s accomplishments included traveling from the south to the north of India, writing commentaries for the ten Upaniṣads, the cryptic Brahma Sūtra, the Bhagavad Gītā, and authoring many other texts (though his authorship of only some is established), and founding four pītas, or centers of (Advaitic) excellence, with his pupils in charge.

Śaṅkara is supposed to have had four (prominent) pupils: Padmapāda, Sureśvara, Hastamalaka and Toṭaka. Padmapāda is said to be his earliest student. Panchapadika, by Padmapāda, is a lucid commentary on Śaṅkara’s commentary on the first verses of the Brahma Sūtra. Sureśvara is supposed to have written Naiṣkarmya Siddhi, an independent treatise on Advaita.

Mandana Miśra (eight century), an earlier adherent of the rival school of Bhatta Mīmāṃsa, is responsible for a version of Advaita which focuses on the doctrine of sphota, a semantic theory held by the Indian philosopher of language Bhartṛhari. He also accepts to a greater extent the joint importance of knowledge and works as a means to liberation, when for Śaṅkara knowledge is the one and only means. Mandana Miśra’s Brahmasiddhi is a significant work, which also marks a distinct form of Advaita.

Two major sub-schools of Advaita Vedānta arose after Śaṅkara: Bhamati and Vivarana. The Bhamati School owes its name to Vacaspati Miśra’s (ninth century) commentary on Śaṅkara's Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya, while the Vivarana School is named after Prakashatman’s (tenth century) commentary on Padmapāda’s Pancapadika, which itself is a commentary on Śaṅkara's commentary on the Brahma Sūtra.

The prominent names in the later Advaita tradition are Prakāsātman (tenth century), Vimuktātman (tenth century), Sarvajñātman (tenth century), Śrī Harṣa (twelfth century), Citsukha (twelfth century), ānandagiri (thirteenth century), Amalānandā (thirteenth century), Vidyāraņya (fourteenth century), Śaṅkarānandā (fourteenth century), Sadānandā (fifteenth century), Prakāṣānanda (sixteenth century), Nṛsiṁhāśrama (sixteenth century), Madhusūdhana Sarasvati (seventeenth century), Dharmarāja Advarindra (seventeenth century), Appaya Dīkśita (seventeenth century), Sadaśiva Brahmendra (eighteenth century), Candraśekhara Bhārati (twentieth century), and Sacchidānandendra Saraswati (twentieth century). Vivarana, which is a commentary on Padmapāda’s Panchapadika, written by Vacaspati Mshra is a landmark work in the tradition. The Khandanakhandakhadya of Śrī Harṣa, Tattvapradipika of Citsukha, Pañcadasi of Vidyāraņya, Vedāntasāra of Sadānandā, Advaitasiddhi of Madhusadana Sarasvati, and Vedāntaparibhasa of Dharmarāja Advarindra are some of the landmark works representing later Advaita tradition.

Throughout the eigteenth century and until the twenty-first century, there are many saints and philosophers whose tradition is rooted primarily or largely in Advaita philosophy. Prominent among the saints are Bhagavan Ramana Maharśi, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Tapovanam, Swami Chinmayānandā, and Swami Bodhānandā. Among the philosophers, KC Bhattacharya and TMP Mahadevan have contributed a great deal to the tradition.

2. Advaita Vedānta – Metaphysics and Philosophy

The classical Advaita philosophy of Śaṅkara recognizes a unity in multiplicity, identity between individual and pure consciousness, and the experienced world as having no existence apart from Brahman. The major metaphysical concepts in Advaita Vedānta tradition, such as māyā, mithya (error in judgment), vivarta (illusion/whirlpool), have been subjected to a variety of interpretations. On some interpretations, Advaita Vedānta appears as a nihilistic philosophy that denounces the matters of the lived-world.

a. Brahman, Jīva, īśvara, and Māyā

For classical Advaita Vedānta, Brahman is the fundamental reality underlying all objects and experiences. Brahman is explained as pure existence, pure consciousness and pure bliss. All forms of existence presuppose a knowing self. Brahman or pure consciousness underlies the knowing self. Consciousness according to the Advaita School, unlike the positions held by other Vedānta schools, is not a property of Brahman but its very nature. Brahman is also one without a second, all-pervading and the immediate awareness. This absolute Brahman is known as nirguņa Brahman, or Brahman “without qualities,” but is usually simply called “Brahman.” This Brahman is ever known to Itself and constitutes the reality in all individuals selves, while the appearance of our empirical individuality is credited to avidya (ignorance) and māyā (illusion). Brahman thus cannot be known as an individual object distinct from the individual self. However, it can be experienced indirectly in the natural world of experience as a personal God, known as saguņa Brahman, or Brahman with qualities. It is usually referred to as īśvara (the Lord).

The appearance of plurality arises from a natural state of confusion or ignorance (avidya), inherent in most biological entities. Given this natural state of ignorance, Advaita provisionally accepts the empirical reality of individual selves, mental ideas and physical objects as a cognitive construction of this natural state of ignorance. But from the absolute standpoint, none of these have independent existence but are founded on Brahman. From the standpoint of this fundamental reality, individual minds as well as physical objects are appearances and do not have abiding reality.

Brahman appears as the manifold objects of experience because of its creative power, māyā. Māyā is that which appears to be real at the time of experience but which does not have ultimate existence. It is dependent on pure consciousness. Brahman appears as the manifold world without undergoing an intrinsic change or modification. At no point of time does Brahman change into the world. The world is but a vivarta, a superimposition on Brahman. The world is neither totally real nor totally unreal. It is not totally unreal since it is experienced. It is not totally real since it is sublated by knowledge of Brahman. There are many examples given to illustrate the relation between the existence of the world and Brahman. The two famous examples are that of the space in a pot versus the space in the whole cosmos (undifferentiated in reality, though arbitrarily separated by the contingencies of the pot just as the world is in relation to Brahman), and the self versus the reflection of the self (the reflection having no substantial existence apart from the self just as the objects of the world rely upon Brahman for substantiality).

The existence of an individuated jīva and the world are without a beginning. We cannot say when they began, or what the first cause is. But both are with an end, which is knowledge of Brahman.

According to classical Advaita Vedānta, the existence of the empirical world cannot be conceived without a creator who is all-knowing and all-powerful. The creation, sustenance, and dissolution of the world are overseen by īśvara. īśvara is the purest manifestation of Brahman. Brahman with the creative power of māyā is īśvara. Māyā has both individual (vyaśti) and cosmic (samaśti) aspects. The cosmic aspect belongs to one īśvara, and the individual aspect, avidya, belongs to many jīvas. But the difference is that īśvara is not controlled by māyā, whereas the jīva is overpowered by avidya. Māyā is responsible for the creation of the world. Avidya is responsible for confounding the distinct existence between self and the not-self. With this confounding, avidya conceals Brahman and constructs the world. As a result the jīva functions as a doer (karta) and enjoyer (bhokta) of a limited world.

The classical picture may be contrasted with two sub-schools of Advaita Vedānta that arose after Śaṅkara: Bhamati and Vivarana. The primary difference between these two sub-schools is based on the different interpretations for avidya and māyā. Śaṅkara described avidya as beginningless. He considered that to search the origin of avidya itself is a process founded on avidya and hence will be fruitless. But Śaṅkara’s disciples gave greater attention to this concept, and thus originated the two sub-schools. The Bhamati School owes its name to Vacaspati Miśra’s (ninth century) commentary on Śaṅkara's Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya, while the Vivarana School is named after Prakāṣātman’s (tenth century) commentary on Padmapāda’s Pañcapadika, which itself is a commentary on Śaṅkara's Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya.

The major issue that distinguishes Bhamati and Vivarana schools is their position on the nature and locus of avidya.

According to the Bhamati School, the jīva is the locus and object of avidya. According to the Vivarana School, Brahman is the locus of avidya. The Bhamati School holds that Brahman can never be the locus of avidya but is the controller of it as īśvara. Belonging to jīva, tula-avidya, or individual ignorance performs two functions – veils Brahman, and projects (vikṣepa) a separate world. Mula-avidya (“root ignorance”) is the universal ignorance that is equivalent to Māyā, and is controlled by īśvara.

The Vivarana School holds that since Brahman alone exists, Brahman is the locus and object of avidya. With the help of epistemological discussions, the non-reality of the duality between Brahman and world is established. The Vivarana School responds to the question regarding Brahman’s existence as both “pure consciousness” and “universal ignorance” by claiming that valid cognition (prama) presumes avidya, in the everyday world, whereas pure consciousness is the essential nature of Brahman.

b. Three Planes of Existence

There are three planes of existence according to classical Advaita Vedānta: the plane of absolute existence (paramarthika satta), the plane of worldly existence (vyavaharika satta) which includes this world and the heavenly world, and the plane of illusory existence (pratibhāsika existence). The two latter planes of existence are a function of māyā and are thus illusory to some extent. A pratibhāsika existence, such as objects presented in a mirage, is less real than a worldly existence. Its corresponding unreality is, however, different from that which characterizes the absolutely nonexistent or the impossible, such as a sky-lotus (a lotus that grows in the sky) or the son of a barren woman. The independent existence of a mirage and the world, both of which are due to a certain causal condition, ceases once the causal condition change. The causal condition is avidya, or ignorance. The independent existence and experience of the world ceases to be with the gain of knowledge of Brahman. The nature of knowledge of Brahman is that “I am pure consciousness.” The self-ignorance of the jīva (individuated self) that “I am limited” is replaced by the Brahman-knowledge that “I am everything,” accompanied by a re-identification of the self with the transcendental Brahman.

The knower of Brahman sees the one non-plural reality in everything. He or she no longer gives an absolute reality to independent and limited existence of the world, but experiences the world as a creative expression of pure consciousness. The states of waking (jāgrat), dreaming (svapna) and deep sleep (susupti) all point to the fourth nameless state turiya, pure consciousness, which is to be realized as the true self. Pure consciousness is not only pure existence but also the ultimate bliss which is experienced partially during deep sleep. Hence we wake up refreshed.

3. Epistemology

The Advaita tradition puts forward three lesser tests of truth: correspondence, coherence, and practical efficacy. These are followed by a fourth test of truth: epistemic-nonsublatability (abādhyatvam or bādhaṛāhityam). According to the Vedānta Paribhāṣa (a classical text of Advaita Vedānta) “that knowledge is valid which has for its object something that is nonsublated.” Nonsublatablity is considered as the ultimate criterion for valid knowledge. The master test of epistemic-nonsublatability inspires a further constraint: foundationality (anadhigatatvam, lit. “of not known earlier”). This last criterion of truth is the highest standard that virtually all knowledge claims fail, and thus it is the standard for absolute, or unqualified, knowledge, while the former criteria are amenable to mundane, worldly knowledge claims.

According to Advaita Vedānta, a judgment is true if it remains unsublated. The commonly used example that illustrates epistemic-nonsublatabilty is the rope that appears as a snake from a distance (a stock example in Indian philosophy). The belief that one sees a snake in this circumstance is erroneous according to Advaita Vedānta because the snake belief (and the visual presentation of a snake) is sublated into the judgment that what one is really seeing is a rope. Only wrong cognitions can be sublated.

The condition of foundationality disqualifies memory as a means of knowledge. Memory is the recollection of something already known and is thus derivable and not foundational. Only genuine knowledge of the Self, according to Advaita Vedānta, passes the test of foundationality: it is born of immediate knowledge (aparokṣa jñāna) and not memory (smṛti). Six natural ways of knowing are accepted as valid means of knowledge (pramāṅa) by Advaita Vedānta: perception (pratyakṣa), inference (anumāna), verbal testimony (śabda), comparison (upamana), postulation (arthapatti) and non-apprehension (anupalabdhi). The pramāṅas do not contradict each other and each of them presents a distinct kind of knowledge. Nonfoundational knowledge of Brahman cannot be had by any means but through Śruti, which is the supernaturally revealed text in the form of the Vedas (of which the Upaniṣads form the most philosophical portion). Inference and the other means of knowledge cannot determinately reveal the truth of Brahman on their own. However, Advaitins recognize that in addition to Śruti, one requires yukti (reason) and anubhava (personal experience) to actualize knowledge of Brahman. Mokṣa (liberation), which consists in the cessation of the cycle of life and death, governed by the karma of the individual self, is the result of knowledge of Brahman. As Brahman is identical with the universal Self, and this Self is always self-conscious, it would seem that knowledge of Brahman is Self-knowledge, and that this Self-knowledge is ever present. If so, it seems that ignorance is impossible. Moreover, in the adhyāsa bhāṣya (his preamble to the commentary on the Brahma Sūtra) Śaṅkara says that the pure subjectivity—the Self or Brahman—can never become the object of knowledge, just as the object can never be the subject. This would suggest that Self-knowledge that one gains in order to achieve liberation is impossible. Śaṅkara’s response to this problem is to regard knowledge of Brahman that is necessary for liberation, derived from scripture, to be distinct from the Self-consciousness of Brahman, and rather a practical knowledge that removes ignorance, which is an obstacle to the luminance of the ever-present self-consciousness of Brahman that does pass the test of foundationality. Ignorance, in turn, is not a feature of the ultimate Self on his account, but a feature of the individual self that is ultimately unreal.

Four factors are involved in an external perception: the physical object, the sense organ, the mind (antaḥkarana) and the cognizing self (pramata). The cognizing self alone is self-luminous and the rest of the three factors are not self-luminous being devoid of consciousness. It is the mind and the sense organ which relates the cognizing self to the object. The self alone is the knower and the rest are knowable as objects of knowledge. At the same time the existence of mind is indubitable. It is the mind that helps to distinguish between various perceptions.

It is because of the self-luminous (svata-prakāṣa) nature of pure consciousness that the subject knows and the object is known. In his commentary to Taittirīya Upaniṣad, Śaṅkara says that “consciousness is the very nature of the Self and inseparable from It.” The cognizing self, the known object, the object-knowledge, and the valid means of knowledge (pramāṅa) are essentially the manifestations of one pure consciousness.

a. Error, True Knowledge and Practical Teachings

Śaṅkara uses adhyāsa to indicate illusion – illusory objects of perception as well as illusory perception. Two other words which are used to denote the same are adhyāropa (superimposition) and avabhāsa (appearance). According to Śaṅkara the case of illusion involves both superimposition and appearance. Adhyāsa, as he says in his preamble to the Brahma Sūtra, is the apprehension of something as something else with two kinds of confounding such as the object and its properties.

The concept of illusion, in Advaita Vedānta, is significant because it leads to the theory of a “real substratum.” The illusory object, like the real object, has a definite locus. According to Śaṅkara, adhyāsa is not possible without a substratum. Padmapāda says in Pañcapadika that adhyāsa without a substratum has never been experienced and is inconceivable. Vacaspati affirms that there cannot be a case of illusion where the substratum is fully apprehended or not apprehended at all.

The Advaita theory of error (known as anirvacanīya khyāti, or the apprehension of the indefinable) holds that the perception of the illusory object is a product of the ignorance about the substratum. Śaṅkara characterizes illusion in two ways in his commentary on the Brahma Sūtra. The first is an appearance of something previously experienced—like memory—in something else (smṛtirupaḥ paratra pūrva dṛṣṭaḥ avabhāsah). The second is a minimalist characterization—the appearance of one thing with the properties of another (anyasya anyadharma avabhāsatam.

Śaṅkara devotes his introduction to his commentary on the Brahma Sūtra, to the idea of adhyāsa to account for illusory perception relating to both everyday experience and also transcendent entities. This introduction, called the adhyāsa bhāṣya (commentary on illusion) presents a realistic position and a seemingly dualistic metaphysics: “Since it is an established fact that the object and subject which are presented as yusmad—‘you’ /the other, and asmad—‘me’ are by very nature contradictory, and their qualities also contradictory, as light and darkness they cannot be identical.” Plurality and illusion, on this account, are constructed out of the cognitive superimposition of the category of objects on pure subjectivity.

While two conceptual categories are superimposed to create objects of illusion, the Adavita Vedānta view is that the only possible way of metaphysically describing the object of illusion is with the help of a characteristic, other than those of non-existence and existence, which is termed as the “indeterminate” (anirvacaniya) which also somehow connects the two usual possibilities of existence and non-existence. The object of illusion cannot be logically defined as real or unreal. Error is the apprehension of the indefinable. It is due to the “illegitimate transference” of the qualities of one order to another.

Perceptual illusion forms the bridge between Advaita’s soteriology, on the one hand, and its theory of experience, on the other. The relationship between the experience of liberation in this life (mukti) and everyday experience is viewed as analogous to the relation between veridical and delusive sense perception. Śaṅkara formulates a theory of knowledge in accordance with his soteriological views. Śaṅkara’s interest is thus not to build a theory of error and leave it by itself but to connect it to his theory of the ultimate reality of Self-Consciousness which is the only state which can be true according to his twin criteria for truth (non-sublatability and foundationality). The characteristic of indeterminacy that qualifies objects of illusion is that which is truly neither real nor unreal but appears as a real locus. It serves as a stark contrast to the soteriological goal of the Self, which is truly real and determinate.

On the basis of his theory of knowledge, Śaṅkara elucidates the fourfold (mental and physical) practices or qualifications—sādana catuṣṭaya—to aid in the achievement of liberation: (i) the discrimination (viveka) between the permanent (nitya) and the impermanent (anitya) objects of experience; (ii) dispassion towards the enjoyment of fruits of action here and in heaven; (iii) accomplishment of means of discipline such as calmness, mental control etc.; (iv) a longing for liberation. In his commentary to the Brahma Sūtra, Śaṅkara says that the inquiry into Brahman could start only after acquiring these fourfold qualifications.

The concept of liberation (mokṣa) in Advaita is cashed out in terms of Brahman. The pathways to liberations are defined by the removal of self-ignorance that is brought about by the removal of mithya jñāna (erroneous knowledge claims). This is captured in the formula of one Advaitin: “[He] is never born again who knows that he is the only one in all beings like the ether and that all beings are in him” (Upadesa Sahasri XVII.69).

Many thinkers in the history of Indian philosophy have held that there is an important connection between action and liberation. In contrast, Śaṅkara rejects the theory of jñāna-karma-samuccaya, the combination of karma (Vedic duties) with knowledge of Brahman leading to liberation. Knowledge of Brahman alone is the route to liberation for Śaṅkara. The role of action (karma) is to purify the mind (antaḥkaranasuddhi) and make it free from likes and dislikes (raga dveṣa vimuktaḥ). Such a mind will be instrumental to knowledge of Brahman.

4. References and Further Reading

a. Primary Sources

Alladi Mahadeva Sastri (Trans.). The Bhagavad Gita with the commentary of Śrī Śaṅkara. Madras: Samata Books, 1981.

Madhusudana, Saraswati. Gudartha Dipika. Trans. Sisirkumar Gupta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Pubs., 1977.

Brahma Sūtra Śaṅkara Bhāṣya: 3.3.54. Found in, V.H. Date, Vedānta Explained: Śaṅkara’s Commentary on the Brahma-Sūtra, vols. 1 and 2 (Bombay: Book Seller’s Publishing Com., 1954).

Date, V. H. Vedānta Explained: Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Brahma Sūtra. Vol. I. Bombay: Book Seller’s Publishing Company, 1954.

Taittiriya Upaniṣad Śaṅkara Bhāṣya: 2.10. Found in Karl H. Potter, Gen. Ed. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. III. 1st Ind. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1981.

Upadesa Sahasri of Śaṅkaracharya, Trans. Swami Jagadananda. Mylapore: Śrī Ramkrishna Math, 1941.

Dṛg-dṛṣya Viveka of Śaṅkara. Trans. Swami Nikhilananda. 6th ed. Mysore: Śrī Ramakrishna Ashrama, 1976.

b. Secondary Sources

Potter, Karl H. Advaita Vedānta up to Śaṅkara and his Pupils. Vol. III of Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981.

Mahadevan, T M P. Śaṅkara. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1968.

Mahadevan, T M P. Superimposition in Advaita Vedānta. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1985.

Satprakashananda, Swami. Methods of Knowledge According to Advaita Vedānta. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1974.

Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy. Vol. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.

Radhakrishnan, S. Indian Philosophy. Vol. II. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1940.

Rangacarya, M. (Trans.). The Sarva Siddhānta-Saṅgraha of Śaṅkara. New Delhi: Ajay Book Service, 1983.

 Author Information:

Sangeetha Menon
Email: [email protected]
National Institute of Advanced Studies
Indian Institute of Science Campus
Bangalore, India

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