What Is Vedanta and How I Began Studying It?
In this journey of self-exploration, destiny put me at an interesting doorway almost during the same time last year.
I was at peace and happy in terms of where I was in life for the most part. At the same time, I had many unanswered questions with the primary one being what the purpose of life is. I lacked clarity on what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Like I usually do, when I did not know the answers, I googled. Not surprisingly it did not give me the clarity that I was seeking :-)
Many a time, I felt like when I wish for something genuinely, someone leads me there. In this case, it was my longtime college friend. One fall morning last year, I drove up to her place, making plans all of a sudden to surprise another college friend on his birthday. One of the days during my stay there, she took me along to one of her study group gatherings to meet her teacher from Chinmaya Somnath. I got a chance to have an honest interaction with her teacher. I shared with her that I was looking for some guidance and that I considered myself spiritual but not religious. I also expressed my concern to learn from Chinmaya Mission which was primarily a religious organization. I was very impressed by her answers and her non-judgmental attitude. Something made me trust her advice when she suggested that I join the Foundation Vedanta Course offered by Chinmaya International Foundation. As soon as I came home, the first thing I did was enroll in the course. Since then, I have completed that and am now enrolled in the Advanced Vedanta Course. I'm grateful to my friend, her teacher, and my teacher for helping me get started on this journey.
As I expressed in my previous writings, I saw myself as spiritual but not religious. I was not comfortable associating myself with any religion. I thought religious people were more judgmental, more fanatical, and more hypocritical than the people who weren't religious. Boy, was I wrong! Those qualities have nothing to do with whether a person is religious or not. My perception of religion has changed in the process of studying Vedanta. I understand the significance of it in our lives much better now. It provides us with all the tools necessary to help us evolve and lead a happy, purposeful life. Religion is an intelligent mix of rituals and philosophy. So, what is Vedanta?
Vedanta is one of the world’s most ancient spiritual philosophies based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India. Vedanta is a combination of two words: “Veda” means “knowledge” and “anta" means “the end of” or “the goal of.” The goal of knowledge is the search for Self-knowledge as well as the search for God. According to Vedanta, God is infinite existence (sat), infinite consciousness (cit), and infinite bliss (ananda) which is termed as Brahman. Human beings are divine and their real nature is Atman—infinite, pure, and eternal. Weaknesses, good and bad, right and wrong are all in the mind. This ignorance disappears in the light of pure knowledge. Vedanta asserts that the goal of life is to realize and manifest our divinity.
We don’t know how old the Vedas are or who wrote them. It’s said that true knowledge of the creation was revealed to enlightened saints, while they were in deep meditation. These saints then brought these eternal truths out to the world in the form of Vedas (written in Sanskrit), which continue to be passed down and recited even now. The teachings of Vedanta are mostly found in the texts of the Upanishads, the Brahmas Sutras, and the Bhagavad Geeta. The Upanishads give us the goal, the Bhagavad Gita gives us practical advice for getting there, and the Brahma Sutras discuss the nature of human existence and summarize the teachings of the Upanishads.
According to the Vedantic teachings, there are four paths we can follow, to achieve the goal of understanding our divine nature. We can choose a path based on our personality or inclination, or follow the practices of the paths in any combination.
- Bhakti Yoga is the path of love and devotion. The devotee approaches God through a loving relationship. This path emphasizes practices like prayer, chanting, and meditation on God as a loving presence in our lives.
- Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge. In this path, the seeker uses reason and discrimination to discover the divine nature within by casting off all that is false, or unreal.
- Karma Yoga is the path of selfless work. Those who follow this path do work as an offering to God and expect nothing personal in return.
- Raja Yoga comprises a highly evolved scheme of exercises popularly known as Asana and Pranayama. Through these exercises, the mind and intellect become integrated.
These practices stated above purify the mind and prepare us for Meditation. Meditation allows us to experience higher states of consciousness where we achieve a deeper understanding of our divine nature.
There are several schools in Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta is what I'm studying currently. It concerns itself with the correct understanding, knowledge, and interpretation of the sacred texts, together with direct personal experience. Vedanta also asserts that Truth is universal and cannot be limited by race, religion, or personal choice. It may be expressed in different ways but all ultimately lead to the same Truth.
Studying Vedanta has been immensely helpful to me in providing clarity on many things. As a result, I'm motivated to learn further and continue trying to Understand the subtle knowledge that it is trying to convey.