Moksha (Sanskrit for “liberation”) is the highest goal of life in the Hindu religion. Also known as mukti (release), moksha refers to the sumum bonum of Hindu thought in which one’s soul is freed from the karmic suffering of the samsaric world. In higher Hindu philosophy, it is seen as a transcendence of phenomenal being, and an escape from all limitations entailed in embodied worldly existence, including any sense of consciousness of time, space, and causation (karma). It signifies the dissolution of the sense of self as an egoistic personality—the undoing of conditioned mentality-materiality or nama-rupa (name-form). During moksha, one allegedly gains self-realization and complete awareness of ultimate reality.
Hinduism provides a number of spiritual paths for a practitioner to attain moksha, allowing such diversity for various types of people. However, it is said that the attainment of moksha is very rare and countless reincarnations are required for a person to reach this state of spiritual perfection. Some Hindu schools restrict the attainment of moksha to males only, while others claim that moksha is available to anyone who demonstrates the requisite effort and/or devotion. In some ways the Hindu concept of moksha resembles the Christian idea of salvation but the two concepts are incommensurate because they are based on different underlying presuppositions about reality.
While early Vedic Hinduism was primarily centered on maintaining order in this world through sacrificial offerings to the gods, a shift away from this practice occurred around the time of the Upanishads (c. 600 C.E.) with the focus turning inward toward the goal of attaining personal liberation. The Upanishads taught that the true self (atman) could be released from suffering when it realizes its intrinsic oneness with Brahman. Whereas the early Vedas dwelt on worldly-affairs in relation to the devas (gods) offering no permanent changes of a metaphysical or psychological nature, the Upanishads encouraged inner sacrifice and abstract introspection. The philosophical Upanishads claimed to lead adherents to advanced states of consciousness, and great important was placed on knowledge (jnana) as a path to ultimate liberation.
Paralleling these developments in Indian thought, was the emergence of the doctrines of karma and samsāra, championed by the Buddhists and Jains, which also facilitated the rise of the concept of moksha. Eventually, these three ideas became inextricably linked. The prospect of an endless chain of births, deaths and rebirths motivated Hindu religious thinkers to formulate some means by which to escape this cycle and find spiritual emancipation.
The Upanishads established moksha as the ultimate goal of all Hindu religious activity, and this idea continued to influence nearly all forms of later Hinduism. Eventually, the concept of moksha became widely acknowledged as one of the four Vedic aims of life, or parusarthas, discussed below.
The Four Aims of Life (Purusarthas)
In classical Hinduism, higher-caste Hindus were encouraged to follow four aims of life known as the (purusarthas). These four aims consisted of wealth (artha), pleasure (kama), right conduct (dharma), and liberation (moksha). They were usually understood in hierarchal fashion with the practitioner working upward from the lower more self-centered goals towards the higher spiritual goals of life. The first and second aims allow for pursuits such as material wealth and are most commonly associated with what is known as the householder stage of life. However, higher still is the goal of dharma (right conduct) that is considered to be a precursor to the pursuit of spiritual liberation. Finally, a Hindu can seek the highest goal of moksha (liberation) if one so wishes. The Hindu texts instruct that one should pursue this goal when one has retired, or when one becomes a sanyassin (renunciate), one who is wholly devoted to attaining liberation.
Pathways to Moksha
Unlike other world religions that teach that the path to salvation is narrow, Hinduism allows for a multiplicity of ways to attain moksha depending on the personalities, tastes, and temperaments of its different devotees. In general, four different spiritual paths are widely accepted in Hinduism. They are the ways of selfless work (Karma Yoga), of self-dissolving love (Bhakti Yoga), of absolute discernment (Jnana Yoga), and of ‘royal’ meditative immersion (Raja Yoga). The paths are not generally seen as mutually exclusive but complimentary. Different schools of Hinduism place varying emphasis on one path or another. These paths are summarized as follows:
- Karma marga offers someone seeking liberation a way of ethical works allowing the person to remain within society instead of becoming a renunciation, while also cultivating qualities important in the achievement of salvation. In this path, one acts for the good of society while pursuing spiritual progress and adhering to standards of correct action.
- Jnana marga is known as the path of wisdom, and places much emphasis on study and pursuit of knowledge. This includes the study of philosophy, and more specifically philosophies that address Brahman and one’s connection to the Supreme. In this path, self-realization (Atma siddhi/Atmavidya) is the key to obtaining moksha.
- Bhakti marga, or devotion, is the most common path in Hinduism today. Bhakti involves cultivating a very personal connection to the divine through a conduit, found in the form of a deity. This path was popularized in part by Ramanuja of the Vishishtadvaita Vedanta philosophical school that advocated a more personal relationship with the divine. Bhakti typically includes devotional worship of a chosen deity, and the expression of single-minded love. Some of the most popular deities in Hinduism include Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesha, or Devi (the Mother Goddess). It is often said that Hindu deities are but one manifestation or expression of this universal and all-encompassing force of Brahman.
The main philosophical schools of India each have different views on the subject of moksha, which can be seen from the brief survey below:
- The famous orthodox school of Vedanta contains many subschools each with different interpretations of moksha. For example, Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta school advocates a non-dualistic approach wherein liberation is described as essentially being, knowing, and experiencing one’s true self (atman) as non-different from Brahman. Moksha is seen as a final release from one’s worldly conception of self, the loosening of the shackle of experiential duality and a re-establishment in one’s own fundamental nature, though the nature is seen as ineffable and beyond sensation. In achieving moksha, the Atman remains as it always was, except that it now is perceived in its true form.
- Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta school promoted qualified non-dualism. While Brahman is still the ultimate underlying force residing in all things, it is qualified by three attributes: the soul (cit), matter (acit), and God (Isvara). By acknowledging Isvara as being a legitimate part of Brahman, it makes it much easier for people to connect with the divine on a personal level, and attain liberation. This devotional theism is the defining characteristic of Vishishtadvaita School and its development helped popularize the practice of bhakti, or devotional Hinduism. The concept of moksha in Vishishtadvaita School is one that reflects a highly theistic approach, as the liberated soul maintains a personal relationship with God after having attained moksha instead of experiencing a separation from all other things. In contrast to Shankara’s Vedanta school, moksha can be attained only by the grace of god alone, not purely by self-effort; hence devotion to God is very important in Ramanujas school. Additionally, Ramanuja also taught that anyone could attain moksha, salvation was not limited purely to male members of the priestly caste.
- Another Vedanta school known as Dvaita Vedanta was founded by Madhva, which taught that reality is dualistic. According to Madhva, the material world is completely separate from God, and therefore moksha is attained by achieving awareness of the distinction between self and divine, not the unity between the two. Brahman reveals itself to beings through the means of a personal form of God; therefore the Dvaita school is theistic in nature. Like in the Vishishtadvaita school, continuous devotion is essential to attaining moksha. This state of moksha is characterized as blissful and complete devotional surrender to God, as well as the retention of ones individual nature. In dualist and qualified advaitic Hinduism, Moksha means union or close association with God.
- Another school of Indian philosophy known as Samkhya is also dualistic and describes reality as consisting of the material world and spiritual world in tension. It teaches that human souls are entangled with matter, and to achieve liberation humans must be able to discern between the two and separate our spirit (purusha) from the material realm (prakrti). The Raja Yoga school echoes this perspective. The goal of yoga is to harness or control one’s thoughts and mental fluctuations so that one can discriminate between the true self (Purusha) and matter (prakrti). The eighth limb (stage) of Raja Yoga is that of samadhi, which is attaining absorption into the divine. At this stage one is unaware of any sense of individuality or self, having sunk so deeply into meditative contemplation. When the state of samadhi is attained, all karmic forces are halted, and the purusha is left alone, free of prakrti. The one who has attained liberation may then continue with their life and assist others in achieving spiritual goals, but will do so with an enlightened frame of mind that is unencumbered by the entanglements of prakrti, and therefore has realization of their true identity.
Several theological and philosophical controversies have arisen in Hinduism in regards to the topic of moksha. There are at least three important issues that have been debated:
First, there is some disagreement over whether an enlightened being, one who has achieved moksha (known as a jivan mukti), is above the law of the land as s/he has allegedly transcended all dualisms. According to Hinduism, some gurus who have achieved liberation while still alive and possessing a physical body have then acted in “strange” ways from the perspective of everyday life. Are the actions of gurus justified given that they have moved beyond ethical and moral dualisms?
Second, various philosophical schools of Vedanta disagree over the question of whether moksha involves the complete merging into Brahman and the obliteration of one’s identity in a sea of non-duality, or if it means uniting with the divine but retaining a distinct identity.
Third, it is unclear whether moksha means forsaking the world or staying engaged in the world to help others. Critics have declared that social-service is contradictory to the non-duality of moksha, which seemingly requires complete detachment from all matter. Yet, moksha has also been understood as favorable to social service due to heightened awareness of cosmic oneness and interconnectedness.
In conclusion, the concept of moksha as liberation from rebirth is a constant and widely accepted goal in nearly all-Indian systems of belief. It is also a concept heavily entwined with philosophical matters and questions about the nature of reality, the divine, and salvation, and the human relation to each of these. While the Hindu philosophical schools have different ideas on how moksha may be achieved, they agree that freedom from suffering is the ultimate goal of life.