Our Wisdom of the Ages section attempts to demonstrate the continuous stream of the ancient Wisdom Tradition throughout human history. As we continue to build the section we will regularly bring to the fore selections highlighting individuals, systems of thought, schools, movements, etc.. We now highlight our section on Advaita Vedanta, complete with a selection of works and articles.
Advaita Vedanta, one of the six Darśanas or schools of Indian philosophy, traces its roots to the great Sankaracharya., who has been referred to as “the greatest of the Esoteric masters of India” (Secret Doctrine, I:86) The name of the school derives from the terms “Advaita” (non-dual) and Vedanta (the knowledge contained in those scriptures found at the end of the Vedas). Sankara’s teachings, and those of the school that followed him, provide both a system of thought and a system of practical guidance, which we may roughly and briefly sketch here.
The practical side begins with the Four Qualifications or Four Perfections. These we find in the Tattva-bodha and the Atmanatva-viveka, respectively as:
“ The Discerning between lasting and unlasting things;  No Rage for enjoying the fruit of works, either here or there;  the Six Graces that follow Peace;  and then the Longing to be free.”— Tattva-bodha, tr. Johnston
“(1) True discrimination of permanent and impermanent things. (2) Indifference to the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s actions both here and hereafter. (3) Possession of Sama and the other five qualities. (4) An intense desire of becoming liberated (from conditional existence).”— Atmanatva-viveka, tr. Mohini M. Chatterji
The intense longing for liberation must underlie the disciples motivations. The Six Graces provide guidance on study and meditation. The indifference to the fruits of one’s actions provides guidance for right living. And the first of the qualifications leads us to the foundational doctrine of Advaita.
The first qualification is further clarified in both works:
“What is the Discerning between lasting and unlasting things?
The one lasting thing is the Eternal; all, apart from it, is unlasting.”— Tattva-bodha, tr. Johnston
“Q. What is the right discrimination of permanent and impermanent things?
A. Certainty as to the Material Universe being false and illusive, and Brahman being the only reality.”— Atmanatva-viveka, tr. Mohini M. Chatterji
The fundamental notion that Brahman alone is the All, the One Reality, is the foundational starting point of Advaita Vedanta. But of equal importance is the position that the true nature (self or atman) of the jiva, the individual, is none other than Brahman. This provides the essence of non-duality—i.e. the two are not essentially different. This teaching is put succinctly in the great statements (mahavakyas) found in the unpanishads such as:
Tat tvam asi – Thou art That.
Aham brahmasmi – I am Brahman.
From here, the philosophy proceeds. We are taught that the experience of duality—where none truly exists—is due to ignorance (avidya) and illusion (maya). The creative power (maya) of the manifested Brahman (i.e. Isvara) gives rise to the appearance of multiplicity. The ignorance of the jiva veils the true knowledge of Brahman and gives rise to the perception of duality and diversity as real and substantial. Realisation of the underlying reality, which is liberation (moksha) arises when ignorance is dispelled.
Thus, Adi Sankara’s writings, while expounding this philosophic system, focus also on the Self and the means by which one may arrive at liberation—which is not something gained, but rather something inherent that is revealed when ignorance is removed.
“But I shall declare to you the own being of the Self supreme, knowing which a man, freed from his bonds, reaches the lonely purity.
There is a certain selfhood wherein the sense of “I” forever rests; who witnesses the three modes of being, who is other than the five veils; who is the only knower in waking, dreaming, dreamlessness; of all the activities of the knowing soul, whether good or bad—this is the “I”. …
This inner Self, the ancient Spirit, is everlasting, partless, immediately experienced happiness; ever of one nature, pure waking knowledge…
When the Self is veiled by unwisdom there arises a binding to the not-self, and from this comes the pain of world-life. The fire of wisdom lit by discernment between these two—Self and not-Self—will wither up the source of unwisdom, root and all.” 1
The Vedantic philosophy is vast, delving into the minutest details of the structure and functioning of Universe and Man, but what Adi Sankara does, perhaps above and beyond all else, is cut straight through to the core of the condition of Man as trapped by avidya and maya, and provide the means by which we may rise beyond such a state. Through the exercise of discrimination between the not-real and the real, we are told that Man may arrive at the realization of the non-dual Self and thus one’s fundamental union with the All. And this may be said to be the essential heart of Advaita-Vedanta.
For more, see our full page on Advaita Vedanta, complete with original Advaita works, articles, definitions, etc.
Click here for a complete Biography of Sankaracharya, the great founder of Advaita Vedanta.
Click here to explore the Crest-Jewel of Wisdom, the seminal work of the school.