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2. What Is Vedanta?
The highest degree of Vedic education, traditionally reserved for the sannyasis (renunciants), is mastery of the texts known as the Upanisads. The Upanisads teach the philosophy of the Absolute Truth (Brahman) to those seeking liberation from birth and death. Study of the Upanisads is known as vedanta, "the conclusion of the Veda." The word upanisad means "that which is learned by sitting close to the teacher." The texts of the Upanisads are extremely difficult to fathom; they are to be understood only under the close guidance of a spiritual master (guru). Because the Upanisads contain many apparently contradictory statements, the great sage Vyasadeva (also known as Vedavyasa, Badarayana, or Dvaipayana) systematized the Upanisadic teachings in the Vedanta-sutra, or Brahma-sutra. Vyasa's sutras are terse. Without a fuller explanation, their meaning is difficult to grasp. In India there are five main schools of vedanta, each established by an acarya (founder) who explained the sutras in a bhasya (commentary).
Of the five schools, one, namely Adi Shankara's, is impersonalist. Shankara taught that Brahman has no name, form nor personal characteristics. Shankara's school is opposed by the four Vaishnava sampradayas founded by Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, and Vishnusvami. Unlike the impersonalist school, Vaishnava vedanta admits the validity of Vedic statements that establish difference (bheda) within Brahman, as well those that establish nondifference (abheda). Taking the bheda and abheda statements together, the Vaishnava Vedantists distinguish between three features of the one Vastu Brahman (Divine Substance):
* Vishnu as the Supreme Soul (Para Brahman).
* The individual self as the subordinate soul (Jiva Brahman).
* Matter as creative nature (Mahad Brahman).
The philosophies of the four Vaishnava sampradayas dispel the sense of mundane limitation ordinarily associated with the word "person." Vishnu is accepted by all schools of Vaishnava vedanta as the transcendental, unlimited Purusottama (Supreme Person), while the individual souls and matter are His conscious and unconscious energies (cidacid-shakti).