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While the three major schools of philosophy in Hindu tradition agree that the Absolute Transcendental Supreme is ever-present, all-knowing and all-powerful, in relation to God or the Ultimate, the nature of the Soul and the Universe is differently interpreted by the three schools.

The advaita school says there is only one Absolute Reality. Soul and Universe are ultimately the same as the essential Divinity, that is called brahman in the Upanishads. It is infinite in its presence, infinite in its consciousness and infinite in bliss. The Universe is only an appearance, superimposed on the Transcendent Reality. The Soul has an individual existence only so long as it is wrapped up in ignorance of its identity and therefore, a total merging of the Soul with brahman. What appears as the external Universe is only a phenomenon born out of ignorance, a beginningless ignorance which ends when the release ( = moksha) takes place. The plurality that we perceive during our period of Ignorance is only an apparent plurality. If that is taken as real then it is impossible to reconcile the experience of the sages with such a creed; because in that case Deliverance from samsAra ( = the cycle of births and deaths) would have a beginning and then there is the inevitable consequence that such a deliverance must also have an end!

The viSishTAdvaita school led by Ramanuja says the Soul and Universe are only parts of the Absolute God. The relationship of God to the Soul and the Universe is like the relationship of the Soul of man to the body of man. Individual souls are therefore only parts of brahman. God, Soul and Universe together form an inseparable unity which is one and has no second. Matter and Souls inhere in that Ultimate Reality as attributes to a substance. Cit (souls) and acit (matter) are only the body of God. So though there is difference from God, this difference is subordinate to the non-difference. Creation is a real act of God. It is the expansion of intelligence. Matter is fundamentally real and undergoes real revelation. The Soul is a higher mode than matter, because it is conscious. It is also eternally real and eternally distinct. Final release is a communion with God. Individual Souls retain their separate identities even after moksha. They live in fellowship with God either serving Him or meditating on Him.

The dvaita school led by Madhwa says that God, Soul and Universe are three mutually and fundamentally different categories, each having a separate reality, though the latter two are dependent on the former. However, God controls them. God's Grace is necessary for the liberation of the Soul. God is only the Agent. He causes the universe to be born and controls it. But He is not its material cause. Five differences are absolute: God and Soul; Soul and Soul; God and Matter; Soul and Matter; Matter and Matter. Each Soul is essentially different and belongs to different grace, even in its enjoyment of bliss after moksha. The philosophy is one of down-to-earth realism. Vyasaraja, one of the triumvirate-giants of this school-- the other two being Madhwa and Jayatirtha - summarises the entire philosophy in a set of nine points:


  • Lord Narayana is possessed of countless qualities, is devoid of all blemish and is an independent Reality.

  • He creates and sustains the world.

  • He is the One who grants moksha to pious souls;

  • The universe is real.

  • There is a five-fold difference.

  • Souls are dependent on God.

  • All souls are not alike.

  • Moksha is a state of existence when the soul enjoys eternal bliss; the only way to reach that state is Devotion.

  • The Lord can be only known through Scriptures.

Delving deep into the three schools academically, one finds that the distinguishing characteristics of the three schools may be classified in terms of the three fundamental concepts of the idea of Difference ( = bheda):



sajAtIya-bheda: Difference within the same category

 Within the category of trees there are apple trees and there are lemon trees.

This difference that exists among trees in the category of all trees is sajAtIya-bheda.

Such a difference does not exist in the category of brahman, the Absolute Reality.

In other words, brahman is unique in its category. There is no second brahman.

On this point the three major schools of vedanta agree.

All of them say brahman is unique in itself. In brahman, there is no sajAtIya-bheda.



vijAtIya-bheda: Inter-category Difference


There is the category of trees and there is the category of hills.

Trees and hills belong to different categories.

Such an inter-category difference does not exist with respect to brahman, say both Sankara and Ramanuja. There is only one category, brahman and everything is brahman, says Sankara.

And Ramanuja says: there is only one category, brahman and everything else is a part of it.

But Madhwa maintains that the category of individual souls and the category of universe

are categories different from brahman and so,

even from the absolute point of view there is inter-category difference; and, further,

this distinction between categories is absolute and unqualified.

For Madhwa's school the souls and the universe are essentially different and distinct from brahman.



svagata-bheda : Difference of the entity within itself


Within a tree, there are branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, etc.

These are by themselves different from the tree though together they all make the tree.

The tree is therefore said to have svagata-bheda.

According to Sankara, brahman does not have even this difference within itself. It is whole, without parts, bereft of attributes and distinctions. This is Sankara's reading of the Upanishads.

Ramanuja as well as Madhwa differ from this.

All the three agree that brahman is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss.

But Sankara says these three refer to one and the same undiversified attributeless brahman,

because they are idential in essence and each one of them is a definition and not a qualification of brahman.

The other two schools opine these are the three essential features of brahman who is therefore possessed of attributes and distinctions.

To sum up, we may state the same in terms of a concept of non-difference. As far as God, Souls and Universe are concerned, Sankara says there is non-difference of all the three varieties. Ramanuja and Madhwa both agree with Sankara on the sajAtIya non-difference, meaning thereby that there is no such thing as a second brahman. However Madhwa asserts that the other two kinds of difference persist. However, between Sankara and Ramanuja there is agreement on two types of non-difference. Their only difference is on the svagata-bheda. Within God there is a soul-body relationship between God and the Universe of Matter and Souls and therefore there is svagata-bheda in brahman according to Ramanuja. But Sankara and Ramanuja both agree that Matter emanated from brahman as is declared in statements like 'That itself manifested itself' (= tad AtmAnaM svayaM akuruta -- taittirIya upanishad II - 7). The universe is only a modification of brahman, in both the advaita and viSisTAdvaita philosophies; but hold on, there is a crucial difference between the two viewpoints.

The advaita view says that the modification is only apparent,

while the viSishTAdvaita view says that the modification is real!

To use another metaphor from the modern world of technology,

advaita says that the modified appearance of brahman as the universe is

a projection like a movie and therefore comparatively unreal,

while the viSishTadvaita view says that the modification is an actual play on the stage and therefore real!

What matters is not how the three Masters differ on the facets of difference and non-difference among the three entities: God, Souls and Universe; what matters is the non-difference in their teaching to humanity in regard to what one has to do in the daily world. It is interesting to note at this point that to whatever school a noted saint or devotee belongs his prayers or compositions always include the thought that whatever birth he may have to take in the future, whatever number of times he may have to be born in the future, his only prayer is that he should not forget the name of God. The unity of Indian culture should be seen in such common characteristic prayers. Every saint would say that our needs and desires are endless and so in our prayers to God we must not seek anything except devotion to Him. In fact this is why Hindu religion is one in spite of all the differences in the interpretations of scriptures. Any attempt to sort out these differences at an intellectual level may become just an exercise in futility. Well might one echo with Jagadguru Sankaracharya of Sringeri: 'You cannot see the feet of the Lord, why do you waste time debating about the nature of His face?' The very nature of the literature of the Upanishads does not allow one unique interpretation. The Upanishads, as we know, are collections of free candid and detailed discussions between teacher and disciple and it is for the reader to draw his or her own conclusion after assimilating the analysis thus presented and in the light of one's own spiritual experience. It is here that the great AcAryas help. Even to understand them one will need the physical presence of a guru. It is therefore not fair to expect the Upanishads to tell us whether this is right or that is worng. To follow one of these masters with single-minded faith and try to understand that master and his perception of what the Upanishads say might itself occupy a whole life-time.

For the ordinary busy intelligent layman of the modern world, it will become a crisis of intellect to ask questions like:

Is the advaita of Sankara the correct interpretation of the Upanishads or not? Is not the viSishTAdvaita explanation of Ramanuja the ultimate answer?

Which of the three great Masters has the correct philosophy applicable to our daily life? To which of the statements in the Upanishads shall we give importance or dominance? -

To the statements that are obviously absolutist, as recommended by Sankara? Or to those that are obviously non-absolutist as recommended by Madhwa and Ramanuja?

Such differences in interpretation has generated a succession of philosophical literature by later thinkers and writers and the body of literature on both sides is nothing but voluminous. Instead of trying to arbitrate among the great Masters, we should only aim to understand one of them in as much fullness as possible. This one Master may be chosen, as per one's tradition, taste, attitudes and upbringing. In saying this we certainly invite the criticism that Hinduism is too tolerant. But, is there something like too rich a man or too beautiful a woman?

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