Vedanta (Devanagari: वेदान्त, Vedānta) is a school of philosophy within Hinduism. The word Vedanta is a compound of veda "knowledge" and anta "end, conclusion", translating to "the culmination of the Vedas". Vedānta is also called Uttara Mimamsa, or the 'latter' or 'higher enquiry', and is often paired with Purva Mimamsa, the 'former enquiry'. Pūrva Mimamsa, usually simply called Mimamsa, deals with explanations of the fire-sacrifices of the Vedic mantras (in the Samhita portion of the Vedas) and Brahmanas, while Vedanta explicates the esoteric teachings of the Āraņyakas (the "forest scriptures"), and the Upanishads, composed from ca. the 6th century BC until modern times.
While the traditional Vedic 'karma kanda', or ritualistic components of religion, continued to be practiced through the Brahmins as meditative and propitiatory rites to guide society to self-knowledge, more jnana- or knowledge-centered understandings began to emerge. These are mystical streams of Vedic religion that focused on meditation, self-discipline and spiritual connectivity rather than on rituals.
Etymologically, veda means "knowledge" and anta means "end", so the literal meaning of the term "Vedānta" is "the end of knowledge" or "the ultimate knowledge" or "matter appended to the Veda". In earlier writings, Sanskrit 'Vedānta' simply referred to the Upanishads, the most speculative and philosophical of the Vedic texts. However, in the medieval period of Hinduism, the word Vedanta came to mean the school of philosophy that interpreted the Upanishads. Traditional Vedanta considers scriptural evidence, or shabda pramana, as the most authentic means of knowledge, while perception, or pratyakssa, and logical inference, or anumana, are considered to be subordinate (but valid).
The systematization of Vedantic ideas into one coherent treatise was undertaken by Badarayana in the Vedanta Sutra, or Brahma Sutra. The cryptic aphorisms of the Vedanta Sutras are open to a variety of interpretations, resulting in the formation of numerous Vedanta schools, each interpreting the texts in its own way and producing its own sub-commentaries claiming to be faithful to the original. Consistent throughout Vedanta, however, is the exhortation that ritual be eschewed in favor of the individual's quest for truth through meditation governed by a loving morality, secure in the knowledge that infinite bliss awaits the seeker. Near all existing sects of Hinduism are directly or indirectly influenced by the thought systems developed by Vedantic thinkers. Hinduism to a great extent owes its survival to the formation of the coherent and logically advanced systems of Vedanta.
Advaita Vedanta has influenced a number of modern scientists, philosophers and authors. Nikola Tesla was influenced by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, who propounded Vedanta vigorously in the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many other Indian teachers followed in due course, including Yogananda and others who came to North America to preach Vedanta and related philosophies. Erwin Schrödinger claimed to have been inspired by Vedanta in his discovery of quantum theory. According to his biographer Walter Moore: "The unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. In 1925, the world view of physics was a model of a great machine composed of separable interacting material particles. During the next few years, Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg and their followers created a universe based on superimposed, inseparable waves of probability amplitudes. This new view would be entirely consistent with the Vedantic concept of All in One."
Fritjof Capra's book The Tao of Physics is one among several that pursues this viewpoint as it investigates the relationship between modern, particularly quantum, physics and the core philosophies of various Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. Unfortunately, such writings by western authors often run the risk of oversimplifying and ignoring important differences between Eastern religions. For instance, pre-modern Vedantins argued for the existence of an eternal self, or atman, while Buddhism denies it. However, in recent times, the availability of an increasing number of accurate translations of Vedantic works, commentaries by Western scientists like Schrödinger and Capra, and easier access to original texts have made it possible for modern students of Vedanta and physics to overcome the semantic gap arising due to cultural differences and approach their study in a more informed manner.
All forms of Vedanta are drawn primarily from the Upanishads, a set of philosophical and instructive Vedic scriptures, which deal mainly with forms of meditation. "The Upanishads are commentaries on the Vedas, their putative end and essence, and thus known as Vedānta = 'End of the Veda'. They are considered the fundamental essence of all the Vedas and although they form the backbone of Vedanta, portions of Vedantic thought are also derived from some of the earlier Aranyakas.
The primary philosophy captured in the Upanishads, that of one absolute reality termed as Brahman is the main principle of Vedanta. The sage Badarayana was one of the major proponents of this philosophy and author of the Brahma Sūtras based on the Upanishads. The concept of Brahman – the Supreme Spirit or the eternal, self existent, immanent and transcedent Supreme and Ultimate Reality which is the divine ground of all Being - is central to most schools of Vedānta. The concept of God or Ishvara is also there, and the Vedantic sub-schools differ mainly in how they identify God with Brahman.
The contents of the Upanishads are often couched in enigmatic language, which has left them open to various interpretetions. Over a period of time, several scholars have interpreted the writings in Upanishads and other scriptures like Brahma Sutras according to their own understanding and the need of their time. There are a total of six important interpretations of these source texts, out of which, three (Advaita Vedanta, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita) are prominent, both in India and abroad. These Vedantic schools of thought were founded by Shri Adishankara, Shri Ramanuja and Shri Madhvacharya, respectively. It should be noted, however, that the Indian pre-Shankara Buddhist writer Bhavya in the Madhyamakahrdaya Karika describes the Vedanta philosophy as "Bhedabheda". Proponents of other Vedantic schools continue to write and develop their ideas as well, although their works are not widely known outside of smaller circles of followers in India.
Advaita Vedānta is the most influential school of all, and many philosopers, both Indian and Western, have been influenced by it. It was propounded by Adi Sankara, a great Hindu philosopher, and his ParamaGuru Gaudapada, who described Ajativada. According to this school of Vedānta, Brahman is the only reality, and the world, as it appears, is illusory. As Brahman is the sole reality, it cannot be said to possess any attributes whatsoever. An illusionary power of Brahman called Māyā causes the world to arise. Ignorance of this reality is the cause of all suffering in the world and only upon true knowledge of Brahman can liberation be attained. When a person tries to know Brahman through his mind, due to the influence of Māyā, Brahman appears as God (Ishvara), separate from the world and from the individual. In reality, there is no difference between the individual soul jīvātman (see Atman) and Brahman. Liberation lies in knowing the reality of this non-difference (i.e. a-dvaita, "not-two"-ness). Thus, the path to liberation is finally only through knowledge (jñāna).
Vishishtadvaita was propounded by Ramanuja and says that the jīvātman is a part of Brahman, and hence is similar, but not identical. The main difference from Advaita is that in Visishtadvaita, the Brahman is asserted to have attributes, including the individual conscious souls and matter. Brahman, matter and the individual souls are distinct but mutually inseparable entities. This school propounds Bhakti or devotion to God visualized as Vishnu to be the path to liberation. Māyā is seen as the creative power of God.
Dvaita was propounded by Madhva. It identifies God with Brahman completely, and in turn with Vishnu or his incarnation Krishna. It regards Brahman, all individual souls (jīvātmans) and matter as eternal and mutually separate entities. This school also advocated Bhakti as the route to liberation. There is no concept of Māyā as an illusionary power behind the world.
Dvaitādvaita was propounded by Nimbārka, based upon an earlier school called Bhedābheda, which was taught by Bhāskara. According to this school, the jīvātman is at once the same as yet different from Brahman. - jiva relation may be regarded as dvaita from one point of view and advaita from another.
Shuddhadvaita propounded by Vallabha. This system also encouraged Bhakti as the only means of liberation to go to Goloka (lit., the world of cows). The world is said to be the sport (Leela) of Krishna, who is Sat-Chit-Ananda.
While Adi Shankara propounded the Smārta denomination, all the other above-mentioned acharyas were strongly Vaishnavite in orientation. The epistemology of Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Mimamsa (ie, purva-) is common.
Sri Aurobindo, in his The Life Divine, has synthesized all the exant schools of Vedanta and given the most comprehensive resolution integrating cues from the Western metaphysics and modern science. He has also restored the umbilical cord of the Vedantic exegesis with the Vedas. For instance, his strong difference with Adi Sankara over the interpretation of Ishavasyam is interesting.