Vedanta 101 : A Neo-Religion

I am starting this series as a set of write-ups for people to easily grasp the central tenets of one of the oldest schools of philosophy in Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta or Non-Dual Vedanta. It is hard to precisely date when the thought processes pertaining to Non Dualism, of God and Man, first started in the Indian subcontinent. The earliest sources are the several Vedas, literally Knowledge or Wisdom, which were written in a wide span of time from around 1700–1100 BCE to 1000–500 BCE in which are the Upanishads which present a form of concise understanding of the philosophies stated in the Vedas.

The most important Guru of Advaita Vedanta, Adi Shankara, who’s Brahmasutrabhasya is one of the most classic works of Vedanta. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma( 1904)

To begin with, the title I have chosen, “A Neo Religion” can seem to be a misnomer, Advaita being atleast over two millenia old. But this philosophy would have remained a petty philosophy like most in Institutionalized Hinduism, were it not for the 20th century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna (রামকৃষ্ণ) and his league of devotees and order of monks, the most important among them being Swami Vivekananda (স্বামী বিবেকানন্দ) who rechristened the entire Vedanta philosophy and reformed Hinduism in Bengal and elsewhere doing away with many of the ills of the religion, while helping it acquire a firm footing in America and other nations, simply with lucid explanations of age old totems of wisdom and introspection.

If all this seems a bit tedious, let me showcase a few quotes by practicing Vedantins ,

“You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself.”

— Swami Vivekananda.

“You, the eternal Spirit,were never born and will never die.You are birthless and deathless.You must not think that you will become immortal after death.This would be impossible if you were not immortal even now.”

— Swami Abhedananda, Precepts for Perfection

Ramakrishna accepted the teachings of all the major religions of the world as true, with each having in it, the potential to lead humans to divinity.

The quotes above might seem a bit quotidian, especially to inhabitants of the subcontinent who are often in direct contact with such thoughts, having heard about them, read about them but not really comprehending them. Such was my state too, until about a year back when I stumbled upon Swami Sarvapriyananda’s lectures online. He carefully plotted the course that wayward souls are advised to take, to realize the truth already inherent within themselves.

The main thought that these men and women were alluding to was that Humans are potentially divine. The central teaching of Vedanta can be, with the danger of levity, summarized in one sentence.

This small sentence, originally found in the Chandogya Upanishad is often considered the central teaching of Vedanta, equating Thou(You, Human) with That(Divinity, the Godhead).

Tat Tvam Asi can also be interpreted as the equality of God centric(That, God as in the Abrahamic religions) and Self centric(Thou, You as in Buddhism and samkhya) religions, as Ramakrishna propounded in his famous যত মত তত পথ (As many beliefs, so many ways(to realizing divinity)).

Finally, I shall wrap up this week by stating one of Swami Sarvapriyananda’s most interesting observations, that due to the vastness of Hinduism, whatever I write about Hinduism is True, and the opposite is also True. God can be with form or without form ; The correct path can be Monism(Advaita Vedanta) or Dualism(Dvaita Vedanta) and so on.

Keeping this in mind, I begin my series of texts on the theories and practices in Hinduism surrounding Advaita Vedanta, one of the belief systems which I daresay, can bring peace and stability in our world where Religion is often and understandably misunderstood.