Vedanta (Devanagari: वेदान्त, Vedānta) was originally a word used in Hindu philosophy as a synonym for that part of the Veda texts known also as the Upanishads. The name is a sandhied form of Veda-anta = "Veda-end" = "the appendix to the Vedas". By the 8th century CE, the word also came to be used to describe a group of philosophical traditions concerned with the self-realisation by which one understands the ultimate nature of reality (Brahman). The word Vedanta teaches that the believer's goal is to transcend the limitations of self-identity. Vedanta is not restricted or confined to one book and there is no sole source for Vedantic philosophy. Vedanta is based on two simple propositions:
The goal of Vedanta is a state of self-realization or cosmic consciousness. Historically and currently, it is assumed that this state can be experienced by anyone, but it cannot be adequately conveyed in language.
Vedānta is also called Uttarā Mīmāṃsā, or the 'latter enquiry' or 'higher enquiry', and is often paired with Purvā Mīmāṃsā, the 'former enquiry'. Pūrva Mimamsa, usually simply called Mimamsa, deals with explanations of the fire-sacrifices of the Vedic mantras (in the Samhita portion of the Vedas) and Brahmanas, while Vedanta explicates the esoteric teachings of the Āraṇyakas (the "forest scriptures"), and the Upanishads, composed from ca. the 9th century BC until modern times.
While the traditional Vedic Karma kānda, or ritualistic components of religion, continued to be practiced through the Brahmins as meditative and propitiatory rites to guide society to self-knowledge, more jnana (gnosis)- or knowledge-centered understandings began to emerge. These are mystical streams of Vedic religion that focused on meditation, self-discipline and spiritual connectivity rather than on rituals. In earlier writings, Sanskrit 'Vedānta' simply referred to the Upanishads, the most speculative and philosophical of the Vedic texts. However, in the medieval period of Hinduism, the word Vedanta came to mean the school of philosophy that interpreted the Upanishads. Traditional Vedanta considers scriptural evidence, or shabda pramana, as the most authentic means of knowledge, while perception, or pratyakssa, and logical inference, or anumana, are considered to be subordinate (but valid).
The systematization of Vedantic ideas into one coherent treatise was undertaken by Badarayana in the Vedanta Sutra which was composed around 200 BCE . The Vedānta-sūtra are known by a variety of names, including (1) Brahma-sūtra, (2) Śārīraka, (3) Vyāsa-sūtra, (4) Bādarāyaṇa-sūtra, (5) Uttara-mīmāṁsā and (6) Vedānta-darśana. The cryptic aphorisms of the Vedanta Sutras are open to a variety of interpretations, resulting in the formation of numerous Vedanta schools, each interpreting the texts in its own way and producing its own sub-commentaries claiming to be faithful to the original. Consistent throughout Vedanta, however, is the exhortation that ritual be eschewed in favor of the individual's quest for truth through meditation governed by a loving morality, secure in the knowledge that infinite bliss awaits the seeker. Nearly all existing sects of Hinduism are directly or indirectly influenced by the thought systems developed by Vedantic thinkers. Hinduism to a great extent owes its survival to the formation of the coherent and logically advanced systems of Vedanta.
All forms of Vedanta are drawn primarily from the Upanishads, a set of philosophical and instructive Vedic scriptures. "The Upanishads are commentaries on the Vedas, their putative end and essence, and thus known as Vedānta or "End of the Veda". They are considered the fundamental essence of all the Vedas and although they form the backbone of Vedanta, portions of Vedantic thought are also derived from some of the earlier Aranyakas.
The primary philosophy captured in the Upanishads, that of one absolute reality termed as Brahman is the main principle of Vedanta. The sage Vyasa was one of the major proponents of this philosophy and author of the Brahma Sūtras based on the Upanishads. The concept of Brahman – the Supreme Spirit or the eternal, self existent, immanent and transcendent Supreme and Ultimate Reality which is the divine ground of all Being - is central to most schools of Vedānta. The concept of God or Ishvara is also there, and the Vedantic sub-schools differ mainly in how they identify God with Brahman.
The contents of the Upanishads are often couched in enigmatic language, which has left them open to various interpretations. Over a period of time, several scholars have interpreted the writings in Upanishads and other scriptures like Brahma Sutras according to their own understanding and the need of their time. There are a total of six important interpretations of these source texts, out of which, three (Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita) are prominent, both in India and abroad. These Vedantic schools of thought were founded by Shri Adi Shankara, Shri Ramanuja and Shri Madhvacharya, respectively. It should be noted, however, that the Indian pre-Shankara Buddhist writer, Bhavya, in the Madhyamakahrdaya Karika describes the Vedanta philosophy as "Bhedabheda". Proponents of other Vedantic schools continue to write and develop their ideas as well, although their works are not widely known outside of smaller circles of followers in India.
While it is not typically thought of as a purely Vedantic text, the Bhagavad Gita has played a strong role in Vedantic thought, with its representative syncretism of Samkhya, Yoga, and Upanishadic thought. Indeed, it is itself called an "upanishad" and thus, all major Vedantic teachers (like Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhvacharya) have taken it upon themselves to compose often extensive commentaries not only on the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras, but also on the Gita. In such a manner, Vedantists both old and new have implicitly attested to the Gita's importance to the development of Vedantic thought and practice.
Advaita Vedānta was propounded by Adi Sankara and his grand-guru Gaudapada, who described Ajativada. According to this school of Vedānta, Brahman is the only reality, and the world, as it appears, is illusory. As Brahman is the sole reality, it cannot be said to possess any attributes whatsoever. An illusionary power of Brahman called Māyā causes the world to arise. Ignorance of this reality is the cause of all suffering in the world and only upon true knowledge of Brahman can liberation be attained. When a person tries to know Brahman through his mind, due to the influence of Māyā, Brahman appears as God (Ishvara), separate from the world and from the individual. In reality, there is no difference between the individual soul jīvātman (see Atman) and Brahman. Liberation lies in knowing the reality of this non-difference (i.e. a-dvaita, "non-duality"). Thus, the path to liberation is finally only through knowledge (jñāna).
Vishishtadvaita was propounded by Ramanuja and says that the jīvātman is a part of Brahman, and hence is similar, but not identical. The main difference from Advaita is that in Visishtadvaita, the Brahman is asserted to have attributes, including the individual conscious souls and matter. Brahman, matter and the individual souls are distinct but mutually inseparable entities. This school propounds Bhakti or devotion to God visualized as Vishnu to be the path to liberation. Māyā is seen as the creative power of God.
Dvaita was propounded by Madhwacharya. It is also referred to as tatvavādā - The Philosophy of Reality. It identifies God with Brahman completely, and in turn with Vishnu or his various incarnations like Krishna, Narasimha, Srinivasa etc. In that sense it is also known as sat-vaishnava philosophy to differentiate from the Vishishtadvaita school known by sri-vaishnavism. It regards Brahman, all individual souls (jīvātmans) and matter as eternal and mutually separate entities. This school also advocates Bhakti as the route to sattvic liberation whereas hatred (Dvesha) and indifference towards the Lord will lead to eternal hell and eternal bondage respectively. Liberation is the state of attaining maximum joy or sorrow, which is awarded to individual souls (at the end of their sadhana), based on the souls' inherent and natural disposition towards good or evil. The achintya-adbhuta shakti (the immeasurable power) of Lord Vishnu is seen as the efficient cause of the universe and the primordial matter or prakrti is the material cause. Dvaita also propounds that all action is performed by the Lord energising every soul from within, awarding the results to the soul but Himself not affected in the least by the results.
Dvaitādvaita was propounded by Nimbārka, based upon an earlier school called Bhedābheda, which was taught by Bhāskara. According to this school, the jīvātman is at once the same as yet different from Brahman. The jiva relation may be regarded as dvaita from one point of view and advaita from another. In this school, God is visualized as Krishna.
Shuddhadvaita was propounded by Vallabha. This system also identifies Bhakti as the only means of liberation, 'to go to Goloka' (lit., the world of cows; the Sankrit word 'go', 'cow', also means 'star'). The world is said to be the sport (Leela) of Krishna, who is Sat-Chit-Ananda.
Achintya Bhedābheda was propounded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (Bengal, 1486-1534). He was a follower of the Dvaita vedanta of Sri Madhwacharya.This doctrine of inconceivable and simultaneous one-ness and difference states that the soul or energy of God is both distinct and non-distinct from God, whom he identified as Krishna, Govinda, and that this, although unthinkable, may be experienced through a process of loving devotion (bhakti). This philosophy of "inconceivable oneness and difference" is followed by a number of modern Gaudiya Vaishnava movements, including ISKCON.
According to his followers, Sri Aurobindo, in his The Life Divine, synthesized all the exant schools of Vedanta and gave a comprehensive resolution integrating cues from the Western metaphysics and modern science. He is said to have restored the umbilical cord of the Vedantic exegesis with the Vedas.
Vivekananda traveled to the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1893, and became an influential figure in synthesising Eastern and Western thought. He played a major role in the spread of Vedanta to Western nations. His travel to the West was criticised by some orthodox Hindus. His proponents claim that he made Vedanta living, by understanding how it could be applied to the modern world, and by investing it with his own spirit. For Vivekananda, Vedanta was not something dry or esoteric, but a living approach to the quest for self-knowledge.
In his interpretation of Advaita (as in Shankara's), there is still a place for Bhakti (devotion). Monks of the Ramakrishna order suggest that it is easier to begin meditation on a personal God with form and qualities, rather than the formless Absolute, of which everyone is said to be part. Saguna Brahman and Nirguna Brahman are viewed as obverse and reverse of the same coin.
There have been many teachers of Vedanta in India and other countries over the centuries. Ramana Maharshi, Shri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Sri Ranjit Maharaj, Swami Vivekananda Swami Vivekananda, Swami Sivananda, Swami Krishnananda, Swami Jyotirmayananda , Kanchi Mahaswamigal, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Maharshi Swami Dayananda Saraswati (Arya Samaj), Hari Prasad Shastri, Swami Niranjanji Maharaj, Swami Paramananda, Swami Chinmayananda, Swami Sri Dayananda Saraswathi of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam,Swami Sri Lilashahji Maharaj, Shri Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Sri Aurobindo, Shri Swami Tapovan Maharaj, Anantarama Dikshitar, Swami Ranganathananda were great Vedanta scholars. Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Pujya Sri Prem Siddharth, Pujya Mahabhairava Sambhoha Shastri are distinguished, traditional teacher of Vedanta of the present day . Swami Paramahansa Yogananda was a master in this tradition.
The influential philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel refers to Indian thought reminiscent of Advaita-Vedanta in his introduction to his The Phenomenology of Spirit and in his Science of Logic. Arthur Schopenhauer was influenced by the Vedas and Upanishads; in his own words: "If the reader has also received the benefit of the Vedas, the access to which by means of the Upanishads is in my eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century (1818) may claim before all previous centuries, if then the reader, I say, has received his initiation in primeval Indian wisdom, and received it with an open heart, he will be prepared in the very best way for hearing what I have to tell him." (The World as Will and Representation) Among western figures who have been influenced by or have commented on Vedanta are Ram Dass, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Müller, Voltaire, J.D. Salinger, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, J.B. Priestley, Christopher Isherwood, Romain Rolland, Alan Watts, Eugene Wigner, Arnold Toynbee, Joseph Campbell, Hermann Hesse, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Will Durant, Nikola Tesla, Erwin Schrödinger and John Dobson.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and director of the Manhattan Project, also was a professed Vedantist. In reference to the Trinity test in New Mexico, where his Los Alamos team tested the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer famously recalled the Bhagavad Gita: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."