The Brahma Sutras as a Moksha Shastra
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: Types of Liberation

We are studying the Brahma Sutras, which constitute the standard text on the subject of the spiritual freedom of the soul of the human individual. We have already noticed something about this process in an introductory manner. We have also observed that religions of the world conceive of the travel of the soul after death in certain directions, towards whatever be its destination. Though the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and the Brahma Sutras do not go into minute details in their cut-and-dried process of this ascent and descent, the Puranas go in a different direction altogether using picturesque details, making the whole story dramatic and interesting, and often frightening. The Vishnu Purana, Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana and even the Mahabharata have much to say on this subject.

All the glory of the life lead by a person vanishes like vapour at the time of passing, a thing which nobody even dreams of. This solid life, this beautiful way of living in this grand world of pleasures, possessions, relations, power and authority, all get nullified in a moment; and this is a matter to think over. Who is behind this drama? That which we hug as our dearest and nearest, these values of life for which we are even prepared to become martyrs and die, do not exist. They desert the person as purchased friends who are no friends at all. Even the sense organs desert us and will not function. Our own limbs and organs will refuse to cooperate with us. Then who are our friends at that time?

There is an illusion in the mind of every person that even if this be the case, there is enough time left for enjoying the life of this world, and let us look to this tragedy a little later on. Ignorance is so deep, so dark, so distorted and confusing that even the wisest of people will not believe that they have to quit this world tomorrow, because if this belief enters into the mind of any person, there will be no world at all to be seen.

There is a story in Buddhist tradition and also in the Mahabharata to exemplify the predicament of an ignorant person in the world. A person was walking through a forest, and he was pursued by a tiger. He ran and fell into a well. As he was falling down, he saw at the bottom a crocodile opening its mouth. In confusion, he caught hold of the root of a tree which was projecting through the wall of the well. But, unfortunately, he found there were two rats gnawing at the root so that in a few minutes the root would break and he would fall. In this predicament where he could neither cling to the root for his safety, nor could he go up because the tiger was there or go down because of the crocodile, he looked up in agony and saw that a branch of a tree with a beehive hanging on it was bent over the well, and from that beehive, honey was dripping down. He stretched out his tongue to catch that honey. Above was the tiger, below was the crocodile. Let the tiger be there, let the crocodile be there, let the root break, but honey is sweet.

This is the fate of everybody in the world. Total ignorance is the nature of human life. When the soul departs from this world, it goes totally unbefriended—no father, no mother, no husband, no wife, no relation, no money, no property. Is it a happy thing to hear all this? The Puranas go into picturesque description, as I told you. We do not find it in the Brahma Sutras. Though a hint is given, there is not much detail.

The ruler of the realm of death—Yama, as we call him in Indian tradition—sends his messengers, and the departed soul is taken to the court of judgement. There he is queried, “What did you do when you were living in the world?”

The confusion and the shock of death prevents the soul from remembering anything. It pleads, “I do not remember anything.” The Puranas say that then the rod of justice, which burns like a heated flame, is applied to the head, and then this departed spirit begins to remember everything that it did in this world. Flabbergasted, unable to say anything, it pleads guilty. “I have done so many bad things. But I have relatives who are still in the world. They will pray for me. They will perform some sacrifices. They will do charity in my name. They will feed the poor. They will give gifts. These acts of my relatives who are still there must be able to expiate some of my sins, so I request that time be given to me to complete this process.” The Puranas say that then the Lord orders, “Go back and let us see what your relatives are doing for you.”

The Puranas say it will actually take one year for all this process to be undergone. With dim eyes, with groaning throat, with sorrow, with agony indescribable, the soul hovers around that place where its body was and where its relations are. The relations do charitable deeds, they mourn, they do good deeds, they give charity of cows, clothing, food and all sorts of things, and recite mantras for the purification of the departed soul. If this happens, so much is the good for this soul. This is the reason why one year’s ceremony is observed when anyone in the house departs. The relatives of the departed soul observe the mourning ceremony for several days, and a monthly worship, charity, feeding, etc., are done. Then there is a final observance after one year. That is the final expiation, and the soul is taken back to the court of justice.

Then the good and the bad of the soul are weighed on the balance as to which is heavier, which is lighter. The stronger one will be taken into consideration first, the weaker one afterwards. The very good deeds that the person may have done may also be coupled with milder bad deeds, or there may be intensely bad deeds and milder good deeds. Whichever is the heavier will be taken into consideration first, and in that direction the soul will be taken. Suffering will be the fate of the soul if the bad actions are heavier, and the reactions and the fruits of good actions also remaining there will bear fruit later on. But if the good deeds are heavier, the pleasant rewards will be given first and the punishments will follow afterwards. This is, briefly, the methodology described in the Puranas.

But if a person has been very virtuous, very righteous, stuck to the principle of cosmic justice, and did charitable deeds, that person goes to the lunar regions of the light. I am repeating what I told you last time. But greater still are those people who continuously worship, adore and meditate upon the Supreme Creator of the universe. Rare are those people who can contemplate the creative force of the whole universe—God Almighty, as we designate this Ultimate Being in the language of all the religions of the world. Such people go to Brahmaloka. I have already described the process.

But more blessed are those who need not go anywhere. They are what we may call the salt of the Earth, and the Yoga Vasishtha says they can be counted in number. It is mentioned there may be some half a dozen people who are fit for that kind of salvation. What kind of salvation is it? There is no travelling of any distance; no movement is necessary because the soul assumes its original universal status and beholds itself everywhere, in all things, at one stroke. Space and time, which are necessary for the purpose of travelling any distance, enter into the consciousness. The Sun and the Moon, who are supposed to be the destination of the departed soul, enter into this consciousness. The entire creation melts down into the composite structure of the soul, the consciousness of the spirit. Such an experience of immediate salvation, without waiting for tomorrow or even for a few minutes, is the reward of mighty spiritual adepts who see nothing outside themselves.

A passage of the Chhandogya Upanishad called Bhuma Vidya—knowledge of the Infinite—describes what this experience is of such people who have, even while living in this body, touched the borderland of the Infinite. Yatra nānyat paśyati nānyac chṛṇoti nānyad vijānāti sa bhūmā (Chhand. Up. 7.24.1): In that infinitude of comprehensiveness of experience, the eyes need not see anything, because anything that is to be seen is the Seer itself. There is nothing to be heard, because what is expected to be heard is a part of the Seer’s existence. There is nothing to be understood, analysed or logically deduced, because such things also melt down into the structure of the consciousness. The whole universal objectivity merges into universal subjectivity. Unthinkable! We think of externality, internality and so on, the object and the subject side, but they coalesce into an amalgam of experience, and nothing is there to be seen, heard or understood. There is nothing to be done through the sense organs. At that time, to know anything, eyes are not necessary, ears are not necessary, no organ is necessary. Legless, that spirit walks; earless, it hears; eyeless, it sees; tongueless, it speaks. This is echoed in one the great verses of the Bhagavadgita—sarvataḥ pāṇipādaṁ tat sarvatokṣiśiromukham, sarvataḥ śrutimal loke sarvam āvṛtya tiṣṭhati (Gita 13.13): Everywhere you find the feet of this Great Being; everywhere eyes, everywhere ears, everywhere hands, everywhere mouth. It can think through the legs, walk through the head, eat through the ears, and grasp through the legs. Anything is possible through any means because there are no limbs at that time. It is just Being operating through Being, in Being, for the sake of Being. Words fail here. Nobody can describe what it is. Wonderful is the way of the sadyomukta, the one who is fit for immediate salvation!

In the Chhandogya Upanishad it is said that six great learned people decided in a conference among themselves, “Let us know this great Atman, this Universal Being, by knowing which we have immediate liberation.” They went on discussing, and could not come to any conclusion. The king of that country, called Ashvapati Kaikaya, was reputed to be a master of this great knowledge of the identity of the subject with the universal object. They approached this king and requested him, “We have come as your humble disciples. Teach us what you know.” The king queried, “What do you already know? Are you doing any meditation?”

Each one had something to say. “I meditate on the sun as my all-pervading deity.” “I meditate on the earth.” “I meditate on the water principle.” “I meditate on fire, on sky, on space, on time.” All sorts of answers were given by them.

The king said, “All these techniques of your meditation have two defects. Though because of these meditations you are well off in the world, you have plenty of everything, you are highly placed comfortably, there are two defects. Firstly, you are seeing your object of meditation as located somewhere—the earth is below, is above, water is somewhere, air is somewhere, etc. Your divinity is not everywhere; it is in one place only. Also, your divinity is outside you. Whether it is earth, water, fire, sun, moon, stars, whatever it is, they are all external to you. That which is really outside you cannot be any use to you because there cannot be a connection between yourself and that which is external to you. These are the defects of your meditations.”

“Then when is the true object of meditation?” they asked.

“It is the commingling of the meditating consciousness and the characteristic of the object of meditation as if it is a sea of experience,” replied the king.

Salila eko draṣṭādvaito bhavati, eṣa brahma-lokaḥ, samrāḍ iti. hainam anuśaśāsa yājñavalkyaḥ (Brihad. Up. 4.3.32): Yajnavalkya Maharaj says we enter into a sea of experience, an ocean of consciousness. It is Brahmaloka and above it, and it beholds itself. Brahma vā idam agra āsīt (Brihad. Up. 1.4.10): The Absolute alone was, is, and will be. Tad ātmānam evāvet: What does the Absolute know? It knows only itself. Tasmāt tat sarvam abhavat: Because it knew only itself, it became the whole universe by itself. Its very existence is the universe. Its being is action. Ya evaṁ veda: Whoever knows this kind of meditation will be as powerful and as blessed as the Absolute itself, says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Such a person who is able to think like this is confident of his own or her own presence as the spirit in everything that one can imagine, and such a person eats the whole world. If that person eats anything, the whole world eats through the mouth of every individual, through every bird and animal, through every leaf and every tree. Unthinkable is this experience. If they eat one leaf, the whole world will be satisfied.

We know the story of Bhagavan Sri Krishna suddenly appearing one day to the Pandavas in the forest. When the retinue of Durvasa Maharishi consisting of thousands of devotees were nearby at lunchtime, Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, said, “You are all welcome, great people. Today you shall have lunch.” The Pandavas had no food and were sleeping in a hut in the jungle. There was a pot which they had received from the Sun god with the condition that if food is cooked in that vessel, it will remain inexhaustible until Draupati eats it. When Draupati eats, the vessel becomes empty, and there is no food for the rest of the day. Yudhishthira had confidence that there was inexhaustible food in the pot that the thousands of disciples of Sage Durvasa could eat. “We are welcoming you all,” said Yudhishthira.

The sage said, “We shall go to the river, take a bath, and then come.”

Meanwhile, Draupadi heard this conversation and knew that the vessel had already been emptied. That whole day there would be no food. She cried and told Yudhishthira, “What a blunder you have committed! The sage is a very angry person. You have invited him for lunch, but there is not a grain of food here. If he gets angry, as is usual, he will burn us completely to ashes.” She was weeping at their fate. She prayed to Bhagavan Sri Krishna. Krishna was not there. He was in Dvarka, but her agony was such that it drew Sri Krishna to that place. Suddenly he appeared, knocked at the door, and immediately demanded food. He said, “I have come from a long distance. I am hungry. I have no time to speak to you. Give food first.”

The lady said, “I have no food, my dear Lord. I have eaten, and therefore the vessel is empty. I have already washed it.”

“No, there must be something left. Bring the vessel,” Lord Krishna said.

It so happened that Draupadi had not washed the vessel properly. A little leaf of vegetable was sticking to it. Krishna took that leaf and said, “This is sufficient to fulfil the appetite of all the people in the whole world.” Saying that, he ate that leaf, and it filled the stomachs of all the disciples of that sage who were bathing. Their stomachs started bloating with surfeit. They all thought, “Now if we go back to Yudhishthira, it will be a shame to us. We cannot eat anything. Already our stomachs are bloated.” They ran away from there, and never came for lunch.

Nobody knew what had happened. Then Yudhishthira said, “Why are they not coming? What is the matter? They must be angry with us. You go.” Bhima went to call them to come, but when they saw Bhima they ran further away because they thought he would curse them. They ran away and never showed their faces there again. Wonderful!

I will tell you another story—of Suka Maharishi, the son of Veda Vyasa. Yudhishthira wanted to perform a sacrifice after he was blessed with being coronated as king. Thousands and thousands of people were being fed. He was eager to know how many people were eating. He asked the great sage Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, “Maharaj, please arrange some contrivance by which I can know how many thousands are eating.”

Vyasa said, “Okay, I will tell you.” He hung a bell which was charged with a mantra, and said, “When one thousand people eat, it will ring once.” So whenever there was a dong sound, Yudhishthira knew that one thousand had eaten, and another dong meant two thousand had eaten, and the third dong meant three thousand. He was very happy.

The feeding went on for hours; and when evening fell, all the people departed. Then the bell started ringing continuously. It rang faster than it did earlier. “What is this? When everybody has left and nobody is eating, it is ringing like this. Is there something wrong with the bell?” Yudhishthira went to the great master Vyasa. “Great sage, how is this that the bell is ringing continuously, as if millions are eating? There is nobody here. All have left. Is there something wrong with the bell?”

Vyasa said, “No, there cannot be anything wrong with the bell. My apparatus is perfect. There is some mystery behind it. It means there is something happening which is unthinkable.”

They went to find out whether someone was eating, but they found nobody. The young boy, Suka Maharishi, who was perpetually united with the Supreme Absolute in his consciousness, was found picking up grains of rice from the leaves that were thrown after the people were fed and had left, and at each grain that he put in his mouth, the bell started ringing. That is, one grain entering the mouth of this great being was like thousands eating at the same time. Yudhishthira saw this phenomenon. He was surprised to see this little boy, at whose eating of a grain the bell started ringing. He went to Veda Vyasa. “There is some boy there, some mystery, who eats grains and then the bell starts ringing.”

“Oh, this is my son,” Vyasa said. “He is the Universal Being himself, and if a grain enters the universe, the whole thing is satisfied. That is why the bell is ringing. It is to tell you that your sacrifice is nothing. Your feeding of thousands is nothing before the grain that this one boy eats.”

Such are the jivanmuktas, as they are called. These sadyomuktas, people who have attained immediate salvation in their spirit, hang on to this body for a short time as long as their prarabdha karma continues. There are three kinds of karma, action, called sanchita karma, prarabdha karma and agami karma. We have taken many births, passed through several incarnations, and in every birth, action is performed, and every action performed produces a reaction. The fruit, or the nemesis of this action, is stored up in the unconscious lowest level of the psyche of the individual, and this becomes larger and larger in its quantum due to continued addition of karmas as one passes through various incarnations. This large quantity of the potencies of all the actions performed through many lives cannot manifest at one stroke because any particular body manufactured for the purpose of the experience of these karmas cannot stand the weight and strength of all the karmas manifesting at the same time. So only some portion is allotted as can be experienced through a particular individuality or body. That allotted portion of the karma from the large storehouse in the unconscious is called prarabdha karma.

This body that we have assumed here is nothing but a hardened form of the prarabdha karma. A subtle potency gets concretised into a hard stuff, as it were, which is this body, which we consider as our own, and it drops at the time of death when that particular quantum allotted for experience is exhausted. So death is nothing but the exhaustion of that particular portion of karma that has become responsible for the manifestation of this body.

There is a third kind of karma, called agami. In spite of the prarabdha working and it becoming incumbent on the part of the person to enjoy the reaction of all the actions performed in earlier lives and allotted for experience in this life, further actions are done. For example, we are sitting here, and we have some karma to be experienced through this body. Our joys and sorrows, and everything that we pass through in this life, is only an expression of the prarabdha karma which uses this body as an instrument of action. But we are doing further action and add to our own bondage. This kind of further action that we commit to our woe is called agami karma.

In the case of the jivanmukta, the liberated spirit, his wisdom of the Absolute burns up all the potencies of actions stored up in the unconscious level, and because of the knowledge arisen already, he does not commit further deeds. The agami karma does not apply to him, and the store of sanchita karma is also burned up. Only the prarabdha continues. When this prarabdha is exhausted, he becomes liberated absolutely. So the jivanmukta becomes a videhamukta; embodied salvation leads to disembodied salvation. Then one becomes everything, all things, everywhere.

There are some interesting questions raised in the Brahma Sutras as to whether liberated spirits can manifest themselves once again or they can never be seen again. In a very difficult and ununderstandable manner, the Brahma Sutras tell us that it is possible. Examples are Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, etc. They are called adhikarika purushas, commissioned authorities coming from God Almighty. They are stationed in this world for the benefit and welfare of all created beings. Their status is something like that of the jivanmukta. How a person who has attained the videhamukta state can once again become a jivanmukta is difficult for any human being to explain. The Yoga Vasishtha is also of this opinion. The jivanmukta, when he becomes videhamukta, liberated ultimately, can even shine as the sun, blow as the wind and flow as the water, and he can become anything. We, whose understanding is limited to logical understanding and emotional thinking, cannot understand how it is possible that an Absolute Being manifests itself in any form it likes—as the sun, the moon and the stars, or even as great masters, as incarnations and commissioned authorities such as Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa. This is an incidental question that is raised in the Brahma Sutras; it is not an essential part of the doctrine of salvation. Thus, we have gone through this detail of the ascent through Brahmaloka and further on, and this last and most wonderful possibility of attaining videhamukti here.

Yo’kāmo niṣkāma āpta-kāma ātmā-kāmaḥ, na tasya prāṇā utkrāmanti, brahmaiva san brahmāpyeti (Brihad. Up. 4.4.6). What is the fate of the soul that is bound by ignorance and commits wrong actions? As has been explained already, it will take rebirth. It has to pay for what it has done. But what about those souls which have no desires? Athākāmayamānaḥ (Brihad. Up. 4.4.6): What happens to the person who does not desire? Yo’kāmaḥ: In whom all the desires have fled completely. Āpta-kāmaḥ: He who has fulfilled all the desires at one stroke. Ātmā-kāmaḥ: Who lives as nothing but his own Universal Self. Na tasya prāṇā utkrāmanti: In the case of that person, the pranas do not depart. There is no exit passage, because there is no space at that time. They melt down here itself, as a drop in the ocean becomes the ocean. Brahmaiva san brahmāpyeti: Everyone has been the Absolute itself. By some ignorance or entanglement it looked like a jiva or an individual, an embodied person, but now it has become the Absolute once again.

In the case of those who are not eligible for this kind of ultimate salvation but are eligible for the blessedness of high heaven in Brahmaloka, they are subject to the law of God. There is a difference between the liberated soul of this type and the Almighty by Himself. Jagadvyāpāravarjaṃ (4.4.17) is a word which occurs in the Brahma Sutras. The liberated soul who proceeds to the highest regions of bliss and blessedness through space and time, through the Northern Path described already, has all the glorious experience of God Himself; but that being who is liberated in that way cannot create the world, cannot destroy the world, cannot do anything to the world because there, in spite of his universality of experience as far as enjoyment and bliss is concerned, he is not identical with the Absolute. This is an intriguing statement that is made in the Brahma Sutras—again, ununderstandable to ordinary minds. Why is a person who is liberated in Brahmaloka still subject to God Almighty’s power?

Interpreters, commentators on the Brahma Sutras tell us this is exactly the doctrine of Acharya Ramanuja and the Vaishnava theologians, who do not expect the soul to merge as water in water in the ultimate salvation. They remain with God, but they do not remain in God. That distinction is made by the Vaishnava theologians especially, and Ramanuja particularly. Great scholars in the West, such as George Thibault who translated the commentary of Sankaracharya into beautiful English, is of the opinion that the greatest thought ever available to us in the world is in the commentary on the Brahma Sutras by Sankara, but that it does not agree with the original texts. The original texts seem to be a little lenient towards Ramanuja. And even today this question has not been answered by anybody: Why should the soul have some limitation even after attaining liberation?

The Brahma Sutras are highly elevating and enthusing, and certain things are highly intriguing, as also we have such intriguing verses in the Bhagavadgita where prakriti and purusha are mentioned as existing in spite of the insistence on the Supreme Existence of God Almighty. There are three purushas, says the Bhagavadgita: the supreme purusha, called Purushottama, akshara and kshara. These are all difficult statements where we are expected to reconcile the existence of purusha and prakriti simultaneously with the Supreme Absolute. There are many such passages in the Bhagavadgita which appear to be contradictory, and yet they are required to be reconciled in a higher purpose.

So the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavadgita are all for the salvation of the soul in the ultimate sense—videhamukti, or merging in the Absolute.