What is Vedanta?
- Vedanta is a philosphical manifestation of ‘Sanatana Dharma’, the philosophical foundation of Hinduism.
- Vedanta is a way of living and realizing.
- Swami Vivekananda coined the term ‘Practical Vedanta’ to emphasize the practice of Vedanta in every aspect of our daily lives.
- Vedanta comes from the Sanskrit root word vid, which means knowledge.
- Vedanta calls the Ultimate Reality as Brahman, which is invisible, indivisible, and infinite. Vedanta, however, insists that the Truth about Brahman or Atman should not be accepted just on faith, but must be and can be realized, experienced, and thus verified. Realization of the Truth is a three-stage process: śravaṇam, mananam, and nididhyāsanam, hearing, cogitating, and meditating on Truth.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, only a few among America’s great philosophers and poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry Thoreau, knew about the Indian scriptures like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. It was Swami Vivekananda, the foremost disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and the most authentic interpreter of his teachings, who introduced Vedanta to the vast intelligentsia of this country. At the Parliament of Religions held in 1893 in Chicago, the Swami eloquently set before the august gathering of the world’s religious leaders the essence of the spiritual wisdom of India based on Vedanta.
Vedanta comes from the Sanskrit root word vid, which means knowledge. So Vedanta means knowledge. Vedanta also means the end portion of the four Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva), which contains the knowledge section based on the Upanishads. The beginning portion of the Vedas—Samhitas, Brahmanas and Aranykas—contains mantras or hymns, rites and rituals and their interpretation. There are many Upanishads, which are collectively called Vedanta.
Vedanta calls the Ultimate Reality as Brahman, which is invisible, indivisible, and infinite. It is of the nature of Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss Absolute. The individual soul, called Atman, is identical with Brahman. The central message of Vedanta is Oneness of God, the universe, and human beings. This is pure non-dualism or Advaita, not two, in Sanskrit.
Although advaita is the crown jewel of the Hindu religious/philosophical tradition, its exponents accept dvaita and vishistha-advaita also. Under dualism or dvaita, individual soul and the universal soul, or Atman and Brahman (Parmatma) are two different entities. The qualified non-dualism or Vishishtha-Advaita denies the oneness of God, the universe and human beings, but accepts the two latter as parts or the body of God. These two systems also don’t accept Impersonal Brahman (God) of non-dualism, but believe in Personal God.
However, non-dualism, as fine-tuned by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, harmonizes the other two systems and accepts both Impersonal and Personal God. From his own experience of Brahman, Sri Ramakrishna described the different stages of perception of God:
The jnani, or the follower of the path of knowledge, analyzes the universe of the senses, saying, “Brahman is not this, not that”, and gives up worldliness. Thus he attains the knowledge of Brahman. He is like the man who, climbing a stairway, leaves each step behind, one after another, and so reaches the roof. But the vijnani, who gains an intimate knowledge of Brahman, has his consciousness further extended. He knows that roof and steps are all of the same substance. First he realizes, “All is not, God is.” Next he realizes, “All is God.” Few can stay long on the roof. Those who reach samadhi and attain Brahman soon return to the normal plane of consciousness, and then they realize that he has become everything. They then see God in the heart of all.
Sri Ramakrishna also harmonized both the Personal and Impersonal aspects of God. He said that Personal God is the power (Shakti) of Impersonal God (Shiva). One is active, while the other is inactive. As heat or light is the power of the sun, so also Personal is the power of Impersonal. Just as heat cannot be thought of without sun and vice versa, the same way Sri Ramakrishna concluded that Brahman (Impersonal God) and Shakti are one and the same; one is a snake coiled and other is a snake in motion.
According to the Bhagavad-Gita, which, too, is the essence of the Upanishads, Atman is the real nature of all beings, including the humankind, and things. No weapon can cleave the Atman or the fire burn it; nor water can wet it or wind can dry it. Furthermore, the Atman or the Self in one is the same Self of all. Beings and things differ in names and forms only, but the same Reality is the ground of their existence. In short, Vedanta, or better Advaita-Vedanta, proclaims the divinity of everything, unity in diversity, universal brotherhood of humankind and nature, and harmony of religions.
Vedanta, however, insists that the Truth about Brahman or Atman should not be accepted just on faith, but must be and can be realized, experienced, and thus verified. Realization of the Truth is a three-stage process: shravanam, mananam, and nidhyasanam. The first of these Sanskrit terms means that one should hear about the Truth from a competent teacher and read it from the scriptures. After having heard and studied an aspirant should reflect, reason and analyze what one has heard and studied. But that is not enough, for reasoning can be faulty, and therefore, the result would be in error also. Therefore Vedanta says one should meditate on what one has heard and studied, and get the direct perception of it in meditation.
Vedanta is the foundation of all ethics and morality. Its ethical precepts are based on the nature of our true Self, and not by the command of some outside authority. For example, all religions say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” However, it is only in Vedanta one gets the rationale of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Vedanta says that one should love one’s neighbor because one is one’s neighbor; there is no ‘other’. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi’s famous advice to one of her disciples not to treat anyone as stranger was based on this advaitic vision.
If we sincerely recognize Oneness, we won’t fear anyone, nor anyone has to fear us. If it is all Oneness, no one hates anyone or is jealous of anyone; for there being no ‘other,’ whom to hate or be jealous of? Our love for all beings then is spontaneous and natural. We are never selfish, but become selfless. But to make this practical, one must be aware of one’s true nature, which is not the body-mind complex, but Atman or the Self. Some religions say ‘Fear of God is the beginning of knowledge.’ Vedanta says: ‘Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom.’