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Advaita Vedānta is a nondualistic system of Vedānta expounded primarily by ācāryya Śaṅkara in a systematic way. The most fundamental thesis of advaita vedānta is that brahma is the ultimate reality, and that the world is sublated and the jīva or the individual self realizes its identity with the Brahman.
Vedānta or Uttara Mīmāṃsā is one of the six main orthodox (āstika) schools of ancient Indian philosophy. Vedānta is based on philosophical ideas and reflections contained in the Upaniṣads, which form the last part of the Vedas. Alternatively Vedānta is also referred to as the best part of the Vedas. Upaniṣads form the jñāna kāṇḍa or “Knowledge-Section” of the Vedas and constitute the main or fundamental basis of Vedānta (, p. 7). The Upaniṣads, the Bhagavad-Gītā, and the Brahma Sūtras are the fundamental texts of Vedānta which together constitute the prasthānatrayī (, pp. 6–7, , pp. 100–101). Every school of Vedānta interprets these texts according to its own line of thinking. Although the Upaniṣads contain rich and luminating reflections, they do not present the reflections and thought in a rigorously worked out system of doctrines. Vedānta draws upon upaniṣadic ideas and presents them in a form of interconnected system or doctrines with explanations and argument.
Vādarāyana is not the first person who systematize vedāntic thought in his Brahma Sūtra, for Vādarāyana himself refers to six ācāryyas – Āśmarathya, Bādari, Auḍulomi, Kāśakrtṣna, Kārṣnājini, and Ātreya, who preceded him in this task of systematization or summarization of vedāntic thought (, p. 163). The aim of the Brahma Sūtras by ācāryya Vādarāyana is to systematize the diversity of the teaching of the Upaniṣads.
The Brahma Sūtras contains cryptic aphorisms which lend themselves to different interpretation. So there follow different commentaries and explanation by philosophers (, pp. 26–27) who interpreted the text by their own lights and gave rise to various exegetical exercises of the Brahma Sūtra, resulting in the formation of the different schools of Vedānta, such as Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, Dvaita, Śuddhādvaita, Dvaitādvaita, Acintya Bhedābheda.
Beginning of Advaita Vedānta
Advaita Vedānta, founded principally on the teachings of Ādi Śaṅkara (788–820 AD), is a form of nondualistic Vedānta philosophy (, p. 98–106). Associated with advaita Vedānta are some predecessors of ācāryya Śaṅkara. The first philosophers to whom advaita Vedānta owes its origin are Yājñyavalkya and Uddālaka, in addition to the afore-mentioned six ācāryyas referred to by Vādarāyana. Some of the important figures of advaita Vedānta in the period between Vādarāyana and Śaṅkara are Bodhāyana, Brahmanandin, Draviḍācārya, Taṅka, Sundarapāndya, Bhartṛprapañca, and Gauḍapāda (c. century CE) (, p. 111). Gouḍapāda kārikā believed to have been composed by ācāryya Gauḍapāda, the paramaguru (teacher’s teacher) of ācāryya Śaṅkara, is the earliest surviving advaita text (, p. 12).
The doctrine that emerges from the Kārikā is that the nature of ultimate reality is nondual (advaita) and that the brahman and the atman is one and the same thing and that the changing world of multiplicity is completely illusory (māyā), so much so that it had not been there at all. The kārikā was important enough for Śaṅkara to write a commentary and contributed to the development of his own advaita philosophy.
Central Philosophy of Advaita Vedānta
The central thesis of Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta is that Brahman is the only reality and there is no other object in competition to be regarded as real (, p. 9). What happens then to be jīva or the individual selves and the world of change or multiplicity that we experience? Śaṅkara here has a major task of explaining the relationship of Brahman (the ultimate reality) with individual self (ātman) on the one hand and with the experienced world (jagat) on the other.
Śaṅkara uses the concept of adhyāsa or superimposition in the course of establishing his nondualistic position that the Brahman is the only reality. A man mistaking a coiled rope for a snake in semi-darkness is due to superimposition of the snake on the rope. Śaṅkara does not admit of any distinction due to names and forms but appears, on a cosmic scale, as the world of multiplicity under the superimposition of names and forms. What is responsible for the superimposition of such distinction on the Brahman? According to Śaṅkara, it is māyā or the cosmic power of illusion that is responsible for the introduction of the distinction of the individual selves and the phenomenal world of multiplicity. For Śaṅkara, the ātman or the individual selves is ultimately identical with Brahman and the appearance, on the empirical level, of different individual selves (jīva) and the experienced phenomenal world (jagat) is sublated on realizing the identity of the ātman and the Brahman (, p. 14). This is similar to the case of the sublation of the snake when one realizes that it is just a rope. When the former happens on the cosmic scale, the latter happens on an individual level. Liberation, on Śaṅkara’s view, is the realization of the identity of the ātman with Brahman (, p. 183). The question of the ontological status of māyā or the cosmic power of illusion and its relation with Brahman has been a matter of much debate in Indian philosophy.
Schools of Advaita Vedānta
Within the ambit of advaita vedānta, there are several schools which deal mainly with the problem concerning the concept of māyā in its cosmic aspect and avidyā in its individual aspect, apart from working out the logical consequences of other advaita doctrines.
Of the four schools of Advaita Vedānta, the Bhāmatī and Vivaraṇa School are still there today, while the Pañcapādika and Īṣṭa-Siddhi school have lost their separate status and were absorbed in the Vivaraṇa school (, p. 34).
Vācaspati Mishra (8th c.) in his Bhāmatī, a commentary on Śaṅkaracaryya’s BrahmaSūtra Bhāṣya, proceeds from the ontological point of view and maintains that, Jīva or the individual self is the source of avidyā or ajñāna. Meditation, according to Bhāmati, is a way for the individual self to ascend to the state of liberation (, p. 37 and 43). On the Bhāmatī view, desire for the acquisition of knowledge of Brahman comes from the performance of karma without desire for results and as dedicated to God (or Saguṇa Brahman).
The Vivaraṇa School originates with Prakāśātman’s (12th c.) Pañcapādika Vivaraṇa, which is a commentary on Pañcapādika by Padmapādācārya (8th c.).
The Vivaraṇa school hold, following Prakāśātman (12th c.), that māyā or mulāvidyā is of a positive nature and is beginingless. The Vivaraṇa School proceeds from the epistemological point of view and differs from Bhāmatī in holding that the Brahman is the locus and content of avidyā. This view has been criticized on the ground that Brahman as pure consciousness cannot be a host to avidyā or ignorance for it would result in the attribution of contradictory qualities to Brahman. In contrast to Bhāmatī, Vivaraṇa holds that performance of karma is for attainment of the knowledge of Brahman. Bhāmatī holds that the performance of karma without desire for results, as pointed out above, is for the acquisition of the desire for attainment of the knowledge of Brahman.
Literature of Advaita Vedānta
Let us now mention some of the important contribution to Advaita Vedānta made by Śaṅkara and some other subsequent to him. There was no systematic attempt to establish the tenets of Advaita Vedānta before Śaṅkara. His magnum opus, the commentary on the Brahma Sūtra, is the first text that seeks to establish the advaita vedāntic position in a systematic way. His commentaries on the ten principal Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad Gītā, together with his original work Upadeśasāhaśri, also constitute significant contribution to philosophy from the advaita point of view (, pp. 34–35; , p. xvii).
Some of the main texts on advaita philosophy of the Post-Śaṅkara period are the following:
Vārttika on ācāryya Śaṅkara’s Taittiriyopaniṣad-bhāṣya, Bṛhadāranyakopaniṣad-Bhāṣya, Naiṣkarmyasiddhi, and Mānasollāśa, all by ācāryya Sureśwara (century); Pañcapādikā by Padmapādācāryya (8th century); Hastāmalakīyam by ācāryya Hastāmalaka (8th century); Bhāmatī by Vācaspati Miśra (841–900); Saṅkṣepa-Śārīraka by Sarvajñātma Muni (850–950) Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya by Śriharṣa (1169–1225); Pañcapādika-Vivaraṇa by Prakāśātma Yati (AD 1200); Citsukhī by Citsukha (1220); Tīkās (or further explanation of the commentaries) on almost all the commentary (Bhāṣyas) of Śaṅkara composed by Ānanda Giri (1200); Īṣṭasiddhi by Vimuktātma (1200); Vedānta-Kalpataru by Amalānanda (1247); Pañcadaśī by Vidyāranya (1350–1386); Vedāntasāra by Sadananda Yogindra (1550); Vedānta-Paribhāṣā by Dharmarāja Adhvarindra (1550–1650); Advaita-siddhi by Madhusudana Saraswati (1565–1650); and Parimala by Appaya Dikṣita (1600) (, p. 418–420).
In modern times, Swami Vivekananda, who played a major role in the revival of Hinduism, gave a catholic and synthetic interpretation of Advaita Vedānta (, p. 3) who make it acceptable all religious seekers of liberation or ultimate truth, Brahman or god, however one may put it (, p. 17). Vedānta as interpreted by him has been called neo-vedānta. Swami Vivekananda’s main thrust in interpreting Vedānta was religious rather than philosophical. For Vivekananda, as a seeker of ultimate spiritual truth, the philosophical differences between the different systems of Vedānta, dualist and nondualist, were not of much important to him. “Dualism and all systems that had preceded it are accepted by the advaita not in a patronising way, but with the conviction that they are true manifestations of the same truth, and that they all lead to the same conclusions as the advaita has reached” (, p. 33). This conviction came to him in the course of his relentless striving for the attainment of the state of highest spirituality. According to Swami Vivekananda, jīva is neither the body, nor the organs, nor is it the mind. It is ultimately the same as Existence, Knowledge, and Bliss absolute (Saccidānanda) (, p. 100). Thus, every man is essentially divine or pure consciousness, untouched by birth and death, since we all are essentially of the same nature. Vivekananda made it clarion call to everyone to rise above distinction of caste, creed, or religion or prejudice to work for the welfare of others in the spirit of service to God. Thus, Vivekananda’s great contribution was to take advaita Vedānta out of the narrow boundaries of abstruse philosophical discussions into the broad area of service to humanity.
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