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Introduction to Vedanta • Vedanta (derived from veda, knowledge; anta, end), literally means end or completion of knowledge. • 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 India. 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. Advaita Vedanta Sankara 8th-9th Century Hamsa Sampradaya Nimbarka 13th century Sri Sampradaya Brahma Sampradaya Ramanuja 12th Century Madhva 13th Century Rudha Sampradaya Vallabha 15th and 16th Century Caitanya Sampradaya Caitanya 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 Upanishad 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 I. BRAHMAN The Upanishads emphasize the impermanence of the empirical world, physical reality as we experience it through our senses. Maya Beyond Maya, there is an unchanging reality called Brahman (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, I.5-9) Brahman as the Impersonal Absolute 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. Brahma Vishnu Shiva 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, VI.1-23). • 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) II. ATMAN 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? III. AVIDYA 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. IV. SAMSARA and KARMA The Upanishads teach that all life forms move through repeated cycles of birth, death, and rebirth, until final liberation from this cycle. The cycle of death and rebirth is called Samsara. Its fuel or energy is called Karma. The termination of the cycle is called Moksha. “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 transcended. V. MOKSHA Moksha is the state of release from samsara. 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 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 (liberation) 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 Sat-Chit-Ananda Being (Sat) Consciousness (Chit) Bliss (Ananda) Satchitananda is also the name of Brahman. 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 Atman Brahman Avidya Karma Samsara Moksha 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 and 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 centuries. 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 Vaishnavism. 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 between the Advaita Vedanta school (developed by Sankara) and 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 attributes. (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 spectrum: 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. References • 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.