Advaita Vedanta is probably the best known of all Vedanta schools of Hinduism, the others being Dvaita and Vishishtadvaita. Advaita literally means "not two", and is often called a monistic or non-dualistic system which essentially refers to the indivisibility of the Self (Atman) from the Whole (Brahman). The key texts from which all Vedanta texts draw are the Upanishads (especially twelve or thirteen in particular), which are commentaries on the Vedas, and the Brahma Sutras (also known as Vedanta Sutras), which is in turn a work discussing the essence of the Upanishads.
Adi Shankara: The Pillar of Advaita
The first person to consolidate the principles of Advaita was Adi-Shankara (788-820 CE). Continuing the line of thought of some of the Upanishadic teachers, and also that of his own teacher Gaudapada, Shankara expounded the doctrine of Advaita — a nondualistic reality. According to Advaitins (followers of Advaita), Shankara exposed the relative nature of the world and established the supreme truth of the Advaita by analysing the three states of experience — being awake, dreaming, and being in deep sleep. The supreme truth of the Advaita is said to be the non-dual reality of Brahman, in which atman (the individual soul) and brahman (the ultimate reality expressed in the trimurti) are identified absolutely. The three states of consciousness are subsumed into a fourth transcendental state known in the Upanishads as turiya. In Advaitic philosophy, the manifold nature of the phenomenal world and their ultimate unity is symbolized by Aum, considered to be the most sacred of Hindu mantras.
It must be noted that many of these ideas have been explained in detail in the Upanishads dating back to 1000 BCE (1600 BCE by some estimates). For instance, in the Brihadaranyaka, there is a dialogue between Prajapati and Indra which discusses the stages of the Self and the states of consciousness. However, it was Adi (meaning "First" in Sanskrit) Shankara who gave Advaita its name and actively tried to spread its ideas. He systematized his conceptions of nondualism and its practice into coherent works such as the Viveka-Chudamani (Crest-Jewel of Discrimination). An analogy may be drawn between Adi_Shankara and Patanjali, who is credited with the spread of Raja Yoga and Yoga in general even though he was not the first person to conceive of it.
Adi Shankara's contributions to Advaita thought and Hinduism in general are crucial. His main works are the Brahma Bhashyas, which are commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita in nondualist strains, and his own treatise on Advaita, the Viveka Chudamani. He is also well known for propounding a system of bhakti (selfless devotion) within an Advaitic system of philosophy, and composing several bhajans (devotional songs), which he believed brought one closer to realization. Some of his well-known bhajans are Bhaja Govindam,Soundaryalahari and Sivanandalahari.
Adi Shankara's thoughts
Adi Shankara's treatises on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedanta Sutras are quoted as evidence that he advocated reason over dogma. His most important lesson was that reason and abstract philosophizing alone would not lead to moksha (Sanskrit for "liberation"). He believed that it was only through selflessness and love governed by viveka (Sanskrit for "discrimination") that a devotee would realize his inner Self. Charges that his philosophies were influenced by Buddhism are criticized on the grounds that Shankara vehemently opposed shunyata ("negation of being") and believed that the unmanifest Brahman manifested itself as Ishwara, the loving, perfect being on high who is seen by many as being Vishnu or Shiva or whatever their hearts dictate. Shankara is said to have traveled throughout India, from his native Kerala in the south all the way to Kashmir in the north, preaching to the local populace and debating philosophy with Buddhist scholars and monks.
The philosophy that Shankara proposed was powerful and capitalized on years of dormant monist and mystic understandings of existence. He proposed that while the phenomenal universe, our consciousness and bodily being, are certainly experienced, they are not true reality. He did not mean to negate it, but considered that the ultimate truth was Brahman, the one divine ground that is beyond time, space and causation. Brahman is immanent and transcendent, but not merely a pantheistic concept. Indeed, while Brahman is the efficient and material cause for the cosmos, Brahman itself is not limited by its self-projection and indeed transcends all binary opposites/dualities, especially such individuated aspects as form and being, since it is incomprehensible by the human mind. We must pierce through a hazy perspectival lens to understand our true being and nature that is not perennial change and mortality but unmitigated bliss for eternity. If we are to understand the true motive force behind our actions and thoughts, we must become aware of the fundamental unity of being. How, he asks, can a limited mind comprehend the limitless Self? It cannot, he argues, and therefore we must transcend even the mind and become one with Soul-consciousness.
Subsequent Vedantins debated whether the reality of Brahman was saguna (with attributes) or nirguna (without attributes). Belief in the concept of Saguna Brahman gave rise to a proliferation of devotional attitudes and more widespread worship of Vishnu and Shiva. However, one must remember that Advaita Vedanta did not deny Saguna Brahman. Indeed, Shankara counseled worship of God in his very real forms, and has composed numerous works deploring the uselessness of intellect and calling for the true intuition of the heart to be found in love of the Lord. Advaita Vedanta is commonly misapprehended as an intellectual philosophy, whereas it is quite practical, seeking to mold the body and mind back into a purer state of being. Saguna Brahman and Nirguna Brahman are both valid forms. Perhaps Advaita is best explained by the great 19th century Advaitist Shri Ramakrishna. He compared the infinite formless 'nirguna brahman' to a vast ocean that, with the cooling breeze of a devotee's love, froze into ice in some places, developing form. This was equally real, but with the warmth of knowledge of the sun, the ice would eventually melt and the devotee would realize himself as one with ultimate, undifferentiated bliss. The Vishistadvaita and Dvaita schools believed in an ultimately saguna Brahman. They are both, like Advaita, monist and panentheistic but differ by referring to the ultimate One as God with form.
Some Teachings of Advaita Vedanta
Two other well_known and influential nondualist texts are the "Ashtavakra Gita" and "Avadhuta Gita," the former said to have been written by the Sage Ashtavakra and the latter by Sage Dattatreya.
Verse twenty_five of the Avadhuta (Ever_Free) Gita says
By such sentences as "That thou art," our own Self is affirmed. Of that which is untrue and composed of the five elements _ the Sruti (scripture) says, "Not this, not this." (Neti Neti)
This is a powerful and coherent summary of the Advaita path of Jnana Yoga, of viveka (discrimination). By peeling away the perspectival maya, or illusion, of the finite world, discriminating between what is Brahman and what is not, one comes to the truth. Brahman is not the body nor the mind. Through this process, the aspirant, or yogi, soon realizes that Brahman is all, is infinite Sacchidananda (Absolute Truth-Consciousness-Bliss) and attains moksha (liberation.)
The Impact of Advaita
Advaita Vedanta philosophy had a tremendous impact on the Hindu system of Tantra and also served to bolster Yogic (see Yoga) ideas of the ultimate Self, Brahman/Atman, being One. Advaita rejuvenated much of Hindu thought and also spurred on debate that led to the expounding of Vishishtadvaita (qualified nondualism) and Dvaita (dualism). Advaita served to bring to the fore the Hindu/Vedic philosophy whose seed can be seen in the Rig Vedic statement "Truth is One, though the sages see it as many."
Advaita and Science
According to some followers of Advaita, it may very well be a place where the scientific world intersects with the spiritual world. To justify this belief, they point to the relationships between mass, frequency, and energy that 20th century physics has established. They feel that these relationships, formalized as equations by Planck and Einstein, suggest that the whole mesh of the Universe blend into a One that exhibits itself as many (namely, mass, energy, wave etc), and that this follows Advaita's view that everything is but the manifestation of an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent "One". They also connect the De Broglie waves of modern physics to Aum in Hindu philosophy.
Important Books and Figures of Advaita Vedanta
Founders & key texts
Later teachers and proponents
- Shri Ramakrishna - well-known modern proponent of Advaita; the primary source book, Gospel of Shri Ramakrishna (Shri Ramakrishna Kathamrita), was written by an eyewitness devotee 'M'. It documents his later life and conversations with disciples/devotees and serves as the key reference for his philosophy/teachings
- Shri Swami Vivekananda - disciple of Shri Ramakrishna - wrote books on four Hindu Yogas: Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga and Raja Yoga. See also the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda for a thorough collection of transcribed lectures.
- Shri Shirdi Sai Baba - A mystic philosopher of Maharashtra, he was followed devoutedly by Hindus and Muslims alike and practiced a blend of Vedantic Hinduism and Sufi Islam.
- Shri Ramana Maharshi - a silent sage of South India who intensely embraced the realization of nondual philosophy
- Shri Swami Tapovan Maharaj - A virakta mahatma
- Swami Sivananda, teacher of Swami Chinmayananda, scholar, and author of over 300 books on Hinduism, many available on the web.
- Shri Swami Chinmayananda Jnana diksha bestowed under H.H. Swami Tapovan of Uttarkashi -descended to the plains of the subcontinent and proceeded across continents to offer the prasad known as Chinmaya Mission...
- Shri Swami Dayananda Saraswati - a contemporary Advaitist whose voluminous writings are only as historic as his work in uniting disparate Hindu sects under a single body known as the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha
- Shri Sathya Sai Baba - controversial teacher whose philosophies draw on Hindu philosophy while also acknowledging other major religions