Hindu philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2019, from

6. Philosophical schools: Vedānta

When speaking of Indian philosophy, it has become a convention to count six schools in the Hindu tradition. This division is rather artificial, especially since it involves putting the schools together in three pairs: Sāṅkhya–Yoga; Vedānta–Mīmāṃsā; Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika. In fact, by the fourteenth century we find sixteen philosophical schools discussed in Mādhava’s Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha (Survey of the Major Philosophical Systems). Among these are schools opposed to the Hindu ones, such as Buddhism, Jainism and materialism. Mādhava places the materialists at the beginning of his treatise and culminates it with the Vedānta school to which he himself belongs. Including the different schools of Vedānta, we can count about a dozen Hindu schools.

Vedānta still survives and is the most influential school of modern times, having great intellectual and political figures among its adherents. ‘Vedānta’ describes several schools and numerous thinkers, and means ‘the appendage to the Vedas’, referring in this way to the body of texts known as the Upaniṣads. The Upaniṣads have been a source of inspiration and dogma since their beginnings around 700 bc. Embedded in them are ideas that came to dominate Indian thought, namely karma, rebirth, and liberation from the ever-revolving cycle of rebirth. The means of liberation is to experience the identity of the individual self (ātman) with a larger cosmic entity (Brahman). Individual thinkers each had a different interpretation of these tenets, but all essentially agreed on the means of liberation. Curiously, the development of Vedānta did not take place until more than a millennium after the earlier Upaniṣads. The most influential thinker of whom we know today was Śaṅkara.

Śaṅkara, like other Vedāntins, built on an earlier tradition. The work to which they all responded was Badarāyaṇa’s Brahmasūtra (or Vedāntasūtra) of around ad 50. It stimulated many interpretive commentaries, which gave occasion for new schools to arise. The most prominent interpretation of the Brahmasūtra is known as Advaita Vedānta. It focuses on Brahman, which is understood as identical with ātman. Out of ignorance, the material world is superimposed on the ultimately empty Brahman; this superimposition is sometimes described as an illusory projection (māyā). The first prominent name in this tradition is Gauḍapāda, who taught Śaṅkara’s teacher.

Śaṅkara was prolific in his philosophical output. He commented on all the major Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad Gītā ([Upaniṣad, or Secret Teaching] Recited by the Lord Krishna), and a number of other works are ascribed to him. His Advaitism can be characterized as a strict nondualism: there is nothing other than Brahman, either real or unreal, and the goal is to know this through a trance-like experience which grants liberation (mokṣa) from rebirth. Were it not for this experience of truth, which is the vision of identity between ātman and Brahman, we would always superimpose this colourful world on transparent Brahman. This superimposition is an act of mistaking an unreal object for a real one, just as we superimpose silver on a piece of a glittering shell or a snake on a rope (see §2). If we could lift the superimposed object away from the real one, underneath we would find something altogether different.

This doctrine is austere and diminishes the importance of a personal God. It failed to stimulate the imagination of many people, and with time there was a strong reaction to such an abstract portrayal of reality. The form of Vedānta that flourished subsequently tended to have a more theistic cast. The earliest work of theistic Vedānta was Bhāskara’s interpretation of the Brahmasūtra, whereby the individual self is both different and not different from God (Brahman). This doctrine was called ‘the teaching of difference with no difference’ (Bhedābhedavāda).

The Brahmasūtra was often seen in the light of theology devoted to the god Viṣṇu. The eleventh-century philosopher Rāmānuja, commenting on the Brahmasūtra in his Śrībhāṣya, claims that everything is Brahman, yet acknowledges the reality of individual selves and the material world. This teaching is called ‘qualified monism’ (Viśiṣṭādvaitavāda) because Brahman is described as Knowledge and as being merciful, all-powerful and all-pervading. Everything that exists is contained in Brahman, understood as a personal God who should be approached with constant devotion. Other interpreters of the Brahmasūtra postulated devotion to God; to many of them, he was some form of Viṣṇu, which indicates that they too had a problem with absolute monism. Therefore they introduced a modified monism: Nimbārka, for instance, combined both dualism and nondualism (Dvaitādvaitavāda).

The extreme position of disavowing monism was taken in the thirteenth century by Madhva (not to be confused with Mādhava), who claimed that there is an absolute difference between Brahman and individual selves (Dvaitavāda). Another extreme position was expressed by Vallabhacārya in his teaching of pure nondualism (Śudhādvaitavāda). Still other thinkers with other interpretations, such as Caitanya (1486–1534) of the Bengal Vaiṣṇavism, did not leave a corpus of literature behind them (see Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism; Brahman; Monism, Indian).

Citing this article:
Clear, Edeltraud Harzer. Philosophical schools: Vedānta. Hindu philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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