Vedanta in a Nutshell

By Swami Chetanananda

When a person asks me, “What is Vedanta?” it reminds me of a story. Once a great teacher of Vedanta was invited by a group of people to give a talk on Vedanta. When he arrived at the lecture hall he asked the audience, “Do you know what I am going to tell you?” The people all said, “No.” “Then I shall not say anything to you, because you have no background.” Saying this, the teacher left the hall. The following week he was again invited by the people, but the leaders of the group planned in advance. They told the audience to say yes if the teacher asked them the same question. The teacher was escorted to the hall, and sure enough, he asked the same question. This time the audience replied, “Yes.” Immediately the teacher said, “You know everything then, so I have nothing to say,” and he left.

Again the leaders made a plan for the teacher’s next visit and asked half of the audience to say yes and the other half to say no. When the teacher came for the third time he repeated the same question, “Do you know what I am going to tell you?” and the audience responded as they had been instructed. Then the teacher said, “Those who have said no, please learn from those who have said yes.” Without another word he left. The people were puzzled and did not know what to do. They finally decided that the next time they would simply remain silent. After repeated requests the teacher came once more and asked the same question. This time he did not get any answer. He noticed that the whole audience was absorbed in deep silence, and he knew that this was the right time to talk to them about Vedanta.

This is the age of the jet, the rocket, and the satellite. People want to move speedily and expect to achieve everything fast, if not instantly. People unfamiliar with Vedanta do not realize that they are trying to know in five minutes about a spiritual tradition that has been handed down to us for the last five thousand years. I know I am not doing any proper justice to Vedanta by trying to describe it in this short note, but nevertheless I shall try to answer the question, “What is Vedanta?”

Vedanta is the culmination of knowledge, the sacred wisdom of the Hindu sages, the transcendental experience of the seers of Truth. It is the essence, or conclusion, of the Vedas. As the Upanishads come at the end of the Vedas, so it is called Vedanta. Literally, Veda means knowledge and anta means end.
The main tenets of Vedanta are:

  1. Brahman is the ultimate reality, the one without a second. It is Existence-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute. It is beyond name and form, devoid of qualities, without beginning or end. It is the unchanging Truth, beyond space, time, and causation. But this vast, infinite Brahman manifests itself as the universe and the individual beings through its inscrutable power of maya. Thus the one becomes many. When Brahman is associated with its maya, it is called God or Ishvara.
  2. The universe is apparent, like water in a mirage, and is continuously changing. We perceive the universe through space, time, and causation. Space begins when one gets a body, time begins with one starts thinking and causation begins when one becomes limited. This beautiful, tangible universe disappears from one’s awareness when one enters into the sleep state or merges into samadhi, and again it reappears in the waking state. So this world is in the mind.
  3. Human beings are divine. Their real nature is the Atman, which is infinite, eternal, pure, luminous, ever free, blissful, and identical with Brahman. They are not sinners. They make mistakes and suffer because of ignorance. As darkness disappears when light dawns, so ignorance goes away with the advent of knowledge. Bondage and freedom are in the mind. Thinking of weakness and bondage, one becomes weak and bound. Thinking of strength and freedom, one becomes strong and free. No human being wants slavery because it is painful. Joy is only in freedom, which is, as Vedanta declares, the inherent nature of all beings. The goal of human life is to realize God, and the purpose of religion is to teach one how to manifest the divinity within.
  4. How does one manifest the divinity within? Vedanta suggests four yogas: (a) karma yoga, the path of unselfish action, (b) jnana yoga, the path of knowledge, (c) raja yoga, the path of meditation, and (d) bhakti yoga, the path of devotion. The word yoga signifies the union of the individual soul with the Cosmic Soul.
  5. Truth is one and universal. It cannot be limited to any country or race or individual. All religions of the world express the same Truth in different languages and in various ways. Just as the sun is no one’s property, so also Truth is not confined to one particular religion or philosophy. No one can say that the sun is a Christian sun or a Hindu sun or a Buddhist sun or a Jewish sun or an Islamic sun. Vedanta, rather, promulgates the harmony of religions. As different rivers originate from different sources but mingle in the ocean, losing their names and forms, so all the various religious paths that human beings take, through different tendencies, lead to God, or the Truth.

Now if a person would ask me, “What do you suggest that I read to know about Vedanta?” it would be hard for me to give an answer. Vedanta is a vast subject. Its scriptures have been evolving for the last five thousand years. The three basic scriptures of Vedanta are the Upanishads (the revealed truths), the Brahma Sutras (the reasoned truths), and the Bhagavad Gita (the practical truths). But it is hard for someone to get the essence of these scriptures without the help of a teacher and without going through the commentaries.

Sometimes we suggest that a person read Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, because Sri Ramakrishna’s life and teachings were saturated with Vedanta. Or we suggest The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, because it was Swami Vivekananda who brought the message of Vedanta to the West. But invariably we have noticed that the inquirer is dismayed, seeing the huge volumes of the Divine Play, the Gospel, and the Complete Works, which consist of 1008, 1063 and 4363 pages respectively. Of course, many swamis of the Ramakrishna Order have written excellent shorter books on Vedanta and yoga, and these undoubtedly are very helpful.

Once, however, a prophetic saying of Swami Vivekananda’s flashed through my mind: “I have a message to the West, as Buddha had a message to the East.” What was his message? It was Vedanta. And it is this message that I have put together for the readers in Vedanta: Voice of Freedom from Vivekananda’s Complete Works.