Liberation in Indian Philosophy

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The concept of liberation presupposes someone's state of bondage and anticipates the possibility of his or her release into a state of freedom. From the philosophical perspective bondage marks the human predicament of leading a precarious existence in an unstable world. In Indian philosophy the state of bondage is termed sasāra (global flow) and understood as a beginningless process of life of beings who are born, die, and are constantly reborn. This process is governed by the eternal law called in mainstream Hinduism sanātana dharma. This expression is multivalent, having several layers of meaning; Indian thinkers regard it as a matrix encompassing reality in its totality. In Buddhism dharma occurs without the attribute "everlasting," but is understood as being beyond time.

The multivalency of sanātana dharma gives it at least three meanings. First, as the eternal law it represents an impersonal force inherent in everything so that reality is orderly rather than chaotic; processes of reality follow the law of cause and effect. Second, the aspect of timelessness of dharma implies the view that even the phenomenal reality has no conceivable beginning and end, but keeps renewing itself in cycles. In other words, the global world processincluding the present universehas no fixed origin, such as a creative act of God, and will never come to an end to be replaced by the eternal "new earth and new heaven" after a day of judgment. Rather, it undergoes periodic renewals: At the beginning of each period the world process starts with the emergence (si ) of the universe from its hidden dimension into the state of manifestation; in the course of its duration (sthiti ) it evolves to a peak, followed by decline and end in universal dissolution into the unmanifest state (pralaya ) called cosmic night. After a period of latency, the whole process starts again.

The lives of individual beings proceed within this global framework from birth to adulthood, old age, death and rebirth in a never-ending round of sasāric existences. During the cosmic night they subsist in a kind of limbo or oblivion. Third, the concept of dharma also refers to the timeless and absolute reality beyond the manifested one; it represents the final goal of religious and philosophical quest equated with the ultimate truth. This truth is eternal, outside time, and independent of the changeable phases of the phenomenal reality manifested within time. The manifestation of the eternal truth or law within the universe dominated by time does not make the world everlasting in the sense of a lineal duration, but provides for its cyclic nature, its recurring rise and fall.

The concept of dharma understood as the absolute truth and ultimate reality has still another connotationthat of consciousness, awareness, or intelligence. Truth makes sense only if it is known. Indian philosophy, unlike Western science, has never conceived of reality without consciousness. Thus, a verse in one of the earliest Indian philosophical texts (15001000 BCE), the creation hymn of the g Veda (10, 129, 4), describes the primordial oneness (tad ekam ) as experiencing desire (kāma ), the earliest seed of its mind (manaso reta ), which led to manifestation. The dimension of consciousness as an inherent quality of reality in its ultimate state evokes two fundamental insights. First, the idea of the ultimate personality (puruottama ), albeit an infinite one, conceived as the personality of God, the free agent behind the world process, although not an omnipotent one. Second, it suggests that the individual human consciousness, being an instance of the universal dimension of consciousness, hasdespite its present limitationsthe potential of grasping reality on the ultimate level: Man has the capability to develop an understanding and vision of the absolute truth. Extricating himself thus from the conditionality of his phenomenal existence and attaining final liberation (moka, mukti ), he enters the timeless dimension of the absolute without having to participate in the world process and undergo repeated incarnations.

While in bondage, he is governed by sanātana dharma in all its aspects. Its aspect of causality operates in human life on a higher level as the law of karma, which is much more complicated than the law of cause and effect in the material universe, yet it can be expressed in the simple saying "as you have sown, so you will reap." Every volitional act in thought, speech, or deed generates a force that produces sooner or laterin one's present life or some future existenceresults that shape one's external circumstances and appearance, forming one's character and determining one's fortune. The aspect of timelessness of dharma makes the lives of individual beings in the sequence of reincarnations appear to be without a conceivable beginning and end. However, the aspect of dharma as the timeless and absolute reality beyond the manifested world lends individual beings an affinity with the ultimate truth and the potentiality of realizing it by direct conscious experience, which brings about the termination of their bondage and the attainment of liberation outside time.

This necessitates entering a spiritual path, a training to deepen one's perception of reality up to the point of the final vision. Volitional input is essential for this purposeas it is also within the karmic process to sow only wholesome deeds to earn future good results. The spiritual path was eventually systematized and became known as yoga.

The previous outline is valid in principle for all schools of Indian philosophy, including the earlier phases of Indian thought before the formation of philosophical systems. Despite the difference in terminology and sophistication of language, the ideas occur even in the oldest strata of Vedic scriptures in mythological guise, although nineteenth-century pioneers of Vedic scholarship failed to recognize them.

The Vedas and Upaniads

The g Veda uses the verb muc (hence moka and mukti ) in the creation myth when the god Indra periodically liberates the cosmic waters (= creative forces) from the clutches of the demon Vtra (10, 104, 9; 1, 32, 11; 4, 22, 7), thereby enabling the manifestation of the universe. As to humans, they are subjected to successive lives (anūcīnā jīvitā, 4, 54, 2), so liberation for them means being granted immortality (amta, amtatva ). It is therefore ardently prayed for: "Lead us to immortality!" (5, 55, 4) "May I be released from death, not reft of immortality!" (7, 59, 12) "Place me in that deathless, undecaying world make me immortal" (9, 113, 711). Certain "long-haired ascetics" (keśins ) even claimed to have won immortality during their lifetime: "Due to our sagehood we have mounted upon the winds, only our bodies do you mortals see" (10, 136, 3). The pleas for immortality show that everlasting life was not automatically granted even if one reached heaven as a result of good deeds (10, 14, 8) and religious fervor (tapas, 10, 54, 2). Repeated death (punarmtyu ) lurked even there as is later asserted by Śatapatha Brāhmaa (10, 4, 3, 10), so the search for immortality continues.

The ideas of rebirth under cosmic law and liberation from it are subsequently clearly spelled out in the oldest Upaniads (700600 BCE): "One becomes pure by pure actions, bad by bad ones" (Bhadārayaka Upaniad 3, 2, 13), and when one dies, knowledge (vidyā ), deeds (karmāi ), and previous experience (pūrva prajñā ) follow one (4, 4, 2). One may live in higher worlds while the merits of one's actions last, but eventually returns to this world (4, 4, 46). But one has affinity with the Ultimate; one's inner self (ātman ) is, at bottom, identical with the core of reality (brahman, 4, 4, 5). When one realizes it and can proclaim "I am brahman," one becomes the self of everything, including gods (1, 4, 10), and is freed from reincarnation. Thus, liberation is the result of the direct knowledge of one's inmost self and thereby of the inner essence of everything else brought about by meditational effort (dhyāna ) and by renouncing external desires. Later Upaniads started developing methods of acquiring the liberating knowledge, thus foreshadowing the classical system of Yoga.

Two schools of thought and practice outside the Vedic tradition, Jainism and Buddhism, also systematized the path. Both emerged from the circles of wanderers (śramaas ) striving for liberation from the round of rebirths by asceticism. In contrast to the Brahmanic tradition, they regarded the state of liberation as beyond description and used the negative term nirvāa (blowing-out) for it.


The term used in the teachings of Jina Mahāvīra (599467 BCE) for individual beings is jīva (animate substance, soul, spirit-monad) or ātman. In its pure form a jīva is perfect, omniscient, eternal, and formless and enjoys unlimited energy and infinite bliss. When he succumbs to the influx (āśrava ) of passions (kaāya ) from the phenomenal world of modalities (sasāra ), the jīva takes shape, assuming a body born from his actions (karmaa-śarīra ), and he loses his perfection and becomes a mundane pilgrim (sasāri ) through innumerable forms of life whose quality is determined by the ethical quality of his actions. Good actions secure his temporary well-being in sasāra, but do not lead to liberation. Of bad actions injury to life is the most detrimental one. Liberation (moka, mukti, nirvti ) is achieved by purging off (nirjarā ) of karmic burdens accumulated by past actions and stopping (savara ) further influxes by renunciation so that the soul rises above involvement in any actions. In the last stages of ascetic practice (tapas ), the abstention from action may involve stopping even intake of food and drink; liberation is reached on the point of death by starvation. If the sasāri achieves liberation before death, he becomes a perfect one (siddha ) or a tīrthakara (ford-maker, the teacher of others). Discarnate siddhas in nirvāa enjoy four infinite accomplishments: knowledge, vision, strength, and bliss. The Jain elaborate path to liberation shows overlaps with the Buddhist one and with Patañjali's Yoga.


Early Buddhist sources largely abstain from conceptual descriptions of the nature of beings, liberation, and ultimate reality. The Buddha (563483 BCE) of the Pāli Canon maintained noble silence about such issues and focused pragmatically on analysis of the existential situation of man as it is accessible to everybody's experience and on practical procedures for gaining liberation and direct knowledge of true reality; called awakening or enlightenment (bodhi ), this achievement does not include omniscience as in Jainism. Man's experience of himself is described in terms of five constituent groups of clinging (upādānakkhandhas ):

(1) Bodily awareness or the experience of having a form (rūpa )

(2) Feelings (vedanā ) that are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral

(3) Perception (saññā ) experienced through six channelsthe five senses and the mind, the latter having the function of coordinating the fivefold sensory data into conceptually grasped objects

(4) Inner volitional dynamism described as the group of mental coefficients (sakhāras ), such as instincts, urges, desires, wishes, decisions, and aspirations

(5) Consciousness (viññāa ) or the direct awareness of being conscious of visual and other sensory objects and of mental images and concepts

None of these constituents represents the inner core, substance, or soul (atta/ātman ) of the personalitythey are anatta and no such core is either postulated or denied. The structural unity of the personality is expressed by the term nāmarūpa (name and form), occasionally also puggala (Sanskrit: pudgala ) or purisa (Sanskrit: purua ); its constituents constantly change, yet its individuality is preserved by its continuity as a process: The Buddha frequently referred to his and others' past lives.

Bondage to the round of births and deaths governed by the laws of karma results from ignorance (avidyā, moha ) of the true nature of reality (dhamma ). Beings are then subject to craving (tahā, lobha ) directed to fleeting and basically substanceless pleasurable experiences and develop hate (dosa ) if somebody obstructs their aims. The beginning of the individuals' sasāric sojourn cannot be found, but liberation is possible when beings realize its unsatisfactoriness, recognize desire as its cause, understand that renouncing desire will free them from rebirth, and embark on the path toward that final goal.

This is the gist of the Buddha's "four noble truths," the fourth one being the eightfold path of systematic training, the first comprehensive formulation of a liberating technique. On reaching liberation a Buddha's disciple becomes an arahat (worthy one) and is equal to the Buddha in the acquired state of freedom, while the Buddha surpasses him in wisdom, thus enabling him to be the "teacher of gods and men." Individuals who attain liberation on their own without the guidance of a buddha become solitary enlightened ones (paccekabuddhas ), who do not assume a teaching mission. Early Buddhism does not admit descriptions of or speculation about the state of a liberated one (tathāgata ) after death. Here, too, the Buddha maintains "noble silence," expressly denying only the validity of the four alternatives put to him by questioners, namely that he "is," "is not," "both is and is not," and "neither is nor is not." "The final truth (dhamma ) is deep, unfathomable, understood only by the wise" (Majjhima Nikāya 72)an Enlightened One.

Despite this injunction, speculation did not cease and some Hīnayāna schools of thought, including Theravāda, interpreted the Buddha's description of personality factors (khandhas ) as unsubstantial (anatta ) to mean denial of an inner core or any other feature that would lend individuals identity in successive lives and continuity into nirvāa. This was challenged by the Pudgalavāda school, which maintained that personality (pudgala ) as such is as eaqually undefinable as tathāgata and that it is independent of the individual's status, whether bound or liberated, which means that it persists throughout successive lives and into nirvāa. This doctrine was adopted by many sects and remained influential for centuries.

Mahāyāna schools of thought do not appear to have had problems with personal continuity. Innumerable tathāgatas are active from within their spheres of influence (buddhaketras ), helping beings to liberation, assisted by bodhisattvas, individuals developing ten perfections (pāramitās ) on the path to buddhahood that proceeds through ten stages (bhūmis ). Some bodhisattvas vow not to enter final nirvāa until all beings are liberated "down to the last blade of grass," an innovation that envisages universal liberation. This is viewed as possible on the basis of the philosophy of emptiness (śūnyavāda ), which developed as a result of meditational experience: The mind, emptied of all contents derived from sensory perception and conceptual activity, can make the final breakthrough into nirvāa, which is equally empty because it is inaccessible to sensory perception and undefinable. Thus, emptiness (śūnyatā ) came to be regarded as underlying both sasāra and nirvāa, making them, at bottom, identical. Liberation occurs by shifting one's perspective.

Such tendencies to hypostatize śūnyatā were checked by Nāgārjuna (flourished c. 150250), the protagonist of the Mādhyamaka school, who used the dialectical method to refute conflicting theses; truth lay in the middle, but beyond dialectics. It is accessible only to direct visionas the Buddha taught. Tendencies to hypostatization appeared also in the Vijñānavāda school, which regards pure consciousness as the basis for not only sasāra but also nirvāa, since its achievement cannot but be a conscious experience. Sasāric phenomena are mental constructs projected from the universal storehouse consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna ), yet the emptiness and purity of the root consciousness (mūla-vijñāna ) and of a liberated one's consciousness remain unaffected.

Hindu Systems of Philosophy

During the golden age of Indian civilization under the Gupta dynasty (320510), philosophical discussions flourished between various schools of thought. Six of them came to be recognized as valid Hindu angles of viewing (di, hence darśaa ) of reality and were systematized. All accept the basic teaching about sasāric bondage and the desirability of liberation, but differ in ontological conceptions and methodical approaches.

(1) Pūrva-Mīmāsā (original elucidation) regards the Vedas as eternal and pursues the path of ritual action (karma-mārga ), which parallels cosmic processes and terrestrial events governed by the inherent law of ta (the Vedic equivalent of dharma ), which is independent of any divine agency. Right rituals achieve anything, including rebirth in the highest existential spheres and liberation, although in advanced stages of the path ritual is interiorized and becomes a process of meditation.

(2) Vaiśeika (discrimination) is a kind of natural philosophy focusing on classifying reality into categories (padārthas ). Reality is subjected to the invisible law (ada dharma ) operating also in the ethical sphere independently of God (īśvara ), an eternally free, omniscient spirit (not a creator) who can assist beings on the path of knowledge (jñána-mārga ) based on a meditational analysis of sasāric categories that leads to liberation from them.

(3) Nyāya (guidance) analyses logical and epistemological processes that supply beings with their picture of the world. In testing its validity, Nyāya thinkers discovered syllogism that, however, required verification by experience. Logical analysis is the start of the path of knowledge (jñāna-mārga ). It sharpens the mind, preparing it for meditational viewing, which culminates in direct knowledge of the final truth equaling liberation.

(4) Sākhya (enumeration) is a dualistic metaphysical system with no God. It recognizes an infinite number of originally pure and free eternal spirits (puruas ) and the creative force of nature (prakti ), which conjures up the world process for puruas. As they show interest in this spectacle, prakti creates for them bodies with senses and mental functions. The puruas, fascinated by the antics of prakti, identify with their praktic personalities and forget their true status. When a purua recognizes this bondage, he can liberate himself by mentally discriminating between praktic evolutes and his original pure consciousness; this is a variety of jñāna-mārga. His worldly personality dissolves and he regains total freedom in isolation (kaivalya ) from prakti.

(5) Yoga (union) as one of the six darśaas is chiefly a systematic eightfold path to liberation called classical Yoga, expounded by Patañjali (second century BCE). However, chapter 4 of his Yoga Sūtras shows that it had been a philosophical system in its own right before its ontology was overshadowed by Sākhya. Still, it retained the notion of God (īśvara ), an eternally free purua who may assist other puruas (entangled in sasāra ) struggling for liberation but is neither the Creator nor the focus of a religious cult. The discipline of the Yoga path aims at experiencing liberation as autonomy (kaivalya ) from limiting forms of existence, accompanied by the final vision of or cognitive unification with the totality of truth (dharmamegha-samādhi ).

(6) Uttara Mīmāsā (higher elucidation) or Vedānta (end of Veda, meaning Upaniads, its base) split into three subschools. In the Advaita (nondualistic) Vedānta of Śankara (700?750?) brahman, the Upaniadic source and core of the manifested universe, is regarded as the sole reality; the individual bondage in sasāra is an illusion (māyā ). Liberation is achieved when this illusion is dispersed by treading the path of knowledge (jñāna-yoga ) that culminates in samādhi experienced as the unity of being, consciousness, and bliss (sat-cit-ānanda ). The liberated one realizes that he is and has always been brahman and that nothing else really exists. The Viia Advaita (qualified nondualistic) Vedānta of Rāmānuja (c. 10771137) interprets the Upaniadic brahman as the eternal God who created the world out of his own subtle body by transforming it into a gross one. Beings are attributes of God, but possess their own self-conscious existence. They retain it even when liberated in mystic union with God accomplished with his grace (prasāda ) after surrendering to him on the path of devotion (bhakti-mārga ). Upaniadic passages with traces of a dualistic worldview (foreshadowing Sākhya) enabled even the Dvaita (dualistic) Vedānta of Madhva (c. 1199c. 1278) to claim Vedic authority for its interpretation. It accepts the eternal existence of prakti and the plurality of jīvas, who retain their individuality even in the state of liberation granted as God's grace to those who live pure lives and embrace bhakti-mārga. Others may transmigrate in sasāra forever. Some evildoers may even reach a point past redemption and face eternal damnation in infinite remoteness from God.

A modern approach to liberation appears in the writings of Aurobindo (18721950). He envisioned a new phase in the world's evolution: if enough individuals prepare themselves through yoga for receiving the cosmic consciousness, then they could bring about the spiritualization of the earth or even the whole universe. This idea of universal liberation has its origin in the vow of Mahāyāna bodhisattvas to liberate all beings "down to the last blade of grass."

See also Brahman; Causation in Indian Philosophy; God/Isvara in Indian Philosophy; Karma; Knowledge in Indian Philosophy; Meditation in Indian Philosophy; Mind and Mental States in Buddhist Philosophy; Negation in Indian Philosophy; Self in Indian Philosophy.


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