FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Transliteration Key

  1. What is advaita vedAnta?
  2. Who is the founder of advaita?
  3. What are the basic tenets of advaita?
  4. What is the relationship between advaita and buddhism?
    Is advaita a mere copy of buddhism?
  5. Why is advaita sometimes referred to as mAyAvAda?
  6. Isn't advaita falsified by everyday experience?
  7. What is the concept of scripture, according to advaita?
  8. How does worship by advaitins differ from worship in other schools of vedAnta?
  9. What is the advaita concept of liberation?
  10. What is the significance of jIvanmukti?
  11. Who are some of the leading scholars of advaita?
  12. What are the advaita institutions of the present day?
  13. Online resouces relating to advaita vedAnta and its teachers

  1. What is advaita vedAnta?

    Literally, "non-dualism," advaita is the name of the oldest extant school of vedAnta. advaita bases itself upon the upanishads, the brahma-sUtras and the bhagavad-gItA. advaita asserts that the real, essential identity of the jIva, the individual self, is nothing other than brahman Itself. The teaching follows from upanishadic statements (mahAvAkyas) like tat tvam asi and aham brahmAsmi. It is in this cardinal doctrine that advaita differs from all other schools of vedAnta. The main tenets of advaita are detailed in commentaries written by SankarAcArya, the famous philosopher who lived in the 7th - 8th centuries A.D. Read http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp for a website dedicated to advaita vedAnta.

  2. Who is the founder of advaita?

    There is no single founder of advaita. Since the philosophy of advaita is rooted in the upanishads, which are part of the eternal vedas, the advaita tradition does not trace itself to a historical personality. However, SankarAcArya is venerated as the most important teacher of advaita vedAnta, as he wrote commentaries to the basic scriptural texts, and placed the living advaita tradition on a firm footing. Before SankarAcArya's time, the tradition was passed down mainly through oral instruction. Even today, the traditional way to learn advaita is to sit at the feet of an accomplished guru. Mere reading of the texts is insufficient. More details about the guru paramparA of advaita are at http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/advaita-parampara.html. There is a description of pre-Sankaran vedAnta at http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/pre-sankara.html.

  3. What are the basic tenets of advaita?

    The essential identity of the Atman and brahman is the most important tenet of advaita. brahman is the substratum on which all phenomena are experienced, and also the antaryAmin, the One Lord who dwells in all beings. The innermost Atman, the real Self, is the same as this antaryAmin, and identical to brahman. Liberation (moksha) consists in realizing this identity, not just as a matter of literal or intellectual understanding, but as something that is to be grasped by the individual in his/her own personal experience. Yogic practices help in the road towards such realization, because they help the seeker in practising control of the senses, and in directing the antahkaraNa (the 'internal organ' - consisting of the mind, intellect, awareness and I-ness) inwards. The practice of ashTAnga-yoga is recommended to seekers by teachers of advaita. The seeker has to be equipped with requisite qualifications - qualities such as patience, forbearance, ability to focus one's concentration in an intense manner, an ability to discriminate between the Real and the non-Real, dispassion, and a desire for liberation. However, it is important to remember that moksha is not a result of mere ritualistic practice. Being identical to brahman, moksha always exists. Ritualistic practices help only to the extent of achieving citta-Suddhi, and in developing the above-mentioned qualities.

    advaita is a non-dual teaching. When asked why duality is perceived in this world, advaita has a multi-pronged answer to the question. The world of multiplicity can be explained as due to mAyA, the power of creation wielded by the Creator, who is therefore also called the mAyin. From the point of view of the individual, the perception of duality/multiplicity is attributed to avidyA (ignorance) due to which the unity of brahman is not known, and multiplicity is seen instead. This is akin to the false perception of a snake in a rope. When the rope is known, the snake vanishes. Similarly, on brahman-realization, the world of multiplicity vanishes. This does not mean that the individual's ignorance creates the external world. However, the perception of multiplicity in the world, instead of the One brahman, is due to avidyA, i.e. ignorance. When avidyA is removed, the individual knows his own Self (Atman) to be brahman, so that there is no more world and paradoxically, no more individual. Here, the Self alone IS. Removal of avidyA is synonymous with brahman-realization, i.e. moksha.

    Read http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/ad-phil.html for a more detailed description.

  4. What is the relationship between advaita and buddhism? Is advaita a mere copy of buddhism?

    No, advaita is not a mere copy of buddhism. For a few centuries now, advaita has been criticized as being "pracanna bauddham" - buddhism in disguise. This criticism stems mainly from some of the vaishNava schools of vedAnta, but it is misplaced. Firstly, there is no one "buddhism" and for the criticism to be valid, it must be specified which school of buddhism is being referred to. SankarAcArya expends a lot of effort criticizing many of the philosophical positions taken by various schools of buddhism in his commentaries. Among modern academic scholars, advaita vedAnta is most often compared with the madhyamaka and yogAcAra schools of buddhism. This has been inspired mainly by the fact that the mANDUkya kArikAs, written by gauDapAda, Sankara's paramaguru, exhibit a great familiarity with this school of buddhism.

    However, if it is held that advaita vedAnta is essentially the same as madhyamaka buddhism, it must be pointed out that such a view stems from a misunderstanding of the important tenets of both advaita vedAnta and madhyamaka buddhism. There are many key details in which advaita differs from the madhyamaka school of buddhism. As for yogAcAra, the points of similarity arise from the fact that both advaita vedAnta and yogAcAra buddhism have a place for yogic practice, as do other schools of Indian philosophy. For further details, consult http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/gaudapada.html.

  5. Why is advaita sometimes referred to as mAyAvAda?

    The word mAyAvAda serves many purposes. Since advaita upholds the identity of the individual Atman with brahman, a doubt naturally arises about the origin of the variegated universe. The appearance of difference in the universe is attributed to mAyA. In popular parlance, mAyA means illusion, and a magician or a juggler is called a mAyAvI. Within advaita, mAyA has a technical significance as the creative power (Sakti) of brahman, which also serves to occlude, due to which the universe is perceived to be full of difference, and the unity of brahman is not known. See fuller details in response to Q. 3 above. Some vaishNava schools use the word mAyAvAda in a derogatory sense. However, this criticism interprets mAyA solely as illusion and criticizes advaita for dismissing the world as an illusion that is nothing more than a dream. Such a criticism neglects the philosophical subtlety of the concept of mAyA in advaita.

  6. Isn't advaita falsified by everyday experience?

    No. In fact, advaita acknowledges that everyday experience leads one to infer plurality, but it maintains emphatically that the transcendental experience of brahmAnubhava sublates the ordinary everyday experience that is based on perception through one's senses. The tradition holds that it is not correct to make one's conclusions on issues of metaphysics based only on normal everyday experience. All schools of vedAnta rely on scripture, i.e. the Vedas, as a valid source of knowledge. As advaita vedAnta is learnt only from the upanishads, it is not falsified by everyday experience. On the other hand, the knowledge of brahman's identity sublates normal perception. It is also pointed out there would be no need for scripture if one's conclusions were based only on everyday experience. Read more at http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/creation.html. An account of the post-Sankaran development in thinking about the One brahman vis-a-vis the manifold universe can be found at http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/one-many.html.

  7. What is the concept of scripture, according to advaita?

    advaita's concept of scripture is very similar to that of the pUrva mImAm.sA school, but with two important exceptions. Thus,

    1. The vedas, arranged into the Rk, yajus, sAma and atharva vedas are valid scripture. The vedas are considered apaurusheya (unauthored), and eternally valid texts. They constitute Sruti, i.e. the "heard" revelation. A number of other texts, admittedly of human authorship, are also given scriptural status, but they are subordinate to the vedas in their authority, and are valid where they do not conflict with vedic precepts. These other texts are called smRti, i.e. remembered tradition.
    2. Each veda has a karmakANDa, consisting of mantras and ritual injunctions (vidhis) and a jnAnakANDa, consisting of the upanishads and brAhmaNas.
    3. The first exception that advaita takes to pUrva mImAmsA is in the role of the jnAnakANDa. The upanishads are not merely arthavAda, as maintained by the pUrva mImAmsA schools. The upanishads teach the knowledge of brahman, and are not meant to eulogize the fruits of ritual action.
    4. A second, more subtle philosophical difference with pUrva mImAm.sA is that advaita vedAnta accepts that brahman is the source of the veda, in the same way as brahman is the source of the entire universe. This acceptance of a "source" of the veda would not be acceptable to the true pUrva mImAm.sakas who follow the thought of kumArila bhaTTa or prabhAkara.

    The upanishads, which constitute the jnAnakANDa of the vedas, are therefore called Sruti prasthAna, and form one of the three sources of advaita vedAnta. The most important smRti prasthAna of advaita tradition is the bhagavad-gItA, which is perhaps the best known Indian religious text in modern times. The third text is the collection of brahmasUtras, by the sage bAdarAyaNa. The brahmasUtras establish the logical principles of orthodox vedAntic interpretation of Sruti, and are therefore called the nyAya prasthAna. The truth of advaita vedAnta is therefore said to be established on the tripartite foundation (prasthAna trayI)of revealed scripture (Sruti), remembered tradition (smRti) and logic (nyAya).

  8. How does worship by advaitins differ from worship in other schools of vedAnta?

    Very markedly. The orthoprax advaita tradition is closely allied to the smArta tradition, which follows the system of pancAyatana pUjA, where vishNu, Siva, Sakti, gaNapati and sUrya are worshipped as forms of saguNa brahman. In some sources, the concept of the pancAyatana is replaced by the notion of shaNmata, which adds skanda to the above set of five deities. The worship is done both on a daily basis and on specific festival occasions. Questions of who is superior, vishNu or Siva, which are very popular among many groups of Hindus, are not relished by advaitins. In the words of Sri Chandrasekhara Bharati (1892 - 1954), the accomplished jIvanmukta, "you cannot see the feet of the Lord, why do you waste your time debating about the nature of His face?"

    That said, vishNu and Siva, the Great Gods of Hinduism, are both very important within the advaita tradition. The sannyAsIs of the advaita order always sign their correspondence with the words "iti nArAyaNasmaraNam ". In worship, advaitins do not insist on exclusive worship of one devatA alone. As brahman is essentially attribute-less (nirguNa), all attributes (guNas) equally belong to It, within empirical reality. The particular form that the devotee prefers to worship is called the ishTa-devatA. The ishTa-devatAs worshipped by advaitins include vishNu as kRshNa, the jagadguru, and as rAma, Siva as dakshiNAmUrti, the guru who teaches in silence, and as candramaulISvara, and the Mother Goddess as pArvatI, lakshmI and sarasvatI. Especially popular are the representations of vishNu as a sAlagrAma, Siva as a linga, and Sakti as the SrI-yantra. gaNapati is always worshipped at the beginning of any human endeavor, including the pUjA of other Gods. The daily sandhyAvandana ritual is addressed to sUrya. The sannyAsis of the advaita sampradAya recite both the vishNu sahasranAmam and the SatarudrIya portion of the yajurveda as part of their daily worship. In addition, "hybrid" forms of the Deities, such as hari-hara or Sankara-nArAyaNa and ardhanArISvara are also worshipped.

    There is another significant distinction between worship in the advaita tradition and other kinds of Hindu worship. advaita insists that the distinction between the worshipper and God, the object of worship, is ultimately transcended, and that the act of worship itself points to this identity. This should not be confused with the doctrine of dualistic Saiva siddhAnta schools, which call for a ritual identification of the worshipper with Siva, for the duration of the worship. The identity of Atman and Brahman is a matter of absolute truth, not just a temporary ritual identification. Most vaishNava schools of vedAnta hold that the distinction between the worshipper and God, the object of worship, is eternally maintained.

  9. What is the advaita concept of liberation?

    In the advaita analysis, human life and behavior is explained on the basis of the theory of karma, which sets the cycle of rebirths into motion. All actions, good or bad, create their own karmic residues called vAsanas , which exhibit their results over a period of time. The karma which has already started taking fruit is called prArabdha karma. This is the karma that is responsible for the current birth. The accumulated karma which is yet to take fruit is called sancita karma. As long as the cycle of rebirths continues, more karma will be done in the future, and this is called Agamin karma. Liberation (moksha) is the way out of this endless cycle.

    In advaita, moksha is synonymous with brahman. Sruti says "brahmavit brahmaiva bhavati" - He who knows brahman becomes brahman Itself. In the advaita understanding of this statement, the "becoming" is only metaphorical. It is not as if something that was not brahman suddenly becomes brahman. Rather, "knowing brahman" means a removal of the ignorance about one's own essential nature as brahman. Thus, to "know brahman" is to "be brahman". The one who has realized the identity of his own Atman with the brahman is the jIvanmukta, one who is liberated even while embodied. Such realization should not and cannot just be a literal understanding of upanishadic mahAvAkyas. The jIvanmukta is one who has experienced the truth of the identity himself. Thus, moksha can only indirectly be called a result of ritual action (karma mArga) or of devotional service (bhakti mArga ). These paths lead along the way, and constitute the "how" but not the "why" of liberation. In fact, moksha is not a result of anything, for it always exists. All that is required is the removal of ignorance. For this reason, the way of advaita vedAnta is also called the path of knowledge (jnAna-mArga).

  10. What is the significance of jIvanmukti?

    advaita holds that realization of brahman is possible on this earth itself. The highly evolved seeker, who approaches vedAntic study with a pure mind, and a strong tendency of mumukshutva, is fit to really experience brahman. One who has actually realized brahman, is a jIvanmukta - he is liberated while still living. He continues to live in a material body, because of the momentum of the prArabha karma that has already started taking fruit. But he accumulates no further karma, because all Agamin karma and sancita karma are "burnt" in the knowledge of brahmajnAna. The body eventually dies, and the jIvanmukta is said to have attained videhamukti. In accordance with the Sruti, "na sa punarAvartate," he does not enter into the cycle of rebirths any more.

  11. Who are the leading writers in the advaita tradition?

    The earliest advaitins whose writings are available today are gauDapAda (6th or 7th cent. CE - mANDUKya kArikas) and SankarAcArya (8th cent. CE - brahmasUtra bhAshyas, bhagavadgItA bhAshya and various upanishad bhAshyas ). Four disciples of SankarAcArya are known in the tradition - sureSvara, padmapAda, toTaka and hastAmalaka. An elder contemporary of SankarAcArya was maNDana miSra, who is traditionally identified with sureSvara.

    In the post-Sankaran period, some of the leading authors are vAcaspati miSra (9th cent. CE), sarvajnAtman (9th - 10th cent. CE), prakASAtman (10th cent. CE), SrIharsha (12th cent. CE), citsukha (13th cent. CE), Anandagiri, bhAratI tIrtha, vidyAraNya (13th - 14th cent. CE), madhusUdana sarasvatI, nRsimhASrama, appayya dIkshita (16th cent. CE), sadASiva brahmendra and upanishad brahmendra (17th - 18th cent. CE), are notable figures in the tradition. In the 20th century, candraSekhara bhAratI and saccidAnandendra sarasvatI have written scholarly treatises on advaita vedAnta. Other than these, there have been many other equally illustrious scholars who have not written texts, but who have taught their disciples through oral instruction. These post-Sankaran authors are discussed at http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/advaita.html#philosophers.

  12. What are the advaita institutions of the present day?

    All present day advaitins trace their guru-parampara through the four disciples of SrI SankarAcArya. These disciples were the first leaders of the four AmnAya maThas (monasteries) at Puri (Govardhan Math, Puri 752 001, Orissa) Sringeri (Sri Sarada Peetham, Sringeri 577 139, Karnataka), Dvaraka (Dvaraka Peeth, Dvaraka 361 335, Gujarat ) and Badrinath (Sri Sankaracharya Math, Joshimath, Badri 246 443, Uttar Pradesh). All four maThas are functioning today. Other well-known maThas are based in Kaladi, Bangalore, Kudali, Ujjain, Rameswaram, Sivaganga, Kolhapur, Kancipuram (Srimatham Samsthanam No. 1, Salai Street, Kanchipuram 631 502, Tamil Nadu), Varanasi, Bodhgaya and other holy places in India. And there are a number of other institutions in India that are also active in disseminating advaita philosophy and religion, like the various daSanAmI akhADas all over north India, Kankhal Asrama in Hardwar and its branches, the Advaita Asrama in Pune, etc. In addition to these traditional advaita lineages, various other Indian religious traditions, especially those relating to kuNDalinI yoga, siddha yoga, various tAntric lineages and numerous Saiva and SAkta traditions trace some connection to the guru-paramparA of SankarAcArya and his successors. The ramaNASramam (Tiruvannamalai 606 603, Tamil Nadu) is another important center, asscociated with the memory of SrI ramaNa mahaRshi, a celebrated sage of the 20th century.

    In recent times, a large number of institutions have been set up all over the world by teachers like Swami Vivekananda, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Swami Sivananda and others. These institutions also draw inspiration from advaita. See http://www.advaita-vedanta.org/avhp/ad-today.html, and the answer to question 13 below, for further details.

  13. Online Resources:

    If you wish to add any site to this list, please inform the author of this FAQ at vsundaresan@hotmail. com.

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PS. Disclaimer: The author of this FAQ does not claim to be a guru of advaita vedAnta. If you are seeking spiritual guidance, your goals will be better achieved by contacting one of the gurus/organizations mentioned above. However, note that listing of a particular website (religious institution or commercial site) in the above list does not imply that this author endorses or is connected in any special way to the corresponding organization. These links are included for the ease of the interested user.

Last updated on May 5, 1999.

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