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Part of a series on Hindu philosophy Schools

Advaita Vedanta is a sub-school of the Vedanta (literally, end or the goal of the Vedas, Sanskrit) school of Hindu philosophy. Other major sub-schools of Vedanta are Dvaita and Visishadvaita. Advaita (literally, non-duality) is often called a monistic system of thought. The word " Advaita" essentially refers to the identity of the Self (Atman) and the Whole (Brahman). The key source texts for all schools of Vedanta are the Prasthanatrayi - the canonical texts consisting of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. The first person to explicitly consolidate the principles of Advaita Vedanta was Adi Shankara.

Adi Shankara

For more details on this topic, see Adi Shankara.

Adi Shankara (centre) with the Four Disciples; Sureshwaracharya, Hastamalaka, Padmapada, and Totakacharya. Adi Shankara placed each of the disciples in charge of a matha (a monastery or religious order), one of which was located in each of the cardinal directions. Adi Shankara consolidated the Advaita Vedanta, an interpretation of the Vedic scriptures that was approved and accepted by Gaudapada and Govinda Bhagavatpada siddhanta (system). Continuing the line of thought of some of the Upanishadic teachers, and also that of his own teacher’ s teacher Gaudapada, (Ajativada), Adi Shankara expounded the doctrine of Advaita - a nondualistic reality.

He wrote commentaries on the Prasthana Trayi. A famous quote from Vivekacu, one of his Prakaraa grathas (philosophical treatises) that succinctly summarises his philosophy is:

Brahma satya jagat mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah - Brahman is the only truth, the world is illusion, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and individual self

This widely quoted sentence of his is also widely misunderstood. In his metaphysics, there are three tiers of reality with each one sublating the previous. The category illusion in this system is unreal only from the viewpoint of the absolutely real and is different from the category of the Absolutely unreal. His system of vedanta introduced the method of scholarly exegesis on the accepted metaphysics of the Upanishads, and this style was adopted by all the later vedanta schools. Another distinctive feature of his work is his refusal to be literal about scriptural statements and adoption of symbolic interpretation where he considered it appropriate. In a famous passage in his commentary on the Brahmasutra’ s of Badarayana, he says " For each means of knowledge{PramaNam} has a valid domain. The domain of the scriptures {Shabda PramaNam} is the knowledge of the Self. If the scriptures say something about another domain - like the world around us - which contradicts what perception {Pratyaksha PramaNam} and inference{Anumana PramaNam} (the appropriate methods of knowledge for this domain) tells us, then, the scriptural statements have to be symbolically interpreted..."

Adi Shankara’ s contributions to Advaita are crucial. His main works are the commentaries on the Prasthanatrayi (Brahma Sutras, Bhagavad Gita and the Upanisads) and the Gaudapadiya Karikas. He also wrote a major independent treatise, called Upadesa Sahasri, expounding his philosophy.


The necessity of a Guru

Advaita vedanta requires anyone seeking to study advaita vedanta to do so from a Guru (teacher). The Guru must have the following qualities (see Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.12):

Srotriya - must be learned in the Vedic scriptures and sampradaya Brahmaniha - literally meaning established in Brahman; must have realised the oneness of Brahman in everything and in himself

The seeker must serve the Guru and submit questions with all humility in order to remove all doubts (see Bhagavad Gita 4.34). By doing so, advaita says, the seeker will attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of births and deaths).

See also: Guru-shishya tradition

Sadhana Chatuaya

Any mumuku (one seeking moksha) has to have the following four sampattis (qualifications), collectively called Sadhana Chatuaya Sampatti (the fourfold qualifications):

Nityanitya vastu viveka - The ability (viveka) to correctly discriminate between the eternal (nitya) substance (Brahman) and the substance that is transitory existence (anitya). Ihamutrartha phala bhoga viraga - The renunciation (viraga) of enjoyments of objects (artha phala bhoga) in this world (iha) and the other worlds (amutra) like heaven etc. Samadiatka sampatti - the sixfold qualities of sama (control of the antahkaraa), dama (the control of external sense organs), uparati (the refraining from actions; instead concentrating on meditation), titika (the tolerating of tapatraya), sraddha (the faith in Guru and Vedas), samadhana (the concentrating of the mind on God and Guru).

Mumukutva - The firm conviction that the nature of the world is misery and the intense longing for moksha (release from the cycle of births and deaths).

Advaita vedanta categorically states that moksha, or liberation, is available only to those possessing the above-mentioned fourfold qualifications. Thus any seeker wishing to study advaita vedanta from a teacher must possess these.


Prama, in Sanskrit, refers to the correct knowledge, arrived at by thorough reasoning, of any object. Pramaa 
(sources of knowledge, Sanskrit) forms one part of a tripui (trio), namely,

Pramat, the subject; the knower of the knowledge 
Pramaa, the cause or the means of the knowledge 
Prameya, the object of knowledge 
In Advaita Vedanta, the following pramaas are accepted:

Pratyaka -
 the knowledge gained by means of the senses 
Anumana -
 the knowledge gained by means of inference 
Upamana -
 the knowledge gained by means of analogy 
Arthapatti -
 the knowledge gained by superimposing the known knowledge on an appearing knowledge that does not concur with the known knowledge 
Agama -
 the knowledge gained by means of texts such as Vedas (also known as Aptavakya, Sabda pramaa)


Karya and karaa

The karya (effect) and karaa (cause) form an important area for investigation in all the systems of Vedanta. Two karaatvas (ways of being the cause) are recognised:

Nimitta karaatva - Being the instrumental cause. For example, a potter is assigned Nimitta karaatva as he acts as the maker of the pot and thus becomes the pot’ s instrumental cause. Upadana karaatva - Being the material cause. For example, the mud is assigned Upadana karaatva as it acts as the material of the effect (the pot) and thus becomes the pot’ s material cause. Advaita assigns Nimitta karaatva to Brahman vide the statements from the Vedas (only two are given below):

Sarvai rupai vicitya dhira. Namani ktvabhivadan yadaste - That Lord has created all the forms and is calling them by their names (Taitiiriya Aranyaka 3.12.7)

Sa ikata lokannu sja iti - He thought, "Let Me create the worlds" (Aitareya Upanishad 1.1.1)

Advaita also assigns Upadana karaatva to Brahman vide the statements from the Vedas (only two are given below):

Yatha somyaikena mtpinena sarva mnmaya vijñ ata syadvacarabhaa vikaro namadheya mttiketyeva satya - Dear boy, just as through a single clod of clay all that is made of clay would become known, for all modifications is but name based upon words and the clay alone is real (Chandogya Upanishad 6.1.4)

Sokamayata bahu sya prajayeti - (He thought) Let me be many, let me be born (Taittiriya Upanishad 2.6.4)

The Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1 states

Ekamevadvitiya - It is One without a second

Thus, based on these and other statements found in the Vedas, Advaita concludes that Brahman is both the instrumental cause and the material cause.

Karya-karaa ananyatva

Advaita states that karya (effect) is non-different from karaa (cause). However karaa is different from karya. This principle is called Karya-karaa ananyatva (the non-difference of the effect from the cause). To elaborate,

If the cause is destroyed, the effect will no longer exist. For example, if from the effect, cotton cloth, the cause, threads, are removed, there will be no cloth, i.e., the cloth is destroyed. Similarly if in the effect, thread, the cause, cotton, is removed, there will be no thread, i.e., the thread is destroyed. This is brought out by Adi Shankara in the Brahmasutra

Bhaya , commentary on the Brahma sutra, 2.1.9, as:

Ananyatve’ pi karyakaraayo karyasya karaatmatva na tu karaasya karyatmatva - Despite the non-difference of cause and effect, the effect has its self in the cause but not the cause in the effect. The effect is of the nature of the cause and not the cause the nature of the effect. Therefore the qualities of the effect cannot touch the cause.

During the time of its existence, one can easily grasp that the effect is not different from the cause. However that the cause is different from the effect is not readily understood. As to this, it is not really possible to separate cause from effect. But this is possible by imagining so. For example, the reflection of the gold ornament seen in the mirror is only the form of the ornament but is not the ornament itself as it (the reflection) has no gold in it at all. Adi Shankara says in the Chadogya Upaniad Bhaya, commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad, 6.3.2:

Sarva ca namarupadi sadatmanaiva satya vikarajata svatastu antameva - All names and forms are real when seen with the Sat (Brahman) but are false when seen independent of Brahman.

This way Advaita establishes the non-difference of effect from cause. To put it in a nutshell,

Karya is not different from karaa; however karaa is different from karya In the context of Advaita Vedanta,

Jagat (the world) is not different from Brahman; however Brahman is different from Jagat

Salient features of Advaita Vedanta

Three levels of truth

The transcendental or the Paramarthika level in which Brahman is the only reality and nothing else;

The pragmatic or the Vyavaharika level in which both Jiva (living creatures or individual souls) and Ishvara are true; here, the material world is completely true, and, The apparent or the Prathibhasika level in which even material world reality is actually false, like illusion of a snake over a rope or a dream.


According to Adi Shankara, God, the Supreme Cosmic Spirit or Brahman (pronounced as /brh mn/; nominative singular Brahma, pronounced as /brh m/) is the One, the whole and the only reality. Other than Brahman, everything else, including the universe, material objects and individuals, are false. Brahman is at best described as that infinite, omnipresent, omnipotent, incorporeal, impersonal, transcendent reality that is the divine ground of all Being. Brahman is often described as neti neti meaning " not this, not this" because it cannot be correctly described as this or that. It is the origin of this and that, the origin of forces, substances, all of existence, the undefined, the basis of all, unborn, the essential truth, unchanging, eternal, the absolute. How can it be properly described as something in the material world when itself is the basis of reality Brahman is also beyond the senses, it would be akin a blind man trying to correctly describe color. It (grammatically neutral, but exceptionally treated as masculine), though not a substance, is the basis of the material world, which in turn is its illusionary transformation. Brahman is not the effect of the world. Brahman is said to be the purest knowledge itself, and is illuminant like a source of infinite light.

Due to ignorance (avidya), the Brahman is visible as the material world and its objects. The actual Brahman is attributeless and formless (see Nirguna Brahman). It is the Self-existent, the Absolute and the Imperishable (not generally the object of worship but rather of meditation). Brahman is actually indescribable. It is at best " Sacchidananda" (merging " Sat" + " Chit" + " Ananda" , ie, Infinite Truth, Infinite Consciousness and Infinite Bliss). Also, Brahman is free from any kind of differences. It does not have any sajatiya (homogeneous) differences because there is no second Brahman. It does not have any vijatiya (heterogeneous) differences because there is nobody in reality existing other than Brahman. It has neither svagata (internal) differences, because Brahman is itself homogeneous.

Though Brahman is self-proved, Adi Shankara also proposed some logical proofs:

Shruti - the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras describe Brahman in almost exact manner as Adi Shankara. This is the testimonial proof of Brahman. Psychological - every person experiences his soul, or atman. According to Adi Shankara, Atman = Brahman. This argument also proves the omniscience of the Brahman. Teleological - the world appears very well ordered; the reason for this cannot be an unconscious principle. The reason must be due to the Brahman. Essential - Brahman is the basis of this created world. Perceptible feeling - many people, when they achieve the turiya state, claim that their soul has become one with everything else.


Maya According to Adi Shankara, Maya is the complex illusionary power of Brahman which causes the Brahman to be seen as the material world of separate forms. It has two main functions - one is to " hide" Brahman from ordinary human perception, and the other is to present the material world in its stead. Maya is also said to be indescribable, though it may be said that all sense data entering ones awareness via the five senses are Maya, since the fundamental reality underlying sensory perception is completely hidden. It is also said that Maya neither completely real nor completely unreal, hence indescribable. Its shelter is Brahman, but Brahman itself is untouched by the illusion of Maya, just like a magician is not tricked by his own magic. Maya is temporary and is transcended with " true knowledge," or perception of the more fundamental reality which straddles Maya.

Since according to the Upanishads only Brahman is real, but we see the material world to be real, Adi Shankara explained the anomaly by the concept of this illusionary power Maya.

Status of the world

Adi Shankara says that the world is not true, it is an illusion, but this is because of some logical reasons. Let us first analyse Adi Shankara’ s definition of Truth, and hence why the world is not considered true.

Adi Shankara says that whatever thing remains eternal is true, and whatever is non-eternal is untrue. Since the world is created and destroyed, it is not true. Truth is the thing which is unchanging. Since the world is changing, it is not true. Whatever is independent of space and time is true, and whatever has space and time in itself is untrue.

Just as one sees dreams in sleep, he sees a kind of super-dream when he is waking. The world is compared to this conscious dream.

The world is believed to be a superimposition of the Brahman. Superimposition cannot be true. On the other hand, Adi Shankara claims that the world is not absolutely false. It appears false only when compared to Brahman. In the pragmatic state, the world is completely true- which occurs as long as we are under the influence of Maya. The world cannot be both true and false at the same time; hence Adi Shankara has classified the world as indescribable. The following points suggest that according to Adi Shankara, the world is not false (Adi Shankara himself gave most of the arguments, Sinha, 1993):

If the world were false, then with the liberation of the first human being, the world would have been annihilated. However, the world continues to exist even if a human attains liberation.

Adi Shankara believes in Karma, or good actions. This is a feature of this world. So the world cannot be false.

The Supreme Reality Brahman is the basis of this world. The world is like its reflection. Hence the world cannot be totally false. False is something which is ascribed to nonexistent things, like Sky-lotus. The world is a logical thing which is perceived by our senses. Consider the following logical argument. A pen is placed in front of a mirror. One can see its reflection. To one’ s eyes, the image of the pen is perceived. Now, what should the image be called It cannot be true, because it is an image. The truth is the pen. It cannot be false, because it is seen by our eyes.


Ishvara (pronounced as, literally, the Supreme Lord) - According to Advaita Vedanta, when man tries to know the attributeless Brahman with his mind, under the influence of Maya, Brahman becomes the Lord. Ishvara is Brahman with Maya - the manifested form of Brahman. Adi Shankara uses a metaphor that when the " reflection" of the Cosmic Spirit falls upon the mirror of Maya, it appears as the Supreme Lord. The Supreme Lord is true only in the pragmatic level - his actual form in the transcendental level is the Cosmic Spirit.

Ishvara is Saguna Brahman or Brahman with innumerable auspicious qualities. He is all-perfect, omniscient, omnipresent, incorporeal, independent, Creator of the world, its ruler and also destroyer. He is causeless, eternal and unchangeable - and is yet the material and the instrumental cause of the world. He is both immanent (like whiteness in milk) and transcendent (like a watch-maker independent of a watch). He may be even regarded to have a personality. He is the subject of worship. He is the basis of morality and giver of the fruits of one’ s Karma. However, He himself is beyond sin and merit. He rules the world with his Maya - His divine power. This association with a " false" knowledge does not affect the perfection of Ishvara, in the same way as a magician is himself not tricked by his magic. However, while Ishvara is the Lord of Maya and she (ie, Maya) is always under his control, the living beings (jiva, in the sense of humans) are the servants of Maya (in the form of ignorance). This ignorance is the cause of the unhappiness and sin in the mortal world. While Ishvara is Infinite Bliss, humans are miserable. Ishvara always knows the unity of the Brahman substance, and the Mayic nature of the world. There is no place for a Satan or devil in Hinduism, unlike Abrahamic religions. Advaitins explain the misery because of ignorance. Ishvara can also be visualized and worshipped in anthropomorphic form as deities such as Vishnu, Krishna or Shiva.

Now the question arises as to why the Supreme Lord created the world. If one assumes that Ishvara creates the world for any incentive, this slanders the wholeness and perfection of Ishvara. For example, if one assumes that Ishvara creates the world for gaining something, it would be against His perfection. If we assume that He creates for compassion, it would be illogical, because the emotion of compassion cannot arise in a blank and void world in the beginning (when only Ishvara existed). So Adi Shankara assumes that Creation is a sport of Ishvara. It is His nature, just as it is man’ s nature to breathe.

The sole proof for Ishvara that Adi Shankara gives is Shruti’ s mentions of Ishvara, as Ishvara is beyond logic and thinking. This is similar to Kant ’ s philosophy about Ishvara in which he says that " faith" is the basis of theism. However, Adi Shankara has also given few other logical proofs for Ishvara, but warning us not to completely rely on them:

The world is a work, an effect, and so must have real cause. This cause must be Ishvara. The world has a wonderful unity, coordination and order, so its creator must have been an intelligent being.

People do good and sinful work and get its fruits, either in this life or after. People themselves cannot be the giver of their fruits, as no one would give himself the fruit of his sin. Also, this giver cannot be an unconscious object. So the giver of the fruits of Karma is Ishvara.

Status of God

To think that there is no place for a personal God (Ishvara) in Advaita Vedanta is a misunderstanding of the philosophy. Ishvara is, in an ultimate sense, described as " false" because Brahman appears as Ishvara only due to the curtain of Maya. However, as described earlier, just as the world is true in the pragmatic level, similarly, Ishvara is also pragmatically true. Just as the world is not absolutely false, Ishvara is also not absolutely false. He is the distributor of the fruits of one’ s Karma. In order to make the pragmatic life successful, it is very important to believe in God and worship him. In the pragmatic level, whenever we talk about Brahman, we are in fact talking about God. God is the highest knowledge theoretically possible in that level. Devotion (Bhakti) will cancel the effects of bad Karma and will make a person closer to the true knowledge by purifying his mind. Slowly, the difference between the worshipper and the worshipped decreases and upon true knowledge, liberation occurs.


The swan is an important motif in Advaita. It symbolises two things: first, the swan is called hamsah in Sanskrit (which becomes hamso if the first letter in the next word is /h/). Upon repeating this hamso indefinitely, it becomes so-aham, meaning, " I am That" . Second, just as a swan lives in water but its feathers are not soiled by water, similarly a liberated Advaitin lives in this world full of maya but is untouched by its illusion.The soul or the self (Atman) is identical with Brahman. It is not a part of Brahman that ultimately dissolves into Brahman, but the whole Brahman itself. Now the arguers ask how the individual soul, which is limited and one in each body, can be the same as Brahman Adi Shankara explains that the Self is not an individual concept. Atman is only one and unique. Indeed Atman alone is {Ekaatma Vaadam}. It is a false concept that there are several Atmans {Anekaatma Vaadam}. Adi Shankara says that just as the same moon appears as several moons on its reflections on the surface of water covered with bubbles, the one Atman appears as multiple atmans in our bodies because of Maya. Atman is self-proven, however, some proofs are discussed- eg., a person says " I am blind" , " I am happy" , " I am fat" etc. The common and constant factor, which permeates all these statements is the " I" which is but the Immutable Consciousness. When the blindness, happiness, fatness are inquired and negated, " I" the common factor which, indeed, alone exists in all three states of consciousness and in all three periods of time, shines forth. This proves the existence of Atman, and that Consciousness, Reality and Bliss are its characteristics. Atman, being the silent witness of all the modifications, is free and beyond sin and merit. It does not experience happiness or pain because it is beyond the triad of Experiencer, Experienced and Experiencing. It does not do any Karma because it is Aaptakaama. It is incorporeal and independent.

When the reflection of atman falls on Avidya (ignorance), atman becomes jiva - a living being with a body and senses. Each jiva feels as if he has his own, unique and distinct Atman, called jivatman. The concept of jiva is true only in the pragmatic level. In the transcendental level, only the one Atman, equal to Brahman, is true.

Adi Shankara exposed the relative and thus unreal nature of the objective world and propounded the truth of the Advaita {One without a second} by analysing the three states of experience of the atman - waking (vaishvanara), dreaming (taijasa), and deep sleep (prajna).


Liberation or Moksha (akin to Nirvana of the Buddhists) - Advaitins also believe in the theory of reincarnation of souls (Atman) into plants, animals and humans according to their karma. They believe that suffering is due to Maya, and only knowledge (called Jnana) of Brahman can destroy Maya. When Maya is removed, there exists ultimately no difference between the Jiva-Atman and the Brahman. Such a state of bliss when achieved while living is called Jivan mukti. While one is in the pragmatic level, one can worship God in any way and in any form, like Krishna or Ayyappa as he wishes, Adi Shankara himself was a proponent of devotional worship or Bhakti. But Adi Shankara believes that while Vedic sacrifices, puja and devotional worship can lead one in the direction of jnana, true knowledge, they cannot lead one directly to Moksha.

Theory of creation

In the relative level, Adi Shankara believes in the Creation of the world through Satkaryavada. It is like the philosophy of Samkhya, which says that the cause is always hidden into its effect- and the effect is just a transformation of the cause. However, Samkhya believes in a sub-form of Satkaryavada called Parinamavada (evolution) - whereby the cause really becomes an effect. Instead, Adi Shankara believes in a sub-form called Vivartavada. According to this, the effect is merely an apparent transformation of its cause - like illusion. eg., In darkness, a man often confuses a rope to be a snake. But this does not mean that the rope has actually transformed into a snake.

At the pragmatic level, the universe is believed to be the creation of the Supreme Lord Ishvara. Maya is the divine magic of Ishvara, with the help of which Ishvara creates the world. The serial of Creation is taken from the Upanishads. First of all, the five subtle elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth) are created from Ishvara. Ether is created by Maya. From ether, air is born. From air, fire is born. From fire, water is born. From water, earth is born. From a proportional combination of all five subtle elements, the five gross elements are created, like the gross sky, the gross fire, etc. From these gross elements, the universe and life are created. This series is exactly the opposite during destruction.

Some people have criticized that these principles are against Satkaryavada. According to Satkaryavada, the cause is hidden inside the effect. How can Ishvara, whose form is spiritual, be the effect of this material world Adi Shankara says that just as from a conscious living human, inanimate objects like hair and nails are formed, similarly, the inanimate world is formed from the spiritual Ishvara.

Status of ethics

Some claim that there is no place for ethics in Advaita, because everything is ultimately illusionary. But on analysis, ethics also has a firm place in this philosophy- the same place as the world and God. Ethics, which implies doing good Karma, indirectly helps in attaining true knowledge. The basis of merit and sin is the Shruti (the Vedas and the Upanishads). Truth, non-violence, service of others, pity, etc are Dharma, and lies, violence, cheating, selfishness, greed, etc are adharma (sin).

The impact of Advaita

Advaita rejuvenated much of Hindu thought and also spurred debate with the two main theistic schools of Vedanta philosophy that were formalized later: Vishishtadvaita (qualified nondualism), and Dvaita (dualism). Advaita further helped to merge the old Vedic religion with popular south-Asian cults/deities, thus making a bridge between higher types of practice (such as jnana yoga) and devotional religion of ordinary people.


Mahavakya, or " the great sentences" , state the unity of Brahman and Atman. There are many such sentences in the vedas, but one sentence from each veda is usually chosen. They are shown below

Sr. No. Vakya Meaning Upanishad Veda

1 (Prajñ anam brahma) Consciousness is Brahman aitareya Rig Veda

2. (Aham brahmasmi) I am Brahman brihadaranyaka Yajur Veda

3. (Tattvamasi) That thou art chhandogya Sama Veda

4. (Ayamatma brahma) This Atman is Brahman mandukya Atharva Veda

List of texts

See also: Works of Adi Shankara


Advaita Vedanta, like other Vedanta schools of Hindu philosophy, recognises the following three texts (known collectively as the Prasthanatrayi) of the Hindu tradition: Vedas- especially the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras. Many advaitin authors, including Adi Shankara, have written Bhashyas (commentaries) on these texts. These texts are thus considered to be the basic texts of the advaita tradition.

Other texts

Other texts include, Advaita Siddhi, written by Madhusudana Saraswati, Shankara Digvijaya - historical record of Adi Shankara’ s life accepted by scholars worldwide, Avadhuta Gita and Ashtavakra Gita. Among modern texts, Jnana yoga by Swami Vivekananda, and the Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, with The Life Divine being the most prominent, deal with Advaita Vedanta.

Adi Shankara wrote Bhaya (commentaries) on