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Ways of Achieving Moksha


As we have seen, Hinduism recognizes at least four disciplines or paths. The goal of each of them is moksha - release from samsara. We now turn our attention to how each of these paths is intended to lead to freedom from samsara.

Karma Yoga

As we have seen, karma yoga can be described as the way of faithful action without any interest in its effects and without any personal sense of giving. In other words, one must renounce any selfish motive behind one's act. Those who follow this path do what is required of them by their caste and place in life without any thought of the consequence of their action. In so doing, one avoids the accumulation of negative karma while simultaneously acquiring good karma. As we have seen, Rama exemplifies this way of faithfulness in the Ramayana. 

In the Bhagavad-Gita, karma yoga is actually connected to the concept of devotion to a god. In 3:30-31 of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna says:

 Dedicating all works to Me in a spiritual frame of mind, free from desire, attachment, and mental grief, do your duty.

Those who always practice this teaching of Mine, with faith and free from cavil, are freed from the bondage of Karma.

It should be noted that in some ways the Bhagavad-Gita is addressing those who claimed that the only way to keep from accumulating negative karma is to do nothing. Many people had concluded that they would have to renounce the world, withdraw from it, and do as little as possible in order to avoid the negative consequences of action. There were two problems with this approach. On the one hand, it is simply not possible to renounce all activities. On the other hand, if everyone renounced all actions because of fear of negative karma, the cosmos itself would collapse.

The one who does not help to keep the wheel of creation in motion by sacrificial duty, and who rejoices in sense pleasures, that sinful person lives in vain, O Arjuna. (3.16)

Notice in the verse above, the the "wheel of creation" is kept in motion by "sacrificial duty." Thus, complete renunciation of duties and responsibilities is not only impossible, the attempt to do so endangers the order of the world. Karma yoga provides an alternative to the renunciation of duty and responsibility.In karma yoga, one renounces not the world, but the selfish motives behind any actions. One who acts without any thought of reward or punishment has in fact renounces all selfish motives.The result of fulfilling one's duties without thought of reward or punishment is freedom from the effects of karma.


Raja Yoga

Raja yoga is the way of meditation, that is, of being able to remove one's own consciousness from its awareness of this world of maya (illusion) and to focus only on the ultimate reality of the cosmos' unity. The ultimate goal if raja yoga is to attain a state of union with the Absolute. This state is known as samadhi.


The best known description of this type of yoga was formulated by Patanjali, a spiritual leader who lived in the second century BCE. Patanjali's techniques presuppose and build on an ancient philosophical system known as samhkya. As we have seen, this philosophy, the world is made up of two substances: matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). Human suffering is the result of the eternal (spiritual) being entangled with matter. Human beings are in essence spiritual beings trapped in matter. Our problem is that we do not see our true nature. As long as we do not fully realize our true nature, we are destined to remain trapped in matter. The question is, "How can one fully know and experience his/her true nature?"

Patanjali's yoga techniques were meant to enable one to directly experience one's true nature and thus lead to liberation. The yoga devised by Patanjali consisted of eight steps (which are to be taken in order):

Ethical Values (these are preparatory and must be undertaken before one can use meditation effectively):

  1. Moral self-restraint: the yogi (practitioner) chooses a life that rejects sexual immorality, violence, lying, etc.
  2. Moral commitments: the yogi commits to self-disciplines, dedication to God, etc.

Physical Practices (these practices are necessary to minimize distractions from one's senses)

  1. Postures: the yogi master various postures so that consciousness is not disturbed by the body.
  2. Disciplined Breathing: through control of breathing, the yogi controls the energy of the mind and body
  3. Withdrawal of senses: in this stage the practitioner seeks to eliminate all mental distractions from external objects

Cultivation of Consciousness

  1. Concentration: through intense focus on a single object, the yogi puts the mind at rest
  2. Meditation: during this stage the yogi is neither conscious nor unconscious; rather the mind is stabilized in an uninterrupted state of concentration. At this point, however, the yogi is still vulnerable to distractions; that is, his meditation could be interrupted by external stimuli.
  3. Samadhi: This is the ultimate goal. In this state the consciousness of the individual is fully absorbed into the limitless reality. This is the individual as he/she truly is: experiencing absolute freedom and liberation from matter (prakriti). This state is sometimes called a "meditation trance," it is more of a super consciousness of ultimate reality.

It should be noted that it may take many years of practice before one fully reaches the stage of samadhi. Once an individual reaches samadhi, he/she is transformed by direct knowledge of his/her true nature. According to the Bhagavad-Gita (6:20-21),

When the mind disciplined by the practice of meditation becomes steady, one becomes content in the Self by beholding Him with (purified) intellect.
One feels infinite bliss that is perceivable only through the intellect, and is beyond the reach of the senses. After realizing Brahman, one is never separated from absolute reality.

One can infer from the words of the Bhagavad-Gita that once samadhi is attained there is an ongoing union with the Divine even when one is not the the state of samadhi. This ongoing union transcends the law of karma since one fully realizes that his or her true nature is eternal and thus beyond the reach of karma. At death, the one who has experienced samadhi realizes moksha.

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Jnana Yoga

We have already encountered jnana yoga in the form of the philosophies or systems of thought in Hinduism. Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge and the cultivation of the mind as shown in the Upanishads and the analysis of Shankara (Advaita Vedanta). Through knowledge and insight, one can distinguish between the eternal Self and the temporary one. Once this is achieved, then there is nothing that separates the Self (the atman) from Brahman.

The Bhagavad-Gita suggests that one who truly knows that there is not separation of the divine from the ordinary is set free from the effects of karma (13:27-28):

The one who sees the imperishable Supreme Lord dwelling equally within all perishable beings truly sees.
Seeing the same Lord existing in every being, one does not injure the other self and thereupon attains the Supreme goal.

In contrast to raja yoga, one attains a knowledge of ultimate reality by disciplined intellectual analysis. This type of knowledge may also a basis for karma yoga. Krishna suggests that Arjuna misunderstands the situation when he speaks of killing his own relatives in battle. The true nature of reality is that one cannot destroy the atman because it is eternal and transcendent.

There was never a time when I, you, or these kings did not exist; nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future. (2.12)

The one who thinks that Atma is a slayer, and the one who thinks that Atma is slain, both are ignorant, because Atma neither slays nor is slain. (2.19)

The Atman is neither born nor does it die at any time, nor having been it will cease to exist again. It is unborn, eternal, permanent, and primeval. The Atma is not destroyed when the body is destroyed. (2.20)

In short, jnana yoga breaks down the illusion that the atman is separate from Brahman. Consequently, through knowledge of the truth, one experiences a freedom both to act as well as a freedom from bondage to karma which assumes that we are not part of unchanging reality of Brahman.


Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti yoga is the way of intense devotion to a god or goddess who is capable of delivering one from the cycle of existence. The goal is of bhakti is communion with and nearness to the deity.

It seems that such devotion can "short circuit" the karmic process and allow the devotee freedom from rebirth. As a reward for one's devotion, the god would deliver his followers from the ongoing cycle of birth and death. The Bhagavad-Gita considers bhakti to be the best course for the present age: According to Krishna, "Those who worship me, thinking solely of me, always disciplined, win the reward I secure."

Freed from attachment, fear, and anger; fully absorbed in Me, taking refuge in Me, and purified by the fire of Self-knowledge, many have attained Me. (4.10)

It should be noted that the vast majority of Hindus practice bhakti as the main form of religious expression. Bhakti yoga is not considered to be easier than the other yogas. It is however, considered to be the best path for the present age. Of course, one may practice devotion to any god or goddess. Within Hinduism, there is a multitude of deities - all thought to manifest the one ultimate reality. Consequently, one who worships one deity is in a sense, worshipping all deities. In the next section, we will consider some of the major gods and goddesses in Hinduism as well as ways of worship and devotion.


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