Advaita Vedānta Darśana

(‘Non-dual Vedānta System’)


Man is often described as a rational animal. Once the animal in him is reasonably satisfied by the provision of basic biological and some psychological needs, the rational part gets an opportunity to evolve to higher levels. Philosophy including metaphysics is one of the highest aspects of this evolution.


The Indian philosophical systems have developed not only as a result of intellectual speculation but also of mystical intuition. Hence the name ‘darśana’ (lit., ‘seeing’), usually applied to them. The topics most commonly discussed by these darśanas are generally four:

  • nature of the physical world, its origin and evolution;
  • nature of man and other living beings;
  • existence of God, his nature and attributes;
  • the goal of human life and the way of attaining it.

Different standpoints and differing views of these topics of discussion have naturally led to a variety of schools. These schools are broadly divided into two classes: the āstika and the nāstika. The former accept the authority of the Vedas whereas the latter do not.


The Vedānta Darśana is the last of the former schools but has gained the most important place among them. A judicious combination of reasoning and acceptance of the authority of the Vedas as also a long unbroken tradition are responsible for its gaining the pre-eminent place.

Though the ‘prasthānatraya’ (‘the three great paths’) viz., the Upaniṣads, the Brahmasūtras and the Bhagavadgītā, are the basis of the Vedānta Darśana, it is the Brahmasūtras (also called Vedānta-sūtras and Śārīrakasūtras) of Bādarāyaṇa-Vyāsa that occupies the key position. The sūtras (aphorisms) being quite terse and often ambiguous have naturally led to widely differing interpretations, resulting in the three well-known systems of Vedānta viz., Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita and Dvaita.

The word ‘Vedānta’ itself means the ‘end or the essence of the Vedas.’ It is the Upaniṣads that mainly comprise the Vedānta since they normally form the last part of the Vedic literature and contain the quintessence of their teachings.


The Advaita Vedānta Darśana owes its systematisation as a formidable doctrine, to Gauḍapāda (7th-8th cent. A.D.) who wrote his famous Kārikās on the Māṇḍūkyopaniṣad and Śaṅkara (A. D. 788-820). Śaṅkara’s commentaries on the prasthānatraya as also a few independent treatises form the bedrock on which the later Advaitins built their edifices.

‘Advaita’ means ‘non-dual’, ‘one without a second’. The system derives this nomenclature from the fact that it recognises Brahman (the Absolute) as the only reality and denies permanent reality to the world as also to the individual souls.

The entire edifice of Advaita metaphysics is built upon the foundation that Brahman is the only reality, ‘brahma satyam’. This premise is based firmly on the famous Upaniṣadic statement ‘sadeva somya idamagra āsīt, ekamevādvitīyam.’ ‘Dear (Śvetaketu), in the beginning (before creation) Reality (or Brahman) alone existed, the one without a second’ (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.2.1). However, the world of multiplicity is a matter of our day-to-day experience. Hence it becomes necessary to offer an explanation as to how Brahman, the one without a second, appears as this world of multiple names and forms. The explanation offered by Advaita is ‘Anirvacanīyakhyāti,’ its theory of erroneous cognition, which defies logic. (For other theories about erroneous cognition see KHYĀTIS.) Perceiving silver in nacre in moonlight or snake in rope in insufficient light are stock examples given by the Advaitins. In both cases there is an erroneous perception brought about by the impressions of silver and snake from an earlier idea of the same, now superimposed upon nacre and rope under conditions favourable to the error. This superimposition called ‘adhyāsa’ or ‘adhyāropa’, is responsible for the mithyājñāna (false knowledge) that the object perceived is silver or snake.

The silver or the snake perceived is neither ‘sat’ (real) nor ‘asat’ (unreal). It is not asat or unreal like ‘the son of a barren woman’ since it is actually perceived. Neither is it sat or real since it disappears as soon as the substratum (the nacre and the rope) is perceived as it is. To explain such a peculiar phenomenon Śaṅkara creates, out of logical necessity, a third type of perceived objects which is ‘sad-asad-vilakṣaṇa’ (different from both the real and the unreal). The ‘khyāti’ or the cognition itself is described as ‘anirvacanīya,’ incapable of any precise definition or description.

The basic cause of this erroneous perception is termed ‘ajñāna’ or ‘avidyā’ (ignorance) which is said to be bhāvarūpa (existent) and is endowed with two śaktis or powers viz., ‘āvaraṇaśakti’ (veiling power) and ‘vikṣepaśakti’ (transforming power). It veils the true nature of nacre and rope and shows up silver and snake in their place by apparently transforming them. Such an apparently transformed object is called a ‘vivarta’ of the original and the theory that propounds this is known as ‘Vivartavāda.’

Since this avidyā does not make the nacre and the rope completely disappear from view, but only makes them appear as something else, it is described as bhāvarūpa or existent.

An attempt may now be made to explain how this world of duality has evolved out of the non-dual Reality called Brahman in the Upaniṣads. The world of duality can be broadly divided into ‘dṛk’ (the seer) and ‘dṛśya’ (the seen). Both these again are divided into the innumerable living beings (jīvās) and the countless objects of creation. How does Brahman the Absolute, the One without a second, the indivisible Reality, appear divided into innumerable beings on the one side and countless objects on the other? It is avidyā that causes the one Ātman (the Self)—incidentally, the Upaniṣads use both words, Ātman and Brahman, to indicate the same Reality—appear as many jīvas and it is māyā that causes the world of phenomena. Māyā is avidyā at the cosmic level.

Śaṅkara accepts three degrees of reality. The first, known as ‘prātibhāsika-satya’ (apparent truth, illusory appearance) is illustrated in the wrong perception of silver in nacre or snake in rope. The second, called ‘vyāvahārika-satya’ is illustrated by this world of our day-to-day experience. This world-appearance has a much higher degree of reality and lasts till one gets ātmajñāna or brahmajñāna, realization of the Truth, Ātman-Brahman. It is satya or true for all purposes of vyavahāra i.e., day-to-day existence or practical life. The third, designated as ‘pāramārthika-satya,’ is the highest Truth and the only truth that really exists. It is Brahman or Ātman, which is nirguṇa (without attributes) and nirākāra (without forms), hence incapable of being described except in a negative way (‘neti,’ ‘neti’—‘not this, not this’).

Brahman associated with māyā is Saguṇa Brahman (Brahman with attri-butes) or Īśvara (Lord of creation, God). It is this aspect of Brahman that is responsible for creation, preservation and destruction of the world. As for the actual order of evolution of the created world, the descriptions given in the Upaniṣads are accepted.

For Śaṅkara who holds that the world process is only a ‘vivarta’ (illusory appearance) due to adhyāsa (superimposition) on Brahman, the very attempt to describe the various steps of evolution is a futile exercise. However, since the śruti (revealed scripture, the Upaniṣads) has done so, a place of honour must somehow be accorded to it. Hence he characterises such descriptions as giving the ‘taṭastha-lakṣaṇa’ (accidental or casual charac-teristics) of Brahman helping us to be directed towards it, even as the branch of a tree helps us to locate the crescent in the sky. On the other hand Brahman as it is, can be comprehended only through its ‘svarūpalakṣaṇa’ (integral or essential characteristics), which is ‘sat-cit-ānanda.’ ‘Sat’ (eternal reality), ‘cit’ (pure consciousness), and ‘ānanda’ (unalloyed bliss) are not really its characteristics but its very essence.

This Brahman or Ātman which is sat-cit-ānanda, has inexplicably got itself involved in the body-mind complex, the involvement being due to avidyā. Since the origin of this involvement can never be logically or satisfactorily explained, avidyā is stated to be anādi or beginningless. The involved ātman is designated as ‘jīva.’

This jīva, the ātman in bondage, has five kośas or sheaths (For details see PAÑCAKOŚAS.), three śarīras or bodies (See STHŪLAŚARĪRA, SŪKṢMAŚARĪRA and KĀRAṆA-ŚARĪRA.), performs actions motivated by desires, experiences pleasure and pain due to karma and undergoes transmigration (See KARMA and PUNARJANMA.) until libera-tion. Śaṅkara declares that this jīva, when shorn of its upādhis or limiting adjuncts like the body and the mind, is identical with Brahman, since its essential nature also is sat-cit-ānanda.

The main trouble with the ātman become jīva is the tādātmya or false identification with the mind and the body brought about by adhyāropa or adhyāsa (superimposition). Hence the only way of remedying it is by apavāda or desuper-imposition, denying this identification. For this, one has first to prepare oneself by the preliminary fourfold discipline or sādhana-catuṣṭaya viz., viveka (discrimination between the eternal and the non-eternal), vairāgya (dispassion), śamādi-ṣaṭka (cultivation of the six virtues like self-control) and mumukṣutva (desire for liberation). (For details see SĀDHANA-CATUṢṬAYA.) Then one has to approach a competent guru (spiritual preceptor) and learn the truth from him by śravaṇa (hearing), manana (reflection) and nidi-dhyāsana (contemplation). The most important part of the guru’s teaching will be in the form of ‘mahāvākyas’ (great sentences) like ‘tat tvam asi’ (That thou art’) or ‘ahaṁ brahmāsmi’ (‘I am Brahman’). (See MAHĀVĀKYAS for details.) Śravaṇa and manana produce the deep-rooted conviction that one is the spirit. Hence in nididhyāsana, desuperimposition in the form of ‘I am not the body, nor the sense-organs, nor the mind, nor even the ego’ and so on, can be practised leading ultimately to the realization that one is the ātman. This realization resulting in mukti or liberation can be had even while one is living in this body. It is known as ‘jīvanmukti.’ He will attain ‘videhamukti’ after the body falls off, the continuance of the body between the two states being due to prārabdha-karma. (See PRĀRABDHA KARMA.)

Mukti or liberation from transmigration is not the gaining of a new state but recognising the already existing original state.

Two kinds of mukti—jīvanmukti and videhamukti—are envisaged in the Advaitic works. The Vivaraṇa school upholds the theory that mukti is simultaneous with jñāna. Hence jīvanmukti is not only possible, but the only mukti that can be recognised. Continuance of the body for some more time, due to prārabdha karma, has no effect upon jñāna. On the other hand, the Bhāmatī school holds that even after jñāna, if the body continues due to prārabdha karma, this imposes a limitation thereby implying the existence of a trace of avidyā. The death of the body puts an end even to this trace of avidyā, and real mukti is obtained then. Since this comes after the death of the body, it is called ‘videhamukti.’

A favourite topic of discussion that frequently crops up in Advaita metaphysical works is the locus of avidyā. Since Brahman is the only reality that exists, it alone is the āśraya (locus) as also the viṣaya (object) of avidyā. This is one school. Sureśvara and Padmapāda are the main protagonists of this school. According to them avidyā is one only.

Since Brahman is pure consciousness, avidyā can never exist in it nor act on it. This is the opposing school propagated by Vācaspati Miśra. For him, the jīvas are the loci of avidyā and there is one avidyā for every jīva.


Though Śaṅkara wrote profusely, clearly enunciating the main doctrines of his school, there are certain places in his writings wherein the important aspects of certain doctrines are either vague or are capable of more than one interpretation. This has naturally, resulted in the growth of quite a voluminous post-Śaṅkara Advaita literature leading to different prasthānas or schools of thought. The ‘Vārttika-prasthāna’ of Sureśvara (9th cent. A. D.) comes first in the series. This school gets its designation from the exposition contained in the ‘vārttikās’ or commentaries in verse of Sureśvara on Śaṅkara’s bhāṣyas on the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Taittirīya Upaniṣads. According to this school, Brahman is the material cause of this world, and not māyā. The locus of avidyā is Brahman and not the jīvas. Avidyā is one only and not many. The mahāvākyas or the great Vedic dictums are capable of producing immediate cognition of the Self as Brahman. Hence dhyānābhyāsa or practice of meditation on the meaning of those dictums is not necessary. The jīvas are but ābhāsas or appearances of Brahman in the individual minds. (This has earned the theory, the designation of ‘ābhāsavāda’ as opposed to ‘pratibimbavāda’ and ‘avaccheda-vāda’ of other schools.)

The ‘Vivaraṇaprasthāna’ of Padma-pāda (9th cent. A. D.) and Prakāśātman (A. D. 1220) comes next. The name is derived from the work Pañcapādikā-vivaraṇa of the latter, it being a voluminous commentary on the Pañcapādikā of Padmapāda, which itself is a commentary on Śaṇkara’s Brahmasūtra-bhāsya. Though this name suggests that it covers five pādas or sections of the Brahmasūtras, only the commentary on the first four sūtras is now available. The chief doctrines of this school are: Avidyā is a jaḍātmikā śakti (a force of material nature) and is the material cause of this world. It is bhāvarūpa, a positive entity but not real. Māyā, prakṛti, avyakta, avyākṛta, tamas, śakti etc., are all its synonyms. It is called avidyā when āvaraṇa power is predominant and māyā when vikṣepa power becomes dominant. Alternatively, it is māyā at the cosmic level and avidyā at the individual level. Avidyā rests on Brahman but acts on the jīvas. The jīvās are pratibimbas or reflections of Brahman in the antaḥkaraṇa (mind). The reflected images have no reality other than that of the original (bimba) brahman. This theory is called ‘pratibimbavāda’ and contrasted with ‘ābhāsavāda’.

The ‘Bhāmatīprasthāna’ of Vācaspati Miśra (A. D. 840) is the third and the last of these major schools. Bhāmatī is his celebrated commentary on the Śāṅkara-bhāṣya of Brahmasūtras. This school is built round the Bhāmatī along with its subsidiary commentaries Kalpataru of Amalānanda (13th cent A. D.). and Parimalā of Appayya Dīkṣita (16th cent A. D.) The views of this school can be briefly summarised as follows: Brahman is the material cause of the world, not as the locus of avidyā but as the object of avidyās supported by the jīvas. Māyā is only an accessory cause. Avidyā cannot abide in Brahman. It abides in the jīvas and is plural since the jīvas are plural. Vācaspati advocates two varieties of avidyā: the mūlāvidyā or kāraṇāvidyā (primal nescience); the tūlāvidyā or kāryāvidyā (derivative nescience). It is the latter that is responsible for bhrama-saṁskāras or error impressions. Also, Vācaspati appears more inclined towards the ‘avacchedavāda’ or the theory of limitation with regard to the appearance of the jīvas. Just as a pot limits the infinite sky in itself, avidyā of the individual limits Brahman and makes it appear like a jīva. Another point of importance in this school is that the mahāvākyas do not produce anubhava (immediate cognition). It is the mind seasoned by meditation that gives such experience.

Mention may also be made here of ‘dṛṣṭisṛṣṭi-vāda’ which advocates that the world is created simultaneously with its perceptions, and, ‘ekajīvavāda,’ which propounds that there is only one jīva which is in bondage and when it gets liberation, everything else disappears. Prakāśānanda (15th-16th cent. A. D.) is the chief exponent of these schools.

Advaita was subjected to continuous criticism by other Vedāntic schools as also the Buddhists and hence the growth of polemical literature became inevitable. Mention must be made of two most important works of this type: The Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya of Śrīharṣa (12th cent. A.D.) and the Advaitasiddhi of Madhusūdana Sarasvatī (16th cent. A. D.).


It should be said to the credit of Advaita Vedānta that even now it is attracting the respectful attention from scholars of the highest calibre, both Eastern and Western.


The number of connected topics is too large to be mentioned separately for cross reference. The reader can look for them under the respective titles as he comes across them in this essay.