Adapted from and with excerpts from “What is Vedanta?” an article by Christopher Isherwood in “LIVING WISDOM – Vedanta in a World Community” published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, 1995
Vedanta is the philosophy of the Vedas. …The term covers also the whole body of literature which explains, elaborates and comments upon their teachings.
Vedanta is often, but less correctly, called “Hinduism”; a foreign word used by the Persians to refer to the people who lived on the other side of the river Sindhu (the Indus).
Reduced to its elements, Vedanta philosophy consists of three propositions:
- Man’s real nature is divine: It says the universe perceived by our senses is only an appearance. The universe is other than its outward aspect. A flower, rock and waterfall each is merely a different arrangement of identical units. The hills, said Tennyson, are shadows. Vedanta says that there is an essential unchanging Reality, Brahman, which is existence itself, consciousness itself. This Brahman resides in each one of us, within every creature and object. The Brahman which is inside of us is called the Atman.
- Main aim of human life is to realize its divine nature: This has been achieved by thousands of men and women, belonging to every century, country and social class. Hundreds of saints, Christian, Vedantist, Buddhist, Taoist, Sufi, and Jew, have left records of their experience. These records show remarkable similarity, despite themselves being so different in their search. It is upon the nature of the final mystical experience that all agree. When the ego-sense grows very weak, there comes a moment at which the presence of the essential nature is no longer concealed. This is known as ‘mystic union’ by Christians and ‘samadhi’ by Vedantists.
- All religions are essentially in agreement: Vedanta is not sectarian and therefore not exclusive and so appeals to the practicing mystics of all religions. Tolerance is natural to India. The Vedantist accepts Christ as Son of God and acknowledges Allah. Thus Vedanta offers a philosophical basis to all sects. It can do this precisely because it is fundamentally monistic; because it teaches that there is one Reality and nothing else.
What follows Samadhi? What happens to the few who attain it, and to the hundreds of millions who don’t? This brings us to the hypotheses of karma and reincarnation.
Karma means action, work, a deed. Not only physical action, conscious or reflex, but also mental action, conscious or subconscious. Karma is everything we think or do. Also called the law of causation, it operates in the physical, mental and moral spheres of our lives. Every thought or action makes an impression on the mind. Upon repetition it deepens into a groove, down which our future behavior will easily tend to run. Thus the sum of our karmas represents our character. As fresh karmas are added and previous karmas exhausted or neutralized, our character changes.
About reincarnation, the Vedantist says the effect of our karmas does not die with us when we shed this physical body, but follows the soul which never dies. So the effects carry over from one birth to the next and from many births to the present birth. This explains the apparent difference in all the men and women in the world in respect of many things – circumstances, abilities, traits, qualities, health and value systems. The soul takes birth after birth in the physical body to enjoy or suffer and thus undo its earlier karmas till all its karmas, good and bad, are exhausted and extinguished and the soul nears the realization of the Ultimate Reality in one birth. Thus a soul to realize its Atman has to undergo multiple births to get rid of its karma and realizes the Ultimate Reality which is Brahman.