What are Vedantas?
Also known as Uttara Mimamsa, Vedanta is one of the six schools (astika) of Hindu philosophy. The word Vedanta translates as the end (-anta) of Vedas (ved-). Vedantas are reflections on the ideas and the philosophies we find in the Vedas. The core ideas of the Vedantas have inferred from the texts of Prasthanatrayi, i.e., the three sources of divine philosophy of Hinduism. The Prasthanatrayi consists of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutras.
Vedanta is not one particular doctrine or philosophy. It comprises of several different schools of thought. All the schools seek to establish the truth of the Universe using the ideas found in the Prasthanatrayi. Though the schools differ in their views, all of them concern themselves with three main ideas- Brahman (the ultimate reality), Atman (the soul or the self), and Prakriti (the physical matter). Some of the schools include Advaita, Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita, and Bhedabheda.
Over the years, Vedanta became a very prominent school of Hinduism. With time, many new ideas were adopted, including some from other astikas like Yoga. Vedantas led to the development of quite a few Hindu traditions across India. For instance, the Shaktism tradition where the goddess is considered the Brahman (not to be confused with Brahmin), was heavily influenced by the Advaita Vedanta philosophies.
Advaita Vedanta- A Non-Dualistic Reality
Like most of the schools of Hindu philosophy, Advaita Vedanta is also a path to spiritual realization. Advaita Vedanta presents to us a non-dualistic kind of reality. In it, the true self (Atman) is the same as the ultimate metaphysical reality (Brahman). The roots of Advaita Vedanta can be traced back to 1st Millennium BCE. However, it is the 8th-century scholar Adi Shankaracharya who consolidated and developed the ideologies of Advaita Vedanta.
Adi Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta negates the age-old idea of the Atman being distinct than the Brahman. Like modern-day philosophies, this particular Vedanta focuses on the individual’s “true” self, seeking to attain moksha by realizing what this self entails. Accordingly, knowledge of one’s true self is liberating. Self-knowledge does not mean the awareness of Brahman within us. On the contrary, Advaitins believe that knowledge is the realization that awareness is Brahman. This viewpoint stresses on the importance of transcending all forms of duality and becoming one with the Brahman.
Brahman according to the Advaitins
The concept of Brahman within Advaita Vedanta is quite interesting to note. Adi Shankaracharya viewed Brahman as the ultimate reality beyond the human concepts of time and space. According to him, Brahman is nirguna, i.e., Brahman has no qualities or attributes whatsoever. The human perception of Brahman as finite and plural is because of their habit of superimposition (adhyasa). By referring to the Brahman as someone with certain qualities, humans created a separate personality of Brahman- God. Shankaracharya, thereby, makes a clear distinction between the saguna God and the nirguna Brahman. Advaitins believe that this human habit stems from ignorance or avidya (ajnana). The only way to get rid of this ajnana is the realization of the identity of Brahman.
The understanding of Brahman requires the realization of the Atman- our true self. And that is achieved by anubhava (immediate intuition). Direct awareness of Atman is free from all definitions- this can be experienced only with correct knowledge. Correct knowledge kills all forms of human ignorance and leaves us with jnana of the Atman. Jnana is obtained via three stages of practice- sravana (hearing), manana (thinking), and nidhidhyasana (meditation).
The world is Maya; Maya is Brahman
Maya plays a fascinating role in Advaita Vedanta philosophies. We know that Atman is quite an essential aspect of this philosophy. We also know that Atman and Brahman are one and the same thing according to the Advaitins. What we need to know is the fact that Shankaracharya preached the concept of a universal soul (atman). According to him, the Atman, which is our life-force, is different than the jiva, which is what we think we are. Jiva comprises of individual consciousness, ego, and mortal perception of self. Atman, on the other hand, is the divine consciousness.
Advaita Vedanta posits that we all are one Atman. There is just one Atman, and there is only one “me.” And that Atman is the same as Brahman. Brahman is the absolute reality for everyone else. Everything else is maya. Our bodies, our jiva, the physical matter around us- all are maya. Maya tricks us into believing that our bodies, thoughts, and perceptions make us individuals, different from one another. When in reality, we are all one soul. That is the absolute truth. That is Brahman. In fact, even Maya is Brahman. What created us is the only thing present within us- as matter and as consciousness.
Moksha is the realization that everything is maya. It is when we realize that we all are one. It is the realization of the fact that maya isn’t unreal- even that is Brahman. Everything else becomes unimportant when we realize Brahman. Brahma Satyam, Jagan Mithya. For moksha, Adi Shankaracharya believed in jivanmukti. Basically, he believed that one needn’t die to achieve moksha. The knowledge of Brahman is moksha.
The Symbolism of the Swan Motif
Advaita Vedanta uses a white swan as its motif. The reason behind this is very symbolic. Swans are pure. They are unaffected by the water around them. The humans should also be like them- unaffected by Maya. Separating ourselves from the maya around gets us moksha. Therefore, the swans are a symbol of jivanmukti.
The Sanskrit of a swan is Hamsa. A wordplay of Hamsa gives So’Ham, meaning I am He. So’Ham is the awareness that I am Brahman.
The greatest Advaita philosophers are called paramahamsas (supreme swan), a title given to someone who has attained enlightenment.
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What are Vedantas?