What is Advaita Vedanta?

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अद्वैत वेदान्त

A (no) + dvaita (two); veda (knowledge) + anta (end)

Advaita Vedanta Definition

Advaita Vedanta is a Sanskrit term combining the words:

Advaita, which combines “a,” meaning “no” or “non,” and “dvaita,” meaning “two,” “duality,” or “secondness.”

And Vedanta, which combines “veda,” meaning “knowledge” or “insight,” and “anta,” meaning “conclusion” or “end.”

Advaita Vedanta may therefore be understood as “non-duality, conclusion of knowledge.”

Considered by some to be an inclusive universal religion, Advaita Vedanta is a school of Hindu thought and sadhana that espouses the non-dual nature of reality. All that exists is Brahman, the unchanging cosmic principle.

adi shankara teaching advaita vedanta
Adi Shankara Teaching

Advaita Vedanta Deep Dive

Said to be highly influenced by Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta is often regarded as a path of jnana yoga, where study, contemplation, and meditation are preferred. Its primary texts are the Upanishads, Brahma Sutra, and Bhagavad Gita. Ritualism and theistic devotion are often abandoned in practice. Some of its best-known proponents and teachers were Mahatma Ghandi, Gaudapada and Adi Shankara.

There is a saying often attributed to Adi Shankara which states:

“Brahman alone is true, and this world of plurality is an error (or “false”). The individual self (or “soul”) is nothing but Brahman.”

While often conflated with monism, Advaita Vedanta more precisely negates the difference between the perceiver and the perceived, subject and object, creator and the created universe.

Imagine a wave experiencing itself as a wave instead of realizing it is the ocean. Everything has its source in Brahman, and in fact is Brahman.

Therefore, it is claimed that Brahman cannot be known as something apart from you, because tat vam asi – that thou art.

Advaita Vedanta holds that Brahman manifests 3 levels of reality:

1. Paramarthika – Absolute reality. The supreme truth.

2. Vyavaharika – Relative reality. The world of duality.

3. Prathibasika – Mind-constructed reality, virtual existence.

The latter two are part of maya, illusion. And to experience a “personal God,” often called Isvara in the yogic tradition, is to experience Brahman with these creative illusory qualities. Advaita Vedanta calls this adhyāsa, the superimposition of human-like characteristics on God. Similarly, to superimpose characteristics such as sentience and existence onto ourselves is adhyāsa. Your individualized soul or being is simply a reflection of the One – Brahman

Our experience in maya is often likened to seeing a snake in the darkness – when it’s actually a rope. The snake is the illusion, the rope is the reality. This doesn’t mean there are two truths, just one truth is being experienced from two perspectives. Brahman alone is real and unchanging, while the phenomenal world is unreal and transient.

diagram of duality and non duality

Advaita Vedanta In Your Life

Knowing one’s true identity as Brahman results in moksha – liberation from suffering and the cycle of rebirth.

So, how do you do it?

There’s a paradox here. Because you are already that.

Advaita Vedanta therefore posits both that this understanding can happen immediately. But it may also take sustained effort.

This effort may include reading and absorbing the above-mentioned scriptures, and don’t forget the eight limbs of yoga. It may also involve tutelage under a spiritual teacher like a guru.

But Advaita Vedanta focuses especially on contemplating the Mahāvākyas, or “Great Sentences,” and their meaning.

These are:

1. Tat Tvam Asi – “That thou art,” sometimes translated as “thus you are.”

2. Aham Brahmāsmi – “I am Brahman,” sometimes translated as “I am divine.”

3. Prajnanam Brahma – “Brahman is Prajñāna,” with Prajñāna meaning divine or perfected wisdom.

4. Ayam Atma Brahma – “This Self is Brahman.”

You may have even heard some of these Mahāvākyas used as mantras in your yoga classes.

See if one of the most popular mantras used in Kundalini Yoga, sat nam, meaning “I am truth,” or “truth is my identity,” can capture the essence of Advaita Vedanta for you. It’s a very versatile mantra. You can even use it on a walk. One step mentally recite “sat,” and the next step, “nam.”

Sat nam sat nam sat nam sat nam

You may feel yourself get into a zone, totally absorbed in the mantra. Like a wave absorbed into the ocean.

Advaita Vedanta may have a lot of the tools you need to distinguish between truth and illusion on your yoga journey.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Hailing from the Yukon, Canada, David (B.A, M.A.) is a yoga teacher (200-hour therapeutic YTT) and long-time student and practitioner of various spiritual disciplines including vedanta and Islam.

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