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Two Major Thinkers in Vedanta
Vedanta Hinduism is one of the six classical schools of Hindu philosophy. It has exerted
enormous influence upon Indian intellectual traditions and is the best known form of Hinduism
in the West.
Advaita Vedanta (Non-Dualism)
Shankara (788-820) is the major intellectual architect of Advaita Vedanta.
Advaita Vedanta is monistic – there is only one reality, spirit, which is Nirguna Brahman
(Brahman without attributes or qualities).
Advaita Vedanta divides reality and truth into two levels or dimensions:
1. Levels of reality
a. Reality (Nirguna Brahman)
b. Appearance (maya)
2. Levels of truth
a. The Higher Knowledge / Truth
b. The Lower Knowledge / Truth (provisional)
One attains moksha or liberation from rebirths through a penetrating insight into one’s own
essential identity with Brahman. Shankara advocated the way of right knowledge (jnana marga)
as the means for liberation. This knowledge comes through careful study of the Vedas
(especially the later Upanishads), rigorous yoga and meditation.
The way of works (karma marga) and the way of devotion (bhakti marga) are important and
helpful but not ultimately efficacious; it is right knowledge that liberates.
Vishisht Advaita (Qualified Non-Dualism)
Ramanuja (1040?-1137) is the major figure in this movement. He is convinced that Shankara’s
monism is incoherent and removes any real knowledge of Brahman. Ramanuja is concerned to
retain real distinctions within Brahman and he promotes the way of bhakti (devotion) as the
preferred way of liberation.
Vishisht Advaita holds that there is only one reality but it maintains that the sole reality is
Saguna Brahman (Brahman with attributes or qualities) and that the world is real. Individual
souls (atman) are also real. Individuals and the world are an extension or creative manifestation
of Brahman; the world is the “body of Brahman”.
Saguna Brahman is in fact Vishnu, a personal Being. Moksha or liberation comes through proper
devotion to Vishnu. The way of works and the way of knowledge are important but ultimately it
is bhakti that is efficacious.
When liberated from rebirth, the soul (atman) retains its own identity in a state of bliss within
Brahman; it does not lose its identity by being absorbed into Brahman. (Ramakrishna – “I want
to taste sugar, not become sugar”.)
Ramanuja rejected Shankara’s notion of two levels of truth as incompatible with the Vedas and
incoherent. He developed a sophisticated theory of language and reference to show how
language used in the Vedas of Brahman can be informative (similarities to Thomas Aquinas’
views on language).
As a devotee of Vishnu, Ramanuja emphasized the doctrine of avatar or divine “descent”.
The cult of Vishnu believes in various manifestations or appearances of the deity on earth,
principally as Rama or Krishna. There are said to be ten avatars of Vishnu, including as
animals as well as people, the most famous of which is as Krishna.
In the Bhagavad Gita (c. 200 B.C.) Krishna is presented as a manifestation of Vishnu, the
Supreme God who, if made the object of proper devotion, will provide salvation. Krishna is
depicted as the culmination of all the previous religious forms and as bringing a higher and
better way of salvation or release. The ways of action and knowledge are not rejected, but the
way of bhakti is said to be superior.
"And of all the yogins, he who full of faith worships Me [Krishna], with his inner self abiding
in me -- him I hold to be the most attuned to me…. For those who take refuge in Me
[Krishna], O Partha [Arjuna], though they are lowly born, women, vaisyas [merchants or
traders], as well as sudras [workers] -- they also attain to the highest goal -- How much
more, then, holy brahmins [priests - teachers] and devoted royal saints, having entered this
impermanent sorrowful world, do thou worship Me. On Me fix thy mind; to Me be devoted;
worship Me; revere Me; thus having disciplined thyself, with Me as thy goal, to Me shalt
thou come." [Gita 9. 32-34]