What is Vedanta?

  • Vedan­ta is a philo­soph­i­cal 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.
    • These stages are hear­ing, cog­i­tat­ing, and med­i­tat­ing on Truth

Fundamental Teachings

Until the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, only a few of 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 Vvishistha-Advai­ta also. Under dual­ism, or Dvai­ta, the 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 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 a 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.’