What is mokṣa, freedom?

In Heaven and Freedom I discussed the popular theistic idea that an eternal sojourn in Heaven after death is considered to be mokṣa, freedom. This concept is common to almost all religious theologies of the world. But there is a contrarian view about freedom in two ancient Indic systems – Vedānta and Sāṅkhya / Yoga – which stress that real freedom is not something promised after death, but is to be enjoyed while living. This freedom while living, known as jīvanmukti is what we will discuss now. Before we go into technicalities, we must first understand the rather loaded words, mokṣa, nirvāṇa, kaivalya, jīvanmukti, satori, freedom, liberation, living-liberated, liberation/salvation-here-and-now, as well as several similar expressions meaning the same thing.

 Freedom / liberation
pragmatists’ question

Whether Heaven is eternal or temporary is a subject of belief and not verifiable until I am dead. A pragmatic person might think: I am not interested in such a posthumous reward but something here and now, while living. I also do not care about theological belief systems or philosophical wranglings about what freedom really means. One may consider me perhaps an agnostic or an atheist. What does mokṣa mean to me? It obviously cannot mean to be free of this body and mind, since liberated-while-living means the person must be alive! And, as long as I am alive, I am subject to natural laws and so cannot be free of them. So what does it really mean ‘to be free’?

Such a questioning pragmatist indeed existed about 2,500 years ago. He was a born prince who was turned off by Vedic ritualistic tradition; nor did he care about an Eternal Self, ātman. Nor did he subscribe to another equally ancient tradition of Sāṅkhya / Yoga stressing kaivalya. He was convinced that direct perception and inference alone were sufficient for him to gain any knowledge and thus there was no need for scriptures or a guru to talk about unverifiable things. Thus he set out to find a way to end human suffering and later was called the Buddha. This Sanskrit word means ‘one who has understood’; usually this is translated as ‘the enlightened one’. Today his teaching forms the basis of a ‘religion’ practiced by hundreds of millions of people in all countries of the world.

My purpose here is not to talk about Buddhism per se but just to highlight the simple fact that pragmatism in this matter is not confined to the 21st century; mankind’s desire to be free of human limitation is found throughout human history. This quest for freedom is called, in the Vedic tradition, parama-puruṣartha, the ultimate quest of any human being. More about this later (in my next blog post).

Freedom / liberation is
freedom from sorrow / fear

This fundamental quest was best expressed by the commander-in-chief of an army facing an imminent fratricidal war about two millennia ago. He was torn about what was the right thing to do – to fight or just refuse to fight and walk away. His poignant question to his dear friend, who chose to be his charioteer was:

“If I were to win this war, or even gain overlordship of the Heavens,
I do not see a way to remove the sorrow that saps all my senses.”

Na hi prapaśyāmi mamāpanudyāt  yacchokamucchoṣaṇamindriyāṇām
Avāpya bhūmāvasapatnaṁṛddham rājyaṁ surāṇāmapi cādhipatyam.
(Bhavadgītā, Ch. 2-8)

This indeed is the human problem, a life tinged with sorrow that saps us all. This is not a negative or pessimistic view of life as many describe about Indic thought, but is experienced by all human beings. In and through all our achievements, there is this underlying fear of loss and consequent sorrow that saps all our senses.

This fear has been expressed eloquently by a sixth century king-turned-saint, Bhartṛhari in Vairāgyaśataka, One hundred Verses on Dispassion thus

In enjoyment,  there is the fear of disease; in social position, fear of fall
n wealth, fear of kings in honour, fear of humiliation
n power, fear of being overthrown; in beauty, fear of old age 
In erudition, fear of opponents; in virtue, fear of slanderers
n body, fear of death;  all the things of this world are attended with fear
Dispassion indeed is fearlessness. (31)
Bhoge rogabhayaṁ kule cyutibhayaṁ vitte nṛpālādbhayaṁ
         māne dainyabhayaṁ bale ripubhayaṁ rūpe jarāyā bhayam
Śāstre vādibhayaṁ guṇe khalabhayaṁ kāye kṛtāntādbhayaṁ
         sarvaṁ vastu bhayānvitam bhuvi nṛṇāṁ vairgyamevābhayam. (Vairāgyaśatakam, 31)

Mind is the cause of both Bondage and Freedom

Whether it is fear or sorrow or a sense of being hemmed in on all sides, they are not centered on the body or bodily pain. They are centered on one’s mind. Thus one can say that the cause of both bondage and freedom are the mind:

Mind indeed is the cause for bondage and freedom,
(mind) attached to sense objects is bondage, and
freedom is to be free of (attachment to) sense objects.
Mana eva manuṣyāṇāṁ kāraṇaṁ bandhamokṣayoḥ
bandhāya viṣayāsaṅgi mokṣo nirviṣayaṁ smtamiti.”
Maitrāyaṇyupaniṣad (6-34)

If one explores further, one finds that in both waking and dream, one experiences joys and sorrows due to contact with objects of the world, or impressions of such past experiences in one’s own mind. In dreamless sleep one is free of the mind and its activities. But whether in a  dream world created by oneself, or in this waking world, one identifies with the mind and suffers the consequences. Almost all spiritual literature, whether theistic or nontheistic stresses this simple fact of the mind dominating almost all aspects of human experience and activity.

Though seemingly a simple matter, it is not easy to get away from the mind; one cannot just be mindless or use drugs or stay in deep sleep or in samādhi (as popularly understood by this word) and be free. Nor is it easy to be the master of the mind. This mastery of the mind, our existing desire-ridden mind, is the journey one has to undertake in this life to gain freedom.

In the next post we will start exploring the tools used in spiritual traditions of the East to accomplish this, how apparently contradictory philosophical bases of the systems are all centered on this task of gaining freedom from the mind, being the master of the mind rather than being a slave of it.

I thank my dear friend and gurubhai, Richard Goeller for his helpful comments and edits.