Category Archives: 6. Vedanta

Hindu Monasteries (Matha)

Hindu monasteries or mathas are any residential monastic establishments or educational centre for renouncers or sannyasis; even though, the ideal monk is classified as a wanderer. A matha can also refer to a single hut with only one ascetic or a large community of ascetics and their disciplines and students. They were founded by Sankara, a great teacher, in the 8th century. The original four mathas were strategically placed in India to be used as bulwarks for the missionaries and centres for Sankara’s ten religious groups: on the east coast, in Puri, the Govardhana matha for the Aranyakas and the Vana orders; in the Himalayas, near Badrinath, the Jyotih matha for the Giri, Parvaya, and Sagara orders; on the west coast, in Dvaraka, the Sarada matha for the Tirtha and Asrama orders; and lastly, in south India the Srngeri matha for the Bharati, Puri, and Sarasvati orders (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Later a fifth matha arose in Kancipuram, near Madras, called the Saradaptha matha (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Each matha that was founded by Sankara is led by either a teacher or a spiritual leader also known as a Sankaracarya or a Jagadguru. Individual mathas and their history are directly associated with the succession of its spiritual leader; therefore each matha operates completely independent to any other matha. Typically, the current Sankaracarya appoints one of his followers to become the new spiritual leader in the event of his passing; however, issues can arise if no successor was named and the Sankaracarya passes away unexpectedly. Eventually gurus were even given the responsibility of providing social and economic services to the community. Each Sankaracarya has their own set of followers and their goal is to meet their own religious needs such as “focus on ritual activity and devotional worship rather than renunciation or meditative realization of non-dual brahman” (Fort 613).

There are several important initiations rites to the ascetic life. According Miller and Wertz the first being that after one has determined they want to enter the ascetic life they need to acquire a guru who is willing to take them as his discipline (84). The guru can either be an ascetic from one’s village, a religious teacher or in some cases an uncle (Miller and Wertz 84). Then the discipline must cut all his family ties by performing death ceremonies with his parents (Miller and Wertz 85). After the death ceremony the discipline will no longer be allowed to perform any household services (Miller and Wertz 85). The head ascetic of a monastery will then administer a ritual called diksa (Miller and Wertz 84). The head ascetic must be a man who has already performed his last vows of renunciation (Miller and Wertz 84). The two forms of diksa are when the guru administers the ritual to a lay disciple and the other is only given to ascetic disciples (Miller and Wertz 84). This recognizes the “would be” ascetic and that he is permanently separating himself from his former life (Miller and Wertz 84). Finally, the discipline must acquire a religious name that ends with his sub-order’s name (Miller and Wertz 84). After performing these basic initiation rites a man can enter the ascetic life.

According to Guru Saccinananda the main function of a matha is to give ethical advice and moral teachings to the disciples in hopes of creating “honest, peace-loving, independent, moral, and well behaved” people (Miller and Wertz 25). However, according to Saccinananda several other functions are “to provide education in Sanskrit, to feed guests, to give money to the poor, shelter to the helpless, and the burial to the dead who have no family’ (Miller and Wertz 25). He also claimed that there are ten daily practices that are basic steps to liberation. The first is that the discipline must get up before sunrise each morning (Miller and Wertz 26). The second is that they must pay respect every morning and evening to the sun God Savitri (Miller and Wertz 26). The third is each day while bathing the discipline must recite sacred mantras or verses to a deity of their choice (Miller and Wertz 26). The fourth is that they must perform daily sacrificial fire offerings and yoga postures (Miller and Wertz 26). The fifth is that they must service all their guests (Miller and Wertz 26). The sixth is that the funeral offerings to one’s ancestors must be performed at noon (Miller and Wertz 26). The seventh is that they must take sacred food in the  afternoon and before each evening (Miller and Wertz 26). The eighth is that each evening the disciples’ deity of choice must be worshipped (Miller and Wertz 26). The ninth is that each evening before they go to bed they must perform meditation for the welfare of humanity (Miller and Wertz 26). Lastly, they are only allowed to sleep from the hours of 11pm to 4pm (Miller and Wertz 26).

According to Jagadananda, in a Hindu matha, there a ten precepts of ethical behaviour that one must follow. The first is that you must act kind towards a harsh and unpleasant man and by doing so you have the ability to change him (Miller and Wertz 34). The second is that even if others do not like you that does not mean you have to dislike them back. Eventually these people will lose their power and someday feel bad for their negative actions (Miller and Wertz 34). The third is that you need to ensure you are using the appropriate dialogue when conversing with others as this is a main factor when determining if they will be an enemy or a friend (Miller and Wertz 35). The fourth is that you must respect others when it is their turn to talk as everyone was created equally and by God (Miller and Wertz 35). The fifth is that you should not be disrespectful to people in lower classes as you might be born into that class or position on your next rebirth (Miller and Wertz 35). The sixth is that only ignorant men are prejudiced to one’s caste and skin colour (Miller and Wertz 35). The seventh is that you must consider your “superiors as well wishers and your inferiors as blessed” (Miller and Wertz 35). The eighth is that you need to be independent but also care for your parents needs at the same time as they were the ones who made you into the man you are by giving up their money, time and resources (Miller and Wertz 35). The ninth, is that when you pray to a deity you should be praying for the greatness and happiness of humanity  and not for yourself; the deity will only listen and respond to a man who is concerned about the welfare of others (Miller and Wertz 35). Lastly, “do not grasp onto things” or be materialistic; Brahman, the Vedic creator god, is always around and is everywhere in the universe (Miller and Wertz 35).

Even though numerous mathas have been established over the years as either additions to other institutions or by an individual guru, the original four mathas created by Sankara are still the main ones. Srngeri, Dvaraka, Badrinath and Puri are special and are also known as the amnaya mathas as they are connected with the four Vedas, the matching Upanisad Mahavakyas and Sankara’s four main followers (Sundaresan 110). The most famous and influential matha is Srngeri, in Karnataka State, in South Asia. It is also known as the centre of the Sankaran Vedanta tradition and was originally used as a place to stay and study for samnyasins. In the Srngeri matha the samnyasins who reside there highly regard the Vivekacudamani (Sawai 22).  However, since the fourteenth century it became a place for pilgrimage, worship and philosophical study (Fort 613). The main goddess that is now worshipped at Srngeri is Sri Sarada (Fort 613). The lay adherents of the Vedic tradition or smartas also now visit Srngeri for advice and boons from the Sankaracaryas (Fort 613).



Fort, Andrew (1994) The Faith of Ascetics and Lay Smartas: A Study of the Sankaran Tradition of Srngeri. Journal of Asian Studies 53.2: 613. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Isaeva, Natalia (1993) Shankara and Indian Philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Matha (2016) Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web. 07 Feb. <>.

Miller, David M., and Dorothy C. Wertz (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Prasad, Leela (2006) Text, Tradition, and Imagination: Evoking the Normative in Everyday Hindu Life. Numen 53.1: 1–47. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Sawai, Yoshitsugu (1987) The Nature of Faith in the Sankaran Vedanta Tradition. Numen 34.1: 18–44. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Sears, Tamara (2008) Constructing the Guru: Ritual Authority and Architectural Space in Medieval India. The Art Bulletin 90.1: 7–31. Web.7 Feb 2016.

Shankara (2016) Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web. 07 Feb. 2016 <>.

Sundaresan, Vidyasankar (2000) Conflicting Hagiographies and History: The Place of Sankaravijaya Texts in Advaita Tradition. International Journal of Hindu Studies 4.2: 109–184. Web. 7 Feb 2016.


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Smarta tradition


Advaita Tradition

Srngeri matha

Amnaya mathas




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Hailey McLean (March 2016) who is solely responsible for the content




Dasanami Samnyasins

The development and the components of Hindu monasticism may appear complex. Sankara, the famous Indian philosopher, founded a Hindu monastic federation referred to as the Dasanami Order (Wade nd). Hindu monks, known as samnyasin, were divided into ten lineages which trace back to Sankara and compose the Dasanami Order. The ten different monk/renouncer groups were then divided up among the four monasteries founded by Sankara (Clark 2). The four monasteries (mathas) are located in the east, west, south, and north of India and they are respectively called Govardhan, Sarada, Srngeri, and Jyotir (Clark 115). This order is the most respected and influential in the Hindu tradition (Werner 148).

Historically, it has been viewed that the four monasteries are representative of Sankara’s travel and his spiritual authority. Sankara’s life is regarded as somewhat legendary. He lost his father at a young age and he was an admirer of the samnyasin life style. Sources claim that at the age of eight, Sankara was captured by a crocodile while he bathed in a river. Sankara told his mother that if he did not receive her blessing to become a samnyasin the crocodile would have taken his life (Pande 31). Historians believe that three factors contribute to why Sankara is held in the highest regard. It is said that Sankara was an incarnation of Siva (Pande 73). His strong connection to and the belief in his embodiment of Siva could be due to Sankara’s connections to miracles. Secondly, the implementation of authentic practices was to emphasize the social and spiritual claims of the reorganized monasteries. The final aspect which made Sankara legendary was the expansion of the Advaitic and non Advaitic schools (Pande 73). The rationales behind legends of his incarnation have been to fortify the Vedic faith and help spread the spiritual way of living across India (Pande 82).

Samnyasin (renouncing) is the final stage of one’s life. One may renounce after they have completed the householders’ stage grahastha (Miller 3). However, some Hindus enter renunciation earlier, once they have completed their education, though such young renouncers are less common. A renouncer is considered to be a wise holy man. He is expected to withdraw from society. From that point on, his life is dedicated to the attainment of moksa (Werner 147). A renouncer’s withdrawal from society is theoretical because, he may live in close proximity to society and interact with its members however, physical detachment is essential (Olivelle 272). One must leave their family and possessions in order to discover the meaning of life and gain inner peace (Burghart 635). Renouncers are placed outside of the caste system and are highly valued. A renouncer who receives offerings and praise from Hindus is not uncommon.

Once Hindu monks formally renounce, they are categorized in relation to the method of initiation and their way of life (Wade nd). Renouncers may fall into one of three distinct categories: the dandis, nagas, or paramahamsas. However, all Dasanami consider themselves as Siva (Clémentin 2). Many Dasanami renouncers decorate themselves with rudrāka beads and put three white horizontal stripes on their forehead to embody the symbolism of Siva and Visnu (Clémentin 3). Each type of renouncer group is affiliated with one of the four monasteries. To formally renounce, a monk must attain a new identity. He is given one of the ten surnames which made him a part of that particular spiritual lineage. The name one receives is linked to the monastery they are associated with and reflects their caste as well as their renouncing lifestyle. The monasteries from the south and west are mainly composed of dandi renouncers. The lineages commonly assigned to these monks, once they formally renounce include: Bharati (speech), Sarasvati (learning), Tirtha (sacred bathing), and Asrama (hermitage). Puri (town) and Giri (hill) are lineages linked to naga renouncers. Other names, sometimes received by all types of renouncers include: Vana (woods), Aranya (forest), Parrata (mountain), and Sagara (ocean) (Dazery na). Receiving a new name is significant because it symbolizes the relationship one has under a guru which acts as an investiture. An opportunity for the new renouncers to teach and ordain followers is given (Clémentin 16). Once a name is received, one is able to initiate another person into the samnyasin stage of life. All three branches of the Dasanami (dandi, nagas, and the paramahamsa) have networks of mathas (monasteries) spread across India.

The dandis traditionally come from a high caste background and hold knowledge of the Sanskrit language. They are the wanderers who usually carry a staff. The staff may be embellished with a saffron cloth with an axe head under it (Clark 28). Generally, dandi renouncers were previous householders, have short hair, and believe that they are the true samnyasin (Clark 41). Their initiation ceremony is completed by a guru and the name given depends on what matha one is affiliated to (Clark 41). One of the four brahmacari names is given at the ceremony either being Svarup, Prakasa, Ananda or Caitanya (Clark 42). The second ceremony a dandi partakes in is called the viraja home (Clark 89). A short sacred utterance that presumably encapsulates the essential wisdom of Vedanta from the monk’s monastic lineage is spoken (Wade nd).

Renouncers, who fall under the paramahasa grouping, discard all belongings including their staff, perform the most asceticism and obtain the highest amount of respect (Clark 102). They more frequently live in mathas and are affiliated to an akhara. However, paramahamsan monks are not deeply connected to the akharas life compared to the nagas (Clark 42).

Lower caste members form the naga renouncer group (Clark 39). Some scholars refer to them as “naked fighting monks” (Wade nd).  The naga have been known to travel nude and they cover their entire bodies (sometimes just their private areas) in ash, especially on festive holidays (Clark 35). The nagas are organized into seven akharas (Clark 48). To be initiated into the akhara as a naga, one must go through a third process referred to as the tang tode (Clark 98). This is a unique initiation among the three groups.

Typically, males are the ones who enter the stage of renunciation. However, women renouncers have recently been reported. About ten percent of female renouncers belong to the Dasanami (Clark 31). However, women may become brahmacarini, but they cannot enter the second stage of initiation in becoming “full” samnyasin (Clark 33). Women remove all jewelry as a symbol of their renunciation. The majority of women belong to the paramahamsa renouncer group. Two known monasteries exclusively admit women. The least number of women belong to the naga group (Clark 34).

A life apart from society cultivates detachment through a community which shares similar perspectives (Clémentin 2). Some renouncers may choose to join a monastic community (Tambiah 300). Monastic communities provide a shared living space between many samnyasin monks. It is where asceticism is ingrained through tradition (Clémentin 2). This concept of communal settlement was introduced by Sankara, and is referred to as the matha system (Miller 4). The purpose was to create a sense of solidarity through group support. The matha was a larger unit comprised of temples, a traditional Sanskrit school, a library, and a shelter for lay followers (Clémentin 4). The caste system was embedded into the institution. Individuals were born to specific gurus. Gurus raised money to support children’s education for their caste (Aya 58). Donations from patrons allow for monks to teach, provide medical care, and help feed the community (Miller 5). Service to the community was viewed as important and resembled Hindu cohesion. Monks may continue traveling, but if they remain in a community for an extended period of time they are less respected, except if it is the rainy season (Olivelle 271).  Clémentin addresses that, “the important point to stress is that they do not owe their allegiance to a monastery, but to a lineage of spiritual succession” (3). Sankara’s successor, a Sankaracarya (head of 1 of the 4 monasteries) essentially becomes “the teacher of the world” by representing the founder of his lineage (Clémentin 6). Sankaracaryas have substantial spiritual power and settle disputes within the matha by helping with court cases (Clark 79). For example, cases may include initiation and personal affairs, adultery, abuse, and caste pollution. Sankaracaryas help decide the punishment of a fine, a fine, forms of social exclusion, and sometimes even excommunication ceremonies (Clark 80).

The origins of the Dasanami Samnyasin illustrate the prominence of Sankara’s philosophical influence in creating the order. Spiritual lineages of the samnyasin monks are traced back to Sankara. The samnyasins aquire a new religious identity in which they abide by certain roles, codes, and practices (Clark 2). The different groupings of renouncers across the four cardinal directions are symbolic of Sankara’s spiritual journey and the prominence of Brahman (Wade nd). The caste system is significant to the Dasanami Order because it allows for different renouncer groups to exist. Subtle differences exist among the samnyasins such as, their appearance, initiation process, status, and their affiliation to a distinct lineage (Clark 39). The matha system was important for the development of education and philosophical ideas for the samnyasin and their lay followers (Clémentin 4). Life consisted of days of expressing bhakti in prayer, meditation, and lectures (Werner 147). Overall, evidence suggests that the Dasanami Order has been very influential and is a representation of Sankara’s philosophy. 


References and Further Recommended Readings

Burghart, R., (1983) “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia”. Man18(4), 635–653.

Clark, Matthew (2006) Dasanami Samnyasis. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2006) “Replacing the Abbot: Rituals of monastic ordination and investiture in modern Hinduism”. Asiatische Studien, Etudes Asiatiques, Vol.60, 535- 573.

Ikegame, A (2012) “The Governing Guru”. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London & New York, NY: Routledge 5, 46.

Miller, D. M., & Wertz, D. C (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

 Olivelle, P. (2001)”The Renouncer Tradition”. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism,  G. Flood (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing  271-287.

 Pande, G. C (1994) Life and thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

 Tambiah, S. J. (1982) “The renouncer: his individuality and his community”. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 15(1), 299-320.

Wade, D. (2012) “Dasanamis.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from < hinduism/dasanamis-BEHCOM_9000000043>

Werner, Karel (2013) Love Divine: Studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism, London & New York, NY: Routledge 147-152.


Topics for Further Investigation

The Ramanadi Order



The Four Monasteries




Noteworthy Websites


Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Maya: The Concept of Illusion

Maya is the term for “cosmic/worldly-illusion,” “multiplicity,” “that which is not” within the Hindu religion. Though Maya’s etymology is unclear, we can trace through the ancient scriptures and texts to discover its origin and its myriad of meanings and uses.

In early Vedic literature, specifically the Rg Veda, we see the term is used to represent “intelligence,” (prajna/buddhi) “extraordinary power,” and “deception” (kapata) in its simple and compound forms. This idea was developed and conveyed to humanity by the God Indra, who took on many forms with his Maya or “extraordinary willpower”, in which he did marvelous things that mortal humans could not comprehend. Since his “extraordinary willpower” defies normal human understanding, it is considered a phenomenon and we accept it as a form of “deception” from what we think we know as true, or what we are familiar with (see Shastri 10-11). In other Vedic scripture such as the Atharvaveda, the term has more influence as a supernatural element, portraying Maya as “great illusion” and “magic” in which embodies a person and the world. In the Brahmanas the word is again used for “intelligence” (prajna/buddhi). In the Upanishads, the grand philosophical texts that have been sometimes used to describe the esoteric values of the Vedas as a whole, we see the term expand its illusionary meaning to “cosmic illusion”. The Upanishads also recognize Maya as something the Atman creates and controls, thus being deluded by multiplicity that arises from within the self. There is only one true reality, and all plurality and multiplicity is Maya which the Atman creates. The Sankhya philosophy identifies Maya with Prakrti (primordial matter) as the source of the universe, with the distinct difference that the latter is real. It is the equilibrium of the three qualities of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. (Shastri 29). The Sankhya philosophy tells us that Maya’s influence on humankind is through the use of the three gunas. Maya appeals to our senses, and through the three gunas we become deluded by matter, energy, mass and mistakenly take them to be something on their own.

Maya was conveyed in early Vedic literature, specifically the Rg Veda and Atharvaveda, by describing “the one reality” “Brahman,” and “Atman”. The term is conveyed not through literal use at first, but by the representation of multiplicity, deception or illusion from the one true reality, Brahman. Maya is something that embodies the Atman and deludes it by believing that we are something entirely on it’s own, independent of Brahman. The early story of Svetaketu is a prime example; it shows how after Svetaketu completed his sacred education, he remained conceited, pedantic and opinionated. As this was also apparent to his father, his father asked him firstly whether he learned anything about the unheard being heard, the unseen being seen. Svetaketu failed to respond and asked for his fathers knowledge, his father said, “My son, as everything made of clay is known by a single clump of clay, being nothing more then a modification of speech, a change, a name, while the clay in the only truth” (see Gough 43). Maya embodies Atman and Brahman, and creates an illusion to the cosmic perspective. Knowing the many is being deluded, knowing the one is vanquishing the many. Every atom, molecule, cell, being, planet is all multiplicity from the One. As Indian philosophers say: if we know Brahman, we know all things (Gough 43). In the Upanishads Maya is the appearance that distinguishes all from true reality. He who sees as it were a plurality actually existing is never saved, but is over and over the subject to the pangs of birth and death in this samsara. The conception of Maya exhibits itself in such passages clearly, and yet many do not see it (Shastri 56). A high point of the Upanishads was that the reference to an “other”, which was a broad reference to anything in our daily natural lives, which is in turn multiplicity, was meant to be meaningless because anything that which is multiplied cannot be Brahman or the One. It also perceived that with multiplicity, no one true meaning can exist. For something to exist independently of Brahman would imply that it has another purpose or meaning that Brahman does not, which is false because Brahman is the only true reality (see Shastri 38-39)

The Atman is the ultimate goal and reality in life within the Hindu tradition. The Atman is the true self and the only self. It is said to be waiting just beneath the skin, waiting to be discovered. Maya embodies Atman and deludes the self into believing our natural realms of multiplicity are independent from the self. Not only does Maya’s illusion extend externally, it also confuses humans to recognize with their bodies and their identities, mistaking them as our own and independent from the One true reality. In the Upanishads, Atman is sometimes used to represent the earth, water, wind, men, and the natural world. This unity shows how all beings, elements and things are Atman. Atman can be seen as pure consciousness, unifying your conscious with the one of Brahmans, which is true consciousness. This means that all things exist only so far as they are my consciousness, which is a unity; hence the multiplicity, which seems to exist independent of my consciousness, is not real but only a mere name (Shastri 63). Maya embodies Atman, because all cows, earth, men, wind are portions of our conscious, but Maya confuses our Atman into believing they are entirely creations and beings on their own. This extends into our interaction with people, believing that being is completely independent from you. We believe he is he, she is she, they are they, I am only I, and all I can ever be is I. This is false, we are all Brahman, and we are deluded into seeing and believing plurality. Maya inspires a chain of events that are extremely hard to stop once they have begun. We begin becoming attached to the elements, such as fine metal and jewels, our aesthetics, what makes us unique and individual, where we reside, what we eat, how we are represented, how others think of us, the clothes we where, our status, etc. All these things are brought on by our multiplicity and continuously take us farther and farther away from the true One reality. People who latch onto plurality or multiplicity do not achieve liberation, and will continue the cycle of samsara until their lives are filled with understanding and desire to unify one self.

It is by a multiple concentration that the one self assumes the aspect of a multitude of selves, and it is by a multiple exclusive concentration that it loses sight, in each self, of its identity with the other selves and with the self of all selves. The result is avidya, the great ignorance, the thick veil hiding from us not only our true self but also a broad tangle of subliminal influences both acting on us and exerted by us (Mohrhoff 6).

Avidya is used in Vedic philosophy subjectively to represent the natural form and matter of the world that we perceive, distinguishing self from non-self, and then leading into preferences, likes and dislikes, egoism and more. Avidya is different from Maya because it is referring to the process of not knowing our true self, being ignorant and unwise due to Maya’s illusion, and not representing the illusion itself, only the process of forgetting our true nature. When one discovers his Atman, Avidya is destroyed along with Maya freeing himself from the cycle of samsara and realizing one’s true self.

Moksa or Mukti is the central concept in Hinduism and refers to the liberation from Maya’s illusion, the freedom of the cycle of samsara and the unification with Brahman. Thus all things melt into the original self, as the darkness faints and melts away before the rising sun. Its fictitiously limiting mind with all its modes has been dissolved, and the soul is the Self again; the jar is broken, and the ether that was in it is one with the one and undivided ether, from which the jar once seemed to sever it. The sage has seen the Self, and passed into oneness with it, lost like a drop in water (see Gough 60). Moksha is also known as Nirvana in the other heterodox Indian philosophies such as Buddhism and Jainism. Once a person is liberated, enjoying the glory of enlightenment, they seek to help others also unify with the self. Thus liberated from metempsychosis, but still living in the body, the sage is untouched by merit and de-merit, unsoiled by sinful works, uninjured by what he has done and by what he has left undone, unimplicated in his actions good or evil (Gough 61).

Maya is an extremely crucial and frequently misunderstood concept within Hinduism. Maya is the cosmic illusion which arises from the self’s consciousness which uses the three gunas of nature to delude us from what we truly are, giving us the idea that we are entirely independent and separate from anything else. Maya is multiplicity on every level, from a microscopic level of atoms to the universal size of planets; it is all in some shape or form, a variation and change to the “One” true reality and given its own identity. Maya develops ignorance, termed Avidya, which signifies the descent into the delusion, where we are completely lost from our Atman, even though he is just beneath the skin. Maya encompasses Brahman, therefore it encompasses our whole existence, everything we perceive is a creation of Maya and only with mental fortitude and spiritual willpower may we free ourselves from this ever-repeating cycle of samsara and illusion from the one. Once Maya has faded from our perception and we are finally realizing Atman and seeing the true reality of existence, we have achieved the state of moksa, the highest state of consciousness and existence within most Hindu religions. Maya is the necessary opposite to moksa, for without the delusion, there is nothing for one to realize.


Bhaskar, Roy (2000) From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis Books.

Dallapiccola, Anna (2002) Dictionary of Hindu lore and legend. London: Thames & Hudson.

Gough, Edward (1979) The Philosophy of the Upanishads and Ancient Indian Metaphysics. New Dehli: Cosmo Publications.

Johnston, Charles (1912) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: The Quarterly Book Department.

Morhoff, Ulrich (2007) “The Veil of Avidya” Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.

Shastri, Prabhu Dutt (1911) The Doctrine of Maya. London: Luzac and Co.

Simoni-Wastilla. Henry (2002) “Maya and Radical Particularity: Can Particular Persons Be One with Brahman?” International Journal of Hindu Studies Vol. 6, No. 1 (April): 1-18.

Sivanada, Sri Swami (2000) The Bhagavad Gita. Himalayas: The Divine Life Society.

Straight, G Carroll (2001) “Quantum Underpinnings of Religious Currents.” The World & I  Vol. 16, No. 1 (January): 154.

van Buitenen, Johannes Adrianus Bernardus (1964) “The Large Atman.” History of Religions Vol. 4, No.1 (Summer) 103-114.

Related Topics for Further Investigation







Rig Veda

Atharva Veda

Vedanta Philosophy

Sankhya System

Jnana Yoga


Three Gunas



Noteworthy Websites:

Article written by: Forrest Freihaut (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.



Supported by writings as early as the Brhadaranyaka, the Hindu concept of Jivanmukti is gaining knowledge that one’s self is the non-dual, Brahman. It is knowing even further that the body is not the Ultimate Reality and the self was never actually embodied. It is in the destruction of this binding form of thought that brings about liberation; the destruction of the body does not. Freedom from the cycles of rebirth, the ultimate goal of liberation (moksa), places a distinct emphasis on the desirelessness which brings about immortality, bodilessness and the Ultimate Reality (brahman) (Fort 3-5). This release comes from the understanding and accession that humans are already liberated and the soul is free.

Advaita means “non-dual”. The school of Advaita Vedanta is named as such for it does not disassociate “us” or the universe as separate from the Ultimate Reality; they are one in the same or non-dual. The school of Advaita Vedanta relies heavily on three forms of knowledge transference being: (1) revelation, (2) reason and (3) teachings of beings who are in a state of living embodiment through the realization of Brahman (Sharma 13). This system is intrinsic to the Advaitic core teachings of living liberation, in contrast to all other schools of Hinduism which believe that for one to experience freedom from the cycle of birth and death (samsara) they must actually experience the death of the physical body in order for the enlightened soul to escape the physical bondage holding it to this place of existence. Only at the point where there is no physical bondage polluting the soul can it attain the Ultimate Reality which is Brahman (Mishra 293-297). Though this key aspect which varies in schools, there are more similarities than not regarding samsara and the attainment of Moksa or Jivanmukti. Attainment of Brahman liberation in mostly performed in the renouncer stage (sannyasa) of Hindu life. The renouncer is one who practises a solitary path conducive to self-realization. Through the ritual performance of multiple Yogic practises [For a more in depth look at various forms of Yogic rituals see Fort (1998)], especially that of Jnana Yoga, a renunciate is able to still one’s passions and attain a form of Nirvana liberation (Indich 108-112). The mind is cleared and kept clear by meditation. The Yogic actions are performed to purify both the body and the mind, freeing one from conscious and unconscious attachment. Through this continued practise one is able to completely withdraw into a meditative state required to attain and maintain a state of a Jivanmukti (Fort 79-83)

Jivanmukti is possible because after the onset of knowledge the body still persists. The persistence of the physical body after the release of the soul is for the purpose of being given the opportunity to teach those who have yet to experience Brahman. A Jivanmukti is said to be actionless in that there is no residual effect from actions, for actions are not performed due to desire-seeking, for a Jivanmukti cannot have a desire when everything that may have been wanted has already been fulfilled, thus leaving all acts performed for the purpose of example setting or maintenance of the body (Shah-Kazemi 110). Through liberation one is able to remove the cosmic principle which is the cause of world illusion (avidya), though a trace of this illusion persists through the continued existence of the physical body. Though as a body in time will be extinguished, all traces of avidya will fade as well (Chari 170). The body-soul relationship of a Jivanmukti was likened in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisads as that of a sloughed off skin and the remaining body of a snake, it is a housing which has been cast off and discarded, yet still exists in the physical universe (Fort 23). Sankara worded the continued existence a bit more eloquently in the overall loss of karmic experience in the transition to liberation. There are three forms of karma which a non-liberated individual is affected by: karma which has been accumulated throughout past existence, accumulating to one’s total cosmic debt (sancite), instant karma which is created in one’s current life time, which may be added to and worked on through daily action (kriyamana) and the portion of sancite karma being worked upon in one’s current life time (prarabdha). When looking into forms of karma, sancite and kriyamana karma respectively deal with actions performed in the past which have yet to affect the present; and actions performed in the present which have yet to affect the future (Indich 110-111). When one experiences Brahman these two karmas are burned away in the fires of knowledge (jnana). Because prarabdha is solely working away at a past life’s karma its path will not be affected by jnana and so it remains even throughout liberation (Indich 110-111) and will remain until “final peace”, being the death of the physical body in which the Jivanmuki remains alive and is then subject to the unfolding of their prarabdha karma (Shah-Kazemi 213). In the Advaitic teachings Moksa is what is considered to be the final release; Moksa allows for the state of omniscience to manifest completely when the spirit is no longer bound by karma (Chari 172-173).




Fort, Andrew O (1998) Jiivanmukti in Transformation: Embodied Liberation in Advaita and Neo-Vedanta. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sharma, Arvind (2004) Advaita Vedanta. New Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.

Mishra, Kamalakar (1999) Kashmir Saivism: The Central Philosophy of Tantrism. New Dehli: Sri Satguru Publications.

Indich, William M (1980) Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta. Columbia: South Asia Books

Shah-Kazemi, Reza (2006) Action and Prarabdha Karma. Paths to Transcendence: According to Shankara, Ibn Arabi, and Meister Eckhart. Bloomington: World Wisdom, Inc.

Chari, Srinivasa S. M (1976) Advaita and Visistadvaita: A Study Based on Vedanta Desika’s Satadusani. New Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Bhagavad Gita

Bhakti Yoga




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Jivanmukti Yoga

Karma Yoga





Nine Schools






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Advaita is Simple


Article written by: Laura York (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Vedanta Sutras

The Vedanta Sutras The Vedanta Sutras, also commonly known as the Brahma Sutras, is the fundamental text of the Vedanta school of philosophy. Since the text is so deeply rooted in the ideology of Vedanta, it defines the history of this school as being divided up into pre and post-Brahma Sutra periods (Nakamura 425). The word vedanta itself has several proposed meanings such as, “End of the Veda,” “Dogmas of the Veda,” or “Final Aim of the Veda,” [On the reasonings and development of the proposed meanings, see Deussen (1973)]. Therefore, the Vedanta Sutras are an attempt to systematize and summarize the various themes or threads of the Upanisads, the final book of the Vedas.

Authored by Badarayana, the Vedanta Sutras are thought to be written sometime around the second century B.C.E. This is given by the fact that the Vedanta Sutras refer to most Indian systems (Radhakrishnan 22). At this time, many theories existed among the thinkers and philosophers in the Vedanta school. These theories mainly concerned the interpretations of individual passages in the Upanisads that were left ambiguous or open ended. The Vedanta Sutras set out to summarize, organize, and criticize the many interpretations and to focus the Vedanta philosophy to its fundamental concepts (Nakamura 429). However, others argue that the date of the Sutras’ creation can be placed between 200 and 450 C.E. [For a discussion on the proposed later date of composition, see Journal of the American Oriental Society XXXI, pg. 29].

The structure of the text itself is quite uniform in how it is laid out and divided up. It contains four chapters, or adhyayas, each divided into four parts or padas, and finally each part is divided up into sections or adhikaranas, which are made up of the sutras or aphoristic statements (Radhakrishnan 23-24). Each chapter provides different information on different topics within the Vedanta philosophy. Chapter one deals with samanvaya, and attempts to provide a coherent interpretation of the texts in the Upanisads. Chapter two deals with avirodha; it uses writings of other sages as well as views from other systems of thought to support the previous chapter’s interpretations. Chapter three deals with sadhana; it is devoted to a comprehensive description and explanation of the means of realization of Brahman. Lastly, chapter four deals with phala, or the fruit of knowledge (Radhakrishnan 24).

There are many ideas put forth by Badarayana in the Vedanta Sutras. These cover topics from the nature of reality and the individual self to ideas about karma and bhakti. Overall, however, the essential purpose of the Vedanta Sutras are to provide support to the philosophy of Vedanta, address the idea of Brahman, suggest ways to reach enlightenment, and finally the state which is achieved once one has reach enlightenment [for a discussion in greater detail of the topics and philosophies in the Vedanta Sutras, see Radhakrishnan (1960)].

Many Hindu thinkers and philosophers tend to commentate on the existing texts of the Upanisads, Bhagavadgita, and Vedanta Sutras. These texts are held in such high regard that to do otherwise would bring into question any new teachings being put forth by the new ideology. As such, there are many commentaries on the Vedanta Sutras that exist in which a new teaching or ideology takes the foundation and the ideas put forth and applies them to the new concepts being proposed (Radhakrishnan 26).

Some of the most notable commentaries were produced by Sankara of the Varaha-sahodara-vrtti tradition, Ramanuja of the Bodhayana-vrtti tradition, Madhva of the Haya-griva-brahma-vidya tradition, and Sripati of the Agastya-vrtti tradition [For further discussion on most notable commentaries, see Radhakrishnan (1960)].

Sankara (788-820 C.E.) is said to be the incarnate of Siva on earth. His commentary is well known for its speculative nature and profound spirituality. Sankara proposes that anyone who does not question a view before adopting it “will miss his aim of beatitude and incur grievous loss.” Sankara proposes that the only way to coherently understand and interpret the Upanisads is through a non-dualistic approach (Radhakrishnan 28-29).

Ramanuja (1017-1127 C.E.) wrote the Sri-bhasya, a commentary on the Vedanta Sutras. He takes Sankara’s arguments and expands on them to complement the ideas and philosophies put forth. Although both authors come from the same relative school of thought, Ramanuja approaches the commentary from a more focused and differentiated non-dualistic approach (Radhakrishnan 46-51).

Madhva (1197-1273 C.E.) lived in a time when the non-dualistic ideas of Samkara were most widely accepted and supported. In his lifetime he is thought to have written thirty-seven works. The most famous of these would be his commentaries on principal Upanisads, the Bhagavadgita, and Vedanta Sutras. Madhva was one of the first to establish the reality of a Personal God, and other topics such as the differing qualities of Brahman and the self (Radhakrishnan 60-63).

Sripati (fourteenth century C.E.) took the dualistic approach to the Vedanta Sutras and applied a doctrine of “unity in duality.” This thread of thought stems back even before Sankara’s original commentary as it criticizes a similar theory. Sripati criticizes the view that Brahman is no different from the self, and proposes that this idea can only be established on authority of actual scripture (Radhakrishnan 82-85).


Deussen, Paul (1973) The System of the Vedanta according to Badarayana’s Brahma-Sutras. New York: Dover Publications.

Thibaut, G. (1962) The Vedanta Sutras. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass.

Agrawal, Madan Mohan (2001) Six systems of Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan. Date, Vinayak Hari (1973) Vedanta Explained. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Radhakrishnan, S. (1960) The Brahma Sutra: The philosophy of spiritual life. London: Allen & Unwin. Nakamura, Hajime (1983) A history of early Vedanta Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Padhi, Bibhu (2005) Indian Philosophy and Religion: a readers guide. Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Logic in indian philosophy

Idealism in indian philosophy

Monotheism in indian philosophy

Atheism in indian philosophy

The Six Schools of Indian philosophy

– Sankhya

– Nyaya

– Vaisheshika

– Yoga

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Written by John Witzen (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Born and raised in South India in 1017 CE, Ramanuja was a philosopher and a theologian whose ideas and writings have had a lasting impact on Indian religious practices. Ramanuja is attributed with the theology of qualified non-dualism, which can be contrasted to Sankara’s radical non-dualism and Madhva’s dualism (see Rodrigues 373-379). Ramanuja belonged to the Vadama caste, within the Brahmin class, who are claimed to uphold the scholarly study of the Vedas (Carman 28). As a result, he was very learned in the Vedic texts and as such left his first guru early because he could not follow his teaching (Carman 29). He later attempted to become a disciple of two non-Brahmin gurus before he was finally able to find another non-Brahmin guru who would take him as a disciple even though he was a Brahmin (Carman 30-31). He became a samnyasi fairly early in life and established a monastic house but soon became very prominent in the Srirangam temple where he started out and came back to many years later (Carman 34, 44).Ramanuja was a devout follower Visnu; furthermore, throughout his life he was very adamant in promoting devotion only to Visnu (Carman 34, 37-44).

The most widely known text that Ramanuja wrote is the Sribhasya, which is a comprehensive commentary on the Vedanta Sutras (Carman 49). However, Ramanuja is also credited with writing a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, a work titled Vedarthasamgraha (“The Summary of the Meaning of the Vedas”), two commentaries on the Vedanta Sutras, three Gadyas (prose hymns), and the Nityagrantha (a manual of daily worship) (Carman 49). All of these writing were in Sanskrit although Ramanuja’s native language (and the one he taught in) was Tamil (Carman 49-50).

Ramanuja is most widely known for his philosophical and theological teachings. He taught a philosophy called Visistadvaita, which means qualified non-dualism. Sankara taught that the only thing that is real is Brahman, and Madhava taught that there are three entities, Brahman, the soul, and matter (see Rodrigues 373-379). Ramanuja, by contrast, taught that the universe is the body of Brahman, which is the unchanging foundation of reality (Edattukaran 179). He also describes the body as a substance completely controlled by the soul (Iturbe 42), however, they are inseparable (Edattukaran 185). Ramanuja uses the concepts of prakrti and purusa to explain the link between the body and the soul. He says that the body, which is linked to the primordial matter (prakrti,) is governed by purusa (the sentient soul), in a relationship where prakrti is entirely subordinate to purusa (Iturbe 42). The existence of these two related but distinct entities is the grounds for qualified non-dualism. This is also classified as qualified non-dualism because Brahman is not identical with the universe even though it is real (compared to illusory objects as identified by Sankara) and thus remains the eternal changeless single reality while the souls and matter – which are the modes and expressions of Brahman – are constantly undergoing modifications (Edattukaran 190). Ramanuja thus assigns qualities to Brahman, which makes his philosophy qualified non-dualism (see Rodrigues 376-377). Ramanuja has fused some of the previous traditions together by explaining “the body as the essential mode of Brahman’s being” (Edattukaran 187).

Ramanuja also talks about God as the activator while humans are the activated (Iturbe 49). This happens by God seeing humans’ good efforts and granting grace so that humans can properly perform their actions (Iturbe 49). Actions are primarily dependent on humans’ own efforts, but God needs to grant permission for those actions to be performed (Iturbe 48). God allows humans to make their own actions; however, he is favourable to those who are devoted to him (Singh 159). As well, God must choose to reveal himself to someone, and has to be invoked to do so (Raghavachar 388). Ramanuja says that bhakti (loving devotion) is the path that leads one to invoke God to reveal himself to you (Raghavachar 388). This can be accomplished through spending time meditating (dhyana) on God (Raghavachar 388). Through dhyana and bhaki, one can achieve moksa, which is liberation from the cycles of samsara.

Yoga, according to Ramanuja, is the way to attain moksa (Vadakethala 36). Through the practice of yoga, one can learn how to lovingly devote him-/herself to God and how to meditate on God (bhakti and dhyana). There are three types of yoga that are the way to final release, karmayoga (the yoga of work), jnanajoga (the yoga of knowledge), and bhaktiyoga (the yoga of loving devotion) (Vadakethala 36). Karmayoga means to do actions of spiritual detachment, which is a renunciation in action but not of action (Vadakethala 40). This means acting dispassionately and renouncing all attachment to material things and performing the action without becoming attached in any way (emotionally, for example) to the act of performing the action (Vadakethala 42). Jnanayoga means achieving the knowledge of the self; Ramanuja only prescribes jnanayoga to those who already have advanced knowledge (Vadakethala 43-45). Higher than these two yogas is bhaktiyoga, which leads man to a “blissful communion with God” (Vadakethala 45). This loving devotion to God (bhakti) is what draws one away from the material world (allows for someone to detach from the world) and achieve union with God (Vadakethala 49). Bhakti is thus the means of achieving moksa, however through bhakti all three yogas are interrelated because bhakti is shown through karmayoga and jnanayoga (Vadakethala 43). In other words, loving devotion to God is demonstrated through one’s actions and one’s knowledge, however a person’s prime motive should be to lovingly devote his-/herself to God and thus detach his-/herself from the world.

However, if someone does not have the knowledge required for bhakti, or the ability to wait for its progressive maturation (for example, he is from a lower class), he can resort to prapatti, which is the “surrender or taking to God for refuge” (Raghavachar 389-390). This means that anybody has the means to be freed from samsara because if he cannot practice bhakti, he can resort to prapatti and still attain moksa. Thus, Ramanuja claims that because class distinctions do not touch the nature of the soul, anybody can attain moksa (Singh 157). However, there is a weakness in prapatti because the person will desire knowledge, the power of action, and spiritual patience (Raghavachar 391). This desire will draw that person away from the purpose of the trying to attain moksa because it will keep them attached to this world (where the main goal is to detach from the world). However, it is ultimately God who decides who gets liberated, which means that in prapatti the person must stop human initiative in order to prepare for passing the initiative entirely to the Divine (Raghavachar 391). In this way, someone who is using prapatti may attain moksa.

Ramanuja’s theology is one of qualified non-dualism in which Brahman is the ultimate reality in which humans strive for union with, but Brahman has qualities that make this theology qualified (see Rodrigues 376-377). According to Ramanuja, God chooses who he wants to liberate from samsara based on their karma, jnana, and bhakti (Raghavachar 388, 391). Yoga is the means of attaining union with the divine, and bhaktiyoga is claimed as superior to karmayoga and jnanayoga (however all three types of yoga are interrelated) (Vadakethala 36, 45). Ramanuja also states the prapatti is another path that can lead to liberation, however it is a weaker path (Raghavachar 391). Ramanuja’s ideas have made a significant impact on Hindu religious practice and have thus been compared and contrasted with the ideas of many other great thinkers.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Carman, John Braisted (1974) The Theology of Ramanuja: An Essay in Interreligious Understanding. London: Yale University Press.

Edattukaran, Wilson (2002) “Consciousness Incarnate: Concept of Body in Merleau- Ponty and Ramanuja.” Journal of Dharma, 27, no. 2: 178-192.

Iturbe, Mariano (2003) “The Concept of Human Action in Ramanuja and Thomas Aquinas.” Philosophy, Culture, and Traditions: A Journal of the World Union of Catholic Philosophical Societies 2: 39-55.

Raghavachar, SS (1978) “Concept of Moksha According to Sri Ramanuja.” Vedanta Kesari, 65: 384-391.

Rodriques, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The e-Book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Singh, Abha (2004) “Social Philosophy of Ramanuja vis-à-vis Professor Sangam Lal Pandey.” Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 21, no. 1: 153-164.

Tsoukalas, Steven (2006) Krsna and Christ: Body-Divine Relation in the Thought of Sankara, Ramanuja, & Classical Christian Orthodoxy. Milton Keynes: UK.

Vadakethala, Francis (1977) “A Yoga for Liberation: Ramanuja’s Approach.” Journal of Dharma 2: 35-52.

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The Bhagavad Gita



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Article written by Kelsey McMullen (Spring 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sri Madhvacharya (Madhva)

Sri Madhvacharya (Madhva) was born in approximately 1238 CE. During his lifetime, he influenced various philosophical aspects of Hinduism, through diverse means. Beyond being a Vedantic Acharya [Acharya is the last name of some Brahmins, meaning teacher] (Acharya, 2009), mountain climber, great debater, and large supporter and follower of Vaishnava Hinduism, Madhva began the Dvaita School of Vedanta and the Brahma Vaishnava Sampradaya. His devotion to Hindu philosophy began at a young age (Armstrong 2). According to tradition, as a prodigious boy, he already thoroughly understood the Vedanta. Furthermore, by 7 years of age, Madhva meticulously memorized the Vedic texts. At that time, the expectation was to begin learning about the texts with his peers, at the prominent Totanillaya in India, rather than already fully understanding them. In addition to being very intelligent, he also had supernormal powers (siddhi), as per stated in tradition. Madhva made numerous intellectual advancements throughout his life, and possessed powerful inner strengths, which caused him to contribute his philosophical insights to the Hindu community (Armstrong 3).

Madhva’s accomplishments continued past his childhood years. As a young man, with great insight towards his true inner self (Atman), the world, and divinity, he entered into Samnyasin (renunciation stage) at the age of 16. This was a very early age to enter into the typical final stage of life, according to traditional Hindu practices. Samnyasin is also a stage in which few actually ever experience. Typically, the average 16-year-old Hindu boy would be in the midst of his Brahmacarya (student) stage, although Madhva was not a typical 16-year-old boy. Because of that characteristic, Madhva became an Acharya and Sannyasin renouncer in the Ekadandi Order (Armstrong 5-7).

Like Madhva, Ramanuja and Sankara were also great Acharyas, with conflicting views (Sharma 345-354). During his teenage years, Madhva began his on-going debates with Sankara institutions about Atman, in addition to various other ideologies that Sankara possessed. First, Madhva believed that is was essential to understand the Rg Veda in order to grasp the Brahman concept. Beyond the Rg Veda, Madhva stressed the importance of thoroughly understanding scriptures as a part of religious devotion and practice. He also expressed that he did not favor Sankara’s idea that “the ultimate reality of Brahman is nirguna” (Stoker 31). Many of Madhva’s arguments with Sankara were supported in his belief of Visnu’s supremacy, which Sankara did not adhere to (Stoker 47-77). He also contrasted with Ramanuja, who was also a monotheist and a supporter of Vaisnava Hinduism. Madhva believed that there was only one agent whereas Ramanuja believed that God and human were both agents. The on-going debates with the other Acharyas led to greater public awareness pertaining to the different philosophies within Hinduism (Yandell 544-561).

Madhva also spread his values and beliefs through various pieces of literature. He wrote approximately 37 books in his lifetime, including the Tattvodyota and the Laksna Granthas (Sangha 25), as well as commented on various types of Hindu literature including the Karmanirnaya and the Chandogya Upanishad Bhasya (Sangha 24). His main literary goals were to contest monism, which was extensively promoted by other sages, such as Ramanuja (Yandell 544-561). Madhva also believed that theism should be taught through experiencing, reasoning, and thoroughly understanding Hindu literature. This was expressed through his 4 main beliefs in his writings, which included “a determination to remain true to experience above all, in the spirit of science, a commitment to sound reasoning, a fervent devotion to a personal God [Ista-Devata] that drove all of his actions, and a fearless tenacity in expounding his vision in the most hostile environments” (Varghese 121). Madhva believed that research and experience were important aspects within spirituality (Varghese 118-131).

Many of Madhva’s opinions and teachings were depicted in his commentary on various Hindu scriptures. Specifically, he added insight to the Paramopanishad as per the following (see Varghese: 119):

“The difference between the jîva (soul) and Îshvara (Creator), and the difference between jada (insentient things, e.g., matter) and Îshvara; and the difference between various jîvas, and the difference between jada and jîva; and the difference between various jadas, these five differences make up the universe.”

Within the 5 principles, Madhva highlighted 3 main areas. The 3 main areas were based around the following concepts: “How We Know,” “God and the World,” and “Matter and Spirit” (Varghese 119-120). The first, “How We Know” ideology, was explained as achieved through “experience, reason and divine revelation.” The second ideology of “God and the World” was based around the thought that the entire world relies on God, and that He has no imperfections, and controls everything (prasada). Moreover, the third ideology, “Matter and Spirit,” focused on the reasoning that the world is composed of things that are concrete, such as material goods, while still maintaining/balancing one’s spiritual side. The third ideology took a critical look at the connection between both the spirit and material items (see Varghese: 118-120). Furthermore, Madhva continually incorporated his idea that beings “cannot infer anything without the evidence of [their senses]” (Armstrong 45). That is, the highest sense being Sakshin, and using Sakshin to become more self-conscious. Madhva went beyond ancient Hindu literature to gain further insight and express new ways of interpretation and thinking with not only his students, but the Hindu community as a whole (Armstrong 45).

As Madhva aged, he began to spread his knowledge further. His intellectual abilities, along with his siddhi, led him to attain moksa (liberation), and to also expand his theories regarding the achievement of moksa. In contrast to leading Hindu philosophies, Madhva believed that some members of society would never achieve moksa (Krishnananda 9). Madhva’s expressions of his differing ideologies were crucial components of his teachings, while travelling. In addition to sharing his beliefs, he travelled extensively through India and surrounding countries to further his knowledge on the Vedanta, which led to Madhva creating his own Vedantic philosophy—the Dvaita (binary) Vedanta. He also completed pilgrimages that connected him with Vyasa, at Uttara Badri, to further his understanding of Hindu literature, which led Madhva to special religious insights. At that point, he had a few loyal followers and disciples who accompanied him and assisted in spreading his philosophies (see Armstrong: 38-53).

From few to many, Madhva’s philosophies became very popular among the Hindu community. This was especially apparent after the philosophical convention, in Rajamahendri, which occurred in approximately 1270CE. While travelling, Madhva partook in the convention. There, he shared his philosophical ideologies, which led to him winning a debate over Puri Swami Shastri, who was a famous Sanskrit scholar (Armstrong 48). The following summarizes Madhva’s 9 major philosophies, which were developed throughout his lifetime, as summarized in the Prameya Shloka by Sri Vyasa Tirtha (1460-1539), as follows:

1. Hari (Visnu) is Supreme.

2. The world is real.

3. The differences are real.

4. The various classes of jivas are cohorts of Visnu.

5. They reach different states (lower or superior) ultimately.

6. Mukti, liberation, is an experience of one’s own nature.

7. Mukti is achieved by pure devotion.

8. The triad of perception, inference and testimony are the sources of valid knowledge.

9. It is Hari alone who is praised in the Vedas.

These philosophies were the guiding principles behind Madhva’s arguments and teachings. They were primarily taught in his schools, which were included in the 5 schools of Vaishnavism. The exceptional schools were highly influential in the northeast provinces in India, including Bengal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. The philosophies have since expanded geographically and continue to be practiced throughout Hinduism (Armstrong 44).

Madhva contributed greatly to Hindu philosophy, and education systems. He left the physical world approximately in 1317 CE (or Kali Yuga 4418), at the age of 79. The last known existence of Madhva was high up in the mountains of the Himalayas—a place where he learned, then developed many of his philosophies (Armstrong 44, 53). Madhva left Hindu scholars and worshippers new insight regarding the presence of God, Sanskrit writings, Vedic knowledge, and spiritual insight. In addition to philosophical contributions, Madhva’s established temple, the Udipi Sri Krsna, not only stands as a devotional area for those who worship Krsna, but also now serves to commemorate Madhva’s contributions to Hinduism. Many of Madhva’s ideas, written works, commentaries, and religious structures have greatly influenced to Hinduism today.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Acharya, M. (2009). Personal Communication.

Armstrong, J. (2008). “Difference Is Real.” Hinduism Today, 30(3), 38-53.

Krishnananda, S. (n.d.). “An Analysis of the Brahma Sutra.” The Divine Life of Society, ch. 9

Sangha, V. (1999). “Beginner’s Guide to Sri Madhvacharya’s Life and Philosophy,” pp. 21-25.

Sharma, A. (1977). “For a Sociology of India: The place of conversion in Hinduism.” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 11(2), 345-354

Stoker, V. (2004). “Conceiving The Canon In Dvaita Vedanta: Madhva’s Doctrine Of ‘All Sacred Lore’.” Numen: International Review for History of Religions, 51(1), 31, 47-77.

Srivastava, P. (2008). “Sri Madhva’s Challenge.” Hinduism Today, 30(4), 12.

Varghese, R. (2004). “The Wonder of The World.” pp. 118 -121.

Vyasa Tirtha. (1460-1539). “A summary of the tenets of Tattvavada.” Prameya Shloka. Tyr Publishing. pp. 118-131.

Yandell, K. (1999). “Faith and Philosophy.” Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, 16(4), 544-561.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Brahma Vaishnava Sampradaya


Chandogya Upanishad Bhasya

Dvaita School of Vedanta

Ekadandi Order






Laksna Granthas







Puri Swami Shastri



Sannyasin Renouncer


Sri Vyasa Tirtha



Udipi Sri Krsna

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Written by Kasey-Leigh Martin (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Sankara and Radical Non-dualism

Sankara’s philosophy is known as radical non-dualism or Advaita Vedanta. It was first outlined somewhere around the 8th century C.E. according to most scholars (Cenkner 29). The basis of this philosophy is that there is only one indivisible thing in existence and that is Brahman [Brahman is not to be confused with the creator god Brahma or the priestly class brahmin. All three come from the root brh meaning to grow in Sanskrit and is often used to connote greatness (Masih 66)]. Brahman is indescribable and cannot be fully understood by teachings alone. Since Brahman is indescribable, it is often spoken of in terms of what it is not. For example it could be said that Brahman is not acit (unreal), nor asat (ignorance), nor is it dukkha (suffering). This method of describing Brahman is the reason for Sankara’s philosophy to be termed non-dualism instead of simply monism (Masih 66).

Sankara gives us his ideas on Brahman and Advaita through his commentaries on certain Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma

Sutra (the three together are known as the prasthana-traya) (Masih 64). Because these texts give seemingly contradictory statements on the nature of Brahman, several schools of thought emerge from them, Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta being one of if not the most highly renowned.

Brahman is said to be changeless and indivisible. The Upanisads describe it as “one without a second”. It is knowledge, consciousness and bliss; it is all things because it is the only thing. Brahman is the source of everything in existence but also the only thing in existence. Its non-existence cannot be imagined. It is essentially derived from itself. These are a few examples of the ways in which Brahman is described. Many attempts in many teachings and scriptures have been made, but according to Sankara they will always be misinterpreted because Brahman is beyond the known and even beyond the unknown (Masih 69-70). All teachings of Brahman are therefore merely aids in discovering it for yourself.

Atman is to be equated with Brahman. Atman is pure consciousness or one’s true self. Atman is the unchanging part of you, the part that is left

after all false identities have been stripped away. Realizing Atman is to realize that there is no you, as an individual, for you are Brahman and

indivisible from it. To realize Atman and therefore Brahman is the ultimate goal in life according to Sankara (Masih 67-68). The essence of his entire philosophy can be described in the sentence “Brahman alone is real, the world is illusory and Atman is identical with Brahman” (Masih 66).

Maya is the power of illusion that comes from Brahman. It is the reason that people find it difficult to realize themselves as Brahman. When

someone achieves liberation (moksa) maya ceases to have an effect on them and they gain ultimate enlightenment. Maya is not different from Brahman,

nor is it an attribute. It is the nature of Brahman and as indivisible from it as anything else (Masih 84).

The origins of the term maya trace back to the oldest of the Vedic literature, the Rg Veda. It is used to describe the superhuman powers of Varuna (Varuna is the Vedic god of the sky and the ocean) and Indra (the Vedic god of thunder) in several different hymns (at least four times for Varuna and as many as thirty times for Indra) (Masih 78). The Upanisads, which Sankara relied on heavily to develop his doctrine, also mention maya in a similar way to the Rg Veda. (Masih 79). The definition of the word maya in these texts is decidedly different than the one Sankara uses. It was however used in sense similar to Sankara’s by a philosopher predating Sankara by a hundred years named Gaudapada (Masih 79). It would seem that Guadapada influenced Sankara in his interpretation of the prasthana-traya texts.

According to Advaita teachings, once liberation has been achieved, one is free from any further karmic rebirths. It would be incorrect to say that one is returned to Brahman, as they were never separate to begin with.

Instead it could be said that one breaks through the illusion of maya and realizes the truth about reality.

When an attempt is made to prove the existence of God, it is usually through one of three arguments: ontological (the existence of the concept of God proves God’s existence), cosmological (all things must have a cause and so the first cause must be God), or teleological (the design of the world is one that must have come from an intelligent source, i.e. God). Sankara uses all three in an attempt to prove the existence of Brahman. Sankara gives these proofs only as an aid to attempt understanding Brahman (which he believes is impossible) and not definitive proof of its existence. He also claims that these proofs do not show Brahman has any quality at all to be proven (Masih 92).

Sankara’s ontological proof is basically the same as that used by any other philosopher. It states that because we have a concept of Brahman it must exist. Even when one tries to refute the idea of Brahman, its existence is established simply by having the idea of the concept of which one is trying to deny. This argument, if believed, is only enough to prove the existence of Brahman, not what it is (Masih 93).

The cosmological proof given by Sankara is slightly different than that used by most. Most cosmological arguments do not explain how it was that God came into existence. Sankara gets around this by saying that Brahman is above causality (Masih 93). To say that Brahman is not above causality is to say that something must have created Brahman, the question could then be asked “what created the creator of Brahman”, this line of thought could continue into an infinite regress making it an unacceptable form of reasoning. Sankara thus claims that logically there must be a “fundamental causal substance” (Masih 95) which is Brahman.

Sankara’s teleological proofs, like his ontological proofs are similar to those given by many religious philosophers. It states that the design of the world must have come from an intelligent source, i.e. Brahman. Sankara uses the reasoning that something with a design cannot come from nothing and must therefore come from Brahman (Masih 96).

Works Cited and Related Readings

Masih, Yakub (1987) Shankara’s Universal Philosophy of Religion. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Cenkner, William (1983) A Tradition of Teachers: Sankara. New Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Roy, Shiva Shankar (1982) The Heritage of Sankara. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Related Websites

Related Research Topics

Mathas founded by Sankara

Modern followers of Sankara

Govinda Bhagavatapada, Sankara’s guru

Article written by Scott Oberg (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Related Readings (On Madhva and Dualism (Dvaita))

Puthiadan, I. (1985) Visnu the Ever Free: A Study of the Madhva Concept of God. Madurai: Dialogue Publications.

Rao, S. S. (trans.) (1936) Vedantasutras with the Commentary of Madhva. Tirupati: Sir Vyasa Press.

Sharma, B. N. K. (1960-61) A History of Dvaita School of Vedanta and its Literature, 2 vols. Bombay: Booksellers Publishing Co.

_____ (1961) Madhva’s Teaching in His Own Words. Bombay: Bhavan’s Book University.

_____ (1962) Philosophy of Sri Madhvacarya. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Related Readings (Ramanuja)

Balasubramanian, R. (1978) Some Problems in the Epistemology and Metaphysics of Ramanuja. Madras: University of Madras.

Bharadwaj, Krishna Datta (1958) The Philosophy of Ramanuja. New Delhi: Sir Sankar Lall Charitable Trust Society.

van Buitenen, J. A. B. (1965) Ramanuja on the Bhagavadgita. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Carman, John B. (1974) The Theology of Ramanuja: An Essay in Interreligious Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Govindacharya, Alkondavilli (1906) The Life of Ramanuja. Madras: C. N. Press.

Sharma, A. (1978) Visistadvaita Ved??nta: A Study. New Delhi: Heritage Press.

Thibault, George (trans.) (1904) Vedantasutras with Ramanuja’s Commentary. In Sacred Books of the East (SBE), F. Max Müller (gen. ed.), vol 48.

Yamunacarya, M. (1963) Ramanuja’s Teachings in His Own Words. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.