At the heart of Hinduism is a spiritual and philosophical framework known as Vedanta. To understand the distinction between the two, it’s important to understand the origin of the word Hindu. When the first explorers from Persia traveled to India (then known as Bharat), they came across the Indus valley region of the country and called the indigenous people there Hindus. The meaning of Hinduism then went on to connote the entire set of traditions, rituals, practices, cultures, rites and so forth for an extraordinarily complex society and lifestyle.
The root set of Hindu values, ethics, knowledge, spirituality, astronomy, mathematics, agriculture and health care practices came from ancient Sanskrit texts known as the four Vedas (Rig, Yamur, Atharva & Sama). While no one knows for sure how old the Vedas are, some estimates put the age at 10,000 years or even much older. The word Veda is very similar to the word science in that in means the methods and techniques for acquiring knowledge as well as the accumulative body of knowledge amassed.
The Sanskrit word “anta” literally means the end of, or the culmination of, and so appending this suffix to the word Veda, we get Vedanta which means the end of knowledge or the culmination of knowledge. Vendanta represents the highest spiritual knowledge within all the Vedas. Generally speaking, Vedanta refers to ancient texts known as The Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita and certain commentaries on both by Shankaracharya.
In many traditions, God is said to be Omniscient, or All Knowing, with the prefix omni meaning ‘all’ and the word ‘scient,’ being the present participle of the Latin scīre which means “to know.” Over the past several thousand years, mankind wouldn’t have been able to move out of caves, begin to build structures, roads and cities, develop agriculture and understand the seasons and astronomy without some form of science. The spirit of science has always been about a quest for knowledge, a yearning for the truth and over the millennia, there have been many different forms of science, culminating in what has become to be known as the Modern Scientific Method around 400 years ago.
For better or for worse, the word science now generally refers to the Modern Scientific Method but the answers to mankind’s greatest questions lay outside the purview of anything the Modern Scientific Method can ever hope to resolve. Is there an immortal soul? Is there a supreme intelligence governing the cosmos? Is there life after death? What is the purpose/meaning of life? These questions fall outside of anything that modern science can possibly provide an answer for and yet these questions represent the highest knowledge attainable by man. More importantly, there is a science that provides the same necessary framework defined within the Modern Scientific Method of assumptions and definitions, postulates and hypotheses, theories, methods and techniques that can answer these profound questions and that science is Vedanta.
Vedanta has slowly been integrated into Western Society’s thinking for a very long time and once we begin to look under the hood and learn a little bit about what is and is not Vedanta, we realize that the basic concepts and practices are already quite familiar to us. Here are some of the principles and tenets of Vedanta that most of us easily recognize:
- Underneath this apparent reality is an indivisible substratum of existence that all matter, anti-matter, thoughts, emotions and memories rise up and dissolve back in to. In other words, “We are All ONE” and this theme has been scientifically proven with Quantum Mechanics.
- While this non-dual, Supreme Being is singular and beyond comprehension, it has been given many names (Brahmin, God, Atman, Allah, etc.), characteristics and properties. From the Rig Veda, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”
- “I am That” is the basis for Self Realization. That the nature of the Self is, in fact, divine and you are the Self.
- Our mind’s identification with our ego is what keeps us from realizing this Truth, therefore keeping us in ignorance.
- Once we fully realize the Truth of who we really are, we attain liberation from the bondages of mind-body identification and move beyond suffering.
- The journey of liberation is a process of passing through several levels of stages and the individual becoming more wise, compassionate, joyful and peaceful along the way.
- There is any number of different avenues to Self Realization. No single path is the correct one.
Vedanta in the West
From Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau to The Beatles, Eddie Vedder and Russell Brand, westerners have a long history of turning to ancient Indian philosophies and practices to enhance their lives, bring peace of mind and provide practical wisdom. Films such as The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, Star Wars (Joseph Campbell, the renowned expert on Vedanta consulted George Lucas on the first three films), Inception and even Kung Fu Panda all have obvious Vedantic references and themes.
When Carl Jung first visited India 100 years ago, he was quoted as saying that Western Psychoanalytic Theory was in its mere infancy compared with Easter Philosophy. Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson also was influenced by Eastern Philosophies, meaning that the 12-Step program has its origins in Vedantic Science as well. One of the most popular and effective contemporary mental health treatment programs, Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT), is comprised of four primary modules (Mindfulness, Emotional Regulation, Distress Tolerance and Interpersonal Relations Skills) which are pure Vedanta, whether the creator of DBT understood them to be or not. That’s just how much Vedanta has permeated our way of collective thought processes.
The New Thought Movement
Successive waves of Vedantic influence have sailed across the oceans to America’s shores, from the Romantics in the early 1800s (including President Adams and William Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s father) to the India Invasion of the 1890’s when both Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda emigrated to the U.S., but one of the largest waves of Vedanta to impact America was the New Thought Movement.
Long before Rhonda Byrnes wrote the book “The Secret” and produced the film of the same name, books like Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles and The Master Key System by Charles Haanel promoted the idea that things are thoughts and our thoughts determine what gets manifested as our reality, and in order to attract wealth into our lives, we need to reprogram the way we think. The Law of Attraction, as it is commonly known today was a significant component in The New Thought Movement started over 100 years ago by Thomas Troward.
Troward, who is considered to be by many to be the Father of the New Thought Movement, was a divisional judge in India during British Imperial rule, and when he returned to England in the early 1900s, he brought back with him the ancient knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of Vedanta.
The Religious Science Organization, another branch of the New Thought Movement, was spearheaded by Earnest Holmes who’s book The Science of Mind is still studied throughout North America by secular spiritualists who seek something more meaningful and life changing than what they feel they get from orthodox religions.
The New Thought Movement is considered to be an amalgamation of several different disciplines and philosophies including Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism but in reality The New Thought Movement is pure Vedanta. If you take into account that Jesus trained in India during the so called lost years of the bible, that Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism all have their roots in Vedanta, and that Vedanta is the spiritual core of Hinduism, then you can understand that the movement is basically a watered down, westernized version of Vedanta.
Organizations in the West Offering Vedantic Knowledge
The reasons that Vedanta appeals on so many different levels to westerners is that it doesn’t ask that we defer to an authority and are expected to have faith in miraculous events but rather, Vedanta says “here is what we accept as truths, and here are a set of parameters, methods and techniques to test and verify for yourself.” Vedanta rationally speaks about divinity without offending a person’s sense of reason and never asks you to believe anything without having your own personal experience of it.
In North America, there are many, many Vedantic based organizations easily accessible for people interested in their own search for truth and a few of the larger ones are widely available. All of Buddhism is based on Vedanta and one of the most popular retreats is Vipassana taught by S.N. Goenka. The Self Realization Fellowship and Vedanta Society, founded by Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Vivekananda respectively are still very popular and the TM (Transcendental Meditation) organization that was started by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s is very well known, primarily for meditation but also has Vedanta as its basis as well. And most recently, there is the Art of Living, which was founded in 1982 by His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and is currently the world’s fastest growing Vedanta based movement.
What sets the Art of Living apart from all of the other organizations focused on providing Vedantic based retreats and practices is that after 4000 years of tradition, a new technique has been added to the repertoire of tools encompassed within Vedanta, a rhythmic breathing technique known as the Sudarshan Kriya which has been scientifically proven to bring significant decreases in cortisol (the stress hormone), cholesterol, sleeplessness, restlessness and anxieties.
Whether your motivation is stress relief, clarity of thought and better sense of well being or your motivation is expansion of consciousness, Self inquiry and ultimately Moksha (liberation), Vedanta’s universal approach is applicable as well as beneficial to everyone. And whether your preference is to set off on your own on an adventure of self discovery or you’d rather get involved with a specific organization or group, the promise and value of Vedanta is equally the same. Thou art That.