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Vishishtadvaita (IAST Viśiṣṭādvaita ; Sanskrit: विशिष्टाद्वैत), the philosophy of the Sri Sampradaya, is one of the most popular schools of the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. Vedanta literally means the end of the Vedas. Primarily the word Vedanta stood for Upanishads; afterwords, its denotation widened to include all thoughts developed out of the Upanishads. VishishtAdvaita (literally "Advaita with uniqueness; qualifications") is a non-dualistic school of Vedanta philosophy. It is non-dualism of the qualified whole, in which Brahman alone exists, but is characterized by multiplicity. It can be described as qualified monism or qualified non-dualism or attributive monism. It is a school of Vedanta philosophy which believes in all diversity subsuming to an underlying unity.
Ramanuja, the main proponent of Vishishtadvaita philosophy contends that the Prasthanatrayi ("The three courses"), namely the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutras are to be interpreted in a way that shows this unity in diversity, for any other way would violate their consistency. Vedanta Desika defines Vishishtadvaita using the statement, Asesha Chit-Achit Prakaaram Brahmaikameva Tatvam : Brahman, as qualified by the sentient and insentient modes (or attributes), is the only reality.
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The Vishishtadvaitic thought is considered to have existed for a long time, and it is surmised that the earliest works are no longer available. The names of the earliest of these philosophers is only known through Ramanuja's Veda artha Sangraha. In the line of the philosophers considered to have expounded the VisishtAdvaitic system, the prominent ones are Bodhayana, Dramida, Tanka, Guhadeva, Kapardi and Bharuci. Besides these philosophers, Ramanuja's teacher Yamunacharya is credited with laying the foundation for what culminates as the Sri Bhasya.
Bodhayana is considered to have written an extensive vritti (commentary) on the Purva and Uttara Mimamsas. Tanka is attributed with having written commentaries on Chandogya Upanishad and Brahma Sutras. Nathamuni of the ninth century AD, the foremost Acharya of the Vaishnavas, collected the Tamil prabandhas, classified them, made the redaction, set the hymns to music and spread them everywhere. He is said to have received the divine hymns straight from Nammalvar, the foremost of the twelve Alvars, by yogic insight in the temple at Alwar Thirunagari, which is located near Tirunelveli in South India. Yamunacharya renounced kingship and spent his last days in the service of the Lord at Srirangam and in laying the fundamentals of the Vishishtadvaita philosophy by writing four basic works on the subject.
Ramanuja is the main proponent of Vishishtadvaita philosophy. The philosophy itself is considered to have existed long before Ramanuja's time. Ramanuja continues along the line of thought of his predecessors while expounding the knowledge expressed in the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. Vedanta Desika and Pillai Lokacharya, disciples in the tradition of Ramanuja, had minor disagreements not on the philosophy, but on some aspects of the theology, giving rise to the Vadakalai and Thenkalai schools of thought, as explained below.
There are three key principles of Vishishtadvaita:
- Tattva: The knowledge of the 3 real entities namely, jiva (living souls; the sentient); ajiva (the insentient) and Ishvara (Vishnu-Narayana or Parahbrahman, creator and controller of the world).
- Hita: The means of realization, as through bhakti (devotion) and prapatti (self-surrender).
- Purushartha: The goal to be attained, as moksha or liberation from bondage.
Pramana refers to the correct knowledge, arrived at by thorough reasoning, of any object. Pramana ("sources of knowledge", Sanskrit) forms one part of a triputi (trio).
- Pramatir, the subject; the knower of the knowledge
- Pramana, the cause or the means of the knowledge
- Prameya, the object of knowledge
In Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, only the following three pramanas are accepted as valid means of knowledge:
- Pratyaksa — the knowledge gained by means of perception. Perception refers to knowledge obtained by cognition of external objects based on sensory perception. In modern-day usage this will also include knowledge obtained by means of observation through scientific instruments since they are an extension of perception.
- Anumana — the knowledge gained by means of inference. Inference refers to knowledge obtained by deductive reasoning and analysis.
- Shabda — the knowledge gained by means of shruti. Shruti refers to knowledge gained from scriptures - primarily the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.
Rules of epistemology
There are three rules of hierarchy when there is apparent conflict between the three modes of acquiring knowledge:
- Shabda or Shruti, Pramana occupies the highest position in matters which cannot be settled or resolved by pratyaksa (perception) or by anumana (inference).
- Anumana occupies the next position. When an issue cannot be settled through sensory perception alone, it is settled based on inference, that is, whichever is the more logical argument.
- When pratyaksa yields a definitive position on a particular issue, such a perception cannot be ignored by interpreting Shabda in a way which violates that perception.
The ontology in Vishishtadvaita consists of explaining the relationship between Ishvara (Parabrahman), the sentient beings (chit-brahman) and the insentient Universe (achit-brahman). In the broadest sense, Ishvara is the Universal Soul of the pan-organistic body consisting of the Universe and sentient beings. The three ontological entities are described below:
Ishvara (denoted by Vishnu-Narayana) is the Supreme Cosmic Spirit who maintains complete control over the Universe and all the sentient beings, which together also form the pan-organistic body of Ishvara. The triad of Ishvara along with the universe and the sentient beings is Brahman, which signifies the completeness of existence. Ishvara is Parabrahman endowed with innumerable auspicious qualities (Kalyana Gunas). Ishvara is perfect, omniscient, omnipresent, incorporeal, independent, the creator of the universe, its active ruler and also its eventual destroyer. He is causeless, eternal and unchangeable — and is yet the material and the efficient cause of the universe and sentient beings. He is both immanent (like whiteness in milk) and transcendent (like a watch-maker independent of a watch). He is the subject of worship. He is the basis of morality and giver of the fruits of one's Karma. He rules the world with His Maya — His divine power.
Ishvara is considered to have a 2-fold characteristic: he is the indweller of all beings and all beings dwell in Ishvara.
When Ishvara is thought of as the indweller of all beings, he is referred to as the Paramatman, or the innermost self of all beings.
He who inhabits water, yet is within water, whom water does not know, whose body water is and who controls water from within — He is your Self, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.
He who inhabits the sun, yet is within the sun, whom the sun does not know, whose body the sun is and who controls the sun from within — He is your Self, the Inner Controller, the Immortal - Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.7.4-14
When Ishvara is thought of as the all encomposing and the residence of all beings that is, all beings reside in Ishvara, he is referred to as the paramapurusha. The sentient beings and the insentient universe which form part of the pan-organistic body of Ishvara are encapsulated by Ishvara.
Sarvam khalvidam Brahma Chandogya Upanishad
Isavasyam idam sarvam Isha Upanishad
Chit is the world of sentient beings, or of entities possessing consciousness. It is similar to the Purusha of Samkhya system. The sentient beings are called Jīvās and they are possessors of individual consciousness as denoted by "I". The scope of Chit refers to all beings with an "I" consciousness, or more specifically self-awareness. Therefore, all entities which are aware of their own individual existence are denoted as chit. This is called Dharmi-jnana or substantive consciousness. The sentient beings also possess varying levels of Dharma-bhuta-jnana or attributive consciousness
The jivas possess three different types of existence:
- Nityas, or the eternally free Jivas who were never in Samsara
- Muktas, or the Jivas that were once in Samsara but are free
- Baddhas, or the Jivas which are still in Samsara
Achit is the world of insentient entities as denoted by matter or more specifically the non-conscious Universe. It is similar to the Prakriti of Samkhya system.
There is a subtle difference between Ishvara and Brahman. Ishvara is the substantive part of Brahman, while jivas and jagat are its modes (also secondary attributes), and kalyanagunas (auspicious attributes) are the primary attributes. The secondary attributes become manifested in the effect state when the world is differentiated by name and form. The kalyanagunas are eternally manifest.
Brahman is the description of Ishvara when comprehended in fullness– i.e., a simultaneous vision of Ishvara with all his modes and attributes.
The relationship between Brahman and Jivas, Jagat is expressed by Rāmānujā in numerous ways. He calls this relationship as one of:
- sharIra/sharIrI (शरीर/ शरीरी) (body/indweller);
- prakAra/prakArI (attribute or mode/substance);
- shesha/sheshi (Owned/owner);
- amsha/amshI (part/whole);
- AdhAradeya/sambandha (supporter/supported);
- niyamya/niyanta (controlled/controller);
- rashksya/rakshaka (redeemed/redeemer);
These relationships can be experienced holding Brahman as the father, son, mother, sister, wife, husband, friend, lover and lord. Hence, Brahman is a personal being.
- What does Nirguna Brahman mean?
Ramanuja argues vehemently against understanding Brahman as one without attributes. Brahman is Nirguna in the sense that impure qualities do not touch it. He provides three valid reasons for staking such a claim:
Shruti/ Shabda Pramana: All shrutis and shabdas denoting Brahman always list either attributes inherent to Brahman or not inherent to Brahman. The shrutis only seek to deny Brahman from possessing impure and defective qualities which affect the world of beings. There is evidence in the shrutis to this regard. The shrutis proclaim Brahman to be beyond the tri-gunas which are observed. However, Brahman possesses an infinite number of transcendental attributes, the evidence of which is given in vakhyas like "satyam jnanam anantam Brahma" (Taittiriya Upanishad).
Pratyaksha Pramana: Ramanuja states that "a contentless cognition is impossible". And all cognition must necessarily involve knowing Brahman through the attributes of Brahman.
Anumana Pramana: Ramanuja states that "Nirgunatva" itself becomes an attribute of Brahman on account of the uniqueness of no other entity being Nirguna. Ramanuja had simplified relationship between bramha and soul.According to him though soul is integral part of bramha it has independent existence.
Theory of Existence
The three ontological entities i.e. Ishvara, Chit and Achit are fundamentally real. It upholds the doctrine of Satkaryavada as against Asatkaryavada.
- Satkaryavada is pre-existence of the effect in the cause. It maintains that karya (effect) is sat or real. It is present in the karana (cause) in a potential form, even before its manifestation.
- Asatkaryavada is non-existence of the effect in the cause. It maintains that karya (effect) is asat or unreal until it comes into being. Every effect, then, is a new beginning and is not born out of cause.
More specifically, the effect is a modification of what exists in the cause and does not involve new entities coming into existence. This is called as parinamavada or evolution of effect from the cause. This doctrine is common to the Samkhya system and Vishishtadvaita system. The Samkhya system adheres to Prakriti-Parinama vada whereas Vishishtadvaita is a modified form of Brahma-Parinama vada.
Kārya and kārana
The kārana (cause) and kārya (effect) in Vishishtadvaita is different from other systems of Indian Philosophy. Brahman is both the kārana(cause) and the kārya(effect). Brahman as the cause does not become the Universe as the effect.
Brahman is assigned two kāranatvas (ways of being the cause):
- Nimitta kāranatva — Being the Efficient/ Instrumental cause. For example, a goldsmith is assigned Nimitta kāranatva as he acts as the maker of jewellery and thus becomes the jewellery's Instrumental cause.
- Upādāna kāranatva — Being the material cause. For example, the gold is assigned Upādāna kāranatva as it acts as the material of the jewellery and thus becomes the jewellery's material cause.
According to Vishishtadvaita, the Universe and Sentients always exist. However, they begin from a subtle state and undergo transformation. The subtle state is called a causal state, while the transformed state is called the effect state. The causal state is when Brahman is internally not distinguishable by name and form.
It can be said that Vishishtadvaita follows Brahma-Prakara-Parinama Vada. That is to say, it is the modes (Jivas and Jagath) of Brahman which is under evolution. The cause and effect only refer to the pan-organistic body transformation. Brahman as the Universal Self is unchanging and eternal.
Brahman having the subtle (sūkshma) chit and achit entities as his Saareeram/Prakaaram(body/mode) before manifestation is the same Brahman having the expanded (stūla) chit and achit entities as Saareeram/Prakaaram(body/mode) after manifestation.
The essential feature is that the underlying entity is the same, the changes are in the description of that entity.
For e.g. Jack was a baby. Jack was a small kid. Jack was a middle-aged person. Jack was an old man. Jack is dead
The body of a single personality named Jack is described as continuously changing. Jack does not become "James" because of the change.
Souls and Matter are only the body of God. Creation is a real act of God. It is the expansion of intelligence. Matter is fundamentally real and undergoes real revelation. The Soul is a higher mode than Matter, because it is conscious. It is also eternally real and eternally distinct. Final release, that comes, by the Lord's Grace, after the death of the body is a Communion with God. This philosophy believes in liberation through one's Karmas (actions) in accordance with the Vedas, the Varna (caste or class) system and the four Ashramas (stages of life), along with intense devotion to Vishnu. Individual Souls retain their separate identities even after moksha. They live in Fellowship with God either serving Him or meditating on Him. The philosophy of this school is SriVaishnavism, a branch of Vaishnavism.
Interpretation of Mahāvākyas
1. sarvam khalv idam brahma from Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1
Translated literally, this means All this is Brahman. The ontology of Vishishtadvaita system consists of:
a. Ishvara is Para-brahman with infinite superlative qualities, whose substantive nature imparts the existence to the modes
b. Jivas are chit-brahman or sentient beings (which possess consciousness). They are the modes of Brahman which show consciousness.
c. Jagat is achit-brahman or matter/Universe (which are non-conscious). They are the mode of Brahman which are not conscious.
Brahman is the composite whole of the triad consisting of Ishvara along with his modes i.e. Jivas and Jagat.
2. ayam ātmā brahma from Mandukya Upanishad 1.2
Translated literally, this means the Self is Brahman. From the earlier statement, it follows that on account of everything being Brahman, the self is not different from Brahman.
3. Tat tvam asi from Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7
Translated literally, it means Thou art that
that here refers to Brahman and thou refers to jiva
Rāmānujā chooses to take the position of universal identity. He interprets this passage to mean the subsistence of all attributes in a common underlying substratum. This is referred to as samānādhikaranya. Thus Rāmānujā says the purport of the passage is to show the unity of all beings in a common base. Ishvara (Parabrahman) who is the Cosmic Spirit for the pan-organistic body consisting of the Universe and sentient beings, is also simultaneously the innermost self (Atmān) for each individual sentient being (Jīvā). All the bodies, the Cosmic and the individual, are held in an adjectival relationship (aprthak-siddhi) in the one Isvara.
Tat Tvam Asi declares that oneness of Isvara.
When multiple entities point to a single object, the relationship is established as one of substance and its attributes.
For e.g. in a statement:
Jack is a tall and intelligent boy
The descriptors tall-ness,intelligence and boy-ness all refer to a common underlying Jack
Similarly, when the upanishads declare Brahman is the Universe, Purusha, Self, Prana, Vayu, and so on, the entities are attributes or modes of Brahman.
If the statement tat tvam asi is taken to mean as only the self is brahman, then sarvam khalv idam brahma will not make sense.
This is an upanishadic concept which is employed while attempting to know Brahman. The purport of this exercise is understood in many different ways and also influences the understanding of Brahman. In the overall sense, this phrase is accepted to refer to the indescribable nature of Brahman who is beyond all rationalisations.
Taittiriya Upanishad 2-9-1 passage "yato vacho nivartanthe.." (words recoil, mind can not grasp...) etc., state the same concept regarding Brahman . The visishtadvaita interpretation is that these passages do not indicate a black hole, but the incompleteness of any statement or thought or concept concerning Brahman. Brahman is these and more. This interpretation is consistent with "sarvam kalvidam brahma". Antaryami Brahmanam of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad passage "yasya prithvi sariram yasya atma sariram" is also interpreted to show that Brahman is not a zero point - "nirvisesha chinmatra" (an entity which has nothing except existence)
The typical interpretation of Neti-Neti is not this, not this or neither this, nor that. It is a phrase meant to convey the inexpressibility of Brahman in words and the futility of trying to approximate Brahman with conceptual models.In VisishtAdvaita, the phrase is taken in the sense of not just this, not just this or not just this, not just that. This means that Brahman cannot be restricted to one specific or a few specific descriptions. Consequently, Brahman is understood to possess infinite qualities and each of these qualities are infinite in extent.
Purpose of human existence
The purpose or goal of human existence is called purushartha. According to the Vedas, there are four goals namely artha (wealth), kama (pleasure), dharma (righteousness) and moksha (permanent freedom from worldly bondage). According to this philosophy, the first three goals are not an end by themselves but need to be pursued with the ideal of attaining moksha.
Moksha means liberation or release from samsara, the cycle of rebirth.
Bhakti as the means of attaining moksha
Bhakti Yoga is the sole means of liberation in Vishishtadvaita. Through Bhakti (devotion), a Jiva ascends to the realm of the Lord, where it continues to delight in His service. Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga are natural outcomes of Bhakti, total surrender, as the devotee acquires the knowledge that the Lord is the inner self. A devotee realizes his own state as dependent on, and supported by, and being led by the Lord, who is the Master. One is to lead a life as an instrument of the Lord, offering all his thought, word, and deed to the feet of the Lord. One is to see the Lord in everything and everything in Him. This is the unity in diversity achieved through devotion. However Sri Ramanuja and the Vishishtadvata tradition accept Saranagati, total surrender at the Lord's lotus feet alone as the sole means to moksha, liberation from samsara and going to Vaikuntha. This is a distinguishing feature of this school of philosophy, as both Adi shankara's advaita and ananda tirtha's dvaita accept bhakthi for moksha. Swami Ramanuja has supported this opinion with various citations directly from the vedas, and various incidents highlighting sharangathi as means to moksha,over bhakthi. Observing total surrender at the lord's feet guarantees moksha at the end of this birth, and in the time between sharanagathi and death, the surrendered soul may spend his time piously by involving in devotion. So bhakthi is not a moksha sadhana, but just for anubhava in the Vishishtadvaita Sampradaya
Thenkalai and Vadakalai schools of thought
Vedanta Desikan, one of the foremost learned scholars and philosophers of medieval India, wrote more than a hundred works in Sanskrit and Tamil. All are characterised by their versatility, deep spiritual insight, ethical fervour and excellent expressions of devotional emotion in delightful style. His Paduka-sahasram is a classic example. He was a great teacher, expositor, debater, poet, philosopher, thinker and defender of the faith of Vaishnavism. The Vadakalai sect of Sri Vaishnavism associate themselves with Vedanta Desikan and Ramanujacharya.
Pillai Lokacharya literally meaning "Teacher for the whole world" is one of the leading lights on the Sri Vaishnava Vedanta philosophy. His work Sri Vachana Bhusanam is a classic and provides the essence of Upanishads. The Tenkalai sect of Sri Vaishnavism looks up to him apart from Swami Ramanuja and Swami Manavala Mamuni. He was a senior contemporary of Vedanta Desika. He is said to have been born as an amsa ("essence") of Kanchi Devaraja (Varadaraja) Perumal to document and immortalize Ramanuja's message in the month of Aippaci under the star Thiruvonam (Sravana), in the year 1205 CE. He is said to have lived for 106 years, during which time, he also helped to safeguard the idol of Ranganatha at Srirangam from Muslim invaders. Pillai Lokacharya confirmed the basics of the Sri Vaishnava system in his 18 monumental works popularly known as Ashtadasa Rahasyangal ("the eighteen secrets") also called the Rahasya granthas ("doctrines that explain the inner meanings") out of which Sri Vachana Bhushanam and Mumukshuppadi are the most famous. Manavala Mamuni expanded on and popularized Lokacharya's teachings arguments in Tamil.
Traditions following Vishishtadvaita
- Sri Sampradaya of south India.
- Sri Ramanandi Sect of Northern India, it has the largest monastic order in whole India.
- Sri Swaminarayan Sampraday of Gujarat.
Visishtadvaita and Sri Vaishnavism
The Absolute Supreme Reality referred to as Brahman, is a Transcendent Personality. He is Narayana, also known as Lord Vishnu.
A man who has discrimination for his charioteer and holds the reins of the mind firmly, reaches the end of the road; and that is the supreme position of Vishnu. - 1.3.9 Katha Upanishad
Beyond the senses are the objects; beyond the objects is the mind; beyond the mind, the intellect; beyond the intellect, the Great Atman; beyond the Great Atman, the Unmanifest; beyond the Unmanifest, the Purusha. Beyond the Purusha there is nothing: this is the end, the Supreme Goal.- 1.3.10,11 Katha Upanishad
In terms of theology, Ramanujacharya puts forth the view that both the Supreme Goddess Lakshmi and Supreme God Narayana together constitute Brahman - the Absolute. Sri Lakshmi is the female personification of Brahman and Narayana is the male personification of Brahman, but they are both inseparable, co-eternal, co-absolute and are always substantially one. Thus, in reference to these dual aspects of Brahman, the Supreme is referred to in the Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya as Sriman Narayana.
Narayana is the Absolute God. The Soul and the Universe are only parts of this Absolute and hence, Vishishtadvaita is panentheistic. The relationship of God to the Soul and the Universe is like the relationship of the Soul of Man to the body of Man. Individual souls are only parts of Brahman. God, Soul and Universe together form an inseparable unity which is one and has no second. This is the non-duality part. Matter and Souls inhere in that Ultimate Reality as attributes to a substance [needs to improvisation]. This is the qualification part of the non-duality.
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- Chandrankunnel, Matthew (2008). Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics. New Delhi: Global Vision Publishing House. p. 945.
- Jones, Constance (2007). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Infobase Publishing. p. 490. ISBN 0816073368.
- Williams, Raymond (2001). Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press. p. 35. ISBN 0 521 65279 0.
- White Yajurveda 32.3
- J.L.Mehta VOl3
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