Smartism is often classified as one of the major denominations of Hinduism. While this is not incorrect, the word Smartism is more accurately seen as an umbrella term covering several sects, similar to the way the word Protestant in reference to Christianity refers more to a grouping of denominations than one particular sect. Hinduism is a massively varied religion and includes a wide variety of conflicting views and perspectives. Variations within Smartism are virtually identical to other Hindu sub-groups, such as Vaishnavism, Shaktism, and Shaivism. The most influential aspect of Smartism is its relationship to the philosophical approach of Advaita Vedanta through the work of the Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara.
Smartism is best defined as either pantheism or panentheism. Smartism holds that reality is, in fact, part of a single unified consciousness, called Brahman. All conceptions of self, individuality, or personal existence are useful illusions, at best. As part of this worldview, Smartism uses the idea of deities more than a literal belief in various deities. The human concept of various gods and goddesses, in Smartism, is merely a spiritual tool that helps a person ultimately realize the truth: that everything is identical to Brahman.
By far, the greatest impact of Smartism was in the development of a particular philosophical approach to Hindusim known as Advaita Vedanta. This approach was codified in the eighth century by the philosopher Adi Shankara. Historically, Shankara confronted Buddhist ideas by explaining them within a Hindu framework. This work, according to many scholars of religion, generated almost all of the common philosophical ground shared by Hindus today. Hinduism is extremely inclusive, and Advaita Vedanta is broad enough to appeal, in some way, to almost every combination of Hindu beliefs.
The name Advaita Vedanta comes from an ancient phrase that literally means “not two.” The core assertion of this system is that there is only one “actual” existence, which is the ultimate impersonal reality of Brahman. Advaita implies that the “true self” is Brahman and that, to attain true one-ness with Brahaman, a person needs to seek knowledge of this truth. This involves the concept of the Atman, which in Hinduism is roughly parallel to the biblical concept of a soul. The Atman is the “real self.” As a result, Advaita Vedanta teaches salvation through knowledge—by overcoming one’s ignorance, one can attain unity with the ultimate reality.
Advaita Vedanta is especially concerned with mankind’s mistaken perception that he is a “self,” or an “I,” who is ultimately different from or separate from other “selves.” This lack of understanding is considered an illusion, or maya, and, according to this belief system, is the ultimate cause of immoral behaviors and therefore all suffering. In order to end suffering, a person must fully realize that he is part of the single, pure, unchanging reality of Brahman. In order to successfully navigate this enlightenment, Advaita adherents follow a process of ethical actions, meditation, and study of Hindu scriptures.
This focus on knowledge makes sense in that Advaita Vedanta is heavily connected to Mahayana Buddhism. Shankara’s efforts were strongly influenced by Buddhism, even if his intent was to refute Buddhist challenges to Hinduism. It should be pointed out that Advaita Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism are not identical. Buddhism, for instance, rejects the idea that ultimate reality is personal, while Advaita Vedanta believes it to be personal in the form of Brahman. Ironically, Mahayana and Advaita are often criticized by fellow Buddhists and Hindus for being “the other” in disguise.
As a faith system, Smartism and Advaita Vedanta are technically amoral. Since all things are part of a single, unified reality, there is technically so such thing as an “other.” This means, in literal terms, there are no such things as good, evil, right, or wrong. There are only false illusions of an independent self or true understandings of one’s unified one-ness with the ultimate reality. At the same time, Smartism and Advaita Vedanta subscribe to classical Hindu ideas such as reincarnation and karma, which are refuted by the biblical worldview. Those who find meaning in the concepts taught by Advaita Vedanta should give the gospel of Jesus Christ fair consideration and comparison.