The general content demanded of any form of siddhanta, or ‘philosophical conclusion,’ whether a short poem or longer exposition, is that it should offer nothing less than a cogent, wide-ranging and well-evidenced explanation of Brahman, the ultimate reality, the infinite origin of all things, and the foundational matrix of all existence. The explanation must describe how the observer, the individual, is related to both Brahman and the observed world of matter, the phenomenal world of perception, and must explain why the consciousness of the individual cannot already experience the infinite.

The siddhanta must explain the practical methods of becoming free from illusion and fixed in that higher reality, and the ultimate end of the soul’s journey into that reality. In this, the siddhanta goes well beyond a credo, a simple expression of faith or belief. It includes both a description of the perfection of God realisation, and the practical means to achieve it. In Christian terms, an expression of siddhanta is credo, regula, and visionem mysticam, or belief structure, spiritual discipline, and mystical vision, all in one.

And so, the siddhanta begins with a statement of the position of the conscious self, the observer of the external universe. According to Vedanta, reality or tattva is divided into two categories: para or what is ultimate, and apara or what is dependent on the one ultimate reality. The expressions used are para-tattva and apara-tattva. The apara-tattva is also of two kinds: the sentient beings or souls that have consciousness and matter which does not. So that makes three categories of reality: the one reality upon which everything else is dependent, the souls, and matter. Sometimes these three are referred to as the tattva-traya. All schools of Vedanta accept these three tattvas.

Differences arise between scholars of Vedanta regarding the relationship between the ultimate reality and the dependent realities, the para-tattva and the apara-tattva. Regarding the nature of the goal, the doctrines advanced by different schools also vary. Some conclude that the Brahman is formless and devoid of attributes, whereas the Vaishnavas hold that Brahman cannot be devoid of anything that manifests from it. Since attributes can be experienced in the universe, they must be present in its origin also. What is common to every school of Vedanta, and on which they all agree, is the need for cessation of bondage leading to realisation of the supreme end, the absolute reality.

Since the Vedanta Sutra is written in such a way as to allow variant readings, each group must provide a distinct understanding by answering such questions as: Brahman is related to matter, and the souls are related to Brahman; and the souls are somehow related to matter. What connects them? Are the differences between them real or an illusion? Is the world a perception only or is it substantially real? Is individual identity real or an illusion? If Brahman is the source of everything, both material and spiritual, why do souls suffer in contact with matter, and is pain and pleasure an illusion or real? How do the souls transcend matter and attain eternal peace? Is there anything beyond this life? When all these initial questions have been answered, the conclusion is known as tattva or ‘the truth.’

The next set of questions that need to be answered are those relating to practical actions taken in the light of the foregoing evidence. Vedic philosophy is pragmatic rather than theoretical, so the commentary must offer methods to become free from illusion thereby attaining a blissful state, and to describe the end of the soul’s journey by answering the following questions:

  1. What does someone need to do to free themselves from the bondage of illusion?
  2. Out of all the ways offered in the Vedas, what is the best?
  3. Does it involve action or non-action?
  4. Integration with the world or extrication from it?
  5. What are the specific techniques, and what can go wrong on this path?
  6. What are the major obstacles along the way?
  7. What must someone avoid to secure success on the path?
  8. What are the restrictions and special observances?

When all these questions have been answered and evidence provided, the conclusion is known as hita or ‘the means of attainment.’

Finally, when the soul becomes progressively free from illusion, and becomes situated in eternity:

  1. What does that feel like? What does it look like?
  2. Where is the individual observer located then, exactly?
  3. Is this nirvana an empty void, a type of oneness or a personal paradise?
  4. And how would you know that it was real and not merely another aspect of illusion?
  5. Once there, is there any coming back to matter?
  6. What or Who is God?

This end goal, the destination of the soul’s journey is known as purusartha. Over the last thousand years these three classic terms, tattva, hita and purusartha also became known in some parts of India by alternative Sanskrit terms: sambandha (the relationships), abhidheya (that which is being indicated) and prayojana (the end).

Reducing an entire body of metaphysics into an easy-to-remember summary list is a challenging yet rewarding exercise for a philosophical school. But so too is the composition of a sutra which successfully argues the viewpoint of that school. And again, writing exhaustive commentaries on both the list and the sutra, particularly so that the common reader can understand the ideas, is a noble and compassionate act. All have their hallowed place and purpose in the world of the Vaishnavas.

Leave a comment