Vedic Philosophies: How They Differ From Each Other

Vedic Philosophies: How They Differ From Each Other

With the advent of Buddhism and Jainism came widespread disuse of and allegations against the Vedas and Vedic studies. There was a marked declivity in the capacity to comprehend the import of the Vedas and Vedic statements, which helped non-Vedic schools brand the Vedas as a set of self-contradicting ideas. The widely stated reason for this declivity is the onslaught of the kaliyuga, in which the capacity to comprehend the Vedas is indeed diminished. This claim may not be very unreasonable, as there is not much that we know about the way the ancients (in other yugas such as Krutayuga or Dwaaparayuga) lived and studied and their capacity to comprehend ideas.

In any case, the ambience for Vedic studies was perhaps not very conducive. In such an ambience came Sankara. The accepted period of Sankara is 788-820 AD, though this is not entirely unanimous. He accepted the authority of the Vedas and pronounced the Advaitha philosophy of Gowdapadha. Sankara became a Bhashyakaara. A Bhashyakaara is one who writes a commentary on the Brahma sutras, which are authored by Vedavyaasa. Brahma sutras are the guidelines to the proper understanding of the Vedas. However, since the Brahma sutras themselves proved cryptic, a commentary on them had to be written. Indeed Sankara was the first to write a commentary on the Brahma sutras after the Buddhist/Jain influences on society.

Interpreting a work such as the Brahma sutra can be tricky and there could be more than one interpretation of such works. Along came Ramanuja (1017-1137 AD) and gave his own interpretation of the Brahma sutras. The last major Bhashyakaara to come was Madhva (1238-1317 AD). Thus three Acharyas (or preceptors) came along to revive Vedic studies with three different interpretations of the Vedas and Brahma sutras. The remainder of this write up will briefly expound the differences between these Vedic schools.

Basic (broad) definitions:

Sadhana: The attitude/work to adopt to attain liberation or Moksha.

Jiva: A jiva (or soul) is the entity that performs sAdhana.

Brahman: Defined as the supreme power of the universe. Brahman is also regularly called God in literatures of all three schools. The definition/role of the Brahman varies widely among the schools. So a very broad definition is given here. But the concept of Brahman (acc to each school) should get clearer through the article.

Punarjanma: This is metempsychosis (the concept of re-birth), which is accepted by all three schools of Vedic studies.

Jnana: Knowledge.

Praakrutik: composed of the three basic characteristics of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas (which roughly translate to super ordinate, mediocre and basal).


Advaita School Of Thought:

Means and final state of Liberation (Moksha): The soul is enclosed in Avidya (ignorance/nescience). The sAdhana that the soul performs is the study of the scriptures (Vedas) and thus procuring knowledge (Jnana). As we (souls/Jivas) procure knowledge across many births, there is one time at which enlightenment occurs to us. At this point, we jivas realize that we are no different from the Brahman. We only did not realize the sameness with the Brahman on account of Avidya or Maya. The Advaitha School preaches that every soul is potentially divine, that every soul is nothing but the Brahman, but does not realize this fact thanks to Avidya or ignorance. Sadhana, according to this school, is getting rid of Avidya and realizing that one is God himself/herself. The Advaitha School is the complete non-dualist school of Vedic interpretations (there are incomplete versions).

Concept Of Maya: When a soul realizes at the time of enlightenment, that he is nothing but Him (God), then the soul sees that the entire universe is a falsity (Maya or Mithya). He realizes that this world that he has been living in, the people around him and everything else are but only illusions; the only truth or reality being himself (Brahman). He sees that he is the only entity and there exists nothing else. A famous example is that of the Serpent And The Rope. When a man sees a rope in the dark, he mistakenly thinks it is a snake. With proper illumination, he realizes that it is after all a rope.

Cause For Maya: To answer the question of the need for Brahman to get into this hold of Maya, struggle in samsaara (life), study the scriptures and finally attain salvation, there is the concept of Anirvachaniya. It means indescribable.

The Nature Of The Brahman: The soul that attains salvation (or Mukti) realizes that it is nothing but the Brahman. What is the nature of this Brahman? It is:

Nirguna: without any attributes/characteristics.

Niraakara: without a form.

Nirvisesha: without any speciality.

The jiva (soul) needs to meditate on this attribute-less, formless Brahman to become Brahman itself. Only this kind of Nirguna Brahma Upaasana (worship) will lead to salvation; which is nothing but the sameness with God. This said, there is a need for a Saguna Brahman (Brahman with wonderful attributes/characteristics) for day-to-day and practical purposes. This Brahman has the attributes of jnanam (knowledge), anantam (infinite) and so on ad infinitum. Saguna Brahman is useful in the Vyavahaarika world only (where duality (such as differences between two individuals) is valid). However, to reach the Paaramarthika world (which is called transcendental world in which there are no two entities), the Nirguna Brahma Upaasana is the only means.

Ishta Devathaa Upaasana: In the Vyavahaarika world, Advaitha says that we can choose any one of the deities for worship (deities such as Ganapati, Devi, Subrahmanya etc). There exists no hierarchy among them. There is a misconception that Advaitha is a Shaivite philosophy, probably because of the tradition of smearing ash on the body by the followers similar to Shiva’s make up. What is treated as Shaivism in philosophical circles is the worship of Shiva as the supreme Brahman and none else. Advaitha allows for any one of the deities to be considered as Saguna Brahman in the Vyavahaarika (unreal) world, not just Shiva. For liberation however, one should meditate on Nirguna Brahman, who is attribute-less, shapeless.


VishishtAdvaitha School Of Thought:

There exists a division of opinion between two sects within VishishtAdvaitha, the sects being Thengalai and Vadagalai on certain non-trivial issues. We shall see these views as and when required.

Reality And Illusion: This school does not endorse the thought that there is no reality to be attributed to Jivas (souls), as does the Advaitha school of thought. This also does not endorse the view that the universe is unreal or illusionary. It states that the Praakrutik universe and the jivas are a part of the body of God (Brahman). Thus, although the jiva, Brahman and the universe are real, the only reality is Brahman, who encloses other realities such as the jiva and the brahmaanda (universe). Thus, this is claimed to be a special Advaitha (no two separate real things, but all reals enclosed in one real – Brahman).

Means And Final State Of Liberation (Moksha): VishishtAdvaitha (also called Srivaishnavism) makes the “grace” of the Brahman imperative for a jiva to attain Moksha. The jiva has to perform sAdhana through devotion and absolute surrender (saranaagati) to the Brahman, if the jiva is to be liberated. Once the Moksha is attained, the Jiva is in a state of bliss, which is nothing but kainkarya (servitude) to the Brahman. Such liberated souls, however, have unlimited jnana (knowledge), gunas (attributes) etc., equal to that of Brahman. But such souls stop short of having SriPatitva (the right to be the husband of MahaLakshmi) and Srishtyaadhi Kartrutva (deeds such as creation and so on). There exists absolutely no difference in state between any two liberated souls in Moksha. All liberated jivas enjoy the same amount of bliss, irrespective of the amount of sAdhana that they perform in samsaara (life). There exists no hierarchy among them. In fact, the bliss enjoyed by all liberated is equal to that of the Brahman. As for the means of attaining Moksha, the Vadagalais say that God bestows Moksha on the deserving, while the Thengalais say that God’s grace is spontaneous and He can grant Moksha to anyone.

The Nature Of The Brahman: Srivaishnavism does not accept the Advaitha claim of a Nirguna, Niraakaara and Nirvisesha Brahman. It has a vivid description of the gunas (attributes) of the Brahman and uses the term Kalyaana Gunas to mean positive and wonderful attributes. There is no distinction of the Brahman in terms of a Saguna and a Nirguna Brahman. Correspondingly, there is no distinction of a Vyavahaarika Loka from a Paaramarthika Loka. A part of this school does not accept that sorrow affects the Brahman, while another part quotes Valmiki Ramayana to illustrate the grief stricken avatar of the Brahman in Rama. Some of them claim that the power that Brahman is capable of in one of his avatars (incarnations) varies from that in another.

The Role And Status Of Mahalakshmi: The Vadagalai and Thengalai views vary considerably here.

Vadagalais say the following:

  1. Lakshmi is also a means of attaining salvation as much as Narayana (Brahman) is.
  2. She is infinite in nature just as Narayana is.
  3. She is also Brahman as much as Narayana is.

Thengalais claim the following:

  1. Lakshmi only has the role of a mediator to propose the salvation of a jiva. She is not the means.
  2. She is not infinite in nature as is Narayana.
  3. She is only a Jiva like any of us.


Dvaita School Of Thought:

The Stress On Reality And Bhedas: This school prophesizes a five-fold difference (Panchabedha) among three entities: The independent and animate entity (God), the dependent and animate entities (jivas and Lakshmi who is not just a jiva) and the inanimate objects (jada vasthu). The differences are that of God & Jiva, God & jada, one Jiva & another, one Jada and another, Jiva & Jada. On a more accurate scale the set of differences is 8-fold. The three extra differences being: God & Lakshmi Bheda, Jiva & Lakshmi Bheda and finally Lakshmi & Jada Bheda. Read below “The Role and Status Of Mahalakshmi” to get the reason for this further classification.


Every entity mentioned above is taken as real and eternal (eternal, as in, having no beginning and no end).  All entities co-exist forever “separately”. The word separately should not be understood as “independently”. The one and only Independent entity is God (Narayana). The remaining depend completely on God. While Advaita claims that every soul is inherently God and VisishtAdvaita claims that every soul is a part of the body of Brahman, Dvaita holds the position that within each soul and within each object exists a form of Brahman and this does not mean that the soul is God.


The Brahman picks up a few jivas from the infinite number of souls that are dormant to perform their sAdhana in the world. This is done at the beginning of every kalpa, a huge collection of yuga-cycles. A yuga-cycle has four ages of the world such as satyayuga, tretayuga, dwaaparayuga and kaliyuga. At the end of the kalpa, this set of jivas picked up by the Brahman has finished their sAdhana and the next set comes in at the onset of the next kalpa.



The Nature Of The Brahman: The Brahman (Narayana) is Ananta Kalyaana Guna Paripoorna. This means that God has infinite auspicious attributes AND each such attribute is infinite in extent. There is no one equal to the Brahman in any of the qualities. He is beyond the Praakrutik elements (made of Sattva, Rajas and Thamas) and hence is devoid of any deficiencies such as grief or worldly pleasure. He is defined as Svaramana (self entertaining). The body of such a God is NOT made of Praakrutik elements and is of the form of knowledge (Satchidaananda svaroopa). Both VisishtAdvaita and Dvaita meticulously deny the Nirguna, Niraakaara and Nirvisesha kind of Brahman prophesied in Advaitha. They also deny two kinds of Brahman such as Saguna and Nirguna. Dvaita claims the absence of any difference whatsoever between any two forms of the Brahman (forms such as Rama, Krishna…etc). The form of the Brahman when he chooses to come into this Praakrutik world remains Apraakrutik. He never takes birth but only appears in this world. He exists in the smallest of the small objects and the largest of the large objects and still any object is not He.


Means And Final State Of Liberation (Moksha): Every jiva has three states of existence. Initially it is dormant (Ashruja Jeeva). By the grace of the Brahman, they are picked up by Him and put into this Samsaara (world) to perform sAdhana. At the end of sAdhana, the soul attains salvation, and lives in this state. The sAdhana is performed through a 3-step process of jnana (knowledge), the bhakti (devotion arising out of jnana) and finally anugraha (the grace of the Brahman (God)).


This is the only school of thought in the entire history of Vedic studies to classify Jivas (souls) as Sattvic, Rajasic and Taamasic (Super-ordinate, mediocre, basal). The extent of the sAdhana for one soul varies from another. Accordingly, the extent of bliss in the liberated state (Moksha) experienced by one soul is different from another. A definite hierarchy among souls (Jiva-Jiva bhedha) always exists and two souls never become equal. Each soul remains unique eternally. An example given to explain the need for such a difference is that of the power requirements of a device. Dvaita says that just as a device, that has a maximum power specification cannot handle more power than that maximum, every soul has a maximum level of bliss that it can experience, beyond which it cannot enjoy. The common thing among all jivas in attaining Moksha is the loss of contact with this material world. Moksha gets a meaning of liberation from punarjanma / metempsychosis (cycle of births and deaths) and what “bliss-in-Moksha” is for one soul is not what it is for another. This school says that a Taamasic soul shall only be able to enjoy grief in an eternal hell (called antartamas). This situation is compared with a peon sitting in a manager’s post. In spite of all facilities of a manager that are given to him, the peon will not be able to enjoy the responsibilities of a manager. A state of a Sattvic soul in Moksha is bliss: as in lack of any wants, closeness to God all the time, servitude to Him etc. This is “in a way” similar to the VisishtAdvaita’s concept of Moksha. However, even in such a Sattvic Moksha, there is uniqueness in the level of bliss experienced by a soul and it is never equal in any respect to Brahman. The knowledge level of each soul varies from another and remains much inferior to that of the Brahman. The location of the Rajasic soul’s Moksha is not clearly defined. It is sometimes called NityaSamsari Loka. However, the state of a Rajasic soul gets clearly defined. A rajasic soul has a mixture of both Sattvic and Taamasic qualities and enjoys the challenges of life. So this kind of enjoyment itself is that soul’s Moksha (liberation). However, that such a soul cannot be anymore in this world is clear, as Moksha is defined here as liberation from re-birth.


The Role And Status Of Mahalakshmi: As we noted earlier, Maha Lakshmi does not come to be qualified as just another jiva, though she is dependant on the Brahman. This is because she is taken as an entity that is always liberated (NityaMuktalu), unlike other jivas who go through two more stages before liberation. She also has an Apraakrutik (without the elements of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas) body as the Brahman, unlike a Jiva. She is never in the dormant state as a soul would be before it enters into this world. However, all this does not make her independent of the Brahman. She remains inferior and subservient to the Brahman and learns more and more of the Brahman’s infinite qualities. She only recommends a jiva to his liberation and is incapable of granting Moksha herself. Only the Brahman grants liberation.


The Descending Hierarchy Of Souls And The Role Of Vayu: The concept of Bhedha (difference) among all entities explained above, lends itself to the formation of a hierarchy of souls. This is called tAratamya. It starts from the Brahman (the supreme God head) followed by Lakshmi. Then a series of demi-gods follows, starting from Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman), Vayu, their wives, Garuda, Sesha, Rudra, their wives, Indra…goes on to… Rishis, ManushyOttamas (Sattvic), Madhyamas (Rajasic), Adhamas (Taamasic). As we go down the scale, the deficiencies increase. In a given kalpa (read approx. as age), kali is taken as the last member of the scale. There is no soul with greater deficiencies than him. He is practically a complete taamasic soul whose Moksha is antartamas (eternal hell). The role of Duryodhana in Mahabharatha is held to be an incarnation of kali.


The other extreme of kali in the jiva-ladder is Vayu. He is the embodiment of virtue (Sattvic) with the slightest smattering of Dosha (defects). The only jiva above Vayu (but below Lakshmi) is the demi god Brahma who is in constant tapas (meditation) and has no incarnation in the world. The philosophy claims that Vayu takes the form of Hanuman when the Brahman (God) takes the form of Rama, Bhima in KrishnAvatara. He is also believed to be the founder of the Dvaita philosophy in the form of Madhva.



This write up can hardly be termed exhaustive as there are myriad other issues on which these three schools hold differing opinions. The one most important common ground is the acceptance of the apaurusheya Vedas as a valid source of knowledge, though the interpretations differ. Since there are fundamental differences, all of them cannot be correct (though all of them can be wrong).


In metaphysics, unlike in science, yukti or tarka, which is nothing but “logic” is given only a preliminary status. Using logic, one cannot reduce or elevate a school. It is only faith that a person (be)gets that makes him follow one school or another. This write up is intended to serve as a starting point for such a faith or conviction.

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