Brief Introduction to Vedanta
The word "Vedanta" is a combination of two Sanskrit words - veda (knowledge) and anta (end). Therefore, Vedanta means "the end of knowledge" or "the culmination of all knowledge" or "the highest knowledge". It also refers to that which is beyond all knowledge i.e. the "knowledge" of the ultimate Reality - knowing which everything becomes known. Here, "knowledge" means an actual realization and not mere intellectual understanding.
The purpose of Vedanta is Self-realization i.e. to realize who you really are. It also includes realizing the underlying reality of the whole universe, as the reality of the universe and your own reality are one and the same. Upon this realization, one transcends all sorrows and sufferings (atyantika dukha nivritti) and attains supreme bliss (paramananda prapti). This doesn't mean that all problems of life suddenly disappear, but it means that they no longer have a negative effect on you - leaving you in a state of positive and enduring peace and joy.
Vedanta -- Advaita (Non-Dual) Vedanta to be precise -- expounds that you are not who you take yourself to be i.e. a body-mind complex. Your real Self (Atman) is one with the ultimate Reality (Brahman) and is of the nature of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda), which is beyond all limitations and not bounded by anything, like time, space, object, etc. (satyam jnanam anantam brahma). Brahman/Atman alone is real and everything else that you perceive to be real (i.e. the whole universe) is false, and you are none other than Brahman (brahma satyam jagan mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah).
When you realize your Self to be Brahman (ayam atma brahma; aham brahmasmi) - the One non-dual Reality - the apparent nature of the whole universe becomes clear and you are no longer impacted by anything. It liberates you from your wrong identification with the severely limited body-mind and your attachment to things associated with them. It also frees you from all desires and aversions towards other things, because you realize that the whole universe is appearing within your Self and there is no other thing apart from you. Self-realization eradicates all such sources of suffering and unveils your true nature of infinite, eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, unattached, ever-pure, absolute Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
Vedanta employs a well-structured and logically-consistent process to take you from your apparent self to your real Self step-by-step, with each step being completely verifiable through your own experience. There is no need to believe anything without validation, making Vedanta highly favorable to the modern scientific mind.
Vedanta comprises of three primary texts, known as the triple canon (prasthana trayi). They form the foundation of Vedanta:
Upanishads (aka Shruti or Heard)
There are ten principal Upanishads which include:
Bhagavad Gita (aka Smriti or Remembered)
Bhagavad Gita is the essence of the Upanishads that teaches how to realize the highest while living in the world. It consists of 700 verses across 18 chapters and is part of the Indian epic Mahabharata. If the Upanishads (i.e. the highest truths) be represented by cows, then Gita would be the milk of the cows (i.e. the essence of the truths) extracted by Krishna (i.e. the supreme inner Self) for the benefit of Arjuna (i.e. the individual self), who is unsure of the right path in midst of the battle of Kurukshetra (i.e. the struggle of life).
Brahma Sutras (aka Nyaya or Logic)
Brahma Sutras (aka Vedanta Sutras) is the philosophical treatise of Vedanta that systematically lays out the philosophy of the Upanishads. It consists of 555 aphorisms across 4 chapters. It should be studied along with the commentary of Shankaracharya for a deep and comprehensive understanding of Advaita (Non-Dual) Vedanta.
There are many explanatory texts (prakarana granthas) written by some of the greatest Vedanta philosophers of all times, like Shankaracharya, Vidyaranya, etc, that do an excellent job of introducing and explaining Vedanta systematically. They include:
- Advaita Makaranda
- Atma Bodha
- Drg Drsya Viveka
- Tattva Bodha
- Vedanta Dindima
Few more Vedanta classics:
You are who you are. You don't need to do anything to become Atman as you are already that. But you don't know who you really are, which unknowingly brings you much sorrow and suffering. So the practice of Vedanta is geared towards removing your ignorance about your real Self. Just like there are infinite ways of getting to the mountain-top from its base and the top is same for all, there are infinite ways of realizing your real Self from where you currently stand but the eventual Reality is same for all.
These infinite ways can be broadly classified into four different paths. Each of these four paths (called the four Yogas) are based upon four different and powerful faculties of the human mind - intellect, emotion, concentration and action. Its best to practice all these four Yogas as they complement each other resulting in a rapid and holistic spiritual growth:
ॐ तत् सत्
Om Tat Sat