The Brahma sūtras, also known as Vedānta Sūtras, constitute the Nyāya prasthāna, the logical starting point of the Vedānta philosophy (Nyāya = logic/order). No study of Vedānta is considered complete without a close examination of the Prasthāna Traya (Prasthanatrayi), the texts that stand as the three starting points. The Brahma Sutras are attributed to Badarayana.
While the Upanishads (Śruti prasthāna, the starting point of revelation) and the Bhagavad-Gītā (Smriti prasthāna, the starting point of remembered tradition) are the basic source texts of Vedānta, it is in the Brahma sūtras that the teachings of Vedānta are set forth in a systematic and logical order.
Many commentaries have been written on this text, the earliest extant one being the one by Sri Adi Shankara. His commentary set forth the non-dualistic (Advaita) interpretation of the Vedānta, and was commented upon by Vācaspati and Padmapāda. These sub-commentaries, in turn, inspired other derivative texts in the Advaita school.
In the 12-13th century, Madhvacharya wrote commentaries on Brahma Sutras, which describe the flaw-less supremacy of Lord Vishnu or Narayana. Thus he laid out the foundation for Tatvavaada or Dvaita tradition of Vedanta refuting all the previous commentaries on Brahma Sutras. Madhvacharya's four commentaries on Brahma Sutras are, 1-Brahma Sutra Bhashya, 2-Nyaya Vivarana, 3-Anuvyakhyana, 4-Brahma Sutra Anubhashya. Sri Jayatirtha wrote an extant subcommentary to Madhvacharya's Anuvyakhyana called Nyaya Sudha (Nectar of Logic) which is considered as magnum opus in Madhvacharya's school. Dr Surendranath Dasgupta in his work "A History of Indian Philosophy" (Vol IV) has cited, "In my opinion Jayatirtha and Vyasatirtha present the highest dialectical skill in Indian thought".
The Brahma Sūtras are also known by other names: Vedānta Sūtras, Uttara Mīmāmsā-sūtras, Śārīraka Sūtras, Śārīraka Mimāmsā-sūtras. Vaishnavas also call this the Bhikshu sūtras.
The Brahma Sūtras attempt to reconcile the seemingly contradictory and diverse statements of the various Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā, by placing each teaching in a doctrinal context. The word "sūtra" means "thread", and the Brahma sūtras literally stitch together the various Vedanta teachings into a logical and self-consistent whole.
However, the Brahma Sūtras are so terse that not only are they capable of being interpreted in multiple ways, but they are often incomprehensible without the aid of the various commentaries handed down in the main schools of Vedānta thought.
The Vedānta Sūtras supply ample evidence that at a very early time, i.e. a period before their own final composition, there were differences of opinion among the various interpreters of the Vedānta. Quoted in the Vedānta Sūtras are opinions ascribed to Audulomi, Kārshnāgni, Kāśakŗtsna, Jaimini and Bādari, in addition toVyasa.
The Brahma Sūtras consist of 555 aphorisms or sūtras, in four chapters (adhyāya), each chapter being divided into four quarters (pāda). Each quarter consists of several groups of sūtras called Adhikaraņas or topical sections. An Adhikaraņa usually consists of several sūtras, but some have only one sūtra.
- First chapter (Samanvaya: harmony): explains that all the Vedānta texts talk of Brahman, the ultimate reality, which is the goal of life. The very first sūtra offers an indication into the nature of the subject matter. VS 1.1.1 athāto brahma jijñāsā - Now: therefore the inquiry (into the real nature) of Brahman.
- Second chapter (Avirodha: non-conflict): discusses and refutes the possible objections to Vedānta philosophy.
- Third chapter (Sādhana: the means): describes the process by which ultimate emancipation can be achieved.
- Fourth chapter (Phala: the fruit): talks of the state that is achieved in final emancipation.