Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Everything You Need to Know About Vedanta, in Theory and Practice

Vedanta, Yoga and Hinduism. What are the differences

What is Vedanta and Advaita Vedanta? What is the difference between Vedanta, Hinduism, and Yoga? What are the Mahavakyas? How can we apply this wisdom in our daily lives? These and a few more questions are answered here by Siddhartha Krishna, an outstanding Vedanta and Yoga Philosophy teacher based in Rishikesh.

Siddhartha Krishna, half European half Indian, has been influenced since his early childhood by the life on the Indian yogis and their teachings.

He started his education at home under the guidance of his parents, and at the age of seven he joined an ashram in Rishikesh, India to deepen his study of philosophy.

You can read more about Siddhartha's inspiring life journey and my experience studying with him in Rishikesh right here: Siddhartha Krishna: Yoga & Vedanta Philosophy Teacher in Rishikesh

After that previous interview, I asked Siddhartha these few basic but key questions that I've asked myself many times before, to clear my doubts and hoping that the answers would become a sort of introduction to Vedanta philosophy.

I feel very grateful and honored that Siddhartha accepted to take the time to answer these questions. He has done a great job at answering them briefly but with sufficient detail so that nothing is missed.

I say this because I know very well that Siddhartha could give a two hours lecture for each question that I've asked, without even taking a one minute break.

Vedanta, Yoga, and Hinduism: Understanding the Differences

What are the Vedas, the Upanishads, and Vedanta?

The Vedas are the most ancient collection of spiritual teachings in India. No scholar has been able to ascribe a definite date to them, but most modern scholars today believe that they were composed in around 1500-1200 BCE.

“Veda” means knowledge and the four books of the Vedas are called so because they are considered a reservoir of knowledge.

The Vedas contain hymns addressed to the various manifestations of the one supreme Existence (Sat), while special attention has been given to the three manifestations of light:

1. fire (agni), the manifestation present on the earth (bhuh),
2. lightening (indra), the manifestation in the intermediate realm (bhuvah) and,
3. the sun, the manifestation present in the realm of light (svah/dyauh).

The one light of which these three are mere manifestations perceivable to the senses is in turn meditated upon a symbol to the inner light of consciousness, the light of all lights (jyotisham jyotih).

However, these deeper ideas are scattered in the vast literature of the Vedas and mostly where they are expressed, the expression is cryptic in nature.

It is only in the final parts of the Vedas, known as the Upanishads, where one finds a very clear expression of the self, the inner source of consciousness.

The most ancient Upanishads still existing today date roughly from the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, according to modern scholars. Most of the Upanishads are found towards the end of the Vedic texts, therefore they are also called “Vedanta” (the end of the Vedas).

However, “anta,” like the English word “conclusion,” doesn’t only mean “the end,” but it can also mean “the final resolution.”

Therefore, Vedanta can also mean the quintessence of the Vedas. It is in this meaning that we actually use the word Vedanta for the Upanishads.

However, today, in most cases “Vedanta” is used for the philosophy of the Upanishads as quintessential presented by Maharshi Vedavyasa in the Bhagavad Gita and as systematized by Maharshi Badarayana in his phenomenal work known as the Brahma Sutras or the Vedanta Sutras.

This also includes the various commentators on these texts which have inspired most of the living traditions of Hinduism that exist today in India.

Therefore, the philosophical systems composed by Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Nimbarkacharya, Madhvacarya, and Vallabhacarya, along with many others, are all referred to as Vedanta, even though their philosophical positions differ highly from each other.

Therefore, in today’s discourse, Upanishads refers to the original texts which are parts of the Vedas, and Vedanta refers to any one of the philosophical systems which were conceived within the 1200 years based on the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras.

What is Advaita Vedanta?

One of the first commentators to comment on the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras is Shankaracharya (c. 700-750 CE).

His interpretation of these texts is presented from a non-dualistic point of view, in which the individual self is just seen as a reflection, and therefore non-separate in essence, from the supreme reality.

It sees the realization of this oneness of the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness as the ultimate goal of all spiritual endeavor, which is expressed in the four famous sentences of the Upanishads – “You are that.”

This non-dualistic understanding of Vedanta, i.e. of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedanta Sutras, is known as Advaita Vedanta.

What are the Mahavakyas and how can we contemplate on them?

A sentence which helps to remove the view or sense of duality is referred to as a “great sentence” (mahavakya).

There are four Mahavakyas or great sentences in the Upanishads. Each Mahavakya originates from an Upanishad belonging to one of the four Vedas:
  • The mahavakya from the Rig Veda is: “Consciousness is Brahman.” This is also known as the “definition sentence” because it defines Barhman.
  • The mahavakya from the Sama Veda is: "You are that." This one is also known as the “teaching sentence.”
  • The mahavakya from the Atharva Veda is: “This self is brahman.” This is also known as the “contemplation sentence.”
  • Finally, the mahavakya from the Yajur Veda is: “I am Brahman.” This is also known as the “experience sentence.”
Each sentence contains three parts.
  • The first part refers to the universal essence present within the body.
  • The second part (which usually in English translations becomes the third part!) refers to the universal essence present pervasively in the universe.
  • The third part, explicitly or implicitly present as the verb (which in English translation usually form the second word and is always present explicitly even if only implicitly present in Sanskrit), states their essential unity or oneness.

The space within a pot seems finite as long as one’s vision is limited by the limiting adjunct (upadhi), the pot. Till one’s vision is limited by the limiting adjunct, one can’t comprehend that the space within the pot and the space out of it are one and the same.

But when one allows one’s vision or understanding to transcend the limiting adjunct, the walls of the pot, by realizing that this limitation only limits our view of space and cannot, in fact, limit the actual space itself, as each and every atom constituting the walls of the pot is filled with space and therefore space is continuous, then one realizes that the space within the pot and the space out of it are one and the same.

But for this, the viewer has to transcend his view beyond the limitation.

He has to realize that the space was continuous and infinite before the walls of the pot were created. It is in reality continuous and infinite while the walls are present, and it will always remain continuous and infinite after the walls are broken into pieces.

Then he realizes that division just exists in one’s vision and is therefore only imposed by a viewer on the reality, such as the color of the background is imposed on an otherwise transparent crystal.

Therefore, analysis of the true nature of consciousness seemingly limited by the body is known as “investing the true meaning of the word ‘you’” (tvam padartha shodhana).

The analysis of the true nature of consciousness seemingly limited by the causal nature of God is known as “investigating the true meaning of the word ‘that’” (tat padartha shodhana).

When a person transcends both limited views, then the experience of the oneness of both occurs which is known as the “oneness of the meanings of you and that” (tat-tvam-padarthaikya).

How are Yoga and Vedanta related? What is the difference between the Yoga in Patanjali Yoga Sutras and the Yoga mentioned in the Gita?

Yoga is the practical path of meditation to experience what Vedanta teaches.

The frequent mentioning of Yoga and related meditative practices in the Upanishads points to the fact that:

  • yoga lies at the very foundation of the Upanishadic wisdom, because the teachings that we find in the Upanishads are the experiences of masters which they acquired through the practice of yoga, and
  • today, to fully experientially understand the teachings of the Upanishads, which is known as Nididhyasana, the practical path of yoga is essential.

It must be kept in mind that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are so cryptic in nature that one can’t successfully infer which philosophical system underpins them.

It is Vyasa’s commentary, the most ancient of all commentaries on the Yoga Sutras, which by explaining the Yoga Sutras from a Samkhya perspective, establishes the yoga sutras into a Samkhya System.

It also must be kept in mind that today usually when we speak of Samkhya we define Samkhya as the atheistic philosophical system presented by Ishvara Krishna in the Samkhya Karikas.

However, Samkhya, with its origin in 900 BC, is an extremely ancient philosophical system. Furthermore, ancient texts, such as the Gita or the Mahabharata, referring to Samkhya refer to another form of theistic Samkhya.

Patanjali’s Samkhya seems closer to this ancient form of Samkhya, than to the Samkhya of Ishvara Krishna.

Unfortunately, the teachings of extremely ancient Samkhya masters, such as Kapila, Asuri, Panchashikha, Varshaganya, Jaigishavya and Vindhyavasin, etc. are lost.

But it is not improbable to say that most likely these ancient forms of Samkhya are closer to modern Vedanta than they were to Ishvara Krishna’s Samkhya.

This can be said without any doubt about the Samkhya found in the Gita and the Mahabharata which can and has always been equated with Vedanta.

However, after the dualistic approach and other similar views of Samkhya philosophy were refuted by Vedanta texts like Brahma Sutra and its subsequent commentators, Yoga philosophy lost that philosophical foundation in Sankhya which was given to it by Vyasa through his commentary.

Hence, most of the commentaries of the Yoga Sutras and authors on Yoga in general present the Yoga philosophy with the underpinning of Vedanta Philosophy which, as stated above, is most likely closer to the ancient form of Samkhya.

We find this approach towards the yoga sutras very clearly taken by commentators such as Narayana Tirtha, and by great Vedantic masters such as Vidyaranya Muni and Madhusudana Saraswati.

What is Jñāna Yoga?

When Jñāna or knowledge arising from the teachings of the masters and from meditation becomes a means to acquire yoga, or union of the individual with the universal, it is called Jñāna Yoga.

The word yoga can mean both, union and also a mean to union. In this case, Jñāna (knowledge) is a means to union. Therefore, it is referred to as yoga.

Where does the distinction lie between Hinduism as a religion, Vedanta, and Yoga?

There are a few points over which the distinction becomes clear.

First of all the religious scriptures of Hinduism are categorized as Dharma Śāstras (instructions on the law or the principles of righteousness), while teachings on Vedanta and Yoga are categorized as Mokṣa Śāstras (instructions on freedom) or Adhyātma Śāstras (instructions on principles that lie within).

The teachings of Vedanta and Yoga help raise an individual beyond the sense of right and wrong.

The right or the correct is considered meaningful only because it enables the individual to transcend the wrong. But the ultimate goal is to transcend even what one considered the right or the correct.

The question asked by Naciketas underscores the point that the goal of yoga and Vedanta is to take us beyond:

“Tell me that which you see beyond right and wrong…” (Kaṭha Upaniṣad 2.14).

Veṅkaṭa Brahmānanda Giri, a traditional Sanskrit commentator on the Bhagavad Gita (see 9.1), points to the difference between religion and Vedanta:

“Unlike dharma (religion), the result (heaven) of which is beyond the senses, one can have no doubt in the direct experience of brahman (pristine consciousness).”

In other words, the results of religion, such as heaven etc., are based on faith, while the result of yoga and Vedanta can be experienced directly.

This is the path which leads one from the darkness of ignorance to the light of wisdom.

Religious rituals give rise to good karma which takes one into heavenly realms, but the wisdom of Vedanta and Yoga doesn’t create anything, it just makes one aware of their essential nature.

Finally, the inner peace acquired through yoga and Vedanta can unfold only after one detaches oneself from worldly and otherworldly joys acquirable through dharma (religion).

Finally, both in yoga and Vedanta, God is seen merely as an ideal or archetypal figure, whose presence inspires the aspirant on his inward journey. God can be seen as a higher yourself present within the heart of all beings.

External rituals directed to such a figure are only meant for inner purification, i.e. for purifying the heart from distracting or agitating thoughts, and preparatory to inner rituals which finally lead into meditation.

In its final stages, Vedanta sees even the concept of God as limited by the causal limitation and hence encourages one to free one's understanding by meditating on pristine consciousness (brahman) which is beyond any such limitations.

How would you recommend one to start the study of Vedanta?

In a traditional setting. The study of texts like Tattva-bodha and Pañcadaśī is a good starting point to study Advaita Vedanta.

Which should be the first Upanishad to study?

Again, in the way the study of the Upanishads has been structured traditionally, Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad, is the first Upaniṣad that one studies.

Which books would you recommend as an introduction to Vedanta, and why?

This is a question that is difficult for me to answer, because all that I have studied on Vedanta is in Sanskrit and, therefore, I’m not aware of good books in English.

The starting titles in Sanskrit have been mentioned by me while answering the previous question “How would you recommend one to start the study of Vedanta?”

How can we apply the knowledge of Advaita Vedanta in our daily lives?

The ultimate purpose of Advaita Vedanta is to make us aware, first, of pristine consciousness and, then, of the inherent oneness of that pristine consciousness within all living beings.

The first awareness leads to inner peace and transcendence from suffering and grief.

The second leads to the principles of non-violence (ahiṁsā) and compassion (karuṇā) by transcending hatred, both of which are central to Vedanta and Yoga.

Even mere faith in the inherent oneness of all beings inspires one to commit oneself to these noble principles in life.

This realization itself inspires a yogi to look upon the world as one single family, as stated by Maharṣi Ṛbhu:

“This one is my own and that one is not – such is the consideration of the small-hearted ones. For those with a noble conduct this entire earth is but one family.” (Mahā Upaniṣad 6.71)

This realization further inspires the yogi to constantly remain engaged in the well-being of all beings, as stated by Krishna:

“Sages constantly engaged in the well-being of all beings dissolve (nirvāṇa) into Pure Consciousness (brahman)” (Bhagavad Gītā 5.25).

Contact Details

I hope you've enjoyed this introduction to Vedanta philosophy by Siddhartha Krishna. Don't forget to subscribe to his YouTube Channel and like his Facebook Page to stay connected with him.

To know more about Siddhartha you can read my previous interview: Siddhartha Krishna: Yoga & Vedanta Philosophy Teacher in Rishikesh

If you would like to study directly with Siddhartha you could visit his mother’s Iyengar Yoga Center in Omkarananda Ashram, Rishikesh and you can also visit his new website Siddhartha-Krishna.In

You can actually learn the Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad directly from Siddhartha, and from the comfort of your own home, by listening to his video lectures in YouTube: Isha Upanishad

And if you think anybody would be benefited by this introduction to Vedanta by Siddhartha Krishna then please don't hesitate to share it with your friends.


  1. Thank you, Marco. I enjoy very much your interviews with Siddhartha.

    1. Thanks to you Renee! I'm happy to know that you've enjoyed reading them :-)