Introduction to Advaita Vedanta 2 – Where Vedanta Begins

We have seen in our earlier article how in and through all our pursuits in life we are actually seeking only lasting happiness. The article concluded with the statement that Vedanta has the most radical prescription: the only source of happiness that man was constantly seeking for himself, is actually his own nature. The essence of Vedanta can be nicely summarised in this one line: ब्रह्म सत्यं जगन्मिथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः (ब्रह्मज्ञानावलीमाला, २०) – the plurality that we see as this world, is only an apparition. Brahman, the substratum behind the experience of this world, is the only reality. The Self is non-different from that Brahman.

The Need to Start from the First Step

This is where Vedanta culminates. In fact, this is where all knowledge should perhaps culminate – in the vision of unity, in the one substratum for the plurality that we experience. But this is not the first step in Vedanta. In a cognitive journey like the study of Indian दर्शन​-s (we have seen that Indian schools of philosophy are not merely speculative, but are oriented towards making life better), missing the initial steps and jump-starting at a later point is only going to leave a seeker with more questions than answers. Just before I sat down to write this article, a friend of mine sent me a question(sharing here with his permission), “If all the Vedas point to Advaita and oneness of everything, then aren’t we doing it wrong by worshipping idols?” This friend has recently taken up the study of Avadhuta Gita, a seemingly simple text, definitely smaller in size, but considered to be pregnant with philosophically advanced ideas. This was the first philosophical text that he was reading in life. I told him that to start with Avadhuta Gita is like wanting to do calculus without knowing basic arithmetic.

Darshanas as Milestones

The journey from our experience of this world, wrought with plurality, to the understanding that the Self is all that there is, is a long one, with various milestones in between. Mahatmas point out that it is these milestones that have manifested as the various schools of philosophy. From the Charvaka, the rank materialist to the ultimate Vedantin who proclaims

न निरोधो न चोत्पत्तिर्न बद्धो न च साधकः ।

न मुमुक्षुर्न वै मुक्त इत्येषा परमार्थता ॥

(माण्डूक्य-कारिका २.१.३२)

every दर्शन is a stage in our cognitive understanding of the world. Does that mean that we have to literally study all those schools before we begin an actual study of Vedanta? There are people who do that, spending years in the study of all दर्शन-s before they take up Vedanta, and such a systematic pursuit has its benefits in getting into the depths of Vedanta. As for us, it is qualitatively required that we recognize where we stand in the ladder that leads us to the summum bonum of Vedanta.

Reconciling the Various Schools of Indian Philosophy

A specific reconciliation of all schools of Indian philosophy has also been attempted by Mahatmas in the past. For example, Shri Madhusudana Saraswati, while commenting on the शिवमहिम्नः स्तोत्रम्, verse 7 (which begins with त्रयी साङ्ख्यं योगः etc.), specifically shows how not only all schools of philosophy, but also all forms of art, all bodies of knowledge in fact culminate in the knowledge of the Self. His commentary on this particular verse is well-known and is studied as an independent text in itself, called प्रस्थानभेदः, which is largely the basis for this article. Shri Madhusudana Saraswati writes therein:

सर्वेषां प्रस्थानकर्तॄणां मुनीनां विवर्तवादपर्यवसानेनाद्वितीये परमेश्वरे प्रतिपाद्ये तात्पर्यम् । न हि ते मुनयो भ्रान्ताः, सर्वज्ञत्वात्तेषाम् । किं तु बहिर्विषयप्रवणानामापाततः पुरुषार्थे प्रवेशो न संभवतीति नास्तिक्यवारणाय तैः प्रकारभेदाः प्रदर्शिताः ।

“The views of all the Munis who were the exponents of the various schools of philosophy (the word प्रस्थान​-s used here actually stands for all sources of knowledge, including philosophy, art forms etc. The commentary on this verse exhausts itself in mentioning all of them) culminate in विवर्तवाद​ and their ultimate purport is in the non-dual Supreme Being. This is not because the Munis were deluded or confused, because they were all omniscient (and knew the ultimate truth). But, since people who are engrossed in worldly objects cannot be directly initiated into the ultimate human goal of Moksha, and in order to prevent them from succumbing to crass materialism, the Munis propounded different methods to suit the capacity and inclination of different classes of people.”

An attempt at reconciling all schools of Indian philosophy is not new. We find the idea in the Vedas themselves. In the introduction (उपोद्घात​) to his commentary (भाष्यम्) on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Shri Shankaracharya writes “सर्वोऽप्ययं वेदः प्रत्यक्षानुमानाभ्याम्-अनवगत​-इष्टानिष्ट​-प्राप्तिपरिहारोपाय​-प्रकाशनपरः, सर्वपुरुषाणां निसर्गत एव तत्प्राप्तिपरिहारयोः-इष्टत्वात्।“ (The whole of the Vedas is devoted to setting forth the means of attaining what is good and avoiding what is evil, in so far as these are not known through perception and inference, for all people naturally seek these two ends[1]). According to Shri Anandagiri, the well-known sub-commentator (टीकाकार​) on Shri Shankaracharya’s commentaries, Brahman, the Self, is the one import of all Vedas because it is the Self alone which is not known through perception and inference. But what about the ritualistic portions of the Vedas, that prescribe specific यज्ञ-s and याग-s that lead to heaven? Shri Anandagiri quotes the Vedas themselves to answer this question – तमेतं वेदानुवचनेन ब्राह्मणा विविदिषन्ति यज्ञेन दानेन तपसाऽनाशकेन (बृहदारण्यकोपनिषत् ४.४.२२) – “the learned ones seek to know it (Brahman) through the study of the Vedas, sacrifices, charity and austerity consisting in dispassionate enjoyment of sense-objects”. Therefore, the various यज्ञ-s and याग-s are also meant to be ultimately helpful in the knowledge of the Self. However, these यज्ञ-s and याग-s are ordained by the Vedas so that their performance would give us the requisite mental preparation and intellectual clarity required to understand and appreciate the ultimate vision of Vedanta. Thus, they are called सहकारि-सधनानि (ancillary means).

Therefore, Brahman as the ultimate goal behind seemingly different pursuits – like the performance of a ​यज्ञ and the knowledge of the Self, corresponding to two different schools of Indian philosophy, is brought out in the Vedas themselves.

This idea is also presented in the Gita (4.11) by Shri Krishna – मम वर्त्मानुवर्तन्ते मनुष्याः पार्थ सर्वशः – “Oh Partha! Human beings follow my path in every way.” It is interesting to note here that Shri Shankaracharya explains “my” in मम​ वर्त्म​ (my path) as – सर्वावस्थस्य मम ईश्वरस्य वर्त्म मार्गम् – “my path, the path of God who is omnipresent”[2].

The Journey From Charvaka to Vedanta

Mahatmas say that the first step towards Vedanta is in the Charvaka system itself. We live a life with our sense of identity scattered over everything and anything. This is called a प्राकृत​ (gross) life. It is here that the Charvaka comes and transfers our identity from all external notions and people, to our body – he transfers our identity from गौणात्मा to मुख्यात्मा, so to speak[3]. In doing so, the Charvaka is channelizing our focus of attention to where it should rightly be. This is the beginning of the “Who am I?” analysis which a spiritual seeker has to do. And it is for this great first step towards our spiritual life that he helps us take, we refer to Charvaka as a Rishi and talk of him with reverence. All shastras, including the ones like archery, music, dance, etc. are all meant to convert this प्राकृत​-पुरुष​, the gross man, who does things according to his own sweet will, into one who does things systematically, following a disciplined process. Through each of these shastras, a discipline is being imposed on us, which is much required for a journey in the spiritual path.

To a person who has thus understood the need for examining his notions about himself and has turned away from all external (and therefore incident, non-essential) ideas about himself, the system of Nyaya comes into picture next. The Naiyayika helps us classify the world and put things into proper place. The logic of the Naiyayika helps the seeker develop viveka (discrimination) between what is the Self and what is not the Self. He shows us how we have mixed up the Self and the non-Self and thereby brought upon ourselves the problems that we experience in life. To make the seeker understand this mix-up, the Naiyayika enumerates all things that are other than the Self and thereby helps us to arrive at the idea of a Self which is distinct from every other material substance that we see in the world and in doing so, he takes recourse to rigorous logic. This is why we see that in later advancements of Nyaya (नव्य​-न्याय​), there was more thrust on logic, debate etc. than on moksha itself[4], which was left to the Vedantins, since it is considered as their domain[5].

In the next stage of development, the world is reduced to atoms of some basic elements. Vaisheshikas explain that the world is made up of atoms. However, the Self itself is not atomic because the Self is “experienced” by us as one unity and not as parts – our fundamental “feeling” (भाव​) about ourselves is an one unity, not as one consisting of many parts. The Vaishesika thus adds vairagya (dispassion) to the viveka brought out by the Naiyayika – because all the various attractions and repulsions of the world which we consider so important to us, are actually nothing but arrangements of atoms, thereby making us see how futile is our preoccupation with the world. This strengthens the vairagya that a spiritual seeker needs in his journey.

Next come the Sankhya and Yoga systems. The Sankhyas reduce the atomic world to a more fundamental triad of सत्त्व, रजस् and तमस्, which are nothing but three aspects of प्रकृति, primordial nature, the material out of which this universe is made. The Sankhyas further strengthen our vairagya by asking us to “disconnect” from प्रकृति, which is inert and therefore totally different from our nature as conscious entities, पुरुष-s. To this, Yoga adds physical and mental disciplines, like the control of mind, etc. The relevance of these disciplines to a spiritual aspirant is easy to understand.   Yoga also introduces Bhakti (devotion) towards Ishvara, the first Guru, whose grace can positively contribute to your spiritual growth – for the first time, Ishvara is brought in as someone who can directly influence and enhance your spiritual pursuit. and you are advised to surrender to Ishvara (ईश्वरप्रणिधान​).

The next question that would occupy the minds of the seeker is “Who controls this प्रकृति?” Since it is inert, प्रकृति cannot itself account for the world. Besides, an inert प्रकृति cannot also by itself account for the results of actions (कर्मफल​), and does not have any role in binding us or granting us liberation by itself. This is where द्वैत​ school of Vedanta comes in and makes this प्रकृति as dependent (परतन्त्र​) on Ishvara. This Ishvara is still distinct from you, the individual Self. But since he is the overlord, he can make things work for you and therefore his Grace is to be invoked. This also brings in the scope for Purva Mimamsa, which has developed the rules of ascertaining the meaning of the Vedas. The Purva Mimamsaka’s insistence on the performance of the rituals mandated by the Vedas are a means to earn the grace of Ishvara.

विशिष्टाद्वैत​ come in next and explain that this प्रकृति, which is by itself devoid of any freewill and is only ruled by Ishvara, and is the material cause for this universe, is actually the body of Ishvara. Jiva (the individual Self) and jagat (the world) are the body of Ishvara according to विशिष्टाद्वैत​ – just like we are able to control our hands, legs etc., Ishvara is able to control jiva and jagat, who is the inner Ruler, अन्तर्यामिन्, of them both.

परिणामवाद​  to विवर्तवाद

There is one last step before Advaita-proper begins. This is called ब्रह्मपरिणामवाद​ – the school that postulates that this entire universe is actually a transformation of Brahman. By his Shakti, Brhaman gets transformed into this world and still continues to remain unblemished. This is the line adopted by Shri Shrikanthacharya​, Shri Abhinavagupta​ and other भेदाभेदवादिन्-s. Liberation from the world is in identifying with this Ishvara, through various upasanas. The idea of grace of Ishvara is still retained.

And here is where Advaita takes over. Advaitins negate the existence of the world, true. But the locus of the negation is this Brahman, which is non-different from the Self, which is understood to have manifested as the world. The existence of the world is not due to an actual transformation of Brahman, but is only an apparition. Brahman is not the cause that has transformed into the world (i.e. Brahman is not the परिणामि-उपादान​-कारण​), but only the विवर्त​-उपादान​-कारण​ – the substratum of an error that we experience as the world. This is explained through the famous example of the rope-snake. The mistaken snake is only a super-imposition on the rope. To accept that Brahman has transformed into the world, is like saying that the rope has transformed into the snake. This negation of the world in Brahman is to be done by a person who has reached up to the penultimate stage of accepting that Brahman has actually transformed into the world – that is to say, Advaita’s विवर्तवाद is to be taught to the person who has cognitively come to understand ब्रह्म​-परिणामवाद​।

This is the single most important aspect in an Advaitin’s negation of all duality, including the difference between the individual self (जीवात्मा) and the real Self (परमात्मा). Sans this understanding, statements of the Advaitin like “there is no God beyond the Self” would only look like echoes of the modern materialist who completely denies the existence of any God. With this understanding that ब्रह्म​-परिणामवाद is the beginning step to Advaita’s grand vision of अजातवाद​ (the understanding that there is no duality whatsoever), the pursuit of Vedanta itself becomes a sacred one.

The Right Understanding of मिथ्या

The Advaitin says the world is मिथ्या, true. But what is this मिथ्यात्वम् of the world? It is defined by Shri Prakashatma Muni as प्रतिपन्न​-उपाधौ त्रैकालिक​-निषेधप्रतियोगित्वं मिथ्यात्वम् – मिथ्यात्वम् is the non-existence of an object in all three-periods of time (past, present and future) in the very locus of its experience. In other words, the world is to be understood as non-existing (but appearing) superimposition upon the locus, which is Brahman, just as the snake is only a not-really-existing superimposition upon the rope. But this means the rope is not just the locus but the only reality, while the snake is non-existing. Similarly, “Brahman alone exists, not the world“ is the conclusion of Advaita. To understand this मिथ्यात्वम् of the world, it is important to understand the locus of the experience of the world. It is this locus which is postulated by ब्रह्म​-परिणामवाद​, which is the penultimate step in a seeker’s life before Advaita Vedanta comes in. Brahman as the locus of the world is called द्वैताभाव​-उपहित ब्रह्म।​ But the Brahman that Vedanta is postulating as the true nature of one’s Self called द्वैताभाव​-उपलक्षित ब्रह्म[6]​।

(The author wishes to thank Pujya Swami Tattvavidananda Saraswati ji and Dr Rajit Biswas ji, at whose feet he has been fortunate to study some Vedanta.)


[1] Translation by Swami Madhavananda, “The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, with the commentary of Sankaracharya”, published by Advaita Ashrama.

[2] Translation by Swami Gambhirananda, “Bhagavad Gita, with the commentary of Sankaracharya”, published by Advaita Ashrama.

[3] This is nicely explained by Shri Sadananda Yogindra in his famous work वेदान्तसारः, sections 123-127.

[4] It is interesting to note Advaintins’ contribution to नव्यन्याय​। Shri Raghunatha Shiromani, who wrote a commentary on the classical नव्यन्याय​ text called तत्त्वचिन्तामणिः (considered as the starting point of नव्यन्याय) of Shri Gangesha Upadhyaya, was (apparently) himself an Advaitin. He also wrote a commentary called खण्डनभूषामणिः on the खण्डनखण्डखाद्यम् of Shri Harsha.

[5] As Shri Udayanacharya puts it.

[6] This is evident from the fact that in Brahma Sutra 2.1.13 the सूत्रकार​ speaks from the point of view of ब्रह्म​-परिणामवाद, refuting the objections raised by the opponent that Brahman cannot be the material cause of the world. Subsequently, in Brahma Sutra 2.1.14, the सूत्रकार refutes even this ब्रह्म​-परिणामवाद and establishes विवर्तवाद​ as the real teaching of Vedanta.

More Stories
Kautilya’s Rajadharma is Civilizational Perspicuity