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  • Writer's pictureJitendra Savanur

Mukti Redefined

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Suffering the pangs of material struggle, we all yearn for respite. The Vedas talk about four purusharthas or human objectives: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. By performing our dharma (religious duties), we gain artha (valuable assets), using which we fulfil our aspirations (kama). However, desire or kama is such that it can never be fulfilled by material pursuits of pleasure. Thus, when the soul is frustrated in the dharma-artha-kama cycle, he starts working for moksha, also known as mukti, or liberation from material existence. The soul in the material world is likened to a fish taken out of water. Despite offering the best comforts to the fish outside the water, the fish can never be satisfied, because it is not situated in its original position. Similarly, despite all the material comforts that man enjoys, he is never satiated and is always looking for more.

For many spiritualists, liberation or moksha means a cessation of all activities and merging into a formless existence of the Supreme, known as Brahman. Called as impersonalists, this class of spiritualists posit that the Absolute Truth is a formless entity and liberation is when the soul gives up his struggle in the material sphere and becomes one for the atoms of the formless Absolute. And this material world, which is the arena for the soul’s struggle is ultimately an illusion which has to be given up. Thus, a preliminary aspect of a spiritualist endeavoring on the impersonal path is the renunciation of all material activities, the reason being that you cannot remain in illusion (of material activity) and at the same time endeavor to get out of it. Thereafter, such a spiritualist engages in the cultivation of knowledge (jnana) coupled with philosophical speculation. This jnana, which is cultivated through the study of Vedanta and Upanishads, focuses primarily on the premise that this world is an illusion and only Brahman is reality. The success on this path, then, is when this illusion is completely given up and the jiva merges into Brahman. Krishna talks about the perfection of this type of spiritual endeavor in the Bhagavad Gita (18.54). He calls it the brahma bhuta stage, which is characterized by no lamentation (na śocati) and no desire (na kāṅkṣati) whatsoever.

However, even after attaining a state of oneness in the formless Absolute, the soul is not happy. The Vedic scriptures talk about many such spiritualists, who merged into the oneness of brahmajyoti, only to fall back to the material plane. The reason cited is: because the soul is primarily pleasure seeking, mere eternal existence is not what brings ultimate joy to the soul. So the question may be raised: if both material activity and merging into oneness devoid of material activity do not bring ultimate joy to us, then what will?

The answer is bhakti, or devotional service. Material activity can be likened to the negative axis on the number line. And impersonal liberation to zero. But there is also the positive axis, which is devotional service to the Supreme Lord with the awareness of the soul’s eternal relationship with Him. The Srimad Bhagavatam (2.10.6) gives this most complete definition of mukti, by stating ‘muktir hitvānyathā rūpaṁ sva-rūpeṇa vyavasthitiḥ.’ Mukti is when the soul is reinstated in his svarupa or original constitutional position. This constitutional position is the eternal relationship of the soul with God. And when the soul realizes his eternal relationship with God, far from inactivity, the soul is drawn towards actively serving God with love and devotion. Srila Prabhupada, therefore, aptly translated the meaning of the word ‘bhakti’ as devotional service and not mere devotion, to emphasize that the process of spiritual realization entails active service to the Supreme Lord, as opposed to mere armchair knowledge and speculation, which characterizes the path of impersonalism.

The Brihad Bhagavatamrta tells the story of an individual named Gopa Kumara, who, after attaining spiritual perfection, goes back to the spiritual planet of Goloka Vrindavan to be situated in his true identity as the eternal friend of Krishna. The spiritual planets, which are situated beyond Brahman effulgence of God, are free from the debilitating effect of time and the subsequent miseries, unlike in the material world, where the soul is constantly being tossed about in waves of duality. In the spiritual world, the center of everyone’s life is Krishna and everyone strives to serve Him through their actions.

Just like on the material plane, self-destructive actions cause misery and inactivity causes boredom, from the purview of spirituality, neither inactivity nor materially binding activities give pleasure to the soul. Thus, far from being desireless, real liberation is where our desires are correctly dovetailed in serving the Supreme. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (3.9),

yajñārthāt karmaṇo ’nyatra

loko ’yaṁ karma-bandhanaḥ

tad-arthaṁ karma kaunteya

mukta-saṅgaḥ samācara

“Work done as a sacrifice for Viṣṇu has to be performed; otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore, O son of Kuntī, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage.” Thus, we do not have to give up desire or action, we only have to spiritualize them. After all, isn’t the aspiration to be desireless a desire in itself?

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