The Way of Vedanta

Vedanta is the wisdom of the Vedic sages. It is one of the oldest forms of religion and was the precursor to Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. It is the spiritual path outlined in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Ultimate Reality, according to Vedanta, is all-pervading pure consciousness. As one adept wrote, “ [It is] one without a second, beyond all name, form or epithet.”

It is likely that Vedanta was the first belief system to enunciate the dilemma of dualism. It states in the Mundaka Upanishad that “There are two ways of knowing to be attained – as the knowers of Brahman say; a higher and a lower.” The lower mode, termed aparavidya corresponds to symbolic knowledge. This is the inferential knowledge we gain by mapping the world. The higher mode, called paravidya, is the intuitive experience of reality all at once. In the lower mode we progressively build up our knowledge by observation, measurement and apprehension. The higher mode is essentially the non-dual way of knowing when reality is experienced in its totality – when there is no separation between the observer and the observed, the knower and the known , the subject and the object.

Swami Adiswarananda maintains that Vedanta has made three principal contributions to world religious thought:

The first is spiritual democracy. This ensures freedom of worship. It encourages religious tolerance and eschews proselytizing.

The second, he calls “spiritual humanism”. This calls practitioners to serve all. It is based on one of the cardinal teachings of Vedanta, the oneness of existence. By doing good to others we benefit ourselves.

Finally there is Universal unity. Vedanta maintains the presence of one “Soul” in all. Such a philosophy enables us to put aside the accidental differences between humans due to race, culture and belief systems coming between us.

The Swami writes, “Vedanta’s contribution to humanity has been its catholicity of outlook; its spirit of tolerance, even to a fault; and its quest for inner freedom that defies imposition of any limit of race, colour, creed, special claims, or economic or political affiliation.”

Just as in one of its successor belief systems, Buddhism, Vedanta tells us that knowledge of scriptures is not enough to be enlightened. It strongly emphasises personal experience. But then it adds the cautionary note that even experience can mislead us. It contends that the validity of a transcendental experience of spiritual truth can only be assured when that experience is corroborated by scriptural testimony and affirmed by reason.

In this way Vedantic reasoning fellows a threefold process:
• Shravana –hearing the sacred texts.
• Manana –reflecting with reason on what has been heard and read, and
• Nididhyasana – meditating on what has been reasoned about.

With respect to Shravana it is not enough just to hear the words of the sacred texts. The aspirant must seek to grasp the true meaning of the texts. The learner is encouraged to look beyond the literal meaning to understand the wisdom implied in the sacred texts.

Vedantic reasoning does not seek to prove or disprove the reality of the world: its sole purpose is to have the direct apprehension of that which is ultimately Real.

Liberation, according to Vedanta, is freedom from all dictates and superimpositions of ego. It is seeing every relative phenomenon as a reflection of absolute Reality. To quote the good Swami again, “Expressed in theological language, it is the attainment of an all-pervading God consciousness by which one sees God in everything both with eyes open and eyes closed.”

Swami Vivenkananda, the chief disciple of the nineteenth century mystic, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and who is credited with bringing Vedanta to Europe and the USA used a little metaphor to describe this process of liberation through self-knowledge.

“One day a drop of water fell into the vast ocean. When it found itself there, it began to weep and complain just as you are doing. The great ocean laughed at the drop of water. ‘Why do you weep?’ it asked. ‘I do not understand. When you join me, you join all your brothers and sisters, the other drops of water of which I am made. You become the ocean itself. If you wish to leave me, you only have to rise up on a sunbeam into the clouds. From there you can descend again, a blessing and a benediction to the thirsty earth.’”

[Maybe there are a limited number of cogent metaphors. Until last week I had never read Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s fable. But a little while ago discussing the issue of whether matter (through complexity) manifests as mind, or mind as the primal cause manifests as matter, I used a similar metaphor. I said if I was unaware and you asked me where does water come from, I would say, “It is obvious, water comes from clouds. We have all seen the rain fall from the sky.” But if I had some scientific knowledge I would understand that clouds come from water, the result largely of evaporation from the earth’s oceans. If we view the earth virtually now as a closed system so far as water is concerned then it is always there, sometimes as water, sometimes as ice, sometime as water vapour. And so it is with Mind. It was always there, eternal and the prime cause of everything – even manifesting as matter. My apologies for the small diversion!]

You can see how these ideas from Vedanta translated into some of the beliefs of its derivative belief systems. In Mahayana Buddhism a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being that uses their wisdom to help others progress towards enlightenment.

Ken Wilbur wrote:
“For, in fact, the highest ideal of the mystic is that expressed by the Bodhisattva, who in Mahayana Buddhism is one who sees the Godhead everywhere and everywhen, in every person, place and thing, and thus does not have to retire into solitude and trance in order to find his ‘god’. The Bodhisattva’s mystic vision is identical with whatever he happens to be doing at the moment, and whether that be dancing, working, crying, laughing or intensely suffering, he knows that fundamentally ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,’ for, as Hakuin [17th Century Zen Monk] put it , ‘This very earth is the Lotus Land of Purity; And this body is the body of Buddha’”.

It is quite likely that the modern proponents of Vedanta, from whom I have drawn most of the material for this essay, have idealised their belief system (as would most proponents for other belief systems). Yet it is still wonderful to come across a tradition that is not divisive, not based on guilt and seeks to weld belief with reason and understanding of the human condition.

7 Replies to “The Way of Vedanta”

  1. The major religious traditions have a common thread of “we’re right, you’re wrong” running through them. They add to this a fear that failure to believe will result in some particularly unpleasant things upon one’s death. In their defence they also have a common thread of compassion although my personal view is that this most often takes second place to the other components. In the past peoples welfare after their death seemed more important to the established religions than their wellbeing before death (particularly for the under privileged).

    This recipe of faith, fear and welfare has obviously been successful or there would not be major religious traditions based on it today. This formula though is no longer working nearly as well. The established religions are in decline (at least in the West), where-as spirituality with the compassion component in the absence of fear seems to be on the rise (eg Buddhism).

    There is also an evolution taking place within the established religions, with much less fire and brimstone being taught in favour of love and compassion. All good stuff. One component though has not changed and that is the “we’re right, you’re wrong” bit. There is perhaps some growing tolerance of other beliefs but this seems to be more the parental understanding of an immature child than true acceptance. Fundamentally I think the idea that other religions may be equally able to get you to paradise still can not be tolerated and I am not sure it ever will be. It does not matter anyway really as long as they give up the notion of helping non believers on their way to paradise. For some reason we still find it much easier to go to war against a people who have different beliefs to us and religion is often a big part of this.

  2. Good comment, as usual, Greg. I would beg to differ slightly from your analysis though. Islamic fundamentalists still seem to be prospering. And their approach is “I am right and you are wrong and if you don’t agree I’ll kill you.”

    Buddhism, Vedanta and some of the other eastern traditions say, “I have experienced something transcendental. Here is the process I used. I would like you to try it and make up your own mind. But if you don’t , I respect your decision.”

    There is a very sharp contrast between these approaches. One is fearful of dissent, the other is respectful of humanity.

  3. Don’t disagree about the Islamic fundamentalists Ted, but I still suggest that apart from migrant fundamentalists the level of tolerance within the Islamic community in Western democracies is growing. Violent fundamentalism in the West is declining. This does not mean that Western Muslims are in favour of vengence for acts of terror but then again neither are many Christians or myself for that matter.

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