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What is Vedanta

 Vedanta Philosophy | Vedanta as a Science | Vedanta Practice
Jnana Yoga | Karma Yoga | Bhakti Yoga | Raja Yoga | New Vedanta | 

Vedanta means "the final portions of the Vedas," and refers to those philosophical systems of Hinduism that take their inspiration from the Upanishads, the Brahma-sutras (or Vedanta-sutras), and the Bhagavad-Gita. Several distinct schools of interpretation emerged, the most notable of which are the Advaita (non-dualist), Vishisthadvaita (qualified non-dualist), and Dvaita (dualist) schools. Philosophically, Vedanta deals with the explanation of Absolute Consciousness as our true nature. As a science, it derives scientific laws about Consciousness based on the experiences and knowledge of the Seers (Rishis, Sages) who have had intuitively realized the Truth during their meditation and higher states of consciousness-samadhi. As a religion, Vedanta is the practice based on the combination of the philosophy and science for realizing our real nature as Divine Consciousness.

A. The Philosophy

The philosophy of Vedanta in general, and Advaita Vedanta in particular, maintains that there is only one Reality - Absolute Consciousness (also called as Brahman, Atman, God, or Self). Whatever that changes cannot be true. The world as we see it today is not the same as it was in the past, and would not be the same in future also. Hence, the world cannot be real. At best, it can be labeled as 'illusive reality' or 'relative truth'. There is one permanent, unchanging Reality or Existence behind this changing universe. It is the essence or the substratum of all beings, thoughts, and phenomena. Vedanta says that the Rishis or the Seers have had experienced/realized this Existence as Consciousness - Chaitannya. What is the nature of this Consciousness? It is Infinite, Eternal, and Formless Supreme Reality without attributes. The Seers have described It as Sat-Chit-Ananda: Truth-Existence-Bliss absolute.

How does this Eternal, never changing (formless and without attributes - Nirakara and Nirguna) Reality change into multifarious existence, this universe? From here starts the philosophical divergence in various schools of thoughts, as each school tries to answer these questions from their respective points of view. Hinduism (with its multiple sects), Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism and other religions of the world take origin on the basis of inquiry into these questions. Each religion tries to explore the concept of God, the world, and the individual; and also the interrelationship between them. In Hinduism many sects advanced their theories about the nature of Reality. Thus, various sections of the society came to accept and follow the teachings of Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya, Vishisthadvaita of Ramanujacharya, Dvaitavada of Madhvacharya, and Shuddhadvaita of Vallabhacharya.

The earliest known exposition of Advaita Vedanta is in Gaudapada's Karikas on the Mandukya Upanishad, but the most famous personage of this school-and the most influential of classical Indian philosophers was Shankaracharya (788- 820). A great Jnani, Acharya Shankara taught that there is only one reality, called either Brahman or Atman (the Supreme Self), that all distinctions, all plurality is due to ignorance, or Maya, and that liberation consists in eliminating ignorance and attaining that pure Consciousness which is Brahman, or the True Self. This theory, although not the only Vedanta doctrine, is so popular among intellectuals in India that it is frequently and uncritically identified with Vedanta or with Indian philosophy as a whole. Ramanuja (1056-1137) developed the more theistically oriented Vishisthadvaita Vedanta, in which Brahman is a personal God, immanent in all souls and the world, but without obliterating the differences among them. Madhvacharya (1238-1317) founded Dvaita, or dualist, Vedanta, in which differences between God, world, and souls are fully recognized. Other important systems include the Dvaitadvaita of Nimbarka (13th century) and the Shuddhadvaita of Vallabhacharya (1481-1533). Scholars also speak of neo-Vedanta in characterizing the thought of certain 20th-century philosophers, such as Swami Vivekananda and a few others, which represents a synthesis of classical Vedanta doctrines. Vedanta has been viewed as the essential philosophical core of Hinduism. In an attempt to probe into the Reality, the human mind reaches higher levels of consciousness. With spiritual practice, the mind becomes refined, pure, and subtle. During this process the person acquires certain characteristics in his/her personality. He or she becomes calm and collected, his desires become less, and he becomes kind, compassionate, and selfless. At the final stage of realization the person crosses over - transcends - the limitations of mind and words, and comes face to face with Reality. As the aspirant transcends the language function of the mind during this higher level of consciousness, no words are available to describe his/her experience at that level of Realization. When the person comes to human plane of consciousness the Divine Realization withers away! Thus, while the aspirant is at human consciousness he or she cannot directly experience the Reality, and while he or she is experiencing the Highest, the functions of the mind, including those of language and speech, are suppressed. Therefore, the Reality cannot be described in words. Whatever description we get from great Seers, Saints, or Avatara Purushas is at the best close approximation of that Reality.

In the classical allegory of Vedanta philosophy, it is like seeing either the rope or the snake. When we see the rope our vision and perception is clear, as if we are in the state of divine consciousness. But as soon as some darkness - ignorance (Maya, Avidya) - comes we confuse the rope for a snake. Again, someone demonstrates to us, by throwing the light of knowledge, that what one has mistakenly believed to be the snake is in fact the rope. The important point to note here is that at no point of time the rope ever had turned into a snake; the rope was always the rope. It was our ignorance produced due to clouding of our mind by way of genetics, etc. that caused us to mistakenly see a snake in the rope. The ignorance had superimposed snake over the rope. Much the same way our mind is clouded by ignorance in its present state and we see superimposition of world - the snake - over Brahman - the rope. Only when a Teacher, a Guru, throws light and shows us the true nature of this world can we experience the Brahman therein.

The second point is also of immense importance. When we see a snake we do not see the rope. We cannot accept that object other than the snake. We are afraid of it and run away from it. As in a dream we see a tiger and are terrified by the animal, much the same way in our dream of illusory snake we are afraid of it. A person dreaming of tiger chasing him gets up all sweating and with palpitating heart, but soon realizes that: "Oh, what a fool I have been! I really thought the tiger was chasing me." He thus settles down when he wakes up; he understands the truth when his ignorance is destroyed by way of waking. In case of our snake-rope allegory similar explanation can be applied. When we come out of ignorance, we see the rope as a rope, and all our fears about the snake disappear. While we have given one example of fear to emphasize the point, it is equally and easily understandable that all our attachments to this world are like that dream. Love, fear, jealousy, hatred, passion, anger, infatuation, and so on surface only because of our mistaken belief about the Rope (Reality) as being something else. Vedanta maintains that there is only one existence as Brahman - One without the second.

B. Vedanta as a Science  | Top

In fact, the search of science also culminates into an attempt to find one energy source, one unit, which can explain all other phenomena. The quantum physics led to confusion and doubt about the validity of previous theories used in explaining the origin, nature, and working of various physical phenomena in the universe. Now the scientists are trying to come up with the 'string theory'. The problem with these scientists is that in their scientific inquiry, they want to be totally objective in their methods, but, by compulsion, at a higher level of inquiry, they have to bring in the 'unwanted factor' of 'subjective consciousness' so as to explain certain phenomena; 'wave and particle' relationship being one. Can we study spirituality as a science? Yes, and let me explain. Science is a study of observed 'body of facts'. In spirituality also certain unusual phenomena, like Divine Visions, Bhava, and Samadhi, are observed. For instance, one encounters certain physical and mental changes in saints and mystics, which are not ordinarily found in others. These changes cannot be explained on the present day knowledge of physics, physiology, neurology, or biology. If, however, we label them as unscientific or non-scientific, we fail to honour the definition of science as a 'study of body of facts'. These facts are experienced by a few persons, observed from time to time by many others, and recorded as religious or scriptural books. Study of all these observable and documented phenomena constitutes a branch of science: the science of spirituality.

In an attempt to verify the authenticity and nature of the body of facts, scientists study them, and the explanation is sought from prevailing pool of knowledge for their categorization. Thus, a working hypothesis is developed which, with added proofs over a period of time and with refinement of intellect, is accepted as a scientific theory. During this whole process the facts do not change, but what changes is their scientific explanation. Accepted theoretical conclusions are called Laws, like 'Laws of Motion', 'Gravitational Laws', so on and so forth. Science, reason, and rationality demand following criteria to be fulfilled for any theory to be labeled as scientific:

1) Good observation, 2) the public nature of observation, 3) the necessity to theorize logically, and, 4) testing of the theory by observable consequences. Applying these criteria to the study of altered state of consciousness in the lives of Yogis, Saints, and Mystics, one can say that their visions, and other spiritual experiences in their lives, constitute a "body of facts" and need to be interpreted and theorized according to the rules of science. The experiences of one prophet might appear at variance from the other, but this is no cause to label them as unscientific. As the fresh knowledge is gained, scientists also change their concepts regarding the older convictions they thought to be perfect and immutable. For instance:

- Copernicus challenged the knowledge (or faith!) of the scientists previous to him in 'geo-centric' theory and put forward new 'helio-centric' theory.

- One scientist has improved upon the theoory of another, as Einstein over Newton; quantum theory over the theory of relativity.

- Drugs used in the treatment of high bloood pressure are constantly changing; the one rated in 1970 as very good is outdated and discarded today as harmful!

- Many more examples can be cited.

> If all such changes and modifications in the knowledge and beliefs in the laws of physical sciences can be accepted as "scientific progress", there is also no reason to hesitate in accepting the changing concepts about metaphysical truths of Samadhi, Visions, Bhava, etc. in the field of science of spirituality. And, it would be worthwhile to study such phenomena applying the laws of science to the observed facts; and, if need be, create new laws and a new branch of science. Methods of one branch of science, e.g. physics, differ from another branch of science, e.g. chemistry. Applying the same logic, the method and laboratory for the study of spirituality will be different; the laboratory may be the human mind, the place an Ashrama, and the method may be the Yoga.

continued Part 2...
c s shah
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