Introduction to Vedanta
Indian Philosophical Systems:
Indian Philosophy is generally discussed in terms of six major orthodox (āstika) schools, and three major heterodox (nāstika) schools. These words normally convey a division into theists and atheists. However, this is not the meaning implied when these terms are used to denote the Schools of Indian Philosophy. Orthodox (āstika) systems are those that accept the authority (pramāṇattvam) of the Vedas as a valid means of knowledge), whereas heterodox (nāstika) systems are those who reject it. (The rejection was more due the i) inability of a person to grow during the same lifetime, ii) the hiṃsā involved in some of the rituals that shocked the sensitivity of both Mahāvīra and the Buddha.) The major orthodox systems are the ṣad-darśanas, the six systems of Indian Philosophy – Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, and Vedānta. The major heterodox systems are, Cārvāka, Jainism, and Buddhism.
The Vedic corpus that is accepted as pramāṇa by the āstika philosphies has four sections – Saṃhitā, Brāhmaṇa, Āraṇyaka, and Upaniṣads. Saṃhitā has Sūktas or Hymns. Brāhmaṇa contains the technical know-how of the fire-ritual. Āraṇyaka has mantra and upāsanās that are practiced in the forests (that is, not for gṛhasthas). Upaniṣads normally appear in the last part of Āraṇyaka and deal with spiritual philosophy. Some Upaniṣads are exceptions and appear in Saṃhitā (Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad is the 40th chapter of the Śukla-Yajurveda Saṃhitā) and Brāhmaṇa (Praśna, Muṇdaka and Māṇdūkya Upaniṣads are in the Gopatha Brāhmaṇa of Atharvaveda (Paippalāda-Śākhā) also.
Thus Upaniṣads, as they appear in the last part of the Vedas, are called Vedānta. There are 108 Upaniṣads, out of which ten are famous. Since Upaniṣads are mostly philosophical, they are found in prose. However, there are Upaniṣads like Taittirīyoniṣad, Iśāvāsyopaniṣad, and Gaṇapatyatharvaśīrṣopaniṣad that have svaras.
These four sections are mapped to the four āśramas. A brahmacārī is supposed to study the Saṃhitā. A gṛhastha is supposed to follow the Brāhmaṇa. A vānaprasthī is supposed to follow the Āraṇyaka. A saṃnyāsī is supposed to study the Upaniṣads.
Introduction to Vedānta:
Vedānta (Upaniṣads) is the last word in search of the truth about the individual jīva, this jagat and the creator. The Vision of Vedānta has kept Indian society alive for the past five thousand years. Vedānta represents the doctrine of the identity of the subject and object, beyond which human reason, thought and experience cannot go. This vision is held even by a farmer in a village – that all that is here is Bhagavān, or Bhagavān is everywhere – sarvaṃ khalu idaṃ brahma.
Knowledge of Upaniṣads goes outside India:
Among the works comprising Vedic literature, the Upaniṣads were the first to attract the attention of the western scholars and their wide and well-deserved praise. Several of these works were translated into Persian in Moghul times. Dara Shikoh (1615-1668 CE), the eldest son and the legitimate heir of Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666 CE) and Mumtaz Mahal was attracted by the Upaniṣads, and had them translated in Persian language.
Subsequently from Persian language, they were translated into Latin about the beginning of the 19th century. It was through this Latin translation that they came to be known for the first time in Europe. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860 CE), who is considered as one of the greatest European thinkers during his time, admired them through these translations.
The Upaniṣads were translated from Sanskrit into Persian by, or it may be, for Dara Shikoh (1640-1659), the eldest son of Shah Jehan, an enlightened prince, who openly professed liberal religious tenets of the great Emperor Akbar, and even wrote a book intended to reconcile the religious doctrines of Hindus and Mohammedans. He seems to have heard of the Upaniṣads during his stay in Kashmir in 1640. Afterwards he invited several pundits from Benaras to Delhi, who were to assist him in the work of translation. The translation was finished by 1657. Three years after the accomplishment of the work, in 1659, the prince was put to death by his brother Aurangzeb, in reality, no doubt, because he was the eldest son and legitimate successor of Shah Jehan, but under the pretext that he was an infidel, and dangerous to the established religion of the empire.
However, neither any translation under Akbar’s reign (1556-1586 CE), nor the translations of Dara Shikoh attracted the attention of the European scholars until the year 1775. In that year, Anquetil Duperron, the famous traveler and discoverer of the Zend Avesta, received one manuscript of the Persian translation of the Upaniṣads, sent to him by M. Gentil, a French resident at the court of Shuja-ud-daula, and brought to France by M. Bernier. After receiving another manuscript, Anquetil Duperron, collated the two, and translated the Persian translation into French (not published), and into Latin. The Latin translation was published in 1801 and 1802.
Meaning of the word Vedānta:
Standing at the end of the Veda, the Upaniṣads came to be known as ‘Vedānta’ or ‘the end of the Veda’ being a locational name – much as the Metaphysics of Aristotle owed its designation to its being placed after Physics in his writings. Therefore, the concluding part of the Vedas i.e. the Upaniṣads are Vedānta. However, the word (Vedānta) which at first only indicated the position of the Upaniṣads in the collection, developed later the significance of the aim or fulfillment of Vedic teaching, it being permissible to use anta in Sanskrit, like its equivalent ‘end’ in English, in both these senses.
Subsequently, Vedānta as a technical term, meant not only the last portions of the Veda, or chapters placed, as it were, at the end of a volume of Vedic literature, but the end, i.e. the object, the highest purpose of the Veda.
1. There are of course, passages, like the one in the Taittirīya-Āraṇyaka, where Vedānta means simply the end of the Veda, “yo vedādau svaraḥ prokto vedānte ca pratiṣṭhitaḥ”, meaning – ‘the Om which is pronounced at the beginning of the Veda, and has its place also at the end of the Veda.’ Here vedānta stands simply in opposition to vedādau, and it is impossible to translate it as Sāyaṇa does, by Vedānta or Upaniṣad.
2. Vedānta in the sense of philosophy, occurs in Taittirīya-Āraṇyaka, in a verse of the Nārāyaṇīya Upaniṣad, repeated in Muṇdaka Upaniṣad-III.2.6, and elsewhere,
vedānta-vijñāna-suniścitārthāḥ sannyāsa-yogād-yatayaḥ śuddhasattvāḥ |
te brahmaloke tu parāntakāle parāmṛtā(t) parimucyanti sarve ||
– Muṇ .Up.-III.2.6; Mah.Up.-XII.15; Kai.Up.- I.2.4/5),
meaning ‘those who have well understood the object of the knowledge arising from the Vedānta –‘. Also in (and not ‘from the last book of the Veda’) Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad – vedānte paramaṃ-guhyam (Śv.Up.-VI.22,) ‘the highest mystery in the Vedānta’.
Afterwards, it is used in plural also, e.g. Kṣurikopaniṣad-10, puṇḍariketi vedānteṣu nigadyate, – ’it is called puṇḍarika in the Vedāntas,’ i.e. in the Chāndogya and other Upaniṣads, but not in the last books of each Veda. A curious passage is found in the Gautama-Sūtra-XIX.12, where a distinction seems to be made between Upaniṣad and Vedānta.
From many angles, Upaniṣadic vision (jiveśvara-aikyam) is indeed Vedāntic vision. The Vedic literature can be grouped into four distinct sections as – Saṃhitā, Brāhmaṇā, Āraṇyaka, and Upaniṣad. The Saṃhitā portion contains the mantras. The mantras are hymns, prayers, and formulae for the fire-rituals. These Saṃhitās are four – Ṛk, Yajus, Sāma and Atharva. The Brāhmaṇa portion of the Vedas is explanatory treatise on the mantras, for the performance of fire-rituals. The Āraṇyakas are forest-books attached to the Brāhmaṇa that give philosophical interpretations to the latter by allegorizing them as well as prescribing various types of meditations (upāsanās). Lastly, there are the Upaniṣads that deal with knowledge of Brahman.
Thus the concluding portions of the Vedas contain the Upaniṣads. They are called Vedānta (veda+anta: end of the Veda). The term is very apt, since like most Sanskrit terms, there is a śleṣa or rhetorical figure involved. Sanskrit roots are multi-significant or multivalent. Besides literally expressing the fact that Upaniṣads form the concluding part (avasāna-bhāga) of the Vedas, the term also expresses the idea that the Upaniṣads represent the ‘aim’ or ‘goal’ of the Vedas. Being known as the crown or summit of the Vedas (śruti-śiras), the Sanskrit word anta, like the English word ‘end’, may be used to mean both ‘terminus’ and ‘aim’. The aim or goal of Vedānta, both as applied to the Upaniṣads as well as the philosophical systems of that name, concerns the nature of Brahman.
In its widest sense, the term Vedānta means, ‘The Upaniṣads, the Brahmasūtra, and other treatises that help to understand their meaning, such as Bhagavadgītā and commentaries on them.