From time immeasurable, human mind has always wondered about the mystery of existence, about the vast universe, the Creator and such other questions. The question of death is also most intriguing; if death puts an end to all our endeavors then what does this ephemeral existence on Earth mean? Swami Vivekananda, in one of his Jnana-Yoga lectures, beautifully puts this dilemma of human mind:
‘"Is death the end of all these things to which we are clinging, as if they were the most real of all realities, the most substantial of all substances?" The world vanishes in a moment and is gone. Standing on the brink of a precipice beyond which is the infinite yawning chasm, every mind, however hardened, is bound to recoil and ask, "Is this real?" The hopes of a lifetime, built up little by little with all the energies of a great mind, vanish in a second. Are they real? This question must be answered. Time never lessens its power; on the other hand, it adds strength to it’.
These eternal questions have eluded satisfactory answers from rational plane. And the most important question for any human being is about his/her individuality i.e. who am I? What is my real nature? What is the purpose of my life? It is important to investigate these questions since without it, life is but a meaningless dream as expressed by Maurice Frydman: ‘... it is crucial to know the answers, for without a full understanding of oneself, both in time and in timelessness, life is but a dream, imposed on us by powers we do not know, for purposes we cannot grasp.’
There are two ways in which a human being can be viewed: as a ‘body-mind-unit’ displaying consciousness or as Consciousness experiencing the ‘body-mind-idea’. If we accept the first view, we have to follow the materialistic explanation of the world defined by 'Classical Physics' or 'Physics of Newtonian mechanics and Euclidean geometry'. And if we choose the second view then we follow the spiritual view proclaimed by all major religions. Of these two, which is correct view? The answer to this question, for a person, depends on what he/she thinks of himself/herself. Do I consider myself a person based on body-mind that is functioning in the world or do I consider myself eternal spirit briefly experiencing body-mind idea?
It is very vital for an individual to decide this question for himself/herself. On the basis of our view of ourselves, we conduct our lives and see others and the world around us. It can easily be observed in any society that all the moral laws are based on unselfishness. Unselfishness implies willingness to sacrifice ourselves for others and avoidance of body-centric view. Since unselfishness brings peace and harmony within a society and for an individual, it follows that considering ourselves as spiritual entities is extremely beneficial. It also gives us the necessary strength to face the life-situations. Hence it is worth trying to understand this 'spiritual view' of an individual.
Among all world religions and philosophies, it is the Eternal Religion of the Vedas and the philosophy of Vedanta that boldly proclaims the spiritual view of an individual. Vedanta says that every being is essentially Pure Consciousness and Pure Bliss. The technical term in Vedanta for Pure Consciousness is Brahman or Atman. What is the nature of this Brahman? It is said to be birth-less and hence death-less, independent of body and mind, full of bliss and infinite. Pure Consciousness is described in Vedanta as Sat-chit-ananda(Pure Being-Pure Consciousness-Pure Bliss). It is worth noting here what Swami Vivekananda, the modern proponent of Vedanta, says about Vedantic prayer:
‘I have neither death nor fear, I have neither caste nor creed, I have neither father nor mother nor brother, neither friend nor
foe, for I am Existence, Knowledge and Bliss absolute; I am the blissful one, I am the blissful one. I am not bound either by
virtue or vice, by happiness or misery. Pilgrimages and books and ceremonials can never bind me. I have neither hunger nor thirst;
the body is not mine, nor I am subject to the superstitions and decay that come to the body, I am Existence, Knowledge and Bliss
absolute; I am the Blissful One, I am the Blissful One. This says Vedanta is the only prayer that we should have.’
And in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: ‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.’
Technically the word Vedanta literally means 'the end of the Vedas'; it can be called as an 'essence of the Vedas'. Vedas consists of
two broad sections: Karma-Kanda (Rituals portion) and Jnana-Kanda (Knowledge portion); former deals with hymns and rituals for various
Vedic Sacrifices while latter contains the deep philosophical and spiritual discussion. This Jnana-Kanda is called Upanishads and is
Vedanta proper. Upanishads are found embedded in both Karma-Kanda as well as Jnana-Kanda. Vedanta is the foundation for all
philosophies, spiritual paths, sects, cults among Hindus. In India, for many centuries the teachings of Upanishads — the main source
of Vedanta — were restricted to the all-renouncing monks who were living in seclusion from the society. Swami Vivekananda rightly
foresaw the spiritual need of common man in the modern age. He said, ‘Shankara left this Advaita philosophy in the hills and forests,
while I have come to bring it out of those places and scatter it broadcast before the workaday world and society. The lion-roar of
Advaita must resound in every hearth and home, in meadows and groves, over hills and plains.’ The message that Swami Vivekananda gave
to humanity is the essence of Vedanta philosophy. He defined the goal for humanity in his famous message as:
‘Each soul is potentially divine.
Traditionally in India this system of Vedanta was interpreted by various commentators in three main schools of thought : Dvaita (Dualism - soul and God are distinct), Vishishtadvaita (Qaulified-non-dualism - soul is part of God) and Adviata (Non-dualism - soul is non-separate from God). Swami Vivekananda's genius mind rightly saw that Vedanta, with its foundation in infinite Pure-Consciousess, is not only the basis for all spiritual paths in India but also for all other religions; the Truth of Self/God can be viewed and described in various ways by minds at different levels of maturity and needs. Swamiji says:
‘All of religion is contained in the Vedanta, that is, in the three stages of the Vedanta philosophy, the Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita and Advaita; one comes after the other. These are the three stages of spiritual growth in man. Each one is necessary. This is the essential of religion: the Vedanta, applied to the various ethnic customs and creeds of India, is Hinduism. The first stage, i.e. Dvaita, applied to the ideas of the ethnic groups of Europe, is Christianity; as applied to the Semitic groups, Mohammedanism. The Advaita, as applied in its Yoga-perception form, is Buddhism etc. Now by religion is meant the Vedanta; the applications must vary according to the different needs, surroundings, and other circumstances of different nations. You will find that although the philosophy is the same, the Shaktas, Shaivas, etc. apply it each to their own special cult and forms.’
In the wake of increasing materialism propelled by scientific and technological advances, modern man/woman required a firm basis, resting on which, he/she can face this materialistic onslaught. Swami Ranganathananda points out this as: ‘Vivekananda saw the supreme necessity for man, in this highly technological age, to grow beyond the physical-intellectual dimension and to unfold, to manifest, the ever-present Divine within, so that modern man would be able to digest, and properly direct to human ends, the vast powers that modern science and technology have placed in his hands.’ Vedanta philosophy gives us a solid ground to stand upon in this ever changing world. It tells us that our essential nature is Pure Consciousness. Our task therefore is to understand what consciousness level we find ourselves at present and proceed towards Pure Consciousness.
In the following pages, an attempt has been made to present the key ideas of Vedanta in a simple language.