The Vedanta View of
Regarding liberation, Vedanta maintains the following:
(1) Liberation is jivanmukti
or freedom while living in the body.
It is not going to another realm or attaining something new, but
realizing our true nature. It
not freedom from anything, but in the midst of everything.
Liberation as eternal happiness in heaven is only a halfway house.
Vedanta asserts that liberation in order to be believable must be
attained before death. One
who dies in bondage, bound will he remain after death.
As the Upanishad says:
"What is here, the same is there; and what is there
the same is here. He goes
from death to death who sees any difference here. (Katha
If everything ends for one with
liberation, then there would be none to teach and serve as an exemplar.
(2) Vedanta's liberation is spiritual and depends upon
or eternal life in order to be real must be free from all forms of
embodiment—gross, subtle, or causal.
"Let people quote the scriptures and sacrifice to
the gods, let them perform rituals and worship the deities, but there is
no liberation without the realization of one's identity with the Atman,
no, not even in the lifetime of a hundred Brahmas put together [that is,
an almost infinite length of time]."[iv]
This realization, known as
Self-Knowledge, is neither an emotional thrill nor an intellectual
conviction. It is not
"put a penny in the slot and pull out a pardon."[v]
Self-Knowledge is direct perception of one all-pervading Self
dwelling as the individual self in all beings.
Direct perception is not simply belief in the scriptures.
Believing in the scriptures is believing in the belief of other
persons. On the other hand,
reason, which begins in doubt and also ends in doubt, cannot give the
certainty of faith. Direct
perception is experiencing the Self by being one with It.
It is seeing the Self with eyes closed in meditation as well as
with eyes open in action. Such direct perception carries its own credentials:
it transforms our consciousness forever, silences all doubt,
is not antagonistic to reason and common sense, and is conducive to
the welfare of all beings.
(3) Complete liberation is attained gradually through many births,
and this process guarantees every creature, however wicked, many
opportunities to rid himself of imperfections.
Rebirth is governed by the law of karma. It is through a human body
that liberation is generally attained.
Vedanta speaks of three courses which departed souls may follow
before they are reborn on earth in a human body: Those who have led a life
of extreme wickedness are born as subhuman beings.
Those again who have discharged their social and moral duties,
cherished desires, and sought the results of action, repair after death to
a heaven called the "plane of the moon," where they reap the
fruit of their actions, before being reborn in a human body.
But Brahmaloka, the highest heaven, is attained by those who have
led an intense spiritual life on earth and actively sought the reality of
God. Some of the dwellers in
Brahmaloka obtain liberation, and some return to earth.
Such descriptions of the afterlife are not literal, but symbolic
and poetic, and are intended to spur the human mind to make the spiritual
quest. Life's bondage created
while living, cannot be overcome by some readjustment after death.
(4) Liberation is universal and is the inevitable destiny of all
living creatures. Vedanta
speaks of the three basic desires of all living beings: eternal life,
limitless knowledge, and unbounded joy.
We first seek to fulfill these through change of form and place.
But nothing limited can give us the fulfillment of all
three desires. At last we begin to change our thoughts and practice
spiritual disciplines for self-purification.
When our heart becomes purified, our true self, which is the Self
of the universe, becomes revealed in the mirror of our pure heart and we
discover our true identity. Liberation
is returning home. In
Biblical terms it is the return of the prodigal son to his all-loving
father. Consciously or unconsciously, all beings are striving for
liberation. When the striving
is unconscious we call it evolution of nature, but when it is conscious we
call it spiritual quest.
What happens to a knower of the Self after death?
Where does his soul go? The
"Of him who is without desires, who is free from desires,
the objects of whose desires have been attained, and to whom all objects
of desire are but the self—the life-breath does not depart. Being Brahman, he merges in Brahman." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, IV.iv.6)[vi]
"When all the desires that dwell in his heart are
gone, then he, having been mortal, becomes immortal and attains Brahman in
this very body." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, IV.iv.7)[vii]
As milk poured into milk becomes one
with milk, as water poured into water becomes one with the water, as oil
poured into oil becomes one with the oil, so the illumined soul absorbed
in Brahman becomes one with Brahman.
A free soul, however, out of compassion for mankind, may of his own
free will again assume a human body and work for the welfare of mankind.
(5) The Self-Knowledge of Vedanta liberates not only our soul but
also our mind. Psychologically
speaking, Self-Knowledge, by raising the blaze of spiritual consciousness,
frees us from the bondage of highly-personalized life and separative
(6) Liberation through Self-Knowledge is not just cessation of
sorrow and suffering but positive bliss.
Cessation of sorrow is not in itself happiness; it requires
something positive. Tasting
the overpowering bliss of the Self, the liberated soul goes beyond all
sorrow and suffering. As the
Katha Upanishad says:
"There is one Supreme Ruler, the
inmost Self of all beings, who makes His one form manifold.
Eternal happiness belongs to the wise, who perceive Him within
themselves—not to others. There
is One who is the eternal Reality among non-eternal objects, the one
[truly] conscious Entity among conscious objects, and who, though
non-dual, fulfils the desires of many.
Eternal peace belongs to the wise who perceive Him within
themselves—not to others." (Katha
Upanishad, II.ii.12 and 13)[viii]
(7) Liberation through Self-Knowledge requires cooperation between
self-endeavor and divine grace. To
make effort is necessary in order to know its limits.
In the end we discover that effort was possible because of grace.
We strive for the Divine only when the Divine draws us toward It.
(8) Self-Knowledge alone can confer true liberation. Swami Vivekananda beautifully describes this liberation
"One day a drop of water fell into the vast ocean.
When it found itself there, it began to weep and complain just as
you are doing. The great ocean laughed at the drop of water.
`Why do you weep?' it asked. `I
do not understand. When you
join me, you join all your brothers and sisters, the other drops of water of
which I am made. You become
the ocean itself. If you wish
to leave me, you have only to rise up on a sunbeam into the clouds.
From there you can descend again, a little drop of water, a
blessing and a benediction to the thirsty earth.'"[ix]
(9) The liberated soul is called a free soul.
Only a free soul demonstrates the reality of God, the validity of
the sacred texts, the divinity of man, and the oneness of existence.
He is also known as the Awakened One or the Illumined One.
A free soul lives in a world of duality, yet he remains undisturbed
by its pain and pleasure. He
is free but not whimsical, spontaneous but not given to license, and he
never sets a bad example to others. As
a fish swimming in waters leaves no mark behind, or as a bird flying in
the air leaves no footprints, so a free soul moves in the world unnoticed
by others. A free soul does
not traffic in miracles, nor does he publicize his holiness.
The ineffable peace radiating from his personality bespeaks his
A free soul is aware of his identity with all beings.
He is conscious that he feels through all hearts, walks with all
feet, eats through all mouths, and thinks with all minds.
He regards the pain and pleasure of others as his own pain and
pleasure. Physical death and
birth have no meaning for him, a change of body being to him like a change
of garments. About such a
person it can truly be said that he exists, because he has become one with
Existence; knows, because he has become one with Knowledge; and enjoys
bliss, because he has become one with Bliss Absolute.
A free soul, while living in the body, may experience disease, old
age, or decay; may feel hunger, thirst, grief or fear; may be a victim of
blindness, deafness, or other conditions.
But having realized that these are no more than characteristics of
the body, the mind, or the senses, he does not take them seriously and so
is not overwhelmed by them. A
person who sees a play on the stage does not consider it to be real, yet
he enjoys it to his heart's content; likewise, a free soul living in the
midst of the joys and sorrows of the world experiences them as the
unfolding of a divine play.
In modern times, Sri Ramakrishna's life is a perfect example in
this context. In April 1885
Sri Ramakrishna felt a soreness in his throat.
Prolonged conversation or absorption in God-consciousness would
aggravate the pain. As simple
treatment brought him no relief, a specialist was called for, and the
illness was diagnosed as cancer. Though
the doctor cautioned him, he could neither control his ecstasy nor turn
away any sincere spiritual seeker. In
spite of his excruciating pain and emaciated physical condition, Sri
Ramakrishna continued to minister to the spiritual needs of his disciples
and devotees. Seeing his
constant ecstasy, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj was moved to declare:
"Good heavens! It is as
if he were possessed by a ghost!"[x]
As we read in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna:
" Pandit Shashadhar [a renowned
religious leader of the time] one day suggested to Sri Ramakrishna that
the latter could remove the illness by concentrating his mind on the
throat, the scriptures having declared that yogis had power to cure
themselves in that way. The
Master rebuked the pundit:
"`For a scholar like you to make
such a proposal!' he said. `How can I withdraw the mind from the Lotus
Feet of God and turn it to this worthless cage of flesh and blood?' `For
our sake at least,' begged Narendra and the other disciples.
`But,' replied Sri Ramakrishna, `do you think I enjoy this
suffering? I wish to recover,
but that depends on the Mother.'
Narendra: `Then please pray to Her.
She must listen to you.'
Master: `But I cannot pray for my
Narendra: `You must do it, for our
sake at least.'
Master: `Very well, I shall try.'
A few hours
later the Master said to Narendra: `I said to Her: "Mother, I cannot
swallow food because of my pain. Make
it possible for me to eat a little."
She pointed you all out to me and said: "What? You are eating
through all these mouths. Isn't
that so?" I was ashamed
and could not utter another word.'"[xi]
This is the liberation in life declared by Vedanta, and this is the
primary goal to which the Ramakrishna Mission's works of service are
N O T E S
The Yogas and Other Works, chosen and with a
by Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
Center, New York, 1984, p. 265.
[ii]. "Whose Heaven Is It?," by Karen
Armstrong, in The New York
Times, August 31, 1996, p. 21.
Upanishads, Volume I, translated by Swami Nikhilananda,
Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1990, p. 165.
Vivekachudamani, Verse 6, translated by Swami Madhavananda,
Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1970, p. 3.
Religions and Western Thought, by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Oxford University Press, New York, 1959,
[vi]. Quoted in
Hinduism: Its Meaning for the Liberation of the
by Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
Center, New York, 1992, p. 56.
The Upanishads, Volume I, pp. 175-176.
Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, by his Eastern and Western
Admirers, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1964, pp.
[x]. The Gospel of
Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami
Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New
York, 1992, p. 833.