An introduction to Hinduism's most influential philosophy.
ADVAITA VEDANTA is the most influential Hindu philosophy. Like all forms of Vedanta, it attempts to synthesize the teachings of the Upanishads into a single coherent doctrine. Unlike other forms of Vedanta, it teaches that there is only one real thing in the universe and that everything else is illusory.
Advaita Vedanta is closely associated with Jñana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge.
The concept of maya (literally "magic") distinguishes Advaita Vedanta from other philosophies. Maya creates apparent multiplicity in a universe where only Brahman really exists.
People sometimes refer to Advaita Vedanta by other names including nondualism, nonduality, monism, Mayavada, or the Sankara School. People also sometimes abbreviate the name to "Advaita" or "Vedanta." In this article, we'll call it Advaita.
The Main Ideas of Advaita Vedanta
Only the Atman is aware
According to Advaita, only the innermost part of you is aware or conscious. No other part of you can feel or see or know anything. The name in Sanskrit for this awareness is atman. It's the part of you that's really you, and it corresponds to the soul in Western philosophy.
Brahman is what really is
Now here's where it gets interesting. According to Advaita, your atman (and mine and everybody's) is the same as the underlying absolute reality of the whole universe, which is called Brahman. Brahman corresponds to the Western idea of God, except that it isn't a a super-powerful person. It's impersonal; it's the source of everything; it's what the universe really is.
In short, your inner self — the true "me" — is God.
Atman = Brahman
This idea, which is the fundamental idea of the Upanishads on which Advaita is based, can be expressed in the form of an equation: Atman = Brahman
Or, in Western terms: Soul = God.
There is only one awareness, Brahman
What distinguishes Advaita from other interpretations of the Upanishads is this: Advaita asserts that since there is only one Brahman, there is only one Atman. There's only one "me" and we all share it. We're all one "thing" — Brahman.
The other things are maya, illusions
Moreover, only Brahman is real. The other things in the universe, like bicycles and umbrellas and our bodies, are maya. Maya is illusory because it seems to be different from Brahman but it's not. Since maya misleads us in this way, and because it's impermanent, Advaita says that maya is unreal.
Maya tricks us with regard to our selves.
The most important way that maya fools us is with regard to our selves. We think we are our bodies, our thoughts, our desires, and so forth. But those things are maya. They seem to be "me" but this is an illusion. Actually, our awareness (the part that is really "me") is something else: Brahman.
This is an enormously strange and radical idea. It means that you aren't you; you aren't any kind of person, really. You are the supreme reality that underlies the entire universe. The person who seems to be in your head, the person you believe yourself to be, is merely a psychological illusion.
Why Does This Matter?
Advaita Vedanta is important because by understanding it, you may be able to come closer to self-realization. In fact, by making the effort to understand it, you are engaging in Jñana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge, one of the traditional methods of attaining enlightenment.
To see why this is so, you have to examine the idea that only the atman is aware. This idea is more subtle than it seems at first glance.
If you close your eyes for a moment and try to focus your attention on your inner self, it will seem easy at first. You will be immediately aware of feelings, hopes, thoughts, desires, fears, and a general sense of yourself. This is the inner you, right?
Well, no. According to Advaita, if you are aware of something, it isn't really you. The real you (the atman) is the part that's aware. It's not anything of which you are aware.
Examine those inner objects on which you focused a moment ago. You were aware of them, weren't you? Even that feeling of "me" is something of which you were aware. Well, then, according to Advaita , it can't be the real you. The real you is the part that is aware, not anything that you're aware of.
This kind of examination is called 'viveka' (discrimination) in Sanskrit. It is a main component of the traditional method of Jñana Yoga. If you keep doing it, you will discover that everything you currently regard as yourself (including your ego and mind) is not aware. The awareness in you is different from those things.
You can take this still further. Here is an interesting fact: No matter how hard you try, you can't focus your attention on the part of you that is aware. If you could, it would become something of which you are aware.
Making a strenuous attempt to do this, even though it's impossible, is a main component of Ramana Maharshi's method of self-inquiry ('vicara' in Sanskrit). If you try long enough, eventually you will become convinced that your ordinary sense of yourself — your ego — is not really you. In fact, you will realize that it's an illusion. (By the way, don't make the mistake of thinking that this is all there is to Ramana's method. Seeing that "you" are an illusion is a wonderful insight, but it's not self-realization.)
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For further information, please visit the Advaita Vedanta page at Realization.org
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