Moksha/Liberation: What Is It?


Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa) – TRANSCEND Media Service

omMoksha is also called mukti, which essentially means to attain freedom from any further forms of differentiated, temporal, and ordinary material existence in the mortal world. It also means, quite simply, becoming free from samsara or the continued rounds of birth and death in the material realm, which is caused by the accumulation and continuation of karma.

So it also means becoming free from karma. It is karma, no matter whether it is good or bad, which keeps us bound to material existence. So one of the main goals of human life is to attain freedom from this material existence, and enter the spiritual realm. That is moksha, liberation.

However, there are also different levels of moksha, which is also described as becoming free from the false identification of the body, or koshas, and freedom from maya, the illusory energy. This means that a person can attain one level of liberation simply by becoming free from the material conception of life, such as thinking you are the material body. This is one of the preliminary qualifications for entering the spiritual domain, which is considered by many to be the Brahman, the eternal, unlimited brahmajyoti, or great white light. However, there is more to it than this.

If a person can rise enough from the material conception of life and realize and experience their spiritual identity, and then act on the spiritual platform, one can be called a jivanmukta, or liberated soul. This is no easy position to reach, nor can many people be expected to attain it, at least in one lifetime. But it is not only possible, but it is expected and is called the perfection of human existence. Out of all that we may be able to accomplish in this life, the main thing is to become liberated and free from any further rounds of material existence. That is real freedom.

However, there are different kinds of liberation.

Moksha into the Nondual Brahman

First of all, one of the main premises of moksha, or liberation from material existence, is that after death a person who is eligible for liberation enters the spiritual world. The view of the spiritual world depends on the school of philosophical understanding. There are two main schools of thought consisting of the non-dual or advaita philosophical outlook, and then the dvaita or dualistic school.

In the advaita tradition, emphasis for liberation is especially put on the soul’s release from ignorance. This kind of ignorance is the misidentification of the living being as the impermanent material body, and to consider that this world is real, when actually it is temporary, like a dream. Rising above such ignorance with the means of spiritual knowledge and realization, the living entity can attain the perception of one’s real identity as the spirit soul or atman which is within but also beyond the material body. This is the ultimate reality, aham brahmasmi, or I am a spiritual being, which should be understood and realized. So, moksha is also the release from this ignorance and the realization of one’s true identity.

The Advaita School accepts that the atman or soul, the Paramatma or Supersoul within, and the Brahman, or formless, all-pervasive spiritual force, are all one. So, this understanding of liberation means to merge into the eternal, impersonal Brahman. In the advaita tradition, one of the means to attain this is through Jnana Yoga. However, it is said that to attain this kind of liberation is not easy, even after years or even lifetimes of practice.

In this kind of liberation, having merged into the unlimited Brahman, one floats in the eternal impersonal Brahman or spiritual sky in what could be called a state of spiritual unconsciousness. It is ecstatic because there are no material pains or pleasures that are caused due to material contact through a physical body, nor is there any ignorance due to falsely identifying with the illusion. It is a constant and never-ending state of spiritual bliss, but without any activities or individual identity. It is something like being a spiritual drop in a spiritual ocean.

Moksha into Vaikuntha, the Spiritual Planets

In the dvaita or dualistic school of thought, there is a difference between the soul (jiva or atman), the Supersoul (Paramatma), and the Supreme Being (Bhagavan). They are not all one. They are considered the same in spiritual quality, but different in quantity or potency. God is omnipotent and infinite while the innumerable individual souls or atmans are infinitesimal and limited. Thus, they also keep their individuality. Because of these differences, each individual soul can also reach a different state of liberation, which we will discuss shortly.

Unity between the souls and the Supreme Being is not by merging one into the other, but is attained through devotional love, bhakti-yoga. Through bhakti-yoga, diving deep into love of God, one frees him or herself of all of one’s good and bad karma, spiritualizes one’s consciousness and becomes free from all illusion, and becomes united with God. In this way, the bhakta (devotee) can attain the abode of the Supreme Lord in a perfected state, but maintains his or her individual identity, with a spiritual form, personality, tastes, pastimes, and so on. Then they remain individuals but are one in quality and interest, which is to engage in spiritual loving pastimes with each other, centered on pleasing the Supreme Lord. This form of expression is the natural and constitutional position of the individual soul, and is the nectar for which they are always seeking. This is also reflected in the material worlds, where the individual living entities are always seeking or talking about loving exchanges. The difference is that in the material world they are seeking their own lusty pleasure, while in the spiritual world they are simply seeking how to give pleasure to God. But this pleasure given to God is reflected back to each individual soul from God and is felt as divine nectar, which supersedes many times over any such happiness found in the material world or connected with the material body.

Also in Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita philosophy, the goal of liberation as an eternal union with God can be reached by developing loving surrender to God, (Vishnu). This is especially attained through bhakti, loving surrender to the Divine.

Furthermore, in the dvaita view, the Brahman is considered the eternal, all-pervasive energy of God, or the infinite brahmajyoti or great white light, which is but the bodily rays or effulgence that expands from the Supreme Being. It is within this brahmajyoti or spiritual sky in which float the spiritual planets, called Vaikuntha planets, as well as the innumerable living souls that merge into and then float like spiritual atoms in the brahmajyoti or great Brahman. If they do not know of the spiritual planets within the Brahman, then they think that the Brahman, in and of itself, is the highest reality and all that is.

In this way, the spiritual world has a place for everyone, such as the Brahman into which merge those who view the ultimate reality or God with no form. Then deeper in the spiritual sky are the innumerable Vaikuntha planets which are inhabited by the different forms of Vishnu, who is worshiped by His devotees in a mood of awe and veneration. Then there is the central planet of Krishnaloka or Goloka Vrindavana. This is the topmost dwelling of Lord Krishna, shaped like a lotus flower where upon each petal He exhibits different pastimes with those many devotees who are simply absorbed in spontaneous loving exchanges and activities.

Amongst this unlimited spiritual sky and all of these spiritual planets are the destinations of those devotees who become liberated. The impersonalists or advaitas merge into the Brahman, while the personalists or dvaitas enter into one of the spiritual planets to engage in spiritually devotional activities. The various destinations on these spiritual planets are described in this way:

It is explained in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.4.67), by Lord Vishnu to Durvasa Muni,

“My pure devotees are always satisfied being engaged in devotional service, and therefore they do not aspire even after the five liberated stages, which are

  1. to be one with Me [by merging with God or the Brahman,
  2. to achieve residence on My planet,
  3. to have My opulences,
  4. to possess bodily features similar to Mine, and
  5. to gain personal association with Me.

 So when they are not interested even in these liberated positions, you can know how little they care for material opulence or material liberation.”

As explained further by Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, “From the above verse, there are five stages of liberation, which are (1) to become one with God [as in the advaita school], (2) to live on the same spiritual planet as the Lord, (3) to obtain the same bodily features as the Lord, (4) to have the same opulences as the Lord, and (5) to have constant association with the Lord. Out of these five liberated stages, the one which is known as sayujya, or to merge into the existence of the Lord, is the last to be accepted by a devotee. The other four liberations, although not desired by [advanced] devotees, still are not against the devotional ideals. Some of the liberated persons who have achieved these four stages of liberation may also develop affection for Krishna and be promoted to the Goloka Vrindavana planet in the spiritual sky. In other words, those who are already promoted to the Vaikuntha planets, and who possess the four kinds of liberation, may also sometimes develop affection for Krishna and become promoted to Krishnaloka [the highest of spiritual planets].

“So those who are in the four liberated stages may still be going through different stages of existence. In the beginning they may want the opulences of Krishna, but at the mature stage the dormant love for Krishna exhibited in Vrindavana become prominent in their hearts. As such, the pure devotees never accept the liberation of sayujya, to become one with the Supreme, though sometimes they may accept as favorable the other four liberated states.” (Nectar Of Devotion, p.45)

So herein we find the different types of liberation available to those who become aware of the spiritual planets, which float in the spiritual Brahman or brahmajyoti. You may be able to attain the same spiritual planet of the Lord, or live in similar opulences with a similar form, or even have constant association with Krishna or one of His expansions that exist on each of the Vaikuntha planets. The Vaikuntha planets hold an atmosphere of awe and veneration toward God, while in Krishnaloka; the residents have a spontaneous and natural love for God, which dominates all the pastimes there. So even those living on the Vaikuntha planets may also develop a natural, spontaneous love for God and then shift themselves from the Vaikuntha planets to Krishnaloka.

So how do we attain this kind of liberation? It is said that bhakti-yoga, the yoga of love and devotion, is the easiest and quickest way to attain such liberation because the end justifies the means, or the practice brings one to the same mood as you find in the spiritual planets.

The Padma Purana also states:

 “For any person who is chanting the holy name [of Krishna] either softly or loudly, the paths to liberation and even heavenly happiness are at once open.” (Nectar Of Devotion, p. 80)

However, entering deeply into the nectar of this mood of devotion for the Lord surpasses even the desire to attain liberation from material existence. It is not that we should give up the will to become free from material existence, but entering into this devotion is like attaining material liberation even in this very lifetime, no matter where we are. It is all a matter of consciousness.

This is explained further in the prayers by the wives of Kaliya in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.16.37):

“Dear Lord, the dust of Your lotus feet is very wonderful. Any person who is fortunate enough to achieve this dust does not care for [residence on] heavenly planets, lordship over all the planetary systems, the mystic perfections of yoga, or even liberation from material existence. In other words, anyone who adores the dust of Your lotus feet does not care a fig for all other perfectional stages.”

Lord Krishna Himself provides further insight in this matter to Uddhava in the Srimad-Bhavatam (11.20.34):

“My dear Uddhava, the devotees who have completely taken shelter of My service are so steadfast in devotional service that they have no other desire. Even if they are offered the four kinds of spiritual opulences:

  1. to achieve residence on My planet,
  2. to have My opulences,
  3. to possess bodily features similar to Mine, and
  4. to gain personal association with Me,

they will refuse to accept them. So what to speak of their desiring anything within the material world.”

In a similar line of thinking, Lord Krishna also says in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.14.14):

“My dear Uddhava, a person whose consciousness is completely absorbed in My thought and activities, does not aspire even to occupy the post of Lord Brahma, or the post of Indra, or the post of lordship over the planets, or the eight kinds of mystic perfections, or even liberation itself.”

So herein we see that liberation is practically automatic for a sincere devotee of the Lord, but the devotional consciousness supersedes the desire for liberation itself. In this way, such a devotee is already liberated though still living in this material world.

Lord Shiva also says something similar to Devi in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (12.10.6):

“My dear Devi, the great brahmana sage Markandeya has attained unflinching faith and devotion unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and as such, he does not aspire for any benedictions, including liberation from the material world.”

Those who are impersonalists may be satisfied simply with the premise of becoming liberated from material existence, but without their individuality they have no chance of engaging in spiritual activities, or entering the transcendental bliss of hearing and chanting the glories or holy names of the Supreme Lord. (Nectar of Devotion, p.37) But those who are devotees of the Lord can automatically give up material life and also enjoy the transcendental bliss of hearing and chanting the wonderful activities of Lord Krishna. (Nectar of Devotion, p.41)

This is the difference, that by merging into the Brahman, one gives up their individuality for spiritual and devotional activities that are connected with God, Lord Krishna and His expansions, which is the nature of the spiritual planets within the Brahman. Thus, they do not experience the sweet nectar of such. Therefore, without the knowledge of such devotion that goes on within the atmosphere of the Vaikuntha planets and Krishnaloka, if there is a desire for activities in the souls who are merged into the Brahman, they must return to the material worlds to start again. Action or the need of expression is natural for us because it is the inherit nature of the soul itself. Even in the material world the saying is that “variety is the spice of life.” Variety means different types of activities. That is why everyone tries so hard for different types of self-expression, whether it is artistic, emotional, intellectual, etc., but love is the highest type of expression that brings happiness even in this material atmosphere. But the soul’s need to love and be loved, which is obvious even in the material worlds, is expressed to its fullest when it revives its connection with God and reaches the spiritual domain.

This is why devotees have no desire for the liberation of merging into the Brahman and losing their individuality, if it means that they will be forced to give up engaging in devotional service to God. As explained in the prayers of Maharaja Prithu in Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.20.24):

“My dear Lord, if after taking liberation I have no chance of hearing the glories of Your Lordship, glories chanted by pure devotees from the core of their hearts in praise of Your lotus feet, and if I have no chance for this honey and transcendental bliss, then I shall never ask for liberation or this so-called spiritual emancipation. I shall simply always pray unto Your Lordship that you may give me millions of tongues and millions of ears, so that I can constantly chant and hear of Your transcendental glories.”

In conclusion, this is the devotional and loving nature of the soul, and this is fully manifested in the spiritual domain of Vaikuntha and Krishnaloka, or even in the consciousness of the mood of devotion to the Lord right here in this material world. This is the difference in the various types of moksha or liberation from material existence and why devotees only wish for that liberation wherein they can continue and fully manifest their spiritual loving activities in connection with God, for this is all that can completely satisfy the soul.


Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa) has dedicated himself to spreading the deepest and most practical levels of spiritual knowledge about the soul–our real identity. Though this world may give us numerous challenges, when we rise above the basic materialistic view and its limited search for solutions, our evolutionary development on all levels greatly accelerates. By recognizing that we are all spiritual beings who are, basically, attempting to achieve the same essentials for our existence–namely love, acceptance, harmony, peace, and happiness, not to mention the ordinary needs of food, water, clothing and shelter–we can reach a new level of cooperation with each other. Stephen has written many books on this and related subjects and studied with A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada becoming initiated into the spiritual line of Brahma-Madhava-Gaudiya sampradaya. He is also president of the Vedic Friends Association.

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