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Vedanta (Samskrit: वेदांतम्) or Uttara Mīmāṃsā is one of the six darshanika schools of Sanatana Dharma. Primarily the word Vedanta stood for Upanishads; afterwords, its scope widened to include all thoughts developed out of the Upanishads. Vedanta, its denotation as understood and accepted by its major schools, refers to various philosophical traditions based on the three basic texts of Hindu philosophy, namely the Principal Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.Template:Sfn
Vedanta adopted ideas from other schools of Hinduism such as Yoga and Nyaya, and, over time, became the most prominent of the orthodox schools of Hinduism, influencing the diverse traditions within it. There are at least ten schools of Vedanta,Template:Sfn of which Advaita Vedanta, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita and Bhedabheda are the best known.Template:Sfn
- 1 Etymology and Nomenclature
- 2 Prasthantrayi, the Three Basic Texts
- 3 History
- 4 Vedanta philosophy
- 5 Schools of Vedanta
- 6 Schools of thought
- 7 Discussion
- 8 References
Etymology and Nomenclature
The word Vedanta is a compound word made up of two Sanskrit words: ‘Veda’ and ‘Anta’. The word ‘anta’ means an end. The Vedanta includes the class of writings under the heading Prasthana Trayi, namely The Upanishads, Brahmasutras and Bhagavadgita. It essentially refers to the philosophy pronounced in the Upanishads, the final parts of the Vedas. Vedanta literally means the end of the Vedas. All the diverse schools of Vedanta claim to propound the Upanishadic teaching. The Upanishads may be regarded as the end of Vedas in different senses:
- The Upanishads were the last literary products of the Vedic period. The literature of this period is broadly classified into three kinds - the Samhitas, the Brahmanas and the Upanishads. The three collectively form the Vedas. The Upanishads discuss the philosophical problems and form the last layer or the end of the Vedas.
- In respect of study, the Upanishads were studied the last, during Vanprastha and Sannyasa.
- The Upanishads mark the culmination of Vedic thought. 
Vedanta is also called Uttara Mīmāṃsā, or the 'latter enquiry' or 'higher enquiry', and is often paired with Purva Mīmāṃsā, the 'former enquiry' or 'primary enquiry'. Pūrva Mimamsa and also Karma Mimamsa, usually simply called Mimamsa, deals with explanations of the Karma-kanda or rituals part of the Vedic mantras (in the Samhita portion of the Vedas) and Brahmanas, while Vedanta deals with the Upanishads or the Jnana-kanda of the Vedas.
The Vedanta school has been historically referred to by various names, the early names being the Upanishadic ones (Aupanisada), the doctrine of the end of the Vedas (Vedanta-vada), the doctrine of Brahman (Brahma-vada), and the doctrine that Brahman is the cause (Brahma-karana-vada).Template:Sfn
Prasthantrayi, the Three Basic Texts
In the current view, the Upanishads, The Bhagavadgita and the Vedanta Sutra constitute the triple basis of Vedanta. All schools of the vedanta propound their philosophy by interpreting these texts, called the Prasthanatrayi, literally, three sources.
- The Upanishads, known as Upadesha prasthana (injunctive texts), and the Śruti prasthāna (the starting point of revelation)
- The Vedanta Sutra or Brahma Sutras, known as Nyaya prasthana or Yukti prasthana (logical text)
- The Bhagavad Gita, a part of the Mahabharata, is known as Sadhana prasthana (practical text), and the Smriti prasthāna (the starting point of remembered tradition)
The Upanishads were many in number and developed in the different Vedic schools at different times and places (the names of up to 112 Upanishads have been recorded). All major commentators have considered twelve to thirteen of these texts as the principle Upanishads.
The problems discussed and solutions offered in the Upanishads presented differences despite a unity of general outlook. The indefiniteness of the teaching of the Upanishads led to a necessity for its systematization. The systematization, in all likelihood, was effected in more than one way; but the only attempt that has survived is represented by the Sutras of Badarayana Vyasa popularly known as Vedanta Sutra or Brahma Sutra.
All major Vedantic teachers, like Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, and Madhvacharya, have composed extensive commentaries not only on the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras, but also on the Bhagavad Gita. While it is not typically thought of as a purely Vedantic text, with its syncretism of Samkhya, Yoga, and Upanishadic thought, the Bhagavad Gita has played a strong role in Vedantic thought.
The Upanishads do not contain "a rigorous philosophical inquiry identifying the doctrines and formulating the supporting arguments."Template:Sfn This philosophical inquiry was performed by the darsanas, the various philosophical schools.Template:Sfn The schools trace their antiquity far back into the Vedas and the early seers. Advaita Vedanta and Vishishtadvaita Vedanta existed prior to Shankara and Ramanuja respectively but found their most influential expounder in them.
Of the Vedanta-school before the composition of the Brahma Sutras (400–450 BCTemplate:Sfn) almost nothing is known.Template:Sfn Very little also is known of the period between the Brahma Sutras and Shankara (first half of the 8th century BC).Template:Sfn Only two writings of this period have survived: the Vākyapadīya, written by Bhartṛhari (second half 5th centuryTemplate:Sfn), and the Māndūkya-kārikā written by Gaudapada (7th century BC).Template:Sfn
Vedanta before the Brahma Sutras
Not much remains of the teachings of Vedanta from this period.
Pre-Shankara doctrines and sayings can be traced in the works of the later schools, which does give some insight into the development of early Vedanta philosophy.Template:Sfn
From the way in which Bādarāyana cites the views of others it is obvious that the teachings of the Upanishads must have been analyzed and interpreted by quite a few before him and that his systematization of them in 555 sutras arranged in four chapters must have been the last attempt, most probably the best.Template:Sfn
In the Brahma Sutras, also called the Vedanta Sutra,Template:Sfn[note 1]Badarayan Vyasa summarized the teachings of the upanishads . The identity of Badarayana is not well established. Traditions often ascribe the authorship of the Brahma Sutras to Vyasa, who has variously been called Badarayana.
The Brahma Sutras have traditionally been ascribed to Badarayana,[note 2] and antiquity quoted as 200 CETemplate:Sfn. However, some scholars understand it as a group of sutras composed by multiple authors over the course of hundreds of yearsTemplate:Sfn that were most likely compiled in the present form around 400–450 CE,Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn but "the great part of the Sutra must have been in existence much earlier than that."Template:Sfn
The Brahma Sutras has been written in four chapters, each divided into four quarters or sections. 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 commentary.Template:Sfn As a consequence, the divergence of views, originally prevalent in the form of seemingly diverse verses of the Upanishads, re-asserted themselves and have continued in more or less the same form even after the composition of the sutra.
Vedanta between the Brahma Sutras and Adi Shankara
The vagueness of the Upanishadic teaching is particularly in reference to the relation of Brahman to the individual soul (Jiva) on the one hand, and to the physical universe on the other. Statements about their identity in the principal Upanishads are many and prominent and those distinguishing the two expressly are not altogether wanting. The first problem to solve for any one attempting to systematize the teaching of the Upanishads is accordingly to harmonize these two sets of statements. The most obvious way of doing so is to attach equal value to both classes of statements and theorize that the soul and the world are both identical with and different from Brahman. That was the view held by Bhartriprapancha, who flourished before Shankara, and commented on the Vedanta Sutra and the Upanishads.
Bhartriprapancha maintained that the self and the physical universe, though finite and imperfect, are real and the two are not altogether different from the Brahman. Bhartriprapancha was criticised by Shankara in his treatises. Scholars see Bhartriprapancha as one of the earlier philosophers in the line of philosophers who teach the tenet of Bhedabheda..
There was a long line of teachers of Vedanta before Shanka, the last among them being Mandan Mishra, who regarded Mimamsa and Vedanta as forming a single system and advocated the combination of action and knowledge known as Karma-Jnana-samuchchaya-vada. According to them, the sutras, beginning with the first sutra of Jaimini and ending with the last sutra of Badarayan Vyasa, form one compact shastra. The strict compartmentalization of Vedanta as different from the other orthodox Schools was the contribution of Shankara.
In his commentaries, Shankara mentions 99 different predecessors of his Sampradaya.Template:Sfn In the beginning of his commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Shankara salutes the teachers of the Brahmavidya Sampradaya.[web 1] The names of various important early Vedanta thinkers have been listed in the Siddhitraya by Yamunācārya (c. 1050), the Vedārthasamgraha by Rāmānuja (c. 1050–1157), and the Yatīndramatadīpikā by Śrīnivāsa-dāsa.Template:Sfn Combined together,Template:Sfn at least fourteen thinkers are known to have existed between the composition of the Brahman Sutras and Shankara's lifetime.Template:Sfn[note 3]
Gaudapada and Shankara
Gaudapada wrote or compiledTemplate:Sfn the Māṇḍukya Kārikā, also known as the Gauḍapāda Kārikā and as the Āgama Śāstra.[note 4] Gaudapda took over the Buddhist doctrines that ultimate reality is pure consciousness (vijñapti-mātra)Template:Sfn Gaudapada "wove [both doctrines] into a philosophy of the Mandukaya Upanisad, which was further developed by Shankara".Template:Sfn
Adi Shankara (788–820), elaborated on Gaudapada's work, and is considered to be the founder of Advaita Vedanta.Template:Sfn It was Shankara who succeeded in reading Gaudapada's mayavadaTemplate:Sfn[note 5] into Badarayana's Brahma Sutras, "and give it a locus classicus",Template:Sfn against the realistic strain of the Brahma Sutras.Template:Sfn[note 6][note 7] His interpretation, including works ascribed to him, has become the normative interpretation of Advaita Vedanta.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn
Although Shankara is often considered to be the founder of the Advaita Vedanta school, according to Nakamura, comparison of the known teachings of these early Vedantins and Shankara's thought shows that most of the characteristics of Shankara's thought "were advocated by someone before Śankara".Template:Sfn Shankara "was the person who synthesized the Advaita-vāda which had previously existed before him".Template:Sfn In this synthesis, he was the rejuvenator and defender of ancient learning.Template:Sfn He was an unequalled commentator,Template:Sfn due to whose efforts and contributions the Advaita Vedanta assumed a dominant position within Indian philosophy.Template:Sfn
Bhedabheda Vedanta schools played an important role in the rise of bhakti, such as Suddhadvaita, founded by Vallabha (1479–1531 CE), Achintya Bheda Abheda, founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1534)Template:Sfn and Vishishtadvaita founded by Shri Ramanuja (1017–1137 CE).
Integration of various schools
According to Nicholson, already between the 12th and the 16th century,
... certain thinkers began to treat as a single whole the diverse philosophical teachings of the Upanishads, epics, Puranas, and the schools known retrospectively as the "six systems" (saddarsana) of mainstream Hindu philosophy.Template:Sfn[note 8]
Both the Indian and the European thinkers who developed the term "Hinduism" in the 19th century were influenced by these philosophersTemplate:Sfn especially Vijnanabhiksu, a Bhedabheda Vedantin.Template:Sfn Neo-Vedanta too was inspired by these thinkers.Template:Sfn
The schools of Vedanta are named after the relation they see between atman and Brahman:Template:Sfn
- According to Advaita Vedanta, there is no difference.Template:Sfn
- According to Dvaita the jīvātman is totally different from Brahman. Even though he is similar to brahman, he is not identical.
- According to Vishishtadvaita, the jīvātman is a part of Brahman, and hence is similar, but not identical.
- According to Shuddhadvaita, the jīvātman and Brahman are like sparks and fire, Jagat is real and the jīvātman is clouded by nescience (avidya) due to Maya.
Sivananda gives the following explanation:
Madhva said: "Man is the servant of God," and established his Dvaita philosophy. Ramanuja said: "Man is a ray or spark of God," and established his Visishtadvaita philosophy. Sankara said: "Man is identical with Brahman or the Eternal Soul," and established his Kevala Advaita philosophy.Template:Sfn
All schools of Vedanta subscribe to the theory of Satkāryavāda,[web 6] which means that the effect is pre-existent in the cause. But there are two different views on the status of the "effect", that is, the world. Most schools of Vedanta,Template:Sfn[web 6] as well as Samkhya,[web 6] support Parinamavada, the idea that the world is a real transformation (parinama) of Brahman.Template:Sfn According to Nicholson, "the Brahma Sutras also espouse the realist Parinamavada position, which appears to have been the view most common among early Vedantins".Template:Sfn In contrast to Badarayana, Adi Shankara and Advaita Vedantists hold a different view, Vivartavada, which says that the effect, the world, is merely an unreal (vivarta) transformation of its cause, Brahman:
[A]lthough Brahman seems to undergo a transformation, in fact no real change takes place. The myriad of beings are essentially unreal, as the only real being is Brahman, that ultimate reality which is unborn, unchanging, and entirely without parts.Template:Sfn
Even though there are many sub-schools of vedantic philosophy, all these schools share some common features, that can be called the vedantic core:Template:Sfn
- Brahman is the supreme cause of the entire universe and is all pervading and eternal, as found in the Prasthanatrayi—The Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.
- Actions are subordinate to knowledge or devotion. Actions are useful only for preparing the mind for knowledge or devotion; and once this is achieved, selfish actions and their rewards must be renounced.
- Bondage is subjection to Saṃsāra, the cycle of death and rebirth.
- Liberation is deliverance from this cycle.
Traditional Vedānta considers scriptural evidence, or shabda pramāna, as the most authentic means of knowledge, while perception, or pratyaksa, and logical inference, or anumana, are considered to be subordinate (but valid).Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn
Schools of Vedanta
|Subschools of Vedanta|
|A basic classification of the Vedanta theologies.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn|
The contents of the Upanishads are often couched in enigmatic language, which has left them open to various interpretations. Over a period of time, various schools of Vedanta, with different interpretations of the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras arose. There are three,Template:Sfn four,Template:Sfn five or sixTemplate:Sfn[note 9] which are prominent:
- Bhedabheda, as early as the 7th century CE, or even the 4th centuryTemplate:Sfn
- Advaita Vedanta, founded by Gaudapada and Shri Adi Shankara around 700 CE
- Vishishtadvaita, also a subschool of bhedabheda, founded by Shri Ramanuja (1017–1137 CE)
- Dvaita, founded by Shri Madhvacharya (1199–1278 CE)
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.
Bhedabheda (bheda-abheda), which means "difference and non-difference", existed as early as the 7th century CE, but Bādarāyaṇa’s Brahma Sūtra (c. 4th century CE) may also have been written from a Bhedābheda Vedāntic viewpoint. According to the Bhedābheda Vedānta schools the individual self (jīvātman) is both different and not different from Brahman. Bhakti found a place in later proponents of this school. Major names of this school are Bhāskara (8th-9th century), Rāmānuja’s teacher Yādavaprakāśa, Nimbārka (13th century) who founded the Dvaitadvaita school, Vallabha (1479–1531) who founded Shuddhadvaita, Caitanya (1486–1534) who founded the Achintya Bheda Abheda school,Template:Sfn and Vijñānabhikṣu (16th century).
Dvaitādvaita was propounded by Nimbārka (13th century), based upon Bhedābheda, which was taught by Bhāskara. According to this school, the jīvātman is at once the same and 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 Vallabhacharya (1479–1531 CE). 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'), through "Pushtimarga" (the path of God's grace). The world is said to be the sport (līlā) of Krishna, who is Sat-Chit-Ananda or, "eternal bliss mind".On the basis of quadruple Proof Corpus (pramāna catuṣṭaya) comprising Srutis and Smrutis, Brahmasutra, Gita and Shrimadbhagvata, Vallabhacharya propounded the philosophy of shuddhadvaita brahmvaad (pure non-dualism), according to which Maya or the world (jagat) is not unreal (‘jagat mithya’) as in the Advaita of Shankar, but the entire universe is real and is subtly Brahman only. Brahman has created the world without connection with or help from any external agency such as Maya, which itself is his power. Brahman manifests Himself through the world. Srutis say Brahman or Ishvara desired to become many, and he became the multitude of individual souls and the world (jagat). That is how Vallabh’s shuddhadvaita is known as ‘Unmodified transformation’ or ‘Avikṛta Pariṇāmavāda’, while Shankar’s Advaita or Kevaladvaita is known as ‘Vivartavāda’. Vallabha recognises Brahman as the whole and the individual as a ‘part’. The individual soul (Jeeva or jeevatma) and God are in "essence" not different, like sparks and fire. The soul is both a ‘doer’ and ‘enjoyer’. It is atomic in size but it pervades the whole body through its essence of intelligence (like scent of sandalwood, even if it can't be seen). Vallabhacharya says that the Jiva is not Supreme, nor it is Sat-chit-ananda (Existence-knowledge-bliss Absolute) being clouded by the force of nescience (‘avidya’ or Maya ) and is therefore devoid of bliss (ananda).
Founded by Chaitanya MahaprabhuTemplate:Sfn (1486–1534). Achintya-Bheda-Abheda represents the philosophy of inconceivable one-ness and difference,Template:Sfn in relation to the power creation and creator, (Krishna), svayam bhagavan.Template:Sfn and also between God and his energiesTemplate:Sfn within the Gaudiya Vaishnava religious tradition. In Sanskrit achintya means 'inconceivable',Template:Sfn bheda translates as 'difference', and abheda translates as 'one-ness'. It can be best understood as integration of strict dualist (Dvaita) view of Madhvacharya and qualified monism Vishishtadvaita of Ramanujacharya while rejecting absolute monism Advaita of Adi Sankara.
Advaita Vedanta (IAST Advaita Vedānta; Sanskrit: अद्वैत वेदान्त [əd̪ʋait̪ə ʋeːd̪ɑːnt̪ə]) was propounded by Adi Shankara (early 8th century CE) and his grand-guru Gaudapada, who described Ajativada. It is a sub-school of the Vedānta (literally, end or the goal of the Vedas, Sanskrit) school of Hindu philosophy.
Vishishtadvaita was propounded by Rāmānuja (1017–1137 CE) 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 (Saguna brahman), 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.[note 11]
Dvaita was propounded by Madhwāchārya (1199–1278 CE). 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, Srinivāsa 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)-literally 'twoness') 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 sādhana), 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 energizing every soul from within, awarding the results to the soul but Himself not affected in the least by the results.
Schools of thought
The concept of Brahman, its nature and its relationship with Atman and the observed universe, is a major point of difference between the various sub-schools of the Vedanta school of Hinduism. The concepts of Nirguna and Saguna Brahman, underwent profound development with the thoughts of Adi Shankaracharya's Advaita Vedanta, Ramanujacharya's Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, and Madhvacharya's Dvaita Vedanta.
Advaita Vedanta expounds that Brahman is the sole unchanging reality, there is no duality, no limited individual souls nor a separate unlimited cosmic soul, rather all souls, all of existence, across all space and time, is one and the same. The universe and the soul inside each being is Brahman, and the universe and the soul outside each being is Brahman, according to Advaita Vedanta. Brahman is the origin and end of all things, material and spiritual. Brahman is the root source of everything that exists. He states that Brahman can neither be taught nor perceived (as an object of knowledge), but it can be learned and realized by all human beings. The goal of Advaita Vedanta is to realize that one's Self (Atman) gets obscured by ignorance and false-identification ("Avidya"). When Avidya is removed, the Atman (Soul, Self inside a person) is realized as identical with Brahman. The Brahman is not outside, separate, dual entity, the Brahman is within each person, states Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism. Brahman is all that is eternal, unchanging and that is truly exists. This view is stated in this school in many different forms, such as "Ekam sat" ("Truth is one"), and all is Brahman.
The universe does not simply come from Brahman, it is Brahman. According to Adi Shankara, a proponent of Advaita Vedanta, the knowledge of Brahman that shruti provides cannot be obtained in any other means besides self inquiry.
In Advaita Vedanta, nirguna Brahman, that is the Brahman without attributes, is held to be the ultimate and sole reality. Consciousness is not a property of Brahman but its very nature. In this respect, Advaita Vedanta differs from other Vedanta schools.
Example verses from Bhagavad-Gita include:
He who finds his happiness within, His delight within, And his light within, This yogin attains the bliss of Brahman, becoming Brahman. – Hymn 5.24 </poem>— Bhagavad Gita
The Brahman of Visishtadvaita is not exactly same as individual Atman, rather it is synonymous with Narayana, the transcendent and immanent reality. Brahman or Narayana is Saguna Brahman, one with attributes, one with infinite auspicious qualities, and not the Advaita concept of attributeless Nirguna Brahman.
Brahman of Dvaita is a concept similar to God in major world religions. Dvaita holds that the individual soul is dependent on God, but distinct.
- Jîva-Îshvara-bheda — difference between the soul and Vishnu
- Jada-Îshvara-bheda — difference between the insentient and Vishnu
- Mitha-jîva-bheda — difference between any two souls
- Jada-jîva-bheda — difference between insentient and the soul
- Mitha-jada-bheda — difference between any two insentients
Achintya Bheda Abheda
The Acintya Bheda Abheda philosophy is similar to Dvaitadvaita (differential monism). In this philosophy, Brahman is not just impersonal, but also personal. That Brahman is Supreme Personality of Godhead, though on first stage of realization (by process called jnana) of Absolute Truth, He is realized as impersonal Brahman, then as personal Brahman having eternal Vaikuntha abode (also known as Brahmalokah sanatana), then as Paramatma (by process of yoga-meditation on Supersoul, Vishnu-God in heart) – Vishnu (Narayana, also in everyone's heart) who has many abodes known as Vishnulokas (Vaikunthalokas), and finally (Absolute Truth is realized by bhakti) as Bhagavan, Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is source of both Paramatma and Brahman (personal, impersonal, or both).
Brahman as a metaphysical concept
Brahman is the key metaphysical concept in various schools of Hindu philosophy. It is the theme in its diverse discussions to the two central questions of metaphysics: what is ultimately real, and are there principles applying to everything that is real?Brahman is the ultimate "eternally, constant" reality, while the observed universe is different kind of reality but one which is "temporary, changing" Māyā in various orthodox Hindu schools. Māyā pre-exists and co-exists with Brahman – the Ultimate Reality, The Highest Universal, the Cosmic Principles.
In addition to the concept of Brahman, Hindu metaphysics includes the concept of Atman – or soul, self – which is also considered ultimately real. The various schools of Hinduism, particularly the dual and non-dual schools, differ on the nature of Atman, whether it is distinct from Brahman, or same as Brahman. Those that consider Brahman and Atman as distinct are theistic, and Dvaita Vedanta and later Nyaya schools illustrate this premise. Those that consider Brahman and Atman as same are monist or pantheistic, and Advaita Vedanta, later Samkhya and Yoga schools illustrate this metaphysical premise. In schools that equate Brahman with Atman, Brahman is the sole, ultimate reality. The predominant teaching in the Upanishads is the spiritual identity of soul within each human being, with the soul of every other human being and living being, as well as with the supreme, ultimate reality Brahman.
In the metaphysics of the major schools of Hinduism, Maya is perceived reality, one that does not reveal the hidden principles, the true reality – the Brahman. Maya is unconscious, Brahman-Atman is conscious. Maya is the literal and the effect, Brahman is the figurative Upādāna – the principle and the cause. Maya is born, changes, evolves, dies with time, from circumstances, due to invisible principles of nature. Atman-Brahman is eternal, unchanging, invisible principle, unaffected absolute and resplendent consciousness. Maya concept, states Archibald Gough, is "the indifferent aggregate of all the possibilities of emanatory or derived existences, pre-existing with Brahman", just like the possibility of a future tree pre-exists in the seed of the tree.
While Hinduism sub-schools such as Advaita Vedanta emphasize the complete equivalence of Brahman and Atman, they also expound on Brahman as saguna Brahman – the Brahman with attributes, and nirguna Brahman – the Brahman without attributes. The nirguna Brahman is the Brahman as it really is, however, the saguna Brahman is posited as a means to realizing nirguna Brahman, but the Hinduism schools declare saguna Brahman to be ultimately illusory. The concept of the saguna Brahman, such as in the form of avatars, is considered in these schools of Hinduism to be a useful symbolism, path and tool for those who are still on their spiritual journey, but the concept is finally cast aside by the fully enlightened.
Brahman as an ontological concept
Brahman, along with Soul/Self (Atman) are part of the ontological premises of Bharat's philosophy. Different schools of Bharat's philosophy have held widely dissimilar ontologies. Buddhism and Carvaka school of Hinduism deny that there exists anything called "a soul, a self" (individual Atman or Brahman in the cosmic sense), while the orthodox schools of Hinduism, Jainism and Ajivikas hold that there exists "a soul, a self".
Brahman as well the Atman in every human being (and living being) is considered equivalent and the sole reality, the eternal, self-born, unlimited, innately free, blissful Absolute in schools of Hinduism such as the Advaita Vedanta and Yoga. Knowing one's own self is knowing the God inside oneself, and this is held as the path to knowing the ontological nature of Brahman (universal Self) as it is identical to the Atman (individual Self). The nature of Atman-Brahman is held in these schools, states Barbara Holdrege, to be as a pure being (sat), consciousness (cit) and full of bliss (ananda), and it is formless, distinctionless, nonchanging and unbounded.
In theistic schools, in contrast, such as Dvaita Vedanta, the nature of Brahman is held as eternal, unlimited, innately free, blissful Absolute, while each individual's soul is held as distinct and limited which can at best come close in eternal blissful love of the Brahman (therein viewed as the Godhead).
Other schools of Hinduism have their own ontological premises relating to Brahman, reality and nature of existence. Vaisheshikaschool of Hinduism, for example, holds a substantial, realist ontology. The Carvaka school denied Brahman and Atman, and held a materialist ontology.
Brahman as an axiological concept
Brahman and Atman are key concepts to Hindu theories of axiology: ethics and aesthetics. Ananda (bliss), state Michael Myers and other scholars, has axiological importance to the concept of Brahman, as the universal inner harmony. Some scholars equate Brahman with the highest value, in an axiological sense.
The axiological concepts of Brahman and Atman is central to Hindu theory of values. A statement such as ‘I am Brahman’, states Shaw, means ‘I am related to everything,’ and this is the underlying premise for compassion for others in Hinduism, for each individual's welfare, peace, or happiness depends on others, including other beings and nature at large, and vice versa.Tietge states that even in non-dual schools of Hinduism where Brahman and Atman are treated ontologically equivalent, the theory of values emphasize individual agent and ethics. In these schools of Hinduism, states Tietge, the theory of action are derived from and centered in compassion for the other, and not egotistical concern for the self.
The axiological theory of values emerges implicitly from the concepts of Brahman and Atman, states Bauer. The aesthetics of human experience and ethics are one consequence of self-knowledge in Hinduism, one resulting from the perfect, timeless unification of one's soul with the Brahman, the soul of everyone, everything and all eternity, wherein the pinnacle of human experience is not dependent on an afterlife, but pure consciousness in the present life itself. It does not assume that an individual is weak nor does it presume that he is inherently evil, but the opposite: human soul and its nature is held as fundamentally unqualified, faultless, beautiful, blissful, ethical, compassionate and good. Ignorance is to assume it evil, liberation is to know its eternal, expansive, pristine, happy and good nature. The axiological premises in the Hindu thought and Bharat's philosophies in general, states Nikam, is to elevate the individual, exalting the innate potential of man, where the reality of his being is the objective reality of the universe. The Upanishads of Hinduism, summarizes Nikam, hold that the individual has the same essence and reality as the objective universe, and this essence is the finest essence; the individual soul is the universal soul, and Atman is the same reality and the same aesthetics as the Brahman.
Brahman as a soteriological concept: Moksha
Main article: Moksha
The orthodox schools of Hinduism, particularly Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga schools, focus on the concept of Brahman and Atman in their discussion of moksha. The Advaita Vedanta holds there is no being/non-being distinction between Atman and Brahman. The knowledge of Atman (Self-knowledge) is synonymous to the knowledge of Brahman inside the person and outside the person. Furthermore, the knowledge of Brahman leads to sense of oneness with all existence, self-realization, indescribable joy, and moksha (freedom, bliss), because Brahman-Atman is the origin and end of all things, the universal principle behind and at source of everything that exists, consciousness that pervades everything and everyone.
The theistic sub-school such as Dvaita Vedanta of Hinduism, starts with the same premises, but adds the premise that individual souls and Brahman are distinct, and thereby reaches entirely different conclusions where Brahman is conceptualized in a manner similar to God in other major world religions. The theistic schools assert that moksha is the loving, eternal union or nearness of one's soul with the distinct and separate Brahman (Vishnu, Shivaor equivalent henotheism). Brahman, in these sub-schools of Hinduism is considered the highest perfection of existence, which every soul journeys towards in its own way for moksha.
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