Category Archives: d. Moksa (Spiritual Liberation)

Avidya (Ignorance)

Avidya is a Sanskrit word most commonly defined as ignorance. This can be misleading if we think of ignorance as a lack of knowledge. Avidya is not simply a lack of knowledge; it is a lack of  what Hindu philosophers sometimes refer to as true knowledge (Singh 394-395). The knowledge we have of the material world around us, our minds, thoughts, bodies, and emotions is worldly knowledge. Avidya is our mistaken belief that these things make up reality, or our true self (Puligandla 218).  Avidya, then, is not simply ignorance, but spiritual ignorance (Lipner 246). It is ignorance of our true selves and of the true nature of reality (Puligandla 244). “It is no accident that light and the reflection of light are common symbols in Hinduism of vidya and the knowing process, respectively. Avidya is spiritual ignorance, symbolized by darkness” (Lipner 247).

Frequently in literature on Hinduism, avidya is said to be synonymous with, ajnana, prakrti, and maya (Nikhilananda 43). There are fine distinctions that need to be made between these words in order to better understand Hindu literature and philosophy. Ajnana is a Sanskrit word that can also be translated to ignorance or without knowledge. More specifically, without true knowledge, or knowledge of one’s true self. Avidya is also a lack of higher knowledge. Both terms allow for lower, or worldly knowledge. Avidya and ajnana can be used synonymously (Chatterjee and Datta 49).

The Sankhya or Samkhya system of Hindu philosophy is based on the dualistic principles of purusa and prakrti (Singh 75). Purusa and prakrti are separate and distinct. Purusa is pure consciousness, spirit, or self. Prakrti is nature or matter. In Sankhya, prakrti is the cause of our minds, bodies, thoughts, and feelings (Puligandla 115). The elements that make up the universe as well as all the physical properties in the universe are prakrti (Chatterjee and Datta 257).  The air we breathe, sunlight, our physical as well as mental composition are all prakrti. Our bodies and minds, and our interaction with the finite, ever-changing world in which we live cause us to have a perception of ourselves and the world that is not true reality. The way we look, feel, and behave is not the true essence of who we are.  In this way, prakrti is the same as avidya, as these are the causes of our false knowledge, or false sense of reality; our ignorance of purusa, the true self. The only way to know purusa is to rid one’s self of avidya (Puligandla 123).

The Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism can be traced to the Upanisads, which are the last part of the Vedas.  Advaita means oneness or non-dualism. It is here that the concept of avidya is explored and tied to the concepts of maya, Atman, and Brahman (Puligandla 244). Unlike the separate and distinct entities prakrti and purusa in the Sankhya system, Atman and Brahman are identical. In Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualism comes from the belief that Atman (the true self) is Brahman (reality, pure consciousness). They are not separate, but one (Puligandla 244). That is to say, we are always Brahman, but because of the delusion caused by maya, or avidya, we are ignorant. Avidya is our ignorance to the fact that we are Brahman. When avidya is extinguished, we recognize Atman, which is Brahman (Puligandla 244).

Maya is most often translated as illusion. Maya is also sometimes referred to as magic, magical power, and even fraud. Much like prakrti, maya presents us with a material or false reality that keeps us from seeing our true self or Absolute Reality (Atman and Brahman) (Deutsch 28-29). “Maya generally signifies the cosmic illusion on account of which Brahman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer of the universe. It is under the influence of avidya that Atman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the jiva, or individual self. Prakrti is the material out of which the universe is evolved. But Vedantic writers do not always strictly maintain these distinctions” (Nikhilananda 43). So prakrti is to purusa as maya is to Brahman, they are both illusions that keep us from seeing our true self.

Dualist or non-dualist, avidya is what keeps one from seeing one’s true self. Avidya is the cause of samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth that keeps us trapped in a worldly existence (Chatterjee and Datta 18). In order to be freed from samsara, avidya must be destroyed. Samsara is caused by illusion and once the illusion is destroyed, moksa, or liberation from samsara is achieved (Deutsch 75-76). Once you realize that worldly existence is not reality, there is nothing tying you to it. Avidya is the antithesis of vidya, which is the Sanskrit word for knowledge, or insight.       According to all Indian schools of philosophy, humanity’s state of suffering is due to ignorance (avidya) of his true being and nature (Puligandla 22-23). The Upanisads teach that a person’s true being is Atman (Brahman), which is infinite, eternal, and immortal (Nikhilananda 35). But in ignorance (avidya), one identifies themselves with perishable things such as their mind, body, ego, and thereby develop attachments to them and suffer sorrow when they inevitably lose them (Puligandla 22-23).

Buddhism also recognizes avidya, and it is also defined as ignorance. Buddhists believe that there are four Noble Truths. These are: 1) Sorrow/Suffering: All living, sentient beings experience suffering; 2) Origin/Cause: The major cause of suffering is craving or desire for the illusory; 3) Cessation/Ending: The ending of suffering is the ending of the craving that causes it. This ending of craving, which is an ending of the condition of ignorance at its root, is described as nirvana. 4) Path: The Noble Eightfold Path is prescribed in Buddhism as a means of attaining nirvana (Robinson and Rodrigues 192).  The ignorance referred to in the third Noble Truth is avidya, and its cause is also the illusory. In Buddhism, the ending of the illusion is nirvana, or enlightenment. Just as in Hinduism, liberation from samsara comes through the ending of avidya.

The fact that the end of avidya is the path to liberation (moksa), or enlightenment (nirvana) does not mean that these can only be achieved at the end of one’s life or after death. Ideally, it can be achieved in this lifetime and then one can live without the suffering caused by avidya (Puligandla 23). Siddhartha Gautama achieved nirvana in his lifetime and this is how he came to be known as the Buddha (Enlightened one) (Chatterjee and Datta 115).



Chatterjee, S., & Datta, D. M. (1968) An introduction to Indian philosophy. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deutsch, E. (1969) Advaita Vedanta: A philosophical reconstruction. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.

Indich, William M. (1995) Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kumar, R., & S. Ram (2007) Hinduism-religion and philosophy. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.

Lipner, J. (1994) Hindus: Their religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge.

Murthy, B. S. (1985) The Bhagavad Gita. Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications.

Nikhilananda (1963) The Upanishads: Katha, Isa, Kena, Mundaka, Svetasvatara, Praśna, Mandukya, Aitareya, Brihadaranyaka, Taittiriya, and Chhandogya. New York: Harper & Row.

Puligandla, R. (1975) Fundamentals of Indian philosophy. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Robinson, T. A., & H. Rodrigues (2006) World religions: A guide to the essentials. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Singh, S. P. (2004) Vedic vision of consciousness and reality. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Advaita Vedanta











Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Robin Wilcox (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Monasteries (Matha)

Hindu monasteries or mathas are any residential monastic establishments or educational centre for renouncers or sannyasis; even though, the ideal monk is classified as a wanderer. A matha can also refer to a single hut with only one ascetic or a large community of ascetics and their disciplines and students. They were founded by Sankara, a great teacher, in the 8th century. The original four mathas were strategically placed in India to be used as bulwarks for the missionaries and centres for Sankara’s ten religious groups: on the east coast, in Puri, the Govardhana matha for the Aranyakas and the Vana orders; in the Himalayas, near Badrinath, the Jyotih matha for the Giri, Parvaya, and Sagara orders; on the west coast, in Dvaraka, the Sarada matha for the Tirtha and Asrama orders; and lastly, in south India the Srngeri matha for the Bharati, Puri, and Sarasvati orders (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Later a fifth matha arose in Kancipuram, near Madras, called the Saradaptha matha (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Each matha that was founded by Sankara is led by either a teacher or a spiritual leader also known as a Sankaracarya or a Jagadguru. Individual mathas and their history are directly associated with the succession of its spiritual leader; therefore each matha operates completely independent to any other matha. Typically, the current Sankaracarya appoints one of his followers to become the new spiritual leader in the event of his passing; however, issues can arise if no successor was named and the Sankaracarya passes away unexpectedly. Eventually gurus were even given the responsibility of providing social and economic services to the community. Each Sankaracarya has their own set of followers and their goal is to meet their own religious needs such as “focus on ritual activity and devotional worship rather than renunciation or meditative realization of non-dual brahman” (Fort 613).

There are several important initiations rites to the ascetic life. According Miller and Wertz the first being that after one has determined they want to enter the ascetic life they need to acquire a guru who is willing to take them as his discipline (84). The guru can either be an ascetic from one’s village, a religious teacher or in some cases an uncle (Miller and Wertz 84). Then the discipline must cut all his family ties by performing death ceremonies with his parents (Miller and Wertz 85). After the death ceremony the discipline will no longer be allowed to perform any household services (Miller and Wertz 85). The head ascetic of a monastery will then administer a ritual called diksa (Miller and Wertz 84). The head ascetic must be a man who has already performed his last vows of renunciation (Miller and Wertz 84). The two forms of diksa are when the guru administers the ritual to a lay disciple and the other is only given to ascetic disciples (Miller and Wertz 84). This recognizes the “would be” ascetic and that he is permanently separating himself from his former life (Miller and Wertz 84). Finally, the discipline must acquire a religious name that ends with his sub-order’s name (Miller and Wertz 84). After performing these basic initiation rites a man can enter the ascetic life.

According to Guru Saccinananda the main function of a matha is to give ethical advice and moral teachings to the disciples in hopes of creating “honest, peace-loving, independent, moral, and well behaved” people (Miller and Wertz 25). However, according to Saccinananda several other functions are “to provide education in Sanskrit, to feed guests, to give money to the poor, shelter to the helpless, and the burial to the dead who have no family’ (Miller and Wertz 25). He also claimed that there are ten daily practices that are basic steps to liberation. The first is that the discipline must get up before sunrise each morning (Miller and Wertz 26). The second is that they must pay respect every morning and evening to the sun God Savitri (Miller and Wertz 26). The third is each day while bathing the discipline must recite sacred mantras or verses to a deity of their choice (Miller and Wertz 26). The fourth is that they must perform daily sacrificial fire offerings and yoga postures (Miller and Wertz 26). The fifth is that they must service all their guests (Miller and Wertz 26). The sixth is that the funeral offerings to one’s ancestors must be performed at noon (Miller and Wertz 26). The seventh is that they must take sacred food in the  afternoon and before each evening (Miller and Wertz 26). The eighth is that each evening the disciples’ deity of choice must be worshipped (Miller and Wertz 26). The ninth is that each evening before they go to bed they must perform meditation for the welfare of humanity (Miller and Wertz 26). Lastly, they are only allowed to sleep from the hours of 11pm to 4pm (Miller and Wertz 26).

According to Jagadananda, in a Hindu matha, there a ten precepts of ethical behaviour that one must follow. The first is that you must act kind towards a harsh and unpleasant man and by doing so you have the ability to change him (Miller and Wertz 34). The second is that even if others do not like you that does not mean you have to dislike them back. Eventually these people will lose their power and someday feel bad for their negative actions (Miller and Wertz 34). The third is that you need to ensure you are using the appropriate dialogue when conversing with others as this is a main factor when determining if they will be an enemy or a friend (Miller and Wertz 35). The fourth is that you must respect others when it is their turn to talk as everyone was created equally and by God (Miller and Wertz 35). The fifth is that you should not be disrespectful to people in lower classes as you might be born into that class or position on your next rebirth (Miller and Wertz 35). The sixth is that only ignorant men are prejudiced to one’s caste and skin colour (Miller and Wertz 35). The seventh is that you must consider your “superiors as well wishers and your inferiors as blessed” (Miller and Wertz 35). The eighth is that you need to be independent but also care for your parents needs at the same time as they were the ones who made you into the man you are by giving up their money, time and resources (Miller and Wertz 35). The ninth, is that when you pray to a deity you should be praying for the greatness and happiness of humanity  and not for yourself; the deity will only listen and respond to a man who is concerned about the welfare of others (Miller and Wertz 35). Lastly, “do not grasp onto things” or be materialistic; Brahman, the Vedic creator god, is always around and is everywhere in the universe (Miller and Wertz 35).

Even though numerous mathas have been established over the years as either additions to other institutions or by an individual guru, the original four mathas created by Sankara are still the main ones. Srngeri, Dvaraka, Badrinath and Puri are special and are also known as the amnaya mathas as they are connected with the four Vedas, the matching Upanisad Mahavakyas and Sankara’s four main followers (Sundaresan 110). The most famous and influential matha is Srngeri, in Karnataka State, in South Asia. It is also known as the centre of the Sankaran Vedanta tradition and was originally used as a place to stay and study for samnyasins. In the Srngeri matha the samnyasins who reside there highly regard the Vivekacudamani (Sawai 22).  However, since the fourteenth century it became a place for pilgrimage, worship and philosophical study (Fort 613). The main goddess that is now worshipped at Srngeri is Sri Sarada (Fort 613). The lay adherents of the Vedic tradition or smartas also now visit Srngeri for advice and boons from the Sankaracaryas (Fort 613).



Fort, Andrew (1994) The Faith of Ascetics and Lay Smartas: A Study of the Sankaran Tradition of Srngeri. Journal of Asian Studies 53.2: 613. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Isaeva, Natalia (1993) Shankara and Indian Philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Matha (2016) Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web. 07 Feb. <>.

Miller, David M., and Dorothy C. Wertz (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Prasad, Leela (2006) Text, Tradition, and Imagination: Evoking the Normative in Everyday Hindu Life. Numen 53.1: 1–47. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Sawai, Yoshitsugu (1987) The Nature of Faith in the Sankaran Vedanta Tradition. Numen 34.1: 18–44. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Sears, Tamara (2008) Constructing the Guru: Ritual Authority and Architectural Space in Medieval India. The Art Bulletin 90.1: 7–31. Web.7 Feb 2016.

Shankara (2016) Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web. 07 Feb. 2016 <>.

Sundaresan, Vidyasankar (2000) Conflicting Hagiographies and History: The Place of Sankaravijaya Texts in Advaita Tradition. International Journal of Hindu Studies 4.2: 109–184. Web. 7 Feb 2016.


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Smarta tradition


Advaita Tradition

Srngeri matha

Amnaya mathas




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Hailey McLean (March 2016) who is solely responsible for the content




Dasanami Samnyasins

The development and the components of Hindu monasticism may appear complex. Sankara, the famous Indian philosopher, founded a Hindu monastic federation referred to as the Dasanami Order (Wade nd). Hindu monks, known as samnyasin, were divided into ten lineages which trace back to Sankara and compose the Dasanami Order. The ten different monk/renouncer groups were then divided up among the four monasteries founded by Sankara (Clark 2). The four monasteries (mathas) are located in the east, west, south, and north of India and they are respectively called Govardhan, Sarada, Srngeri, and Jyotir (Clark 115). This order is the most respected and influential in the Hindu tradition (Werner 148).

Historically, it has been viewed that the four monasteries are representative of Sankara’s travel and his spiritual authority. Sankara’s life is regarded as somewhat legendary. He lost his father at a young age and he was an admirer of the samnyasin life style. Sources claim that at the age of eight, Sankara was captured by a crocodile while he bathed in a river. Sankara told his mother that if he did not receive her blessing to become a samnyasin the crocodile would have taken his life (Pande 31). Historians believe that three factors contribute to why Sankara is held in the highest regard. It is said that Sankara was an incarnation of Siva (Pande 73). His strong connection to and the belief in his embodiment of Siva could be due to Sankara’s connections to miracles. Secondly, the implementation of authentic practices was to emphasize the social and spiritual claims of the reorganized monasteries. The final aspect which made Sankara legendary was the expansion of the Advaitic and non Advaitic schools (Pande 73). The rationales behind legends of his incarnation have been to fortify the Vedic faith and help spread the spiritual way of living across India (Pande 82).

Samnyasin (renouncing) is the final stage of one’s life. One may renounce after they have completed the householders’ stage grahastha (Miller 3). However, some Hindus enter renunciation earlier, once they have completed their education, though such young renouncers are less common. A renouncer is considered to be a wise holy man. He is expected to withdraw from society. From that point on, his life is dedicated to the attainment of moksa (Werner 147). A renouncer’s withdrawal from society is theoretical because, he may live in close proximity to society and interact with its members however, physical detachment is essential (Olivelle 272). One must leave their family and possessions in order to discover the meaning of life and gain inner peace (Burghart 635). Renouncers are placed outside of the caste system and are highly valued. A renouncer who receives offerings and praise from Hindus is not uncommon.

Once Hindu monks formally renounce, they are categorized in relation to the method of initiation and their way of life (Wade nd). Renouncers may fall into one of three distinct categories: the dandis, nagas, or paramahamsas. However, all Dasanami consider themselves as Siva (Clémentin 2). Many Dasanami renouncers decorate themselves with rudrāka beads and put three white horizontal stripes on their forehead to embody the symbolism of Siva and Visnu (Clémentin 3). Each type of renouncer group is affiliated with one of the four monasteries. To formally renounce, a monk must attain a new identity. He is given one of the ten surnames which made him a part of that particular spiritual lineage. The name one receives is linked to the monastery they are associated with and reflects their caste as well as their renouncing lifestyle. The monasteries from the south and west are mainly composed of dandi renouncers. The lineages commonly assigned to these monks, once they formally renounce include: Bharati (speech), Sarasvati (learning), Tirtha (sacred bathing), and Asrama (hermitage). Puri (town) and Giri (hill) are lineages linked to naga renouncers. Other names, sometimes received by all types of renouncers include: Vana (woods), Aranya (forest), Parrata (mountain), and Sagara (ocean) (Dazery na). Receiving a new name is significant because it symbolizes the relationship one has under a guru which acts as an investiture. An opportunity for the new renouncers to teach and ordain followers is given (Clémentin 16). Once a name is received, one is able to initiate another person into the samnyasin stage of life. All three branches of the Dasanami (dandi, nagas, and the paramahamsa) have networks of mathas (monasteries) spread across India.

The dandis traditionally come from a high caste background and hold knowledge of the Sanskrit language. They are the wanderers who usually carry a staff. The staff may be embellished with a saffron cloth with an axe head under it (Clark 28). Generally, dandi renouncers were previous householders, have short hair, and believe that they are the true samnyasin (Clark 41). Their initiation ceremony is completed by a guru and the name given depends on what matha one is affiliated to (Clark 41). One of the four brahmacari names is given at the ceremony either being Svarup, Prakasa, Ananda or Caitanya (Clark 42). The second ceremony a dandi partakes in is called the viraja home (Clark 89). A short sacred utterance that presumably encapsulates the essential wisdom of Vedanta from the monk’s monastic lineage is spoken (Wade nd).

Renouncers, who fall under the paramahasa grouping, discard all belongings including their staff, perform the most asceticism and obtain the highest amount of respect (Clark 102). They more frequently live in mathas and are affiliated to an akhara. However, paramahamsan monks are not deeply connected to the akharas life compared to the nagas (Clark 42).

Lower caste members form the naga renouncer group (Clark 39). Some scholars refer to them as “naked fighting monks” (Wade nd).  The naga have been known to travel nude and they cover their entire bodies (sometimes just their private areas) in ash, especially on festive holidays (Clark 35). The nagas are organized into seven akharas (Clark 48). To be initiated into the akhara as a naga, one must go through a third process referred to as the tang tode (Clark 98). This is a unique initiation among the three groups.

Typically, males are the ones who enter the stage of renunciation. However, women renouncers have recently been reported. About ten percent of female renouncers belong to the Dasanami (Clark 31). However, women may become brahmacarini, but they cannot enter the second stage of initiation in becoming “full” samnyasin (Clark 33). Women remove all jewelry as a symbol of their renunciation. The majority of women belong to the paramahamsa renouncer group. Two known monasteries exclusively admit women. The least number of women belong to the naga group (Clark 34).

A life apart from society cultivates detachment through a community which shares similar perspectives (Clémentin 2). Some renouncers may choose to join a monastic community (Tambiah 300). Monastic communities provide a shared living space between many samnyasin monks. It is where asceticism is ingrained through tradition (Clémentin 2). This concept of communal settlement was introduced by Sankara, and is referred to as the matha system (Miller 4). The purpose was to create a sense of solidarity through group support. The matha was a larger unit comprised of temples, a traditional Sanskrit school, a library, and a shelter for lay followers (Clémentin 4). The caste system was embedded into the institution. Individuals were born to specific gurus. Gurus raised money to support children’s education for their caste (Aya 58). Donations from patrons allow for monks to teach, provide medical care, and help feed the community (Miller 5). Service to the community was viewed as important and resembled Hindu cohesion. Monks may continue traveling, but if they remain in a community for an extended period of time they are less respected, except if it is the rainy season (Olivelle 271).  Clémentin addresses that, “the important point to stress is that they do not owe their allegiance to a monastery, but to a lineage of spiritual succession” (3). Sankara’s successor, a Sankaracarya (head of 1 of the 4 monasteries) essentially becomes “the teacher of the world” by representing the founder of his lineage (Clémentin 6). Sankaracaryas have substantial spiritual power and settle disputes within the matha by helping with court cases (Clark 79). For example, cases may include initiation and personal affairs, adultery, abuse, and caste pollution. Sankaracaryas help decide the punishment of a fine, a fine, forms of social exclusion, and sometimes even excommunication ceremonies (Clark 80).

The origins of the Dasanami Samnyasin illustrate the prominence of Sankara’s philosophical influence in creating the order. Spiritual lineages of the samnyasin monks are traced back to Sankara. The samnyasins aquire a new religious identity in which they abide by certain roles, codes, and practices (Clark 2). The different groupings of renouncers across the four cardinal directions are symbolic of Sankara’s spiritual journey and the prominence of Brahman (Wade nd). The caste system is significant to the Dasanami Order because it allows for different renouncer groups to exist. Subtle differences exist among the samnyasins such as, their appearance, initiation process, status, and their affiliation to a distinct lineage (Clark 39). The matha system was important for the development of education and philosophical ideas for the samnyasin and their lay followers (Clémentin 4). Life consisted of days of expressing bhakti in prayer, meditation, and lectures (Werner 147). Overall, evidence suggests that the Dasanami Order has been very influential and is a representation of Sankara’s philosophy. 


References and Further Recommended Readings

Burghart, R., (1983) “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia”. Man18(4), 635–653.

Clark, Matthew (2006) Dasanami Samnyasis. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2006) “Replacing the Abbot: Rituals of monastic ordination and investiture in modern Hinduism”. Asiatische Studien, Etudes Asiatiques, Vol.60, 535- 573.

Ikegame, A (2012) “The Governing Guru”. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London & New York, NY: Routledge 5, 46.

Miller, D. M., & Wertz, D. C (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

 Olivelle, P. (2001)”The Renouncer Tradition”. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism,  G. Flood (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing  271-287.

 Pande, G. C (1994) Life and thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

 Tambiah, S. J. (1982) “The renouncer: his individuality and his community”. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 15(1), 299-320.

Wade, D. (2012) “Dasanamis.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from < hinduism/dasanamis-BEHCOM_9000000043>

Werner, Karel (2013) Love Divine: Studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism, London & New York, NY: Routledge 147-152.


Topics for Further Investigation

The Ramanadi Order



The Four Monasteries




Noteworthy Websites


Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Hindu concept of moksa is that of complete liberation from suffering and death. Once moksa is attained, individuals are free from the cycle of karma, within which they must endure or reap the consequences of their actions, as well as samsara (the cycle of rebirth) or worldly existence (Shivkumar 77). Moksa is the last of the four Hindu goals of life and may be sought during the samnyasin (renouncer) stage of life (Prasad 5). [More about the four goals of life can be found in Rodrigues (2006)]. While it is scarcely mentioned in the other Vedas, the Upanisads declare the importance of liberation and the Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy formed by Sankara has emphasized it as the ultimate goal of life (Kumar 22). Advaita Vedanta teaches that avidya (ignorance) and maya (illusion) in this world keep people from the realization of the true self (atman) and Ultimate Reality (Brahman) (Shivkumar 30).

According to the Upanisads, Brahman is the creator of the universe, transcends the universe, and is the universe (Shivkumar 28). Atman is the very essence of the true self within each person and is also Ultimate Reality. Atman and Brahman are one entity and this realization, that one’s true self is also Brahman, is what brings about moksa. This is illustrated in the Upanisads by the story of Svetaketu and his father Uddalaka (Arapura 73). Although Svetaketu has completed his formal education, his father must still teach him about the subtle essence of reality, which is the truth about Brahman and Atman, tat tvam asi (that thou art). In this way, Uddalaka shows his son that Atman and Brahman are one. This understanding is only possible once the two forms of ignorance, nama (name) and rupa (form), have been defeated (Shivkumar 149). Just as the name and form of a river disappears when it is united with the sea, one who achieves right outlook or wisdom (vidya) becomes united with Brahman. Although there is debate over the characteristics of enlightenment after one achieves moksa, the Upanisads declare that this state of pure consciousness is filled with intense joy (Chakrabarti 7).

Vedanta philosophy asserts that an adhikari (eligible person) for the pursuit of moksa must undergo personal training through spiritual practices (Kumar 112). This training creates within adhikaris four main qualities that help them to attain liberation. The first, called nityanityavastuviveka, is the power to discriminate between permanent and impermanent. This is especially important since one must identify the transcendent essence of the universe. Ihamutrarthabhogaviraga, the second quality, is detachment from worldly and other-worldly objects. This can be cultivated during the samnyasin stage of life by renouncing one’s possessions and migrating frequently from place to place (Rodrigues 2006:93). The third quality, samadamadisadhanasampat, is the development of self-control through six properties: restraining the internal organ, controlling the external sense organs, abstaining from all but the pursuit of truth, practicing tolerance, focusing the mind, and having faith in spiritual teachings (Kumar 112). Finally, the adhikari must possess mumuksutva, which is a strong desire to be released from samsara. Even though the end of suffering may not be enough to fuel this desire, as it also entails giving up worldly pleasure, Advaita Vedanta enhances motivation by characterizing enlightenment as perpetual bliss (Chakrabarti 5).

Three main paths (yogas) to attaining moksa are emphasized in the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the famous epic the Mahabharata (Shivkumar 30). The first of these is jnana (transcendental knowledge), which is gained through contemplation and meditation on the true nature of the self (Raghavachar 266). One may also develop knowledge by learning from a guru (spiritual teacher) or an individual who has already achieved enlightenment (Shivkumar 141). Study of the Vedas with close attention to Vedanta can also lead to the accumulation of knowledge required to bring about the realization of moksa. In addition, Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, and other forms of yoga can also be used to pursue knowledge of Atman/Brahman because it leads to the silence of the mind so that one can see the truth (Ravindra 177). Although the Bhagavad Gita maintains that anyone, regardless of class (varna), can achieve moksa, it may be easier for individuals in certain varnas to pursue a specific path to liberation. Since intense study of spiritual matters is an asset in following jnana, the Brahmin priestly class who spend a great deal of time learning and reading Vedic texts may be exposed to an environment that is more facilitative to the attainment of moksa through jnana than individuals in other varnas.

The second main path to moksa is that of karma (action) (Shivkumar 145). The Bhagavad Gita teaches that action should be disciplined. In detaching themselves from this world, adhikaris should renounce all attachment from the fruits of their actions. For example, they should not perform deeds simply because these deeds will bring them success. However, this does not mean that a person seeking moksa should renounce all action and practice inaction. Rather, God (or Visnu) in the form of Krsna declares that the world would be destroyed if he did not perform actions. He concludes that people should dedicate all their actions to God. The philosopher Ramanuja further interprets this instruction as stating that followers should put themselves under the control of God and become God’s tools (Raghavachar 266). As a result of this dedicated action, the cyclic law of karma falls away and gives rise to one’s inner spirit or Atman/Brahman. Despite this focus on action, there is some controversy over whether or not practicing dharma (righteousness/duty) is a valid way to attain moksa (Ingalls 3). This is very similar to the debate over the importance of good works versus faith in Protestant Christianity as a means for entering heaven. Regardless of Sankara’s insistence that dharma is a worldly goal bound by samsara, many Hindus follow the Bhagavad Gita’s view of righteous action as an essential part of the journey to attaining moksa.

Bhakti (loving devotion) is the third core path to moksa. This path, of which anyone is capable, requires full faith in God, an intense love for him and absolute surrender to him (Shivkumar 147). Ramanuja proclaims that bhakti must evolve from the disciplines of karma and jnana and that love emerges from the decision of the seeker to meditate on the nature of Brahman (Raghavachar 267). Devotion is the result of experience or knowledge of God, love of God cultivated by experience, and disciplined service to God. Despite these philosophical stipulations, this path is often seen as a simpler way of achieving moksa than both karma and jnana. Bhakti is believed to extend divine grace to seekers of Brahman/Atman because it can be followed by anyone regardless of caste, knowledge, opportunity for action or past deeds. Therefore, it is often spoken of as a universal and democratic way to enlightenment.

There are also other ways of attaining moksa than those accentuated in the Bhagavad Gita. Prapatti (self-surrender) is the humble offering of one’s burden and responsibility as part of humanity over to God in order to attain enlightenment (Raghavachar 270). It is performed in a single act that is final, absolute and cannot be repeated. Seekers hand over their whole selves, along with the responsibility of attaining moksa, to God. In the Ramanujite tradition, the actual process of prapatti entails three meditative mantras (sacred utterances), two self-offering sentences, and the recitation of the last verse of Krsna’s instruction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

In contrast, Hindu Grammarians believe that words are both reflections of Brahman/Atman as well as the means through which he can be known (Coward 209). In both the Vakyapadiya and his commentary on Patanjali’s Mahabhasya, Bhartrhari emphasizes that the study of grammar, through the correct use of words and the knowledge of their essence, can lead to moksa. The use of speech purified by grammar gives the speaker spiritual merit, which results in wellbeing and moral power. Conversely, speech that is tainted by the incorrect use of words confuses the mind and creates ignorance (avidya). Therefore, the Yoga of the Word as the practice of studying and abiding by grammar rules is another way to realize the true essence of Atman and Brahman.

The concept of moksa also exists in Jainism but the ideas that surround it are somewhat different. Jains believe that individuals are held in the bondage of samsara through karmic matter that clings to the self as a result of one’s evil desires and predispositions (Shivkumar 84). Moksa is achieved through cutting off the self from any connection with karmic matter. The way to liberation is composed of the three jewels: right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. Once an individual has achieved moksa and becomes liberated, that person transcends samsara and remains forever at the apex of the universe (Jaini 223). Here, the liberated individual resides in a state of pure consciousness and supreme peace (Shivkumar 116).

Conversely, Buddhism holds the concept of nirvana, which is akin to moksa in that it is the end of all worldly suffering (Shivkumar 161). However, nirvana does not involve connecting oneself to a god-like concept such as Brahman. It postulates that the self is impermanent and there is no Atman or greater self (Rodrigues 2004:174). Rather, nirvana is an understanding of Ultimate Reality as dynamic process that is continually changing and this realization leads to the extinction of desire, hatred and illusion. Nirvana is achieved through adherence to the Noble Eightfold Path, which requires the individual to strive for right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (Shivkumar 174).

Moksa is a goal that encompasses many common human desires: to find one’s true self, to end ignorance and worldly suffering, and to connect oneself with a more meaningful and powerful whole. Such enlightenment does not come automatically to an individual; rather, it must be sought after. As a result, there are many different paths to moksa and many more interpretations of how to follow these paths (Kumar 49). However, all Hindu interpretations consistently convey that a person must reach an understanding of Atman and Brahman as the true essence of reality in order to attain moksa.


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Chakrabarti, A. (1983) “Is Liberation (Moksa) Pleasant?” Philosophy East and West, 33, no. 2 (Apr): 167-182.

Coward, Harold (1995) “The Reflective Word: Spirituality in the Grammarian Tradition of India.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 209-228.

Ingalls, Daniel (1957) “Dharma and Moksa.” Philosophy East and West, 7, no. 1/2 (Apr-Jul): 41-48.

Jaini, Padmanabh (1980) “Karma and the Problem of Rebirth in Jainism.” In Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Wendy O’Flaherty (ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 217-238.

Kumar, Shashiprabha (2005) Self, Society and Value: Reflections on Indian Philosophical Thought. Khajuri Khas: Vidyanidhi Prakashan.

Prasad, Rajendra (1971) “The Concept of Moksa.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 31, no. 3 (Mar): 381-393.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli (1980) The Hindu View of Life. London: Mandala Books.

Raghavachar, S. (1995) “The Spiritual Vision of Ramanuja.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 261-274.

Ravindra, Ravi (1995) “Yoga: The Royal Path to Freedom.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 177-191.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2004) “Buddhism.” In World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Tom Robinson, Hillary Rodrigues, Jim Linville, and John Harding (eds.). Lethbridge: University of Lethbridge. pp. 157-185.

Shivkumar, Muni (2000) The Doctrine of Liberation in Indian Religion. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Bhagavad Gita

Advaita Vedanta






Hindu Grammar


Patanjali’s Raja Yoga


The four asramas

The four purusarthas

The Upanisads




Tat tvam asi


The four varnas






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Article written by: Stefanie Duguay (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.