Prasthānatraya of Vedānta
The Upaniṣads, the Bhagavadgītā, and the Brahmasūtra are known as the prasthāna-traya – the triple foundation/cannon of Vedānta. Prasthāna means ‘foundation’ and thus, these three constitute the three foundations of – Śruti – revelation, Smṛti – remembrance, and Nyāya – reason. They are respectively known as, the Upaniṣads or Śruti-prasthāna, the Bhagavadgītā or Smṛti-prasthāna, and the Brahmasūtra or Nyāya-prasthāna.
Vedas are referred to as Śruti, and since the Upaniṣads form part of the Vedas, their name as Śruti-prasthāna is justified. The Bhagavadgītā stands next to the Upaniṣads with reference to authoritativeness, and is considered almost an equal. Bhagavadgītā or ‘Song of the Lord’ – contains the message of Lord Kṛṣṇa to the humanity. It forms part of the epic, the Mahābhārata, which is a Smṛti or remembered text. Thus, Bhagavadgītā is known as the Smṛti-prasthāna. The Brahmasūtra represents the standpoint of reason because; it sets forth the Vedāntic teachings in a logical order. It is also called Uttara-Mīmāṃsā-Sūtra since it is an enquiry into the final sections of the Vedas; Vedānta-Sūtra since it is the aphoristic text of Vedānta; Śārīraka-Sūtra since it is concerned with the nature and destiny of the embodied jīva; and Bhikṣu-Sūtra since those who are most competent to study this are the Sannyāsīs, or renunciates who are bhikṣus.
Thus, we see that the basic sourcebook of Vedānta, and its basic doctrine is based upon Śruti, and supported by Smṛti and reasoning (Nyāya). In the light of this, the central teaching of all three sourcebooks will be posited to be one and the same, i.e. Brahman.
Difference between Veda & Vedānta:
Vedānta is a body of teaching found at the end of the Veda. The Vedas, four in number Ṛgveda, Yajurveda (again divided into Kṛṣṇa-Yajurveda and Śukla-Yajurveda), Sāmaveda, and Atharvaveda, and each divided into two sections “conventionally”. The first section deals with i) dharma – religious ethics that includes karma – religious actions, ii) artha – other special actions to achieve security, and iii) kāma – pleasures. This section, called the karmakāṇda is very bulky, understandably so, since it deals with human desires and actions required fulfilling those desires.
The last section of the Vedas is called jñānakāṇda, the knowledge section. It is very much shorter because the subject matter is a single desire for iv) mokṣa – freedom from the sense of limitation. The fulfillment of that desire is not through actions, which are many, but through knowledge, which is singular with regard to the particular thing to be known.
Subject Matter of Vedānta:
Therefore, although it may appear strange, but the subject matter of the Vedānta is completely different from the subject matter of the Vedas. While the first three puruṣārthas namely – dharma, artha, and kāma are the subject matter of the Vedas, Vedānta that is the Upaniṣads deals only with the ultimate puruṣārtha, i.e. mokṣa. This will be clear if we use anubandha-catuṣṭaya method.
The four essential factors of any treatise are grouped as anubandha-catuṣṭaya. They are viṣaya, prayojanam, adhikārī, and sambandha.
i) Viṣaya: the subject matter. In Vedānta, the subject matter is mokṣa – freedom, whereas in the Vedas, the subject matter is all the other three pursuits – dharma, artha, and kāma.
ii) Prayojanam: the purpose. The karmakāṇda portion of the Vedas describes varieties of rituals and sacrifices, as the means to fulfill various desires entertained by an equally large number of people. In contrast, the jñānakāṇda that contains the Upaniṣads, the knowledge of identity between the jīva and Brahman is the main topic. The pursuit here is mokṣa – freedom from the sense of limitation.
iii) Adhikārī : the eligible person. A student of Vedānta is vastly different from a student of the Vedas. Swami Sadānanda (15th century) defines the adhikārī as one who has completed studying the Vedas and has performed immense charity – asmin janmani janmāntare vā and is sādhana-catuṣṭaya-sampannaḥ. In fact, now he/she wants to know the vastu, and the relationship between him/her and the Lord if he is there, and the overwhelming world around him/her – jīva, jagat and Iśvara.
i) Śāstra & Subject Matter = Pratipādaka-Pratipādya. The Upaniṣads or the Vedāntic texts play the part of the revealer (pratipādaka) while the subject matter is the revealed (pratipādya). Thus, the relation between the text and the purpose however is the same in case of the Vedas and Vedānta.
ii) Subject matter & Knowledge = Sādhana-Sādhya or Pramāṇa-Prameya.
iii) Jñānam & mokṣa = Sādhana-Sādhya (but no time gap involved. Jñānam is mokṣa.)
The Philosophy of Vedānta:
vedānto nāma upaniṣat pramāṇam. The study of Upaniṣads is not a mere intellectual exercise. Just as the eyes are the only means to know the form and colour, a pramāṇam, Upaniṣad is the only means, to know the truth of myself, to get out of this constant buffeting of sorrow and pain, and the incessant cycle of birth and death, which is the common lot of the mortal. ‘tarati śokam ātmavit’ is the promise of Śruti.
It is with this spirit of a quest that the study of the Upaniṣads is approached. The very purpose of human life is vitiated if it ends without this knowledge.
‘iha ced avedīt atha satyam asti |
‘na ced iha avedīt, mahati vinaṣṭiḥ | Ke.Up.-II.5
Meaning – ‘If one has known here (in this human incarnation), then there is truth (this life is fructified); if one has not known, the indeed huge is the loss.
Bṛhadāraṇyaka says almost the same thing in Yājñavalkya-Gārgī-saṃvāda:
‘yo va etad akṣaraṃ gārgi aviditvā asmāt lokāt praiti, sa kṛpaṇaḥ |
‘atha ya etad akṣaraṃ gārgi viditvā asmāt lokāt praiti, sa brāhmaṇaḥ | Bṛ.Up.-III.8.10
Meaning – “Whoever, O Gārgi ! leaves this world without knowing this (Truth) is a miser (because s/he did not use his/her mind/brain to know). But, he/she who leaves this world after knowing this (Truth) is a Knower of Truth.”
Śravaṇa, manana, nididhyāsana of the Upaniṣad alone, done with śraddhā at the feet of a competent Teacher, is enough to make the adhikārī student grasp the meaning of the mahāvākya upadeśa – tat tvam asi after which there is no question of sorrow. Mokṣa is here and now.