Who Am I? Exploring Vedanta
Origins and Definitions
Introducing Some Terms
I’d like to begin by introducing a few terms that are important in our exploration. The first term to define is Vedanta. It literally means “The End of the Vedas”. The Vedas are at least 3000 years old, and formed the heart of the oral tradition in India, containing hymns used for outer rituals – offerings to deities, fire rituals, and other traditions. (Technically they are known as the Karmakanda, karma meaning action.)
So that’s the “veda” part of Vedanta. But what is ‘anta,’ or the end of the Vedas? This refers to the last portion of the Vedas known as the Upanishads. The Upanishads, originally purely an oral tradition, and much later, written down as texts, contain the contemplative and philosophical teachings of the Vedas (jnanakanda). They explain the hidden meaning behind the rituals. Twelve main Upanishads contain the core of the philosophy known as Vedanta.
While Vedanta can be traced back thousands of years ago to the Upanishads, the Upanishads themselves contain no systematic presentation of a philosophy nor a path to reach the goal. Thus the teachings and philosophy in the Upanishads are subject to a wide variety of interpretations, giving rise to a variety of philosophical schools.
When we speak of Vedanta today, for the most part, we refer to Advaita Vedanta as explained by a great sage of India, perhaps the greatest, named Shankara. In India, the term Acharya means great teacher, and thus Shankara is generally known as Shankaracharya, meaning Shankara, the great teacher.
And indeed he was great. Born sometime around the 7th or 8th century AD, he became a celibate monk at an early age. By the age of eight, he had already mastered the oral tradition of all the Vedas, and by age 16 he wrote the most important philosophical treatise on Vedanta.
He then wrote commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and major Upanishads, and began his work as a teacher in earnest, traveling around India and establishing spiritual monasteries in the four corners of India which still exist in a dynamic way today. (In fact the head of each of the four monasteries is called a “Shankaracharya” in remembrance of the founder.)
He died at the early age of 32, and the complexity, brilliance and wisdom of the texts that he left behind explain why he is considered one of the greatest sages India and perhaps the world, has ever seen.
Throughout this essay, I’ll be quoting from one of his major works, The Crest Jewel of Discrimination (Viveka Chudamani). In this way, you can have the direct experience of his thoughts and wisdom.
Extra Reading: The Philosophical Climate of Shankara’s time
This leads us to the second term that is important to define: Advaita. This course is not about Vedanta, but Advaita Vedanta. While other philosophical schools evolved from the Upanishads, including two other forms of Vedanta, only one is called Advaita Vedanta. Advaita means non-dual. Dvaita means Dual and in Sanskrit, adding the letter A negates it. So Advaita means non-dual.
Non-dual what, you may ask? Non-duality in the entire universe. There is only one, without a second. To explain it further, let’s look at the main teaching of Advaita Vedanta.
Next: Teachings of Vedanta
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