Vedanta and Indian Culture
Spirituality, the Life-centre of Indian
Indian civilization is more than five
thousand years old. During this long period it produced a unique type of
highly advanced and variegated culture. In spite of the innumerable
regional, social and linguistic diversities of the country, there has
always been a basic unity in Indian culture. Moreover, this culture
maintained unbroken continuity from Vedic times to the present day, in
spite of countless wars within the country, invasions from outside and two
centuries of subjugation by the British. This indestructible unity and
unbroken continuity of Indian culture are derived from its deep spiritual
Swami Vivekananda has pointed out that
every civilization or culture has a particular life-centre, a dominant
characteristic or trend. According to him the life-centre of Indian
culture is spirituality. By spirituality is meant a way of life oriented
to the ultimate purpose or goal of life which is the realization of the
Supreme Spirit or God.
Unity of Philosophy and Religion in India
Indian spirituality is deeply rooted in
the ancient philosophical and religious traditions of the land.
Philosophy arose in India as an enquiry into the mystery of life and
existence. A parallel situation arose in ancient Greece also. But, as
Swami Vivekananda pointed out, the Greek philosophers confined their
enquiries to the external world, and the method they employed was only
speculation, whereas in India philosophical enquiries were carried out in
the inner world. Indian sages, called Rishis or seers, developed
special techniques of transcending the senses and the ordinary mind,
collectively called Yoga. With the help of these techniques they delved
deep into the depths of consciousness and discovered important truths
about the true nature of man and the universe.
The sages found that mans true nature is
not the body or the mind, which are ever changing and perishable, but the
spirit which is unchanging, immortal, pure consciousness. They called it
the Atman. The Atman is mans true Self, the true knower, the true source
of mans knowledge, happiness and power. The Rishis further found that
all individual selves are parts of infinite Consciousness which they
called Brahman. Brahman is the ultimate Reality, the ultimate cause of
the universe. Ignorance of mans true nature is the main cause of human
suffering and bondage. By gaining correct knowledge of Atman and Brahman
it is possible to become free from suffering and bondage and attain a
state of immortality, everlasting peace and fulfilment known as Mukti.
Religion in ancient India meant a way of
life which enabled man to realize his true nature and attain Mukti.
Thus philosophy provided a correct view of
Reality, while religion showed the correct way of life; philosophy
provided the vision, while religion brought about the fulfilment;
philosophy was the theory, and religion was the practice. Thus in ancient
India, philosophy and religion complemented each other. In fact, they
together constituted a single endeavour, an integral discipline. This
integral religious philosophy or philosophical religion was called
Vedanta. The term Vedanta comes from the fact that its basic
principles constitute the last part or culmination of the ancient
scriptures known as the Vedas.
The Vedas are the oldest and most
authoritative scriptures of Hinduism. All other scriptures are
subordinate to them. They were not composed by anybody but were
revealed to the Rishis; hence they are also called Shruti,
that which is heard. The earlier part of the Vedas may have been
composed between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C. There are four Vedas: Rig-veda,
Yajur-veda, Sama-veda and Atharva-veda. Each of these has four divisions: Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishads.
This section is a collection of hymns addressed to various deities. Many
of these hymns have deep mystical significance.
This portion deals with various rituals and also with moral principles.
This portion contains various meditations. Some of these meditations are
mental recreations of external rituals.
These are the records of the transcendental experiences gained by Rishis
by following different contemplative techniques. These experiences are
actually revelations about Atman, Brahman and other eternal, universal
truths regarding the ultimate Reality.
These eternal truths and principles of the
spiritual world, lying scattered in the Upanishads, were brought together
and codified by Badarayana in the form of sutras or aphorisms in
the 5th century B.C. These sutras known as Brahma
Sutras form the foundation of the system of philosophy known as
Thus the term Vedanta stands for three
(a) the Upanishads collectively,
which form the last and the most important part of the Vedas;
(b) the eternal truths and
principles of the spiritual realm;
the system of philosophy based
on Brahma Sutras.
However, it is mostly in the last sense of
Vedanta Darshana (Vedanta Philosophy) that the term Vedanta is
In this connection it should be pointed
out that five more systems of philosophy arose in India in the early
centuries of the Christian era. These are:
Mimamsa, founded by Jaimini
Vaisheshika, founded by Kanada
Nyaya, founded by Gautama
Sankhya, founded by Kapila
Yoga, founded by Patanjali
These five systems of philosophy always
remained confined to small groups of intellectuals. They never became
identified with the mainstream religion of the land and, in due course,
they ceased to be in vogue. Vedanta alone remained the main philosophy of
India from the Vedic period, and Vedanta alone got identified with the
religion of the land. As already mentioned, Vedanta is both philosophy
and religion. This combined religious and philosophical tradition of
India came to be called Sanatana Dharma, Eternal Religion and,
still later, as Hinduism.
Other scriptures of Vedanta
Although the Upanishads constitute the
original and most authoritative source of Vedanta, they are not the
only scripture of Vedanta. Several other books also came to be accepted
as authoritative. Among these, the most important one is Bhagavad Gita.
It introduced several new concepts into Vedanta such as God incarnating
Himself as the Avatar age after age, devotion to personal God as means to
Mukti, discharging ones duties of life in a spirit of selflessness and
self-surrender to God as a spiritual path, and so on. Over the centuries
great teachers like Shankara, Ramanuja, and great saints of medieval
period enriched Vedanta with philosophical concepts and devotional songs.
Three Phases of Vedanta
Vedanta is not a static philosophy or
religion. It is a highly dynamic, ever-growing philosophy and religion
capable of meeting challenges and overcoming obstacles. In this process
of growth, Vedanta has passed through three phases.
(i) Formative Phase:
This phase extended from around 1000 B.C. to 3rd century B.C. During this
period the Upanishads, the Gita and the Brahma-sutras (these three
scriptures are together called Prasthana-traya) provided the basic
concepts of Vedanta such as Atman and Brahman.
This phase extended from about the 8th century A.D. to the 13th century.
During this period great teachers like
Shankara expounded and
expanded the original intuitive insights of Vedic Rishis and the teachings
of the Gita, and established Vedanta as a cogent, comprehensive system of
philosophy the most cogent and comprehensive religious philosophy the
world has ever seen.
But during this period Vedanta split into
a number of philosophical schools and religious sects. The main
philosophical schools were the following:
Advaita or Non-dualism
propounded by Shankara
Vishishta-advaita propounded by
Dvaita propounded by Madhva
Shuddhadvaita propounded by
by Jiva Gosvamin
These schools of philosophy carried on
acrimonious debates among themselves which kept up the intellectual vigour
of the people. India produced during this period many great scholars and
The main religious sects were:
Vaishnavism, Shaivism and
Shaktism. Each of these had several sub-sects. These sects
produced many saints. These saints spread Vedantic ideas among the common
people through songs and teachings.
Here mention should be made of two other
religio-philosophical traditions associated with Indian culture, namely
Buddhism and Jainism. They arose as spiritual movements in the
6th century BC. They shared some of the basic concepts of Indias ancient
belief system such as Karma, rebirth, samsara, Dharma and direct spiritual
experience. But their rejection of the authority of the Veda, caste
distinction, belief in an Ultimate Reality as the Supreme Deity and
ultimate cause of the universe, and other principles alienated them from
the main stream of Vedantic culture. As a result, Buddhism and Jainism
began to decline in India and, after the 12th century AD, Buddhism ceased
to have any direct influence on the development of Indian culture.
The third phase of Vedanta was inaugurated by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami
Vivekananda in the 19th century. During this period Vedanta was
transformed from an ethnic religious philosophy into a universal
philosophy of life.
The main transformations brought about by
Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda are given below:
Sri Ramakrishna is the real link between ancient India and modern India.
Through stupendous spiritual efforts Sri Ramakrishna relived the entire
range of spiritual experiences of the sages and saints of the past from
Vedic times to his times. He thereby revalidated the truths of Vedanta.
He traversed the paths of Vedic, Shaiva,
Shakta and Vaishnava
traditions, including obscure and forgotten paths. He brought about the
purification of spiritual life by emphasizing its moral foundation, and
rejecting occultism, esoterism and miracle-mongering. He made God
realization possible for all even in the midst of the distractions of the
modern world. He imparted tremendous fervour to the efforts to realize
God. All this has resulted in a thorough rejuvenation of Vedanta in
Swami Vivekanandas great work was to make ancient Vedantic concepts
acceptable to modern minds by interpreting the eternal truths in the light
of modern rational thought and science. This modernized version is what
most of the present-day educated Hindus understand by Vedanta.
Vedanta had split into different schools in the Middle Ages. Swami
Vivekananda brought about the reintegration of these schools. He did this
by stressing the common ground of different schools, especially the
principle of Atman, and by showing that the different schools represent
different stages of realization of the ultimate Reality.
Unification of Religious
Sri Ramakrishna taught, from his realization, that all spiritual paths
lead to the same ultimate goal, Yato mat tato path. As many views,
so many paths to God. This principle, which forms the basis of his
doctrine of dharma-samanvaya or Harmony of Religions, came to be
applied within Hinduism itself in due course. This has given rise to a
sense of unity among Hindu sects in modern times, in spite of many
differences in customs and traditions.
5. Meeting of Challenges:
Till the eleventh century A.D. the only challenges Vedanta had to face
were internal; these came mainly from Buddhism and Jainism and from
dissensions of different schools of Vedanta and sects of Hinduism each of
which claimed superiority over the others. From the thirteenth century
Islam began to exert its influence on Indian society in a big way. Many
great saints then arose in different parts of India and responded to the
Islamic challenge by spreading the ideas of oneness of God, brotherhood of
man and social equality among the common people.
However, the greatest challenge Indian
society ever faced came from Western culture in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. Western culture posed three major challenges to
(a) modern rational thought and science,
(b) an open
society which values freedom and social justice,
(c) the idea of a saviour
God who identifies himself with the poor, the sick and the fallen.
Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda met
these Western challenges:
(a) by revitalizing Vedantic spirituality,
by interpreting the eternal truths of Vedanta, discovered by the ancient
sages, in the light of modern rational thought, and
(c) by introducing a
new gospel of social service based on the practical application of Vedantic principles in day-to-day life.
By Practical Vedanta is meant the practical application of the basic
principles of Vedanta in solving the problems of day-to-day life. For
centuries Vedantic principles were intended only to help people to attain
Mukti or liberation. Swami Vivekananda, however, showed that the highest
principles of Vedanta can be applied even in ordinary life to solve the
day-to-day problems of life. Vedantic principles can be applied not only
in individual life but also in social life. In fact, Swamiji held that
Indias downfall took place mainly because the eternal spiritual
principles were not applied in collective life.
7. Universalization of Vedanta:
For many centuries the essential, basic truths of Vedanta remained bound
up with innumerable beliefs, myths, customs, castes, etc. Moreover, the
higher truths of Vedanta were available only to a small group of
privileged people, and it was believed that to follow the principles of
Vedanta one had to be born in a certain Hindu caste. Sri Ramakrishna and
Swami Vivekananda separated the essential truths of Vedanta from the
non-essentials. Swamiji showed that the essential truths of Vedanta
constitute the eternal, universal truths of the spiritual world which form
the rationale and basis of all the religions of the world. As a matter of
fact, the eternal principles of Vedanta themselves constitute the
Universal Religion of all mankind, and the different religions of the
world are only manifestations of this Universal Religion in different
places and times. Furthermore, through his lectures and books and through
the Vedanta Centres which he founded, Swamiji made the life-giving
principles of Vedanta available to all people without any distinction of
caste, creed or race.
In this way,
through the pioneering efforts of Swami Vivekananda, Vedanta has crossed
the boundaries of India and has now become the common property of all
mankind. The work started by Swamiji is now being carried on by many
teachers and organizations around the world.
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