Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XXVI

The Advaita Vedanta - Part 'A'

Continued from Part XXV

In earlier parts, almost all essential aspects of Hinduism have been introduced or briefly discussed. Evidently, unlike other major religions in the world, the Hinduism is not a dogmatic, doctrinal or cult-based religion based on a set of dictat contained in a holy book or delivered by a prophet or messenger alleged to be the words of God. Instead, the Hinduism is very vast and profound largely a synthesis or fusion of the knowledge and wisdom of the many Rishis engaged in logically and intelligently enquiring into the truth of universe since Vedic period. This collective truth is reflected in the ancient scriptures and texts, especially the four Vedas and ten principal Upanishads. Hindus are free to follow any concept, doctrines or rules according to their faith or conviction. This is the reason why some followers seek unmanifested God (Nirguna Brahman), many others follow manifested God (Saguna Brahman) or gods and some remain atheist too. Also the Hinduism has no belief in conversion or imposing own thoughts on others.

Such a liberty exists in this religion because of the belief that every god or deity is manifestation of the same Brahman who is Supreme being or soul of the universe and from which all existing things arise, and into which they all return. The essence of Brahman is all pervading, divine, invisible, unlimited and indescribable. The other core characteristic of the Hinduism, thanks to the wisdom of the great rishis of the Vedic era, is that it did not put any restriction on followers for the reasoning, questioning, exploration and debate in the quest of finding absolute truth. This intellectual freedom led to evolution of many paths or Darshanas (philosophies) in pursuing the same ultimate reality or cosmic truth; the philosophies being different but the goal remaining same. Among many such philosophies, Advaita Vedanta is one which was found most logical, vibrant and viable hence acceptable to the majority of the followers. It was briefly introduced in one of the previous parts and the author now proposes to discuss aspects of the Vedanta philosophy, particularly Advaita, in detail.

As Hindus worship multiple gods with a central theme and belief that all of them are a manifestation of the same almighty God, others particularly in Western world describe Hinduism as a polytheistic religion, while essentially it is monistic meaning thereby that all reality is ultimately one. According to Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is the only eternal, infinite, immanent, unchanging and transcendent reality as the divine basis of all matter, energy, time, space, being and everything beyond. In the quest of the absolute cosmic truth, the Hinduism has always endorsed the right to reasoning, questioning, exploration, tolerance and debate. We find many instances of the iconic debates among the sages and scholars in ancient India in the quest of knowing God and spirituality. The debate of Adi Shankara, young sanyasi and theologian with Mandana Mishra, householder and Mimamsa scholar could be quoted as one of the finest and classical example of such healthy debates with mutual tolerance and understanding through the spirit of “convince me” or “get convinced”.

Adi Shankara and His Works

Among the Indian philosophers and theologians, Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada alias Adi Shankaracharya occupies a unique position following the Advaita philosophy which he propounded largely based on the knowledge of Upanishads. An eighth century philosopher and scholar, Adi Shankara was born in Kaladi near Perumbavoor, Kerala and died at the age of 32 at Kedarnath, Uttarakhand. Having imbibed the teachings of Vedas and Upanishads under the supervision of Guru Govinda Bhagavadpada, he propounded the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta and wrote extensive interpretation and commentaries on ancient Hindu scriptures. Notwithstanding a short lifespan, his extensive commentaries on Prasthanatrayi i.e. Brahma Sutras, Principal Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are so far the most authentic and popular formulations and preaching beyond the limits of time and space. When he arrived at the scene, the Sanatana Dharmees were passing through the critical dilemma of Karma Kanda versus Jnana Kanda, with the former dominating and being propagated under the Mimamsa philosophy.

During the contemporary time, Mandana Misra and wife Ubhaya Bharati were considered an ideal couple and icon of learning, ethical behavior and strict observers of rituals based Mimamsa Darshana. The young sanyasi and keen Advaita Vedantin, Adi Shankara was committed and keen to establish the true Vedic dictum of Jnana Kanda with the spiritual insight over the ritual based Karma Kanda. So he politely yet obstinately challenged Mandana Misra for a dialectical debate over the spiritual truth of the universe. The veteran scholar Mandana Misra not only accepted the challenge but also gave option to Adi Shankara to choose a judge of his choice considering the latter's age and experience, who sought Ubhya Bharti for the task. Needless to mention that the debate continued for months in the presence of hundreds of scholarly audience and finally Mandan Misra, and his wife Bharti as well, accepted defeat with humility and became staunch Vedantins and followers of young Adi Shankara.

Apart from establishing the truth of Advaita Vedanta, this classical debate is also an illustration of the nature and healthy tradition that the Sanatana Dharma has followed since ancient time i.e. the spirit of tolerance and healthy discourse and debate among followers of different philosophies which unique in Hinduism. The underlying philosophy being that all human beings are essentially travelling towards the same unknown or lesser-known destination, though their path may be different. Hence they need to have an open mind and courage to test their faith, to question their beliefs, and to change their philosophies, if reason demanded such a change. Like there may be many routes to reach the hill top, same way different religions may have the same goal with different philosophies. Hence in the process of the self-realization through the spiritual progress, everyone should be open to accept new concepts through experiments, debates or questionings that have potential to solve many puzzles of the human mind.

Despite a short life, Adi Shankara is well known for his elaborate, systematic and comprehensive Bhasyas (reviews and commentaries) on ancient Indian scriptures and texts. Among them the most prominent and masterpiece is the Brahmasutrabhasya (i.e. commentary on Brahmsutras), which is considered as a fundamental text of the Vedanta school of Hinduism. Besides, his review and commentaries of the ten principal Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are also considered authentic and scholarly works. These Upanishads, Brahmasutras and Bhagavad Gita together constitute the famous Prasthanatrayi in Hinduism that is three reliable sources or canonical texts of Divine philosophy, especially relevant for the Vedanta schools.

Essence of Vedanta Philosophy

The Vedanta school developed with the emphasis on the Jnana-kanda which is the latter or end part of the Vedas in the form of ten Principal Upanishads that talk about the monism besides being a credible source of the authentic knowledge of the cosmic truth and spirituality. With a view to synthesize and systematize the thoughts of the Upanishads, Rishi Vyasa (Badarayana) wrote "Brahmasutra" which is considered the most authoritative and reliable text among the sutras and commentaries authored by many other sages and scholars too around that time. Later on other sages and scholars developed their philosophies on Vedanta based on the knowledge contained in the Brahmasutra and Principal Upanishads.

Consequently among ancient Hindu philosophies, the Vedanta Darshana, and more particularly Advaita Vedanta, is the most debated and followed philosophy among the adherents of Hinduism. Vedanta literally means "end of the Vedas", and largely reflects analysis and interpretations of the core concepts and philosophies contained in the Upanishads (particularly ten Principal Upanishads) which are basically extended texts of Vedas discussing meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge and so on (Jnana Kanda). It is an admixture of multiple sub-traditions mainly based on dualism and non-dualism principles inspired from the Upanishads, Brahmasutra and Sri Bhagavad Gita.

The Upanishads, particularly the ten Principal Upanishads, are known as Upadesha prasthana (injunctive texts); they are also commonly referred to as Vedanta and core texts that played important role in the evolution of spiritual ideas in Hinduism. The Brahmasutras is known as Nyaya prasthana (logical text) which summarizes and systematizes the philosophical contents of the Upanishads and is among the foundational texts of the Vedanta philosophy. Lastly, the Bhagavad Gita is Sadhana prasthana (practical text) that appear as Krishna-Arjuna dialogue in Mahabharata on a wide range of spiritual topics including Yoga, reincarnation and Moksha; the Gita is essentially a synthesis the Hindu ideas about Dharma, Karma and Moksha through Jnana, Bhakti and Karma yogas. Accordingly, various Sub-traditions of the Vedanta Darshana emerged based on the interpretations and commentaries of Acharyas/scholars like Adi Sankara(788CE - 820CE), Ramanuja (12th century CE) and Madhva (13th century CE) and so on.

All Vedanta sub-traditions or schools talk about three principle entities or core elements i.e. Brahman - the Supreme Consciousness and ultimate metaphysical reality; the Atman or Jivatman (the individual soul or Self); and Maya or illusion that represents the empirical universe or existence in terms of the physical world, body and matter. Brahman (God) along with the Atman (soul) is the key metaphysical aspect of the Hindu Darshana and all traditions while what we experience day-to-day is Maya, the third dimension and empirical reality which is ever changing and perishable. The other core concepts that all Vedanta sub-schools accept are Samsara (reincarnation i.e. cycle of birth, death and rebirth) and Moksha (salvation i.e. liberation from reincarnation).

Advaita Vedanta

Advaita Vedanta is the most popular Sub-tradition followed by the Hindus. Followers of the Advaita believe in non-dualism (monism) that is the Atman (soul) is not different from Brahman (God). Advaita philosophy holds that Brahman is the only reality and everything else is mere illusion in the universe. The followers of this philosophy are called Advaita Vedantins or Advaitins who seek Moksha through noble deeds and acquiring vidya or Jnana (knowledge). According to this doctrine, the Moksha is possible while still living i.e. Jivan-mukti, besides the usual concept of liberation after death i.e. Videha-mukti.

The Atman or the individual self has no separate existence of its own but a projection or extension of Brahman only in each living being. The Atman is a deluded entity ridden by desires, egoism and other impurities, and therefore experiences duality and separation. Consequently, it is also bound to the cycle of births and deaths and the laws of Karma until Moksha (liberation) is achieved. The Brahman is within the living beings but they do not realize or experience Him due to delusion in the form of impurities in the consciousness. This Supreme Self or Reality could be experienced when the said impurities are fully withdrawn through detachment, purity and renunciation which is achievable through Jnana Yoga.

The ‘Mandukya Karika’ of Gaudapada is the known to be the earliest treatise on the Advaita Vedanta though it may not be the oldest or only known Pre-Shankara work on the subject. However, the monumental works of Adi Shankara constitute its most authentic and core literature. Successive Advatin scholars kept enriching the Advaita philosophy through their teachings and scholarly work. Adi Shankara’s teacher Govinda Bhagavatpada is widely believed to be the direct disciple of Gaudapada who is referred to as the "teacher's teacher" in some of Adi Shankara’s writings. Advaita Vedanta also professes that the salvation is achievable by anyone but an enlightened guru (teacher) with the knowledge of scriptures and Brahman is advisable.

Core Advaita Philosophy: Brahman, Atman & Maya

Advaita philosophy essentially derives roots in the Upanishads, and Adi Shankara was among the most eminent teachers who endorsed and continued the Upanishadic tradition. The Advaita is literally non-dualism in the quest of understanding Brahman, the source of all existence in the universe, the Atman or Individual Self (Soul), and the relationship between the two in the context of the materialistic existential world. Two widely used terms in the Hindu philosophy are Dvaita and Advaita: the former means duality while the latter is non-duality meaning thereby the absence of duality between the subject and object which in theological and spiritual sense denotes Brahman (God) and Atman (Soul). All Vedanta philosophies have aforesaid three core elements with varying interpretation and definition.

The Advaita philosophy holds Brahman as the highest Reality, Who is the root source, origin and end of everything - material and spiritual. Brahman remains the sole unchanging reality with no duality, no limited individual or unlimited cosmic soul; instead all souls across all space and time are one and the same. In other words, the universe and the soul inside each being is Brahman, and the universe and the soul outside each being is also Brahman. The objective goal of Advaita is to understand that one's Self (Atman) gets obscured by Avidya (ignorance and false-identification). Once Avidya is removed, the Atman is realized as identical with Brahman. Thus Brahman is not outside and separate but within each living being, and is Nirguna i.e. without attributes, ultimate and sole reality.

Advaita Vedanta also considers Atman (soul) as self-existent awareness, limitless and non-dual. To put it in a simpler way: the Atman is Brahman - the Brahman is Atman; thus there is no distinction between Atman and Brahman. The knowledge of Atman (soul or Self) is synonymous to the knowledge of Brahman inside the person and outside the person. The realization of this cosmic truth leads to the sense of oneness with all existence, self-realization, eternal bliss and Moksha (salvation). Among many distinguished Advaita scholars and theologists, Adi Shanka holds the most prominent and popular position in the Advaita tradition.

The Upanishads see Brahman as the highest, eternal, self-existent, indestructible, indefinable, indivisible, infinite, all pervading, omniscient, omnipotent, supreme, pure entity who is present everywhere with endless manifestations, infinite dimensions and powers, The Advaita acknowledges the teachings of Upanishads endorsing Brahman as the Supreme Reality and expands its philosophy centred around this reality. The manifestations and aspects of Brahman are defined as Asat (indeterminate), Sat (determinate), Isvara (Universal God), Hiranyagarbha (cosmic self), Viraj (Cosmic Body), Purusha (Cosmic Being), Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) , Satchitananda (truth, consciousness, bliss), and so on in Advaita. He is the ultimate transcendental and eternal entity that transforms into the immanent and ingrained realities in the universe.

According to Adi Shankara, Satchitananda is identical with Brahman and Atman, and the knowledge of Brahman cannot be obtained by any means other than the self-inquiry. Thus Brahman along with the Atman constitutes the central spiritual theme in the Hindu philosophy and a foundational concept of the Advaita Vedanta. The Atman is the self-existent awareness, limitless and non-dual within each living entity, and it is identical to the universal eternal Brahman. It is an experience of "oneness" in a being which simultaneously unifies all beings as the divine in every being. According to Advaitins, the Atman represents the introspective and self-conscious awareness and not the perishable body, ego, desires or cravings; it is due to ignorance and unawareness that human beings experience I-ness (distinct Persona) as different from others under various impulses and emotions.

That Atman is identical to Brahman is also expressed in the mahavakya "tat tvam asi" (you are that). The common ground of awareness i.e. consciousness is the chief link between the individual and Brahman; and the original nature of the Atman is not different from the infinite Brahman. According to Adi Shankara, the Atman and Brahman appear different at the empirical level but this difference is deceptive and illusionary because at the highest level of reality both are identical. Corrupted under the influence of Maya or illusion, the Atman attains Moksha by realizing the identity of this true Self with Brahman.

According to Advaita Vedanta, the phenomenal world is a constantly changing reality which appears as such due to illusion and ignorance. As other than the Brahman (and Atman), everything in the cosmos, that is all material objects and individuals including the universe itself are constantly changing and therefore are part of the illusion. Thus the Advaita put forth the concept of two realities: Paramarthika (absolute reality) and Vyavaharika (empirical reality); while the Brahman and Atman constitute the absolute reality, the material world or Maya represents the empirical reality.

According to this concept, in common parlance the Atman (or Jiva), conditioned by the human mind, experiences subjective casualties which tend to mislead in interpreting it as the actual reality. This perpetuates a sense of false duality or divisional plurality of the world. This ephemeral and ever changing apparent reality overshadows the ever unchanged true metaphysical reality and, in turn, tends to create bondage for the Jiva in the vicious cycle of samsara and reincarnation. Hence, according to Advaita, the Moksha is the only viable goal that needs to be sought for through the spiritual enlightenment in the path of knowing the Brahman i.e. realizing the unity and oneness of all reality.

Mahavakyas Advaitins Use

Advaitins are often known to quote from the Upanishads what is known as the Mahavakyas or “the great sentences” to illustrate the nature and relationship of the Brahman and Atman and to insist that the Atman or Individual Self and Brahman or the Supreme Reality are one and the same. Some such popular Mahavakyas are reproduced here:

Satyam Jnanam Anantam Brahma (Brahman is of the nature of truth, knowledge and infinity)
Taittiriya Upanishad 2.1.1

Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman)
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10

Ekam evadvitiyam {That (Brahman) is one, without a second}
Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1

Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma (All this is Brahman or The whole universe is Brahman)
Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1

Tat Tvam Asi (Thou are That)
Chandogya 6.8.7

Ayamatma Brahma (This Atman is Brahman)
Mandukya Upanishad 1.2 

Brahma Satyam Jaganmithya, Jivo Brahmaiva Naparah (Brahman is the truth, the world is unreal; Brahman and Individual Self are no different)
Adi Sankara's Brahmajnanavalimala verse 20

Among the oldest Upanishads, the Sandilya doctrine in the Chandogya Upanishad explains the metaphysical concept of Brahman in many ways. It insists that the Brahman is identical to Atman (soul), thus the Brahman is also inside the man. The Atman is stated as the central theme in many Upanishads, underlining that the core of a person's self is not the body or the mind but the "Atman" as the spiritual essence, eternal and ageless, of all living beings.

Moksha: Knowing the Brahman

Hindu scriptures talks about Putushartha as four defined goals in life discussed at length in one of the previous parts by this author. These four goals are defined as Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. The Advaita philosophy has accepted these goals of human life as natural and logical where Dharma denotes the righteous duties and obligations, Artha as the means to support and sustain life, Kama as the pleasure and enjoyment and Moksha as the liberation - the ultimate goal of existence. While acknowledging the relevance of the first three, the Advaita accords highest focus to the Moksha as means of knowing Brahman and Self-realization.

Accordingly, in Advaita the soteriological goal of the human life is defined as the endeavor to gain correct knowledge and understanding of the truth of the Atman and Brahman which alone could lead to dissolution of the dualistic tendencies essential for liberation. Moksha is attained by realizing one's true identity as Atman and the complete knowledge and understanding of the real nature of the Atman and Brahman in this life. This is explained by Adi Shankara as under:

I am other than name, form and action.
My nature is ever free!
I am Self, the supreme unconditioned Brahman.
I am pure Awareness, always non-dual.    -  Adi Shankara, Upadesasahasri 11.7

Then according to the Advaita, contrary to the common belief of liberation following the death (Krama-mukti and/or Videha-mukti), Moksha can be achieved during the life time which is called Jivan-mukti. The knowledge of the true Self and its relationship to Brahman is central to this liberation which leads to the state of full awareness, freedom and feeling of the divine within oneself and all beings by getting rid of the dualities of all kinds. The person who is able to achieve this state of divinity is called Jivan-mukta with the following attributes.

  • He will treat others with love and regard simultaneously enduring and disregarding disrespect or cruel conduct of others;
  • He will not deviate from the right path and truth even in adverse circumstances;
  • He will follow Ahimsa (non-violence) and welfare to all beings;
  • He will not crave for the praise or blessings for any good in return from anyone;
  • He will be comfortable being alone and contended with the minimum he needs for living;
  • He will be free from any cravings for the worldly comfort and pleasures and true knowledge (Jnana) would only matter to him;
    • He will be humble, straight, high spirited, clear and steady in mind, compassionate, patient, indifferent, courageous, firm yet with sweet by words and demeanor.

Advaita and States of Consciousness

Advaita postulated three states of consciousness, namely Jagrat (waking), Svapna (dreaming) and Susupti (deep sleep), which are experienced by all human beings corresponding to the "Doctrine of the Three bodies" in Hinduism. Then there is yet another state called ‘Turiya’ which is taken as pure consciousness that underlies and transcends the three common states of consciousness. This metaphysical postulation of the Advaita is based on similar references in some of the early Upanishads. For illustration, the chapters 8 of the Chandogya Upanishad talks about the four states of consciousness as awake, dream-filled sleep, deep sleep and beyond deep sleep while the fourth state finds a mention as ‘Turiya’ in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (verse 5.14.3).

The Doctrine of the Three Bodies is based on the following postulation:

  • The Karana Sharira (causal body) that has no functional causes other than serving as the seed of the subtle and gross bodies; it is the product of Avidya (ignorance) of real identity of the soul.
  • The Sukshma Sharira (subtle body) represents the mind and vital energies necessary for keeping the physical (gross) body alive; it combines with causal body to form the Jiva or transmigrating soul. The subtle body comprises of five elements, namely five organs of perception, five organs of action, five-fold vital breath, Manas (mind) and Buddhi (intellect).
  • The Sthula Sharira (gross body) is the material physical and mortal body which is visible and experienced by all.

In some ancient texts, the three bodies are equated with five Koshas (sheaths), namely the gross body, vital breath, mind, intellect and causal body which cover or overshadow the Atman.

The first state i.e. the Jagrat or waking state, in which a human being is aware of all that occurs in the surrounding, corresponds with the gross body. The second state is the Svapna or dreaming state which corresponds to the subtle body while the third Susupti or deep sleep represents the causal body. According to the Advaita philosophy, it is the fourth state of Turiya which represents the ‘pure consciousness’ and is ordinarily difficult to achieve. When the being is able to transcend the earlier described three states of consciousness, it is said to achieve Turiya, the state of liberation where the Atman is free from the dualistic experience achieving pure awareness. In such case the knowledge (Jnana), the knower (Atman) and the known (Brahman) are in complete harmony, and the being is said to have achieved Jivan-mukti.

Practicing Advaita through Jnana Yoga 

Vedanta recognizes Jnana Yoga as the main course for learning the truth of the universe. The authentic literature in this regard is available in Advaita classics like Upadesasahasri and Vivekachudamani; the authorship of both the texts is ascribed to Adi Shankara. An Advaitin pursuing the true knowledge and wisdom is required to possess four qualities and three stages of practice. The four qualities are as under:

1. Nityanitya vastu viveka - The ability to correctly differentiate the real and eternal with the apparent real, transitory and changing;
2. Ihamutrartha phala bhoga viraga - The renunciation of desires distracting the mind, and forsake things causing obstacle in the pursuit of true knowledge;
3. Samadi satka sampatti – The pursuance of the six-fold virtues, namely Sama (mental tranquility), Dama (self-restraints), Uparati (dispassion), Titiksa (endurance and perseverance), Shraddha (faith) and Samadhana (attention).
4. Mumuksutva - A positive quest for the knowledge and liberation.

Advaita philosophy accords high value and importance to the correct knowledge as it destroys ignorance and false perceptions about the Atman and Brahman. Apart from acquiring the aforesaid virtues, the Advaitins are recommended to pursue Jnana Yoga through three stages of practice, namely Sravana (hearing), Manana (thinking) and Nididhyasana (meditation).

1. Sravana – One may hear and study the teachings of sages and scholars of the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta and ancient texts like Brahmasutras. A qualified teacher may also be very useful.
2. Manana – Contemplation and discussions over the ideas and issues originated out of the Svadhyaya (self-study) and Sravana.
3. Nididhyasana – This stage refers to the meditation and introspection which actually leads to realization and fusion of the thoughts and activities. While Adi Shankara had emphasized the aforesaid virtues and practices for self-realization, two more requisites namely Samadhi and Guru were added by the subsequent Advaitic scholars.

Swan as Motif in Advaita

The Advaitins use swan as a motif or logo with the Sanskrit vakya “Brahmaiva Satyam (Brahman is the only Truth). The swan is also a popular motif in the traditional Hindu symbolism in several shrines, temples, books of knowledge and personal homes.

In Advaita, it is symbolic to two essential things: first, the Sanskrit word for the swan is hamsah which is pronounced/spelled as ‘hamso’ due to certain Sanskrit grammar. If the word is repeated many times, one gets a sound of ‘so’ham’ i.e. I am That (referring to Supreme Reality) that sounds like one of the Mahavakyas (great sentences) in Hinduism; Second, the popular symbolism that like a swan lives in the lake but its feathers are not soiled by water, a liberated Advaitin lives in this empirical world but is not corrupted by the Maya. Thus the swan is also a symbol for the Jivan-mukta, the one liberated while still alive by virtue of truly knowing the Brahman.

Continued to Part XXVII 


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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