Advaita Vedanta, often simply called “Advaita“, is a philosophical and spiritual school that has left an indelible mark on Indian culture and religion. Through its teachings, it has influenced generations of thinkers, artists and spiritual seekers, both within and beyond Indian borders. But what exactly is Advaita Vedanta and what is its unique position in the broad spectrum of Hindu thought?
In Sanskrit,“Advaita” means “non-dual” and “Vedanta” translates as “the end (or conclusion) of the Vedas“. Thus, in its most basic form, Advaita Vedanta proposes that reality is nondual, i.e., that there is no real, fundamental distinction between the individual self (or soul) and the Supreme Self or ultimate reality. This idea contrasts with other schools of Hinduism that postulate dualities, such as the separate existence of the individual soul and God.
It is one of the six orthodox schools (darshanas) of Hindu thought. These schools offer different perspectives and practices, but all are considered orthodox in the sense that they recognize the authority of the Vedas. While there are many schools and sub-schools within Vedanta, Advaita is perhaps the best known and most widely discussed, both within and outside India.
History and Origins of Advaita Vedanta
Advaita Vedanta, as a philosophical and spiritual school, has its roots in a millennia-old past that stretches back to the earliest annals of Indian tradition. To fully understand the development and influence of Advaita, it is essential to trace its evolution through the sacred texts and key figures that have shaped its doctrine.
The Upanishads: Philosophical Foundations of Advaita
Before Advaita Vedanta was formally recognized as a school of thought, its teachings were already being formulated in the Upanishads, a set of esoteric and mystical texts that form the last part of the Vedas, India’s oldest scriptures. These texts profoundly explore the nature of reality, consciousness and the self.
Central ideas of Advaita, such as the identity between Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (cosmic reality), are deeply rooted in the Upanishads. For example, statements such as “Tat Tvam Asi” (Thou art that) and “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman) directly express this nondual identity and recur in these texts.
The Upanishads served as a kind of philosophical laboratory, where these ideas were discussed, meditated upon and refined. Although Advaita Vedanta takes much of its inspiration and foundations from these texts, it is essential to remember that the Upanishads also serve as the basis for other Vedantic schools that interpret their teachings differently.
Adi Shankaracharya: Consolidating Advaita
Although non-dual teachings can be found in the Upanishads, it was Adi Shankaracharya, in the 8th century AD, who really consolidated and systematized Advaita Vedanta as a coherent philosophical school. Born in the present-day state of Kerala, Adi Shankaracharya, often simply called Shankara, was a prodigy who from a young age demonstrated a deep understanding of the sacred texts.
Shankara traveled extensively throughout India, debating with scholars of different traditions and establishing monasteries (mathas). During these debates, he vigorously defended the ideas of Advaita and often emerged victorious, leading to wider acceptance of his teachings.
His most outstanding work, the“Bhashyas” or commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras, are considered definitive treatises on Advaita Vedanta. Through these commentaries, Shankara clearly and logically articulated the principles of Advaita, refuting the objections of other schools and establishing the primacy of non-dual thought.
Shankara was not only a great philosopher, but also a poet and devotee. His devotional compositions, celebrating divinity and the nondual nature of reality, remain popular and are sung throughout India.
Shankara’s consolidation of Advaita Vedanta took place at a crucial time in Indian history. During this period, Hinduism was facing challenges from other traditions, such as Buddhism and Jainism. Through his debates and teachings, Shankara not only defended Advaita Vedanta but also revitalized Hinduism in general, emphasizing the importance of the Vedic scriptures and the Brahmanical tradition.
After Shankara, Advaita Vedanta continued to evolve with the contribution of various scholars and teachers. While many of them reaffirmed and expanded Shankara’s teachings, there were also those who offered slightly different interpretations and emphases, which further enriched the tradition.
Fundamental concepts of Advaita
Advaita Vedanta is a rich and complex tradition that addresses some of the deepest questions of existence. Its teachings are based on a number of key concepts that serve as pillars for understanding its non-dual worldview. Let’s explore these fundamental concepts.
Brahman: The Supreme Reality
Brahman is the central concept of Advaita Vedanta. It represents the ultimate reality, the underlying principle behind all that exists. Brahman is eternal, immutable, omnipresent and transcendental. It is not limited by time, space or causality. It is both the creator and the substance of creation, but transcends both categories. In Advaita, Brahman is often described as “Sat-Chit-Ananda” – Self, Consciousness and Bliss.
Atman: The Self
Atman is the essential being or soul of each individual. In Advaita Vedanta, Atman is considered identical to Brahman. This non-dual identity between the individual soul and the supreme reality is the cornerstone of Advaita. While Brahman is the macrocosmic reality, Atman is the microcosmic counterpart. The true spiritual purpose, according to Advaita, is to recognize this identity: to realize that one is not simply the body or the mind, but Atman, which is Brahman.
Maya: The Illusion
The world we perceive, with its diversity and duality, is seen in Advaita as a manifestation of Maya. Maya is not simply “illusion” in the Western sense; it is rather the cosmic power that makes the immutable appear mutable, the eternal appear transitory. Maya is the reason we perceive the world as we do, but it is also what prevents us from seeing the ultimate reality of Brahman. It is not a matter of denying the existence of the world, but of understanding that its reality is secondary to that of Brahman.
Avidya: Spiritual Ignorance
The fundamental cause of human suffering, according to Advaita Vedanta, is Avidya, or ignorance. This is not ordinary ignorance, but a lack of understanding about our true nature. Because of Avidya, we identify with our bodies, minds and egos, rather than with Atman. This misidentification gives rise to desire, attachment, fear and suffering. Liberation (moksha) is achieved by overcoming this ignorance.
Moksha is liberation from the cycle of birth and reincarnation (samsara). It is the realization of one’s true nature as Atman, which is Brahman. Moksha is not something to be attained after death, but can be attained here and now. It is a state of complete liberation from all attachments and suffering, and is achieved through the realization of the non-duality of Atman and Brahman.
Guru: The Spiritual Master
In Advaita Vedanta, great importance is given to the guru or spiritual master. The guru is considered essential to guide the aspirant on his path to realization. A true guru is not simply a teacher or scholar, but someone who has realized the truth of Advaita in his own experience. The guru is said to be the means by which the truth is revealed, and his grace is essential for overcoming Avidya.
Jnana Yoga: The Path of Knowledge
While there are several paths (yogas) to realization in Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta emphasizes Jnana Yoga, the path of knowledge. Through discrimination (viveka), renunciation (vairagya) and deep meditation (dhyana), the aspirant seeks to transcend ignorance and realize his or her true nature.
The Three Tests (Prasthanatrayi) of Advaita Vedanta
At the heart of the Advaita Vedanta tradition are three sets of sacred texts collectively known as Prasthanatrayi, which literally means “the three sources” or “the three tests“. These fundamental texts, consisting of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras, provide the doctrinal basis for all schools of Vedanta, including Advaita. Let’s dive into each of these texts to understand their importance and relevance to Advaita Vedanta.
Upanishads: Mystical Revelations
The Upanishads are ancient texts that sit at the end of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. They are often referred to as Vedanta, meaning“the end of the Vedas.” While the early parts of the Vedas are focused on rituals and hymns, the Upanishads mark a shift towards philosophy and mysticism.
In the context of Advaita Vedanta, the Upanishads are invaluable because they introduce and explore the concept of non-duality between Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (cosmic reality). Phrases already mentioned such as “Tat Tvam Asi” (You are that) and “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman) encapsulate this fundamental teaching. The Upanishads delve into profound dialogues and meditations that explore the nature of being, consciousness and ultimate reality.
Bhagavad Gita: The Divine Dialogue
The Bhagavad Gita, often referred to simply as the Gita, is one of the most beloved and studied scriptures of Hinduism. It is presented as a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and the god Krishna, who is his charioteer. Set on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, just before the outbreak of a great war, the Gita addresses questions of duty, morality, life and death.
From the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, the Gita is essential for several reasons:
- Krishna, in his teachings to Arjuna, speaks at length about the immutable nature of the Atman, which is eternal and indestructible.
- Although the Gita discusses various spiritual paths, such as Bhakti (devotion), Karma (action) and Dhyana (meditation), the underlying teaching is the non-duality of the Atman and Brahman.
- The Gita offers a practical view of how to live life from a non-dual understanding, emphasizing selfless action and renunciation of the fruits of actions.
Brahma Sutras: The Logic of Vedanta
The Brahma Sutras, also known as Vedanta Sutra, are a series of aphorisms that seek to systematize and clarify the teachings of the Upanishads. Written by the sage Vyasa, these sutras are dense and often cryptic, requiring interpretation and commentary.
For Advaita Vedanta, the Brahma Sutras are fundamental for several reasons:
- They provide a logical and coherent structure for the often mystical and esoteric teachings of the Upanishads.
- Because of their open nature to interpretation, the Brahma Sutras have been commented upon by many scholars and teachers over the centuries, including Adi Shankaracharya. In fact, Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras is fundamental to the school of Advaita Vedanta.
- The sutras address and refute various philosophical and theological views, establishing the primacy of Vedanta and defending the non-dual view.
Interconnectedness and Complementarity
What makes the Prasthanatrayi so essential to Advaita Vedanta is how these three texts complement and reinforce each other. While the Upanishads provide direct revelations from enlightened sages, the Bhagavad Gita offers practical guidance for living these teachings in daily life. The Brahma Sutras, on the other hand, provide a logical and structured basis for these teachings.
Together, these texts provide a comprehensive basis for the study and practice of Advaita Vedanta. They serve as a map for spiritual aspirants, guiding them from the initial understanding to the ultimate realization of nonduality.
The Practice of Advaita Vedanta
Although deeply philosophical in its essence, Advaita Vedanta is not devoid of concrete practices and disciplines. These practices are essential for the inner transformation of the individual and for the direct realization of the truths expounded in the scriptures. Let us look at some of the most important practices and disciplines in the Vedanta tradition.
Shravana refers to attentive listening to the scriptures, especially the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. It is not superficial or passive listening, but a deep immersion in the teachings, often under the guidance of a competent teacher (guru). Through shravana, one acquires an intellectual understanding of non-duality and other essential concepts.
Once one has heard and understood the teachings, it is crucial to reflect on them. Manana involves a deliberate process of reasoning and contemplation to assimilate and internalize the knowledge. It involves resolving doubts, analyzing the teachings from different perspectives and making sure that the understanding is clear and unambiguous.
Nididhyasana (Deep Meditation)
After listening and reflection, deep meditation on the acquired truth is essential. Nididhyasana is not simply a practice of concentration; it is a total absorption in the truth of Advaita, an immersion in the non-dual consciousness of Brahman. Through this meditation, knowledge becomes direct experience.
Viveka is the ability to discern between the real and the unreal, the eternal and the transitory. On the path of Advaita, it is essential to cultivate this discrimination in order to distinguish between the Atman, which is immutable and eternal, and the world of maya, which is changeable and ephemeral.
Along with viveka, detachment or renunciation of worldly pleasures and attachments is fundamental. Vairagya does not imply an aversion to the world, but rather a freedom from its influence. It is the recognition that true happiness is not to be found in the objects of the world, but in the realization of the true self.
Sadhana Chatushtaya (The Four Disciplines)
This is a set of four prescribed disciplines that are considered to be the basis for the aspirant of Advaita. These are:
- Shama (Control of the mind): Refers to the state in which the mind is calm and free from agitation. It is not simply the absence of activity, but a state in which the mind is centered, peaceful and undistracted.
- Dama (Control of the senses): It is the control and restraint of the organs of perception and action, preventing them from indiscriminately scattering behind sensual objects. It implies not being a slave of desires and sensory stimuli.
- Uparati (Renunciation): More than a mere physical withdrawal or external renunciation, Uparati refers to an internal renunciation. It means that one has no intense desire or attachment towards sensual or worldly pleasures. Although one may continue to participate in worldly activities, one is not emotionally attached to them or disturbed by the changes and fluctuations of life.
- Titiksha (Tolerance): Implies the ability to endure the difficulties, sufferings and adversities of life without complaining or being disturbed. It is endurance in the face of the ups and downs of life. Not only to withstand pain or hardship, but also to maintain a balanced state of mind in both pleasant and painful situations. Not to be carried away by excessive pleasure or euphoria, nor to fall into despair in difficult times.
Satsanga (Company of the Wise)
Being in the company of realized masters and spiritually inclined co-aspirants is considered beneficial in Advaita Vedanta. Satsanga offers an atmosphere of support, inspiration and direct clarification of doubts or confusions.
Atma Vichara (Self Inquiry)
An essential practice in Advaita is the continuous and deep inquiry into the nature of the self:“Who am I?”. This inquiry takes the aspirant beyond superficial identifications with body and mind to a direct understanding of the Atman.
Differences of Advaita Vedanta from Other Schools
Founded on the central idea of non-duality, Vedanta is only one of many philosophical traditions within the broad spectrum of Hinduism. Although deeply respected and followed by many, there are other schools that present alternate perspectives on reality, self and liberation. Comparing Advaita with these schools not only highlights its unique characteristics, but also sheds light on the rich diversity of thought within Indian philosophies.
- Advaita view: Advaita holds that the individual soul (Atman) and the supreme reality (Brahman) are essentially one. There is no difference between them.
- Dvaita View: Founded by Madhvacharya, Dvaita Vedanta holds a clear duality between the Atman and Brahman. According to this school, God and individual souls are eternally distinct, and this difference is never eliminated, even after liberation.
- Advaita view: Reality is non-dual.
- Vishishtadvaita view: Proposed by Ramanuja, Vishishtadvaita, or“qualified non-duality“, accepts that Brahman is the only reality. However, individual souls and the universe are actual modes or attributes of this Brahman. Thus, while Brahman is fundamental, souls and the universe are not mere illusions but actual manifestations of Brahman.
Samkhya and Yoga
- Advaita view: Liberation is achieved by recognizing the essential unity of Atman and Brahman.
- Samkhya view: This dualistic philosophical school sees a clear difference between Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (matter). Liberation (moksha) is achieved when one recognizes this distinction and disidentifies from Prakriti.
- View of Yoga: Although Yoga shares many concepts with Samkhya, it adds the idea of Ishvara or personal divinity. Yoga, as presented in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, emphasizes meditative practices to attain liberation.
Nyaya and Vaisheshika
- Advaita view: Reality is non-dual and the world of experience is maya or illusion.
- Nyaya view: It is a logical-epistemological school that relies on logic and debate to arrive at truth. It recognizes a variety of ontological categories.
- Vaisheshika view: Founded by Kanada, Vaisheshika holds that everything can be reduced to a limited number of atoms (paramanus). Unlike Advaita, which views the phenomenal world as illusory, Vaisheshika considers it real.
- Advaita view: The essence of the individual, the Atman, is identical with Brahman.
- Buddhist view: Buddhism, particularly in its Theravada form, denies the idea of an eternal Atman or self. Instead, it teaches the doctrine of anatman or “not-self“. Mahayana and especially Zen Buddhism share some similarities with Advaita regarding the nature of reality and the experience of enlightenment, although the contexts and terminologies are different.
- Advaita view: Delusion (maya) is the cause of ignorance and suffering.
- Jainism view: Jainism, founded by Mahavira, introduces the concept of “karma” as fine particles that adhere to the soul, obscuring its true nature. Liberation is achieved by purifying the soul of this material karma.