advaita vedAntA - FAQ

Ravi msr at REDDY20.TAMU.EDU
Mon Nov 25 18:19:06 CST 1996


                    a d v a i t a   v e d A n t a

                      FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS



REVISION:       November 23, 1996

AUTHOR:         Vidyasankar Sundaresan
                Department of Chemical Engineering
                California Institute of Technology
                E-mail: vidya at



FAQ1:   What is advaita vedAnta?
FAQ2:   Who is the founder of advaita?
FAQ3:   What are the basic tenets of advaita?
FAQ4:   What is the relationship between advaita and buddhism? Is
        advaita a mere copy of buddhism?
FAQ5:   Why is advaita sometimes referred to as mAyAvAda?
FAQ6:   Isn't advaita falsified by everyday experience?
FAQ7:   What is the concept of scripture, according to advaita?
FAQ8:   How does worship by advaitins differ from worship in other
        schools of vedAnta?
FAQ9:   What is the advaita concept of liberation?
FAQ10:  What is the significance of jIvanmukti?
FAQ11:  Who are some of the leading scholars of Advaita?
FAQ12:  What are the advaita institutions of the present day?
FAQ13:  Is there a mailing list that discusses advaita?
FAQ14:  Where can I get more information about advaita vedAnta and its

APPENDIX - I Transliteration scheme used.

FAQ1:   What is advaita vedAnta?

Literally, "non-dualism," advaita is the name of the oldest extant
school of vedAnta. advaita bases itself upon the upanishads, the
brahma-sUtras and the bhagavad-gItA. advaita asserts that the real
identity of the jIva, the indvidual self, is nothing other than
brahman iself. This teaching follows from upanishadic statements like
tat tvam asi and aham brahmAsmi. It is in this cardinal doctrine that
advaita differs from all other schools of vedAnta. The main tenets of
advaita are detailed in commentaries written by SankarAcArya, the
famous philosopher who lived in the 7th - 8th centuries A.D. Read for a website dedicated to
advaita vedAnta.

FAQ2:   Who is the founder of advaita?
There is no single founder of advaita. Since the philosophy of advaita
is rooted in the upanishads, which are part of the eternal vedas, the
advaita tradition does not trace itself to a historical personality.
However, because of his extensive writings and establishment of
monasteries, SankarAcArya is venerated as the most important teacher of
advaita in this yuga. Before SankarAcArya's time, the tradition was
passed down mainly through oral instruction. Even today, the traditional
way to learn advaita is to sit at the feet of an accomplished guru. Mere
reading of the texts is insufficient. More details about the guru
parampara of advaita are at

FAQ3: What are the basic tenets of advaita?

The essential identity of the Atman and brahman is the most important
tenet of advaita. brahman is affirmed as the substratum on which all
sense-phenomena are experienced, and also the antaryAmI, the inner
controller of all beings. The Atman, the real Self, is the same as
this inner controller, and therefore identical to brahman.  Moksha
consists in realizing this identity, not just as a matter of literal
or intellectual understanding, but as something that is to be grasped
by the individual in his/her own personal experience. Yogic practices
help in the road towards such realization, because they help the
seeker in practising control of the senses, and direct the antahkaraNa
inwards. The practice of ashTAnga-yoga is recommended to seekers by
teachers of advaita. However, it is important to remember that moksha
is not a result of mere ritualistic practice. Being identical to
brahman, moksha always exists. Ritualistic practices help only to the
extent of achieving citta-Suddhi.

advaita is a non-dual teaching. When asked why duality is perceived in
this world, advaita has a multi-pronged answer to the question. The
world of multiplicity can be explained as due to mAyA, the power of
creation. From the point of view of the individual, the perception of
duality is attributed to avidyA (ignorance) due to which the unity of
brahman is not known, and multiplicity is seen instead. This is akin to
the false perception of a snake in a rope. When the rope is known, the
snake vanishes. Similarly, on brahman-realization, the world of
multiplicity vanishes. This does not mean that the external world is a
creation of avidyA, the individual's ignorance. Such a view, called
dr.shTi-sr.shTi vAda is close to subjective idealism, and is not held by
any of the advaita writers except prakASAnanda. Most schools of advaita
hold that the perception of multiplicity in the world instead of the One
brahman, is due to ignorance. Removal of avidyA is therefore synonymous
with brahman-realization, i.e. moksha.
Read for a more
detailed description.

FAQ4:   What is the relationship between advaita and buddhism?
        Is advaita a mere copy of buddhism?

No, advaita is not a mere copy of buddhism. For a few centuries now,
advaita has been criticized as being "pracanna bauddham" - buddhism in
disguise. This criticism stems mainly from some of the vaishNava schools
of vedAnta, but it is misplaced. Firstly, there is no one "buddhism" and
for the criticism to be valid, it must be specified which school of
buddhism is being referred to. SankarAcArya expends a lot of effort
criticizing many of the philosophical positions taken by various
schools of buddhism in his commentaries. Among modern academic scholars,
advaita vedAnta is most often compared with the madhyamaka and yogAcAra
schools of buddhism. The modern academic comparison between advaita and
madhyamaka is mainly inspired by the fact that the mANDUkya kArikAs,
written by gauDapAda, Sankara's parama-guru, exhibit a great familiarity
with this school of buddhism.

However, if it is held that advaita vedAnta is essentially the same as
madhyamaka buddhism, it must be pointed out that such a view stems
from a misunderstanding of the important tenets of both advaita
vedAnta and madhyamaka buddhism. There are many key details in which
advaita differs from the madhyamaka school of buddhism. As for
yogAcAra, the points of similarity arise from the fact that both
advaita vedAnta and yogAcAra buddhism have a place for yogic practice,
as do other schools of Indian philosophy. For further details, consult, and follow the link to

FAQ5:   Why is advaita sometimes referred to as mAyAvAda?

The word mAyAvAda serves many purposes. Since advaita upholds the
identity of the individual Atman with brahman, a doubt naturally arises
about the origin of the variegated universe. The appearance of
difference in the universe is explained to be due to mAyA. In popular
parlance, mAyA means illusion, and a magician or a juggler is called a
mAyAvI. Within advaita, mAyA has a technical significance as the
creative power of brahman, which also serves to occlude, due to which
the universe is perceived to be full of difference, and the unity of
brahman is not known. See fuller details in response to Q. 4 above. Some
vaishNava schools use the word mAyAvAda in a derogatory sense. However,
this criticism interprets mAyA solely as illusion and criticizes advaita
for dismissing the world as an illusion that is akin to a dream. Such a
criticism neglects the philosophical subtlety of the concept of mAyA in

FAQ6:   Isn't advaita falsified by everyday experience?

No. In fact, advaita acknowledges that everyday experience leads one
to infer plurality, but it maintains emphatically that the
transcendental experience of brahmAnubhava sublates the ordinary
everyday experience that is based on perception through one's
senses. The tradition holds that it is not correct to make one's
conclusions on issues of metaphysics based only on normal everyday
experience. All schools of vedAnta rely on scripture, i.e. the Vedas,
as a valid source of knowledge. As advaita is learnt only from the
upanishads, it is not falsified by everyday experience. On the other
hand, the knowledge of brahman's identity sublates normal
perception. It is also pointed out there would be no need for
scripture if one's conclusions were based only on everyday experience.

FAQ7:   What is the concept of scripture, according to advaita?

advaita's concept of scripture is essentially the same as that of the
pUrva mImAmsA, with one important exception. Thus, 1.The vedas, arranged
into the r.k, yajus, sAma and atharva vedas are valid scripture. As they
are not composed by human beings, they are said to be apaurusheya -
unauthored. 2.Each veda has a karmakANDa, consisting of mantras and
ritual injunctions (vidhis) and a jnAnakANDa, consisting of the
upanishads and brAhmaNas. 3.The exception that advaita takes to pUrva
mImAmsA is in the role of the jnAnakANDa. The upanishads are not merely
arthavAda, as maintained in the pUrva mImAmsA school. The upanishads
teach the knowledge of brahman, and are not meant to eulogize the fruits
of ritual action.

FAQ8:   How does worship by advaitins differ from worship in
        other schools of vedAnta?

Very markedly. The orthoprax advaita tradition is closely allied to the
smArta tradition. which follows the system of pancAyatana pUjA, where
vishNu, Siva, Sakti, gaNapati and sUrya (alternatively skanda) are
worshipped as forms of saguNa brahman. The worship is done both on a
daily basis and on specific festival occassions dedicated to one of the
Gods. Questions of who is superior, vishNu or Siva, which are very
popular among many groups of Hindus, are not relished by advaitins. In
the words of Sri Chandrasekhara Bharati (1892 - 1954), the accomplished
jIvanmukta, "you cannot see the feet of the Lord, why do you waste your
time debating about the nature of His face?"

That said, vishNu and Siva, the Great Gods of Hinduism, are both very
important within the advaita tradition. The sannyAsIs of the advaita
order always sign their correspondence with the words "iti
nArAyaNasmaraNam". In worship, advaitins do not insist on exclusive
worship of one devatA alone. As brahman is essentially formless (nirguNa
), all forms (guNas) are held to equally belong to It. The particular
form that the devotee prefers to worship is called the ishTa-devatA. The
ishTa-devatAs worshipped by advaitins include vishNu as kr.shNa, the
jagadguru, and as rAma, Siva as dakshiNAmUrti, the guru who teaches in
silence, and as candramaulISvara, and the Mother Goddess as pArvatI,
lakshmI and sarasvatI. Especially popular are the representations of
vishNu as a SAlagrAma, Siva as a linga, and Sakti as the SrI-cakra.
gaNapati is always worshipped at the beginning of any human endeavor,
including the pUjA of other Gods. The daily sandhyAvandana ritual is
addressed to sUrya. The sannyAsis of the advaita sampradAya recite both
the vishNu sahasranAmam and the SatarudrIya portion of the yajurveda as
part of their daily worship.

There is another significant distinction between worship in the advaita
tradition and other kinds of Hindu worship. advaita insists that the
distinction between the worshipper and God, the object of worship, is
transcended in samAdhi. This position should not be confused with that
of some Saiva schools, which call for a ritual identification of the
worshipper with Siva, for the duration of the worship. The identity of
Atman and brahman is a matter of absolute truth, not just a temporary
ritual identification. Most vaishNava schools of vedAnta hold that the
distinction between the worshipper and God, the object of worship, is
eternally maintained.

FAQ9:   What is the advaita concept of liberation?

In the advaita analysis, human life and behavior is explained on the
basis of the theory of karma, which sets the cycle of rebirths into
motion. All actions, good or bad, create their own karmic residues
called vAsanas, which exhibit their results over a period of time. The
karma which has already started taking fruit is called prArabdha karma.
This is the karma that is responsible for the current birth. The
accumulated karma which is yet to take fruit is called sancita karma. As
long as the cycle of rebirths continues, more karma will be done in the
future, and this is called Agamin karma. Liberation (moksha) is seen as
the way out of this endless cycle.

In advaita, moksha is synonymous with brahman. Sruti says "brahmavit
brahmaiva bhavati" - He who knows brahman becomes brahman Itself. In the
advaita understanding of this statement, the "becoming" is said to be
metaphorical only. It is not as if something that was not brahman
suddenly becomes brahman. Rather, "knowing brahman" means a removal of
the ignorance about one's own essential nature as brahman. Thus, to
"know brahman" is to "be brahman". The one who has realized the identity
of his own Atman with the brahman is the jIvanmukta, one who is
liberated even while embodied. Such realization should not and cannot
just be a literal understanding of upanishadic mahAvAkyas. The
jIvanmukta is one who has experienced the truth of the identity himself.
Thus, moksha is said to be not a result of ritual action (karma mArga)
or of devotional service (bhakti mArga). These paths lead along the way,
and constitute the "how" but not the "why" of liberation. For this
reason, the way of advaita vedAnta is also called the path of knowledge

FAQ10:  What is the significance of jIvanmukti?

advaita holds that realization of brahman is possible on this earth
itself. The highly evolved seeker, who approaches vedAntic study with a
pure mind, and a strong tendency of mumukshutva, is fit to really
experience brahman. Such a one who has actually realized brahman, is a
jIvanmukta - he is liberated while still living. He continues to live in
a material body, because of the momentum of the prArabha karma that has
already started taking fruit. But he accumulates no further karma,
because all Agamin karma and sancita karma are "burnt" in the knowledge
of brahmajnAna. When the prArabdha karmas exhaust themselves, the body
dies, and the jIvanmukta is said to have attained videhamukti. In
accordance with the Sruti, "na sa punarAvartate," he does not enter into
the cycle of rebirths any more.

FAQ11: Who are some of the leading scholars of Advaita?

The earliest advaita scholars whose writings are available today are
gauDapAda (5th - 6th cent. CE - mANDUKya kArikas) and SankarAcArya (7th
- 8th cent. CE - brahmasUtra bhAshyas, bhagavadgItA bhAshya and various
upanishad bhAshyas). Four disciples of SankarAcArya are known in the
tradition - sureSvara, padmapAda, toTaka and hastAmalaka.
Contemporaneous with SankarAcArya was maNDana miSra, who is
traditionally identified with sureSvara. In the later post-Sankaran
period, some of the leading scholars are vAcaspati miSra (9th cent. CE),
jnAnaghana and sarvajnAtman (9th - 10th cent. CE), prakASAtman (11th
cent. CE), SrIharsha (12th cent. CE), Anandagiri, bhAratI tIrtha,
vidyAraNya and SankarAnanda (13th - 14th cent. CE), madhusUdana
sarasvatI (15th cent. CE), appayya dIkshita (16th cent. CE), sadASiva
brahmendra and upanishad brahmendra (18th cent. CE) and candraSekhara
bhAratI and saccidAnandendra sarasvatI (20th cent. CE). Other than
these, there are many other equally illustrious scholars who have not
written texts, but who have taught their disciples through oral

FAQ12:  What are the advaita institutions of the present day?

All present day advaitins trace their guru-parampara through the four
disciples of SrI SankarAcArya. These disciples were the first leaders of
the four AmnAya maThas (monasteries) at purI, Sr.ngeri, dvArakA and
jyotirmaTh. All four maThas are functioning today. Other than these,
there are a number of institutions in India that are also active in
disseminating advaita philosophy and religion. These include the various
daSanAmI akhADas all over north India, Kankhal ASram in Hardwar and
Bombay, the advaita ASrama, Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai, the advaita
maThas in Kaladi, Bangalore, Kudali, Ujjain, Rameswaram, Kanchipuram,
Varanasi and other places, as well as branches of all these institutions
in India and abroad. In addition to these, institutions like the
Ramakrishna Mission established by Swami Vivekananda, Self-Realization
Fellowship of Paramahamsa Yogananda and others also have advaita as
their central philosophy. See for further

FAQ13: Is there a mailing list that discusses advaita?

There is an unmoderated mailing list, ADVAITA-L, dedicated to discuss
advaita vedAnta. To subscribe to this list, please send a mail to
listserv at with a blank subject line and the body of text
should contain only the following information.




Once you subscribe, you will get a welcome message explaining how to
set the other mailing options (like digest format). In case you have
any problems in subscribing, please contact Ravi (msr at This
forum is kept open and unmoderated with the hope that the members will
use self moderation and discuss advaita vedAnta with reverence.
Archives of the mailing list is available in web browsable form and
can be read from

FAQ14:  Where can I get more information about advaita vedAnta
        and its teachers?

There is an advaita vedAnta web-site at the URL All the questions in this
FAQ are discussed in greater detail in various pages at this
site. There is a www version of this FAQ at this site, while the text
of this FAQ is periodically posted to the ADVAITA mailing list and to
the internet newsgroups soc.religion.hindu and soc.religion.vaishnava.

The number of online resources relating to contemporary teachers from
the advaita tradition is growing rapidly. Here is a collection of links
you might be interested in visiting:
        About the Sringeri Math, the most ancient advaita monastery,
        established by Adi Sankara.
         Yoga Vedanta of Swami Sivananda.
        The Divine Life Society of Swami Sivananda. -
        Self Realization Fellowship of Sri Paramahamsa Yogananda.
         Chinmaya Mission, Swami Chinmayananda's organization.
        About Sri Ramana Maharishi.
        About Poonjaji, a disciple of Sri Ramana Maharishi.
        Society for Abidance in Truth, Santa Cruz, California.
         Ramakrishna Mission Information.
        Joan Sotkin's page on the Ramakrishna group of organizations.
        An introduction to Vedanta by Giridhar Madras.
        Egodust's Pathways to Metaphysics page.
        General things of interest for Sanskrit lovers.

If you wish to add any site to this list, please inform the author of
this FAQ at vidya at

APPENDIX - I  Transliteration scheme used

It is impossible not to use sam.skr.ta words when talking of advaita
vedAnta. I have preferred to keep philosophical terminology, which have
meanings specific to the school of advaita, in the original sam.skr.ta,
rather than translate into English.

Here is the key to the transliteration scheme that I follow when I use a
sam.skr.ta word in the middle of English text. This scheme makes no
claims to being perfect, but is meant for easy transliteration to the
international Roman alphabet. The intention is to convey a flavor of the
original pronunciation of the sam.skr.ta words. I have avoided the use
of additional diacritical marks as much as possible, by making use of
upper-case letters. Basic knowledge of the devanAgari script is assumed.


                a A i I u U r. R.  lr.  e ai o au m. :


                            k  kh  g gh n
                            c  ch  j jh n
                            T  Th  D Dh N
                            t  th  d dh n
                            p  ph  b bh m
                            y  r   l v/w
                            S  sh  s h jn

                        TRANSLITERATION TABLE


1.The pronunciation of vowels is closer to German usage than to English.
Note the dots "." used in the vowel list. "r." is used in words such as
r.shi, br.had etc. R. and lr. are included for the sake of completeness.

2.The avagraha sign (indicating an elided "a") is depicted as ' - an
apostrophe. This sign is not included in the above table.

3.Nasals associated with gutturals, palatals and dentals are
transliterated as "n". The pronunciation is clear from the context, as
they occur mostly in conjunct formations.

4.visarga ( : ) is used only in quotations.

5.Upper-case letters are used in both the vowel and consonant lists
for transliteration. An upper-case vowel , e.g. "A", is a longer
version of the corresponding lower-case vowel, here "a".
Consequently, sentences that incorporate sam.skr.ta words tend to dev
iate from normal punctuation conventions.

6.The transliteration scheme is used only for words that are
specifically related to advaita vedAnta.  Thus, names of Indian states
or cities are spelt according to usual convention.

7.The name Sam.kara occurs so often that I always write it
as Sankara.


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