Bhakti and Liberation

The concept of liberation plays an important role in the Vedic literature and its teachings on how human beings should live to get the most out of life. Known as moksha or mukti, liberation is the fourth in the list of the purusharthas, or worthy human objectives: dharma (religion or occupation), artha (income, wealth), kama (satisfaction of bodily and mental needs and desires), and moksha. There’s a progression here. By our work and our worship (dharma) we get what we need (artha) so that we can live a comfortable life (kama). Then we should aim for liberation (moksha).

The word dharma in this context is closely related to the concept of karma, which refers to both action and the results of action. Because most people, absorbed in their daily lives, are uninterested in the possibility of liberation, much of the Vedic literature teaches how to live a responsible, godly life. Following Vedic directions, people earn favorable karmic rewards by which they can gain a relatively happy human life in the next birth or even ascend to heavenly worlds. But a life lived under the laws of karma binds one to an unending cycle. After some time in heaven, for example, one must return to earth, with its inevitable suffering even in the best situation.

The quest for liberation from the bonds of karma interests those who have realized the ultimate futility of the karmic path. While there are various forms of liberation, essentially it means to be free from material existence and situated in the spiritual realm. Standard discussions of Hinduism generally focus on the impersonal liberation of merging or becoming one with Brahman, the absolute reality. While it is true that many traditional schools rooted in the Vedic literature do promote that goal, many others, including Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which the Hare Krishna movement represents, do not.

Those who aspire for impersonal liberation usually follow the paths of jñana or yoga. Jñanis, whom Srila Prabhupada refers to as “philosophical speculators,” spend their time studying Vedanta, or the often perplexing philosophy of the Upanishads, which tends to emphasize our oneness with the Absolute, giving relatively less attention to our uniqueness as individual souls. Yogis hope to attain liberation primarily by controlling the mind and senses and thereby raising themselves (the soul) to the realm of transcendence.

Citing numerous verses from the authoritative Vedic literature, great Vaishnava teachers throughout the ages have shown that success in either jñana or yoga is possible only when bhakti, devotion to the Lord, infuses these paths. Lord Krishna corroborates this view in the Bhagavad-gita. And He goes further, saying that His devotee is already liberated because bhakti takes place on the spiritual platform. That’s because we have to be situated in transcendence to truly serve Krishna. He exists in transcendence, and we – eternal spirit souls – belong there with Him.

Serving Krishna in transcendence is real liberation. An often cited verse in Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.2.32) says that yogis and jñanis are not secure in their so-called liberation because they have not yet attained the soul’s natural position as devoted servant of Krishna. The Vedic literature tells of many yogis and jñanis who supposedly attained liberation in Brahman, only to return to life on the material plane, the karmic plane of the unenlightened. On the other hand, Lord Krishna’s liberated pure devotees never leave His lotus feet for a material life. They regard impersonal liberation in Brahman as detestable, since it would mean losing the company of Lord Krishna, the object of their eternal love.

– Nagaraja Dasa