The oldest civilization known to humanity is represented by the traditional culture of Sanatana Dharma. Stretching back at least as far at the early Indus Valley cultures of circa 3800 B.C.E., according to even the most atheistic of academicians, Vedic culture is understood to be an eternal civilizational phenomenon that transcends all materialist-oriented cultures. Traditional Vedic culture has contributed much to the development of human progress. Included among these many contributions have been innovations in the fields of medicine, philosophy, religion, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, logic, politics, economics, agrarian sciences, physics, cosmology, mechanics, nautical sciences, aesthetics, biology and surgery - to name only a few. It has been, however, within the very vehicle through which these many discoveries have been communicated that we find the most impressive aspect of Vedic cultural development, that vehicle being the realm of traditional Dharma literature. In the following work, I will accomplish several tasks. I will provide a brief over-view of the traditional Vedic literary canon. I will give a general introduction to one specific genre of literature, known as the Sutra literature. And, finally, I will explore the history of the commentarial tradition on the most important of Sutras, the Brahma-sutras of Badarayana, and its impact on Vedantic thought.
So vast and comprehensive is the entire corpus of Dharmic literature that, to this day, the full extent of these, in some cases quite ancient writings, have never been fully translated into the English language, nor fully studied by either traditional Indian scholars, or by Western trained academicians. At the very least, however, these works can be divided into several very broad categories of genres. The first of these distinctions can be seen as 1) Secular literature, and 2) Sacred literature. The former category is quite small and includes such works as the Hitopadesha, the kavya works of such poets as Kalidasa, and various court documents. The vast bulk of traditional Indian writings fall under the Sacred category.
This latter category is variously termed by many traditional Dharmic scholars as “Veda”, shastra, shabda, etc. In this work, I will refer to the sacred writings of Sanatana Dharma under the more philosophically technical term of Shastra-pramana, or epistemically revelatory literature. This enormous library of sacred writings consists, in itself, of a vast array of different genres and literary styles, and can again be divided into the three broad categories of shruti, smrti and ancillary sacred texts. The former are those works which are “heard” via direct non-mediated perception of the Absolute, while the contents of the next category are considered to be “remembered”, and thereby less revered than shruti. Ancillary text are works which contain important and authoritative writings on theological and philosophical topics, but which are generally not considered to be necessarily revealed texts. In keeping with the general scheme arranged and accepted by the majority of traditional Vedic scholars, the categories of Shastra-pramana (along with several of their more well-known constituents) can be illustrated by the following chart.
1) Vedas: Rg, Saman, Atharva, Yajus.
(What is Heard)
2) Brahmanas (ritual texts).
3) Aranyakas (ritual and philosophical).
4) Upanisads (philosophical texts).
1) Itihasas(historical epics): a) Mahabharata, the world’s longest poem. b) Ramayana. The story of Rama, an avatara (incarnation) of Narayana.
(What is remembered)
2) Puranas (history of ancient events): 18 Maha-Puranas, 18 minor Puranas.
4) Dharma-shastras: The law books. These contain ethics, laws, codes of
5) Pancharatras: Ritual texts that contain teachings pertaining to temple ritual, puja, yajna, murti installation, meditation. These are especially held sacred by Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta traditions of Sanatana Dharma.
6) In addition to the above, very partial, list, there are literally hundreds of other ancient Sanatana Dharmic texts dealing with everything ranging from medicine (Ayurveda) to politics (Artha-shastra), economics, astronomy, astrology, and physics.
1) Bhashyas: Learned commentaries on many of the above works.
(Not necessarily revealed, yet highly authoritative works)
2) Kavyas: Poems written by inspired authors.
3) Tantras: Mystical and ritual texts dealing with yoga, mudra, yantra, puja, etc.
4) Kathas: Stories, many containing vivid folk elements, which convey Dharmic values, ethics and world-view. These include such works as the Panchatantra, Hitopadesha, etc.
5) Hagiographic materials: Many biographies of great saints, Acharyas and yogis.
6) Sutras : Terse philosophical documents. For example: Brahma-sutras, Yoga-sutras, etc. Any of these individual texts are considered purely scriptural only if they were revealed by a rishi, or liberated seer.
Of these many genres of literature, it is the Sutras that this article is specifically focused on. Sutras (literally “threads”) are overtly philosophical works. The style of these sutras involve very short aphorisms designed to communicate sophisticated philosophical ideas in such a way as to be easily memorized by students. A sutra work is ascribed to every school of Sanatana Dharma philosophy. For example, there are the Narada-bhakti-sutras and the Shandilya-sutras of the Bhagavata school. There is also a Nyaya-sutra, a Vaisheshika-sutra and a Yoga-sutra. Of the many different Sutra works, the most famous by far are the Brahma-sutras of Badarayana. It is the Brahma-sutras which form the basis of the Vedanta school of Sanatana Dharma philosophy.
It is no exaggeration to say that Vedanta is clearly the most important and influential school in the history of all Dharmic philosophy. Vedanta is predicated upon the teachings of three works, known collectively as the Prasthanatraya. These are a) the Brahma-sutras, b) the famous philosophical dialogue between Krishna and his disciple Arjuna, known as the Bhagavad Gita and c) the collection of philosophical scriptures known as the Upanishads. For the most part, the history of Vedanta consists of a commentarial tradition centered around these works, the Brahma-sutras being the main work explicated.
The earliest extant bhashya, or commentary, is that written by the Acharya (“spiritual preceptor”) Shankara (ca. 788-820). Based upon a metaphysical system he called Advaita, Shankara’s is a radically monistic outlook. As Shankara interprets the teachings of the Brahma-sutras, reality consists of only one principle: Brahman, which is pure, eternal and perfect consciousness. Being an undifferentiated reality, anything that is considered as being distinct from this Absolute - including both the phenomenal world and the beings inhabiting that world - is perceived as such only due to illusion (maya) on the part of the observer. This ultimate reality is “...that state which is when all subject/object distinctions are obliterated” (Deutsch, 9). What will be considered crucial for later Vedic philosophers is that, on Shankara’s account, this obliteration includes the eradication of any sense of subjective individuality.
The Brahma-sutras teach that the individual sentient being is, in her essential identity, the Self, or atman. The Upanishads inform us that, like Brahman, atman is also of the nature of pure consciousness, being eternal, full of bliss and thoroughly perfect in its ontological makeup. These marked similarities being the case, Shankara argues, the nature and identity of both atman and Brahman must be non-different. The so-called individual being is ultimately the universal Brahman itself, temporarily under the illusion that she has an identity differentiated from Brahman. Since individual living beings are viewed by AdvaitaVedantists as being non-different from the Absolute, this concept of non-distinction necessarily leads to the eradication of any notion of individuality both on the part of humans, as well as on the part of God. Thus in Shankara’s system, the Absolute is rendered thoroughly devoid of personality and all qualitative attributes that personality entails.
This non-dualistic account of Vedanta philosophy was not left unchallenged. Writing their own, theistic, bhashyas on the Brahma-sutras, several later philosophers would reveal the stark inconsistencies in Shankara’s reasoning. These thinkers were almost exclusively followers of the Vaishnava (theistic and personalistic) tradition of Sanatana Dharma. Among the first of these was Ramanujacarya (1017-1137), the greatest philosopher of the Sri Vaishnava branch of the Vaishnava tradition, and arguably of the entire history of Dharma philosophy. Ramanuja’s famed Sri-bhashya commentary contained many arguments specifically directed at refuting the conclusions of Shankara. 
Taking aim directly at Shankara’s view that the individual atman is thoroughly non-different from universal Brahman, Ramanuja argued that this view leads to a fundamental contradiction. Shankara makes the following claims:
1. Brahman, being perfect, self-sufficient and unconditioned, is not subject to a state of subordination to illusion.
2. The individual self, atman, is in every manner non-different from Brahman.
3. If two beings are non-different in every perceivable and conceivable way, then they share the same essence.
4. If two supposedly distinct beings share the same essence, then they are necessarily the same being.
5. Atman and Brahman share the same essence.
6. Therefore, atman is Brahman.
7. Atman is not currently aware of its true state as Brahman due to being temporarily in a state of subordination to illusion.
These are fundamental propositions that any Advaitin would support. As Ramanuja points out, however, this argument contains a crucial flaw. The last proposition is directly contradicted by the first. If Brahman is not subject to illusion, and if atman is in fact Brahman, then how is it that atman can have fallen prey to an illusion which logically cannot have overtaken it? In alternative language, if the individual soul is indeed God, and if this individual soul is presently subject to the bewildering effects of maya, then is maya not subjugating God? Would this not, Ramanuja asks, then lead one quite naturally to conclude that maya - illusion - is ontologically superior to Brahman? That is certainly a proposition which neither Advaitin nor Vaishnava would ever admit. Ramanuja was followed by several other theistic philosophers who also took aim at Shankara’s Advaita system. These include (among many others): Nimbarka (d. 1162), Madhva (1238-1317) Vallabha (1473-1531) and Jiva Gosvamin (1513-1598).
There are several implications for the interpretation of Vedanta philosophy which directly arise from Ramanuja’s interpretation of the Brahma-sutras. Ramanuja’s view is that shastra (scripture) is the literary embodiment of shabda (Divine Word, or spiritual sound vibration), therefore he naturally favors a verbatim interpretation of the Vedas and its ancillary literature, including the Brahma-sutras. As a Vaishnava, or a theist, this approach is in concert with the reverence he places in both shabda and its proposed source: Sriman Narayana, the Supreme Absolute. The kind of interpretive stance that Ramanuja consequently employs relies upon the primary meaning of the texts, unadulterated and free of all imperfect subjective interpretations and view-points. The secondary, or metaphorical, meaning, is to be resorted to only when the primary meaning is not clear or is clearly not suitable.
In order to more fully understand this crucial differentiation between the primary and secondary meanings of a shabdic text, let us look at the following example. If we take the elementary statement “He is a lion”, we can immediately see that this simple sentence, composed of a subject, a verb, a definite pronoun and an accusative noun, can be understood in two entirely different ways. The clearest and most unmistakable course of action to discern this statement’s import is to search out the primary meaning, which states that “x male exists, and is a large sentient being of the feline species, etc., etc.” The alternative manner in which this statement can be analyzed is via its secondary, or metaphorical, meaning. This route leaves the meaning open to a vast array of subjective interpretations.
While this secondary path may be more challenging or amusing to the textual analyst, divertissement is rarely successfully equated with philosophical accuracy. The phrase in question now means any of several diverse options: “X is a man / god / hero / demon / animal / statue who has the strength / bravery / stamina / appetite / hairiness of a lion”. In this particular understanding of the statement “He is a lion”, the word “lion” no longer designates the totality of the essential attributes of an actual lion. Rather, it now designates only one of a myriad of lion-like features. Hence, the statement is now merely implying that “x individual has z qualities of a lion”. The problem with this development, of course, is that x and z can be almost anything the interpreter wishes. While this flexibility of interpretation might be a desirable trait in certain fields of endeavor (for example, poetry, epic prose, and artistic endeavors generally), such a method is certainly lacking the sharp precision and clarity that is the goal of the philosophical venture. “The secondary meaning”, as Chakravarti states the problem, “though based on the primary meaning, does not involve all the constituents of the latter.” (16) Ramanuja insists on keeping the metaphorical and the philosophical as distinct endeavors, until their union is otherwise clearly warranted. Ramanuja does not reject the value of Secondary-Meaning interpretation. Rather, Ramanuja’s interpretive formula uses metaphorical interpretation only as a last resort. If the meaning of a proposition is thoroughly unclear, does not follow from the previous shloka (verse), or makes no sense according to the rules of Sanskrit grammar, then the verse in question is certainly open to conjectural interpretation.
Understanding the effectiveness of Primary-Meaning interpretation, Ramanuja uses this contrast of methods in his critique of Shankara’s system of Vedanta interpretation, which is clearly a non-literal interpolation. Shankara uses the Secondary-Meaning method as his primary means of Vedantic speculation. According to Ramanuja, Shankara uses this Secondary-Meaning interpretation even in circumstances when it is unwarranted. As one of many clear illustrations of Ramanuja’s point, let us examine the famous shloka 18:65 of the Bhagavad Gita using the textual analysis methods of both the Advaitin and the Vaishnava schools of philosophy.
This verse appears at the very last chapter of Krishna’s philosophical instructions to His friend and disciple Arjuna.
Bhagavan Sri Krishna is Brahman
The Absolute of Sanatana Dharma
The Absolute of Sanatana Dharma
manmana bhava mad-bhakto/mad-yaji maj namaskuru
"Center thy mind on Me, be devoted to Me, sacrifice to Me, revere Me and thou shalt come to Me. I promise thee truly, for thou art dear to Me." (18: 65)
mam evaisyasi satyaj te/pratijane priyo’si me
For the Advaitin, all names and forms (nama-rupa) are nothing more than artificial impositions which we place upon the ultimate reality, Brahman, which is formless, being an eternal, omnipresent and unitary field of consciousness. This negation of subjective distinctness occurs not only with all obviously material identities (prakrti and its by-products), but with even those forms of God which are described in the Shastra-pramana, including the avataras. This being the case, as the Advaita school of Vedanta interprets this verse, when Krishna is asking Arjuna to surrender to Him, Krishna is not referring to Himself literally, but to what it is that He, as the avatara of nirguna (formless) Brahman, is representing. What Krishna embodies is non-other than this amorphous Absolute of Shankara’s. Given this non-dualistic metaphysical presupposition, the Advaitin philosopher has no alternative but to use the metaphorical method of interpretation in order to support this characterization of Krishna’s words. For, as Ramanuja correctly posits, if the Advaitin employs the Primary-Meaning method, he will be compelled to come to a radically different conclusion.
A Vaishnava philosopher, on the other hand, would begin analyzing the meaning of the above shloka by carefully examining the grammar, syntax and denotative meanings of the words involved. The most conspicuous feature of this shloka is the use of first person personal pronouns by the nominative verbal agent, who is Krishna. He uses the pronoun mat, or “my”, three times, the accusative pronoun mam, or “me”, twice, and the alternate genitive pronoun me, “my”, once. There is nothing within the textual content of this verse to persuade an objective reader of the text that when Krishna uses these various first person pronouns He is referring to anything other than Himself, the speaker, who is speaking only in the first person. Therefore, Ramanuja would say that the primary meaning would certainly suffice. If I use the word “I” in a standard North American English sentence, it would be illogical to say that I meant “you”, “it” or “them”, unless there is compelling evidence showing this to be the case.
Moreover, Ramanuja holds that the act of resorting to the Secondary Meaning method - especially when the primary meaning is not shown to be incompatible with the specific context of a shastric work - amounts to a repudiation on the part of the interpreter of the theory of the self-validity of the Shastra-pramana. At the very bare epistemic minimum, all the schools of Vedanta accept the basic premise that the sound content of the Shastra-pramana represents the unadulterated manifestation of the Absolute in literary form, and as such is the final word on the subject of transcendence. This philosophical acceptance of the self-validating role of the Vedic scriptures certainly includes the adherents of the sampradaya of Shankara. If it is indeed the case that the shastra represents the perfect Word of Brahman, Ramanuja would ask, then is it not the case that the indiscriminate use of the Secondary Meaning method in the attempt to explicate these sacred texts amounts to placing the final authority of transcendent knowledge derivation on an extra-shastric source? If a certain method were capable of delivering knowledge about the true import of shastra that the shastras themselves were not capable of, then this technique of knowing would be epistemically superior to Shastra-pramana. Would this not be a direct affront to the widely accepted principle of shabda-pramana, which clearly states that the Vedic scriptures represent the very highest and most reliable means of knowing the Absolute? Ramanuja would challenge many of Shankara’s fundamental Vedantic interpretations, most especially his reading of the Brahma-sutras, based upon these and similar interpretive methods and epistemological bases.
As we have seen, the vast literary store-house of traditional Sanatana Dharma literature contains a wide array of works, both sacred and secular. One of the most historically significant, ancient and active commentarial traditions has centered around the terse philosophical aphorisms of the Brahma-sutras. Though there have been many dozens of commentators on this work - from Bodhayana to Baladeva Vidyabhusana - the two most famous and philosophically challenging of these commentators were Shankara and Ramanuja. The latter, however, most definitely had a clearer conception of the original intent of the author of the Brahma-sutras.
 For example, the oldest written work originating from the South Asian subcontinent is the Rg Veda, which is given the dates of 6400 BCE. - 1400 BCE by various scholars as possible dates of composition. The most likely date of composition is 3800 BCE.
 “Veda”, of course, not in the more denotative sense of the four Veda-samhitas, but in the more generic sense in which the word is intended: that of “knowledge” of the sacred.
Something not widely known is that all the major Vedanta commentators also did commentaries on the Visnu-sahasra-nama, thus making this work a fourth prasthana, so to speak.
There is a great deal of evidence, however, that Shankara’s was by no means the first commentary on these famous sutras. Shankara himself in his own bhasya (III. iii, 53) cites one Shabarasvami as the author of a commentary known as the Vrttikara Upavarsa. Ramanuja recognizes the same commentator, but calls him Bodhayana. See the chapter entitled “The Vedanta Sutra” of Radhakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy, vol. II for further elaboration of this topic.
Just as Shankara does not claim to be the first Brahma-sutra commentator, Ramanuja, in his Vedartha-sangraha, also cites several theistic Vedanta interpreters who preceded him. These include Bodhayana, Tanka, Dramida, Guhadeva, Karpadin and Bharuci (par. 130).
For further readings on these Vaishnava philosophers, I recommend the following works: B.N.K. Sharma’s brilliant three volume work The Philosophy of Sri Madhvacarya, Geeta Khurana’s The Theology of Nimbarka and Mahanamabrata’s Vaisnava Vedanta, which deals with Jiva Gosvamin’s Vedantic thought. The Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, by Svami Taspasyananda is also a work which offers excellent synopses of several Vaishnava Vedantists.
 Shankara makes a distinction between “two Brahmans”, a lower Brahman and a higher. The lower, or saguna (with qualities), Brahman is the illusory form of Ishvara that is worshiped by the so called "common person". The higher Brahman, or nirguna-brahman, is the qualityless Reality which is both the source of Ishvara , as well as the goal of the Advaita Vedantist.
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Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya is universally acclaimed as one of the world's most respected and qualified Dharma teachers and Hindu spiritual leaders alive today. He personifies what it means to be a true and authentic guru.
Dr. Deepak Chopra has exclaimed in 2002: "You've done truly phenomenal work teaching the pure essence of Yoga". In a similar manner, Dr. David Frawley has said about Sri Acharyaji, "Sri Acharyaji represents the Sankalpa [the will] of the Hindu people and the cause of Sanatana Dharma. I urge all Hindus everywhere to give him your full support, assistance, and encouragement in his crucial work. He needs and deserves our help."
Sri Acharyaji began his personal spiritual journey over 39 years ago at the tender age of ten when he read the Bhagavad Gita for the very first time. He coupled his decades of intense spiritual practice and study with advanced academic achievements, earning a B.A. in philosophy/theology from Loyola University Chicago, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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