Friday, June 01, 2007

On Moksha


Soteriology (the science of salvation) in any religious tradition starts with a spiritual problem, a ‘Fall’ as it were, to which salvation / nirvana is put forward as a solution. In generic terms, most religions propound that the present human existence is a state of imperfection. This imperfection is seen as the ‘fallen, sinful’ state by Christianity, it is seen as a state where mankind is has to endure endless (dukhkha) suffering through countless cycles of rebirth by Buddhism, it is seen as a state of ignorance (avidya) and hence of limitations and karmic bondage by certain schools of Hindu thought. Soteriology, then, would deal with the principles and methods that bring about transformation of man from his present state, to a better state, a state of perfection, completeness, or happiness. It is but natural, that the ideas of what this state of perfection / completeness is like, and the method by which the transformation of man is to be achieved, is determined, at least in part, by ideas about what gave rise to the state of imperfection in the first place. Christianity, postulates that it was Adam & Eve’s choice to disobey God that brought about the fall, Theravada Buddhism, while it does not state so clearly, seems to take the stand that ‘dukhkha’ is an inherent property of existence, some schools of Hindu thought, take a similar stand in that ‘separateness’ developed as an inevitable consequence of creation. In this sense then, ‘Moksha’ describes the state of spiritual perfection, as variously conceived in Hindu thought.
Moksha is the highest of the four legitimate aims (purusharthas) of human existence. However, it is difficult to get clear definitions of Moksha in Hindu scripture. The state of Moksha has been differently conceptualised by various schools of thought, and the Upanishads, the bedrock of Hindu philosophy, often describe Moksha in metaphorical and poetic language that easily lends to different interpretations. The Mandukya Upanishad, at one place, (III.4), describes Moksha as absorption into the Brahman; “

As on the destruction of the jar, the space (ether) enclosed within merges with akasa (the space element), even so the individual sould merge into the Atman.

” The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, (IV.3.21), however, describes Moksha as the state where all desires and the resultant sorrows have been quelled; “

As a man in the embrace of his beloved wife knows nothing without and within, so the person when in the embrace of the Intelligent Self knows nothing without or within. That, verily is his form in which his desire is fulfilled, in which the Self is his desire, in which he is without desire, free from any sorrow.

” Such differences have led Hindu philosophers to present several models of Moksha, bothe theistic and non-theistic. At the heart of these differences is the acknowledgement that different metaphysical conceptualisations of the imperfection of the human state and of the phenomenal universe would lead to correspondingly different ideations of the perfect and hence desirable state that is to be strived for.


Moksha derives from the root verb ‘muk’ = to loose, to let loose, to free, to let go, to slacken, to release, to liberate, through its participle form mokshyati = to be loosed, to be set free, to be released. Moksha thus means emancipation, liberation, release. Two other terms often used as synonyms for Moksha are kaivalya and nirvana, though the later is more common in Buddhist philosophy. Kaivalya is the noun form of the adjective kevala = only, exclusively one’s own, not connected with anything else, isolated, abstract, absolute, simple, pure, uncompounded, unmingled, entire, whole, all, complete. Kaivalya then is the state of perfect isolation, of absolute unity, abstraction, detachment from all connections, beatitude. Nirvana is a derivative of the compound word ‘nirvati’, ‘nir’ = without, not (the prefix of absence), ‘vati’ = to blow (as vayu = wind). Nirvana thus means blown out, put out, extinguished, calmed, quieted, and tamed.

The ideals of Moksha

The six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, (astika darshanas), namely Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva-Mimamsa, and Vedanta or Uttara Mimamsa, have differing concepts of Moksha. These six schools are not entirely divergent. They are often grouped into pairs owing to the commonality that they have amongst them. Thus Nyaya-Vaisheshika forms a pair because logical analysis and empirical attempts go hand in hand. Samkhya-Yoga are paired because their cosmogony is nearly identical. Purva & Uttara Mimamsa base their doctrine on scripture, with the Purva (pre) Mimamsa focusing on the first part of the Vedas, namely the Samhitas and Brahmanas, while the Uttara (post) Mimamsa focuses on the last portion of the Vedas, namely the Upanishads, hence the name Vedanta. While most of these schools do not emphasize or even necessitate a deity, theistic interpretations find a strong voice in some of the sub-schools of the Vedanta Darshana. It needs to be noted that it is the theistic view of Moksha, especially within the context of devotional theism that is most commonly held in popular Hinduism today. The differing views on Moksha as per the six darshanas are given below.

Moksha in Nyaya

Nyaya, the school of Hindu logic, defines moksha as freedom from pain. “This condition of immortality, free from fear, imperishable, consisting in attainment of bliss…” Nyaya adopts a negative definition of Moksha rather than a positive ‘enjoyment of pleasure’, (a view inherent in the idea of heaven present in the Vedic hymns), out of the view that pleasure is always tainted by pain. This position thus prima facie is analogous to the Buddhist idea of duhkha.

Moksha in Vaisheshika

The vaisheshika school postulated an atomistic (and hence a pluralistic) world view. Moksha according to this school was the state of freedom from all connection with qualities, conditions and attributes. The Self attains Moksha when it rids itself of the qualities produced by contact with names and forms (nama & rupa) and regains its independence.

Moksha in Samkhya

The samkhya, enumeration, is a dualistic school, which postulates an eternal distinction between matter or nature, prakriti, and the Self, purusha. Intellect, buddhi, evolves from matter and generates the ego, ‘I’ ness, ahamkara, from which evolves the mind, manas, and so on. The Samkhya system thus enumerates the 25 principles, tattvas, (the non-material Self, purusha, and the 24 material principles evolved from nature, prakriti). Owing to the activities of the intellect, buddhi, the Self, purusha, identifies itself with nature, prakriti. It becomes ignorant of its true nature as pure unfettered consciousness. Moksha, as posited by samkhya is the state of pure consciousness when the Self, the purusha, detaches from prakriti, thus regaining its inherent nature by quelling ignorance through discriminative knowledge. The samkhyan state of moksha is not defined in terms of pain or pleasure, because these are modes of prakriti and do not apply to the Self.

Moksha in Yoga

Yoga draws heavily upon Samkhyan cosmogony. It however stresses upon the method of attaining Moksha more than explicating it as a concept. Yoga however admits theism; a deity, Ishvara, God, is postulated as the object of meditation. Moksha in yoga is kaivalya, perfect isolation, absolute independence. The Self is shrouded in ignorance, avidya, which causes it to possess desires and fetters it to matter. Moksha, kaivalya is attained when ignorance is destroyed by attaining discriminative knowledge in the final stage of meditation, super-conscious samadhi.

Moksha in Purva Mimamsa

The mimamsa school which stresses upon ritual, originally did not concern itself with the problem of Moksha. Mimamsa stated that scrupulous performance of Vedic rituals led to the attainment of heaven, swarga, and stopped at that. The later mimansakas gave very divergent views of Moksha. Some defined Moksha as ‘the absolute cessation of the body, caused by the disappearance of dharma & non-dharma.’ Others stated that Moksha is simply the natural form of the Self. Still others adopted the nyaya definition of freedom from pain. There were also some mimamsakas that defined Moksha as ‘realisation’ of the atman, thus bringing them close to the non-dualist view.

Moksha in Vedanta (Uttara Mimamsa)

Undoubtedly the most popular school of Hindu philosophy, Vedanta derives its philosophy from the Upanishads. A key text for the Vedanta school is the Vedanta Sutra or the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana, a compendium of 555 highly cryptic ‘aphorisms’ that summarise and attempt to systematise the philosophy of the Upanishads. In line with the classical Hindu scholastic tradition, the various schools of Vedanta explicate their interpretations by way of commentaries, bhashya, on the Brahma Sutras and the Upanishads. So esoteric, speculative, metaphorical and varied are the ideas presented in the Upanishads, so cryptic are the aphorisms of the Brahma Sutra, most are no more than 2-3 words long, that they are amenable to various interpretations and hence the Vedanta schools present diverse ideas. At core however, all Vedanta schools accept the doctrine of ‘Atman-Brahman’. The fact that they postulate a Unitary Absolute Reality distinguishes the Vedanta schools from the other darshanas talked of above.

The Ultimate Reality, Atman-Brahman

The notion of ‘Atman-Brahman’ is central to the concept of Moksha in Vedanta. Even the theistic schools, postulate the Deity as ‘Saguna Brahman’, the Brahman with qualities / attributes. As detailed in the entry ‘On the Nature of Deity’)., the Brahman is the single eternal absolute impersonal supreme reality, the ground of the cosmos, the primal source and ultimate goal of all existence, which is attribute-less and beyond all literal expression and comprehension. The ‘Atman’ is the immaterial, innermost ‘Self’, the essence of the being, the eternal core of the personality that survives after death and that transmigrates to a new life. Dr. Radhakrishnan defines Atman as the ‘foundational reality underlying the conscious powers of the individual, the inward ground of the human soul, the super reality of the individual ego, jiva.’ The Upanishads proclaim the identity of the Atman and the Brahman, the Self and the Absolute. The Vedanta schools differ in their views on the nature of Moksha in terms of the interplay of Atman-Brahman.
Advaita (Non-dualism, Monism)

Advaita, monism or non-dualism, of Adi Shankaracharya is the most influential of the Vedanta schools. To understand the concept of Moksha in Advaita, we need to put in place some of the basic definitions of Advaita-vedantic metaphysics.
Advaita defines the Brahman as absolute knowledge, pure consciousness. Brahman is without any attribute (nirguna), without any activity or movement (nishkriya), without any parts (niravayava), unconditioned and absolute, (nirupadhika), and having no distinguishing element, (nirvishesha). Brahman is One, indivisible, without a second, and having in itself no difference (bheda).The common description ‘sat-chit-ananda’ of the Brahman, does not imply any qualities, it simply means that Brahman is ultimate reality (and hence absolute & unchanging), pure consciousness, and perfect bliss.
This definition of the Brahman raises a tricky question. How can an ever-changing universe be causally linked to the absolute, unchanging Brahman? It is not, argued Adi Shankara. The ever-changing material universe with the many individuals (jiva) inhabiting it are declared to be unreal (as opposed to the Absolute reality of Brahman); the Brahman merely appears as the world due to avidya (nescience / ignorance), causing the jiva-atman, to believe that it is distinct from Brahman. This principle that ‘makes things appear what they are not’ is Maya or adhyasa. Given this illusory nature of the universe, there is, strictly speaking, no creation. In reality, the world does not exist, never existed, never will exist. Advaita hence propounds strict monism. It states that the Atman and Brahman are one and the same; the individual and the absolute are identical - That Thou art, tat tvam asi, say the Upanishads. The very ‘individual-ness’ of the individual, is Maya. Moksha is the knowledge, jnana, of the identity of one’s Self with the Brahman. Moksha can only be attained through knowledge, jnana, not through action, karma, because, Moksha is ‘direct knowledge’ of the Brahman. When the person experiences ‘I am Brahman’, aham brahmasmi’, that is Moksha. At Moksha, all limitations are lost, the atman expands into the infinitude of Brahman; becomes Brahman.
Adi Shankaracharya’s doctrine of Maya, which uncompromisingly declared the world to be unreal, was unpalatable to many Hindu philosophers. A disturbing point was that Advaita left little room for a deity. Advaita stated that Ishvara, God, and the deities of the Hindu pantheon, are Brahman seen through the mirror of Maya. The other schools of Vedanta, some of whose adherents severely criticised the ideas of Adi Shankara’s Advaita, were staunchly theistic, and actively promoted the Bhakti tradition.
Vishistadvaita (Qualified Non-dualism)

The qualified non-dualism, Vishishtadvaita of Ramanujacharya is primarily a theistic, and particularly, a Vaishnavite, interpretation of Vedanta. Ramanuja’s work was possibly the earliest attempt to provide a philosophical structure to devotional theism and demonstrate its orthodoxy in terms of the Shruti, Vedic Scripture. In many ways, it serves as an antipode to Shankara’s non-dualism.
Ramanuja’s Brahman, is saguna Brahman, the Brahman with attributes, attributes of perfection and goodness. Ramanuja argues that the qualities of Being (sat), consciousness (chit) and bliss (ananda), give to Brahman a character and a personality. The most prominent qualities of Brahman are knowledge, power and compassionate love (karuna). The Advaitic impersonal absolute Brahman is thus transformed into the all powerful, all knowing, benevolent, God, Bhagawan or Ishvara. The Upanishads declare that Brahman is satyam-jnanam-anantam, Truth, Knowledge, Infinitude. Ramanuja’s metaphysics, postulates the reality of three distinct orders; matter (prakriti), souls (jiva) and God (Ishvara). He maintains that there is non-duality between these orders in the form of an underlying unity in the infinitude of God/Brahman; but Brahman/God is qualified (Vishishta) by the orders of matter and souls; hence the name, qualified non-duality, Vishishtadvaita.
Moksha, for the jiva is a state of bliss in the company of Ishvara. Thus the jiva maintains its individuality even in the state of Moksha; there is no merging of the “I” into the “All”. The route to Moksha is bhakti that leads to the grace, kripa, of Ishvara.However, bhakti for Ramanuja is dhyana, meditation bearing the character of devotion / love.
Other schools

There are numerous other Vedantic schools; the dvaita, dualism school of Madhavacharya; the bhedabheda, difference-non-difference, school of Bhaskaracharya, Nimbarka, and others; the Achintya Bhedabheda or Bengal school of Chaitanya; the shuddhadvaita, pure non-dualism of Vallabhacharya, and some more. All of them are theistic in character and lay stress upon bhakti.


The concept of Moksha is inextricably linked with its corresponding concept of deity. Each philosophical system has its unique metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology, and these serve to define the concept of deity as well as the notion of Moksha in the system concerned. As Moksha is the summum bonum, the highest goal of spiritual endeavour, each system recommends its own ‘prescription’ to achieving it. These prescriptions basically involve four methods, paths, margas.

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