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Introduction to Vedanta
• Vedanta (derived from veda, knowledge; anta,
end), literally means end or completion of
• Veda is also the term that
designates the ancient
scriptures (shastras) of India,
the earliest of which date to
circa 1,500 – 1,200 BCE.
• Vedanta, then, also means
“end of the Veda,” and in this sense can refer
technically to the final sections of the four-fold
Vedas, the so-called Upanishads (600 – 300 BCE)
Vedanta Philosophy
“Vedanta” most commonly refers to one of the
six schools of Orthodox Indian Darshanas
(viewpoints or ways of seeing) that emerged
between the 7th and 8th century CE.
This was the period of an important revival of
“Hinduism” in India in response to the
increasing pluralism of traditions rooted in the
Vedas and others – Buddhism and Jainism –
that were not.
“Hinduism” here is an umbrella term for a great
diversity of religious traditions that share an
allegiance to the Vedas as authoritive scripture.
At the popular level, the revival of Hinduism
took the form of various movements of intense
religious devotion (bhakti), for example, the
Vishnu-Krishna worship of the Alvars of South
At the scholarly level, the revival of Hinduism
took the form of Vedanta: the attempt to unify
and systematize the teachings of the Vedas and
the spiritual practices rooted in the insights of
the Vedic scriptural heritage of India.
Vedanta focuses on the prasthana-traya, the
three-fold scriptural canon:
The Upanishads (600-300 BCE)
Bhagavad Gita (circa 200 BCE)
Brahma Sutras (circa 200-100 BCE)
Gaudapada (left), 7th or 8th
century, is regarded as the
earliest formulator of Vedanta,
but Sankara (right), 8th century,
is considered the first great
expounder of Vedanta.
Gaudipada allegedly taught
Govinda, Sankara’s guru.
Multiple schools of Vedanta emerged between the
8th and 16th century under the guidance of highly
influential gurus.
13th century
12th Century
13th Century
15th and 16th
16th Century
Each school of Vedanta aimed to systematically
explain the nature of ultimate reality and the
goal of human life in accordance with the
teachings of the Upanishads.
All schools of Vedanta maintain that the goal of
human life is to realize Brahman (the ultimate
reality), to be united with the transcendental
ground of the universe.
Schools of Vedanta differ with respect to how
they conceive of Brahman, what realization of
and union with Brahman involves, and how
this is achieved.
Exploring the Upanishads
Upa- (near), ni- (down), sad (to sit):
sitting near the teacher
The Upanishads
• Composed between 600-300 BCE by
various rishis (seers)
• Added as the final sections of the divisions
of Veda texts. (Vedanta = end of the vedas)
• Upanishads are classified as sruti (“that
which is heard”) and are authoritative texts.
• Philosophical commentary on the early
portions of the Vedas but grounded in the
direct experiences of the rishis.
Six Primary Concepts of
the Upanishads
The Upanishads emphasize the
impermanence of the empirical world,
physical reality as we experience it
through our senses.
Beyond Maya, there is an
unchanging reality called
(lit. “to expand”)
Four Claims about Brahman
• Brahman is the fundamental principle of
the universe. (Kena Upanishad IV and V)
• Brahman is the reality in all, and all things
are in Brahman. (Svetasvatara Upanishad,
IV. 2–4)
• Brahman is the state of non-duality.
(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, IV.v.14–15)
• Brahman is Ineffable. (Kena Upanishad,
Brahman as the Impersonal
These central claims of the Upanishads about
Brahman suggest that Brahman is not a personal
being, not a being with attributes that
characterize “persons” (e.g., self-awareness,
perspectival experience, deliberative rationality,
and being the subject of intentional states).
On this view, Brahman is formless or
attributeless (nirguna) and not a personal God.
If Brahman is without form, then “gods” represent
different provisional manifestations of Brahman in maya.
The Trimurti (three forms) represent Brahman
manifested in the processes of creation, preservation,
and dissolution and recreation of the cosmos.
Brahman as Personal God
• The Upanishads also refer to Brahman under
various attributes (saguna Brahman), including
those indicative of personhood: knowledge, will,
and moral goodness (Svetasvatara Upanishad,
• Some passages in Mundaka Upanishad
subordinate imperishable (impersonal) Brahman
to the supreme “Purusha” (person).
• Other later Upanishads emphasize personal
theism (e.g. Katha, Isa, and Svetasvatara).
Brahman as Creator?
The Upanishads speak of Brahman as creator.
However, even where Brahman is conceived
of in personal terms, “creation” refers to a
necessary emanation of the universe from
the being of Brahman, like the flowing of a
web from a spider.
The Upanishads affirm eternal, cyclical
processes of the origination of order, its
evolution, and eventual dissolution.
"Bliss [ananda] is Brahman, for
from bliss all beings are born; by
bliss, when born, they live; and into
bliss they enter at their death."
(Taittiriyaka Upanishad, III.6)
The True Self (Atman)
The Upanishads teach the existence
of a true Self called Atman.
Atman is distinguished from the individual
personality or ego formed through
attachments to sense objects.
The true Self of each person is not identical
with the body or a person’s mind as
conditioned by sense experience.
“That Self (Atman) is not this, it is not that (neti,
neti). It is unseizable, for it cannot be seized;
indestructible, for it cannot be destroyed;
unattached, for it does not attach itself; is unbound,
does not tremble, is not injured.”
Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, iv.v.15
Relation between
Brahman and Atman
Tat Tvam Asi
“Thou [Atman] art That [Brahman]”
(Chandogya Upanishad, VI)
A famous and controversial passage from
the Upanishads.
Atman and Brahman are identical?
Atman and Brahman are united in some
way without being entirely identical?
The human
perspective is
characterized by
ignorance (avidya)
of the true nature of
reality and the self.
Human persons identify
themselves with their
body or with their
individual states of
consciousness formed
through contact with
and attachment to
sense objects.
This is the false ego or
false self.
The false ego is the source of human
suffering or unhappiness because the
false ego is a product of attachments
to what is non-enduring.
The Upanishads
teach that all life
forms move
through repeated
cycles of birth,
death, and rebirth,
until final
liberation from this
The cycle of death and rebirth is called
Its fuel or energy is called
The termination of the cycle is called
“Where one’s mind is attached – the inner self
Goes thereto with action, being attached to it alone.
Obtaining the end of his action,
Whatever he does in this world,
He comes again from that world
To this world of action.
- So the man who desires.”
Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, iv.iv.6
Rebirth is fueled and directed
by karma
(sanskrit root kri, meaning “action”).
Broadly stated, karma is a law of cause and
effect according to which actions in one
lifetime influence actions in a subsequent life.
Attachment to material forms of existence
(modes of false ego) is the basic karmic energy
that fuels samsara.
The form of one’s karma is shaped by the specific
nature of one’s attachments.
Rebirth is not restricted to rebirth as a
human being, but it extends to the animal
world and other realms of existence.
The form of one’s karma (good or bad)
determines the realm of existence into which
one is reborn.
Rebirth is not desirable.
It implies that a person is still
trapped in ignorance about the
nature of reality through various
attachments to sense objects.
Suffering, associated with material
existence, has not yet been
Moksha is the state of release from
Attachments => False Ego => Karma => Samsara
What is required is a dismantling or
dissolution of the false ego. Therefore, we
must let go of our attachments to sense
objects or material forms of existence.
Destruction of the False Ego
Spiritual discipline
dismantles the false ego:
Spiritual Practice
Consists in . . .
Observing Moral Laws
(aimed at renunciation of
material attachments)
and Meditation
Having heard and
reflected on the word of
Brahman in the scriptures,
one must practice
concentration on the truth
of Brahman and the Self,
repeating mantras such as
OM (which signifies the
cosmic power of
Brahman) or
Aham Brahmasmi
(I am Brahman).
The Ultimate State (Moksha)
Spiritual practice leads to Moksha
Moksha is freedom from samsara and thus
freedom from suffering.
Moksha is absolute consciousness: “Brahman
realization” and “Self realization” since the
true nature of reality (Brahman) and the true
self (Atman) is perceived.
Realization of Brahman and the Self
Being (Sat)
Consciousness (Chit)
Bliss (Ananda)
Satchitananda is also the name of
So moksa is union with Brahman.
“As rivers flow into the sea and in so
doing lose name and form, even so
the wise man, freed from name and
form, attains the Supreme Being,
the Self-luminous, the Infinite.”
Chandogya, VI.i.5
Review: Six Primary Concepts
in the Upanishads
Beyond the Upanishads
The Evolution of the Personalist
Conception of the Absolute
Review Point
The early Upanishads (circa 800 – 600 BCE):
Brahman is the ultimate, impersonal reality,
transcendent to the universe, and yet in some
sense immanent in the universe.
Some of the later Upanishads affirm the
existence of a single, transcendent personal
God (Purusha, Deva), in some cases higher
than Brahman.
Bhagavad Gita
the Vaishnava Traditions
The personalist
understanding of
Brahman is developed
further in and central to
the Bhagavad Gita
(circa 200 BCE).
Krishna is avatara (God
who “descends” in
human form). The
impersonal Brahman is
subsumed under an
aspect of Lord Krishna
(e.g., Gita, 14:27).
Lord Krishna
The Bhagavad Gita presents Krishna as the
manifestation of God on earth. While the Gita
emphasizes the loving friendship between Krishna
and warrior Arjuna, the text emphasizes Krishna’s
aishvarya (Lordship) qualities, his godlike qualities
that instill awe and reverence. (See Gita, ch. 11)
The Gita likely reflects the existence of VishnuKrishna worship (Vaishnavism) in India at the
time of its composition, but the text became a
centerpiece in the spread and eventual
ascendency of Vaishnavism in India in the
common era.
Srimad Bhagavatam
(4th – 6th centuries CE):
Krishna as the flute playing cow
herder attracting the gopis
(milkmaids) of Vrindavana.
Krishna is presented as the
Supreme Being who descends to
earth to destroy demons and
protect the righteous, but his
madhurya (sweetness) qualities
are also emphasized, i.e., his
attractive human qualities that
engender intimacy and hence
are essential to the cultivation of
various moods of bhakti (loving
devotion to God).
The Bhakti Renaissance
Between the 6th and 9th centuries CE devotion to
Vishnu-Krishna grew in intensity in South
India among many poets and mystics.
The Alvars
• The mystics of South India were called Alvars (alvar,
Tamil, one who rules the world by his love of God).
They were instrumental in the Renaissance of the
bhakti teachings of the Gita and Bhagavata Purana.
• The bhakti movement eventually made its way into
Northern India around the time Northern India came
under Islamic rule by the 13th century.
• The Bhakti renaissance, which had a lasting impact
on the religious culture of India, would play an
important role in shaping the great medieval tradition
of Hindu philosophy called Vedanta.
While the “popular” axis of Hindu revival in India by
the 7th century took the form of devotional theism,
primarily in the form of various Vaishnava and Shaivite
sects, the “scholarly” axis of the revival resulted in
Vedanta, which emerged between the 7th and 8th
Important Intersection between the Popular
and Scholarly Axes of the Hindu Revival
Many of the great Vedantin philosophers, e.g.,
Ramanuja and Madhva, were personally committed to
and engaged in devotional theism (bhakti), specifically
Back to Vedanta Philosophy
All schools of Vedanta maintain that the goal
of human life is to realize Brahman (the
ultimate reality), to be united with the
transcendental ground of the universe.
Schools of Vedanta differ with respect to
how they conceive of Brahman, what
realization of and union with Brahman
involves, and how this is achieved.
Vedanta: Advaita vs. Bhakti
The main division between schools of Vedanta is
the Advaita Vedanta school
(developed by Sankara)
the various dissenting schools of Bhakti Vedanta
(e.g., represented by Ramanuja, Madhva,
Nimbarka, Caitanya).
Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta
(1)Brahman – construed as the impersonal Absolute – alone is real.
(2)The true self of each person (atman) is the same reality and it is
identical with Brahman
(3)Moksha involves the absorption of individual consciousness into
Brahman by way of the path of knowledge (jnana yoga).
Bhakti Vedanta
(1) Brahman is a real personal being endowed with auspicious
(2) The true self of each person is distinct from the true self of
others, and each is distinct from Brahman.
(3) Bhakti (love of God) brings about union of the individual
soul with the personal Supreme God and moksha.
The representatives of Bhakti Vedanta are
Vaishnavas in their religious orientation.
Vaishnavas worship Vishnu or any of the avatars
associated with Vishnu (such as Rama or Krishna)
as the Supreme being.
Vedanta philosophy is thus divided along
seemingly opposite ends of the metaphysical
1. Metaphysical Monism: the apparent dualities
of the world are ultimately dissolved into pure
undifferentiated consciousness.
1. Theistic Personalism: the dualities of the
world are transcended by the perfection of a
relation between a true, individual self and the
Supreme personal being that is the ground of
the existence of all souls and all worlds.
• Steven Rosen, Essential Hinduism (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006).
• Gavin Food, Introduction to Hinduism (Cambridge, 1996)
• R.C. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (New York: Schocken
Books, 1969), Chapters 2-4.
• R.C. Zaehner, Hinduism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972).
• Swami Prabhavanda, The Spiritual Heritage of India: A Clear
Summary of Indian Philosophy and Religion (Hollywood, CA:
Vedanta Press, 1979), Chapters 1-3.
• Keith Ward, Concepts of God: Images of the Divine in Five Religious
Traditions (Oneworld, 1998), Chapters 1-2.
• Hans Torwesten, Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism (New York: Grove
Press, 1991), Chapter 1.
• Dominic Goodall (ed.), Hindu Scriptures (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 1996).
• Edwin Bryant (ed., trans.), Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God
(Srimad Bhagavata Purana, Book X) (Penguin Books, 2003),
“Introduction,” pp. xvii-xviii.