In the blog on freedom (July 2016) we saw what freedom means for a pragmatist, one who is not attached to any theology or religious thought centered on an afterlife in Heaven. The focus is entirely practical and action oriented, “What can I do to become free now?” is the most asked question. This freedom (mokṣa) is expressed differently in many philosophies of India.

Three Indic systems of philosophy

Enquiry into the goal of every human being – freedom – is the bedrock of all Indian philosophic thought. Of several such systems, from mechanical materialism (Cārvāka), Vedic ritualism (pūrva-mīmāmsa), asceticism (Jainism etc.,) and others, I choose to focus on three – Buddhism, Yoga and Vedānta.

In most English translations of works on these systems of thought, one finds the expression ‘freedom from pain’. Though pain is a correct translation of the Sanskrit word (tāpa) often mentioned in these philosophies, it can restrict one to think only of physical pain. No one can be really be free from inherent limitations of the body – disease, accidents, aging with its attendant issues . The human problem of bondage is centered on the mind – it can be a sense of dissatisfaction with life despite one’s achievements, or a deeply felt sorrow about one’s condition in life, or fear of mortality – all summed up by one Sanskrit word duḥkha, sorrow, is the closest translation for this word.

Basic concepts of the three philosophies of freedom

Unifying concept (1) – Freedom is not gained but ‘to be known’: This is a unifying concept of all three systems, that freedom is unlike something that one gains or achieves by doing something, such as striving to gain wealth, success, power, fame, progeny and so on but that you are already free and you do not know it.

In this world, whatever one gains is invariably short-lived, never permanent. According to Indian thought even the Heaven one gains by religious and ethical actions in this world is only a temporary sojourn. Once the accrued results of such actions are exhausted, one returns back to Earth, reborn.  So, if freedom also were to be gained by any action, that gained freedom also would be subject to be lost; that is, one can become bound again! This potentially infinite loop cannot be freedom.

This understanding, and the means to gain this understanding are what all three philosophies are about – freedom is not something that is gained as a result of any action, to accrue at a future date, but one has to understand that “you are free here and now”.

This is illustrated by the analogy of sculpting an elephant from a big block of granite, one does not create an elephant that was not there, but only removes the non-elephant chips from the piece of stone. It is in this sense that the Buddhistic tradition says you are already the Buddha, the Yoga tradition stresses that you are the puruṣa and vedānta declares tat tvam asi, You Are That.

That you are what you are striving to become is driven home by the story of ‘finding the tenth man’, one that is told by my Vedanta teacher. Once a group of ten men were going on a pilgrimage. They took off from their small village and travelled for a long time. On the way they had to cross a river, which they swam across. Not sure whether all had successfully crossed the river, the leader started counting. He lined up all his group, counting them, he only reached nine, and got worried about the missing tenth man. Looking around in turn, each of the group counted only nine. So all started searching everywhere, even jumping into the river, but could not find the tenth man. All were worried and sad about the lost tenth man. A passerby saw this group and asked why they were sad. On hearing their story, it was clear what the problem was. But simply insisting ‘there is no missing man’ would not solve their unique problem.  So the passerby asked them all to line up and for the leader to count again. Again the leader reached only nine – and the passerby, pointing to the leader, announced “And you are the tenth!” Each had neglected to count himself! After a moment of embarrassment, all were very happy that the ‘missing man’ was not in fact missing! This knowledge ‘brought back’ the ‘missing’ tenth man, which no amount of searching or crying could have accomplished.

Both the analogy and the story highlight the fact that one has to know that one is ever-free, never bound and that any amount doing this or that, sacred or secular actions, is not going to gain freedom for anybody.

So, to the inevitable question ‘If I am already free as these philosophies posit, why do I feel limited and still want to be free?’ To this all these three philosophies stress one thing, namely the sense of bondage is due to ignorance – called avidya in Yoga (/ Sāṅkhya) and Advaita Vedānta traditions and avijja (Pali word for avidya) in Buddhism.

The question as to when this ignorance began is never addressed except to say that it is beginning-less (anādi). Though at the outset this does not look convincing, if one were to ask you ‘When did your ignorance of the string theory of the universe begin?’ one cannot come up with any clear answer but to say “I do not know how to answer that question, perhaps it had always been there”. Thus one can see that ignorance has no beginning, but can have an end (anta). The ignorance of string theory ends when one starts to learn about it.

Ignorance centered on any topic, be it string theory or the nature of oneself, cannot end unless one strives to know. And to gain knowledge of anything, one must use a source, a valid means of knowledge (pramāṇa). My teacher used to illustrate this idea as follows: For recognizing color, the eye is the valid means / source of knowledge, for sounds the ears; and for knowing that you are free and never bound, there must also be a valid source of knowledge, and that can be the scriptures or the words of the wise.

The sources of knowledge show that you are never bound, that the sense of bondage and thus the sense of freedom are due to the mind. All three philosophical systems reveal this – (1) Yoga aphorisms of Patañjali, its foundation of sāṅkhya system (2) the Upaniṣad-s for vedānta and (3) the teachings of Gautama the Buddha.

Unifying concept (2) – Why one feels bound and seeks freedom: The logical question then can be “Simple ignorance cannot cause me to feel bound, e.g. ignorance of quantum physics does not cause any problem to me!”

For this the response by all the three Indic systems is this: it is true that pure ignorance, of oneself and the world, as exists in deep sleep is no problem. But in the waking state, due to this ignorance of the nature of oneself, there is total identification of oneself with the body and mind, so the sense of limitation arises. It is but common to hear ‘I am fat, I am short, I am hurt, I am sad, etc.,’. All such statements show the identification of “I” with the physical body, mind, accomplishments, failures, memories etc., the dis-identification of this natural (svābhāvika) identification is the core of these philosophies.

Knowing and Being – the difference and the role of practice (abhyāsa)

Types of questions that a practical, goal-oriented person will ask

  • I get the logic of it all, I can even see that a study of any of these systems will be of use to me. But, how will I feel free by mere study? It all seems like magic to me!
  • This is all too intellectual and seems to be yet another belief system, not different from religions.

In reply, I have to resort again to my teacher who started giving classes for the three-year study of Vedānta I attended. These doubts have a simple answer, he would say, “Just try it and see if the magic works or not! There is no need to prejudge without adequate testing!”

When one discusses the idea of freedom that you already are, based on these ancient teachings, there is confusion between knowing and being. This is because the object of this knowledge is yourself, the subject. Knowledge of microbiology or quantum physics or even psychology is always about a thing other than you. But here the object and subject are one and the same. By studying microbiology one does not become a microbe! But by studying about freedom, you ‘become’ free – that is, you discover the freedom that you always are!

But one hears this oft repeated comment from even serious students of Vedānta who have dedicated years to study “I know I am free, but how come I feel no different, continue to be the same old person?”

While the books and teachers teach you what you are, that you are free and the sense of bondage is in the mind, to own it up one has to work with the mind. This difference between knowing and owning is what is typically expressed as the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The former can be gained, but the latter you must develop, and this takes practice (abhyāsa).

Differences among the three philosophies in practice, abhyāsa

The three liberation philosophies I discuss here have some radical differences, not just in their epistemological and metaphysical constructs but in practice modes as well. I will devote a separate blog to the different paradigms of these three systems since I do not want this blog post to be too technical to be useful. Here I will focus on differences in practice (abhyāsa) only.

Vedānta:  An eighth century advaita-vedānta master provides two distinct terms to differentiate between knowledge and wisdom. One who has studied the Upaniṣads is called śrutaprajña in contrast one who has gained the wisdom enshrined in the Upaniṣads, avagataprajña. The practice (abhyāsa) paradigm in Vedānta is summarised in an Upaniṣad thus: “May (you) listen, analyze and reflect upon Ātman (the truth of yourself).” Thus the cognitive aspect is the central focus of Vedānta, perhaps the reason that many yoga students dismiss Vedānta as theoretical or intellectual!

If one were to examine the reason for this stress it is clear by the term itself – Vedānta, end portion of the Vedas! The vast bulk of the Vedas, usually dismissed as ritual / meditation oriented, focuses on preparing the mind, freeing it from its ravings and cravings. Such a pure and steady mind alone is ready to receive the teaching and see the fact that the person is ever-free and was never bound. Unfortunately for the modern student of vedānta with no such prior preparation of the mind, the teaching leaves her typically at the śrutaprajña state, wondering “I know I am free, but why do I feel no different, continue to be the same old person?”

This uniquely contemporary issue has to be addressed by practices intended to provide purity and stability to the mind. The well known text, the Bhavadgītā, hence devotes the bulk of its 700 verses on ways to deal with the mind, while a mere 30 or so verses focus on teaching the central message of the Upaniṣads.

Yoga: I use the term yoga here not to refer to the practice of physical postures called āsanas. This is part of what is called Hathayoga. I use it to mean the Yogasūtras, aphorisms of Patañjali which many experienced āsana practitioners are drawn to and begin to study. A perusal of this book shows that it is essentially a practice manual to gain mastery of the mind. Vyāsa, the author of the commentary to this book defines Yoga – a word mentioned in the very first aphorism, ‘Atha yogānuśāsam’ – as samādhi, a tranquil mind. Note this word yoga does not mean yoking or joining as popularly misunderstood and promoted in almost all modern books on yoga.

If Yogasūtra is a practice manual, what is the philosophical basis for this work? It is the Sāṅkhya system, attributed to sage Kapila, and is summarized in Sāṅkhyakārikā by Īśvarakṛṣṇa. Like Vedānta,  this system also stresses that one’s true nature (puruṣa) is free from all that is material, such as the physical body, sense organs and the mind (prakṛti).  Taking any of these as oneself is the cause for bondage and seeing the ever-existing fact that I, the puruṣa am not prakṛti (this body mind complex and the phenomenal world) is freedom.

It is possible that Patañjali realized that for this ‘theoretical’ knowledge to sink in one needs a mind that is free from cravings and unsteadiness. So, he chose to focus his book on practice to rehabilitate the mind to see the truth as taught by Kapila. This is why he uses various synonyms for knowledge in a few places in his aphorisms. Unfortunately, these critically important sections are not sufficiently examined but many move on to do’s and don’ts as well as the other six limbs of this eightfold yoga.

Buddhism: For those who have read or heard about Buddhism, it is necessary to know the meaning of the word buddha, the name given to the founder of Buddhism, prince Gautama. This Sanskrit word is the noun form of the verb budh meaning ‘to know, to understand’. Thus his name means ‘one who has understood’, commonly translated as “the realized One, the enlightened One”.

By reflecting upon this impermanence of all things, beings and phenomena one gains freedom from hankerings of the mind towards impermanent things, called sasāra. This phenomenal world and the mind that dwells on it are devoid of any reality, also known as śūnya, nothing. Hence some argue that śūnyatā means no-thingness to the world. And appreciation of this śūnyatā of the phenomenal world is nibbana / nirvana, freedom while living.

This way of life being mindful of the impermanence during waking hours needs a relatively pure mind, less buffeted by desires, likes and dislikes. To gain such a mind, Buddhism, not unlike Yoga prescribes sets of practices for the student of Buddhism. Unlike yoga and vedānta, Buddhism over the two millennia has innumerable branches with various practices that one can choose, though all are grounded on ethical living conducive to gaining freedom.


To be free here and now and not after death is the quest of any pragmatic person. This freedom or liberation, called jīvanmukti in Sanskrit is the goal of the three Indic philosophical systems, Buddhism, Yoga/Sāṅkhya and vedānta. Though they have significant differences among themselves, the underlying common theme is the same – that freedom is not gained by any action but by removing the cause for the sense of bondage, namely ignorance of the true nature of oneself, that you are already free and was never bound. Since it is something connected with the mind, major effort is directed at preparing the mind, that is, gaining a mind that is relatively free from the domination of desires and develop steadiness. Only such a mind can grasp this simple but subtle fact that one is already free and the sense of bondage is due to total identification with the physical body and the mind.

I thank my friends Phillipe and Richard for their helpful comments.