All is nothing but
Vedanta and its Philosophical Development
The sheer depth and poetic quality of the Upanishads make them the highest achievement of the Hindu philosophy and religion. However, the great ideas of this tradition reach very few directly, most of us get a glimpse of them through books like the Bhagavadgita. A. Ramamurty’s Vedanta and its Philosophical Development is a book that aims to give a deeper understanding of Vedanta by building a philosophical background for the reader.
The author, a retired professor of philosophy, traces and analyses the development of Vedanta with extreme precision and clarity. He makes it clear in the very beginning that although the Upanishads can be understood independently of the Vedas, it must not lead us to think that they are independent of them.
Unlike most religious texts that are concerned with a certain conception of God and his worship, the Upanishads are unique because their basic concern is not theism as such but the knowledge of the universal truth. They encourage independent enquiry, not scriptural dogmatism. That is why, while the Vedic texts are largely concerned with gods and prayers, the major concern of most of the Upanishads is the reality of man and his soul. Furthermore, as independent inquiry was the essence of the tradition, it is not surprising that some statements found in the Upanishads conflict with each other. For instance, in various Upanishads, the views about the nature of Brahman or about the reality and nature of atman, or about the origin and nature of the phenomenal reality are not consistent. So, the first job of a philosopher of Vedanta would be to see if it is possible to look for reconciliation between the various conflicting texts.
This task was taken up by various commentators like Badarayana, Shankrachrya, etc. As a result, we have a good number of commentaries on the Upanishads. However, the author points out that these philosophers though argued their viewpoint rationally, and criticised the rival schools with sound logic, they were not as critical about their own position.
Among the commentators considered in the book, we are first introduced to Badarayana, who was the first philosopher to develop a systematic philosophy of Vedanta through his seminal work Brahma-Sutra. His task was two-fold: firstly, to develop a coherent philosophy of Brahman, and secondly, to attack Samkhya and Buddhism. Ramamurty then takes up the work of other luminaries like Shankaracharya, the non-dualist, Abhinavagupta, the Kashmir Shaivist, Ramanuja, the dualist, and Sri Aurobindo, one of the modern interpreters of Vedanta, all of whom tried to develop their philosophy on the basis of the Upanishads.
Shankracharya interpreted the Upanishads with logical rigour to defend his non-dualistic philosophy. Abhinavagupta, did the same for Kashmir Shaivism, which, we are told, is not strictly speaking a school of Vedanta. Kashmir Shaivism has tried to adapt the Vedantic ontology in developing its theology on lord Shiva.
The dualist thinker Ramanuja adapted Vedanta to Vaisnava theology and in the process enriched Vaisnavism, and made it more universal, by providing a strong philosophical foundation for it.
While thinkers like Vivekananda tried to show the practical significance of Vedanta to modern man, Aurobindo tried to find a scientific understanding of man through Vedanta. He looked into the theory of evolution and found ways of finding reconciliation between the Absolute and the phenomenal or Brahman and the world.
The author must be commended for his sharp philosophical insights that he puts forward with an extraordinary command of language, which is marked by precision and brevity.