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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

– Mimamsa

– Vedanta













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

Related Reading (General Works on Vedanta)

Arapura, J. G. (1986) Hermeneutical Essays on Vedantic Topics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Atreya, B. L. (1936) The Philosophy of Yogavasistha. Adyar: Adyar Library.

Bhattacharya, K. C. (1909) Studies in Vedantism. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Devanandan, P. D. (1954) The Concept of Maya. Calcutta: YMCA Publishing House.

Granoff, P. (1978) Philosophy and Argument in Late Vedanta. Boston: Reidel.

Radhakrishnan, S. (1961) The Brahmasutra. London: Allen & Unwin.