The Vedanta essentially refers to the philosophy pronounced in the Upanishads, the final parts of the Vedas. In a broad sense, the Vedanta covers the fundamental philosophy enunciated by the Prasthantrayi – the Upanishads, the Brahma-Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita.
The Brahma-Sutra (Vedanta-Sutra) and the Bhagavad Gita are based on the philosophy of the Upanishads. The Vedanta offers the sublime knowledge in its most exalted form. The knowledge may be relative or absolute. Relative knowledge pertains to the senses and the intellect. It is concerned with the physical world and worldly objects. But the Vedanta transcends beyond the realms of relative knowledge. It leads a seeker to transcendental knowledge and finally to absolute knowledge.
The Brahma-Sutra is also referred to as Vedanta-Sutra or Uttar-Mimamsa-Sutra. The Brahma-Sutra has 555 sutras. Most of them are aphoristic. Being cryptic, they are almost unintelligible at first sight and need elaborate explanation by an expert. Hence, a number of commentaries were written to interpret them.
Shamkaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya wrote commentaries on the Brahma-Sutra. This lead to the rise of three schools of the Vedanta as mentioned earlier. They were: Shamkaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta, Ramanujacharya’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta and Madhavacharya’s Dvaita Vedanta.
Though the three schools differ on several counts, the underlying basic concepts of the Vedanta are similar. We shall study only the basic Vedanta concepts here.
All the three schools of the Vedanta present three categories of 'realities'.
The first category is the Jagat or the Universe.
The second category is the Jiva (individual) or the atma (Atman or the soul) that lives in the jagat or the world.
The third category is the Brahman, the substratum behind the Jagat and all the Jivas. The Brahman is the Supreme Being and governs the destiny of the Jagat and the Jivas.
The Vedanta philosophy is focused on the Jagat(the universe), the Jiva(individual soul) and the Brahman (the Supreme Being). Brahman is the repository of all knowledge and power. Jivas, out of ignorance, gets trapped in the Jagat. Attached to the physical world and driven by passions and desires, they are tempted to act with selfish, mundane motives. They remain chained to ceaseless actions (karma). As a result, they subject themselves to countless births in various forms. Their transmigration from this birth (life) to the next depends on the karma (the quality of action). Moksha or mukti (liberation) is the goal of life. This philosophy, in general, is accepted by all the three schools.
These are the basic concepts common to all three schools of the Vedanta. Now let us see how they differ.
Dvaita means dualism. This system believes that the Brahman and the Jiva are two different entities. This system believes that the God, the soul and the Universe are three separate realities. God governs the world. The soul in its ignorance remains attached to the physical world. By developing faith and devotion in God, he can seek God’s mercy and then the soul may migrate to the Heaven above. Such a jiva may attain Mukti. Thus he may liberate himself from the cycle of life and death and live with God forever in the Heaven.
Vishishtadvaita literally means “qualified non-dualism”. Ramanujacharya stresses that God alone exists. He says that Brahman is God. He is not formless. The Cosmos and the Jivas form his body. When the Jiva (soul) realizes that he is a part of Paramatman (God), the soul is liberated. With self-realization and liberation the soul enjoys infinite consciousness and eternal bliss of God.
Advaita literally means non-dualism. This system contends that the Brahman and the atman (individual soul) are not different entities. Brahman is the Ultimate, Supreme Reality. Brahman is beyond names and forms. Brahman can not be described in words. Brahman is Sat-Chit-Ananda. Brahman and atman are not different realities. They are identical. They are the eternal, all-pervading realities underlying all existence.