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JĪVANMUKTI . The Sanskrit term jīvanmukti means "liberation as a living being." A person who has attained liberation in his lifetime is called jīvanmukta. Although these precise terms seem to have been popularized only by followers of Śakara, late in the first millennium ce, the concept of a liberated person had become a commonplace of Indian religious thought many centuries earlier. This article will concentrate on the concept.

The final goal of every Hindu is to attain release (mukti ) from sasāra, the endless cycle of death and rebirth that all living beingsgods, human beings, animals, and lower spiritsundergo. The cause of rebirth is karman, or intentional action. All intentional action originates from "passion" (rāga ), or emotional involvement with the world. As mukti is release from sasāra, it is thus release from karman and its results; and this abandonment of karman is to be attained by cultivating "dispassion" (vairāgya ), emotional disengagement from the world.

In those forms of Hinduism that see devotion to God as the means to salvation, such detachment from the world, and hence mukti, is to be attained only at death. However, in the religions that dominated Indian culture from about 500 bce to late in the first millennium ce, salvation is due to a liberating insight, or gnösis. It is a corollary of all Gnostic religion that liberation can be attained in this life. (In India this possibility is explicitly restricted to human beings.) Thus, there can be human beings who are already saved, who are devoid of passion and of the kind of intentionality that will cause them to be reborn: in such cases, at the death of the body, the sequence of cause and effect set in motion by the individual's karman will cease.

Although the content of this gnosis varies in detail from school to school, for all Hindus it involves the realization that one's essential nature is pure spirit, immortal and immutable. Whatever is not pure spirit is impermanent and liable to change; it is utterly other than one's essential nature. The Western distinction between mind and matter is a misleading analogy, for most of what Western thought assigns to mind Indian thought categorizes as nonspiritual. The only apparently "mental" characteristic allowed by all Hindus to the spirit is pure consciousness. All schools agree that the Gnostic who has successfully discriminated between his purely conscious spirit and the transient phenomena that comprise the rest of his apparent empirical personality is thereby freed from suffering (dukha ); most go further and characterize this state as bliss (ānanda ).

The earliest texts containing this kind of Gnostic religion are the early Upaniads (c. seventh century bce). Buddhism and Jainism are religions of this Gnostic type; but the metaphysics of both are, in separate ways, different from those of Hinduism; and as the term jīvanmukti is never applied, even retrospectively, to Buddhist or Jain saints, this article deals only with Hindu formulations of the concept.

The Hindu Gnostic sees through the unreality of changing phenomena, in particularly their duality; he rises above pleasure and pain, good and evil. The enlightened person is thus beyond moral categories; but as he or she is free from all emotional attachments, the enlightened person will never do evil. The person seeking this gnosis will tend to renounce worldly life because it involves types of activitysexual, economicthat cannot be carried on without attachment. Although the early Upaniads stress the intellectual pursuit of gnosis, in most schools it was pursued through the practice of yoga. On whether the liberated person continues to perform ritual, opinions differ sharply.

All later Hindu sects were influenced by the metaphysics of Sākhya, an atheistic path to salvation. The spirit (purua/ātman ) is considered here as utterly other than nature/matter (prakti ), which is one, though diversified. Spirits are many and are inactive and transcendent, mere conscious witnesses of the activity of prakti, the material cause of the phenomenal world, including all mental functions and intelligence. Involvement with the world and suffering arise from a failure of discrimination (viveka ). Once one has dissociated one's spirit from mind and ego, one stands sheer and alone (kevalin ), untouched by emotion. This isolation (kaivalya ) of the spirit ensures that at death one is never reborn. The kevalin lives on after attaining gnosis because the kevalin' s karman, which had begun to bear fruit, must exhaust its momentum, like the potter's wheel after the potter has stopped spinning it. The Bhagavadgītā describes such a person as sthitaprajña, "of serene wisdom."

The Advaita Vedānta school established by Śakara virtually accepted the Sākhya view of the kevalin, despite a different metaphysical basis. In the tradition of the early Upaniads, the Vedāntins regarded the plurality of individual souls (ātman ) as an illusion: there is only one reality, brahman, with which all souls must realize their unity. Prakti is not only other than spirit; it is in fact nonexistent. One's entire view of a plural world is just a mistake. The person who has undone this mistake is jīvanmukta.

Hindu Tantric sects hold a different view of mukti. For these monotheistic Gnostics, salvation is achieved through God's grace, which is then instantiated in the successful efforts of the practitioner, who aims to change his or her impure body into the pure substance of sákti, God's energy, the source of all things. If successful, the practioner becomes a siddha ("successful one"). The idea occurs in the Śaiva Tantras, in the Vajrayāna Tantras, and in hahayoga. The pure body of a siddha was conceived by some to be immortal, so that jīvanmukti amounted to apotheosis. Specialists in alchemy (rasaśāstra ) hoped to achieve immortality by ingesting mercury, the essence of Śiva, and some Tantrics continue to believe that breathing exercises can render them immortal, or at least ensure them very long life.

See Also

Indian Philosophies; Tantrism, article on Hindu Tantrism.


Brunner, Hélène. "Un chapïtre du Sarvadarsanasamgraha : Le Saivadarsana." In Tantric and Taoist Studies in Honour of R. A. Stein, edited by Michel Strickmann, vol. 20 of Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques, pp. 96140. Brussels, 1983.

Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy, vols. 1 & 2. Cambridge, U.K., 19221932. A traditional treatment of the views of Śakara and his followers, including a lucid discussion of the Gnostic view of salvation. See especially pages 207, 268, and 291292 in volume 1 and pages 245252 in volume 2.

Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. 2d ed. Princeton, 1969. Still the best work on the yogic path of release.

Hiriyanna, Mysore. The Essentials of Indian Philosophy. London, 1949. A concise historical introduction. See especially pages 3156 and 129174.

Kaw, R. K. Pratyabhijñā Kārikā of Utpaladeva: Basic Text on Pratyabhijñā Philosophy (The Doctrine of Recognition ). Sharada Peetha Indological Research Series, vol. 12. Srinagar, 1975. Includes a clear description of the Śaiva Tantra path of salvation.

New Sources

Fort, Andrew O. Jivanmukti in Transformation: Embodied Liberation in Advaita and Neo-Vedanta. Albany, N.Y., 1998.

Living Liberation in Hindu Thought. Edited by Andrew O. Fort and Patricia Y. Mumme. Albany, N.Y., 1996.

Srivastava, Lalit Kishore Lal. Advaitic Concept of Jivanmukti. Delhi, 1990.

Sanjukta Gupta (1987)

Revised Bibliography