Moksha in Hinduism: By Dr. Shyam Subramanian
A seeker asks: In Hinduism, there is a belief in reincarnation. The idea of reincarnation is that when the body dies, I will be born again. However, we are taught to pursue Moksha (salvation) which puts an end to the cycle of birth and death. As a Hindu, why should I pursue Moksha? Is that not a permanent death forever? At least with reincarnation, I have a chance to be reborn. Perhaps I will get to meet old girl friends in my next birth and go to Las Vegas and Bombay again. But if I get Moksha, according to Hindu teachings, I will never be reborn. That is scary, is it not? Why should I then seek Moksha as stated in our scriptures? How does this idea of Moksha as salvation or liberation make any sense?
Editor’s note: Moksha in Hinduism is not viewed as permanent death but an awakening into eternal life. Moksha is essentially the recognition that one’s very nature is that of freedom and wholeness. The questioner’s presumption that his next life would be according to present desires or expectations (going to Las Vegas or Bombay with his old girlfriends) is not consistent with the doctrine of Karma. According to the doctrine of karma, the next birth is determined by a combination of actions taken in previous lives and the present life. The merits and demerits generated thus will determine future experiences of pleasures and pains. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the expectations to be with specific individuals and repeat pleasurable experiences would come to fruition in the next life. Although the seeker premises the question on a faulty understanding of the ancient teachings on karma and reincarnation, Dr. Subramanian clarifies logically the nature of Moksha and why it is considered the most worthy goal in Hinduism.
As a way of introduction, Dr. Shyam Subramanian is a professor of medicine and also well trained in the classical traditions of Vedanta. Shyam-Ji’s knowledge of Sanskrit and understanding of subtle truths of the Upanishads makes him a brilliant exponent of various Eastern philosophies and religions from a Vedantic perspective. His writing is clear and easy to follow and very helpful for the novice and the advanced students of Hindu philosophy. If any errors have crept in Shyam-Ji’s presentation due to my minor editing, these will be corrected as soon as pointed out.
Dr. Shyam Subramanian answers the question on Moksha
Namaste. Yes, indeed. Why should we seek Moksha, if it is a permanent death? According to Hinduism, our lot in life is repeated births and deaths as long as we are in samsara, the relative world of duality.
In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, the doctrine of reincarnation is found. According to this doctrine, everything that is born dies. Everything that dies is reborn in another form. We do not consciously seek to die and be reborn again and again but that is our lot as embodied beings. Hinduism is very clear about that. We are all part of this cycle of birth and death.
Even if we think about just our present life, we are all terminal cases and death is just around the corner. We are not even in a line, knowing when our turn will come. It is more like a token system and any moment our number will be called and that is it. This is true regardless of age, gender, race, nationality, religion, etc.
What happens when you die? According to Hinduism, although your body perishes, your ego-sense will survive and take on another body. In other words, your ego-sense will be reborn again in some form. You consider this to be a good thing because at least “you” will remain alive to have various pleasurable experiences in a different body.
However, according to our sages, the process of taking birth, living the life, and then the process of death invariably involves pain. Hence the repeated cycle of birth and death is essentially of the nature of suffering. Think over it carefully and examine all aspects of your life. You will see pleasure and pain intermixed in most of our experiences.
Now let us examine the ego-sense we all have. At the fundamental root of it, it desires to survive as an individual entity that identifies itself with a particular form.
The problem for the ego is of wanting to escape death.
The problem for the ego is of dealing with a perpetual sense of small-ness.
This Universe is immense and I am so small.
No matter how much I acquire I am still small.
No matter how healthy I am today I am going to die tomorrow.
No matter how long I live I feel I have barely lived.
Why does this bother me? The ancient teachings from Upanishads and our sages tell us that we are bothered by this sense of limitation because at some core level we realize that our true nature is both complete and immortal. Until the sense of false limitation that the ego-sense feels is resolved, your life can never be fulfilling. This is the teaching of Advaita Vedanta. That is the reason behind pursuit of Moksha.
You may acquire health, wealth and progeny – but you are still a limited individual. The reason you seek anything is not for its sake but because of this peculiar habit of your mind to attach itself to something or some object, gaining which you feel momentarily happy. Not realizing that happiness really came from your own nature, you become attached to the experience a person or an object brings to you.
Unfortunately, even as the happiness you temporarily experience is settling in, it is immediately gone the next minute, the next hour, the next day, or the next week, etc. No worldly happiness lasts too long. In that instant of acquisition you were happy not because of any property of that object but because your false sense of self limitation was temporarily – very temporarily – resolved. You have tasted a moment of happiness through some experience and you want that experience back.
So you go on chasing things and people which will allow you to experience happiness. But what you are chasing is a mirage. That is the nature of suffering. That is the teaching of our ancient sages.
What you acquire does not truly deliver the goods. You are perennially dissatisfied because no matter how hard you chase, happiness seems to run further and further away. This is “life”, as they say.
When Vedanta talks about dropping the ego – at the same instant it talks about gaining the one thing that you desperately seek- a sense of fullness, of being complete, of not wanting.
Moksha is the loss of an illusory source of limitation. The gain is realizing truth and your real nature – the Absolute that You Are.
Does that sound too good to be true? According the teachings of Vedanta, It is the only thing that really IS too good to be true – because It alone is true!
Moksha, or release from this illusion that we are limited, is possible only in this rarest of rare births – the human birth. According to Hindu scriptures, not even the gods have this privilege to pursue liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Only human beings do. One has to be born in a human birth to be able to make the effort towards achieving Moksha or realizing one’s true nature.
Moksha is the resolution of this ego-sense into the Absolute Self. Once this wanting “me” is resolved, then nothing else matters. I am still me. But this false ego-sense that was “wanting” is dead. Now there is no “me” that wants anything that fears anything; not even death!
Moksha is not permanent death. It simply makes death irrelevant, a moot point. Once I know who I really am. then I realize I am complete. Nothing can ever take away from my sense of completeness. I can be with or without money, with or without relations, this body can go through sickness or suffering, and EVEN DEATH; but that does not affect ME, because I am complete. I am non-separate from HIM, the Supreme Being who sits in the Heart as one’s own Self.
That is what Moksha is my friend and that is why in Hinduism, sages who attain Moksha hold a special place. Moksha is release that comes from the knowledge of our complete identity with the Supreme Reality that is our own Self. What permanently dies in Moksha is not the real You, but only your sense of limitation. Your ego sense dies. Your True nature is recognized in all its glory.
OM SHANTI SHANTI SHANTIH