Vedanta [veh-dahn-ta] was originally used a synonym for the part of the Vedas (Hindu scripture) known as the Upanishads (the appendix to the Vedic hymns, which are passed down orally). ‘Vedanta’ is the end of the Vedas both literally and metaphorically: it bookends the Veda, but is also in some ways ‘the purpose or goal [end] of the Vedas.’ By the 8th century CE, the word also came to be used to describe a group of philosophical traditions concerned with the self-realization by which one understands the ultimate nature of reality (Brahman, the godhead, the divine source of being, through which all emanates).
Vedanta can also be used as a noun to describe one who has mastered all four of the original Vedas. The Vedanta is also called Uttara Mimamsa, or the ‘latter enquiry’ or ‘higher enquiry,’ and is often paired with Purva Mimamsa, the ‘former enquiry’ (usually simply called Mimamsa), which deals with explanations of the fire-sacrifices of the Vedic mantras and the Brahmanas (expositions of the Vedas).
The Vedanta explicates the esoteric teachings of the Aranyakas (the ‘forest scriptures,’ a later development of the Brahmanas). The Aranyakas are distinguished from the Brahmanas in that they may contain information on secret rites to be carried out only by certain persons, as well as more philosophical speculation. Thus they were intended to be studied only by the initiated, such as hermits who had withdrawn into the forest and no longer took part in ritual sacrifices, or pupils who were given instruction by their teachers in the seclusion of the forest, away from the village. The Aranyakas are given over to secret explanations of the allegorical meaning of the ritual and to discussion of the internal, meditative meaning of the sacrifice, as contrasted to its actual, outward performance.
Traditional Vedanta practice considers scriptural evidence, or shabda pramana, as the most authentic means of knowledge, while perception, or pratyaksa, and logical inference, or anumana, are considered to be subordinate (but valid). The systematization of Vedāntic ideas into one coherent treatise was undertaken in the ‘Vedānta Sutra,’ composed around 200 BCE. It’s cryptic aphorisms are open to a variety of interpretations, resulting in the formation of numerous Vedantic schools, each interpreting the texts in its own way and producing its own sub-commentaries. 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. Nearly 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.
The primary philosophy captured in the Vedanta is that there is one absolute reality termed Brahman. The sage Vyāsa was one of the major proponents of this philosophy and author of the ‘Brahma Sūtras’ based on the Upanishads. The concept of Brahman – the eternal, self existent, immanent, and transcendent 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. Advaita Vedanta (the most influential sub-school) teaches that because Brahman is the only reality, the world, as it appears, is illusory; and as Brahman is the sole reality, it cannot be said to possess any attributes whatsoever. An illusory 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 (Atman) and Brahman. Liberation lies in knowing the reality of this non-difference (i.e. a-dvaita, ‘non-duality’). Thus, the path to liberation is finally only through knowledge (jñāna).
There is a story in Mundaka (early) Upanishad that runs like this: Once in a tree there were two birds, one at the upper branch, serene, majestic, and divine, and the other at a lower branch, restlessly pecking fruits, sometimes sweet sometimes bitter. Every time, when the restless bird ate a bitter fruit, it looked at the upper bird and climbed a branch up. This occurred a number of times and eventually the bird reached the topmost branch. There it was not able to differentiate itself from the divine bird, and then it learned that there was only one bird in the tree, the upper bird, which is described as divine, the real form of the other restless bird. This is the thought of Vedanta. The fruits in the story are Karma, the restless bird denotes a human soul, and the majestic bird denotes the Absolute.
Similarities between Vedanta and Western philosophical traditions have been discussed by many authorities, primarily with regard to the thought of the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The 19th-century German Sanskritist Theodore Goldstücker was one of the early figures to notice the similarities between the religious conceptions of the Vedanta and those of Spinoza, writing that Spinoza’s thought was ‘… a western system of philosophy which occupies a foremost rank amongst the philosophies of all nations and ages, and which is so exact a representation of the ideas of the Vedanta, that we might have suspected its founder to have borrowed the fundamental principles of his system from the Hindus, did his biography not satisfy us that he was wholly unacquainted with their doctrines… We mean the philosophy of Spinoza, a man whose very life is a picture of that moral purity and intellectual indifference to the transitory charms of this world, which is the constant longing of the true Vedanta philosopher… comparing the fundamental ideas of both we should have no difficulty in proving that, had Spinoza been a Hindu, his system would in all probability mark a last phase of the Vedanta philosophy.’
German Orientalist Max Muller, in his lectures, noted the striking similarities between Vedanta and the system of Spinoza, saying ‘the Brahman, as conceived in the Upanishads and defined by Sankara, is clearly the same as Spinoza’s ‘Substantia.” Helena Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society also compared Spinoza’s religious thought to Vedanta, writing in an unfinished essay ‘As to Spinoza’s Deity—natura naturans—conceived in his attributes simply and alone; and the same Deity—as natura naturata or as conceived in the endless series of modifications or correlations, the direct outflowing results from the properties of these attributes, it is the Vedantic Deity pure and simple.’