This system arises out of the Upanisads which mark the culmination of the Vedic speculation and are fittingly called the Vedanta or the end of the Vedas.
As we have seen previously, it develops through the Upanisads in which its basic truths are first grasped, the Brahma-sutra of Badarayana which systematises the Upanisadic teachings, and the commentaries written on these sutras by many subsequent writers among whom Sarikara and Ramanuja are well known.
Of all the systems, the Vedanta, especially as interpreted by Sahkara, has exerted the greatest influence on Indian life and it still persists in some form or other in different parts of India.
The idea of one Supreme Person (purusa), who pervades the whole universe and yet remains beyond it, is found in a hymn of the Rg-veda. All objects of the universe, animate and inanimate, men and gods, are poetically conceived here as parts of that Person.
In the Upanisads this unity of all existence is found developed into the conception of one impersonal Reality (sat), or the conception of One Soul, One Brahman, all of which are used synonymously.
The world is said to originate from this Reality, rest in it and return into it when dissolved. The reality of the many particular objects perceived in the universe is denied and their unity in the One Reality is asserted ever and again: All is God (sarvam khalu idam Brahma).
The soul is God (ayam Atma, Brahma). There is no multiplicity here (neha nanasti kiricana). This Soul or God is the Reality (satya). It is infinite consciousness (jriana) and Bliss (ananda).
Sahkara interprets the Upanisads and the Brahma-sutra to show that pure and unqualified monism is taught therein. God is the only Reality, not simply in the sense that there is nothing except God, but also in the sense that there is no multiplicity even within God.
The denial of plurality, the unity of the soul and God, the assertion that when God is known, all is known, and similar views found in the Upanisads, in fact the general tone that pervades their teachings, cannot be explained consistently if we believe even in the existence of many realities within God.
Creation of the many things by God (Brahman) or the Soul (Atman) is, of course, related in some Upanisads.
But in others, and even in the Vedas, creation is compared to magic or jugglery; God is spoken of as the Juggler who creates the world by the magical power called Maya.
Sahkara, therefore, holds that, in consistency with the emphatic teaching that there is only One Reality, we have to explain the world not as a real creation, but as an appearance which God conjures up with his inscrutable power, Maya.
To make the conception of Maya more intelligible to ordinary experience, he interprets it in the light of ordinary illusions that we have in daily life, when a rope appears, for example, as a snake or a glittering shell appears as silver.
In all such cases of illusion, there is a substratum or a reality (e.g., rope, shell) on which something else (e.g., snake, silver) is imagined or superimposed owing to the ignorance of the substratum.
This ignorance not only conceals the underlying reality or substratum, but also makes it appear as something else. Our perception of the world’s objects can be similarly explained.
We perceive the many objects in the One Brahman on account of our ignorance (avidya or ajnana) which conceals the real Brahman from us and makes it apper as the many objects.
When the juggler produces an ilusory show, makes one coin appear as many, the cause of it from his point of view is his magical power, from our point of view the reason why we perceive the many coins, is our ignorance of the one real coin.
Applying this analogy to the world-appearance, we can say that this appearance is due to the magical power of Maya in God and we can also say that it is due to our ignorance.
Maya and ignorance are then the two sides of the same fact locked at from two different points of view.
Hence Maya is also said to be of the nature of Ignorance (Avidya or Ajnana). Lest one should think that Sahkara’s position also fails to maintain pure monism, because two realities God and Maya are admitted, Sahkara points out that Maya as a power of God is no more different from God than the power of burning is from fire. There is then no dualism but pure monism (advaita).
But is not even then God really possessed of creative power? Sahkara replies that so long as one believes in the world appearance, he looks at God through the world, as the creator of it.
But when he realises that the world is apparent, that nothing is really created, he ceases to think of God as a Creator. To one who is not deceived by the magician’s art and sees through his trick, the magician fails to be a magician; he is not credited with any magical power.
Similarly, to the few who see nothing but God in the world, God ceases to have Maya or the power of creating appearances.
In view of this, Sahkara finds it necessary to distinguish two different points of view the ordinary or empirical (vyavaharika) and the transcendental or real (paramarthika).
The first is the standpoint of unenlightened persons who regard the world as real: our life of practice depends on this; it is rightly called, therefore, the vyavaharika or practical point of view.
From this point of view the world appears as real; God is thought to be its omnipotent and omniscient creator, sustainer and destroyer.
Thus God appears as qualified (saguna) by many qualities. God in this aspect is called by Sahkara Saguna Brahman or Isvara. From this point of view, the self also appears as though limited by the body; it behaves like a finite ego (aham).
The second or the real (paramarthika) standpoint is that of the enlightened who have realised that the world is an appearance and that there is nothing but God.
From this point of view, the world being thought unreal, God ceases to be regarded as any real creator, as possessed of any qualities like omniscience or omnipotence. Cod is realised as one without any internal distinction, without any quality.
God from this transcendental standpoint ^paraniarthikadrsti) is indeterminate, and characterless; it is Brahman. The body also is known to be apparent and there is nothing to distinguish the soul from God.
The attainment of this real standpoint is possible only by the removal of ignorance (avidya) to which the cosmic illusion is due. And this can be affected only by the knowledge that is imparted by the Vedanta.
One must control the senses and the mind, give up all attachment to objects realising their transitory nature, and have an earnest desire for liberation.
He should then study the Vedanta under an enlightened teacher and try to realise its truths by constant reasoning and meditation. When he is thus fit, the teacher would tell him at last: ‘Thou art Brahman’.
He would meditate on this till he has a direct and permanent realisation of the truth, ‘I am Brahman’. This is perfect wisdom or liberation from bondage.
Though such a liberated soul still persists in the body and in the world, these no longer fetter him as he does not regard them as real.
He is in the world, but not of the world. No attachment, no illusion can affect his wisdom. The soul then being free from the illusory ideas that divided it from God, is free from all misery. As God is Bliss, so also is the liberated soul.
The teachings of the Vedanta are interpreted and developed by Ramanuja in a different way, as follows: God is the only Reality. Within Him there exists as parts the different unconscious (acit) material object as well as the many conscious souls (cit).
God is possessed of all supremely good qualities like omniscience and omnipotence. Just as a spider spins the cobweb out of his own body, so God creates the world of material objects out of matter (acit) which eternally exists in Him.
The souls are conceived as infinitely small (anu) substances which also exist eternally. They are, by their very nature, conscious and self-luminous. Every soul is endowed with a material body in accordance with its karma.
Bondage of the soul means its confinement to this body. Liberation is the complete dissociation of the soul from the body. The cause of bondage is karma which springs from ignorance.
The soul identifies itself with the body, through ignorance of its real nature and behaves as though it were the body It hankers after sensuous pleasures. Thus it becomes attached to the world and the force of this atachment causes its repeated rebirth.
Ignorance is removed by the study of the Vedanta. Man comes to know that his soul is distinct from the body, that it is really a part of God or Brahman, on whom his existence depends.
The disinterested performance of the obligatory duties enjoined by the Vedas destroys the accumulated forces of attachment or karmas and helps the perfection of knowledge. God is known as the only object worthy of love.
Such knowledge leads to constant meditation on God and resignation to His will. God is pleased by devotion and releases the devotee from bondage. He is never born again after death.
The liberated soul becomes similar to God, because like God it has pure consciousness free from imperfections. But it does not become identical with God, as the finite can never become infinite.
According to Ramanuja, though God is the only Reality and there is nothing outside God, yet within God there are many other realities. Creation of the world and the objects created are all as real as God.
It is, therefore, not unqualified monism (advaita), but a monism of the One qualified by the presence of many parts (visistadvaita). God possessed of the conscious souls and unconscious matter is the only Reality.