views updated Jun 08 2018








Liberation entered the English language during the fifteenth century. In modern terms liberation has taken on a political meaning to describe a condition of being free from impediments and more particularly activities leading toward the removal of restrictions to free action by a group or a person defined by nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or class. Free action is used here in relation to other key concepts that are part of the modern discourse of political life: autonomy, self-determination, and sovereignty. The development of a modern sense of individual rights, or the rights of a group of people to make decisions over their lives without external interference, is central to the way people understand sovereignty in the early twenty-first century. Liberation is therefore associated with particular historical movements toward the realization of sovereignty over ones self, among a people, or over a country. In the twentieth century liberation emerged as an important desire expressed through a number of movementsexamples of which will be discussed belowthat have defined the character of social and political struggles in the contemporary world.


The abolitionist movement sought to end the practice of slavery on a global scale by ending the slave trade and emancipating slaves held in bondage. The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) issued by Abraham Lincoln (18091865), for example, declares that all slaves in Confederate territory were to be freed. The act of manumission also allowed slave owners to set their slaves free. The Haitian slave revolt (1791) against French slavery, led by Toussaint Louverture (17431803) on the island of Saint Domingue, heralded briefly the first free black republic. The slaves in Saint Domingue drew on the Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted by the leaders of the French Revolution in 1789, to demand liberation from the bondage of slavery, allowing them to be considered free and equal human beings, a right denied to subjects in French colonies. Initially the demand of the slaves in Saint Domingue was to be freed from slavery in order to be part of the French Empire as free people. Later in the revolt, as pointed out by C. L. R. James (19011989) in The Black Jacobins (1938), this changed to a demand for independence after the refusal of France under the rule of Napoléon Bonaparte (17691821) to grant the slaves the rights of man.


While the expansive empires of the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Greeks possessed what might be considered colonies, it was after the sixteenth century that colonialism took on its modern meaning and eventually led to national liberation struggles. Developments in navigation and the technologies of war along with the changing patterns of trade facilitated the expansion and intensification of colonial rule and settlement by European powers over the rest of the world. Colonialism therefore meant ruling over another territory and its peoples either indirectly, through local elites like chiefs, or directly where there was a settler population, as in Australia and large parts of Africa and Asia.

The existence of empires that controlled large swaths of territory from a remote center of political power was challenged by the emergence of self-determination and nationalism. These principles held that states and groups of people who shared an affinity had the right to rule over themselves. The right to self-determination came into conflict with the maintenance and possession of colonies. This dilemma led to a protracted debate among prominent European philosophers of liberal thought, including John Stuart Mill (18061873) and Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859). Some argued that states, following the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), should observe the principle of self-determination and, where states existed, this principle should be upheld to preserve territorial integrity. However, this principle did not necessarily apply to peoples.

Benedict Anderson has argued that as a sensibility, nationalism emerged first in the Latin American colonies among the Creole elites. While nations may define themselves based on the subjective sense of a shared language, culture, or history, Anderson argued that nations are imagined political communities (Anderson 1991, p. 6). As a political idea, it holds that a people, however defined, have the right to self-government, self-rule, or self-determination, and this principle was formally adopted by the United Nations in 1960 with the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. A people, defined as such, could legitimately claim the right to independence, but this idea was not universally accepted, and the struggle to realize independence was taken up by a range of national liberation movements in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In these movements liberation was used to refer to the right of peoples to rule themselves, free from foreign domination by an external occupying power, and to live under an independent political authority. The methods used to achieve the aims of liberation by these movements took various forms, from nonviolent political agitation, as exemplified by Mahatma Gandhis (18691948) idea of satyagraha to end British control over India, to the use of force and guerrilla warfare, as in the cases of Cuba from Spain, Algeria from France, Angola from Portugal, Zimbabwe from Britain, East Timor from Indonesia, Tamil nationalists in Sri Lanka, and Palestine from Israeli occupation.


The expansion of imperial rule, from which modern colonial rule emerged, was also facilitated by the notion of race as understood by Count de Gobineau (18161882), a French diplomat and writer who categorized humans as belonging to and originating from different racial stocks. It was believed that races had different strengths, capabilities, and weaknesses and that some races should be socially nurtured while others could be destroyed. Europeans of an Aryan stock were placed at the acme of the pyramid in Gobineaus typology. This scientific racism contributed to the practice of colonialism and also fostered forms of social discrimination against particular groups of people within states, such as Jews in Germany and Poland, the descendents of free slaves in the United States, and black South Africans. On this basis therefore various forms of racism took root and fostered relations of hierarchy and domination between states and within states.

Racial discrimination led to another sense in which liberation came to refer to the struggle to free societies and individuals from racist institutional practices and racist thinking. The civil rights movement in the United States, led by African Americans such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968), demanded an end to the practice of segregation of Americans of African descent in southern states. The American civil rights movement also demanded representation in the democratic political system through the vote. Racism, in the institutionalized form that was practiced in South Africa, led to the demand for liberation from the severe effects of social, economic, and spatial separation of people on the basis of race, a situation formalized as apartheid after 1948 with the coming to power of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party.

While institutionalized racism has been successfully challenged by liberation movements, with African Americans now having the vote and South Africa inaugurating a nonracial democracy in 1994 under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, some argue that the more enduring psychological aspects of racisms legacy continue to require a form of liberation. The Martinican-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (19251961) wrote in Black Skin, White Masks (1967) of the mental effects of racism on human beings, who need mental liberation to free the mind from racist ways of thinking about the self and others. Applying Fanons insights to academic knowledge, Edward Said (19352003), an American literary theorist of Palestinian descent, showed how racist assumptions underpinned many European understandings of the Orient and continue to operate in the academy with negative political effects. Also influenced by Fanon, the South African political leader Steve Biko (19461977), who was killed in police custody, emphasized the need for black South Africans to liberate their minds from the acceptance of racism by developing a black consciousness.


Liberation from racism and slavery has largely been based on the liberal premise that people are entitled to individual rights. Marxists, however, have argued that capitalist societies are also based on relations of exploitation defined by economic class distinctions between groups. For Karl Marx (18181883), liberation entailed freeing the working class from wage labor or wage slavery, which kept workers dependent on their bosses for their material reproduction. Liberation, Marx and Friederich Engels (18201895) noted in The German Ideology (1846), was therefore a process that required the material reorganization of society through the rearranging of the economic relations of production, thereby creating a classless society: People cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity (Marx and Engels [1846] 1967, p. 437). Marxism has inspired significant political liberation movements, notably the Russian Revolution of 1917, which provided the most influential alternative model of liberation to the liberalism of the West after World War II (19391945) until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.


Since the nineteenth century the term liberation has also been used in defining movements that advocate changes in attitudes toward gender and sexuality (Wollstonecraft [1792] 1993). The American journalist Gloria Steinem declared 1970 the year of womens liberation. Womens lib, or feminism, as this movement has come to be known, refers to a diverse range of movements and philosophies that share the idea that gender should not be the primary determinant of an individuals economic or sociopolitical rights, obligations, or opportunities. Womens liberation has involved demanding for women the rights to vote in a democracy, to receive the same pay as men, and to exercise choices over their own bodies. Women, proponents argue, need to be liberated from the strictures of a male-dominated or patriarchal society. This liberation applies not only to women but to the gendered roles that men and women are socialized into performing, which reinforce patterns of inequality and discrimination. This notion is distinct from the use of liberation to redefine sexual relations in society. Such movements advocate an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation. The gay and lesbian movements, for example, advocate a redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Such marriages are now recognized as legal in some countries, but it remains an ongoing liberation struggle.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Apartheid; Aryans; Autonomy; Capitalism; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Colonialism; Empire; Feminism; French Revolution; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Gender Gap; Gobineau, Comte de; Haitian Revolution; Human Rights; Imperialism; Jews; Liberation Movements; Liberation Theology; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Mill, John Stuart; Neocolonialism; Race; Racism; Revolution; Russian Revolution; Said, Edward; Self-Determination; Sexual Orientation, Social and Economic Consequences; Sexuality; Slave Resistance; Slavery; Social Movements; Sovereignty; Tocqueville, Alexis de


Amílcar, Cabral. 1975. National Liberation and Culture. Transition 45: 1217.

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London and New York: Verso.

Biko, Steve. 1987. I Write What I Like: A Selection of His Writings. London: Heineman.

Césaire, Aimé. [1955] 1972. Discourse on Colonialism. Trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review.

Chatterjee, Partha. 1990. The Nationalist Resolution of the Womens Question. In Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, eds. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markham. New York: Grove.

Garvey, Marcus. [1924] 1992. Aims and Objects of Movement for Solution of Negro Problem. In Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, ed. Amy Jacques-Garvey. New York: Atheneum.

Gobineau, Joseph-Arthur de. [1853] 1983. The Inequality of Human Races. Trans. Adrian Collins. Torrance, CA: Noontide.

James, C. L. R. [1938] 1989. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint LOuverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. [1914] 1968. The Right of Nations to Self-Determination. In National Liberation, Socialism, and Imperialism: Selected Writings. New York: International Publishers.

Locke, John. [1690] 1963. Two Treatises of Government. New York: Mentor.

Maistre, Joseph de. [1884] 1965. Study on Sovereignty. Trans. Jack Lively. New York: Macmillan.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. [1846] 1967. The German Ideology. In Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, eds. and trans. Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat. New York: Double Day.

Mill, John Stuart. [1861] 1958. Considerations on Representative Government. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Anne Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. 1991. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. [1762] 1993. The Social Contract and Discourses. Trans. G. D. H. Cole. London: Dent.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. London: Penguin.

Skinner, Quentin. 1998. Liberty before Liberalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Steinem, Gloria. 1970. Womens Liberation Aims to Free Men Too. Washington Post, June 7.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. [18351840] 2000. Democracy in America. Trans. and eds. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. [1792] 1993. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London: Penguin.

Suren Pillay


views updated May 18 2018


LIBERATION , as a goal to be attained or as a designation of a process or activity contributing to this goal, has a central place in many religious traditions, but this should not belie the fact that quite different terms are used in these traditions to convey the protean variability of the meanings typically associated with this concept. These differences of meaning may reflect a wide range of religious conviction and practice, even as these meanings happen to overlap. Thus, in English alone, redemption, salvation, purification, absolution, freedom, illumination, enlightenment, forgiveness, expiation, deliverance, and rescue form a cluster of terms with close affinities to liberation. These affinities notwithstanding, significant differences may exist in the import conveyed by these expressions. Thus, and this is just one example, deliverance, as in the Christian prayer "Deliver us from our travails, O Lord," clearly presupposes the indispensable agency of the author of this sought-for deliverance, while, by contrast, illumination does not necessarily carry with it the presumption of the activity of any kind of external agent or power. The differences between these terms are also indicated by their contrasts: to be purified is to be removed from a state of uncleanliness, whereas to be illuminated is to be extricated from a condition of ignorance. Of course, one may be said to be ignorant because one is unclean, or vice versa, but ignorance is banished by one's gaining in wisdom, while uncleanliness is removed by one's extrication from a state of defilement or corruption. Someone may be cleansed without necessarily being any wiser about it, or anything else, as when an infant undergoes a cleansing ritual, but it is impossible to become significantly wiser without being aware in some way that one has undergone a more or less decisive cognitive or spiritual transformation. Different patterns of belief and practice may therefore surround a particular termexpiation, for instance, presupposes a gesture of atonement on the part of the one whose putative transgressions are being expiated (a substitute may also undertake this act of expiation on behalf of the one who is being redeemed by the expiation in question), and so expiation qua act is never fortuitous or gratuitous, while, by contrast, rescue can be, and indeed in many religious traditions is thought to be, entirely gratuitous and undeserved, the outcome of an act of grace (to use a theological formulation). To gain an appreciation of the significance and complexity of these assorted patterns of belief and practice, the individual undertaking a scientific study of "religion" has to be aware of the complex conditions that give these expressions their particularities of meaning. This is not likely to be easy.

For one thing, an expression like liberation (and its several cognate terms) is always an abstraction, and by virtue of being an abstraction it is unavoidably detached, albeit in ways that are not insurmountably problematic, from the full range of the ritual, doctrinal, and textual particularities that go into the constitution of liberation's putative goals or processes. Thus the Buddhist mārga (path to liberation) is treated in such exegetical texts as the Bhāvanākrama (Stages of practice), Bodhisattvabhūmi (Stages on the bodhisattva path), and Mo-ho-chih-kuan (Great calming of contemplation). These works are commonly depicted by scholars of Buddhism as descriptions of contemplative states achieved by individuals who happen to be skilled practitioners of the meditative arts. This is in fact a misrepresentation, since the authors of these texts derive their influence not from their achievement of some kind of inner enlightenment attested to in the texts in question, but rather from their disciplined observance of Buddhist scripture (Sharf, 1995). The "path to liberation" delineated in these sacred texts therefore is found not so much in the undergoing of a process of spiritual illumination, but in the discipline of mastering sacred scriptures (though illumination is not an accidental by-product of this scriptural mastery). Texts, even scriptural texts, are not always free of inconsistencies and ambiguities, and any characterization of liberation has to take these into account, more often than not by relating the texts in question to the complex of practices associated with them. This in turn poses important and sometimes difficult questions of description and interpretation.

How do we know that a particular term adequately expresses what goes on in a particular religious practice, or that it is providing an appropriate version of the meanings that inhere in a scriptural text? For instance, can we be certain that the English term liberation is an appropriate rendition of the Hindu notion of moksha, or that the English destiny properly translates the Homeric moira, and so forth? The history of religions provides examples of how, despite purporting to be free of theological presuppositions, a religion's renditions of the practical elements and doctrinal principles of other religions can nonetheless be tacitly influenced by theological or quasi-theological normativities. An important case in point is provided by the work of the great scholar of comparative religion Mircea Eliade (19071986), who sought in his work to eschew reliance of any kind on theological premises, but whose delineation of the sacred is nonetheless thought by such critics as Jonathan Z. Smith to involve just such a theological dependence. Eliade believed that there is an essential sacred in the world, to which religions sought to give expression, and that the task of the student of religion was to analyze both this expressivity and the structure of the essential sacred conveyed through its myriad modulations. Smith and others have criticized Eliade's key proposition that there is an irreducible "religious" way of being in the world possessing an essential structure. For Smith this proposition can only be regarded as residually theological, and he prefers instead to view sacred as a term used in the construction and discovery of worlds of meaning. For someone like Smith, therefore, it is not obvious that there are readily available bridging concepts, invoking sacred "essences," which enable us to establish commonalities and affinities between the rituals and doctrines constitutive of the various religious traditions.

The above animadversions notwithstanding, the person interested in propounding a concept of liberation may find useful the general theory of the concept of salvation formulated by the sociologist Max Weber (18641920). A general theory of this kind, which will of course need to be mindful of the differences that exist among peoples, their communities, and their religious traditions, can link otherwise disparate phenomena into a general narrative that will be a useful complement to the more piecemeal ethnographies or phenomenologies of religious practice and conviction. (It is fairly clear, however, that a satisfactory account of the concept of liberation requires both this general theory and the more finely grained ethnographies and phenomenologies.) Liberation, like parallel concepts such as creation, human flourishing, providence, or cosmic harmony, has in some sense to function as a narrative that aspires to be a "story of everything." Weber's sociology of religion provides a pioneering overarching narrative of liberation, motivated by just this ambition to be a "story of everything" about "stories of everything" (or metanarrative, in other words).

Weber wanted to formulate a general theory for understanding the many different conceptions of religious salvation, and he employs the notion of an ideal-type to identify and describe aspects of the different religious traditions that for him embodied certain transhistorical and transcultural soteriological principles. The ideal-type is thus an analytical construct (Gedankenbilder) that enables its user to pinpoint and synthesize certain features of the phenomenal or historical world, and to form these events and observable processes into an abstraction that is then returned to the historical and empirical world to furnish interpretations of it. Weber harnesses the tool of the ideal-type to a comparative mythology of salvation to formulate a number of interlinked typologies that furnish some important theses about salvation in the different religions.

The resultant Weberian theory of salvation, his meta-narrative, hinges on a number of distinctions that have become standard in the sociology of religion. It exploits important distinctions between religions that understand salvation in terms requiring or positing the necessary agency of supernatural beings (such as the so-called Abrahamic religions), and those that do not (such as early Buddhism); between ways to salvation based on the satisfaction of "ethical demands" and others based on "pure faith"; between a salvation premised on a "world-renouncing asceticism" (weltablehnende Askese) and one resulting from "this-worldly asceticism" (innerweltliche Askese); between "contemplative" and "active" religious methods; and so on. These divisions are then further complicated, as when Weber distinguishes between schemas that involve a "salvation from" and those that embody a "salvation [attained] for"examples of the former being "liberation from the machinery of Satan" or "liberation from the wheels of kharma causality," and examples of the latter being "salvation [attained] for the eternal rest that is nirvana " or "salvation [attained] for the bliss that is heaven."

As was the case with Mircea Eliade, critics soon made the point that these Weberian formulations are not as innocently "ideal-typical" as Weber himself took them to be. Thus, his important demarcation between "pure faith" and "ethical demands" (or "works") is palpably influenced by a post-Reformation version of Christianity. This being so, the application of these schemas to the soteriological systems of non-Christian religions will probably traduce or distort the latterWeber, for instance, saw no problems with the distinctions he made between "the divine," "the human," and "the world," and in this respect he resembles Eliade. For all these weaknesses, Weber's sociology of salvation is the first notable attempt to systematize the affirmations made by the various religious traditions about the means by which salvation is attained, the states associated with its attainment, and the powers and figures deemed to be responsible for this attainment. He was a pioneer when it came to systematizing, at the level of a wide generality, the various dispositions toward "the world" that underlie the different religions. This is an essential undertaking for any theorist of liberation. Especially important here is Weber's assertion that the fundamental motivation behind the various conceptions of liberation is the pressing need to find a solution to the "problem" of the world, since the desire of the seeker of liberation pivots on the quest for a resolution of the predicaments posed by a basic recalcitrance of the world. Liberation is thus glossed as liberation from some unsatisfactory state of the world, and this principle becomes an axiom for the theory or higher-order narrative of salvation.

Liberation, therefore, is inextricably bound-up with the lineaments of a certain structure of desirenamely, the desire to surmount, bypass, or mitigate a fundamentally unsatisfactory state of being, whether it happens to be individual or collective or both. Liberation can then be glossed as a concept intrinsically linked to that desire (and this includes the desire for the ending of all desire). For this reason, liberation as a concept has to be understood by delineating the structures and functions of this elemental desire, its nomenclatures, its conditions, its consequences, its practical ramifications for those who are followers and believers. The constitution of the world as a place where meaning and value are to be discovered and interpreted can only be approached theoretically through an analysis of this primordial desire. As a result of this axiomatic principle, an ethics of liberation has to depend on the human powers that subtend this desire (though it is of course possible for the devout to locate the source of this desire in some supernatural figure or power); and reflection on liberation will, in turn, rest on an ontology that elucidates the various conceptual amplifications of this primal desire. It will take this ethics to be the outcome of a disciplined reflection focused on this prior and enabling knowledge of desire. This ontology of human constitutive power will specify what it is that the configurations of desire that happen to go by the name of the "human" can accomplish, what their repulsions and attractions are capable of, and this will include those impulses that gesture towards what is seemingly beyond the compass of all that is currently taken to constitute "the human." The great philosophical projectsand here Aristotle's Metaphysics, Barukh Spinoza's Ethics, G. W. F. Hegel's Phenomenology, Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality, Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus come to mind as exemplary instancesundertake this ontological task that is a necessary first step in developing the ethics of liberation.

The problematic of the relation between transcendence and the doctrines of immanence which picture consciousness either as existing solely within the self or as being part of a universal wholeis thus central to reflection on the project of liberation, a project that may or may not go by the name of "religion" or be associated with religion's appurtenances. For religions in their very nature provide for their adherents the figuration of an ontology of the kind mentioned above. Religious traditions with a soteriological dimension, it is easy to see, purport not only to provide a path towards liberation, but also seek to account for the origin or ground of this very desire to find such a path. Soteriologies are thus mechanisms for producing truth or "true ways" for those who adhere to them. Axiomatic for these mechanisms is the notion that to be liberated is to have found the true way, whether this finding is attributed to an external agent or is depicted as the individual achievement of the religious person. Can a religion really do without a basis in some kind of transcendence, can it be wholly and unreservedly immanent, and can an uncompromising immanence form the core of a project of liberation? These are the crucial questions for an ethics of liberation. Necessary here is a distinction between the transcendent (that which transcends all subjects and objects) and the transcendental field (which is a nontranscendent that accounts for the possibility of immanence itself). Liberation's ontological script could be one that occupies a transcendental field without making any appeal to a transcendent being or power. This would be the perspective of a Spinoza, Heidegger, or Deleuze. We cannot be sure that such an ontological script would be compatible with the religions of the Abrahamic traditions for instance, since these seem irreducibly to be wedded to an ontology of the transcendent. But the possibility of these religions being able to incorporate an ontology of unqualified immanence is one that cannot be ruled-out tout court. Or it may be that we cannot, after all, obviate the transcendent, despite what Spinoza, Heidegger, Deleuze, and others have argued for, in which case the ontological preeminence of the religious transcendent is guaranteed. If this were the case, then it and only it can be the foundation of liberation.


It is virtually impossible in a brief bibliography to do full justice to the range of fields that have to be covered in an adequate treatment of the concept of liberation: the history of religions, comparative religion, hermeneutics, the history of ideas, cultural anthropology, philosophy, theology and other doctrinal studies, psychology, sociology, and political theory. The following have been useful in producing this entry, which of course represents a primarily philosophical and hermeneutical approach to the concept of liberation that needs to be complemented by studies in other intellectual fields.

Numerous works convey the hermeneutical difficulties in matching later or contemporary interpretations to earlier practices and doctrines. Robert Sharf's "Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience," Numen 42 (1995): 228283, has been used here, but a dozen other works can easily be cited. For an understanding of religion that accords broadly with this hermeneutical approach, see Jonathan Z. Smith's To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago, 1987). Max Weber's general theory of salvation is to be found in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (Tübingen, Germany, 1922), translated by Ephraim Fischoff as The Sociology of Religion (Boston, 1963). A fuller version of the position developed here is to be found in Kenneth Surin's "Liberation," in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor, pp. 173185 (Chicago, 1998).

Kenneth Surin (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


Liberation is a central religious notion both in South Asian religious traditions and in contemporary Christian theology, but in what way are South Asian meanings of liberation (mok ' a, mukti, nirv ̣na ) comparable to liberation as understood by contemporary Christian theologians? This entry will highlight significant differences regarding the meanings of liberation across traditions, then draw conclusions about the meaning of those differences for how each tradition engages the sciences. The discussion will focus on those traditions that seem most philosophically unlike Western religious traditions, namely the nondualism of Advaita Ved̄nta (constituted as a school by the eighth-century theologian, Śaṇkara) and Buddhism, particularly the Madhyamaka tradition (inaugurated by first-century c.e. Buddhist philosopher Nágárjuna).

South Asian traditions, although they have typically maintained that all sentient beings are in bondage, have traditionally been anthropocentric in focus. Even if all beings are in bondage, it is primarily human beings who can be liberated. Moreover, only individual human beings, not communities, are liberated from the cycle of transmigration. Human bondage is rarely construed in sociopolitical terms. Liberation is understood largely as a matter of freedom from afflictions of the heart and ignorance of the mind, the root causes of bondage to the process of rebirth. Liberation from craving, ignorance, and delusion (the three poisons in Buddhism and also in Śaṇkara's Advaita) does lead to more compassionate living, but the essential locus of transformation is the person.

Until contemporary attention to ecological matters transformed Western religious thinking, Western traditions have also been anthropocentric in character. And, like South Asian traditions, the religious goal has most often been understood as salvation for individual human beings. Salvation was understood as healing, as a reunion with God that brings about the reintegration of the divided self and reconciliation with neighbor. A comparison that focused on salvation as healing would find important similarities with the South Asian goal to be free from craving, ignorance, and delusion.

However, for nearly the entire history of Western monotheism, the predicament from which one needs to escape has always included a sociopolitical component, even when that component has been muted by the quest for personal salvation. The sociopolitical character of Western religious anthropologies has meant that communities qua communities, and not just individual persons, can and must be healed. Communal healing requires doing justice. Doing justice in turn has concretely meant the liberation of persons from oppressive socioeconomic and political structures that disfigure human flourishing. This is the meaning of liberation that finds vital expression in contemporary Christian liberation theology.

Here, communities are liberated and their collective well-being is the focus. Liberation is not construed as individual escape from the threat of an otherworldly judgment but freedom from a this-worldly hell. This particular kind of communal liberation is not commonly found in South Asian religious reflection. The compassionate presence of liberated individuals can and does have social and political consequences, but groups and communities are not liberated in their collectivity. This deep difference has important ramifications for thinking about the scientific implications of the notion of liberation in Western and South Asian thought.

The human predicament in South Asian religions

The human predicament in South Asian religions is construed as bondage to a beginningless process of rebirth. That process is fueled by karma, which generates consequences for all human actions, consequences that exert their presence across multiple lifetimes. That law-like process is driven by some fundamental affective cause, usually described as craving. Craving leads persons to act, and action in turn generates the consequences that insure rebirth.

But craving itself is analyzed as deriving from a cognitive factor, namely ignorance. What exactly one is ignorant of depends on the specific tradition in question. Ignorance is always the failure to know or realize what each tradition takes to be ultimately true. For example, whereas Advaita Vedántins argue that persons are ignorant of their true, infinite, and unchanging Self (anātman ), South Asian Buddhist schools concur in arguing that ignorance consists in entertaining the very idea of any substantial, enduring or permanent self (anātman ).

This analysis of the root causes of transmigration indicates yet another meaning of liberation in South Asian traditions. Liberation is not understood merely as a post-mortem escape from the cycle of rebirth. Liberation is also the cessation of ignorance and the elimination of the three poisons in and through which ignorance is expressed and perpetuated.

Action, karma, craving, and ignorance are all crucial links in a complex chain of causes and conditions that extend over multiple lifetimes by which the process of transmigration operates. The Buddhist term for this complex cycle of causes and conditions (hetupratyaya ) is pratitya-samutp āda, best translated as "dependent co-origination." Buddhist and Hindu reflection on liberation focuses precisely on those cognitive, affective, volitional tendencies that generate karma because the cycles can be interrupted precisely at these points. But the vision of complex causality and interdependence evinced in the chain of links that both perpetuates and is the process and reality of transmigration is worthy of attention to those interested in the implications of Hindu and especially Buddhist thinking about science.

Despite radical disagreements about the object of ignorance, these traditions do agree that "ignorance" does not refer to matters of everyday experience. There are all sorts of things that an enlightened person may not know about the empirical world which do not imperil liberation. Because liberating knowledge is knowledge about ultimate matters and not conventional ones, religious knowledge is not contingent on, nor does it need to control, what counts as knowledge in conventional matters. Cosmology or quantum mechanics, theories about how the world works, either at the macroscopic or the subatomic realm, are not directly relevant to liberating knowledge. There is, therefore, the possibility of a comprehensively hands-off attitude about scientific ventures. The working and operation of the world are matters of conventional truth (vyavah āra satya ).

The term "ignorance" refers to the failure to apprehend the ultimate truth (param ārtha satya ) about the underlying nature of reality, about the being of things and not about how things work. A radical distinction is made between the operation of the world as it is ordinarily experienced and the ultimate truth about the being of things, even if, as it turns out later, these two perspectives turn out to be profoundly interrelated, as is the case in the Madhyamaka Buddhism of Nāgārjuna.

Ultimate truth and scientific truth: South Asian approaches

The possibility of radically severing religious truth from conventional truths that are the objects of scientific inquiry is far easier for Hindu nondualists than Buddhist nondualists. For the classical Hindu Advaitins like Śaṇkara, the empirical world, the experienced world, is not ultimately real. Nothing given in experience endures. It is intrinsically impermanent and doomed to perish.

The fleeting realities of everyday experience need a basis, a substratum, apart from which they would not be. That basis or substratum itself is free from change, beyond temporality, indivisible, self-identical, and intrinsically real. Because it is free from fragility, it is radically transcendent, but because it is the being of all things, it is also radically immanent as the ground and basis of the conventional world of experience. This reality is pure being (sat ) and is known as brahman. Only this underlying reality is truly real and thus this tradition qualifies as nondualistic. From the point of view of persons, liberation consists in coming to know that one is in truth this ultimate reality and not the finite self of ordinary experience.

The Buddhist nondualism of Nāgārjuna is strikingly different from Advaita Vedanta. Nāgārjuna's nondualism is a radical reinterpretation of early Buddhist insights regarding the impermanent dependent co-arising of things. Nāgārjuna argues that the pluralistic view of reality in which each thing is a stream or a flow of momentary arisings does not represent the deepest truth taught by the Buddha. The ultimate truth taught by the Buddha is to be found in the affirmation that everything arises in dependence on the causes and conditions that give it rise. If everything arises through the causes and conditions that give it rise, then no thing has any intrinsic being or self-existence (svabhāva ). Indeed, if anything did possess intrinsic being that did not arise dependently on causes and conditions, it would be unconditioned and therefore eternal. But no such things are given in experience. Nothing, in that sense, exists. Thus, the fundamental notion at the heart of Nāgārjuna's system is emptiness (śūnyatā ), the affirmation that all is empty of self-existence.

Buddhist nondualism of Nāgārjuna's variety is different from the Hindu nondualism of Śan̅kara. Nāgārjuna's nondualism does not affirm a single nondual reality that lies beneath the unreal world of experience. Rather, Nāgārjuna's nondualism argues that conventional reality is nondual because it is fundamentally interrelated or relational. The reifying conceptual processes that lead one to believe that reality is thing-like, composed of a plurality of unrelated entities, is produced by craving and ignorance. Liberation here means removing those affective and cognitive afflictions that obscure persons from understanding the interrelatedness of all reality.

The implications of these two different kinds of nondualism for the relationship between science and religion are intriguing. Nondualist Hindus are freer to say that religion and science are unrelated and independent ventures because religious persons seek to know the infinite reality of brahman that undergirds all things but is itself beyond all particulars. Scientists are free to pursue their own investigations as are the religious because both attend to different dimensions of reality. Science explores conventionality but religion inquires about the ultimate truth of brahman. In the terms used by the philosopher Harold H. Oliver (1984), it is possible to read Advaitins as subscribing to a "compartment theory" of the relationship between religious and scientific truth because each has for its object a different "domain."

Unlike Advaitins, Buddhist nondualists of Nāgārjuna's variety cannot say that science and religion are inquiring about different domains. For Madhyamaka, there is no ultimate reality that lies beneath the conventional realm. Ultimate truth is simply seeing that everything conventional is empty of own-being. Emptiness is not an ultimate reality behind the world of phenomena. Thus science and religion must be two "complementary" ways of interrogating the same domain of conventional experience.

Buddhist nondualists, therefore, can more strongly expect that scientific knowledge should disclose that the world of experience is fundamentally relational. Just how and where this relationality will show itself is not the concern of Buddhist thinkers, although Buddhists do point to the strong parallels between Madhyamaka Buddhism and quantum mechanics. At a still deeper level, Buddhist thinkers can be suspicious of scientific models that imagine reality to be particulate, composite, and unrelated. Such models cannot falsify Buddhist intuitions because Buddhists maintain that spiritual transformation is required before persons are capable of experiencing reality as radically relational. Scientists are not themselves committed to these technologies of transformation but rather to technologies of experimentation. Consequently, Buddhists can have robust expectations about what the sciences are likely to discover and can celebrate those discoveries that seem consonant with Buddhist intuitions, but they need not predict or control scientific research.

Ultimate truth and scientific truth: comparative judgments

Christian liberation theologians and others committed to particular conceptions of the just social order called for by God may be constrained to be more intrusive in their stance towards the sciences, especially the social sciences. Such intrusion need not be supernaturalistic or irrational in character. For liberation theologians, scientific theories that mandate the inevitability of economic disparity are morally and theologically suspect, as are visions of the social order that suggest that coercion and hierarchy are unavoidable. Because such visions imply that a just, equitable, and free social ordering is impossible, they render liberation impossible, thus contradicting what the God of justice requires. Such prima facie contradictions can lead theologians to maintain that the science in question is pseudo-science or that unwarranted conclusions have been drawn from data capable of being otherwise interpreted.

The natural sciences are also suspect insofar as they suggest that human beings do not have the freedom or capacity to structure personal and social life in just and compassionate ways. Thus, if evolutionary biology or behavioral psychology is employed to undercut theological commitments to visions of full human flourishing, such scientific claims are subject to critical scrutiny and suspicion. It is safe to assume that Christian theologians of liberation are in general more likely than Buddhists to question the putatively authoritative discoveries of natural or social science. This possibility suggests that such theologians allow for what Oliver would call a "conflict theory" model of the relationship between religion and science, rather than a compartment or complementarity model, because both modes of inquiry are making incompatible claims about the same domain of experience in the same respect.

These differing approaches to liberation seem to be intimately tied to each tradition's understanding of ultimate reality. Hindus can, in principle, maintain that the quest for liberation can be radically independent and non-intrusive about matters scientific. Christian claims about liberation, on the other hand, are not about a transcendent reality that is unrelated to conventional reality (as brahman is). The possibility of conflict between what is theologically required and what the sciences indicate cannot be overlooked.

For Buddhist thinkers, liberation is understood primarily as the transforming insight that enables one to recognize the radically relational character of reality, a recognition that generates compassion. While the emphasis on compassion is shared across traditions, Christian understandings of liberation are intimately connected to reordering contingent economic and sociopolitical structures so that communities can be freed from oppressive ideologies and structures. A wholly irenic relationship with the natural and social sciences seems unlikely when liberation is so understood. It would appear that Madhyamaka (the Middle School) Buddhists truly do hold the middle ground between Advaitins and Christian liberationists. Although M?dhyamika Buddhists can expect and commend discoveries that confirm their own relational intuitions, they are not compelled to critique the results of particular scientific ventures.

See also Buddhism; Hinduism; Karma; Liberation Theology; Transmigration


balasubramaniam, arun. "explaining strange parallels: the case of quantum mechanics and mādhyamika buddhism." international philosophical quarterly 32, no. 2 (1992): 205-223.

garfield, jay l., trans. the fundamental wisdom of the middle way: nāgārjuna's mūlamadhyamakakārikā. new york: oxford university press, 1995.

gutierrez, gustavo. a theology of liberation: history, politics and salvation. maryknoll, n.y.: orbis, 1988.

mansfield, victor. "mādhyamika buddhism and quantum mechanics: beginning a dialogue." international philosophical quarterly 29, no. 16 (1989): 371-391.

mayeda, sengaku, trans. a thousand teachings: the upadeśasāhasrā of śaṇkara. albany: state university of new york press, 1992.

neville, robert c., ed. the human condition: a volume in the comparative religious ideas project. albany: state university of new york press, 2001.

oliver, harold h. "the complementarity of theology and cosmology." in relatedness: essays in metaphysics and cosmology. macon, ga.: mercer university press, 1984.

puligandla, ramakrishna. "science, philosophy, and religion: quest for a unitary vision." in reality and mysticism: perspectives in the upaniṣads. new delhi, india: d.k. printworld, 1997.

thatamanil, john. "nonduality and ecstasy: śaṇkaraand tillich on theological anthropology." ph.d. diss., boston university, 2000.

john j. thatamanil

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic