Spirituality is the backbone of this great nation, India. The backbone of spirituality is the Vedas. Veda means knowledge. Vedas are anaadi (beginningless). It existed in all times, even before the Rishis discovered it. In the Vedic age, the mighty Aryans revealed the Vedas. The Aryans who revealed the Vedas are called the Rishis. The Vedas are the cosmic vibrations in space. At the highest state of concentration, these vibrations are felt by the Rishis. This left an impact in the mind of the Rishis, which enabled them to write the Vedic mantras and Vedanta verses and poetry. Yoga sastra says that, if the outer space (macrocosm) and the space which exists in the mind (microcosm) are united, then the suspended sound in space will become audible. In the Vedic age, philosophy was dominant than the Vedic rituals. However, philosophy did not have branches like Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita. The branches were not distinct and not developed.
In the Epic age, which succeeded the Vedic age, philosophy took a back stage. Importance was given for Vedic rituals. When the Vedic rituals took a center state, the priesthood community dominated. Caste system became predominant. People worshiped the different aspects of Brahman (i.e Brahma, Vishnu, Siva) as separate Gods. People somehow developed the idea that one aspect of Brahman (Vishnu) is superior to the other aspects of Brahman. Hindu religion was in a complete mess. In the later epic age, unable to bear the autocracies of the different communities, the young prince Buddha went in search of truth. After his enlightenment, he spread his teachings in the name of Buddhism. His teachings were similar to Vedanta, but did not mention the concept of Universal Soul, God, or rebirth. He believed that everything is based on cause and effect.
Vedanta philosophy is as old as the Vedas. Vedanta is the end part of the Vedas and it contains the Upanisads. Upanisads are verses of heavy philosophical values and they are revealed by the Rishis. The Upanisads describe the nature of the Self, Brahman and the identity of Brahman with the Self. The principles are known as the philosophy. The Upanisads do not contain the philosophical doctrines. Different schools formed the different philosophical doctrines based on the Upanisads. Each school has their own way of describing the concept of Paramatma and the Jivatma. The basic concept is same, only the ways they express it differ. When the way of explanation differs, the principles differ and the philosophy also differs. Different principles brought out different philosophies. The major philosophies are dependent on the prasthana trayi (Upanisads, Brahma sutra, and Baghavad Gita). Different philosophical schools gave different interpretations to the prasthana trayi. Two scholars or two philosophical schools never agree with each other. They always differ.
During the end of the Epic age and the latter period, domination of the rituals and the sprouting of many small sub-religious sects in India, confused the picture of Sanathana dharma. Social injustice reached its peak. Around that period in 788 AD, Sankara was born in Kaladi, Kerala. Sankara mastered the Vedas at the young age of sixteen, under the guidance of the Guru Govinda Baghavadpada. During that period nearly 72 sub-religious sects were prevalent in India. Most of them are based on the Vedas, but they had their own interpretations. Sankara wrote the commentaries and explained the prasthana trayi in the most simple and clear way. He explained the subtle meaning and the deep implications of the prasthana trayi with proper metaphors.
Adi Sankara was not the first Guru to bring out the Advaita philosophy. There were many Advaita Guru’s before Sankara. Sankara’s Guru Govinda Baghavadpada, His Guru Gaudapada, and His Guru Ajatipada were all Guru’s of Brahma Vidya (knowledge of the self). Sankara was the prominent scholar who rejuvenated the Advaita philosophy, especially in the period when Advaita philosophy was in a soup. Only after Sankara, Advaita philosophy is widely considered to be the most dominant and the most influential sub school of Vedanta. It was Sankaracharya who made people understand this profound philosophy as revealed originally in the Upanisads. Sankaracharya advocated Kevala Advaitam.
There is only one Reality, Brahman. The world is not the ultimate reality. World is the relative reality. It appears and disappears. The individual self, Jivatma is identical with the Supreme reality, Paramatma (or Brahman). Since Brahman alone exists, all the diversities are real, but not the reality. Brahman is impersonal, non-dual, transcending all attributes. Brahman is Nirguna and it always exists.
The supreme consciousness, Brahman has unimaginable and infinite power and it is non-dual. There cannot be a second entity. Advaita philosophy has dealt considerably with Maya. Maya is the power of Brahman. It causes the world to be real, at the same time it is distinct from Brahman. Maya is a mysterious power and always inconceivable. Brahman projects itself into different forms and names by its eternal power Maya. Sankaracharya explains the Advaita philosophy with mainly two metaphors, the mud and the mud pot, gold and gold ornaments. The mud, when processed takes the form of the pot. When we break the pot, it loses its name and form and it again changes in to mud. Similarly, we make ornaments with pure gold. When we melt the ornaments, it loses its name and form and it again becomes gold. Likewise, Brahman appears in different names and forms. When it loses its different names and forms, it is Brahman alone. The waves of the ocean are nothing but ocean in the form of the waves. Likewise, the different forms of the universe are nothing but Brahman in different forms. The world is real (subject to change) and not the reality. Brahman alone exists, and the rest is illusion.
The quintessence of Sankara’s philosophy is “Brahma satya jagat mithya, jivo Brahmaiva na aparah“. “Brahman (the absolute) alone is real; this world is unreal, and the jiva or the individual soul is non-different from Brahman“.
The Jiva or the individual soul indentifies itself with the body-mind complex due to Avidya (ignorance). Its individuality lasts only as long as it identifies itself with its limiting adjuncts. The moment the Jiva understands its infinite power by jnana (knowledge), it loses its individuality and realizes its Satchitananda nature (infinite nature). Then the Jiva attains liberation. Sankaracharya wrote commentaries for prasthana trayi based on theAdvaita philosophy. Many people could not understand his profound philosophy. They refuted his philosophy. After Sankaracharya, the theologians of various sects of Hinduism utilized Vedanta to a greater or lesser degree to form the basis of their doctrines.
In the 7th century AD, the vaishnava movement became prominent in south India. At the end of the 9th century AD, Nathamuni, the head priest of the Srirangam temple (Tamil nadu) guided this movement seriously. It is said that, Nathamuni received the Tamil devotional hymns written by the twelve alwars, called the Nalayira– divya prabandham (4000 poetry), from Nammalwar , the foremost of the twelve alwars in yogic insight. He classified them, set the hymns to music and spread them everywhere. After his period, his successor Yamunacharya laid the fundamentals of Vishishtadvaita philosophy. His successor is Ramanujacharya (1017-1137) AD. Ramanujacharya developed and spread the Vishishtadvaita philosophy throughout India. Ramanuja’s path is mainly based on devotion. He strongly refuted the Kevala Advaita philosophy. Ramanujacharya was the foremost thinkers to identify the personal God with Brahman or Absolute reality.
The Absolute Supreme reality, Brahman is a transcendent personality with infinite superlative qualities. He is Lord Vishnu, also known as Narayana. The individual souls are part of Brahman, Narayana. The world is reality. Individual souls retain their separate identities even after moksha. Liberation is due to intense devotion to the Lord. Liberation is after the death of the body, by the grace of Lord Narayana.
Vishishtadvaita is qualified monism, where God alone exists, but it admits plurality of souls. It is midway between Advaita and Dvaita philosophies. God and the individual souls are inseparable, just like the fire and spark. In liberation, the Jivatma understands Paramatma, but do not merge in Paramatma. Vishishtadvaita is based on the principle of sarira–atma–bhava.
Princilpe of sarira-atma-bhava
Brahman (paramatma) is the non-dual soul; the entire universe is the body of that soul. The soul and body are intimately connected and in separable. The chit and achit of the universe is the body of Paramatma (Brahman). Paramatma thinks and the body (universe) executes it. The different names that are applicable to the different forms in the universe are also applicable to Paramatma. Similarly, whatever name that is given to Paramatma is also applicable to the body, because Paramatma and body are inseparable. Brahman is my atman and I am his sarira.
Ramanujacharya also wrote commentary for the prasthana trayi based on the Vishishtadvaita philosophy. His commentary on Brahma sutra is famously known as the Shri Bhashyam. Thiruvai–mozhi is written by Nammalvar and it is popularly known as the Tamil Veda. Ramanujacharya has written commentary for this Tamil Veda. It represents the cream of Vishishtadvaita philosophy.
Madhavacharya (1199-1278) AD was born in Udupi, Karnataka state. He is also called Anandha tirtha. Like Ramanujacharya, madhavacharya also strongly opposed the advaita philosophy of Sankaracharya. Madhavacharya was regarded by his followers as an incarnation of the wind God Vayu.
Vishnu is the supreme God. Dvaita identifies Brahman (the Absolute reality) of the Upanisad as the personal God, Vishnu. Paramatma is different from Jivatma. Each Jivatma is different from the other. It emphasizes the existence of two separate realities. The first reality is that Vishu is the supreme God. The second reality is that the universe is real and it exists as a separate reality. God Vishnu takes a personal role and he governs and controls the universe.
The five fundamental eternal and real differences as described in this system are,
1. between the individual soul (jivatma) and God (Vishnu, Brahman)
2. between matter (inanimate, insentient) and God
3. among individual souls (jivatma)
4. between matter and Jiva
5. among various types of matter
Madhavacharya embraces the vaishnava theology, which understand God as personal and endowed with attributes. Shiva is regarded as secondary. Liberation is the realization that all finite reality (jivas) is essentially dependent on the supreme.
Vaishnava bhakti movement strongly supported the Dvaita philosophy. It is strongly based on the bhakti (devotion) culture.
The three philosophies may appear as different from each other, but they are the different stages of spiritual evolution. They are different steps on the ladder of spiritual excellence. Different philosophies suit different mentalities. No philosophy is inferior to the other. The three main acharyas, with pure devotion and dedication has formed their own philosophies. One has to select the philosophy that suits them and practice it to improve from their level of knowledge to reach the ultimate goal, Brahman.
Majority of the people follow the Dvaita philosophy. They feel that God is the controller of their life, God is different from them, each jiva is separate from the other and there is hierarchy among the jivas too. Only a core group practices the Kevala Advaita philosophy. It is very profound and subtle. Advaita philosophy exactly conveys the meaning of the Upanisads, Brahma sutra and Baghavad Gita. Even after centuries of formation of this philosophy, Advaita philosophy still vibrates in the universe among the highly spiritually evolved people.
Many people are not aware of these philosophies, but they worship God, in the manner they prefer. Ultimately it is the pure love for God that is more important than the philosophies. When the philosophies dominate, arguments gain strength and the pure love for God takes back stage. Whether God is personal or impersonal, true devotion and knowledge transcends the soul to its original nature.