In this post, I would like to clarify the most common misconceptions about Moksha viz. that there are different paths to mokṣaḥ, and every spiritual seeker chooses one own path to it. I also want to clarify what Mokṣaḥ really means because if one doesn’t understand Mokṣaḥ, one can never truly aim for it. One must first understand the nature of one’s bondage, acknowledge that one is indeed bound and only then can one truly aspire for freedom.
For this, we first need to understand the term Mokṣaḥ. Let’s get definitions out of the way. Simply put mokṣaḥ means freedom from limitation. Think of everything that makes us feel we are a limited, inadequate, incomplete, wanting, lacking, desiring person- this everything is our ignorance or misunderstanding or misconception and it mainly arises from our identification with this body-sense-mind complex that we think we are. The only thing that can free us from this ignorance is the right understanding, right self-knowledge.
The freedom from this ignorance-born erroneous identification with the body and mind is mokṣaḥ. Mokṣaḥ is freedom from emotional dependence; freedom from being a wanting person. That’s why Mokṣaḥ is also known as parama-śreyaḥ, most exalted wellness.
Mokṣaḥ is freedom from saṃsāraḥ, the beginningless, endless cycle of births and deaths. How? The freedom that is mokṣaḥ is freedom from self-ignorance and ignorance that leads to misperception of both oneself and the world. These misperceptions result in misconceptions that often evoke misplaced emotional responses in the form of unease or distress (including jealousy, anger, depression, fear, anxiety, regret, etc.) too often resulting in inappropriate action and sorrow. All such unfortunate responses leave a residue of unfinished business that perpetuates the cycle of emotionally driven problems known as saṃsāraḥ, a cycle that is never-ending until broken by correct knowledge and understanding of oneself and the world.
While identified with the mind, ātmā appears to be the experiencer of varying vṛttis, thought forms, whereas, in mokṣaḥ, ātmā is known to be distinct from every vṛttiḥ. In mokṣaḥ, ātmā is known to be the free, unsullied substratum of each and every vṛttiḥ, no matter the state of mind. In mokṣaḥ, ātmā is known to be the invariable consciousness in every (variable) cognition – pratibodha viditam matam (Kena 2.4). This means, consciousness is experienced in every experience, but, crucially, not as an object of experience! Consciousness is experienced as the invariable, unsullied presence in all experiences.
Mokṣaḥ is accomplishable only through self-knowledge or Ātmā-jnanam. There are no different paths; just one: Ātmā Jnanam. Krishna in Bhagavad Gita provides Arjuna with this Ātmā-jnanam upfront in the form of several beautiful verses in the 2nd chapter itself. But this was simply knowledge for Arjuna, it wasn’t assimilated, absorbed and turned into understanding. An unprepared mind cannot assimilate Ātmā Jnanam. All the disciplines enumerated in the Gita help to only prepare the mind to receive this teaching. Karma yoga makes one ethical, resilient to the ups and downs of life and builds emotional intelligence. It includes cultivating bhakti or reverence towards this existence, towards nature, towards fellow beings, towards paramatma or divinity is all of us. Disciplines or systems composed of yamaḥ or prohibitions, niyamaḥ or injunctions, āsanam or posture, prāṇāyāmaḥ, or breathing exercises, pratyāhāraḥ or sense control and dhāraṇā, concentration are all preparatory steps towards disciplining the body and mind. Upasana or worship helps remove the ‘impurities’ of mind viz. restlessness, agitation and extroverted-ness. Dhyana helps the mind to focus, to remove itself from cravings, and contemplate the truth of Ātmā. Thus, turning knowledge into understanding is the journey of spirituality, the journey towards ultimate freedom, Mokṣaḥ. Krishna is not serving Arjuna a menu of this yoga and that yoga and asking him to pick whatever he wants to enjoy. He is describing one path, to one truth, to one freedom all along.
This freedom is already present in all of us, but covered by ignorance. Self -understanding or gaining self-knowledge itself means taking ownership of that freedom that is already one’s own essential nature. It is the accomplishment of the already accomplished. Moksha is not an achievement like you achieve a promotion at work. Neither is it an event that occurs at a point of time like your 50th Birthday because everything that begins also ends. Also mokṣaḥ is a process of becoming something like becoming an mountain biker or becoming rich. Mokṣaḥ is simply the uncovering of the understanding of your true identity, which you already are. It is an ever-existent fact that simply needs to be recognised as such. The freedom that comes from this deep understanding, this Darshana, is moksha. This mokṣaḥ is already our true nature. All spiritual efforts simply need to uncover this true nature, so that we are able to own up to this nature fully.
Mokṣaḥ is not mokṣaḥ unless known in the waking state, jāgrad-avasthā. Krishna calls one who has attained Moksha while living , a jīvan-muktaḥ in the Gita. A jīvan-muktaḥ is one liberated from apparent individuality (from ‘jīva-hood’); free while living. This freedom is known through śravaṇam, clarified through mananam and confirmed through nididhyāsanam. His or her knowledge of being free is clear and unshakeable, with happiness and peace that are continuous and that cannot be overshadowed. Although the world continues to be experienced, he or she is undisturbed by it, knowing it to be mithyā. Knowing that ahaṅkāraḥ and mamakāraḥ are ātmā alone, both remain merely notional and are used only for transacting with the world. Having no guilt or regrets about the past, nor anxieties about the future, the present is met with dispassion while ever remaining even-minded. There is complete freedom from ‘becoming’, and hence from saṃsāraḥ.
So, if we understand Mokṣaḥ correctly, we can see clearly that it can come only by deep understanding of our true nature, by Ātmā Jnanam. It does not matter in which language or in which cultural setting this self-understanding comes to you. This is the only path to Moksha.