This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

8.8. Vedanta

The meaning of Vedanta

Vedanta represents the realm of pure metaphysics, as is suggested by the name itself, which means ‘end of the Veda,’ and this should be taken in the sense of a ‘goal,’ but also in the more literal sense as final segment, since Vedanta takes for its doctrinal basis the Upanishads, which themselves are found at the ‘end’ of the Vedas. As for the Upanishads, they contain the metaphysical teachings of the Vedas, which go to form the most primordial aspect of the tradition. Thus, their name is apt, since it means ‘sitting near,’ which some have taken to refer to knowledge gained by sitting at the foot of a teacher, but which properly refers to the means of approaching the knowledge of Brahma.

The Brahma-sutras

The teaching of Vedanta have been synthesized and concentrated into the form of the Brahma-sutras, which are attributed to Badarayana, who is identified with Vyasa, the intellectual collective responsible for codifying the scriptures themselves. The text of the Brahma-sutras is extraordinarily concise, leading to the production of various commentaries, two of which are important for us here: first, the commentary of Shankaracharya, which represents the Shaiva tendency; second, that of Ramanuja, representing the Vaishnava tendency.

Advaita-vada, or non-duality

The doctrine central to Vedanta is advaita-vada, or ‘doctrine of nonduality.’ This is proper for its object, which is the domain of pure metaphysics. Here we have moved even beyond Being, for while Being is ‘one,’ that which is beyond Being, which is in fact the Supreme Principle, Brahma, cannot be given any positive affirmation, but only described in the negative as ‘without duality.’ Brahma is therefore beyond all determination, including that first determination, which is Being. Using the numeric symbols, Being is equal to ‘1,’ and the duality that it manifests is ‘2’ and so on, while Brahma, Being outside of number, is equal to zero. Thus, Brahma is distinct from the world, even if the world is not outside of Brahma, since there is truly nothing outside of Brahma.

Pantheism

We pause here to note that this notion of Brahma excludes pantheism, since, although there is nothing outside Brahma, the world itself is distinct from Brahma. This is because all of the myriad determinations manifest in nature cannot be applied to Brahma in any way. Here also is the logic underlying the Scholastic doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which is difficult to formulate in theological language, but in metaphysics basically means that God created out of nothing that was outside himself, even if what he created was distinct from himself.

Moksha or Deliverance

We will deal separately and in-depth with a specific subject developed within Vedanta, which is the constitution of the human being. Here, however, we will only mention another concept central to the doctrine, namely moksha or mukti, which means ‘Deliverance.’ When a being attains to Deliverance he is effectively freed from the bonds of conditioned existence, being perfectly identified with the Universal. It is here and here only that it is proper to speak of the Yogi.

He who reaches this state in life is called jivan-mukta, ‘delivered during life,’ while he who reaches it after death is called videha-mukta, ‘delivered when out of bodily form.’ Such a being is no longer subject to the indefinite causal chain of actions and reactions, and is no longer conditioned by the union of nama and rupa. This Deliverance, which is a ‘passage beyond form,’ changes nothing in appearance. In the case of those Delivered while living, there will be no real exterior change, but the conditions of Becoming will no longer affect the being.

Deliverance as knowledge

Shankaracharya has emphasized the fact that it is knowledge alone which brings about Deliverance. No action can accomplish it: ‘There is no other means of obtaining complete and final Deliverance except knowledge; action, not being opposed to ignorance, cannot overcome it, whereas knowledge dispels ignorance as light dispels darkness.’ To say it another way, ignorance is limitation, and when ignorance is dispelled, limitation dissolves as a matter of course. And so again, Vedanta is concerned with the approach to knowledge of Brahma. We way only ‘the approach’ to the knowledge, because that is all that can be communicated, the knowledge itself, at this level, being incommunicable and only reachable by the effort of the individual. No master can ‘understand’ on behalf of his student. Deliverance is therefore always a personal affair, and could be nothing else.