“Jivanmukti in transformation”  by Andrew O. Fort.   

Part 2 : Advaitin Rationales for Embodiment after Liberation

Part 1 : The traditional Advaitic conception

Here I will focus on the traditional Advaitic, not the neo-Vedantic, conception. In traditional Advaita (nondual) Vedanta, liberation (moksa, mukti) is, broadly, release from bondage to the cycle of transmigratory existence (samsara). This realm of phenomenal appearance is experienced by embodied beings due to ignorance (avidya) of their true nature; this ignorance causes desire-filled action (karma) continually binding them to the transmigratory cycle. One gains release through immediate knowledge (vidya, jnana) of partless, pervasive, unchanging, and self-luminous reality known as Brahman. Brahman is realized to be one's true self (atman), this self is not tied to the body or intellect and is free from all limitation and sorrow. Such knowledge rises through proper understanding of sacred texts, not by devotion or works.

Jivanmukti is knowing, while still in the body, that you are really the eternal nondual self (which is Brahman), and knowing further that the self is never embodied, since the body (and all world appearance) is not ultimately real. Somewhat like a reflection in a mirror, the world appears and exists, but it is not finally real. One is bound to the realm of transmigratory existence by (karma-bearing) ignorance, not by the body, and liberation arises from knowledge, not from dropping the body. Knowledge alone is the necessary and sufficient condition for liberation. Thus our problem is not the presence of a body, but identification of the quality (less) self with the conditioned body. Believing you are the body, and that the body is real, is the cause of (re)-embodiment. Since destroying this idea that the self is embodied, not the fall of the body, brings liberation, we can conclude that knowing the self's identity with Brahman does not contradict bodily existence though cessation of ignorance will eventually bring eternal release from the body.

If, from this perspective, the one true liberation is freedom from the bonds of ignorance, then the presence or absence of the body is (in a sense) irrelevant. However, looking more closely, a (human) body is in fact useful and even necessary, since it provides the vehicle for liberation. One might underline here that Advaitins say little about the liberation of divine beings. In his chapter in Living Liberation in Hindu Thought, Lance Nelson makes a fascinating argument, never made within Advaita, for regarding Advaitic isvara as a jivanmukta, as both are free from ignorance and ego­ism, although the jivanmukta is not a cosmic creator or controller and has a trace of karma remaining. In the Bhagavad-Gita, the person with firm wisdom, is said to act with egoless detachment, like Krishna himself. Perhaps even more interesting is the idea that isvara, like the jivanmukta, is limited by being in samsara: he is constrained by the karma of creatures and the necessity of conforming to name and form arising from ignorance (as mentioned in Sankara's commentary on Brahmasutra II. 1. 14). Thus, as Nelson writes, isvara is, "like the jivanmukta, liberated but somehow not yet fully liberated." Both await final bodiless (videha) release, but the lord will actually have to wait far longer than a human. Such an unwelcome conclusion is perhaps why this idea was never explored within the tradition.

To return to the issue of human embodiment, one sees a tension in Advaitic thought between the idea that all mukti is necessarily originally jivanmukti because one becomes liberated (i.e., gains knowledge) only when in a body, with mind and senses, and the notion, consistent with the world-denying aspect of Advaita (in which one finds empirical experience regularly compared to an illusion, a dream, or an eye defect), that full liberation is only gained after death (sometimes, generally in Yogic Advaita, called videhamukti). Because Advaita's non-dualism devalues empirical reality (unlike the in-the-world monism of Tantra or Kasmiri Saivism), it is unsurprising to find a variety of statements in Advaita that imply that bodiless liberation must be superior to embodied mukti, since the body is the locus of bondage; it inevitably decays and is not the self. It is said to be just a shadow, like a shed skin of a snake, or a piece of burnt cloth.

This tension is related to the fact that the notion of liberation solely as knoediate liberation (sadyomukti), annihilating all karma, including the body. Since the body does not cease when knowledge rises, ignorance of some form must remain, and how can there be avidya post-vidya? This question can be said to be the central problem in the Advaitic conception of jivanmukti. It is so serious because Advaitins largely accept that there is total opposition between, rather than degrees of, knowledge and ignorance. They sometimes use the analogy of the opposition of dwledge of brahman/atman identity is quite different from another important Indian conception of liberation that finds resonances in Advaita: that of mukti as freedom from the inevitable suffering of transmigratory existence samsara) or as the absence of pain. This more "negative" idea of liberation generally requires some form of world renunciation that normally includes some kind of yogic practice and ends in perfect isolation of the spirit. From this perspective, the body is quite a significant limitation, since only when free from embodiment can one gain freedom from suffering (the final goal). Still, until we reach what I call the "Yogic Advaita" of the Yogavasistha and the Jivanmuktiviveka, the relative absence of reference to yogic practices and meditation is remarkable. I will point out later that to Advaitins like Sankara, meditation is a helpful support for attaining liberating Brahman knowledge, but it is still an action of a deluded individual agent in the dualistic realm of means and ends.

The notion of liberation as absence of suffering and sorrow (and thus embodiment) raises an important question: If liberated, why is one still in a body? From the earliest Upanisads on, many strands of the Hindu tradition shared the notion that being embodied impedes release and that death brings it. Despite the Advaita position that knowledge and not embodiment is the key issue, a thoughtful reader can argue that a rationale for continued embodiment is needed to satisfy both reason and experience. Experience seems to show that embodiment inevitably entails suffering, disease, and seeing illusory duality. It is reasonable to hold that none of these should exist for a truly liberated being.

Holding to embodied liberation also presents some problems for basic Advaitic doctrines. To Advaitins, the body is a result of prior activity (karma)," which is part of ignorance (avidya), and thus is in some sense opposed to knowledge (vidya). Gaining knowledge of nondual Brahman is said to destroy ignorance, thus it should bring light. Yet while light and darkness can be said to be opposed, one can also point to twilight, and other degrees of light and dark. This response is, of course, an argument from everyday experience, used to counter a theoretical problem.

 Advaitin Rationales for Embodiment after Liberation

There are at least three answers to the problem of the continuity of embodiment post-realization, an issue that received a great deal of attention in later Advaita. The first answer is that you are "bodiless" while embodied, when you know the self is not the body. As Sankara states in his BS I. 1.4 commentary, embodiment (sasariratva) is caused by ignorance, that is, identifying body and self. Knowing that the eternal self is not and never was embodied shows one is by nature eternally bodiless (asrira), so the knower is in a sense asarira while living (or "bodiless" while embodied). Bodilessness is complete detachment, not lack of a physical body. As BdUTV. 4. 7 states, the body is to a Brahman-knower like a castoff skin is to a snake. Put another way, the body "disappears" for the knower (as in sleep or lose consciousness, swoon), although the knower's body doesn't disappear.

The second answer focuses on a more practical point: jivanmukti exists so that we can learn from enlightened teachers, who compassionately remain in a body to assist ignorant humans. Sankara mentions such teachers in Chandogya Upanisad bhasya VI. 14. 2 (the acarya who removes the blindfold of delusion that one is a body) and BaU bhasya II. 1. 20 (the young hunter [embodied being] is awakened to his true nature as a prince [supreme Brahman] by a teacher). Vimuktatman, following Sankara, adds Gita IV. 34, which says that only the wise sages who realize the truth teach the highest knowledge. We could not know about (or reach) liberation unless enlightened teachers exist, and they could not exist if the body falls immediately after knowledge. This would at least be the case according to the all-or-nothing view of vidya. In everyday experience, we actually see many teachers without perfect knowledge helping those with even less knowledge. Also, if (as Advaitins argue) sruti reveals nondual Brahman, we could learn about moksa from a nonhuman source, interestingly, both Sarvajnatman (chapter 3) and Prakasananda argue for the idea that, from the highest perspective, the liberated teacher is only imagined yet can still bring liberation to the ignorant. 

Modem neo-Vedantins make much of the role of enlightened teachers, and add another rationale for a jivanmukta's continuing existence here to provide selfless social service to suffering humanity. There is little discussion of the idea that the liberated being would return to teach or help when the current embodiment ends. This certainly differentiates jivanmukti from the Buddhist bodhisattva ideal. Sankara opens this possibility once, in response to BS III. 3. 32, which suggests a being might take birth again if there is a commission (adhikara) to perform.

The third explanation for the body's continuation after liberation is given great attention in the later Advaita scholastic tradition. It begins with the general rule that when Brahman is known, all ignorance (and thus karma) is destroyed, so how can the karma-based body continue? Later Advaitins assert that a remnant or trace of avidya can exist even after one gains release; this remnant is based on karma whose fruits have already commenced manifestation (prarabdha karma). Before one's final disembodiment, one must experience "enjoy," the fruits of those actions, which cannot be removed by knowledge. Put another way (following Sankara in Ch U bhasya VI. 14. 2), one can know Brahman without quite yet attaining Brahman. This interpretation is much elaborated on in later Advaita and requires further explanation.

Most important is that, for Advaitins, there are three kinds of karma, only two of which are removed by knowledge. The first is samcita karma, the accumulated mass of past karma that has not yet borne fruit. Knowledge bums all such karma. The second is agami karma, karma to be obtained in this life that would bear fruit in the future. After Brahman knowledge, this karma will not bind, since the false notion of agency has disappeared (so it seems that "backsliding" is not possible). The third type of karma, mentioned earlier is currently manifesting or prarabdha karma. Such karma, which produced the current body, is not destroyed by knowledge and must bear fruit before the body falls. 

(This is an excerpt from the book of Andrew O. Fort. “Jivanmukti in transformation” it is a part of the Introduction – What is Jivanmukti? -  a very interesting book - State University of New York Press )


  • Jivamukti means liberated while still in the body by means of discrimination

  • Mukti – Moksha means the final liberation and release from karma and the cycle of life and death through the union with God or the knowledge of the ultimate reality.





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