The Vedas are the primary scripture of Hinduism. They embody the spiritual experiences of sages and seers of Truth, and deal with the eternal principles of religion. Vedanta, the end of the Vedas, refers essentially to the Upanishads, which form the knowledge portion of the Vedas: Knowledge of the ultimate Reality, or God, and knowledge of our true nature.
The principles of Vedanta are universal in character; they can be practiced in everyday life and their truths realized by everyone no matter what their background. But to understand the broad framework of Vedanta, we first need to study its four cardinal principles.
Vedanta calls the ultimate Reality Brahman. Brahman is eternal Being, eternal Knowledge, and eternal Bliss. It is pure, infinite, all-pervading, formless, and without attributes.
The threefold distinction of the knower, the known, and knowledge is common to all empirical experience. This distinction does not exist in Brahman, since nothing exists apart from It. Thus It is described as nondual, or one-without-a-second. Brahman is the eternal Subject and is hence unknown and unknowable by the mind and the senses. It is Knowledge Itself. Brahman is unknowable but one can be united with It.
Conditioned Brahman is Brahman with forms or attributes, and It is worshiped in different religions as Personal God. According to Swami Vivekananda, Personal God is the highest reading of the Absolute by the human mind.
On the identical nature of God with form and God without form, Sri Ramakrishna says, "God the absolute, and God the personal are one and the same. A belief in the one implies a belief in the other. Fire cannot be thought of apart from its burning power; nor can its burning power be thought of apart from it. Again the sun's rays cannot be thought of apart from the sun, nor the sun apart from its rays. You cannot think of the whiteness of milk apart from milk, nor milk apart from its milky whiteness. Thus God the absolute cannot be thought of apart from the ideas of God with attributes."
On the need for different manifestations of the same Reality, Sri Ramakrishna observes: "The Lord manifests Himself, with form or without form, just according to the need of the devotee. Manifested vision is relatively true, that is, true in relation to different men placed in different conditions and environments. The Divine Dyer alone knows in what color He has dyed Himself. Verily He is not bound by any limitation as to the forms of manifestation, or their negation."
The one Reality appearing as the many can be compared to the sun seen from different perspectives and through different colored glasses. Each view of the sun is true in that it represents the same sun. According to the Rig-Veda, "Truth is one: sages call it by various names."
Sri Ramakrishna practiced spiritual disciplines of different religions and realized that they all lead to the same ultimate Reality. He taught that all religions are valid paths to God-realization. His message of "As many faiths, so many paths" is a much-needed antidote to all discordance in the name of religion.