ConfuciusPrecepts of TaoismBuddhist No-SelfBuddhist EthicsIntegral ConsciousnessVedantaUniversal SpiritualityRobert Waxman


Major Religious Themes in Vedanta 

       Robert Waxman           


The paper discusses the major religious themes in Vedanta Heart of Hinduism (1991) by Hans Torwesten. These topics include the mystical concepts from the Upanishads, the yogas in the Bhagavad Gita, Advaita, personal gods, Krishna, Shakti, and Vedanta’s relationship between western religion and philosophy. Other important concepts such as Brahman, Atman, maya, karma and reincarnation are also discussed in this paper.


     According to Torwesten (1991), Vedanta means "end of the Vedas" or "transcending the Vedas." The word Veda in Sanskrit means knowledge, and the goal of acquiring Vedic knowledge is to learn and experience the spiritual wisdom of ancient Hinduism. Sometimes, the Vedas are viewed as metaphysical writings which are comparable to wisdom books in other esoteric traditions such as Zen, Sufism, Taoism and Gnosticism. Cosmology and psychology have also been assimilated into Vedanta, however, Torwesten claims Vedanta must be experienced to be fully understood. 


     A Vedantin believes in Brahman, the Law of karma, reincarnation, maya, and the Atman or divine spark within man (Torwesten, 1991). He also practices meditation and strives to transcend the physical world of illusion or maya. His goal is to understand the universal nature of ‘being and non-being’, and Torwesten asserts that Vedanta (like Zen) can lead one to “the end of all knowledge.”        

      Each of the Vedas contains a section of collective writings (Upanishads) which are the foundations of Vedanta (Torwesten, 1991). The concept of Brahman is central to the teachings of the Upanishads, and it establishes the concept of one divine source as the beginning of a manifold universe. Torwesten says, Brahman is not “an abstract, absolute principle,” but rather a concept representing the highest good. He also asserts that the Upanishads are known as a “secret teaching” because they refer to the unseen and the paranormal. The Upanishads also refer to the principle of correspondences, summed-up by the phrase ‘as above, so below’ (the macrocosm and the microcosm).

    According to Torwesten (1991), one of the most important secret teachings in the Upanishads is the concept of “Tat tvam asi” or “That – thou art.” This phrase encapsulates the ultimate truth in the universe. This phrase means ‘That’ is the highest force existing in nature, and ‘it’ manifests itself in each person as ‘thou art’. Therefore, ‘That’ is the vivifying principle of life, and there is a direct relationship between these macro-cosmic and micro-cosmic forces. The well-known verse from the Hebrew Bible declaring, I Am That I am (Ex. 3.14) has a similar meaning.

     In Vedanta, the study of knowledge is known as jnana yoga, and those who study this path are not concerned with going to heaven or worshipping deities (Torwesten, 1991). Vedantins do not regard rituals, sacrifice, devotion, or good works as important as knowledge. Spiritual adherents on "the path of knowledge" wants to know who they are and why they exist. Additionally, Vedantins want to understand the various aspects of karma and how to expend it. Thus, Vedantins are seeking to free themselves from karma, and in the process, free themselves from the cycle of rebirth. To achieve this goal, adherents need to experience self-realization through a direct connection to Brahman (the source of all being). 

     The concept of Brahman has changed over time. The original meaning was to “swell, expand, or increase”, but its future meaning changed to “a static” concept, meaning the opposite of illusion or maya (Torwesten, 1991). Another definition for Brahman is “sacred word,” which refers to the mystical power of language that causes something to happen during a ritual or sacrifice. Later on, Brahman became known as the “creator-god” Brahma or the first god of the Hindu trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva). On the spiritual hierarchy, Brahma is one level below prakriti or the potentiality of nature. Brahma’s primary function is to create a new universe at the beginning of a cosmic cycle. Once this task is complete, Brahma does not participate in human affairs. From that point forward, his counterparts Vishnu and Shiva have the power to preserve, destroy and regenerate life on earth.

     Beyond prakriti lies the absolute Being and non-Being of Brahman, which has a direct connection to each spark of atman or individual consciousness. In the Sankhya system, the forces of "passive consciousness" (purusha) and the active forces of nature (prakriti) do not correspond to the teachings of Vedanta (Torwesten, 1991). The Sankhya system teaches the concept of dualism, while Vedanta teaches non-dualism or oneness. However, Vedanta agrees with 24 principles from Sankhya, and adds purusha (eternal essence or spirit) as separate from prakriti (nature or matter). Purusha is the true self of the individual which “dwells in the hearts of men” (Torwesten, 1991). To progress spiritually, purusha (individual consciousness) must liberate itself within each person. For purusha to enlighten the individual, the body must go through a process of purification. Once complete, the individual feels a direct connection to the collective atman (world soul) and experiences a sense of oneness with Brahman. The relationship between purusha and "the collective atman" leads to "liberation of the true self" (moksha) (Torwesten, 1991).

     When describing Brahman, Torwesten (1991) quotes the Mandukya Upanishad: "It is that which cannot be seen or seized, has no attributes, no eyes or ears.” Torwesten contends that a mortal cannot have a personal relationship with an abstract concept. Therefore, since Brahman cannot be described in a finite manner, human beings cannot have a relationship with it. Consequently, Brahman is the ultimate mystery of Being and Non-Being and can only be spoken of as incomprehnsible and omniscient.

     There comes a certain moment when Brahman differentiates itself from its resting state of oneness (pralaya). At this stage, purusha and prakriti come into Being as two opposite qualities. Torwesten (1991) states that purusha is the “the highest transcendental” spiritual force, and prakriti is the “underlying ground” of constantly evolving nature. According to the Upanishads, prakriti emanates from Brahman as a projection rather than a creation. In other passages of the Upanishads, Brahman is described as transforming itself into a visible universe. Shankara (founder of Advaita Vedanta) disputes this idea by teaching that Brahman cannot transform into anything. Shankara teaches that all of creation and the universe are maya, which are separate and apart from Brahman. Therefore, Shankara characterizes Brahman as the one, changeless, eternal Reality.

     Shankara’s teachings changed many ideas that Vedanta inherited from the Sankhya system. He did not believe that the universe emanates from Brahman or that Brahman devolves from the highest transcendental level down to the lowest physical level. Shankara agrees with the Isha Upanishad that speaks of Brahman’s transcendental fullness and its separation from the visible universe: “Om. That is full, this is full. This fullness has been projected from that fullness. When this fullness merges with that fullness, all that remains is fullness” (Torwesten, 1991).

     If one accepts the notion that the "fullness of the universe" is a projection of the "fullness of Brahman," a question arises regarding the validity of a one-time Creation. Even though the Vedas speak of only one Creation, Torwesten (1991) argues that there is a prevailing view in Hinduism that cycles of creation are without beginning or end. He claims continuous cosmic cycles are an important teaching from the Upanishads and cycles are inherent in the law of karma and the doctrine of reincarnation. Therefore, a creation of the universe is one third of the cosmic cycle of creation-progression-decay, which corresponds to the human cycle of birth-life-death. Both cycles begin by moving out of a state of oneness, and both complete their experience by returning to their original state of Brahman (1991).

     Another important concept in the Upanishads is the difference between the individual atman and the collective atman. The collective atman corresponds to the I Am That in the Hebrew Bible while the individual atman corresponds to the final I Am in the phrase I Am That I am (Ex. 3.14). The individualized atman is the true self. According to Torwesten (1991), originally atman had been associated with the breath of life or prana. Later on, Atman became associated with the I or transcendent Self which is interchangeable with the Sanskrit word paramatman. Additionally, jivatman refers to an aspect of the soul’s atman that is subject to reincarnation. Torwesten (1991) states that although these descriptive words are found in the Upanishads, there is a lack of consistency regarding their exact definitions. In any case, atman and Brahman are considered identical in terms of their transcendental mystique. Brahman is the macrocosmic version of an Ultimate Reality, and atman is a microcosmic spark of it. Both Brahman and atman are abstract subjective concepts without objective descriptions. 

     Another important topic in the Upanishads is the “word symbol” for Brahman which is “OM or AUM” (Torwesten, 1991). The Upanishads speak of AUM/OM as a sacred word, and its three letters represent the three consecutive states of “waking, dreaming and deep sleep.”. OM is a link between the mortal and divine worlds, and during meditation its sound is used to unite both worlds. The negative definitions of OM are similar to Brahman and Atman: “unperceived, unrelated, incomprehensible, unthinkable, and indescribable.” When a person is meditating or chanting the sound OM, his goal is to transcend duality and experience a feeling of oneness between his individual atman and the collective atman. Torwesten (1991) describes this form of mysticism by saying, “the infinite becomes the word, thus taking root in the human heart, and what is inmost in the heart expands as he leaves his “I” behind and bounds across to the other shore." (1991) Raising one’s consciousness to the highest level of Nothingness and moving beyond the ego is one of the most important practices in Vedanta. Transcending the personality and all the aspects of illusion are ultimate goals.

     The Upanishads teach ethical principles and how to expend karma through purification. The individual seeks freedom from re-birth through non-attachment, thus ridding one’s self of all desires, and attaining a state of oneness with atman (Torwesten, 1991). However, if Vedantins only studies the Vedas, their goal are not reached. Purification is attained by transcending to a state of mind with “ananda, joy, bliss, and happiness in God” (1991). The Upanishads are a guide for Vedantins for experiencing transcendental bliss. The Upanishads belong to the school of jnana yoga which concentrates on intellectual understanding and attainment of the highest spiritual knowledge. However, Torwesten (1991) suggests that the Christian message of "loving thy neighbor as thyself" could work in tandem with the wisdom of the Upanishads. Furthermore, spiritual aspirants could attain the highest states of consciousness through the heart as well as the mind. 

      According to Torwesten (1991), the Mahabarata, which includes the Bhagavad Gita, is the Hindu equivalent of the Bible. The Mahabarata combines the different yogas or spiritual paths into one “brilliant synthesis of all the important religious and philosophical currents in India” (Torwesten, 1991). The Bhagavad Gita, like the Torah and the Gospels, is regarded as a divine revelation. The Bhagavad Gita, along with the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras, are the pillars of Vedanta.

     The Bhagavad Gita has a universal message offering great appeal. It tells the story of the human condition and how to overcome despair and achieve blissful spiritual enlightenment. The two main characters in the Gita are the warrior Arjuna, and his god-like teacher Krishna. They discuss profound spiritual questions that most great thinkers have asked throughout the ages. Krishna teaches Arjuna the fundamental principles of the Upanishads, and these teachings become the spiritual basis of the Vedanta system. The goal of the Gita is to teach any student how to achieve self-realization. Arjuna symbolizes the lower mind of humankind and his teacher Krishna symbolizes the the higher mind. Thus, the higher mind is imparting wisdom to the lower in the same way that Krishna is imparting wisdom to Arjuna.

     Another yoga discussed in the Gita is karma-yoga or the “Path of Selfless Action” (Torwesten, 1991). Karma means "action, work or deed," and Krishna speaks to Arjuna about the importance of performing selfless actions. Krishna tells Arjuna that action is better than inaction, and people need to live in the world rather than in their minds. He also warns Arjuna about becoming attached to the objects of the world. According to Torwesten (1991), Krishna comes to earth to set an example for humanity, and without his constant action, all worlds would perish. 

     In chapter eleven of the Gita, Krishna appears to Arjuna as a frightening and awesome image with thousands of arms, faces, bellies, eyes, and mouths (Torwesten, 1991). Arjuna is beginning to understand that Krishna is a majestic deity who is capable of destroying the universe. Torwesten points out that the Upanishads do not speak of such an apocalyptic vision, however, the Katha Upanishad describes Brahman “as a great terror, like a thunderbolt . . . From terror of Brahman fires burns; from terror of It the sun shines, from terror of It Indra, Vyahu and Death, the fifth, run” (1991). Like Brahman, Krishna is personified as a terrifying and awesome image. This type of personification changes Krishna into a mythological figure in the mold of Egypt’s Horus or Persia’s Mithra. Krishna’s personification is seen as symbolic by those Vedantins following Shankara and the Advaita school. However, followers on the Path of Devotion (bhakti) worship Krishna as a personal god. Torwesten (1991) argues that this type of theism is more appealing to Hindus than the concept of an abstract Brahman without definable qualities or attributes.                                                                

      According to Torwesten (1991), dvaita is defined as duality, and Advaita as non-duality or oneness with the ultimate reality of Brahman. In Advaita, “everything is explained away” and there are no answers to questions. The issue is: why are the questions are being asked. Advaitins do not concern themselves with the nature of duality, but rather prefer peeling off layers of objective reality until nothing remains. When Advaitins experience a state of Nothingness, there is only Brahman. At that point, the "I" and the ego no longer cause questions to persist, and the Self is free from illusion. Subsequently, the Self is liberated and experiences the oneness of Brahman.  

     Shankara is an important figure in the emergence of Vedanta. He lived in approximately 800 CE, and lived to the age of 32 (Torwesten, 1991). He wrote many important texts about the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita during a time in history when Buddhism was in decline in India. He established the concept of Nirguna Brahman - the “absolute without attributes” and Saguna Brahman – a personal god with attributes (1991). According to Torwesten (1991), Shankara benefited from the decline in Buddhism’s popularity, and had the opportunity to reshape Vedanta into his vision of a more cohesive and profound religious philosophy.  

     A few hundred years later, the theistic Vedantins rebelled against Advaita by accepting their personal god as the one eternal Reality. They resented Shankara’s Buddhist-like "impersonal nothingness" and changed the two tiered system of Brahman into a personal god-concept (Torwesten, 1991). During the Middle Ages, Shankara’s followers held to the notion of Brahman as the absolute deity, while others believed in a combination of an absolute deity and a second tier personal god (Vishnu or Shiva). The god Shiva has a connection to jnana yoga and is in the tradition of the Shankara system of Vedanta. 

     Later spiritual innovators of Vedanta include Ramanuja, Ramakrishna, Madhava and Chaitanya.  From the Middle Ages until the early 1800’s, Vedanta changed as a result of influences from Islam and Tantra, however, the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita still provided the religious and philosophical foundations for the Vedanta schools (Torwesten, 1991). In the mid-1800’s, Shri Ramakrishna changed the direction of Hinduism, and there was renewed interest in its teachings. Ramakrishna reshaped Vedanta by: 1) expressing love for a personal god, 2) accepting Tantric practices, and, 3) having an Advaita teacher as his guru. He also followed the Shankara tradition, settled old disputes between various Vedantic schools, and brought new freedom of thought to Vedanta. Ramakrishna embraced all religions and accepted Jesus and Allah as part of his new vision for Hinduism. He was not attempting to make Hinduism into a synthesis of all the religions, but taught the idea that each religion revealed a portion of divine truth. Ramakrishna was able to unite the different factions of Hinduism by combining Vedic wisdom with bhakti yoga’s practices of love and devotion. He redefined Brahman as a passive state of absolute oneness that was separate from creation, preservation and destruction. The active  eternal Reality was redefined as Kali or Shakti, and Brahman and Shakti became identical. These two forces are personified as eternal parents or The Divine Mother which corresponds to the dual concept of absolute truth (Brahman) and relative truth (Shakti).

     Ramakrishna believed Brahman and Shakti were two sides of the same deity as darkness is to light. However, Ramakrishna and his disciple Vivekananda led their followers toward Advaita and the concept of non-duality. Later on, Vivekananda became a passionate leader in the Advaita-Vedanta movement in the late 1800’s. He practiced more moderation in his metaphysical views than Shankara and recognized the personal god Shakti as the Divine Mother. However, he also accepted the concept of maya as illusion, and Brahman as the one eternal Reality.  Like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda had no intentions of starting a universal world religion. Instead, he wanted to promote the concept of non-dualism. He believed that complete unity existed between the "seen and the unseen" and believed in one Ultimate Reality which has no beginning or end. Later on, the Vedantic leader Aurobindo taught a more rational doctrine that included Shakti who could advance the condition of humanity (Torwesten, 1991).

     Aurobindo did not exclude the concept of experiencing spiritual oneness with the impersonal Brahman, however, he thought “the earlier paths were too negative and one-sided” (Torwesten, 1991). Subsequently, he formed a new type of Vedantic system that was useful in the world, but still included Shankara’s teachings of transcendence. He believed Brahman energy could invigorate human life in the same way "the love of Christ" energized the Christians. Aurobindo believed that the concept of enlightenment not only pertained to the advancement of the soul, but also to the evolution of humanity. He reversed the thinking of his predecessors by explaining that Vedantins had the power of Shakti within themselves, and together with evolution, tradition, family, and community – people could work together to change the world. Aurobindo believed humanity could unite in a spirit of love and cooperation and do the work of the gods. This idea met with harsh resistance because it was in opposition with the traditional Vedantic goal of achieving individual transcendence (1991). However, Aurobindo contributed to the evolution of Vedanta by combining traditional Vedic teachings with a compassionate ideology. He tried helping the Hindus to overcome poverty, sickness and idle behavior by combing the practical with the mystical.

     At the same time Aurobindo was changing Vedanta into a more humanitarian religion, Ramana Marharshi directed his followers back to the Advaita school of the Shankara tradition (Torwesten, 1991). Ramana Marharshi represented the full embodiment of the best that Vedic knowledge had to offer. He experienced self-realization and spent five years in meditation. He reached the highest spiritual state of Sahara Samadhi and lived immersed in a blissful, natural state. He became known as a person who had liberated himself from his body and directed his followers to ask themselves, "Who am I?" Marharshi explained that the truth comes to each person without words being spoken.

     Torwesten’s (1991) last chapter concentrates on pointing out the similarities between Vedanta’s mysticism and the writings of Schelling, Plato, Plotinus, Eckhart, Kafka and other great philosophers and religious leaders. He also mentions Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel and modern philosophers who have been influenced by Vedanta. In Europe and America many writers and progressive thinkers incorporated Vedantic themes into their work. Vedanta’s universal philosophy appealed to the 1960’s generation who were seeking expansion of consciousness and embraced the idea of lookng within to find answers to spiritual questions. Torwesten (1991) concludes by saying that today’s Vedantins should utilize atman as an expression of the infinite god-self in a finite world. Vedanta’s spiritual philosophy should help humankind become more alert, loving, creative and unique. In an ideal world, Torwesten suggests that Eastern metaphysics, mysticism and Christian ethics should come together to form a more perfect religious ideology for the benefit of humanity.


     Vedanta; Heart of Hinduism (Torwesten, 1991) offers descriptions of the major religious and philosophical themes in Vedanta. The author begins by saying Vedanta can be viewed as a perennial philosophy, and he succeeds in presenting this view. His description of Vedanta encourages the reader to discover universal spiritual ideas that are usually not found in Western religions. The author stresses that Vedanta is not just an exercise in deciphering ancient intellectual ideas, but it is also a tradition filled with many devotional teachings. 

     Torwesten's (1991) book begins by explaining the main topics and key words in Vedanta. Included are important ideas such as Brahman, Atman, maya, karma, and reincarnation. Many of the same mystical concepts are found in Zen, Sufism, Taoism, Gnosticism and Kabbalah. As in other traditions, Vedanta offers a method for experiencing oneness with the Divine source. The reader is introduced to the Upanishads as the source of Vedic mysticism, and the author explains the goal of the mystic in the Vedantic system.

     The turning point for Vedanta occurred 1893 during its introduction to the West at The World Parliament of Religions. Ramakrishna and his student Vivekananda were responsible for organizing Vedanta into a cohesive religious philosophy that could be understood by Western minds. Vedanta's complex teachings had been synthisized into a simplified form which allowed  most individuals to understand its basic teachings. The Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita were presented as pivotal works for studying Vedanta. Ramakrishna and Vivekananda understood the need for modernizing and simplifying Vedanta.

     This book thoroughly explains the most important Vedic concepts in the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras. However, the lessons from the Bhagavad Gita are not explained in their entirety. Only basic information is given about the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna and the esoteric interpretation is limited. Krishna’s role as teacher, god, logos and Brahman are not clearly identified in various portions of the text. This is an important point because many Vedantins recognize Krishna as a divine messenger who incarnated on earth (like Jesus). Many followers worship him as an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Others view Krishna as a god-object similar to Shakti, and those from the Shankara school equate Krishna with Brahman. The author does not fully describe the scope of Krishna’s changing role in the Gita as an incarnated human-god, an all pervading god-object, or an absolute god-force.

     If Vedanta is to stay consistent with its metaphysical teachings, Krishna should not be worshipped as a divine incarnation of Vishnu. The Advaita school would consider any human form as maya, and it serves no purpose for a god to incarnate as an illusion. The second tier of Vedanta may recognize Vishnu as a personal god, since Shankara worshipped Shiva and Vivekananda worshipped Shakti. However, this debate goes to the heart of Vedanta’s teachings and whether an incarnating personal god (like Krishna) belongs in the Vedantic system. The different beliefs on Krishna’s role may compromise Vedanta’s standing as a mystical tradition. Especially since other esoteric traditions such as Taoism and Zen do not worship any personal gods, Therefore, Vedanta runs the risk of overlapping into a devotional Hindu system if its followers place high value on worshipping personal gods. Additionally, if Vedantins integrate jnana yoga with bhakti, rajas, and karma yogas, its mystical tradition of acheiving union with Brahman becomes a primary concern. Consequently, its mystical roots are at stake if Vedantins  move toward the Sankhya system, and away from Advaita.  

     Torwesten explains how Vedanta has moved back and forth over the centuries from being a purely mystical tradition to being a jnana-bhakti combination of study. Shankara preferred his orthodox mysticism of Advaita, while Aurobindo preferred a more humanitarian approach which combined mystical practices with a ‘love and help thy neighbor’ philosophy. The author examines the history of Vedanta and how its leaders revised its teachings throughout the centuries. Shankara believes seeking oneness with Brahman is the goal of studying Vedanta, while Aurobindo believes Krishna is right when he says the Path of Loving Devotion is the way to salvation. This ideological conflict has been a continuous struggle among the followers of Vedanta for centuries, and the book underlines this point.       

     The author contends that most Hindus would rather worship their gods and perform rituals, than follow the path of the mystic. He also states that most Hindus do not focus on the impersonal Brahman, but prefer to worship their visible personal gods. The Bhagavad Gita is sympathetic to this human need for individuals to know and see their gods. Accordingly, Arjuna wants to see the visible god nature of Krishna because he is not content by keeping faith in an impersonal deity. However, once Krishna appears to him in physical form, Arjuna is terrified and regrets his request. Therefore, neither a visible god nor an invisible god-force usually meet human expectations. Consequently, Advaita and the Vedas stress the importance of finding the god within oneself.

     While reading this book, the reader may want to know if Vedanta’s philosophy is similar to Taoism, Zen and Theravada Buddhism. The author compares Vedanta to other traditions, but makes the point that only the Advaita system is comparable. The author describes Advaita as an orthodox mystical path for the individual seeking oneness with a non-dualistic, impersonal Brahman. He devotes a chapter to this subject, and understands the problems of confining Vedanta to orthodox mysticism and teaching the concept of maya. According to Advaita, everything in the entire universe is illusion, and the only abstract concept that is not maya is the ‘nothingness’ of the impersonal Brahman. With this system, the Heart Doctrine is put aside. The author mentions that Advaita may contain Buddhist influences, but he does not go into detail about how Shankara may have borrowed certain ideas from Buddhism.

     If the Vedas intended to focus on the study of jnana yoga, then Advaita is the purest form of Vedanta. However, we must go back to Krishna’s claim that complicates the matter. Krishna says bhakti yoga is a better path than jnana yoga for attaining enlightenment. The challenge is to reconcile these two schools of thought under one umbrella of religious philosophy. Since the Bhagavad Gita is one of the primary sources of Vedantic philosophy. Krishna’s preference for the Path of Loving Devotion over The Path of the Kingly Knowledge is an important teaching for the consideration of Vedantins. Krishna is supporting a spiritual path that establishes goodness, love, truth, and beauty as innate qualities of humankind and the universe.