Question 21. What Is Vedanta? Are there different schools in it? If so, what is the essential teaching of each school?
Meaning of the word anta is end or essence. Since the Upanishads form the end portions of the Vedas and contain their essence, they have been termed as Vedanta. The Brahmasutras (of the sage Badarayana) which try to systematize the teachings of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita which has been described as the milk from the cows of the Upanishads, as also all other works based on these, have been included under the term Vedanta. All these works generally deal with four topics: Brahman (God the Absolute), Jivatman (the individual self), creation of the world and Moksha, (liberation), the final goal of human life.
Different interpretations of the fundamental texts of Vedanta have given rise to three main schools: Advaita, Visishtadvaita and Dvaita. The three well known Acharyas Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva are the chief exponents of these three schools. According to the Advaita system, Brahman alone is the reality, the one without a second. This world has emanated from It, is established in It and will return to It at the end of creation. In effect, this world is only an appearance on Brahman and is Brahman Itself in reality even as the illusory snake that appears in a rope is actually the rope itself.
The Jivas, (the individual souls) are also, in the ultimate analysis, Brahman, The difference and Separation between them is only apparent, brought about by Ajnana or nescience. Since the Atman, the real nature of the Jiva, is identical with Brahman, experience of the Atman is the same as experience of Brahman. That itself is Moksha. The Vishistadvaita recognizes multiplicity of Jivas, which are identical with one another, though separate from one another and from Brahman, also called Isvara.
This world, which is a modification of the insentient Prakriti (nature) is different from Brahman and from the Jivas. However, the Jivas and Prakriti exist in Brahman or Isvara as a part of Him and are fully under His control. But Brahman is beyond both. Visishtadvaita considers the triune of Isvara, Jivas and Prakriti as one reality. Devotion to Isvara is the primary means of obtaining Moksha. It is only by His grace that Moksha can be secured. The Dvaita system is similar to Visishtadvaita. However, it carries the differences still further and states that the Jivas differ from one another; so also do the various things of the world.