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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.