You are on page 1of 6

Visishta-advaita Vedanta: An Introductory Over-View

Mukunda Raghavan

The ultimate point of all philosophy is to try and grasp at the ultimate reality and explain
it or understand it. In Hindu philosophy, the end all of philosophy is Vedanta or the "End
(Sum) of all Knowledge". The main sources of knowledge are the Vedas, or more
specifically the Upanishads. These texts are supplemented by the Brahma-sutras of Rishi
Badarayana and by the Bhagavad Gita. There were many commentaries and philosophies
written on these texts before Shri Shankaracharya, but most of them are no longer extant
Sri Shankaracharya was the first person to revive Vedanta after the advent of Buddhism.
His philosophy, which is known as Kevala-advaita, or simply Advaita, puts forth that the
world is empirically real but at the absolute level it is false or un-real. The nature of the
Jiva (soul) in Kevala-advaita is that it is a product of the super-imposition of Maya
(illusion) or Avidya (ignorance) on the Absolute (known in the Vedic texts as Brahman),
which produces this apparent plurality of souls. In reality, there exists only one entity,
which is Brahman, who is non-differentiated, homogenous, pure, attributeless, formless
and infinite.
This is the ultimate nature of Brahman. And in reality, at the absolute level, the atman, or
true self, is wholly identical with this Brahman. This Brahman is called Nirguna
Brahman, or Brahman without any qualities. The Saguna Brahman, or the attributed
Brahman, is Brahman viewed through Maya. It is real, but only as real as the "Jiva" is
from the relative or empirical point of view. Although this may seem a little redundant, it
must be understood that before one can understand Visishta-advaita, one must understand
Definition of Visishta-advaita
Having explained the very basics of Advaita, I shall now explain Visishta-advaita. The
ontological term "Visishta-advaita" essential means "Reality is one as qualified by
plurality". It is derived from the two words "Visishta", which mean attributes, and
"Advaita", which means oneness, or non-duality. In this philosophy, Brahman is the
absolute underlying reality and the Jivas and the insentient Universe constitute His
qualities or modes.
Nature of Brahman
Brahman is Sarvaguna, possessing infinite number of attributes. He possesses infinite
number of auspicious qualities like jnana (knowledge), bala (strength), veerya
(courageousness), shakti (power), tejas (brilliance), satyakama (desire of good),
satyasamkalpa, kaarunya (merciful compassion) and so on. He is Nirguna (qualitiless) in
a sense that He is the antithesis of all imperfections and negative qualities, like anger,
pain, hunger, death, evil, cowardice, sickness and so on. Brahman is eternal, pervades all,
is the cause of the entire creation (of souls and matter), Lord of all creation, the only
Independent Entity and the Support of the other two entities (souls and the world). The
Jiva is unborn, eternal, atomic in nature, but possesses infinite consciousness, which is
presently contracted due to karma and the body, which the Jiva enters into. Jiva is the
attribute, or mode, of Brahman. It is subservient to Brahman and possesses various
relationships to Brahman such as: sarira/sariri (body/indweller), Prakara/Prakari
(attribute or mode/substance), sesha/seshi (Owned/owner), amsa/amsi (part/whole) (an
example here is that of the light and the sun, the light is part of the sun but it is also
different from it), adharadeya-sambandha (supporter-supported), Niyamya/Niyanta
(controlled/controller) and Rasksya/Raksaka (redeemed/redeemer). These are the
prominent relationships that both the Jiva and matter (jagat) inherently possess with
Brahman. There are other relationships that the Jiva possesses with Brahman. Brahman
can be experienced as the father, son, mother, sister, wife, husband, friend, lover and lord.
The World
I shall now enter into a discussion about the Jagat, or the universe that is inhabited by
insentient beings (i.e., matter or energy). Before the time of each creation and during
pralaya (dissolution), the universe exists in a subtle and unevolved state - without name
and form - within Brahman. When creation occurs, the universe evolves itself and issues
out with name and form, this is what is called creation. Ramanujacharya accepts the
Sankhya method of creation and cosmology, but in addition adds that Brahman is the
ruling or underlying principle behind it. The universe emanates from Brahman and
remains in Brahman as a distinct entity, which also possess Brahman as the antaryamin,
or in-dwelling soul. Brahman creates the world just as a spider creates it's webs out of
itself. Even as the web is a different entity from the spider, so is the world a different
entity from Brahman. The creation of the universe is but a sport or leela of the Lord. It is
a spontaneous, joyous, creative activity by Brahman, which gives the Jiva a purpose in
life, which again is to understand its true identity and its dependent relationship with
Nature and Psychology of the Jiva.
I would like to now address the question of matter and science. Matter does not just mean
something you can touch and feel, but rather it refers to the insentient beings. The theory
now most accepted by physicists is the theory of quanta. All matter is just vibrations
corresponding to a certain frequency according to this theory. In other words, it is a
vibrational level. The Visishta-advaita theory says that the insentient universe is not
created, but exists at all times, in either some name or form or without name and form;
but regardless, it exists and is not created, for it is an eternal "part" or mode for Brahman.
Now back to the philosophy itself. I shall attempt to give a description of the nature of the
Jiva. The Jiva too is not created; rather Brahman projects it into manifestation from its
subtle state or "sleeping" state. Creation here refers to drawing something out. The
individual soul is different from Brahman because Brahman is the creator, sustainer and
destroyer of Universe; He is the abode of infinite kalyana gunas and is beyond the
shadow of imperfections. Brahman is in all the individual souls as the inner Self of these
souls, just as the Jiva is the self to the body.
The Jiva is a conscious entity, who is aware of its own existence and the existence of
others. Consciousness is the essence and quality of the individual soul. Consciousness as
a quality can contract or expand, and is in a state of constant flux. It is dynamic, not
static. Both memory and recognition prove its existence. Moreover, the absence of
consciousness does not mean the absence of the self, i.e., in sleep it is said that
consciousness ceases to persist and the self persists. Ramanuja asserts that "the very fact
that one is able to remember what has happened before he went to sleep is also proof that
the self persisted through sleep although consciousness had come to an end."
The individual soul is also a knowing subject. Jnana (knowledge) is an attribute of the
Jiva. The Jiva possesses dharmabhuta jnana or attributive consciousness. This means
that the Jiva is the subject and a self-luminous substance, it is of the nature of substance-
attribute. In other words, the Jiva possesses a distinct "I" that exists at all times, even
upon union with Brahman. The Jiva is also an agent. What that means is that the Jiva has
the ability to make choices and do things of its own will. According to Ramanuja, from
this stems the Jiva's moral and social responsibility. The Jiva is also an enjoyer of the
fruits of the actions.
The Jiva is sentient, a subject of consciousness and experience, a self-luminous
substance, an agent and enjoyer. But the defining characteristic of the Jiva is that it is
ontologically dependent on Brahman. The Jiva is not totally free, nor is it totally bound.
Rather, it possesses what can be best put as self-determination. In other words, the Jiva
undertakes actions that are approved or disapproved by the Supreme Being residing
inside it, and accordingly the law of karma takes jurisdiction. When I talk about approval
or disapproval of the Supreme, it must be understood in the sense of obeying or
disobeying the scriptures and the law of karma.
Ramanuja makes an analogy of two masters owning a property, if one master wishes to
transfer that property to a third party he can't do it without the approval of the partner.
The approval is given, but the act itself is performed by the selling partner, so the fruit
belongs to him too. This Ramanuja refers to as anumati dana, or lending approval. In this
way the responsibility falls on the individual soul, and not upon Brahman, who only gave
His lending approval to the Jiva, informing the Jiva that he is responsible for his own
action and that the lord only gives His approval to actions - whatever the action is.
There is a quote by Pillai Lokacharya regarding this concept: "Even the All-loving Father,
the Great Isvara, does not force His presence on the soul, not yet ripe to receive Him.
With infinite patience He waits and watches the struggle of the soul in Samsara (the
realm of birth and death), since the struggle is necessary for the full unfolding of the
faculties of the Jiva." The individual soul is intrinsically free from evil or imperfections,
different from the body and is characterized by knowledge and bliss. In its present state,
however, it suffers from the illusion of suffering and ignorance.
The Goal of Human Existence
Now I will continue with the discussion on the Purusha-artha or the Human Goal. In
human life, according to the Vedas, there are four goals, namely, Artha (wealth), Kama
(pleasure), Dharma (righteousness) and Moksha (absolute subjective freedom). The first
three goals are not ends in themselves according to Visista-advaita philosophy. Artha,
Kama and Dharma must be pursued with the ideal of Moksha as the goal. These three
pursuits must be performed with the knowledge that they are not ends in themselves, but
are a means to the Parama-Purushartha (supreme end): Moksha. Moksha itself is the
goal. In other words Artha, Kama and Dharma must be pursued in moderation and within
moral and ethical means.
Moksha, according to Ramanujacharya, is attaining to the likeness or similar nature of
Brahman. Moksha is not the destruction of the "I" in the atman, but it is the destruction of
the false sense of "I", the ahamkara (ego or pride), confusion of oneness with the body,
karma and so on. The true "I" of the individuality of the atman persists even through
Moksha because it is a different entity than Brahman, who is the inner soul of the atman.
The individual Jiva attains to the nature of Brahman and attains His qualities, such as
complete freedom from imperfections/evil/sin and so on, which in actuality is its true
nature, which was concealed by the power and effects of Karma. Upon Moksha, the Jiva
attains autonomy and freedom, but is still dependent on the Lord, who has granted the
Jiva its true nature. In other words, just because the Supreme Being is the source of all
the qualities and nature of the individual atman, for that reason is the individual liberated
soul dependent on the Supreme. The individual atman possesses all the qualities of the
Lord except for the ability to create, govern and destroy the Universe. We do not have the
ability to grant Moksha either, and we are still atomic in size when compared to the Lord,
who is all pervading. The bliss of the Lord becomes the bliss of the Jiva. The Jiva no
longer has any independent desires, for it has Brahman, the all-desire and the all-bliss.
Ramanuja ends his Shri-bhashya on this topic. From Tattva, or Truth, one goes to Hita, or
the Path, and that leads to Purushartha, or Moksha.
Concluding Thoughts
To summarize, there is one unified reality that is qualified by plurality. The one reality -
Brahman - is qualified by the sentient Jivas and the insentient matter. The Jiva is a real
entity that has existed forever and will continue to exist forever as an individual soul,
which possesses consciousness, bliss and knowledge as essential qualities and as its
intrinsic nature. It is atomic in dimension and has all the qualities of Brahman upon
liberation (Moksha), except for the power to create, sustain and destroy. It cannot grant
Moksha, and remains always atomic in nature. The Jiva possesses within it the
Antaryamin Brahman who sits within the soul and is a witness to all its actions.
The Universe is a real entity that exists always. It may not exist always in the same name
or form, but it always exists nonetheless. During the period in which creation has not
taken place, the universe of matter exists in a subtle state within Brahman. When creation
occurs, the universe of matter is brought forth and assumes name and form. The universe
comes out of, and remains in, Brahman. The act of creation, sustenance and destruction
of the Universe is a divine leela, or sport, of the Lord. It is the ultimate expression of
Brahman's love for His "parts", or modes.
Brahman is the Supreme and only independent reality, all other realities, or 'reals', depend
on Brahman for their existence. Brahman is the abode of infinite auspicious qualities, like
bliss, love, compassion, power, strength, energy, grace, mercy and so on. Brahman is also
the antithesis of everything opposed to purity and imperfection, such as age, hunger,
anger, pain, hate, weakness and so on. He is beyond the realm of duality for He is the
only reality on which all other realities are dependent, and He is the reality that exists
within all other realities. He possesses consciousness, knowledge and bliss as both
essential qualities and as part of His nature. He pervades all, so He is called Vishnu; He
exists within the inner reaches of the soul, as well as all matter as the Antaryamin, or
indwelling soul. He is all around us and all within us. Out of His infinite love for us, He
assumes different relationships with us, such as - lover, friend, father, mother and so on.
These are secondary relationships, the first order of relationship being the
supporter/supported, whole/part, substance/quality and so on.
The paths to the Supreme are many but fall under these four categories jnana
(transcendent knowledge), karma (activity), bhakti (devotional contemplation) and
prappati (self-surrender). These are not contradictory means but are rather successive and
complimentary means which lead to self-surrender, which is both the goal and the means
to the goal. Moksha is the final goal of a human's life and all other goals such as Artha,
Kama and Dharma must be performed with the knowledge that they are not goals unto
themselves, but are means to the goal. Of the various means to Moksha, the easiest to
follow is prappati, in which the prappana, or the surrenderer, gives the false ahamkara
(ego), pride and the fruits of her actions to the supreme and puts on the Supreme the
burden of protection, and gives Him all the good and bad fruits of the actions.
In the state of Moksha, the Jiva enjoys all the qualities of Brahman, but for the ones I
mentioned above. The Jiva also attains equality of status with Brahman and experiences
the same bliss as Brahman. Even in this state, the Jiva is dependent on Brahman due to
Brahman being the cause and reason why the Jiva exists and possesses the qualities and
abilities that it does. Even in the state of Moksha, the Jiva performs loving service and
devotional contemplation upon the Lord, though not for the want of any desires, but out
of pure love to the Lord.
In terms of theology, Ramanujacharya puts forth the view that both the Supreme Goddess
Lakshmi and Supreme God Narayana together constitute Brahman - the Absolute. Sri
Lakshmi is the female personification of Brahman and Narayana is the male
personification of Brahman, but They are both inseparable, co-eternal, co-absolute and
are always substantially one. Thus, in reference to these dual aspects of Brahman, the
Supreme is refered to in the eternal Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya as Sriman Narayana.
There exist three types of Jivas: 1) the Nityas, or the eternally free Jivas who were never
in Samsara, 2) the Muktas, or the Jivas that were once in Samsara but are free, and
finally 3) Baddhas (bound), or the Jivas still in Samsara. All readers of this present work
are necessarily Baddhas. Sri Lakshmi and Narayana possess spiritual bodies composed of
shuddha-sattva, or pure goodness. This is the basic theology of Sri Vaishnavism, both
shruti (The Vedas, Upanishads, etc.) and smriti (Puranas, Itihasas, etc.) are used to
support this view.
In conclusion, Sri Ramanujacharya showed that the Supreme Being who created the
Universe is not only infinitely loving, but that He actually is love itself. This being, which
pervades all and exists in all, out of divine love and sport creates this leela in which we
exist. The Lord is simply waiting for us to take the first step towards Him, and when we
take that first step, He immediately rushes forth, taking infinite number of steps, to be
with His devotee as the expression of His love. In the mystic sayings of the Alvars (the
great saints of the Sri Vaishnava tradition), it has been said that although the Lord is the
Supreme Sovereign, He becomes a servant to His devotees out of His infinite love for
them. The Supreme Being, as put forth by Ramanujaacharya, is the Supreme
Transcendental Loving Reality, who is the abode of all that is pure and perfect. This Lord,
Who of His own will (and not by the product of Avidya or Maya), brought this Universe
into being as the expression of His divine love, Who transcends duality, and Who exists
in the realm of spiritual perfection, is the Lord of the Vedas and the other Scriptures. It is
not through mere knowledge or ritual that one knows Him, but it is through love and
devotion, together with right knowledge and practice, that one experiences and knows
Him. This is the goal in itself. For a devotee of the lord neither Moksha nor mundane life
is ever desireed or needed -- loving service to the Lord is all that there is. To the devotee
this service is all the Moksha, or freedom, that is needed.
Ramanujacharya's philosophy doesn't deny the world or our mundane experiences, rather
he fosters us to experience it and live in the moment with the understanding and
knowledge that all is of the Lord. The world is not false or impure but is the expression of
the divine love of the Lord; thus we should experience it in that manner. It is with this
mentality that all human activities should be done. Don't deny the reality of the world, but
experience it by seeing the Supreme in everything that exists.

Shree Raama
Shree Ramanujaya Namah
Shreeman Narayano Vijayathe
Shree Mahalakshmi Kaataksham

Biographical Note: Mukunda Raghavan (b. 1979) is a young, practicing Sri Vaishnava
Hindu. He is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Criminology, Political
Science and a minor in Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine and intends to
take a year long sabbatical for pursuing religious studies in India soon. Mukunda lives
with his parents in Santa Ana in Southern California, USA. Please feel free to email him