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 Upanishad, II.1.10)"[iii]
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 Self-Knowledge. Immortality or eternal life in order to be real must be free from all forms of embodiment-gross, subtle, or causal. Sankaracharya asserts:
"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 Upanishads say:
"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 existence.
(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 through Self-Knowledge:
"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 holy nature.
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 body.'
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 directed.
[i]. Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works, chosen and with a biography 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.
[iii]. The Upanishads, Volume I, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1990, p. 165.
[iv]. Vivekachudamani, Verse 6, translated by Swami Madhavananda, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1970, p. 3.
[v]. Eastern Religions and Western Thought, by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Oxford University Press, New York, 1959, p. 104.
[vi]. Quoted in Hinduism: Its Meaning for the Liberation of the Spirit, by Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1992, p. 56.
[vii]. Ibid., p.56
[viii]. The Upanishads, Volume I, pp. 175-176.
[ix]. Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, by his Eastern and Western Admirers, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1964, pp. 265-266.
[x]. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1992, p. 833.
[xi]. Ibid., pp. 69-70.