Vedanta Sutra and the Vedanta


Based on the observations and experiences (including the supernatural) of humans during early civilization, the accumulated knowledge was compiled as the Veda which considers the ultimate reality, or the Absolute, as Brahman (or God), souls and the world (or material Universe). Over time, different philosophical systems developed so that these aspects of reality could be better understood and combined, at least conceptually. Thus the analysis of the world was carried out using the Vaisesika and the Nyaya philosophies with the former looking at the things in minute detail whereas the latter taking a much broader view of things. Similarly, the Samkhya and the Yoga systems deal, respectively, with the theoretical study and the practical aspects involving the field of experience. The Mimamsa, on the other hand, consists of the Vedanta (Uttara Mimamsa) and the Purva Mimamsa which relate, respectively, to God and the acts of service (sacrifice).

In the Vedanta, emphasis is on Lord and not on the lordship. In other words, the Absolute or the Reality is investigated by considering Brahman first and the creation (souls and the world) follows next (and even as attributable to Brahman). The term "Vedanta" means literally "the end of the Veda," or the doctrines set forth in the closing chapters of the Vedas, which are the Upanisads. The views of the Upanisads also constitute "the final aim of the Veda," or the essence of the Vedas. The Vedanta Sutra (or the doctrine of Vedanta) is called Brahm Sutra, because it is an exposition of the doctrine of Brahm (or Brahman), and also Sariraka Sutra, because it deals with the embodiment of the unconditioned self. While in the Purva Mimamsa (or Karma Mimamsa) Jaimini investigates the duties (dharma) enjoined by the Veda, together with the rewards attached thereto, in the Uttara Mimamsa Badarayana describes the philosophico-theological views of the Upanisads. Together, the two form a systematic investigation of the whole Veda. The Upanisads are but a series of glances at truth from various points of view, and not an attempt to think out the great questions consecutively. Badarayana (around 400 B.C.), through his sutra (which could be under development for a long time even before Badarayana compiled it finally), attempts to systematize this wisdom of the Upanisads in a consistent whole. His work is not so much systematic philosophy as theological interpretation. It investigates the Upanisads teachings about God, the world, the soul in its conditions of wandering and of deliverance; removes apparent contradictions in the doctrines; and binds them systematically together. In five hundred and fifty-five sutras (aphorisms), which consist mostly of two or three words each, the whole system is developed. The sutras are unintelligible in themselves, and leave everything to the interpreter. Thus, according to the traditions of a particular time or personal theisms of the commentators -- chief among them, Samkara, Bhaskara, Madhva, Ramanuja, Yadavaprakasa, Kesava, Nilakantha, Baladeva, Vallabha, and Vijnanabhiksu -- the resulting views or the commentaries on the Vedanta Sutra can vary vastly. The Sutra is one of those rare books where each, in accordance with his merits, finds his reward.

Thus even when Badarayana formulated his Sutra, there were differences of opinion in interpreting the Upanisads on such central topics as the characteristics of the released soul and the relation of the individual soul to Brahman. Asmarthya holds the bhedabheda view of the relation of the soul to Brahman, that it is neither absolutely different nor absolutely non-different from it. Audolomi is of opinion that the soul is altogether different from Brahman up to the time of final release, when it becomes merged in it, and Kasakrtsna thinks that the soul is absolutely identical with Brahman, which, in some way or other, presents itself as the individual soul. The later interpreters accept one or more of these views. This indicates that the Upanisads were subjects of considerable discussion throughout and Badarayan's view of the Vedanta seems to be the outcome of a very prominent school of thought, though other schools of considerable repute also flourished.

Metaphysical Views

The Vedanta Sutra has four chapters. The first deals with the theory of Brahman as the central reality. This includes an account of the nature of Brahman, its relation to the world and the individual soul. The second (avirodha) meets the objections brought against this view and criticizes rival theories. It also gives an account of the nature of the dependence of the world on God and the gradual evolution from and reabsorption into him. In the latter part there are interesting psychological discussions about the nature of the soul, its attributes, its relation to God, body and its own deeds. The third discusses the ways and means (sadhana) of attaining Braham-vidya or Braham-jnana (divine knowledge). There is in it an account of rebirth and minor psychological and theological discussions, together with many exegetical components. The fourth deals with the fruits (phala) of Braham-vidya. It also describes in some detail the theory of the departure of soul after death along the two paths of the gods and the fathers and the nature of the release from which there is no return. Each chapter has four parts (padas), and the sutras in each part fall into certain groups called adhikaranas. Some textual differences in the readings adopted by the different commentators are found, though they are not all of great importance.

For Badarayana the Veda is eternal and the sastra (scriptural knowledge) is the great authority. He declares openly that there is no possibility of discovering metaphysical truth by means of tarka or reflection. He admits that there are two sources of knowledge, sruti and smrti, and calls them pratyksam (perception) and anumanam (inference) possibly because the latter, as Samkara suggests, requires a basic knowledge (pramanyam), and the former not. The revealed sruti, which is self-evident, is called pratyksam. By sruti Badarayana understands the Upanisads, and by smrti he means the Mahabharata (including the Bhagavadgita, because of its being a part of the Mahabharata) and the Manusmrti (code of Manu). Note, as one of the Upanisads, the Gita is also part of sruti. As relating to the knowledge in general, inference rests on the perception, so is smrti dependent on sruti. Badarayana admits of no other pramanas (evidence). He makes a distinction between two spheres of existence, the thinkable, which is the region of prakrti (nature, body), with the elements, mind, intellect and egoity and the unthinkable, which is Brahman. In the latter, sastras are the only guide. Any reasoning that does not conform to the Veda is useless for Badarayana. Reasoning proceeds from characteristic marks. But of Brahman one cannot say that this or that characterizes it to the exclusion of other attributes. Reasoning, therefore, is subordinate to intuition, which can be obtained by devotion and meditation.

According to the Vedanta Sutra, the purusa and prakrti of the Samkhya are not independent substances, but modifications of a single reality. A plurality of true infinites is not possible. The one infinite substance, Brahman, is identified with the highest reality set forth in the Upanisads. In the first chapter, there is a discussion of the several descriptions of Brahman given in the Upanisads. He is the origin, support and end of the world, the efficient and the material cause of the universe. He creates without implements. A psychological proof of the reality of Brahman is offered on the evidence of dreamless sleep. Brahman is not to be confused with the unintelligent pradhana (Mahat or the first cause), or the individual soul. He is possessed of all dharmas, and is the inner law and guide. He has the qualities of purity, truth of purpose, omniscience, omnipotence, etc. His cosmic aspects are also brought out. He is the cosmic light, the golden person in the Sun, the cosmic space or akasa, and the cosmic breath or air or prana. He is also the light in the soul. He is to be contemplated as residing in the heart of man, and humans are allowed to look upon the omnipresent god as occupying a limited space. The ultimate ground of things is a single supreme spirit that is the source of everything and an adequate object of unqualified adoration and worship.

As the Gita considers unintelligent things and intelligent souls as the lower and the higher manifestations of one reality, the Sutra -- overcoming any ambiguity in the Upanisad view of creation -- admits Brahman, itself uncreated and eternal, as the cause of the whole universe. Every material element is created by Brahman. If, through the activity of the primary elements, the evolution of the world takes place, even then it is Brahman that confers the power through the exercise of which the evolution takes place. As it is said, Brahman, after creating the elements, enters them; and it is Brahman dwelling in the elements that effects the production of other things.

Brahman thus is the material cause as well as the instrumental cause of the world. In the Sutra the nature of the relation between the cause and the effect, Brahman and the world, is discussed. The identity of cause and effect is brought out by two illustrations. Just as a piece of cloth, when rolled up, does not show its nature properly, but shows its nature fully when spread out, though the same piece of cloth is present in two cases, so cause and effect are the same though their qualities differ. Just as, when breath is held up, the individual is not able to perform any action, though he continues to live, and, when the breath is let loose, he is able to move the limbs, the breath remaining the same throughout, similarly cause and effect produce different actions, though they really are the same. Brahman and the world are not different (ananya), even as the clay pot is not different from clay. While the commentators agree that the cause is not different from the effect, the nature of identity of Brahman and the world is differently explained by them. To Badarayana, ananya does not mean absence of difference or change. For the explanation of this change Samkara postulates avidya. The world exists only for those who are under the influence of avidya, even as the imagined serpent exists only for the man who has the wrong view of the rope. The other commentators hold to the theory of parinama or transformation, i.e. finite things are real as determinations of Brahman and not as the rope as a snake. The statement that Brahman is the material cause of the world suggests that the world is a modification of the substance of Brahman. The world is not an illusion or a dream-like structure, but a real, positive something which has its origination, existence and absorption in Brahman. Badarayana believes that the power of creation belongs to the pure, stainless Brahman, even as heat belongs to fire. Brahman for its own sport develops itself into the world without undergoing the least change and without ceasing to be itself. According to Ramanuja and others, such real creation is possible because Brahman has wonderful powers -- to turn the impossible into possible -- by which even the inconceivable might be achieved. Samkara on the other hand believes that the ultimate reality is Brahman, the indeterminate spirit, and argues that the world of knower, known and knowledge is somehow in Brahman.

Badarayana says that the soul is jna, which Samkara interpretes as intelligence, while Ramanuja takes it as an intelligent knower. Vallabha agrees with Samkara, while Kesava thinks that the soul is both intelligence and knower. The individual soul is an agent (karta). Birth and death refer to the body and not the soul, which has no beginning. It is eternal. The jivatman (soul in the body) is considered as anu or atomic in character. Ramanuja, Madhava, et al., share this view. Samkara is of the opinion that the soul is all-pervading or vibhu, though it is considered to be atomic in the worldly condition or in the body it occupies. Badarayana holds that Brahman is in the individual soul, though the nature of Brahman is not touched by the character of the soul. As the jiva (embodied soul) and Brahman are different as the light of the sun and the sun, and as when the light is covered by clouds the sun is not affected, even so, when the jiva is subject to pain, Brahman is not. The embodied self acts and enjoys, acquires merit and demerit, and is affected by pleasure and pain, while the highest self has opposite nature and is free from all evil. The statements "that are though" and "this atman is Brahman" attempts to show that the two, Brahman and atman, God and man, are in reality one. If Brahman were the cause of everything, it must be the cause of the individual soul as well. The absolute divine essence is present in all its manifestations. Every individual shares in the spirit of God. It is not clear, from Badarayana's account, in what exact manner the individual is related to Brahman, as a part (amsa) or reflection (abhasa) of the universal self. Badarayana points out that Asmarathya, Audulomi and Kasakrtsna take up different positions with regard to the relation of the individual soul to Brahman. Asmarathya thinks that the soul is a part of Brahman, even in a spatial sense. Audolomi holds that, in deep sleep, the soul is temporarily in union with Brahman. Kasakrtsna, whose view Samkara upholds, believes that Brahman exists, whole and undivided, in the form of the individual soul, and Badarayana simply mentions these different opinions, but does not say which view he supports. The passage that the jiva is a part (amsa) of the highest reality is taken by Samkara (of Advaita) to mean "a part as it were" (amsa iva). Since Brahman, who is not composed of parts, cannot have parts in the literal sense, Bhaskara and Vallabha assert that the jiva is a part of the Lord because there is difference as well as identity between them. Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Baladeva and Srikantha think that the jiva is a real part of Brahman, even as the light issuing from a luminous object like the fire or the sun is a part of that object. The view that the jiva is both different and not different from the supreme, even as a serpent is both different and not different from its folds is refuted. Ramanuja, however, takes the sutra as dealing with the relation of Brahman to matter, and disputes the view that matter is only a different posture of Brahman and not different from it, even as the folds of the serpent are only a different position of and not different from the serpent. Ramanuja contends that both jiva and matter are parts of Brahman. Kesava argues that matter is both different from and one with Brahman, even as the serpent and its hood are different and also not different when the serpent is viewed as whole. Matter is identical with Brahman inasmuch as its very existence depends on Brahman, and it is different from Brahman since it has name and form. The jiva is also different and not different from Brahman, and the difference is certainly real. There is strong support for the view that Badarayana looks upon the difference between Brahman and the individual soul as ultimate, i.e. something which persists even when the soul is released. The jiva, though minute in size, pervades the whole body even as a little sandal ointment refreshes the whole body.


The world is due to the will (samkalpa) of God. It is his lila, or play. It does not, however, mean that he created sin and suffering for his joy or, as some might say, that there may be inferior creatures who will praise and glorify him for his eternal greatness. A God all blissful, who delights in the suffering of creatures, is no God at all. The diversity (or diverse conditions) is determined by the karma (actions) of the individuals. God is limited by the necessity of taking into account the previous actions of humans. The unequal distribution of happiness is the expression of the moral order of which God's will is the embodiment. So Brahman is neither partial nor pitiless, and has not the delightful freedom and irresponsibility.

In the third chapter of the Sutra it is pointed out how ethical discipline can secure for the individual a body fit for the acquirement of absolute knowledge or Braham-jnana. The salvation is possible for everyone, whether through acts or the grace of God. To this end, the rules of the Veda (sruti) are helpful. Badarayana indicates in the Sutra that active service and renunciation of the world get equal support from the scriptures, and finds himself inclined towards the combining of the spirit of renunciation with strenuous life. Action done out of ignorance, but not all action, impedes the rise of spiritual perception or jnana. Whatever freedom is there after attaining release, on earth, even in the jivanmukta (liberated life) condition, action is enjoined. Following the Upanisads, the Sutra allows secondary worships (involving the lesser devas) which may grant blessings to the devotees, though even these are governed by the supreme. The reality is beyond and not contained in the pratikas, or symbols, which are permitted as an aid (in prayer etc.) to the inapt man. The supreme is avyakta or unmanifested, though he is seen in the state of samradhana. The highest kind of religion is the possession of God-vision. The ultimate end of the individual is the attainment of the self. Badarayana believes in jivanmukti or liberation in life. Knowledge of Brahman puts an end to the karmas which have not begun to operate, though the body lasts until the karmas which have started to operate (arabdha) are exhausted.

In the fourth chapter, there is an account of how the individual soul reaches Brahman through the Devayana, whence there is no return. The characteristics of the released soul also are described. According to Audolomi, its chief feature is thought. Jaimini maintains that it has a number of exalted qualities, and Badarayana declares himself in favor of a combination of these two views. After mentioning the almost infinite power and knowledge which will come to the liberated soul on attaining moksa, the author remarks that none, however, will get the power of creating, ruling and dissolving the universe, since that belongs to God alone.

Badarayana affirms a monistic view of the world. He does not admit polytheism or a plurality of independent and equally ultimate reals or unoriginate souls or a dualism between God and the Evil One. He accepts the two views of Brahman as the indeterminate intelligence (nirvisesa cinmatra) held by Badri, Kasakrtsna and Audolomi, and determinate personal Lord (saviseka) held by Asmarathya and Jaimini.

Compiled from: The Bhagavadgita; and Indian Philosophy, Vol. 2, by S. Radhakrishnan, ISBN 019563821-4, pp. 430-444.
by: Dr. Subhash C. Sharma
Date: June 27, 2004

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