The Six Sub-Schools of Vedanta
[THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS.]
(These sub-schools within the Vedanta school are not to be confused with the six main schools of Hindu thought.)
The six Vedanta schools arose as philosophical interpretations of the Vedas, particularly the Upanishads. The main focus of these schools is on the nature of the Brahman and its relation to the the Atman, the soul, which is believed to somehow be one with Brahman. The schools may be divided into three cosmological categories: non-dualism, dualism, and qualified non-dualism. Some of the schools are only ideological "schools of thought," others are kind of like denominations with their own networks of monasteries and temples, and one of them became the dominant movement within Hinduism.
1. Advaita: (lit. non-dualism.) This is the most popular school since the late 18th century, and is often regarded by non-experts as the official Hindu position. It believes in absolute monism, that there is nothing but impersonal Brahman, that the entire universe is only an illusion that does not really exist as it appears, and it is actually Brahman. The goal of spirituality – the essence of liberation – is to realize that the Atman is (and has always been) absolutely identical with Brahman. Thus, it is said that the Self of all human beings is the Supreme, and is not even considered to be its parts, as Brahman is regarded as completely indivisible without any parts or multiplicities. Furthermore, the Brahman has no qualities or attributes but is pure consciousness. This view purportedly existed (there is no verifiable historical record) among some brahmanas since the time of the Brahma sutras which were composed around 400-450 BCE. But Shankara (8th cent. CE) is recognized as the founder of the school. The teachings of Shankara were vehemently opposed by other Vedanta philosophies. From the outset, advaita was denounced as “crypto-Buddhism,” as it was formulated during the period when Buddhism was the main religion in India and the influence of Buddhism upon Shankara is recognized by most scholars. Its similarities with Buddhism helped convert India back to Hinduism. Advaita rose to dominance in the modern era (see the Rise of Neo-Vedanta below).
2. Dvaita: (lit. dualism.) The strict dualistic school. Believes that individual souls (jivatma) are different from and not created by the supreme soul (paramatma) which is Brahman, thus positing two separate realities, but everything is nevertheless dependent on Brahman for its existence. This absolute dualism differs from the mainstream. There is evidence that it existed since the most ancient times. But the founder of the school is regarded as Madhvacharya (1238-1317 CE). It has contributed to the concept of mono/henotheism with a personal God whose individual identities (such as Indra, Shiva, Krishna, etc.) do not matter because God is believed to be beyond them, and they are regarded merely as devas.
3. Vishishtadvaita: (lit. non-dualism with uniqueness/qualifications.) The main branch of qualified non-dualism. Believes that Brahman alone exists and is one, but is not absolutely one as Brahman also exists in the universe as real multiplicities which are its manifestations. The Brahman is conceived as a person with qualities and attributes, and may be referred to as father, mother, and friend. Individual souls are parts of the Brahman and may have their own unique features, just as parts of the body relate to the soul. The soul/body analogy is used as the principle means to describe the difference in Brahman. Devotion (bhakti) is believed to be the means of liberation. Ramanjuna (1017–1137 CE) is regarded as the main proponent of this school, and he was the first major writer in Hinduism to state that the Brahman is a complete person in the monotheistic sense.
4. Dvaitadvaita: (lit. dual-non-dual) (Also known as Bhedabheda vada, but not to be confused with Acintya Bheda Abheda, which sometimes uses the same name, and is a different school.) This school is sometimes labeled as monistic dualism or dualistic monism, but it purports to be non-dual. Believes that the world and individual souls evolved out from Brahman, and continue dependence on the Brahman for their existence, but are different from Brahman in the sense that they have their own attributes and capacities that are the not the same as the Brahman. But due to the dependence on the Brahman, individual souls are still regarded as parts of the Brahman, and the Brahman is the sole existence without a second. The analogy used is that sparks of a fire are regarded as parts of the fire because of their dependence on it. This school is emphasizes the personal nature of God. The highest object of worship is believed to be Krishna, and the best form of devotion is surrender to him. This view was proposed by Nimbarka (13th cen. CE).
5. Shuddhadvaita: (lit. pure non-dualism.) Believes that the individual self is the exact same essence as Brahman. There is no real difference between them. But it is stated that the Brahman desired to become many so he became the multitude of individual souls and the world with the same one essence. But against Shankara, the individual is regarded as only a part of God, and not as the whole. Therefore, the individual soul is not believed to be the Supreme. Also, the universe is not regarded as an unreal. This line of thought was around for a very long time but its most popular teacher was Vallabhacharya (1479-1531 CE). It became a denomination that emphasizes devotion (bhakti) and service to Krishna as the means of liberation.
6. Acintya Bheda Abheda: (lit. inconceivable difference and non-difference.) (Also sometimes referred to as Bhedabheda, but not to be confused with Dvaidadvaida school which sometimes uses the same name.) This school intends to be a middle ground between absolute monism and limited non-dualism by ultimately appealing to the mysterious nature of the situation. The energies of God, which comprise the universe, are both distinct and non-distinct from God. The precise nature of the oneness and difference is inconceivable in thought and inexpressible in words, but it can be intuitively perceived through devotion. There is real differentiation that is established. The common analogies that are used to explain the oneness and difference are the sun and its sunshine, or fire and its sparks, or an ocean and its waves, or the body and its hair. There is non-difference, and yet there is very real and obvious difference at the same time. The universe is a transformation of the Brahman into other forms as, to use an analogy again, hair is a transformed essence that comes from the body. The individual parts of the universe – regarded as completely real – are differentiated parts of the Brahman but these parts cannot be considered as the whole. Brahman then is believed to have parts, and to be at the same time one and many in its essential nature, even though the oneness is emphasized. This line of thought in regards to the simultaneous oneness and difference in Brahman existed before the time of Shankara (8th cen. CE). It was criticized by him, and its thinkers in turn vigorously criticized his system for the next several hundred years. The Bhedabheda school is as a broad philosophical tradition that did not have a founder or specific networks of monasteries that were devoted to its propagation, although its proponents are numerous. The most popular proponent in this school is Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486 - 1534). Because the school believed in the personal nature of the Brahman, and was at the same time able to provide good philosophical support for the possibility of real difference within the oneness of Brahman, it had enormous influence on devotional (bhakti) heno/monotheism in the medieval period.