MOKṢA . The term mokṣa, a Sanskrit masculine substantive, and its feminine synonym mukti, are derived from the linguistic etymon muc, meaning "release." Both terms have always been employed in an exclusively religious sense, denoting release from the tedious and painful cycle of transmigration (saṃsāra ). Such a notion first appears in Indian thought with the oldest Upaniṣad, as well as in early Buddhism.
The notion of mokṣa is found neither in old Vedic literature, nor in the Saṃhitās ("collections"), nor in the Brāhmaṇas, the commentaries referring to sacrificial rites. Indeed, the oldest known Vedic texts are concerned with enjoyment (bhukti) of the earthly world, not with release from it. The metaphysical, moral, and soteriological associations of the concept of mokṣa are based on a religious sensibility that places absolute priority on the experience of being liberated from those very structures and patterns.
It was not until the sixth century bce that texts began to give evidence of what would come to be the main concern of Indian religious thought, that is, release from the cycle of rebirth or saṃsāra, which is generated by the weight of actions (karman ) fulfilled during the present life or during previous ones. Such a preoccupation arose at the same time in Brahmanism and Buddhism, and eventually extended throughout the Indian subcontinent. It lies at the very base not only of the Upaniṣads but of the teachings of the Buddha and of his contemporary, the other great religious reformer, Mahāvīra.
The concept of mokṣa becomes more elaborately developed in both the Mahābhārata and the Laws of Manu. The idea also appears in the early Upaniṣads, but is expressed with the synonymous term mukti. When mokṣa appears, it is under its compound vimokṣa, but with the same meaning. Early Buddhism employes the Pali form mokkha.
The Bhagavadgītā, which very likely constitutes one of the earlier parts of the Mahābhārata, does not yet employ the word mokṣa, but the etymon muc provides substitutes to specify those who have a mind to gain release (4.4); the one who is released is referred to with the adjective form mukta (5.28) and, as in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, which predates the Gītā by three centuries, the substantive form appears only as vimokṣa (16.5) or nirvimokṣa, with the same meaning.
Often, where mokṣa might be expected, other words are substituted for it. A word derived from Vedism, amṛta, is used to introduce the notion of immortality; in that case, however, it takes on a particular significance, putting the stress on the fact that mokṣa results in a privileged position, the major effect of which is to avoid rebirth. The essential point is that mokṣa is liberation from the ties of action (karman ) and from saṃsāra, the endless chain with no beginning.
By using a different vocabulary, the later systems derived from Brahmanic thought give a different coloration to their conception of release. For instance, the Yoga system proposes apavarga, which emphasizes escape from the cycle of rebirths; the Sāṃkhya chooses the word kaivalya, that state of being in which one regains primitive unity. However, in spite of a different wording, the aim remains the same, that is, the liberation of the jīva, or the individual soul.
In the Vedānta texts of the Middle Ages, composed by the commentators on the Brahma Sūtra, it is the substantive term mokṣa that is preferred. The most influential of these commentators are Śaṅkara (eighth century ce), Rāmānuja (c. eleventh to twelfth century), Nimbārka (thirteenth century), Madhva (fourteenth century), and Vallabha (fifteenth century). Following them, modern Indian philosophers of the nineteenth century as well as contemporary thinkers adhered to the same term.
Mokṣa is a perennial word in the Indian religious vocabulary; the notion it conveys in every case is the assurance that the practitioner is never to come back to this world again. Various ascetic traditions throughout Indian history have taught that the release from the world can actually take place before one's physical death. Such traditions speak then of the jīvanmukta, that person who is "released while still alive."
Writings colored by Tantric influences, particularly those connected to the Vaiṣṇava Pāñcarātra, mention three ways to liberation. The first is based on a full differentiation between the god and his worshiper. The second is based on a theory of union between the two of them: Self and self make one; God and soul are one. The third way to liberation consists of an attempt to reintegrate the Supreme Self through complete identification with it. In Tantric Vaiṣṇavism, that expectation is named inmost union, or sayujya.
The Bhagavadgītā delineates three paths of self-discipline leading to freedom: through action (karmayoga ), through knowledge (jñānayoga ), and through devotion (bhaktiyoga ). In the first, one is deemed bound by each good or evil deed yet can win appropriate reincarnation through actions or deeds. On the face of it, it seems impossible to place karman and mokṣa together; good deeds may only be valued as preliminary steps to liberation. But we must consider here the particular context of karman in its primitive significance as a ritual act, an act specially consecrated. The word karman is, of course, basically related to action. However, one will not be tied up by one's actions if one bears in mind the all-important rule not to expect a reward in this world or later on. Only acts with no self-concern may open the kingdom of the brahman.
The main characteristic of jñānayoga is the cognition that ātman and brahman are identical. It is cognition or insight that grants man real freedom, for the individual soul is considered free but fails to recognize it.
The Bhagavadgītā, together with all of the theistic systems, also espouses a third way to reach emancipation, that is, through bhakti, or devotion. Originating in Vaiṣṇavism, bhakti spread forth into other religious traditions of India, and became particularly important in Tantric Śaivism.
With regard to cognition or meditation as a path to mokṣa, both the Upaniṣads and Śaṅkara hold that there is a procedure of mind bound to an intuitive recognition between the ātman and the brahman, that is, the identity of the self within the Self, or the Primary Energy from whom all energies proceed. Through mere concentration of mind one should seize that identification content as the intuitive recognition of the famous tat tvam asi: "that thou art."
In the theistic systems, the meditation process, rather than relying upon abstractions, rests on a personification of the Ultimate. Meditation is achieved by concentrating on the god's performances such as they are reported in the sacred texts. The gods are invoked through prayer formulations known as mantras, which are expected to be impregnated by the very energy of the One invoked. The foundations of a relationship with the Lord are built on love and confidence. In return, the Lord, through his benevolence, grants his worshiper the deliverance others achieve only through the course of multiple lifetimes. Sometimes, mokṣa appears as a favor granted by the god, owing nothing at all to human effort. The notion of delivery is conceived of quite differently by theistic and nontheistic systems. If such a quest is evident in the Indian current of thought, it is out of a theistic conception that it acquires its full religious significance.
Indian writings with a political tendency often mention the three traditionally recognized objects (varga s) of earthly life: dharma (moral duty or law), kāma (enjoyment), and artha (material wealth). In a combined philosophical and religious context, a fourth object, mokṣa, is added. Philosophically, it is recognized as the most important, for it expresses the human being's supreme object, his return to the primary cause, the Ultimate.
In the Upaniṣadic context, mokṣa is the cause of little mythological elaboration. It is from traditions where mokṣa is won by worshiping a personified god that the myth takes strength in literature as well as in iconography. From the epic poems (i.e., the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa ) onward, the notion of liberation is given a mythological context. One of the most striking examples is provided by Kṛṣṇaism. In the separate forms of a child, a warrior, and a lover, the hero Kṛṣṇais a permanent actor in the quest for salvation of his worshipers.
The Vedānta circles that issued from Rāmānuja and Nimbārka, and later from Vallabha, emphasized the combined worship of Kṛṣṇa and of his favorite shepherdess, Rādhā, for the predominance of love over any other feeling may in itself lead to emancipation. Because every iconic image keeps a fragment of divinity after ritual ceremonies have been practiced, worshiping images is a definite step in adoration; more potent than the rite itself are the images, charged with a salvific power. The Śaiva tradition also recognizes the efficacy of worshiping the images of the god (Śiva) and the goddess (Devī or Kālī or the Great Goddess).
When people beg for material valuables, the one "who knows," as it is said in the Upaniṣads, is aware that only through the benevolence of God may he reach the Ultimate, which is the way out of the cycle of rebirths.
An excellent introduction to the subject can be found in Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, edited by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (Berkeley, 1980). See also the "Mokṣadharmaparvan" (Chapter on the Rules of Emancipation) in book 12 of the Mahābhārata, translated by Pratap Chandra Roy and K. M. Ganguli (1884–1896; Calcutta, 1963).
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.
Singh, Darham. Sikh Theology of Liberation. New Delhi, 1991.
A. M. Esnoul (1987)