Vedanta (Sk.). A mystic system of philosophy which has developed from the efforts of generations of sages to interpret the secret meaning of the Upanishads. It is called in the Shad-Darshanas (six schools or systems of demonstration), Uttara Mîmânsâ, attributed to Vyâsa, the compiler of the Vedas, who is thus referred to as the founder of the Vedânta. The orthodox Hindus call Vedânta—a term meaning literally the “end of all (Vedic) knowledge”—Brahma-jnâna, or pure and spiritual knowledge of Brahmâ. . . . Sankarâchârya, who was the popularizer of the Vedântic system, and the founder of the Adwaita philosophy, is sometimes called the founder of the modern schools of the Vedânta.

Sri Sankaracharya (Sk.). The great religious reformer of India, and teacher of the Vedânta philosophy—the greatest of all such teachers, regarded by the Adwaitas (Non-dualists) as an incarnation of Siva and a worker of miracles. He established many mathams (monasteries), and founded the most learned sect among Brahmans, called the Smârtava. The legends about him are as numerous as his philosophical writings. At the age of thirty-two he went to Kashmir, and reaching Kedâranâth in the Himalayas, entered a cave alone, whence he never returned. His followers claim that he did not die, but only retired from the world.

Advaita (Sk.). A Vedânta sect. The non-dualistic (A-dwaita) school of Vedântic philosophy founded by Sankarâchârya, the greatest of the historical Brahmin sages. The two other schools are the Dwaita (dualistic) and the Visishtadwaita; all the three call themselves Vedântic.

Theosophical Glossary, H. P. Blavatsky

“The nearest exponent of [the Esoteric Philosophy] is the Vedanta as expounded by the Advaita Vedantins.”—H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 1:55.

Key Texts

Advaita is a sub-school of the Vedanta Darshana, one of the six traditional schools of Indian Philosophy. Thus Advaita also uses the Prasthana Traya (Prasthānatrayī) as its primary authoritative texts, these being:

1. The Upanishads (sruti prasthana)
2. The Bhagavad Gita (sadhana or smriti prasthana)
3. The Brahma (or Vedanta) Sutras (nyaya prasthana)

The primary difference between the Advaita school and other schools of Vedanta is that the Advaita follow the teachings of Sankaracharya, as recorded in several commentaries and original texts.

However, a caveat must be made here if we take seriously the claims made by T. Subba Row—an initiated esoteric Advaitin—that there were two main Sankaracharyas: the original who lived shortly after the death of Buddha and who is the true founder of the Advaita school, and a much later Sankaracharya who lived around the 8th century A.D. (modern scholarship recognizes only the latter). According to T. Subba Row, his co-disciple H.P. Blavatsky, and their Mahatma teachers, the exoterically known texts and commentaries of Sankara are not those of the original founder of Advaita but belonged to a later teacher (quite possibly to the historically recognized 8th century Sankaracharya), while the texts of the original Sankaracharya remain hidden from all outsiders—“for they are too jealously preserved in his maths” (see SD 1:271). Thus, according to the Mahatmas, the texts (and specifically Sankara’s Bhasyas or Commentaries) that form the basis of the exoteric understanding of the Advaita Vedanta school, as presented to the world today, are not the genuine writings of the original Sankaracharya. This, of course, is a claim that would not be accepted by modern Advaita teachers.

In modern times there have been several well known efforts to promulgate the teachings of Sankara and Advaita Vedanta (see Neo-Vedanta). All of these consider the exoterically available texts to be those of the original Sankara, and they believe that the original Sankara lived in the 8th century A.D. If we take seriously the claims made by the Mahatmas and their Chelas (initiated disciples), we might surmise that either those swamis responsible for such teachings are themselves ignorant of the true history of their school, or that they keep such information to themselves (see, for instance, the comments made by H. P. Blavatsky about the Smartava Brahmans below).

For more on this subject see:

Sri Sankaracharya’s Date and Doctrine by T. Subba Row
Sankaracharya by Jon Fergus
The Original Śaṅkarācārya by David Reigle
The Age of Sankara by T. S. Narayana Sastry

Exoteric vs. Esoteric

For those who take the Mahatmas’ claims seriously, it may be suggested that while no uninitiated student can know just how much the teachings of the original Sankaracharya might differ from the modern exoteric version of Advaita Vedanta, one may perhaps make an initial survey by contrasting the approach and teachings of T. Subba Row with the popular exoteric teachings. For instance, one fundamental point of distinction between the esoteric and many exoteric presentations of Advaita Vedanta is the question of a “personal God.” The esoteric approach is well outlined by T. Subba Row in an article under the heading “A Personal and Impersonal God.” One of the Mahatmas, in a letter to a theosophist who was about to begin the study of Advaita Vedanta under a Swami mentions this issue thus:

“You notify me of your intention of studying Advaita philosophy with a ‘good old Swami’. The man, no doubt, is very good; but from what I gather in your letter, if he teaches you anything you say to me, i.e., anything save an impersonal, nоn-thinking and non-intelligent Principle they call Parabrahm, then he will not be teaching you the true spirit of that philosophy, not from its esoteric aspect, at any rate.” (K.H. to A.O. Hume)

Many popular presentations of Advaita (see Neo-Vedanta) are theistic in the sense that they put forward an interpretation of Advaita that includes a personal “God.” Their presentation is thus directly at odds with the esoteric position of T. Subba Row and the Mahatmas. Other doctrinal differences between common exoteric presentations and the explanations given by T. Subba Row and the Mahatmas will be noticed by the careful student.

Key Doctrines

Advaita (non-duality) of Brahman and Atman

When the term advaita is used in this school of Vedanta, it means specifically the fundamental oneness of Brahman (the Impersonal Absolute) and Atman (the Self). These are viewed as a singular non-dual reality, and the seeming distinction or separateness between Brahman and Atman is considered to be Mayavic (illusionary). Living beings (Jivas; in theosophy Atma-Buddhi or Monads) become subject to Avidya (ignorance) and thus come to confuse that which is Self (Atman) from that which is not-Self (Anatman), or that which is real from that which is unreal. Unreality or Non-Self does not, however, indicate something that is not Brahman, since Brahman is the totality of all that is, was or will be, but rather Non-Self or Unreality indicates that which is subject to change and is thus fleeting and temporary, or that which is mistakenly superimposed on reality by the false perception of living beings. A classic illustration of the state of Avidya (ignorance) given by Sankara is when one mistakes a stick lying on the ground for a snake. When one comes to realize that the imagined snake is actually just a stick, it cannot be said that the snake ceased to exist, but rather that it never was. There was a reality (the stick), but it was mistaken to be something which it is not (the snake).

Moksha (liberation) and the Jivanmukta (free Jiva)

The goal in Advaita Vedanta is to realize the oneness of Atman and Brahman, and to thus become “free.” The view is simple: ignorance is the fundamental problem, therefore knowledge is the fundamental solution. Classical Advaita therefore focuses on a path of knowledge, or Jnana-Yoga, as the means by which the Jiva who is under the sway of ignorance can become a Jivanmukta, or a “free Jiva.”

Since Jnana-Yoga, or “knowledge-yoga” is placed in a position of primary importance in Advaita Vedanta, the question of valid means of knowledge is also of primary importance. All schools of Indian philosophy accept some “means of knowledge,” called in Sanskrit “Pramanas,” as valid and reject other means as invalid. Advaita accepts all six of the classically identified Pramanas as valid means of knowledge. These are:

  1. Pratyakṣa (knowing by perception)
  2. Anumāṇa (knowing by inference or reason)
  3. Śabda (knowing by word or testimony)
  4. Upamāṇa (knowing by correspondence and analogy)
  5. Arthāpatti (knowing by implication or postulation)
  6. Anupalabdi, Abhava (knowing by negation)
Qualifications for Chelaship

The path by which the Jiva may obtain freedom from ignorance is based on the cultivation of Four “Accomplishments” (see Vivekachudamani):

  1. Viveka (discernment between the real and the unreal)
  2. Virāga (indifference to the pairs of opposites)
  3. Ṣat-Sampatti (six virtues)
    1. Śama (tranquility of mind, mastery over the mind)
    2. Dama (temperance, self-control, self-restraint)
    3. Uparati (dispassion; involves the renunciation of all formal religion and ability to work on undisturbed)
    4. Titikṣa (endurance, perseverance, tolerance of the pairs of opposites, absence of resentment of wrong, etc.)
    5. Śraddhā (faith, “an implicit confidence in his master’s power to teach and his own power to learn”)
    6. Samādhāna (contentedness, satisfaction under any condition, inability to be deviated from the path)
  4. mumkṣutva (an intense desire for liberation)

The learning of and walking of this path is said to be formed of three stages:

  1. śravaṇa (hearing; the stage of the learner who is “listening” to the teachings)
  2. manana (thinking; the stage of contemplation and exploration of the teachings)
  3. nididhyāsana (meditation, observation; the stage of direct realization)
Principles and States of Consciousness

Advaita Vedanta views the constitution of Man through two principle approaches:

  1. The Three “Bodies”
    1. Sthūla Śarīra or Sthūla Upādhi (“gross body”)
    2. Sūkṣma Śarīra or Sūkṣma Upādhi (“subtle body”)
    3. Kāraṇa Śarīra or Kāraṇa Upādhi (“causal body”)
  2. The Five “Sheaths”
    1. Anna-maya Kośa (“food sheath”)
    2. Prāṇa-maya Kośa (“vital sheath”)
    3. Mano-maya Kośa (“mind sheath”)
    4. Vijñāna-maya Kośa (“intelligence sheath”)
    5. Ānanda-maya Kośa (“bliss sheath”)

Beyond these is Atman, the Self. For a Theosophical approach, and comparison to the seven principles of theosophy, see The Secret Doctrine 1:157.

The Three “Bodies” are furthermore associated with three states of consciousness, as explained in the Mandukya Upanishad:

  1. Jagrat (waking)
  2. Svapna (dreaming)
  3. Suṣupti (deep-sleep)

Just as Atman is beyond the three bodies, so there is a fourth state of consciousness referred to as Turya or Turiya.

The Advaita Sampradayas (Lineages)

Advaita has four distinct lineages, each associated with one of the four Mathas founded by Sankara at four quarters of India, each of which was initially presided over by one of Sankara’s four main disciples. These are:

  1. Padmapāda lineage, associated with Sringeri in the South;
  2. Sureśvara lineage, associated with Govardhana in the East;
  3. Hastāmalakācārya lineage, associated with Dvaraka in the West;
  4. Toṭakācārya lineage, associated with Jyotir or Joshi in the North.

The heads of each of these Mathas assumes the title “Sankaracharya”; thus there have been many Sankaracharyas over the history of these Advaita lineages. Speaking of the sitting “Sankaracharya” of Sringeri Matha during her time, H. P. Blavatsky wrote:

“Let us remember that the former [the Sankaracharya of Sringeri] is an initiated adept, the only man in India who now possesses the key to all the Brâhmanical mysteries and has spiritual authority from Cape Comorin to the Himâlayas and whose library is the accumulation of long centuries.” (“Theosophy and Spiritism”)

In addition to the lineages, Sankara also organized Advaita monks into a system of “Ten Names,” called the Dasanami Sampradaya, commonly known as the Swami Order. To adopt the title of Swami, one must take vows administered by one already belonging to the Order, and these vows are taken under the auspices of one of the Four Mathas. However, the members of the Dasanami Sampradaya are often but loosely associated with the Matha and Lineage under which they formally take their vows, and great independence is demonstrated among Swamis. The freedom and independence of those who belong to the Swami Order has led to wide and varying approaches to Vedanta teachings (see Neo-Vedanta). Those who belong directly to and preside at the four principal Mathas are much more intimately responsible for the continuation of the Lineages and associated teachings. Thus one may mark a distinction between the popular Advaita movements of modern day and the classical Advaita associated with the Mathas, and especially to any genuinely esoteric teachings known and taught therein.

The Smarta Tradition

The Smarta tradition is a denomination or movement within Hinduism. It’s adherents subscribe to Advaita doctrines and consider Adi Sankara to be their founder. Stemming from its roots in Advaita doctrine, a key feature of the Smarta tradition is its non-sectarianism in regards to the worship of Hindu deities (thus contrasting Smartavas with followers of traditional denominations in Hinduism, i.e. the followers of Vishnu, Siva, etc.).

In regards to the Smartava Brahmins, H.P. Blavatsky wrote:

“This sect, founded by Sankaracharya, (which is still very powerful in Southern India) is now almost the only one to produce students who have preserved sufficient knowledge to comprehend the dead letter of the Bhashyas. The reason of this is that they alone, I am informed, have occasionally real Initiates at their head in their mathams, as for instance, in the “Sringa-giri,” in the Western Ghauts of Mysore. On the other hand, there is no sect in that desperately exclusive caste of the Brahmins, more exclusive than is the Smârtava; and the reticence of its followers to say what they may know of the Occult sciences and the esoteric doctrine, is only equalled by their pride and learning.” (SD 1:271-272)


Selected Articles, Commentaries, etc.