THE BOOKS OF HINDUISM – “Vedanta Sutras,” the “Puranas,” and the “Tantras”

The Vedanta Sutras

Hinduism, though usually understood to include Brahmanism (q.v.), is, in fact, a later development of it. Its central doctrine is the trinity, or Trimurti, which embraces the three-fold manifestation of the god-head as Brahma, the one supreme being, the Creator; Vishnu the Preserver; and Siva the Destroyer.

The three principal books of Hinduism are the “Vedanta Sutras,” the “Puranas,” and the “Tantras,” of which only the first is epitomised here. The “Sutras” are the earliest. The “Vedanta” (literally “goal” or “issue of the Veda”) is a purely pantheistic and monastic philosophical system, and by far the most prevalent in Modern India. It is ascribed to Badarayana, sometimes called Vyasa, though this last is really a generic name denoting “a collector.” The word “sutra” denotes literally “threads,” and is used by Brahmanic writers for short, dry sentences, brief expositions. “Vedanta Sutras” means literally “compendious expressions of the Vedantic (not Vedic) doctrine.” The second great division of Hindu sacred literature is the “Puranas,” the last and most modern of the books of Hinduism. The word “Purana” means “old,” and in ancient Sanscrit writings it has the same meaning as our “cosmology.” The “Puranas,” however, are ill-arranged collections of theological and philosophical reflections, myths and legends, ritual, and ascetic rules. They depend very much on the two great epics, especially the Mahabharata. The Sanscrit writings called “Tantras” are really manuals of religion, of magic, and of counter-charms, with songs in praise of Sakti, the female side of Siva.


The Vedanta is sometimes called the Mimamsa (= philosophical reflections). The aphorisms of which the Vedanta Sutras consist are in themselves almost as unintelligible as the Confucian “Book of Changes,” the compiler having been only too successful in aiding the memory of the Hindu student by a system of multum in parvo.

It is usual to accept the interpretation put on the Sutras by the Sanscrit commentator Sankara, commonlycalled Sankara Karya, who flourished about A.D. 700. There are, however, many other commentaries, notably that of Ramanuga. George Thibaut, in the “Sacred Books of the East” (vols. 34, 38, and 48), gives the interpretation of Sankara, and also that of Ramanuga when it differs essentially. On the whole it may be said that Sankara is a thorough-going Vedantist and pantheist. Ramanuga, on the other hand, has leanings towards the dualism of the Sankhya philosophy, and endeavours to make the Vedanta Sutras support his opinions.

The Vedanta Sutras embrace five hundred and fifty-five aphorisms, or Sutras, arranged in four books (Adhyay), each having four-chapters (Pada), the chapters being severally divided into sections (Adhikarana). These Sutras are of the utmost importance, as nearly all Hindu sects base their belief and practices on them. It should be remembered that these Sutras form a collection, and that they are the work of many hands, and belong to different periods.

Book I.–Brahman, the Sum and Substance of Everything

The ego and the non-ego differ in themselves and in their attributes. It will be found, however, that the non-ego depends on the ego, and is its product. Individual souls, on the other hand, representing so many egos, are themselves but manifestations of the supreme universal soul–Brahman; that is, Brahman and the Atman [the individual soul] are identical, the latter being the product of the self-revealing of the former. [With this one may compare the “ontological ideas” of Plato, the “absolute substance” of Spinoza, and the “absolute idea” of Hegel; all of them standing for the One only existing Being which manifests itself to thought and to sense in various forms.]

“What, then,” asks the Vedantist, “is Brahman”? The word comes from brih, “to be great.” Hence Brahman is something, or someone, transcendently great. The word may be defined as connoting that whence all things proceed. This implies absolute, unoriginated origin, absolute subsistence, and also reabsorption, for as all things go forth from Brahman, so shall all things return to that whence they started forth.

The Scriptures [Vedas] lay most stress on Brahman as the source and origin of all things. What qualities there are in the world inhere in Brahman, or they could not be in the world which has sprung from him. There could be no intelligent souls without a previously existing intelligent Brahman. That Brahman, the Supreme Being, is all-knowing is proved from the fact that the Veda itself, the source and centre of what is knowable, proceeds from Him as its one, only author.

This Brahman, as set forth in the Vedanta texts as the cause of the world, is therefore intelligent, and by no means to be identified with the non-intelligent Pradhâna (Prakriti) which the Sankhya [atheistic] philosophy makes to be the world’s cause. What looks like a separate, conscious, individual soul or mind is really but the outworking of Brahman, the highest and first of beings.

The difference is apparent, but not real. So teaches Sankara; but his rival commentator, Ramanuga, endeavours to show that Brahman, the supreme self of the universe, is absolutely free from the effects of conduct. But the individual selves, which we call souls, are not, for it is the effect of conduct in a previous state of existence [Karma] that decides the character and form of the new life to be lived, or whether there is to be a new life lived at all, since conduct sufficiently good entitles to absorption in the one all–Brahman.

It may be objected that Brahman cannot be the creator of this actual world, for there is in it suffering,injustice, and cruelty. He could not be the author of these. To which the commentator Sankara answers: “Brahman is himself, with all his greatness, subject to the operation of the great moral laws according to which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. All men are free, and it is their self-chosen conduct that determines their destiny. This is a law that pervades all existence, conditions existence, and without which there could be no existence.”

It may be again asked: “How can a being with perfect life produce a world that is lifeless?” In other words, “How can the effect differ from its cause?” The same commentator replies: “Just as lifeless hair can grow out of a living man.”

Again, it is said, “In the universe Brahman is at once he who enjoys and he who is enjoyed. How can he be both one and the other–agent and object?” To which Sankara replies: “It is as possible for these two to go together as for the ocean to be itself and to be at the same time foam, waves, billows, and bubbles. The same earth produces diamonds, rock crystal, and vermilion. Do they differ from the earth?

“The same sun causes plants of various kinds to grow, and the very same nourishment taken into the body is changed to flesh, hair, nails, etc. The spider spins its web from its own substance, and spirits assume many forms when they appear on the earth. All these are but images of the eternal world-process by which Brahman reveals Himself in souls and in material objects.”


No Sudra [or lowest caste man] is capable of such knowledge as leads to Brahmanhood [the state of being absorbed in Brahman]. Only the twice-born[12] are allowedto study the Vedic Scriptures, a knowledge of which is essential to salvation. The twice-born are likewise alone permitted to offer sacrifice, for how can a man sacrifice aright who is ignorant of the sacred scriptures, which are alone adequate for a man’s guidance? If the Sudras, or fourth-caste men, are excluded from the summum bonum of humanity–absorption in the one great all–how much more are Pariahs, or non-caste men, deprived of this great boon! Brahman is the material, as well as the efficient, cause of the world, which springs from him by way of modification, but is his manifested self and nothing more.

Book II.–Objections to Vedantic Doctrines Stated and Refuted

The Vedanta texts, the Vedas and the Upanishads, teach that Brahman is the one only source of whatever exists outside himself; that his nature is not only mighty, but also intelligent. The evidence for this supplied in Book I. is, for the most part, the authority of the above texts; that which they say must be accepted as “gospel,” whatever human reason may see or say to the contrary.

Book II. begins by stating and answering speculative objections on the part of Sankhyaists. Though himself intelligence (not merely intelligent) Brahman may give birth to a non-intelligent world, seeing that like does not always spring from like [see above].

Atomists hold that there is apparent difference andseparateness in things. “Where, then,” they ask, “is the oneness, the monism, for which the Vedantists argue?” It is replied that it is only superficial thought that fixes itself upon the manifoldness of things, losing sight of their oneness. Deeper thought sees underneath the many a oneness which binds them, and of which they are only the outward expressions. The great ocean is one, but its waves and ripples are many. All at bottom is but one: the Universal Being.

A non-intelligent first cause (Prakriti), such as the Sankhyaists postulate, could never call into being an orderly world, for how could unreason produce reason? Nor could atoms set in motion produce a planned or intelligent universe, as the Atomists falsely say. There must be an intelligent power controlling the atoms and contemplating the result to be attained.

The view put forth by the Sankhya philosophers, that an external and internal world exists in mutual independence, is contrary to thought and experience–is, in fact, unthinkable. We know no external world: we have never had any experience outside the region of our own consciousness; yet what is regarded as external to the individual consciousness is not Maya, as is taught in some of the Upanishads, and maintained by later philosophers. This external world as a fact of consciousness is as real as that consciousness and as the individual mind which makes mental experience possible, and is the great All, of which the individual mind is the working and manifestation.


Are the elementary substances (ether, air, etc) co-eternal, with Brahman, or do they issue from him? It can be shown, and is shown, that one elementary substance proceeds from another (e.g., air from ether), andthat in the last resort all such substances have come forth from Brahman, who has not only produced them, but also guided and effected their evolution.

The individual soul is, according to the scriptures [Vedas and Upanishads], eternal and permanent, and has not been produced by Brahman; who is, however, as noted, the producer of the elementary substances. Like Brahman himself, the individual soul is uncreated and eternal. What is in time and belongs to time is the connection of the soul with the conditions of space and time. This is the interpretation given by Sankara. Ramanuga, however, holds that the soul is a creature of Brahman, though an eternal one, it having existed ever as a mode of the great All [compare the doctrine of the eternal procession of the Son].


What is soul? It is gna, or knowledge. [The etymology of both these latter words is identical–compare Greek gnosco, etc.] This means, according to Sankara, that knowledge is of the very essence of soul, and not a mere attribute of it. The soul is not merely a knower (gnatri), but it is knowledge. Ramanuga, on the other hand, explains that the knowledge spoken of in this Sutra means “the knower”; that the soul is not knowledge, but that which can and does know.

Is the soul limited in size, and capable, therefore, of occupying but a restricted space? Or is it, on the contrary, omnipresent?

Sankara maintains that the Sutra in question teaches the latter; the soul is everywhere. Ramanuga makes the same Sutra teach the very contrary. As a matter of fact, the Sutra in question seems to teach both these contradictory doctrines, perhaps because it registers different traditions. Sankara, however, explains further on that as long as the soul is passing through the changes involved in Samsara [= transmigration] it islimited and local, but on reaching Brahmanhood it becomes omnipresent. In this way the great commentator seeks to reconcile teaching apparently contradictory in this Sutra.

Is this soul an agent? Some of the Sutras say it is, others say it is not. How are the conflicting statements to be reconciled? Sankara does this in the following way. As long as the soul is tied down to material conditions–that is, is passing through the processes of Samsara–it is an agent. But as soon as it has escaped from this bondage of transmigration it dwells in a state of perfect repose, inactive and restful. In all its activities the soul is prompted by Brahman, without whose inspiration and guidance the soul could perform nothing, and could never, therefore, reach the true goal of all souls, absorption in the one All, which can be obtained in no other way than by the performance of good deeds, which means action.

Book III.–Of the Soul and its Summum Bonum

When at death the soul passes from the body its subtle material elements still cling to it. Good souls pass on to the moon, whence they afterwards descend in a form and state determined by their former actions [Karma]. If the previous life has been a moral failure, the new life now entered upon will belong to a lower level of being, i.e., the man may become an animal, the higher, animal may become a lower one. On the other hand, there may be an ascent in the scale of being.

When the soul is a-dreaming, what it thinks it sees and hears, etc., is all illusion, for it does not see or hear, etc., what it thinks it does. In a state of profound dreaminess the soul leaves the body and lives in close fellowship with Brahman.

How is the soul to obtain final release from the thraldom of material conditions? By meditating on Brahmanas he is set forth in the sacred scriptures. Brahman must be thought about and meditated on in all his attributes, and this produces identity with the one great self of existence.

Though Sankara makes this to be the teaching of the Sutras, in another place he insists that Brahman is without attributes. He is not, therefore, consistent. The meditation on Brahman which leads to soul-freedom must have regard also to Brahman’s negative qualities, i.e., his not being gross, nor subtle, wise nor foolish, etc.


The knowledge of Brahman is independent of action, and not subordinate to it. It is vidya [compare vision, which has the same etymology], or knowledge, that is alone prescribed in the holy writings, not conduct. Where, however, there is right knowledge, there will be rightness of life. But mere rightness of life is nothing; it is that which leads to it and is the cause that is alone commanded and commended [compare the controversy among Christian theologians about faith and works]. The knowledge which saves and enfranchises may be reached by a man in this present life, and will be, if the appropriate means are employed.


Meditation is a duty to be observed to the very close of life, and the amount and intensity of it are the measure of a man’s virtue and piety. When he has reached the full knowledge of Brahman, a man is freed from the consequences [karma] of all his evil deeds, past, present, and future. [One would think that the state of Brahmanhood excluded the possibility of sin, but this Sutra seems to imply the contrary. The Sutras, however, make a distinction between a lower state of Brahmanhood and a higher. See below.]

What happens to the knowing one (vidvan) at death?The soul of him who has at death the lower Brahman knowledge merges into the subtler elements. But when the highest knowledge is attained there is complete absorption in Brahman. Whoever dies in possession of this highest knowledge is at once merged in Brahman, and rests eternally and perfectly in him.

The Upanishads describe the stations on the way which leads up to Brahman. These stations are to be understood not merely as terminuses of the various stages of the journey, but they denote also the divine beings who direct the soul in its progress and enable it to move forward and upward. According to some Sutras in this book the guardians of the path conducting to the gods lead the departed soul, not to the highest Brahman, but to the effected (karya), or qualified (saguna), Brahman. But in other Sutras in this book the opposite view is stated and defended, according to which the vidvan, or knower, goes direct to the highest Brahman without halting anywhere short of that god.

The Sutras teach, on the whole, the doctrine that the enfranchised soul, being identical with Brahman, is inseparable from him just as a mode of substance is incapable of existing apart from the substance of which it is a mode. Ramanuga points out, however, that some of the Sutras in this book give it clearly to be understood that the freed soul can exist in isolation and in separation from the great All.

The released soul can enter several bodies at the same time, since it is not subject to space relations as other souls are.

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