Vedanta is one of the world’s most ancient spiritual philosophies and one of its broadest, based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India. It is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism; but while Hinduism includes aspects of Indian culture, Vedanta is universal in its application and is equally relevant to all countries, all cultures, and all religious backgrounds.
- The oneness of existence,
- The divinity of the soul, and
- The harmony of all religions.
A closer look at the word “Vedanta” is revealing: “Vedanta” is a combination of two words: “Veda” which means “knowledge” and “anta” which means “the end of” or “the goal of.” In this context the goal of knowledge isn’t intellectual—the limited knowledge we acquire by reading books. “Knowledge” here means the knowledge of God as well as the knowledge of our own divine nature. Vedanta, then, is the search for Self-knowledge as well as the search for God.
What do we mean when we say God? According to Vedanta, God is infinite existence, infinite consciousness, and infinite bliss. The term for this impersonal, transcendent reality is Brahman, the divine ground of being. Yet Vedanta also maintains that God can be personal as well, assuming human form in every age. Most importantly, God dwells within our own hearts as the divine Self or Atman. The Atman is never born nor will it ever die. Neither stained by our failings nor affected by the fluctuations of the body or mind, the Atman is not subject to our grief or despair or disease or ignorance. Pure, perfect, free from limitations, the Atman, Vedanta declares, is one with Brahman. The greatest temple of God lies within the human heart.
Vedanta asserts that the goal of life is to realize and to manifest our own divinity. This divinity is our real nature, and the realization of it is our birthright. We are moving towards this goal as we grow with knowledge and life experiences. It is inevitable that we will eventually, either in this or in future lives, discover that the greatest truth of our existence is our own divine nature.
Vedanta further affirms that all religions teach the same basic truths about God, the world, and our relationship to one another. Thousands of years ago the Rig Veda declared: “Truth is one, sages call it by various names.” The world’s religions offer varying approaches to God, each one true and valid, each religion offering the world a unique and irreplaceable path to God-realization. The conflicting messages we find among religions are due more to doctrine and dogma than to the reality of spiritual experience. While dissimilarities exist in the external observances of the world religions, the internals bear remarkable similarities.
According to the Vedanta teachings there are four paths we can follow to achieve the goal of understanding our divine nature. These paths are known as the Four Yogas. We can choose a path based on our personality or inclination, or follow the practices of the paths in any combination.
Bhakti Yoga is the path of love and devotion. The devotee approaches God through a loving relationship. This path emphasizes practices such as prayer, chanting, and meditation on God as a loving presence in our lives.
Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge. In this path the seeker uses reason and discernment to discover the divine nature within by casting off all that is false, or unreal. This practice shows us that the Supreme Reality resides within.
Karma Yoga is the path of selfless work. Those who follow this path do work as an offering to God and expect nothing personal in return. Karma Yoga teaches us to practice detachment and equanimity in our work, and to understand that the results of any actions are beyond our control.
Raja Yoga is the path of meditation. Meditation is an important practice in all of the paths as it allows us to experience higher states of consciousness where we achieve a deeper understanding of our divine nature. Sri Ramakrishna, a modern day saint and his student Swami Vivekananda, who brought Vedanta to the western world, emphasized the use of a mantra based meditation technique and symbolic images of the divine.
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