Bhedābheda Vedānta

Bhedābheda Vedānta

Vedanta Temple Bell by Ray Sawhill
Vedanta Temple Bell by Ray Sawhill

Vedanta means the end of the Veda or final knowledge and is the last of the 6 systems of Indian Philosophy (Yoga is the 4th). We also know these systems as the Vedanga or subordinate limbs (to the core books of the Veda) and as the Darshana.

The core text of Vedanta is the Brahma Sutra of Bādarāyaṇa. The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita are also generally considered Vedantic texts.

But like any older philosophy, it has drifted into mind and concepts and then to distinct schools of interpretation. There are three primary schools of Vedanta with many sub-branches.

The one you’ve most likely heard of is Advaita Vedānta, an approach that emphasizes the non-dual nature of reality. In this outlook, the jiva or individual soul is Brahman. There is only one.

Modern neo-advaita is derived from this branch, but could be said to be a simplified version with various interpretations.

A second branch is Dvaita Vedānta that takes a dualistic perspective. The jiva is distinct from Brahman.

And the third is Bhedābheda Vedānta. Bhedābheda means “difference and non-difference.” From this perspective, jiva is Both different and non-different from Brahman.

There are various ways we could argue each position based on our experience or philosophy. However, I’d suggest this is a misunderstanding of the intent of Vedanta. Brahman can’t really be known except by being it. It is beyond the range of consciousness and yet immerses all.

If we apply the perspective of stages, we can see these perspectives each come out of different steps of unfolding.

Dwaita is a key aspect of Self Realization. In that stage, we wake up to ourselves as Atman, the universal Self or infinite Being. But that Self is distinct from our personal self we had previously identified with. And distinct from the world. This is inherently a dualistic stage, although some argue otherwise. For example, they may say the world is an illusion and only the Self is real, so there is just one thing. And the Upanishads tell us the Self is Brahman so there’s just one here. (Ironically “Self is Brahman” (Ayam Atma Brahma), a mahavakya, describes a recognition not a philosophical position.)

Advaita is a key aspect of the Unity stage when the Self within is recognized to underlie the world. Subject and object come together in one wholeness. This usually develops in stages as we live life and recognize “That is also mySelf” with each layer of experience, memory, and so forth.

Only in the Brahman stage does Brahman come to know Itself. Only Brahman knows Brahman. As the stage matures, it becomes inclusive of all prior stages and all layers of experience. Even the subtle dualities of Unity fall away into Totality.

We see the world as non-existent (not illusory – that’s earlier) and yet here it is simultaneously. Brahman stage is the great integrator, the grand inclusivity even of apparent opposites.

This is when you come to Bhedābheda – differences and non-differences. It is both oneness and diversity, real and non-real, complete and empty. It is the flattening of all paradoxes.

This is not a philosophical position, but a direct way of knowing reality.

There is a related set of terms that can also illustrate the distinction. VivartaVada means speaking of modification. It is the Advaita way of describing causation, saying modifications or change are merely illusion and are not real. Only Brahman is real. They attribute this to Shankara, however, as I’ve written elsewhere, Shankara’s view was far more inclusive.

The other term is AtitaVada, speaking of the beyond. This points to Bhedābheda.

None of these positions are “better” than another. They simply describe the unfolding.

I would also caution you not to adopt a philosophy that doesn’t relate to your reality. This is delusional and creates inner divisions. It’s useful to see where we’re going, but acting like we’re in Aukland when we’re in Toledo will cause trouble. Be aware of the road ahead, but keep it real.

Last Updated on March 7, 2020 by Davidya

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  1. Lynette

    D, you are indeed very practical. This reminds me of a person I know who when face with challenges, would say to himself, oh this world is an illusion anyway, and then proceed to do nothing with the situation and expecting that solution will come, example not paying child support, surprisingly some one did pay for his child support however this person expected something return while paying for his child support. Needless to say the transaction ended. I think the problem was early on as a child this person was exposed to ACIM which the teaching is quite similar to advaita Vedanta, and he took it out of context growing up and absconded responsibility. I have seen this happening to quite a few people. Then I observed that these people when exposed early to the concept of I’m not a body nor mind, this is an illusion kind of thinking ends up having serious issues on accountability and responsibility. Don’t know if I make sense.

    1. Hi Lynette
      (laughs) That kind of behavior comes from misunderstanding the laws of action and having some good karma. Like a savings account, we can use the assets to leverage more or we can spend it. At some point, the account is emptied.
      There are many playing that game, including some famous actors, without realizing what they’re doing to their future.
      Some are cluing in, like doing service and supporting charities.
      It’s not uncommon at all for high teachings to be twisted to support entitlement and other ego dynamics.
      But life always brings things back in balance. Personally, I try not to learn the hard way. 🙂

  2. David, you are right. There are many schools and subdivisions of Vedanta, as in other Hindu systems and the mystical traditions of other religions.
    I like to say that mystics unite with the eternal Reality which ‘is.’ Mysticism speculates on what, how or why it is. The first is lived, the latter is philosophy.

    1. H Ron
      Yes, too many lean on philosophy without applying it to their lives. Or use it as an excuse to avoid responsibility or whatever.
      I would point out though that this article is on that which is beyond Isness, beyond consciousness. Even these are subtle dualities. For existence there has to be non-existence. Brahman goes beyond this.
      And then, this is integrated back so you have unity and duality both. Bhedābheda.

    1. Hi George
      No, I’ve not seen a single edition thats a decent translation. Most translations consider it a series of intellectual arguments and are pretty impenetrable. Actually it’s a series of realizations of the resolute intellect while it stitches all experiences together into one Aggregate wholeness (of Atman). That leads to the Brahman shift after consciousness knows itself fully.
      The commentary by Shankara is more from the intellect.
      There is a translation done by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi but it’s not yet been published. He worked with Dr Vernon Katz on it and Katz has published the 2 volume Conversations with Maharishi. It has snippets of the translation but is primarily discussions that spun off of various points in the translation exercise. I found it very insightful, the academic discussing with the direct experience.

  3. Jim

    Hi David – Yep, so true – only Brahman can know Brahman. This is because the Cosmic reality dissolves and burns off any component of us that is not Cosmic. It is not such a strong tie to human earthly life as we are used to – much more expanded and completely free, radiating Cosmic energy; plugged in, grounded, and lit up.
    All of our knowledge on the planet has an inherent bias; the context of humanity on the planet. Actually a very, very, very small piece of it all. Saw a great message on a home furnishings store window in Amsterdam yesterday:
    Wake Up.
    Kick Ass.
    Be Kind.
    May God Bless Us All. 🙂

    1. Yes, I’m reminded occasionally of this cosmic reality even in the very mundane. Like having an experience that was clearly a way for the whole to know itself more completely. Or purifying something that I could relate to but was not personal – just a space in the collective in need of release.
      (the cosmic itself is always cosmic and present – but I’m referring to it right in the mundane. It’s ever present but expressed here and there.)

      1. Jim

        Yes, exactly. The purpose and intention of living Brahman is to inject the cosmic back into the so called mundane; recreate sinless templates for living householder life. Re-enliven akasha to bring reality out of its stupor. 🙂

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