Hinduism: Teachers and Leaders | 7


Hinduism Teachers

Most of the important Hindu theologians in the last 1,500 years can broadly be classified as teachers of a philosophical school called Vedanta. This field of philosophical enquiry remains important in Hinduism.

The term Vedanta was traditionally used to denote the Upanishads, the final part of the Vedas,

but the term has more popularly been used to denote systems of thought based on a coherent interpretation of 3 works:

1. the Upanishads,
2. the Bhāgavad Gītā, and
3. the Brahma Sūtra (a systematized compendium of Upaniṣadic aphorisms).

The Brahma Sūtra, which has short aphorisms, was meant to be a mnemonic aid, summarizing the teachings of the other two texts. Because many phrases did not have an obvious meaning, Vedāntic philosophers wrote extensive commentaries on this text.

Shankara, who lived in about 800 C.E., was a prominent interpreter of Vedanta:

He spoke of this Earth and life cycle as having limited reality; once the soul realizes that it is and always has been Brahman (the Supreme Being), “this life passes away like a dream.”

For Shankara, reality is non-dual (advaita):

There is only one reality, Brahman, and this Brahman is indescribable and without any attributes. Liberation is removal of ignorance and a dispelling of illusion through the power of transforming knowledge.

Shankara is said to have established monasteries in different parts of India. There is reportedly an unbroken succession of teachers in these monasteries, and all of them have the title of “Shankara, the teacher” (Śankarāchārya).

Shankara’s philosophy was criticized by later Vedanta philosophers such as Rāmānuja (traditionally 1017–1137) and Mādhva (c. 1199–1278).

Rāmānuja was the most significant interpreter of theistic Vedanta for the Śrī Vaishnava, a community in South India that worships Vishnu and his consorts Śrī (Lakshmi) and Bhū (the goddess Earth).

Rāmānuja proclaimed the supremacy of Vishnu-Nārāyaṇa and emphasized that devotion to Vishnu would lead to ultimate liberation.

According to Rāmānuja, Viṣṇu (whose name literally means “all-pervasive”) is immanent in the entire universe, pervading all souls and material substances but also transcending them.

The philosopher Mādhva, in classifying some souls as eternally bound, is unique in the Hindu tradition. For him, even in liberation there are different grades of enjoyment and bliss.

He was also one of the explicitly dualistic Vedanta philosophers, holding that the human soul and Brahman are ultimately separate and not identical in any way.

The devotional philosophy of Chaitanya (16th century) has been popular in the eastern state of Bengal and, in the 20th century, in the United States (through the ISKCON community).

Reactions to colonial rule can be seen in the teachings and activism of Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), Dayananda Saraswati (1825–83), and the poet-philosopher Aurobindo (1872–1950).

Ram Mohan Roy advocated educational and social reforms. Dayanand Saraswati opened educational institutions for women and raised people’s consciousness about Vedic teachings.

Aurobindo was initially a radical who protested against British rule. He eventually taught a new interpretation of Vedanta that portrayed the ascent of the human spirit combining with the descent of the divine into the human being.

Other leaders, such as the novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838–94), also challenged the presence of the British in India;

the philosopher, writer, and religious activist Bal Gaṅgādhar Tilak (1856–1920) advocated a more activist approach to achieve independence from the colonial powers.

Political and cultural philosophies came together in the writings of Veer Savarkar (1883–1966), who championed the concept of “Hinduness” (Hindu-tva):

He distinguished this from the religion itself and argued—on the basis of shared culture, geography, and race—for the unification of the inhabitants of India.


Scholars, priests, teachers, and ritual specialists have all been considered inspired and inspiring teachers of the Hindu traditions.

Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) was a theologian who is frequently called a reformer:

Born into an orthodox Brahman family, he became familiar with Western social life and the Christian scriptures.

He also read the Upanishads and the books of dharma and came to the conclusion that what he objected to in Hindu practice was not part of classical Hinduism.

Roy discarded most of the epic and Purāṇic materials as myths that stood in the way of reason and social reform.

In 1828 he set up a society to discuss the nature of the supreme reality (Brahman) as portrayed in the Upanishads. This organization came to be called the Brahmo Samaj (congregation of Brahman).

Roy translated some of the Upanishads and other selected texts and distributed them for free. A pioneer for education, he started new periodicals, established educational institutions, and worked to improve the status of Hindu women.

Dayananda Sarasvatī (1824–83) started the Ārya Samaj, another reform movement:

Dayananda considered only the early hymns of the Rig Veda to be the true scripture. Because these hymns were action-oriented, Dayananda advocated a life of education and vigorous work.

He taught that a good society is one in which people work to uplift humanity and that this in itself leads to the welfare of a human soul and body. The Ārya Samaj is popular in parts of Northern India and is almost unknown in the South.

A well-known figure in the twentieth century was Vivekananda, founder of the Rāmakrishna mission (in India). He spoke about the Hindu traditions at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 and became the face of Hindu thought in the West.

He had been inspired by Rāmakrishna (1836–86; a Bengali teacher considered by many to be a saint), and he articulated a form of Vedanta philosophy based loosely on the interpretation of the 8th century philosopher Shankara.

Vivekananda’s influence on later Hinduism was tremendous:

His vision of Hinduism as a “universal” and “tolerant” religion, a form of open tradition that incorporates many viewpoints, has been popular among Hindus in the diaspora in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Other 20th century teachers considered to be saints (a word that is used in the Hindu tradition to mean an enlightened teacher) include:

female gurus such as Ānandamayī Mā (1893–1972), Amṛtānandamayī Mā (born in 1953), and Karuṇāmayī Mā (born in 1956)

and male gurus Śirdi Sai Baba (died in 1918) and Satya Sai Baba (1926-2011). The latter is a charismatic teacher from Andhra Pradesh in Southern India. His followers believe he is an avatar (incarnation) of the deities Shiva and Shakti (the Goddess).

One of the best-known teachers in the West is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (c. 1918-2008), whose articulation of Transcendental Meditation has explicit Hindu origins and overtones. Nevertheless, Transcendental Meditation is not ordinarily identified as Hindu or even as “religion” but more as a stress-reduction technique.

The teachings, however, of Bhaktivedanta Prabhupāda, who arrived in New York in 1965 and started a devotional school of Hinduism called the International Society of Kṛṣṇa Consciousness (ISKCON), and Swami Chinmayananda (1916–93), who taught a non-dualistic form of Vedanta, are identified with specific traditions within Hinduism.

While Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) is not considered to be a religious leader, his actions were strongly influenced by religious texts and practices. His ideas of nonviolence and actions based on truth-principles have all been part of the larger Hindu tradition in the last few millennia.