It is possible that an Advaita tradition existed in the early part of the first millennium C.E., as indicated by Śaṅkaracharya himself with his reference to tradition (sampradāya). But the only two names that could have some historical certainty are Gaudapāda and Govinda Bhagavadpāda, mentioned as Śaṅkara’s teacher’s teacher and the latter Śaṅkara’s teacher. The first complete Advaitic work is considered to be the Mandukya Kārikā, a commentary on the Mandukya Upanṣad, authored by Gaudapāda. Śaṅkara, as many scholars believe, lived in the eight century. His life, travel, and works, as we understand from thedigvijaya texts are almost of a superhuman quality.
Though he lived only for 32 years, Śaṅkara’s accomplishments included traveling from the south to the north of India, writing commentaries for the ten Upaniṣads, the cryptic Brahma Sūtra, the Bhagavad Gītā, and authoring many other texts (though his authorship of only some is established), and founding four pītas, or centers of (Advaitic) excellence, with his pupils in charge. Śaṅkara is supposed to have had four (prominent) pupils: Padmapāda, Sureśvara, Hastamalaka and Toṭaka. Padmapāda is said to be his earliest student. Panchapadika, by Padmapāda, is a lucid commentary on Śaṅkara’s commentary on the first verses of the Brahma Sūtra. Sureśvara is supposed to have written Naiṣkarmya Siddhi, an independent treatise on Advaita.
Mandana Miśra (eight century), an earlier adherent of the rival school of Bhatta Mīmāṃsa, is responsible for a version of Advaita which focuses on the doctrine of sphota, a semantic theory held by the Indian philosopher of language Bhartṛhari. He also accepts to a greater extent the joint importance of knowledge and works as a means to liberation, when for Śaṅkara knowledge is the one and only means. Mandana Miśra’s Brahmasiddhi is a significant work, which also marks a distinct form of Advaita. Two major sub-schools of Advaita Vedānta arose after Śaṅkara: Bhamati and Vivarana. The Bhamati School owes its name to Vacaspati Miśra’s (ninth century) commentary on Śaṅkara’s Brahma SūtraBhāṣya, while the Vivarana School is named after Prakashatman’s (tenth century) commentary on Padmapāda’s Pancapadika, which itself is a commentary on Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Brahma Sūtra.
The prominent names in the later Advaita tradition are Prakāsātman (tenth century), Vimuktātman (tenth century), Sarvajñātman (tenth century), Śrī Harṣa (twelfth century), Citsukha (twelfth century), ānandagiri (thirteenth century), Amalānandā (thirteenth century), Vidyāraņya (fourteenth century), Śaṅkarānandā (fourteenth century), Sadānandā (fifteenth century), Prakāṣānanda (sixteenth century), Nṛsiṁhāśrama (sixteenth century), Madhusūdhana Sarasvati (seventeenth century), Dharmarāja Advarindra (seventeenth century), Appaya Dīkśita (seventeenth century), Sadaśiva Brahmendra (eighteenth century), Candraśekhara Bhārati (twentieth century), and Sacchidānandendra Saraswati (twentieth century).Vivarana, which is a commentary on Padmapāda’s Panchapadika, written by Vacaspati Mshra is a landmark work in the tradition. The Khandanakhandakhadya of Śrī Harṣa, Tattvapradipika of Citsukha, Pañcadasi of Vidyāraņya, Vedāntasāra of Sadānandā, Advaitasiddhi of Madhusadana Sarasvati, and Vedāntaparibhasa of Dharmarāja Advarindra are some of the landmark works representing later Advaita tradition.
Throughout the eigteenth century and until the twenty-first century, there are many saints and philosophers whose tradition is rooted primarily or largely in Advaita philosophy. Prominent among the saints are Bhagavan Ramana Maharśi, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Tapovanam, Swami Chinmayānandā, and Swami Bodhānandā. Among the philosophers, KC Bhattacharya and TMP Mahadevan have contributed a great deal to the tradition.
Advaita is a subschool of Vedānta, the latter being one of the six classical Hindu darśanas, an integrated body of textual interpretations and religious practices which aim at the attainment of moksha, release or liberation from transmigratory existence. Traditional Advaita Vedānta centers on the study and what it believes to be correct understanding of the sruti, revealed texts, especially the Principal Upanishads, along with the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gitā, which are collectively called as Prasthantrayi.
Correct understanding is believed to provide knowledge of one's true identity as Ātman, the dispassionate and unchanging witness-consciousness, and the identity of Ātman and Brahman, which results in liberation. This is achieved through what Adi Shankara refers to as anubhava, immediate intuition, a direct awareness which is construction-free, and not construction-filled. It is not an awareness of Brahman, but instead an awareness that is Brahman.
Correct knowledge, which destroys avidya, the ignorance that constitutes the psychological and perceptual errors which obscure the true nature of Atman and Brahman, is obtained by following the four stages of samanyasa (self-cultivation), sravana, listening to the teachings of the sages, manana, reflection on the teachings, and svādhyāya, contemplation of the truth "that art Thou".
The Advaita Vedānta tradition rejects the dualism of Samkhya purusha (primal consciousness) and prakriti (inert primal matter), By accepting this postulation, various theoretical difficulties arise which Advaita and other Vedānta traditions offer different answers for.
A main question is the relation between Atman and Brahman, which is solved by regarding them to be identical. This truth is established from the oldest Principal Upanishads and Brahma Sutras, and is also found in parts of the Bhagavad Gitā and numerous other Hindu texts, and is regarded to be self-evident. The main aim of the commentaries is to support this nondualistic (of Atman and Brahman) reading of the sruti. Reason is being used to support revelation, the sruti, the ultimate source of truth.
Another question is how Brahman can create the world, and how to explain the manifoldness of phenomenal reality. By declaring phenomenal reality to be an 'illusion,' the primacy of Atman/Brahman can be maintained.
The Advaita literature also provide a criticism of opposing systems, including the dualistic school of Hinduism, as well as other Nastika (heterodox) philosophies such as Buddhism.
For classical Advaita Vedānta, Brahman is the fundamental reality underlying all objects and experiences. Brahman is explained as pure existence, pure consciousness and pure bliss. All forms of existence presuppose a knowing self. Brahman or pure consciousness underlies the knowing self. Consciousness according to the Advaita School, unlike the positions held by other Vedānta schools, is not a property of Brahman but its very nature.
Brahman is also one without a second, all-pervading and the immediate awareness. This absolute Brahman is known as nirguņa Brahman, or Brahman “without qualities,” but is usually simply called “Brahman.” This Brahman is ever known to Itself and constitutes the reality in all individuals selves, while the appearance of our empirical individuality is credited to avidya (ignorance) and māyā (illusion). Brahman thus cannot be known as an individual object distinct from the individual self. However, it can be experienced indirectly in the natural world of experience as a personal God, known as saguņa Brahman, or Brahman with qualities. It is usually referred to as īśvara (the Lord).
The appearance of plurality arises from a natural state of confusion or ignorance (avidya), inherent in most biological entities. Given this natural state of ignorance, Advaita provisionally accepts the empirical reality of individual selves, mental ideas and physical objects as a cognitive construction of this natural state of ignorance. But from the absolute standpoint, none of these have independent existence but are founded on Brahman. From the standpoint of this fundamental reality, individual minds as well as physical objects are appearances and do not have abiding reality. Brahman appears as the manifold objects of experience because of its creative power, māyā.
Māyā is that which appears to be real at the time of experience but which does not have ultimate existence. It is dependent on pure consciousness. Brahman appears as the manifold world without undergoing an intrinsic change or modification. At no point of time does Brahman change into the world. The world is but avivarta, a superimposition on Brahman. The world is neither totally real nor totally unreal. It is not totally unreal since it is experienced. It is not totally real since it is sublated by knowledge of Brahman. There are many examples given to illustrate the relation between the existence of the world and Brahman.
The two famous examples are that of the space in a pot versus the space in the whole cosmos (undifferentiated in reality, though arbitrarily separated by the contingencies of the pot just as the world is in relation to Brahman), and the self versus the reflection of the self (the reflection having no substantial existence apart from the self just as the objects of the world rely upon Brahman for substantiality). The existence of an individuated jīva and the world are without a beginning. We cannot say when they began, or what the first cause is. But both are with an end, which is knowledge of Brahman.
According to classical Advaita Vedānta, the existence of the empirical world cannot be conceived without a creator who is all-knowing and all-powerful. The creation, sustenance, and dissolution of the world are overseen by īśvara. īśvara is the purest manifestation of Brahman. Brahman with the creative power ofmāyā is īśvara. Māyā has both individual (vyaśti) and cosmic (samaśti) aspects. The cosmic aspect belongs to one īśvara, and the individual aspect, avidya, belongs to many jīvas. But the difference is that īśvara is not controlled by māyā, whereas the jīva is overpowered by avidya. Māyā is responsible for the creation of the world. Avidya is responsible for confounding the distinct existence between self and the not-self. With this confounding, avidya conceals Brahman and constructs the world. As a result thejīva functions as a doer (karta) and enjoyer (bhokta) of a limited world.
The classical picture may be contrasted with two sub-schools of Advaita Vedānta that arose after Śaṅkara: Bhamati and Vivarana. The primary difference between these two sub-schools is based on the different interpretations for avidya and māyā. Śaṅkara described avidya as beginningless. He considered that to search the origin of avidya itself is a process founded on avidya and hence will be fruitless. But Śaṅkara’s disciples gave greater attention to this concept, and thus originated the two sub-schools. The Bhamati School owes its name to Vacaspati Miśra’s (ninth century) commentary on Śaṅkara’s Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya, while the Vivarana School is named after Prakāṣātman’s (tenth century) commentary on Padmapāda’s Pañcapadika, which itself is a commentary on Śaṅkara’s Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya.
The major issue that distinguishes Bhamati and Vivarana schools is their position on the nature and locus (the place where it is situated) of avidya. According to the Bhamati School, the jīva is the locus and object of avidya. According to the Vivarana School, Brahman is the locus of avidya. The Bhamati School holds that Brahman can never be the locus of avidya but is the controller of it as īśvara. Belonging to jīva, tula–avidya, or individual ignorance performs two functions – veils Brahman, and projects (vikṣepa) a separate world. Mula–avidya (“root ignorance”) is the universal ignorance that is equivalent to Māyā, and is controlled by īśvara.
The Vivarana School holds that since Brahman alone exists, Brahman is the locus and object of avidya. With the help of epistemological discussions, the non-reality of the duality between Brahman and world is established. The Vivarana School responds to the question regarding Brahman’s existence as both “pure consciousness” and “universal ignorance” by claiming that valid cognition (prama) presumes avidya, in the everyday world, whereas pure consciousness is the essential nature of Brahman.
There are three planes of existence according to classical Advaita Vedānta: the plane of absolute existence (paramarthika satta), the plane of worldly existence (vyavaharika satta) which includes this world and the heavenly world, and the plane of illusory existence (pratibhāsika existence).
The two latter planes of existence are a function of māyā and are thus illusory to some extent. A pratibhāsika existence, such as objects presented in a mirage, is less real than a worldly existence. Its corresponding unreality is, however, different from that which characterizes the absolutely nonexistent or the impossible, such as a sky-lotus (a lotus that grows in the sky) or the son of a barren woman. The independent existence of a mirage and the world, both of which are due to a certain causal condition , ceases once the causal condition change.
The causal condition is avidya, or ignorance. The independent existence and experience of the world ceases to be with the gain of knowledge of Brahman. The nature of knowledge of Brahman is that “I am pure consciousness.” The self-ignorance of the jīva (individuated self) that “I am limited” is replaced by the Brahman-knowledge that “I am everything,” accompanied by a re-identification of the self with the transcendental Brahman. The knower of Brahman sees the one non-plural reality in everything. He or she no longer gives an absolute reality to independent and limited existence of the world, but experiences the world as a creative expression of pure consciousness.
The states of waking (jāgrat), dreaming (svapna) and deep sleep (susupti) all point to the fourth nameless state turiya, pure consciousness, which is to be realized as the true self. Pure consciousness is not only pure existence but also the ultimate bliss which is experienced partially during deep sleep. Hence we wake up refreshed.
The soteriological goal, in Advaita, is to gain self-knowledge and complete understanding of the identity of Atman and Brahman. Correct knowledge of Atman and Brahman leads to dissolution of all dualistic tendencies and to liberation, Moksha is attained by realizing one's true identity as Ātman, and the identity of Atman and Brahman, the complete understanding of one's real nature as Brahman in this life. This is stated by Shankara as follows:
I am other than name, form and action.
My nature is ever free!
I am Self, the supreme unconditioned Brahman.
I am pure Awareness, always non-dual.
— Adi Shankara, Upadesasahasri 11.7
According to Advaita Vedānta, liberation can be achieved while living, and is called Jivanmukti. The Atman-knowledge, that is the knowledge of true Self and its relationship to Brahman is central to this liberation in Advaita thought.Atman-knowledge, to Advaitins, is that state of full awareness, liberation and freedom which overcomes dualities at all levels, realizing the divine within oneself, the divine in others and all beings, the non-dual Oneness, that Brahman is in everything, and everything is Brahman.
According to Rambachan, in Advaita, this state of liberating self-knowledge includes and leads to the understanding that "the self is the self of all, the knower of self sees the self in all beings and all beings in the self."
In Advaita Vedānta, the interest is not in liberation in after life, but in one's current life. This school holds that liberation can be achieved while living, and a person who achieves this is called a Jivanmukta.
The concept of Jivanmukti of Advaita Vedānta contrasts with Videhamukti (moksha from samsara after death) in theistic sub-schools of Vedānta.Jivanmukti is a state that transforms the nature, attributes and behaviors of an individual, after which the liberated individual shows attributes such as:
Sruti (scriptures), proper reasoning and meditation are the main sources of knowledge (vidya) for the Advaita Vedānta tradition. It teaches that correct knowledge of Atman and Brahman is achievable by svadhyaya, study of the self and of the Vedic texts, and three stages of practice: sravana (perception, hearing), manana (thinking) and nididhyasana (meditation), a three-step methodology that is rooted in the teachings of chapter 4 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
Sravana literally means hearing, and broadly refers to perception and observations typically aided by a counsellor or teacher (guru), wherein the Advaitin listens and discusses the ideas, concepts, questions and answers. Manana refers to thinking on these discussions and contemplating over the various ideas based on svadhyaya and sravana. Nididhyasana refers to meditation, realization and consequent conviction of the truths, non-duality and a state where there is a fusion of thought and action, knowing and being. Bilimoria states that these three stages of Advaita practice can be viewed as sadhana practice that unifies Yoga and Karma ideas, and was most likely derived from these older traditions.
Adi Shankara uses anubhava interchangeably with pratipatta, "understanding". Dalal and others state that anubhava does not center around some sort of "mystical experience," but around the correct knowledge of Brahman. Nikhalananda states that (knowledge of) Atman and Brahman can only be reached by buddhi, "reason," stating that mysticism is a kind of intuitive knowledge, while buddhi is the highest means of attaining knowledge.