Hindu Spiritual Philosophy

About the author:

Dr. Meenakshi Sharma ,51,
is among those rare seekers who gave up her professional career with a Public Sector Bank of repute to pursue her interest in the field of spirituality. She has been on her quest with the stated objective of ‘discovering and spreading the wisdom of Indian scriptures and other Philosophies’. 

Beside contributing many articles on SpeakingTree, she has to her credit, publication of her book ‘Life with One Eye Open’. 

Furthering her academic education of Masters in Economics, she attained Degree in Law and Doctorate. 

While showing deep reverence to the legacy of Hindu seers and scriptures, her scientific approach to spirituality and her holistic attitude towards the Universe commands our appreciation. We feel privileged and honored for her consent to publish her article here.

Nature of God

Vedanta, one of the six orthodox Hindu philosophies based on scriptural interpretation of the Vedas, has had a deep and prevailing impact on Hindu religious thought. All schools of Vedanta traditionally accept the same three scriptures, prasthana-traya – Upanishads, Bhagavad-gita and Vedanta-sutra, as their authority but interpret them in different ways. 
Of the main schools of Vedanta, Advaita (Non-Dualist) of Shankaracharya is most prominent and can be considered idealistic – however Ramanujachrya’s Visishtadvaita (Qualified Non-Dualist) and Madhavachraya’s Dvaita (Dualist) has had a greater influence in shaping Hindu beliefs. Shankaracharya’s major contribution is in terms of Hindu revival by establishing preeminence of realised knowledge, by offering an authentic interpretation of Vedanta and partial reassertion of Hindu rituals. Nonetheless it is the theistic interpretation of Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya postulating the existence of a personal Supreme Deity who is to be worshipped with devotion that accurately represents the form as practiced widely by Hindus. 

The principal basis of the variety of belief systems concerning the nature of God is the degree of identity between God and the individual soul, atman. Shankaracharya emphasizes that God is not a monotheistic Deity – rather it is the ultimate reality with which everything is identical. Ramanujacharya while accepting the notion of identity believes in a personal God as he considers that the identity is not absolute for there is a distinction between the individual soul and God. On the contrary Madhavacharya stresses on the absolute distinction between God, individual beings and the material world with a view to underscore the significance of worship and devotion. 

A comparative analysis of the aforementioned three main schools of Vedanta highlighting the areas of agreement and dissonance is presented herewith.

Monistic or Theistic

Advaita is monistic as it believes in brahman as one perfect unchanging reality of one over that of many and may even be considered as non-theistic as it does not accept the ultimate reality of a Supreme Deity beyond one’s own inner self.

Visishtadvaita and Dvaita are monotheistic and regard Vishnu as the Supreme Deity urging that worship of God is the highest expression of religiosity.

Belief in Personal Deity

Advaita does not believe in a personal deity as it advocates that brahman, in its timeless essence is identical with the self. In spite of the aforesaid, according to Shankaracharya brahman is nirguna - beyond all predicates and qualities but in its temporal mode could be considered as a Lord that has saguna attributes and so can be approached through devotion as an object of consciousness.

Ramanujacharya in his Visishtadvaita upheld the reality of Vishnu as a Supreme brahman who is a personal gracious Deity – a personal God rather than an absolute existence who is a fundamental entity higher than atman which cannot be reduced to a secondary reality.

Dvaita believed in brahman as a personal Supreme Deity viz Vishnu who descended in the form of various avatars of which Rama and Krishna are most revered.

Worship of Image and Devotion / Bhakti

Advaita being primarily non-theistic does not place much import on worship and devotion. However Shankaracharya did make concessions to the idea of devotion to a personal Lord at a lower level of knowledge and acknowledged that while on a path towards absolute knowledge, at interim stage of realisation the worship of a Deity is a valuable practice and encouraged the worship of sacred images and even installed them. 
Ramanujacharya had a significant religious dimension and hence relied on devotional mood and love through lyrical compositions. He recognized that since Supreme brahman is a sentient entity, worshiping the Deity with prayers is an appropriate form of spiritual practice. 

Madhavacharya strongly proposed that the true dharma to be followed by all beings is devotion to the Deity based on knowledge of His divine nature, which is a means of attaining divine grace which is the key to moksha.

Interpretation of Sacred Texts & Main Scripture

Shankaracharya interprets that Vedas deem liberation as the final goal which can only be achieved by acquiring knowledge. He based his teachings primarily on Upanishads which believes that the atman shares an identity with brahman as espoused by their Mahavakyas. Hence Advaita is a method of reading the texts and gaining knowledge of truth through hearing, thinking & meditating as no action can discriminate self from what is not the self – only knowledge can achieve this.
Ramanujacharya accepts Upanishadic teachings but relies more on the Bhagavad-gita when he promulgates an attitude of bhara smarpana i.e. transference of the burden of achieving moksha to the Deity, who in turn responds to the devotee and elevates him.

However according to Madhavacharya the scriptures maintain, as is also the experience of all living being, an eternal distinction between individual soul and the Lord - even on attaining moksha. 

Identity of Atman & brahman

Advaita asserts that atman and brahman are identical as there is unity of the individual with the Supreme Spirit. Nevertheless Shankaracharya speaks of two levels viz. the higher level is the unity of brahman whilst the lower level is brahman as a personal Lord. Even so in the state of final realization there is no conception of God for any idea of God and a worshipper of God implies a duality. 

Ramanujacharya claims that identity of atman and brahman is partial and qualified rather than absolute as while the living being shares the spiritual quality of brahman it is albeit an infinitesimal part of it. He elucidates that within every being there is seated alongside a atman and a paramatman viz. a manifestation of Vishnu which directs its wanderings through material existence. 

Dvaita emphasizes that the atman and brahman are always entirely distinct as there is no identity between them. Madhavacharya fervently agrees with Ramanujachatya that atman and paramatman exists as separate entities within each being and interprets Bhagavad-gita accordingly.

Nature of True Self

Advaita proclaims that the true self is neither the body nor the mind but is ultimately identical to brahman. Shankaracharya considers that only brahman is real in absolute sense and the phenomenal world, including the existence of a personal God is real in a limited sense. 

Ramanujacharya maintains that God is atman’s essence without whom it would not exist and is also its inner controller – atman participates in God’s existence whilst simultaneously retaining a distinct identity. 
Madhavacharya affirms that the true self is not the body or the mind but an eternally existing distinct conscious spiritual entity that moves from one body to another under the impulse of the effects of previous actions. 

Attribute of the World 

Advaita stresses on the non-difference between the self and absolute and considers all equally as brahman. Shankaracharya believes that the world of manifold experiences is ultimately unreal – an illusion (maya) caused due to ignorance. 

Visishtadvaita comprehends the universe, comprising of conscious selves (chit) and unconscious matter (achit), as the Lord’s body which is part of absolute reality and not illusory - and draws a parallel that just as the self is related to the body so is the Lord related to the self and the world.

Madhavacharya refutes the belief that the world and individual souls are equivalent to the body of God. He strongly emphasizes that the world is wholly real and that the Lord in essence is unknowable despite pervading the self (as inner witness) and matter (as inner controller). He propagates the doctrine of truth – Tattvavada viz. things are exactly as we perceive them to be and a thing is what it is and not another.

Quality of Ignorance

Shankaracharya deduces that ignorance exists as atman is affected by spiritual ignorance which is caused by superimposition of the self on what is not the self & what is not the self on the self and thus distorted by this projection. Only knowledge (which is distinct from action) dispels illusion and any perception of diversity is ignorance for true knowledge is identity of the self with the absolute and discrimination between true being from objects. 

Ramanujacharya rejects the aforesaid idea as he raises the question as to how can the eternal atman which is non different from absolute brahman, which alone is real, be subject to or in control of the external force of ignorance. Therefore removal of ignorance and past karmas requires a deep understanding of Lord’s nature which leads to liberation from beginningless cycle or reincarnation and it is only by apprehending the glory of the Lord in the world a devotee can understand brahman to be the supreme person.  Knowledge is only a preliminary requisite that leads one who possesses it towards devotion - hence surrender to God is the doctrine of salvation by grace.

Madhavacharya reasons that there is a graded hierarchy of selves distinguished into three categories in accordance with the gunas – sattva, rajas & tamas, which exist at different levels of hierarchical cosmos in which the purer selves are higher than the impure. 

Concept of Difference (Bheda) and Distinction

Advaita claims that as reality is one then all distinctions must be illusory based on ignorance or superimposition and rests on our present sense of identity through which we conceive of ourselves in terms of our present body & mentality. 

Visishtadvaita enunciates that there is an inseparable relationship between self & God and the self is wholly dependent upon God for its being - nevertheless this does not mean that atman is God. 

Madhavacharya focuses on difference and distinction which is in fact the fulcrum of his theology and scriptural interpretation. He articulates that while each thing / phenomena is unique there are five categories of difference – between the Lord and the self, between innumerable selves, between the Lord & matter, between self & matter and between phenomena within matter. These distinction and phenomena exist independently of each other – yet nothing can exist outside of Lord’s will as just as body depends on the soul, so all beings and matter depend upon the Lord.

Moksha or Liberation

Shankaracharya states that living beings in the world transmigrate as a result of karma and undergo constant suffering from which they must strive to escape by attaining liberation from rebirth. Realized knowledge which has preeminence over ritual acts is the only key to achieve moksha and consequently all religious practice is useful only if it leads to acquisition of higher knowledge. Removal of superimpositions is the removal of ignorance and realization of the true self as identical with brahman is that knowledge which is liberation. 

Ramanujacharya maintains that moksha is not gained by merely one’s personal transition from ignorance to realized knowledge – it is obtained through external intervention of an all powerful loving God who saves one who is devoted to him. And that even after the atman is liberated from the cycle of rebirth it does not lose its individual identity and merge with brahman as the soul retains its individuality so that it can continue the relationship of love with the Deity in the liberated state.

Madhavacharya holds liberation is the self enjoyment of its innate being, consciousness and bliss which is participation in the bliss of the Lord attained through devotion to an icon and the Lord’s grace and only some souls may eventually attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth and attain a position of constant association but never unity. 

In view of the forgoing we can conclude that the three main schools of Vedanta are not contradictory and instead are complimentary to one another as they represent harmoniously arranged stages in a graded series of spiritual experience on the way to the ultimate truth, the supreme reality. To comprehend Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta one may indeed have to climb the ladder of Dvaita and Visishtadvaita. These different schools of Vedanta are all crucial as they cater to people possessing varying temperament and capacities. The different conceptions on the nature of God are but different approaches to reality. 

Yet undeniably it is quite impossible for the atman, a finite soul to grasp the reality and nature of God, the infinite soul. 

It is incredible to note that while i am a self professed devout Hindu for the larger part of my life and yet never knew of the aforesaid till recently.
What was really worthwhile for me was being able to reconcile the different thoughts that i had and still do with respect to the nature of God.

I am personally so impressed with the vastness, greatness and equally the all accepting attitude of Hinduism that i really wish we could make all of it part of the course curriculum to be studied by our children. While it could be an optional course, we could introduce courses pertaining to other faiths too, so that the children guided by their parents, teachers and all other influencers choose to opt for one or some or all such courses.

The reason for suggesting the above is very simple - God is One and the Only message of all faiths is Karuna or Compassion towards one and all.
What could be a simpler religion than this!