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NITAAI-Veda.nyf > All Scriptures By Acharyas > Six Philosophies > Four Sampradayas > Introduction


I - Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracarya (788-820AD)


* Ultimate Reality, according to Shankara, is Brahman or Atman, which is advaya, one without a second; nothing at all exists besides Brahman, whether inside It, as Its part or attribute, or outside It. Brahman is nirguna, or devoid of all attributes, and nirvishesha, devoid of all categories of intellect. It is Pure Consciousness (jnana-svarupa), a pure unity, absolutely homogeneous. The nirguna Brahman is also called Para-Brahman, or Higher Brahman.

  Brahman or Atma is the Unqualified Absolute. He is the only Reality. It is the Self which is Self-luminous and which transcends the subject-object duality and the trinity of ‘knower, known and knowledge’.


* Shankara’s Advaita philosophy may be summarized in this sentence: brahma satyam jagan mithya jivo brahmaiva naparah - ‘Brahman is the only Reality; the world is ultimately false; and the individual soul is non-different from Brahman’.


* But if nothing else besides Brahman exists, how to explain the appearance of this physical world and the individual beings like ourselves? To solve this question, Shankara introduced in his philosophy the ‘theory of maya’.


* Brahman associated with Its potency maya appears as the qualified or saguna Brahman. This saguna-Brahman is Ishvara or God, Who is the creator, maintainer and annihilator of this world. To the Advaita-vadis God is the apara-Brahman, or Lower Brahman.


 * This world does not have real existence. It is a mere appearance in Brahman, due to the Brahman’s magical creative power, maya. In spite of being considered to be a product of maya, Ishvara is the Master of maya, the magician who produces illusory appearances of physical objects and living beings by his incomprehensible magical power.


* The theory that the world is taken as an illusory appearance in Brahman is called by Shankara as Vivarta-vada, the theory of illusion. The classical examples given are the ‘rope-snake’ and ‘conchshell-silver’.

  In a situation of half light, a rope on the ground may be mistaken by a snake, and all psycological and emotional reactions take place in the person as the snake were real. This analogy is meant to show that although this world is not real we, under the spell of ajnana, think as if it were real.

  The other example says that under certain conditions of luminosity and in certain angle, the mother-of-pearl of the conchshell appears like an object of silver. It is explained that the silver, although non-existent, was superimposed in the conchshell. The conchshell is the ground on which the silver is superimposed. Similarly this world, although non-existent, is taken to be a superimposition or projection (adhyasa) in Brahman. Brahman associated with its power maya is the ground on which the phenomenal world is superimposed.

  The world is not a transformation (parinama) of Brahman, but it is an appearance only (vivarta).


* According to Shankara, the relation between the cause and the effect is called vivarta-vada, wherein the cause alone is real and the effect is illusory or a superimposition, and hence unreal. The vivarta-vada reduces all effects to mere appearances without any reality of their own. Therefore when the substratum, base, or fundation of a superimposition comes to be known, all superimposed appearances are consequentely sublated, and the truth is revealed that the substratum (Brahman) alone is real. Then, the Advaita philosophy states that when Brahman is known as it is, the world of appearances is automatically switched off and the underlying truth alone shines forth, as the one and only Reality.


* But if Brahman is an indifferentiated entity and nothing else exists besides Him, how the appearance of the physical world and the individual beings are justified? To answer this question, Shankara explains it with the ‘theory of maya’ and the ‘concept of different states of existence’.

  To him, there exist three states of existence: paramarthika, vyavaharika and pratibhasika.

  The Absolute Existence or Reality on the level of Brahman is called paramarthika. In this state of pure existence there is no forms, no individuality, no activity and no sensation. It is a state of Pure Consciousness. The practical or empirical reality of this world is called vyavaharika. From the phenomenal point of view, the world, which is mere appearance or superimposition in Brahman, due to maya, is quite real. It is like a dream - things seen in a dream are quite true as long as the dream lasts; they are sublated only when we are awake. Similarly, the world is quite true so long as true knowledge does not dawn.

 The pratibhasika state of existence is an imaginary existence. It was called by some commentators as “the illusion of the illusion”. The identification of the self with the body is pratibhasika existence, the identification of the self with the individual soul is vyavharika existence, while the identification of the self with Brahman is paramartika existence, the only real existence.


* According to Shankara, maya or avidya is not only absence of knowledge. It is also positive wrong knowledge or illusion, therefore it is a positive entity (bhava-rupa). But, at the same time, it is not existent because the only existent thing is Brahman. And it cannot be non-existent for maya has the power to create the appearance of the world in Brahman.

   In fact, according to Shankara, maya is ‘neither existent nor non-existent nor both’. It cannot be both existent and non-existent for this conception is self-contradictory. maya, therefore, is neither real nor unreal (sad-asad-vilakshana).

  To solve this situation, Shankara says that maya is anirvacaniya, or indescribable.

  maya is also begginingless (anadi), but not endless (ananta), since it is cancelled in moksha, liberation.

  maya is removed by brahma-jnana, the knowledge of the essential unity of the jivatma and Brahman. When vidya dawns avidya vanishes. When the rope is known, the ‘rope-snake’ vanishes.


* All difference is due to ignorance. It is not ultimate. Names and forms (nama-rupa) are only figments of ignorance. They are neither real nor unreal.


* Advaita philosophy does not admit that the individual soul, jiva, is ultimately real. This philosophy states that Brahman, the True Self, is One, but It appears as many.

  The plurality of jivas, which is apparent to our ordinary experience, is accounted for on the basis of the upadhis or limiting adjuncts. Basically, there are two theories which expain how Brahman has become many.

  The One Self appears as many because of the upadhis (fisical body, suble body).

  Thus, for example, akasha or space is all-pervasive and one; when this akasha is conditioned by various pots, we call them different akashas. In the same way there exists only One Self or Atma, and the same when conditioned by different internal organs (antahkarana or subtle body) appears as different jivas. This theory is called apaccheda-vada. It is ascribed to Vacaspati Mishra, the author of Bhamati.

  The other theory is called bimba-pratibimba-vada or reflection theory. This is explained on the analogy of the reflection of the single moon in the waves of the ocean. Just as the single moon appears as many being reflected in the waves, likewise the self also appears as many being reflected in numerous internal organs  or upadhis. This theory was elaborated by Prakashatman, author of Vivarana.


* Ishvara has been a taxing problem for the followers of Shankara. According to some, Ishvara is the reflection of Brahman in avidya. According to others, Brahman, limited or conditioned by maya is Ishvara, while Brahman limited by avidya or the internal organ (antahkarana or upadhis - which is a product of avidya) is jiva.


* Ishvara is limited by His own power of nescience and appears as many phenomenal selves like the space appears as different “spaces” limited by the adjuncts of jars, pots, etc. The omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence of Ishvara are all due to the adjuncts of ignorance; they are not ultimate. Where the essential unity of the Atma is realized, they all vanish. Creation, therefore, is due to ignorance. It is not ultimately real.


* Brahman is the only Reality. It is absolutely indeterminate and non-dual. It is beyond speech and mind. It is indescribable because no description of it can be complete. The best description of it is trough the negative formula of “neti neti”.

  Effects alone can be negated, for they are unreal. But the cause, the Brahman, cannot be negated, for It is the ultimate ground on which all effects are superposed.


* Ishvara becomes ‘unreal’ only for one who has realized his oneness with Brahman by rising above speech and mind. For us, conditioned souls, Ishvara is all in all. Finite thought can never grasp Brahman. And therefore all talks about Brahman are really talks about Ishvara. Even the words ‘unconditioned Brahman’ refer really to ‘conditioned Ishvara’, for the moment we speak of Brahman, He ceases to be Brahman and becomes Ishvara.

  Brahman, reflected in or conditioned by maya, is called Ishvara or God. This is the ‘celebrated’ distinction between God and the Absolute which Shankara makes. Ishvara is also known as Apara-Brahman or Lower Brahman as contrasted with the unconditioned Brahman which is called Para-Brahman or Higher Brahman.


* Ishvara or God is sat-cit-ananda. He is the Perfect Personality. He is the Lord of maya. He is immanent in the whole universe which He controls from within. He is the Soul of the souls as well as the Soul of Nature. He is also transcendental, for His own nature He transcends the universe. He is the source of everything, He is the final haven of everything.He is the Concrete Universal, the Supreme Individual, the Whole, the Identity-in-difference. He is the inspirer of moral life. He is the object of devotion. He is all in all from the practical standpoint.


* Brahman is realized exclusively by jnana, not by karma or bhakti. The sadhana for Brahman realization or moksha is total vairagya, renunciation, and meditation in the maha-vakya ‘tat tvam asi’.

II-The Decline of Mayavada and the Theistic Reaction of

Shri Ramanujacarya


a) About the latter part of the twelfth century some signs of a growing discontent with the empty abstractions of Mayavada were beginning to be felt. Several versions of the Advaita doctrine, often in conflict with one another, on vital points, had been given, both by the contemporaries and successors of Shankaracarya. The enunciations of Shankara's owns views on the Vedanta was not in many points convincingly clear. This gave rise to various schools of thought which claimed to be the proper interpretation of the monistic ideas of Shankara; but which differed from one another sometimes in a very remarkable manner. Differences arose between master and disciples and among disciples themselves in the elucidation of general principles and doctrines. For over five centuries from the eight, Monism in some form or other, had had strong influence. But, after that, popular interest in and admiration for inevitably decreased.


b) Around the twelfth century, philosophy fell into an dry exercise in definition and counter-definitions and unmitigated dialecticism. Philosophy had ceased to be an earnest quest of God and the eternal life.


c) At that time, a wave of intense devotionalism in religion and theism in philosophy was surging throughout the country. To the average man of the world, it appeared the Mayavadis had perverted the goal of oneness supported in the Upanishads; while the one they offered instead was unrealisable. The denial of the Supreme will and knowledge of the Lord was something hard to swallow, as well as statements like 'God, after all, is unreal' or that 'even the Purushottama is imaginary'.


d) When the devotionalism of the southern vaishnavas reached its height about the tenth century, there was bound to come a demand for a formal alliance with the Vedanta. The Theism of Vaishnavas could no longer be content with a subordinate place. Shri Yamunacarya had undertook the task of reviving the labor of the previous Vaishnavas, and had called the attention to the defects of Mayavada, in his Siddhitraya. But a systematic commentary on the prashthana-traya was a need. The ancient worker of Bodhayana, Tanka, etc, had evidently been lost, or had become completely out of date, in style or method and totally eclipsed by the famous commentary of Shri Shankaracarya. The task of writing a new commentary, on par with the best in the field, so as to push Vaishnava Theism into the focus of contemporary philosophic thought was an urgent one. It was taken up by Shri Ramanujacarya, who wrote lengthy commentaries on the Vedanta-sutra and the Bhagavad-gita, and thus established Vedantic Realism on a firm basis, both logical and textual.