‘Vedanta’ literally means ‘the end of the Vedas.’ Primarily the word stood for the Upanisads though afterwards its denotation widened to include all thoughts developed out of the Upanisads.
The Upanisads may be regarded as the end of the Vedas in different senses,
(a) First; the Upanisads were the last literary products of the Vedic period. Three kinds of literature of this period can be broadly distinguished: the earliest being the Vedic hymns or mantras compiled in the different Samhitas (Rg. Yajus, Sama and Atharva).
The next being the Brahmanas, treatises guiding and encouraging the Vedic rituals and the last, the Upanishads which discuss philosophical problems. All these three here treated as revealed texts (srutis) and sometimes also called the Vedas, in the wider sense of this term.
(b) Secondly, in respect of study also, the Upanisads come last. As a rule, a man studied the Samhitas first; the Brahmanas were required next for siding him when he entered life and had to perform the rituals enjoined on a householder.
And last of all the Upanisads (some of which are also known as aranyakas or forest-treatises) were needed to help him when he retired from the world, led a secluded life in forests and tried to understand the meaning of life and contemplate the mystery of the universe.
(c) Thirdly, the Upanisads may be regarded as the end of the Vedas also in the sense that they mark the culmination of the Vedic speculation.
In the Upanisads themselves we are told that even after the study of the Vedas with other branches of learning, a man’s education is not complete till he receives instructions in the Upanishads.
‘Upanishad’ means ‘what destroys ignorance and gets man near to God,’ or ‘what gets man near to the teacher (Upanishad)’. The last meaning tallies with the fact that the Upanishad doctrines were esoteric, i.e., they were very secretly taught only to the select pupils seated close to (upasanna) the teacher.
The Upanisads were regarded as the inner or secret meanings (rahasya) of the Vedas, hence their teachings were sometimes called Vedopanisad or the mystery of the Vedas. The Upanisads were many’ in number and developed in the different Vedic schools (sakhas) at different times and places.
The problems discussed and solutions offered presented differences in spite of a unity of general outlook. The need was felt, therefore, in course of time for systematising the different teachings so as to bring out the harmony underlying them. Badarayana’s Brahmasutra (also known variously as Vedanta siitra, Sariraka-sutra or Sariraka-mimamsa, Uttara mimamsa) undertakes this task. It discusses in four chapters:
(a) The coherence (samanvaya) of the Upanisadic teachings.
(b) Their non-contradiction (avirodha) in relation to established theories and logical rules,
(c) The means of realisation (sadhana), and
(d) The fruit (phala) achieved. His sutras, being brief, were liable to different interpretations. Various commentaries thus came to be written to elaborate the doctrines of the Vedanta in their own light.
Each tried to justify its position as the only one consistent with the revealed texts (srutis) and the sutras. The author of each of these chief commentaries (bhasya) became the founder of a particular school of the Vedanta.
Thus we have the schools of Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha, Nimbarka and many others.
Each school of the Vedanta consists not simply of the philosophers who theoretically accept its views but also of a large number of monks and lay followers who try to mould their lives accordingly.
It is in this way that the Vedanta in its different forms still persists in the lives of millions. After the chief commentaries.
The literature of the Vedanta developed through the innumerable, sub-commentaries, glosses and independent treatises written by the leading thinkers of each school to support its views and refute those of the other schools.
The total output of Vedanta literature thus became very large, though only a small fraction of it has been printed as yet.
The most common question on which the schools of the Vedanta are divided is: what is the nature of the relation between the self (jlva) and God (Brahman)? Some, like Madhva, hold that the self and God are two totally different entities; their view is called dualism (dvaita).
Some others, like Sankara, hold that the two are absolutely identical; this view is known as monism fadvaita). Some others, like Ramanuja, again hold that the two are related like part and whole; this view may be briefly called qualified monism (visistadvaita).
There were many other views, each specifying a particular type of identity (abheda), difference (bheda) or identity-in-difference (bhedabheda) between the self and God, too many to be mentioned here.
But the best known among the Vedanta schools are those of Sarikara and Ramanuja which will be discussed here.
Three stages in the development of the Vedanta may be distinguished in the light of what has been said above:
(i) The creative stage represented by the revealed texts (srutis) or the Vedic literature, chiefly consisting of the Upanisads. The fundamental ideas of the Vedanta take shape here mostly in the poetic visions and mystic intuitions of the enlightened seers.
(ii) The stage of systematisation represented by the Brahma- sutras which gather, arrange and justify the ideas of the previous stage.
(iii) The stage of elaboration represented by all works beginning from the chief commentaries downwards in which the ideas and arguments are cast into the proper philosophical forms, appeal being made not simply to earlier authority but also to independent reasoning.
Though it is possible to consider separately the philosophical speculations of each of these periods, in consideration of space we shall discuss them together.
Orthodox Indian writers themselves generally look upon the entire current of thought, spread over the successive stages, as one flow, inseparable at source, but developing and ramifying in its onward course.
Let us have a bird’s-eye view of the development of the Vedanta through the Vedas and Upanisads.