Madhva (c.1197-1276) is regarded as the founder of the dualistic (Dvaita) branch of Vedanta philosophy. His most important writings include his commentaries on the Brahma Sutras (the Madhva-bhashya), on the Bhagavad-Gita (the Gita-bhashya), on the Upanishads (the Upanishad-Bhashyas), on the Mahabharata (the Mahabharata-tatparya-nirnaya), and on the Bhagavata-Purana (the Bhagavata-tatparya-nirnaya).
According to Madhva, Brahman is ultimate reality. Brahman is infinite and eternal. Brahman is an absolute reality which transcends any attempts to explain or comprehend it. Brahman is indescribable and indefinable. Brahman is perfect being, perfect wisdom, and perfect bliss. Brahman is the inner being of all things, and is the source of all reality.
For Madhva, Vishnu is God or the Highest Ruler. Vishnu is the Lord who sustains the universe, the Supreme Being upon whom the universe depends for its existence. Brahman (which Madhva refers to as Hari, Vishnu, or Narayana) is all-powerful and all-pervading. Brahman is the Supreme Deity, the Almighty (Bhagavan), the Perfect Self (Paramatman). Brahman is not the individual soul (jiva), which is an imperfect reflection of Brahman. Brahman is a universal reality, which may manifest itself in both the non-Self (Anatman) and the Self (Atman).
Madhva asserts that Brahman is different from the individual soul, and that Brahman is also different from the material world. Brahman is an independent reality, while the soul and the material world depend for their reality on Brahman. Both the soul and the material world are real, but the differences between them are also real, as are their differences from Brahman. Thus, Madhva’s doctrine of the fivefold nature of difference asserts that there are five real kinds of differences: 1) between Brahman and the individual soul, 2) between Brahman and the material world, 3) between the soul and the material world, 4) between individual souls, and 5) between individual material things.1
Madhva teaches that the embodied soul is characterized by the qualities of a material substance, but that Brahman is not characterized by the qualities of a material substance. Madhva also teaches that the soul is eternal, but that the physical body to which a soul may be bound is non-eternal. The released soul is a spiritual entity which has been freed from bondage to the physical body, and which is no longer characterized by the physical qualities of matter. Thus, the released soul may reflect a spiritual reality (purusha) which is no longer bound by the properties of material reality (prakriti). The soul may attain release from the endless cycle of worldly existence by means of devotion to the Lord, who may enable the soul to understand that Brahman is the only unconditional and independent reality. Thus, the means to salvation is bhakti yoga (the path of devotion).
While the embodied soul may experience both bliss and misery, the released soul may experience eternal and perfect bliss. The bliss which is experienced by the released soul may be similar but not identical to the bliss of Brahman. The individual soul is different from Brahman, even in the state of perfect wisdom and perfect bliss.
Madhva explains that release from cyclic, worldly existence (samsara) depends on the grace of God and cannot be attained solely by the efforts of the individual soul. For the soul to know Brahman, the soul must receive the grace of God. The study of scriptures may also be necessary to gain knowledge, but knowledge of Brahman is ultimately attained by being devoted to the Lord (Vishnu) and by receiving the grace of God.
Madhva disagrees with Shankara’s view that the existence of the soul is only apparent, and that the soul is only an illusory appearance of Brahman. In Madhva’s view, the soul is real and is in fact different from Brahman. Madhva also disagrees with Shankara’s view that the material world is only an illusory appearance of Brahman, and that the appearance of difference between the material world and Brahman is caused by a misperception or ignorance (avidya) of the transcendent reality of Brahman. In Madhva’s view, the material world is real and not illusory, and the appearance of difference between the material world and Brahman is caused by a true perception of Brahman as an eternal and unchanging reality.
Madhva also disagrees with Shankara’s view that the individual Self (Atman) is the same as the universal Self (Brahman). For Madhva, the individual Self is always different from the universal Self, even after the individual Self has been released from samsara. Madhva asserts that Brahman may be manifested in Atman (the Self), but that Brahman may also be manifested in Anatman (the non-Self). While Shankara teaches that jnana yoga (the path of knowledge) is the means to release from samsara, Madhva teaches that bhakti yoga (the path of devotion) is the means to salvation.
Madhva agrees with Ramanuja that Brahman must be differentiated if it is to be known by the Self. Madhva also agrees with Ramanuja that the material world is real and that it is not merely an illusory appearance of Brahman. However, Ramanuja asserts that the material world constitutes the body of Brahman, and that the reality of the material world is not distinct from the reality of Brahman. Madhva rejects this view, arguing that there is a real difference between the material world and Brahman, and that the changing reality of the material world is distinct from, but dependent on, the unchanging reality of Brahman.
Madhva’s philosophy is dualistic in that it distinguishes between two types of reality: 1) independent (svatantra), and 2) dependent (paratantra). Independent reality is an attribute of Brahman, while dependent reality is an attribute of individual souls and of material things. Dependent reality is divided into two types: 1) the reality of conscious being, and 2) the reality of unconscious being. The reality of conscious being is also divided into two types: 1) the reality of conscious beings who have been released from samsara, and 2) the reality of conscious beings who remain in bondage to samsara. The reality of conscious beings who remain in bondage to samsara is also divided into two types: 1) the reality of those who are eligible for release, and 2) the reality of those who are not eligible for release.2
Madhva agrees with Ramanuja’s concept of Atman, in that Ramanuja views Atman as a pure consciousness of Self rather than as an ego or mind which is under the influence of prakriti. However, Madhva disagrees with Ramanuja’s view that the released Atman is not essentially different from Brahman. Madhva asserts that the released Atman retains its own Selfhood, and that the released individual Self is different from Brahman.
Madhva. The Vedanta-Sutras with the Commentary of Sri Madhwacharya. Translated by S. Subba Rau. Tirupati: Sri Vyasa Press, 1936.
Puligandla, R. Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy. Nashville: Abingdon Press, (1975), 237-42.
Raju, P.T. The Philosophical Traditions of India. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., (1971), 197-8.
Raju, P.T. Structural Depths of Indian Thought. New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, (1985), 469-503.
Sharma, B.N.K. Madhva’s Teachings in His Own Words. Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1997.
Sharma, Chandradhar. A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. London: Rider & Company, (1960), 372-4.