Vedanta is a form of Hindu theology based on the combined interpretations of three sacred sources:
In spite of what common opinion says, there is no such a thing as “thee” Vedanta theology. Instead there are widely divergent interpretations of Vedanta, all of which may be called Vedanta theologies. There are, however, three distinct classical interpretations of Vedanta based on the writings of:
Of these three, Shankara is the most well known and so his particular interpretation of Vedanta is commonly understood to be “thee” Vedanta. This is not true and the other two theologians, although not as well known, are no less important in the history of Hindu theology and therefore should be appreciated. I would also add that these three great teachers should be placed on par with Aristotle, Socrates and Plato.
Each of these classical interpretations of Vedanta theology has been named according to their type of interpretation. Respectively they are:
1. Advaita Vedanta (Shankara)
2. Vishishtha Advaita Vedanta (Ramanuja)
3. Dvaita Vedanta (Madhva)
You will notice that the names of these theologies all center around the word ‘dvaita’ which means ‘duality.’ Therefore, starting from the most recent theologian, Madhva Acharya, his interpretation of Vedanta is called Dvaita. He is often depicted with two finger held up suggesting duality. According to this interpretation he asserts that the nature of reality is dual, meaning that this universe is comprised of two distinct principles, namely, God and everything else. By contrast, Shankara Acharya, the most ancient theologian of the three, has an interpretation called Advaita, non-duality, which asserts that nature of reality is not dual, but one. Shankara’s depiction often shows him holding only one finger up. According to Shankara there is only one ultimate ‘thing’ in existence, namely God. Shankara’s interpretation creates an obvious problem–that if everything is ultimately God, then why do we not know this? One may naturally think, “I certainly do not feel like I am God, nor does the table in front of me seem to be God and my dog is certainly not God!” Shankara’s answer to this question is simple. Everything is God, but the reason you do not perceive this fact is because your ‘seeing’ ability is obscured by illusion (maya) due to ignorance. Remove this illusion through knowledge and you will perceive that all things are God, hence Advaita. Shankara and Madhva have diametrically opposed interpretations of Vedanta.
Ramanuja’s interpretation lies between these two interpretations. According to Ramanuja the nature of reality is ultimately non-duality (advaita), but with a qualification (vishishtha). Thus his interpretation of Vedanta is called Vishishtha Advaita (qualified non-duality). The nature of the qualification is significant. Ramanuja asserts that three distinct ‘things’ exist in this world, namely, God, soul and matter and yet one does not exist without the other. As a unity they are one (advaita) and yet because they are distinct in their essence, this unity is qualified (vishishtha). In a certain way we might say that Ramanuja’s interpretation of Vedanta is something like saying that reality is both dual and non-dual at the same time. Indeed, Ramanuja’s theology has created many derivative interpretations by later theologians who have tried to capture his idea in their own words. For example there is dvaita-advaita (dual and non-dual), shudha-advaita (purified non-duality) and even achintya-bheda-abheda (inconceivable difference and non-difference.
The followers of Shankara’s school commonly assert that these are not different interpretations of the Upanishads, the Gita and Vedanta Sutras, but simply different levels of the same Vedanta theology, the highest being the advaita interpretation. Ramanuja and Madhva, of course, would reject this understanding and say that Shankara’s interpretation is outright wrong. The topic of Vedanta is a vast subject matter that I have barely touched upon, but if the reader wishes to pursue the matter this short explanation will serve as a basis for further study.