What is Vedanta?

Vedanta teaches the divinity of everything and every being

The most fundamental teaching in Vedanta (Hinduism) is that all that exists is divine. Thus every human being is innately divine. And the ultimate goal of life is to manifest this inherent divinity. Divinity is equally present everywhere, but not equally manifest everywhere. So far as human beings are concerned, divinity is most manifest in a spiritually illumined soul.

The four Yogas

Individuals can manifest their divinity by following different spiritual paths (or spiritual disciplines) called Yogas. There are mainly four Yogas: (1) Bhakti-Yoga or the path of love and devotion to God; (2) Raja-Yoga or the path of mental concentration and meditation; (3) Jnana-Yoga or the path of philosophical inquiry, also known as the path of knowledge; and (4) Karma-Yoga or the path of selfless action.

Vedanta believes in divine incarnations

Vedanta, like Christianity, believes that, as and when necessary, God descends on earth and becomes part of history. God descends on earth when religion declines and irreligion prevails. He comes to revitalize religion and also to liberate people from the ignorance of their inherent divinity. While Christianity believes in only one divine incarnation, Vedanta teaches that there have been several divine incarnations and there will be many more in the future as and when the need arises.

Anybody and everybody cannot be a divine incarnation. Srimad Bhagavatam, a well-known scripture of Vedanta, provides in great detail the signs and symptoms by which a divine incarnation can be recognized. Judging by them, among others, Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Sri Chaitanya and Sri Ramakrishna have been recognized as divine incarnations.

The idea of harmony of religions is inherent in Vedanta

Vedanta believes in the harmony of religions. The Vedas declare that the Divine Truth is one but different illumined sages call the same Truth by different names. This Truth can be reached through different spiritual paths.

Sri Ramakrishna teaches: “God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times and countries. All doctrines are so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion.

“Dispute not. As you rest firmly on your own faith and opinion, allow others also the equal liberty to stand by their own faiths and opinions. By mere disputation you will never succeed in convincing another of his error. When the grace of God descends, each one will understand his own mistake.

“God is formless and yet He can assume forms. … God sometimes assumes different forms. Sometimes He has attributes, sometimes none. God has form and then again He is formless. He is like the infinite ocean. The cooling influence of the spiritual aspirant’s devotion for God causes the water to freeze and become ice. But when the sun of true knowledge rises, the ice melts and becomes formless water again.”

Vedanta does not believe in conversion

Vedanta is not a proselytizing religion. It does not believe in conversion; it believes in inner spiritual transformation of individuals. It only wants to help a willing Hindu to be a better Hindu, a willing Christian to be a better Christian, a willing Buddhist to be a better Buddhist, and so on. Even a person who does not belong to any organized religion or is an atheist can be accommodated by Vedanta to have personal spiritual fulfillment.

Vedanta believes in practicing religion before preaching it to others

The teachers of Vedanta are expected to first practice the spiritual disciplines enjoined by the scriptures of Vedanta before teaching or preaching them to others. Their lives are expected to speak more eloquently than their mouths.

The word blasphemy is absent in Vedanta

Any honest inquiry about the highest truths of religion is welcome in Vedanta. Answers to all possible inquiries are also to be found in Vedanta, because over the hundreds and hundreds of years of its existence, just about all possible questions have already been asked in Vedanta and valid answers given by its saints and sages.

Vedanta and Hinduism

The word Vedanta is synonymous with the word Hinduism. The ancient ancestors of the Hindus, however, did not know the word Hinduism, nor would they call themselves Hindus. They felt that the duty of every human being was to become noble. Keeping that goal in view they called themselves Aryas (Noble people). They would therefore call their religion Arya Dharma (Arya: noble; Dharma: religion). They also called their religion Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Religion (Sanatana: eternal) since they believed that their religion was based on some ideas that were eternally true. They also thought that their religion was not meant for some chosen people living in a particular area on earth. They thought that it was meant for the entire humankind. That’s why they also called their religion Manava-Dharma (Manava: humankind).

The religion of the Aryas (English: Aryans) was not based on any book authored by anyone. Some of their ancestors were able to develop their minds to extraordinary levels of perfection. Such minds are called pure minds. These minds enabled them to know certain truths that were not known to others. The truths they discovered came to be known as Veda or Knowledge. They believed that those truths must have come from the same divine source from which the entire creation had come. For this reason they called those truths Apaurusheya, not man-made. Those truths being of divine origin were considered sacred. Thus the Veda came to be regarded as sacred. Aside from that, any book that reveals what is not ordinarily known is called a scripture (in Sanskrit: Shastra). For this reason the Aryans regarded the Veda as the most sacred scripture. Those thinkers to whom the Apaurusheya truths were revealed are known as Rishis or seers, because they were able to know or see truths unknown to others. At the beginning the Veda was communicated orally by teachers to students. There were no written books. Hundreds of years later a great Aryan sage named Vyasa compiled the sacred truths and created a book. That book also came to be known as the Veda. The Veda is a four-volume book, that’s why it is called in English the Vedas. The highly philosophical part of the Vedic literature consists of the Upanishads. The Upanishads are also called Vedanta.

The ancient Aryans who had settled on the banks of the river Sindhu (English: Indus) were eventually branded by the name of the river by their neighbors. Those neighbors would pronounce the name of the river Sindhu as Hindu. Thus the ancestors of Aryans in the fertile Indus valley came to be known as Hindus. The word Hinduism, however, was created by the British during their occupation of India.

One of the greatest exponents of the Vedic religion in modern times was Swami Vivekananda. He came as a Hindu delegate to the historic Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It was he who first effectively preached Hinduism in the West. According to him, Hinduism being a misnomer, it should be called Vedantism or Vedanta. That is why he named the first Hindu church, which he established in 1894 A.D. in North America, the Vedanta Society of New York. Other churches of the same spiritual lineage that appeared later on the continents of both North and South America, are also called Vedanta Societies. The Vedanta Society of Western Washington in Seattle is one of them.

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