What is Vedanta?

What is Vedanta?

Vedanta rep­re­sents the philo­soph­i­cal por­tion of the ancient scrip­tures of India, the Vedas. Specif­i­cally, it refers to the final por­tion of the Vedic lit­er­a­ture, the Upan­ishads, but it also includes the Bha­gavad Gita, the great epics of India, as well as the Puranas, as well as many other texts, hymns, and writ­ings. The basic teach­ing con­cerns the ulti­mate iden­tity of the indi­vid­ual soul with the Supreme Soul. The goal of Vedanta is for the seeker to have the direct expe­ri­ence of his or her true nature, and it is held that each and every one of us is qual­i­fied to have that high­est illu­mi­na­tion, if we are will­ing to put forth sin­cere and intense effort.

From the very ear­li­est period, Vedanta has preached the har­mony of reli­gions. We find this in the ancient words of the Rigveda, ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti (“Truth is one, sages call it by var­i­ous names”) as well as in the real­iza­tions of the mod­ern day saint, Sri Rama­kri­shna (“The sub­stance is One under dif­fer­ent names, and every­one is seek­ing the same sub­stance; only cli­mate, tem­pera­ment,  and name cre­ate dif­fer­ences. Let each one fol­low his own path. If he sin­cerely and ardently wishes to know God, peace be unto him. He will surely real­ize Him.”)

Accord­ing to Sri Rama­kri­shna, God is both form­less and with form, the Per­sonal God of the devo­tee as well as the Imper­sonal Absolute of the philoso­pher. We can call on God in any num­ber of rela­tion­ships, but, Sri Rama­kri­shna believed, to look upon God as one’s mother and one­self as Her child is a very pure and effec­tive means to real­ize God.

Vedanta also teaches that we are all mem­bers of a sin­gle fam­ily and that our dif­fer­ences are merely super­fi­cial. This is one of the great lessons we learn from the life of Sri Sarada Devi,  the spir­i­tual com­pan­ion of Sri Rama­kri­shna, also known as the Holy Mother. By look­ing upon all beings as her own chil­dren, she demon­strated the truth that no one is a stranger, that the whole world is our own.

The Vedan­tic teach­ing that the Lord dwells within in all beings was given spe­cial mean­ing by Swami Vivek­a­nanda through his doc­trine of the “Liv­ing God.” For him, the high­est form of wor­ship was to see God dwelling within all beings, and espe­cially in the poor and under­priv­i­leged. To serve the poor with the atti­tude that we are serv­ing God was to him the great­est wor­ship of God.

The Means

Accord­ing to the Vedan­tic teach­ers, there are var­i­ous means and meth­ods that can be used to real­ize God or Self, based on our own par­tic­u­lar nature, incli­na­tion, and per­son­al­ity. These are known as the Four Yogas. They can be prac­ticed sep­a­rately, or in com­bi­na­tion. Swami Vivek­a­nanda taught that the strongest spir­i­tual path was one which com­bined the four yogas, though we may give spe­cial empha­sis to the one that most appeals to us.

Bhakti Yoga

This is the path of devo­tion, wherein the devo­tee approaches God through a par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship and with a par­tic­u­lar atti­tude. It empha­sizes prac­tices such as prayer, chant­ing the names and glo­ries of God, and med­i­ta­tion on God as a lov­ing real­ity, ever present within our hearts. Through this prac­tice, one inten­si­fies the feel­ing of inti­macy and love for God, and ulti­mately reaches the state of union or one­ness with God.

Jnana Yoga

This is the path of knowl­edge or philo­soph­i­cal dis­crim­i­na­tion, wherein the seeker strives, through the power of rea­son, to dis­cover the Self within by cast­ing off the false super­im­po­si­tion of the body, mind, senses, intel­lect, and per­son­al­ity. As a result of this prac­tice, the seeker real­izes the Supreme Real­ity to be present within as his own higher Self, and knows him­self to be the birth­less, death­less, Real­ity, the One with­out a Second.

Karma Yoga

This is the path of self­less work. For the devo­tee, it means to do all ones work as an offer­ing to God and to expect noth­ing per­sonal in return. For the philoso­pher, it means to see that all action is the inter­play between the mind and senses, on the one hand, and sense objects, on the other, and to real­ize that the higher Self is merely the wit­ness. It is to feel that one is not the agent of action. In either case, it means to prac­tice detach­ment and equa­nim­ity with regard to work, and to real­ize that the results of all actions are not in our hands. Through such a prac­tice, the mind becomes puri­fied, and the seeker comes to real­ize his or her true nature.

Raja Yoga

This is the “Royal Path” of med­i­ta­tion and is one of the main spir­i­tual prac­tices for all seek­ers of God or Self, regard­less of their spir­i­tual atti­tude. Through the prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion, one can expe­ri­ence higher and higher spir­i­tual states, cul­mi­nat­ing in the direct vision of the one real­ity that remains when the mind no longer func­tions in its usual way. There are var­i­ous tech­niques avail­able for the prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion, but the one empha­sized by Sri Rama­kri­shna, Holy Mother and Swami Vivek­a­nanda involves the use of a mantra and some con­crete or sym­bolic image of the divine.