The Brahma Sutras as a Moksha Shastra
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: The Sojourn of the Soul after Departing from the Body

The Brahma Sutras, as we have noted, is a moksha shastra. It is a scripture on the liberation of the soul. Since, as we have observed already, bondage of the soul consists in its involvement in the body, and the body is a formation of the five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether—and also because these elements are cosmically spread out everywhere, it would follow that bondage assumes a cosmic proportion. It is not sitting on the head of any particular individual. Everywhere there is bondage. Perhaps it is from this point of view that Buddha eagerly proclaimed again and again that the whole universe is a fluxation and a perishable phenomenon, with nothing subsisting and everything moving.

If this is the case, we are involved in a larger atmosphere of involvement and bondage in our own selves than we imagine, as is the usual condition of uneducated, unlettered, inexperienced individuals. We think that our body is a bondage, but actually the whole world is a bondage, and this is what we have to remember. The body is made up of the world substance. Wherever the world is, there the elements are, and the subtle potentials, called tanmatras, of these gross elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether impinge upon the soul due to its attachment, caused by various factors.

Liberation from bondage, therefore, is not an individual affair. Even the meditations that are prescribed in the Brahma Sutras on the basis of the statements of the Upanishads are not just exercising a thought somewhere in the corner of one’s brain; it is a cosmic affair. The whole world wakes up when a sincere aspirant of liberation commences meditation in right earnest. All the lions in the forest rise up as if some catastrophe is taking place in the forest, and start looking at things from all directions. Sleeping dogs wake up when meditation comes.

These are what are called the obstacles in meditation. A cosy friendship of the attachment of the soul to the condition of being enveloped by these five elements, and its affiliation to them, is something like when a person in prison gets accustomed to prison life and cannot think of any other way of living. Plato, in his Republic, refers to this kind of predicament of bound souls where he compares the individuals caught up in the ignorance of bondage to people who are locked up in a dark cave, and are chained to face a wall on which the rays of the Sun are being cast from outside. They cannot see the Sun and the activity behind them outside the cave, but they see the shadows moving on the wall, and they consider the shadows to be their own world of society. They cannot know that there is an archetype of individualities outside in the open sunlight. People walk about in the sunlight, cast their shadows on the wall, and those shadows are considered as the realities. This is the case with every person here. The shadows of movements, activities and performances in the world are taken for realities, while actually they are the reflections of certain originals that are in the high heaven which is illumined by the Sun of the supreme Idea of the Good, to put it in the language of Plato. All great people think alike; whether it is Plato or the Upanishads, it makes no difference.

Now, therefore, the Brahma Sutra, being a moksha shastra, is not concerned with any kind of slipshod and half-hearted program that one may follow in spiritual practice: “I shall do a little meditation, if it is possible, and I shall do a little more tomorrow.” These excuses will not cut ice considering the intensity of the suffering caused by the bondage due to the involvement of the soul in these elements.

When birth takes place in the form of this individual psychophysical organism, these elements rush towards this would-be formation and cling to the point of consciousness which we call the jiva. Like smoke, fog, and darkness, they envelope the soul, not allowing it to perceive anything beyond its own limitations. Throughout our life, these subtle potencies of elements stick to us more vehemently than our skin sticks to our own body. These elements, which constitute our personality, our sorrow, our bondage, and whatever we do, persist throughout our life and continue even after death. This embodiment of the five elements in the subtle form is known as the sukshma sharira, the subtle body, which includes the forces of the sense organs, the mind, intellect and will, as well as the pranas in their various operations. This is the actual person.

The person, so-called, is not what is seen in their identity card or photograph. The real person is something different from what we consider as the person, because the photo on the identity can be seen even after the death of the individual. We say that someone has departed. Nobody has departed, because we can see the same old person lying there without any sensation and consciousness. Who has departed, then? The person has departed. Who is that person? It is that person who has left this physical encasement. It is the subtle body of the five elements which is the real me, the real you, the real he, she, it; and it can never perish, it cannot die, it cannot change. It persists throughout space and for all time. It is there in deep sleep, it is there in swoon, it is there in birth, and it is there in death. This is our real friend. Who is our friend? We think the cause of our bondage, which we hug with great joy, is our friend. “Dear me, come.” This ‘dear me’ is going to harass us throughout this sojourn in time and space, and we shall have no peace of mind anywhere.

All this description in the Brahma Sutra is to awaken us to the fact of our true bondage, and we cannot take it very lightly. It is a serious matter, and nothing can be so serious as involvement of one’s own self in a bondage that cannot even be understood by the mind. It is very serious indeed. We cannot use a better word.

The liberation from this bondage, as I mentioned, consists in a togetherness of a spiritual power mustered in with great effort of concentration that exceeds the limit of mere psychological operation of the mind inside the brain. Mere thought, which is an empirical psychological operation, cannot touch Reality, is a point which Immanuel Kant made so prominent. Thought cannot touch Reality. But because thought is something which emanates from the bodily encasement, it is empirical, exteriorised, sense-bound, and is also bound by space and time, and any amount of thinking in a state of psychological bondage and submission to the five elements will not enable the soul to contact its own original Reality.

There is a transcendence which is the essence of freedom, and therefore the meditation that we practice should also assume a transcendent form. A mere half-hearted effort in the form of a little routine every day in a religious mood of church-going, temple-going, bell ringing, will not work. The problem is more serious than we can imagine in our mind. That a bound soul cannot know that it is bound is the worst of tragedies that one can imagine. That is the nature of samsara. Samsara is the binding force of ignorance, which will not permit even the knowledge that such a thing has taken place. We can imagine where we are standing.

The way of freedom in the spiritual sense consists in the meditations on the prescriptions given to us in the Upanishads, as we have it detailed further in the third chapter of the Brahma Sutra.

The karma potencies, which are the causes of the clinging of material elements to the soul, have to be taken care of very carefully. Why do these elements cling to us and get pulled towards the soul as iron filings towards the magnet? It is due to the karmas, vasanas or apurvas, as they are called in certain schools of thought, which have come upon the soul from various earlier incarnations. Bondage is from eternity to eternity. Nobody knows when it began, and is difficult to say when it will end.

Ordinary effort will not suffice. There are people who do good deeds, philanthropic acts, charity; they perform sacrifice, dig wells, plant trees, and give food to the poor. This is called, in the technical language of the Vedanta, ishtapurta. Ishta is the power generated by sacrifices of a religious nature, such as agnihotra, etc., and purta is the charitable deed, as I mentioned. These good deeds produce good effects, no doubt, but good effects will not suffice in the attainment of freedom or spiritual liberation. A good person will receive good rewards, but moksha is not a good reward; it is another thing altogether. Reaching heaven is the result of righteous and virtuous actions of the nature of charity, etc., and the world will pay us for all the sufferings we underwent in our good deeds. Every action that we perform will produce a reaction, and good deeds produce good reactions. So good are the reactions that they can propel us to heaven—Indraloka, and any other loka of that kind. But when the propelling engine becomes cool, gets exhausted by its operation, the soul that went to that heavenly region will be thrown back by the power of the gravitation of the Earth. Even a rocket can come down when its power to propel upward is exhausted. So good deeds alone are not enough, though we praise good deeds very much and nothing is greater than a good deed.

Now we are talking about the subject of the Brahma Sutra, which is not an ordinary scripture. There are people who do good deeds, and also do bad deeds. Those who perform very good deeds of an intensive nature will reap the fruits immediately. If our action is very intense, whether it is intensely good or intensely bad, it will produce its effect here itself. Sudden fortune may befall us. A windfall will be our blessing in a manner we cannot understand. How has a windfall suddenly come? It is because of the intense sacrifice and good deeds that we have performed. Intense suffering and catastrophe, death, can also take place if the deeds are very bad. Hell can descend here itself, and there is no need to go to some other hell. This is the case with intense good deeds and intense bad deeds. What about mild deeds? They will not manifest themselves in this birth because they have to give place for the intense ones. The ordinance of the universe seems to operate in such a way that mild deeds are not recompensed, and they lie in ambush as if they do not exist at all. They are like creditors of an intense nature or a mild nature. The mild deeds wait for the time for their manifestation, which may be even after three births, not necessarily in the next birth, because the actions are too mild to be able to manifest themselves in actual experience. This is about the result of karma, or action.

What is karma, actually? It is a reaction set up by the whole world in respect of any interference of its law. It is like a magnetic field revolting against the person going near it and giving a shock of such an intensity as is the nature of the interference and the distance one maintains from the magnetic field. Every action is an interference with the natural forces. It is an interference because nature has no egoism. It has no personality. It is an all-pervading, ubiquitous operation. Impersonal is the nature of cosmic operations, but everything that we do is intensely personal. So any personal action motivated by the egoism of an individual clashes immediately with the impersonal requirement of the ubiquitous nature, and a war takes place between the individual and the all-pervading nature. In this war, it is the individual who is defeated because the individual consciousness, the personality consciousness born of egoism, is untrue to the requirement of the cosmic ordinance.

The intensity with which a repulsion is created by cosmic nature because of the individual’s interference with that cosmic nature is called the nemesis of action or karma phala, the result of our deed. Otherwise, from where does the result follow? It does not drop from the trees. It manifests from all sides. It comes from all sides because nature is everywhere, from every side. So karma does not come from one direction, from the front or from behind; it is like a gale rising to the surface of violent movement, encircling everything and moving from all directions.

‘Karma’ is a much-misunderstood word, but truly it is a scientific, mathematically construed consequence of an interference of individual egoism with cosmic nature. This is the reason why a recompense follows which is suitable to the kind of interference which is unselfishly done in the form of charitable deeds, or selfishly done in the form of evil deeds. This is the story of the action of karma. Everybody is happy; everybody is unhappy. The so-called happiness arises on account of a pleasant reaction produced by the action of the individual in the field of universality, and on the other side is the unpleasant interference causing unpleasant experience. These people will not reach moksha, whether they are good people or bad people. Bad people will suffer more; good people will enjoy, but will revert once again to the original condition from where they rose up.

Then what is the way to moksha? The Brahma Sutra takes details from the Upanishads themselves. Moksha marga is described. The marga, or the path to moksha, implies a kind of movement, and movement is inconceivable without space and time. This spatiotemporal movement, which is also made possible in certain forms of the ascent of the spirit to the point of liberation, is due to our concept of God. This is something much higher than the good deeds that one performs. I am not touching the karma aspect at all; it is over. Now something higher is taken up, which is pure meditation. Meditation on our idea of God will tell upon what kind of experience we will have through these meditations. If our God is sitting somewhere, one kind of reaction follows. Or if He is the Super Person, the Supreme Purusha as it is described in the Purusha Sukta of the Veda, that concept of God produces another reaction.

People who meditate on the personal God also depart from this world, as is the case with people who do either good deeds or bad deeds. The departure is common to everybody. When the time for departure arrives, certain things take place inside. We are told in the Upanishads that the tip of the heart blazes forth with a spark-like flame, which is the indication of the need to exit from this body. It is actually the soul symbolised in the form of this little flame illumining the tip of the heart at the time of passing from this body. Then a jerk of the whole system is felt because, as one feels a mild shock at the time of touching an electric field, the exit order causes a tremor in the whole body. There is a kind of shivering, a tendency to become cold in the feet.

The first effect of the force that is generated by the life that is ejecting itself out is cessation of the power of speaking. At that time people come, relatives sit around the dying man and say, “Do you recognise me? Do you know who I am?” The person knows who they are because the mind is still active, but speech stops. Sometimes the mouth opens in order to articulate, but the sound does not come. The agni withdraws itself. The agni devata is the force which causes articulation and speech through the throat. The first divinity that withdraws itself is agni, and speech stops. A dying man cannot speak, though the other organs operate. Then hearing ceases. The devatas withdraw themselves from the ear, and if the dying person tries to speak, nobody knows what he is saying. Then slowly the mind also stops thinking. Then unconsciousness prevails. But life is still there; prana still operates. If people want to know whether the person has really died, they bring a little piece of cotton near the nostrils to see whether the breath is still there. If the cotton moves a little, they conclude that prana is still operating and the jiva is alive. If the cotton does not move at all, the conclusion is that the breath has departed. The last thing that departs is the breath, the prana. Before that the mind goes, before that the ear does not hear, and before that the speech goes. When the prana leaves, the whole body feels as if it is getting shattered. Chillness prevails.

But if this person has been a meditator on the personal God with deep devotion, and is not merely a good person doing charitable deeds and so on but a real lover of God, the soul of that person rushes out through the exit space at the tip of the heart and moves along the rays of the Sun, says the Upanishad. We give scant respect to the Sun in the sky; we take it for granted. “Let the Sun be there, let the Sun not be there, what does it matter? I can get on.” We cannot exist even for a moment if the Sun does not protect us.

The moksha marga of the meditator on the personal God is through the rays of the Sun. The rays, which look like diffused, vaporous things, assume a hardened form and lift the soul in the direction of the Sun, the solar orb. Various divinities begin to operate. The divinities that were in the body controlling the operation of the sense organs rise up and greet this soul there in the high heaven. Earlier they worked through the body and were subject to the limitations of the physical embodiment, but now that they are liberated from their duty in the physical body, they greet this soul above, beyond the ambit of the Sun. To be able to reach the Sun with such brilliance and force, the soul that departs from here should shed its material encasements and become subtle, which it attains due to the meditations that it has practised on the personal God. Saguna upasana is the name for such meditations and religious worships connected with adoration of the personal Creator of the universe. If one can conceive the whole universe as an embodiment of one Supreme Person and go on meditating only on that being and have no other thought in the mind, day in and day out, that person becomes fit to ascend to the Sun through the ray of the Sun.

Ordinarily, this blessing is not given to anybody, because who can meditate like that? Our idea of God and meditation is so poor we are mostly not fit to go to that realm. We will be repelled by the Sun rather than pulled by the Sun towards himself. This path of ascent to the highest reality through various stages is called the devayana path, the path of the gods. All the gods join together to receive this soul and lead it upwards. Both the Bhagavadgita and the Upanishads unanimously tell us that the agni that withdrew itself from the power of speech at the time of passing receives the soul in the high heaven as a first guide to the higher ascent. Then the entire time process assumes a divinity. Time and space are not dull, stupid entities. They are consciousness operating in a particular form.

The power that is generated by the Sun during daytime, the power that is generated by the Sun during its northern movement in summer, the power generated by the whole year, dominated by the power of the Sun, all these are divinities. They are not just abstract concepts. The universe is populated by gods everywhere. Sometimes when modern Western historians translate the Veda mantras, they cast aspersions on the wisdom of these great sages and think that these prayers through the Veda mantras are just the blabbering of unlettered souls. They think that the Aryans were merely nomads who knew nothing about the higher realities except what they visualised through their eyes in the form of sunrise and sunset, in the form of day and night, in the form of wind, etc., and so this is the kind of translation we have of the Veda mantras from Western scholars. Not so is the case. The Veda mantras correspond to actually operating divine powers everywhere. The whole universe is agog with divinity. There are no undivine things anywhere in the universe. These divinities come up to serve, as it were, this soul that is departing to the high heavens.

At one point, the consciousness of personality of the soul is lost completely. It tends to become impersonal in its nature. At that time, the ego ceases completely. Then it cannot be conscious of the movement. When we are conscious of the movement towards some particular end, we can say a subtle form of sattvic egoism continues. But when the sattvic egoism also melts away, there will be an automatic propulsion in a direction which one cannot know individually. At that time, the power of God manifests itself, says the Upanishad. God Himself takes care of the soul when it loses particular individualised consciousness. This is the grace of God that we generally speak of in religious language. Though the grace of God is everywhere, at every time, always, and it is endless, here it pointedly manifests itself, and a deputy of God Himself, known as a superhuman force, amanava purusha, takes the soul by the hand. A person who is not human descends from Brahmaloka deputed by the great God, takes the soul by the hand and directs it towards the high heaven of Brahma, the Cosmic Being.

In the language of the Brahma Sutras and the Upanishads, the Cosmic Being, Brahma, is not to be identified with the Supreme Absolute. Because the Absolute is not cosmic—it is super-cosmic, supracosmic—we should not use words like ‘universality’, ‘omnipresence’, ‘omnipotence’, ‘creative force’, etc., in respect of the highest Brahman, which is the Absolute Reality. But this is now a passage leading to that great end. The soul is taken by the hand of this Impersonal Being, amanava purusha, to Brahmaloka, where everything scintillates, everything shines, everything is reflected in everything else, everybody finds himself or herself everywhere. We should not use the words ‘himself’ or ‘herself’. There is no sex there. There is no man, there is no woman, there is no child; there is only spirit everywhere.

That kind of individuality is super-personal. It is difficult to understand what a super-personal individuality can be. It is humanly inconceivable, but such a thing is there. There are things in the world which we cannot understand. Super-personal entities are the population of Brahmaloka, where each one will find itself in every other being. Everyone is everywhere, and everything is in every place. So it is a commingling of personality with impersonality, omnipresence with particularity, which is impossible to explain, making a person dizzy even by the thought of such a thing; and there the soul glories in the high heaven of Brahma, the Creator, for such time as the universe lasts.

The Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras tell us the soul merges in the Absolute when the universe is dissolved at the end of time and the cosmic creatorship also ceases. This is the devayana path, the godly, divine way of the ascent of the soul to the highest, Ultimate Being. This is moksha. It is impossible to think, impossible to conceive. No one can say what happens there, what one beholds, what one experiences. We who are too mortal, too body-minded, too socially oriented, too individualistic, cannot even imagine what that condition is, and even if we try to imagine that state, it will be a distorted imagination. We should be humble and not expect to know that which is not supposed to be known. This is the progressive path of salvation described in the Brahma Sutras as an exposition of the Upanishadic passages—krama mukti, as it is called. Krama mukti is the gradual salvation of the soul. Stage by stage there is promotion, as it were, and it reaches the highest pinnacle at the end of time.

But those more blessed ones do not require a personal God, because the concept of the personal God also involves a transcendent existence of God above the world, and it invariably, unwittingly creates a distinction between God, the world and oneself. This is the difficulty which we have to avoid. The process of time is obviated completely in meditation on the nature of Being, independent of involvement in space and time and omnipresence, etc. That meditation which does not involve ascent or descent frees the soul immediately, at one stroke, and one wakes up to the Absolute as one is shaken up from dream and comes to the waking consciousness. Such a kind of freedom which is instantaneous, just here and now, without moving in any direction, is called sadyo-mukti, immediate salvation.

Now, any one of you can contemplate deeply, in the heart of your hearts, on which way is your way. Which path of this process is your path? Are you good people wanting good rewards, or are you bad people who have to suffer? Are you charitable people, or are you selfish? Are you worshippers of a personal God, or are you totally impersonal in your being? We are something of this kind, either of this category or that category.

Here we have a brief history of the sojourn of the soul after departing from the body.