Three Vedantic Blueprints of The Absolute
| Pranav Khullar, IAS - DG, National Archives of India - 07 Jun 2019

by Pranav Khullar

Shankara and Ramanuja represent two fundamental speculative positions of Vedantic thought, and their road maps to the Absolute reflect the dialectic between Being and Becoming in Vedanta. Sankara's monistic Advaita points to a final, higher Reality, in which the entire material dimension of life is subsumed, the Being aspect of existence which one aspires to experience,  whereas Ramanuja's Vishishtadvaita holds that this sensory-material dimension of that higher Reality is equally valid and serves its purpose through adoration of the Absolute, this existential journey of Becoming to be enjoyed as much as the state of Being.

Madhvacharya represents the third fundamental position of Vedanta, and is in fact diametrically opposite to Shankara and Ramanuja , in contending in his Tattvavada that metaphysical reality is plural; that the world of duality is independently real of the Absolute and not just an illusion.

Whereas Shankara and Ramanuja differ only in assigning weightage to the world of plurality, while contending that this materiality is only a projection of the Absolute, Madhvacharya proposed the empirical world as one of two independent entities, along with the Absolute .

All three essentially wrote treatises on the Brahma Sutras of Vyasa — 555 Sutras, aphorisms containing the quintessence of Upanishadic-Vedantic thought. Their deliberations are triggered by the great call of the first Sutra itself: "Athato brahma  jignasa"—"now therefore the enquiry into Brahmn", a call to free enquiry which sets the tone for all speculation. 

All three based their deliberations on the same text , branching out in different interpretations, Shankara upholding an uncompromising monistic view and Ramanuja posing a theistic-existential formulation of Reality , and Madhvacharya contending the world of plurality in which we live is real and not just an illusion 

Sankara's appeal lay as much in his erudition and dialectical skill as in his being a child prodigy. From the backwaters of Kalady to the snowy crests of Kedarnath, he took on scholars, sages and savants, in what he believed to be his spiritual mission, engaging them in scholarly debates to establish his viewpoint.

Ramanujacharya, on the contrary, believed it was his lifelong mission to deconstruct the notion of the Absolute as a personal God, which differed fundamentally with the monistic position of Shankara.

Sankara's theory of Brahmn and Mayavada circumscribed his Advaita position, perceiving the world as essentially nirguna, without attributes, but which manifests  itself with personal attributes, saguna  -- nirguna being ultimately true and saguna, false.  The Brahmn-world relation in Shankara is explained in the snake and rope analogy where the illusion is caused by mistaking the rope for a snake. Ramanujacharya's contention was that saguna and nirguna are intertwined, as in a body-soul analogy, equally valid and true .

All the three acharyas were not only seminal thinkers; they were also great apostles of bhakti, mystical devotion, wherein lay their mass appeal. Sankara's devotional outpourings , like the ‘Bhaja Govindam’ and ‘Saundaryalahiri’,  were meant to inspire and arouse people to their innate divine Self while Ramanuja sought to simplify the Absolute in human endearing terms, where each could visualise that virat cosmic energy in human form, as a friend, a mother, a disciple, and soulmate. Madhvacharya sought to see the Absolute from a Vaishnavite consciousness, seeking liberation and grace in the adoration of Vishnu-Krishna.
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(The writer is a senior IAS officer in the Govt. of India)

This article was first published in the and is reproduced here with the consent of the writer.)  

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