By James Swartz, October 9, 2013
There is no way of knowing how long the teachings of Vedanta—which were based on the insights of ancient rishis and protected by the sampradaya, or teaching lineage—may have been passed on from teacher to student by word of mouth. But we do know that these teachings were, at a certain point in time, set down in writing in numerous texts referred to collectively as the Upanishads.
Thereafter followed two other scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras, which both served to make the enigmatic and sometimes-cryptic teachings contained in the Upanishads more accessible. These three works form the primary (shruti), secondary (smriti), and logical foundations (nyaya-prasthana) of Vedanta. In Sanskrit they are referred to as the prasthana-traya, which means “the triple canon or foundation” of Vedanta. All three unequivocally teach the same doctrine: Atman, the individual self, and Brahman, the absolute universal awareness, are one.
The Upanishads are part of a larger body of scriptures known as the Vedas. The Vedas are not the product of any one individual, but are a compilation of the wisdom of numerous sages over many generations. Of all the scriptures in existence, the Vedas are the most ancient. The word veda is derived from the Sanskrit root vid, which means “to know,” and is the root of the English word “wisdom.” The Vedas are tomes of wisdom containing knowledge concerning virtually every aspect of human life, from science to sex to securing a pleasant afterlife experience. The great poet-sage Veda Vyasa compiled and codified the entire wealth of Vedic knowledge into four books: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda.
Each of the four Vedas is divided into four main sections.
The first three sections of the Vedas are referred to as the karma kanda, or “ritual portion.” Because nearly everyone seeks happiness in samsara rather than freedom from samsara, the majority of each of the four Vedas deals with the relative knowledge relevant to the first three human pursuits—security, pleasure, and virtue. In other words, people want security, pleasure, and virtue but are often uncertain about how to get them, so the main part of the Vedas deals with karma and dharma. In other words, it deals with how to get what one wants through actions that accord with the universal dharmas, or physical, psychological, and moral laws that govern creation. It reveals the means—prayers and rituals—that lead to desired ends. Desired ends in this life may include good health, progeny, and professional success. In the other subtle celestial realms, a desired end might be reaching heaven.
The main part of the Vedas also reveals the existence of the law of karma. The word karma means “action” and refers to both activity itself as well as the apparent person’s performance of action and the ensuing results of that action. Essentially, everything that happens in the context of the space-time continuum is karma. Understanding the law of karma is imperative for anyone who wants to obtain objects, because objects are only obtained by means of karma. Moreover, the law of karma governs the transmigration process through which an individual is granted a succession of lives and innumerable situations through which he or she has the opportunity to gain knowledge of reality. In this regard, it is important to know that karma is governed by dharma.
Because the apparent individual doer wants certain results from his actions, he needs to have knowledge of the world and how it works. Despite all appearances, the world is not a randomly assembled hodgepodge of independent phenomena governed solely by chance. Rather, it is a vast, intricately designed, and well-ordered machine composed fundamentally of awareness and governed by a set of impartial, inviolable, and unerring universal laws.
Awareness is both the upadana karana, the substance of the creation, and the nimitta karana, the intelligence that operates the laws that govern the behavior of all the objects in the creation. It is both the material and the efficient, or intelligent, cause of the creation.
Dharma is basically the collection of laws that govern the universe. Though impersonal in nature, it is personified as God, and its functioning is often referred to in anthropomorphic terms such as God’s will or God’s plan. Thus, dharma is not a sentient entity that is out to reward you for your obeisance or punish you for your transgressions. It is simply the set of natural laws by which the grand machine of the universe functions.
As long as we know these universal dharmas and do not transgress them, these laws protect us in the sense that they keep the vast field of existence orderly. This is the order that allows us to take deliberate action that we can reasonably expect will produce our desired result.
Any karma or action you execute as a component of the machine sets into motion a series of effects that travel through the machine, affect the whole, and are inevitably visited upon the doer sooner or later. This is for the simple reason that, since this is a non-dual reality, whatever you do, you are essentially doing to yourself. Even with regard to the limited individual and within the context of the gross manifestation, the domino effect of this law holds true and winds its way back around to its initiator. In this way, you are eventually held accountable for your actions. One way or another, you enjoy the rewards of your dharmic actions (i.e., those that accord with universal law) and suffer the consequences of those that are adharmic (i.e., those that violate universal law).
Dharma includes physical and psychological/moral laws. Physical law can be exemplified by fire: because the nature of fire is heat, if you stick your finger in a flame, your finger will get burned. Psychological or moral law is evident after telling a lie. Because the essential nature of the mind is truth, the guilt you feel when you tell a lie lets you know that you have violated dharma.
Humans make all sorts of minor rules to keep things orderly as well because the plethora of fears and desires that bedevils human beings, as a consequence of their lack of self-understanding, constantly disrupts the world.
If you have any doubt about what is right and wrong, you can consult the karmic section of the Vedas. It proscribes rituals for getting what you want and doing it in such a way that the creation is not disturbed. For this reason, the karma kanda is referred to as dharma shastram, the scriptures on dharma.
The knowledge that is relevant to the pursuit of freedom is called higher knowledge and is contained in a small number of texts that are appended to the end of each Veda. These texts comprise the jnana kanda, or knowledge section, of the Vedas. Only those who realize that the transient joys and sorrows of samsara are not for them are free to pursue the higher knowledge.
The texts that comprise the section of the Vedas that reveals the higher knowledge are called the Upanishads. The Upanishads constitute the concluding portion of each of the four Vedas. The aggregate content of all these Upanishads is called Vedanta. The word Vedanta is made up of two Sanskrit words—veda, which means “knowledge,” and anta, which means “the end.” Vedanta, therefore, can mean “the end portion of the Vedas” or “the end (or the goal) of knowledge.” Exoterically, Vedanta is simply the knowledge that concludes each Veda. Esoterically, Vedanta is the ultimate knowledge; the knowledge that ends the search for knowledge; the knowledge that, once known, renders all else as good as known.
Because the Upanishads came from different sources at different times, there occasionally occur within them statements that seemingly contradict one another. Moreover, due to the concise style in which they are rendered, the verses of the Upanishads are in many cases like seeds. The trees of wisdom that grow out of them can come to fruition when properly unfolded by a qualified teacher.
Many of the Upanishads have been lost over time, but 108 remain. Of these remaining 108, ten are considered major Upanishads. They are given that distinction mainly because these ten are the Upanishads for which Adi Shankara, the eighth-century sage who revived Vedanta and established the four orders of teaching monks in India, wrote bhashyas, or commentaries, in which he resolved all of the apparent contradictions among them.
The Brahma Sutras
Though at times perplexing and in certain instances paradoxical, the meaning of the Upanishads is clarified and the veracity of the Vedantic vision of non-duality irrefutably established in the Brahma Sutras.
Brahman means the self, awareness. A sutra is a thread, a symbol for a train of thoughts on a specific topic. The Brahma Sutras are a series of 555 mantras, or verses, that systematically address and lay to rest every conceivable doubt concerning the true meaning of the non-dual message of the Upanishads.
The Brahma Sutras were written by the sage Badarayana and organized in the form of aphorisms, or sutras. It is an extremely sophisticated analytical text intended to be studied only after one has established a thorough familiarity with the Upanishads. Adi Shankara has also written an extensive commentary on the Brahma Sutras. The Brahma Sutras not only analytically expose the vision of all the Upanishads, but also defend its position by exhaustively refuting the views of the prominent schools of philosophy existing at those times, namely Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, and some schools of Buddhism.
The Brahma Sutras begin with the statement, “Now, the inquiry into Brahman.” Unfortunately, over time the word Brahman, like the word God, has taken on such an aura of majesty, grandeur, and mystery that it can easily serve to confuse and hinder investigation. Brahman simply means awareness or consciousness—ordinary awareness or consciousness. In other words, it is simply awareness in the “light” of which all things are known. Though technically not a knower itself (for reasons we will discuss later), pure awareness is the “light” by means of which you know what you know and know what you don’t know. The Mandukya Upanishad—which is considered the king of the Upanishads—says that the self “is neither inward-turned nor outward-turned consciousness, nor both. It is not an undifferentiated mass of consciousness. It neither knows nor does not know. It is invisible, ineffable, intangible, devoid of characteristics, inconceivable, indefinable. Its sole essence is the consciousness of its own self. It is the coming to rest of all relative existence, and it is utterly quiet, peaceful, and blissful. It is without a second. This is the self to be realized (7).”
The significance of the first verse of the Brahma Sutras is that it establishes Vedanta as a means of knowledge. The word inquiry implies that awareness is not something we must blindly believe in, but rather something—though truly speaking, it is not an objectifiable “something”—to be rationally investigated. Vedantic self-inquiry is not an attempt to prove the existence of awareness, because awareness is self-evident. Rather, it is an attempt to clearly reveal the true nature awareness as indicated by the scriptures through a logical negation of the misconceptions about it.
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita, a more recent text that is perhaps two thousand years old, makes clear the relationship between knowledge and experience, and is itself a complete means of knowledge.
The entire text is actually the central portion of a voluminous, well-known epic poem, the Mahabharata. It is written in the form of a dialogue between a teacher, Krishna, who is a personification of the self or awareness, and his student, Arjuna, who is a warrior reluctant to participate in the battle in which he is supposed to engage, which is symbolic of the spiritual “war” that takes place between the self and ignorance.
In terms of the Vedantic tradition, the Mahabharata enjoys the same status as an Upanishad since it deals with the same subject matter. It is both a dharma shastram, a scripture on ethical law, and a moksha shastra, a scripture on liberation or self-realization. In addition to unfolding reality, the Bhagavad Gita emphasizes the maturity of the student. It highlights the human predicament and analyzes in length the role of values and ethics, action, meditation, and devotion as means of purifying the mind and thus, gaining the maturity necessary to understand the vision of Vedanta.
In addition to the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita, there are also several layers of subsidiary literature involving thousands of texts based on these three sources.
The Sutras are texts written in the form of pithy, instructive statements, which are rather cryptic due to their concise nature. These texts present the Vedic teachings in codified form—i.e., grouped according to topic—and serves to clarify vague statements and resolve the apparent contradictions that exist in the source texts. Among the most noteworthy examples of Sutra literature are texts such as Tattva Bodha, Atma Bodha, Drg Drishya Viveka, Aparokshanubhuti, and Vivekachudamani by Adi Shankara, Vedantasara by Sadananda Swami, and Panchadasi by Vidyaranya Swami.
The Smritis are auxiliary scriptures that also elucidate the source texts. The term Smriti means “that which is remembered,” and thus points to the fact that their content was authored by human beings. They are primarily focused on dharma and personal experience that reflects the knowledge revealed by the source texts. Though there exists a vast body of Smriti literature, the most renowned text in this category is the Bhagavad Gita. Two more recent additions to this category are Upadesha Saranam and Saddarshanam by Ramana Maharshi.
The Itihasas are histories that are used as the basis for stories that illustrate the teachings of Vedanta. While based on historical events and involving historical personages, these stories have been altered in order to function as allegories that symbolically represent moral and spiritual issues. Epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana belong to this category of literature.
The Puranas are a collection of eighteen books that dramatize the scriptural truths of the Upanishads in stories about the lives of saints, divine incarnations, and other inspired beings. It is in these stories that gods and goddesses such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh, Lakshmi, and Kali appear. They offer symbolic illustrations of subtle spiritual principles in order to make these principles more appealing and understandable to common people. They are basically the wisdom of Vedanta in code.
The Bhashyas are texts that were written by great sages and intended to serve as commentaries on all of the aforementioned forms of literature. They thoroughly elucidate the main points of the texts and resolve any apparent contradictions existing within them. The most influential Bhashyas are those written by Adi Shankara on the ten major Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita.