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Advaita Vedanta

An introduction to Hinduism's most influential philosophy with recommendations for further reading and links.

Hide and Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew

ADVAITA VEDANTA is the most influential Hindu philosophy. It is also a system of practice designed to help people become Self-realized. 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”) distingushes 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 Shankara 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 is the substance of which everything is made; it’s what the universe really is.

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

This is a little bit like saying, in Western terms,

Soul = God

That analogy is useful but don’t take it too far. Atman and soul are not the same, and Brahman and God are not the same.

There is only one awareness, Brahman

The difference between Advaita and 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 various separate things in the universe including bicycles and umbrellas and rain drops 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 ourselves

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

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.

Niels Bohr, a famous physicist, once said, “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.”

We can say the same thing about Advaita Vedanta. If you aren’t shocked by the main ideas of Advaita, then you probably haven’t thought carefully enough about them.

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.

Recommended reading

Good overviews of Advaita Vedanta are contained in two well-known textbooks:

S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, Volume II, and S. Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, Volumes I and II.

The Encyclopedia Britannica contains a good overview of Advaita Vedanta in the article called “Indian Philosophy” under the subheading “Vedanta.” (The articles found directly under “Vedanta” and “Advaita” are not as good.)

If you want to read the original philosophical works that created the Advaitin tradition, you should probably begin with Shankara. His most important books are Brahma Sutra Bhasya and his commentaries on various Upanisads. These books are highly technical and difficult to read. Some easier books such as Vivekachudamani (on our site here) and Atmabodhi were also traditionally attributed to him, but modern scholars have questioned whether he really wrote them. Probably the best all-around choice, if you want to try a single book of Shankara’s, is Upadesa Sahasri.

The Advaitan tradition recognizes three textual sources of special importance: the Upanishads, especially Manduyka Upanishad (on our site here) Brahma Sutra (also known as the Vedanta Sutra), and Bhagavad Gita.

In addition to technical works of philosophy, the Advaitan tradition has generated a large number of literary works that are beautiful, entertaining, and helpful for the practice of Jñana Yoga. These include Yoga-Vasistha, Ashtavakra Gita (on our site here), and Avadhut Gita. (Several other works in this category are listed below under “Related Pages on This Site.")

The Advaitan tradition has also produced a large number of books by gurus intended to help other people become self-realized. The greatest author in this category in recent times was Ramana Maharshi.

Illustration: Detail from Hide and Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew, 1940‒42, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Related pages on this site

Hundreds of pages on this site are related to Advaita Vedanta. Here is a short sample:

Related Books

The Method of Early Advaita Vedanta by Michael Comans, PhD

The Method of Early Advaita Vedanta: A Study of Gaudapada, Sankara, Suresvara and Padmapada

By Michael Comans, PhD

D. Waite [Dennis Waite], an Amazon reviewer, writes:

“I had been aware of the existence of this book for a number of years but had postponed reading it because I was under the impression that it was of only academic interest, comparing the finer details of various schools or teachers. In fact, although there is a little of this (e.g. in comparing Gaudapada’s teaching to aspects of Buddhism), its strength for me is in its detailed examination of some particular aspects of traditional advaita. Topics specifically addressed are Ishvara, jīva, upādhi, nāma rūpa, avidyā, adhyāsa, lakṣhaṇa, immediate versus mediate knowledge and experience, jīvanmukti, saṃnyāsa, anvaya vyatireka — and their treatment is extremely clear and informative.

“The chapters on Sureshvara and Padmapāda were also very enlightening for me personally, since I had not previously investigated them. In the case of the former, he provides an analysis of the Naiṣhkarmya Siddhi which is so interesting that I was prompted to order the translation by A. J. Alston (Realization of the Absolute) immediately. In the case of the Padmapāda, he presents a valuable analysis of his commentary on Shankara’s adhyāsa bhāṣhya.

“All in all, this is an excellent book, which is highly recommended for anyone who, though already familiar with the topics in a general way, wants to understand them in greater depth. It does seem that, as soon as you look in greater detail into something that you thought you understood, you discover that there is much more to it than you had thought and perhaps you didn't understand it properly after all. Michael Comans’ book takes you deep into the undergrowth but guides you carefully out the other side.”

—Dennis Waite, author of Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita

See it on Amazon.

This page was published on May 12, 2001 and last revised on August 31, 2019.


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