Liberation (designated by Sanskrit terms including mokṣa, mukti, nirvāṇa, kaivalya, apavarga, and others) is release from the cycle of life and death fueled by karma, i.e., actions and their results. A variety of South Asian philosophies that disagree on many other fundamental issues agree on this much: that since life intrinsically involves suffering—since birth necessarily brings in its train old age, sickness, and death—liberation from the same is the summum bonum. Karma not only fuels the cycle (saṃsāra) but is fueled by it too. It is thus usually considered to require immense time and effort, not to mention great good fortune, to break the cycle and be released from the bondage (bandha) of suffering, ignorance, and finitude generally.
Freedom has been a central concern of philosophers in far-flung places and times, but takes very different shapes depending on the conditions from which one seeks to be free and the goods that one hopes to be free to attain. Although set in culturally-specific cosmological frameworks, the basic South Asian concept of liberation captures certain elements that should be acceptable to any theorist of freedom, namely: the conditions from which liberation is sought are characterized by limitation and suffering; the limitations in question are imposed upon our actions and their results; but our actions, with the help of knowledge, may transcend these conditions to attain ultimate satisfaction. Such a view of liberation can be placed in fruitful dialogue with accounts of the metaphysics and ethics of free will, the philosophy of intentional action, and political discourses of emancipation.
As far as we can tell from the Rig Veda—the oldest South Asian liturgies known—liberation did not much figure into the early Vedic religion, which focused instead on the rewards of ritual in this world and in the next. In the middle of the 1st millennium B.C.E., however, the cyclic view of life appeared and a great shift occurred in which endless births and deaths came to appear rather tiresome and painful. In the Upaniṣads are found some of the earliest mentions of karma as an ethically-charged determinant of one’s worldly fate and the importance of transcending its bondage. In the canonical Buddhist diagnosis from around the same time, the source of this bondage and suffering is ultimately desire and its solution is detachment.
Beginning in the same period, the Jains—followers of the Jinas, literally “conquerers” of the afflictions of life—draw the contours of liberation into particularly sharp relief. From the earliest Jain scriptures, karma is a material substance that binds the spirit to the world, obstructing and distorting one’s vision and knowledge in the process. Through moral and yogic practices that quell the passions and minimize the negative impact of one’s actions upon other sentient beings, the Jain path of purification seeks to expurgate karma and stop any further influx into the soul.
Thus one develops right vision, knowledge, and conduct, which consummate in omniscience (kevala/kaivalya), as described by the authoritative Sanskrit catechism That Which Is (Tattvārthasūtra) of Umāsvāti/Umāsvāmi around the middle of the first millennium C.E. Some benign karma may remain after the most deleterious kind is removed, allowing a omniscient master to remain embodied in the world and teach for a period. Ultimately, though, a soul that has attained such a level will be perfected (siddha), having transcended all karmic action and now experiencing its eternally pure nature of consciousness and bliss at the roof of the universe where it has arisen after jettisoning its karmic burden. Purged of adventitious baggage, the soul is now pure and thus essentially identical to every other perfected soul. It does not, however, lose its individuality as imagined in Vedantic monism or Buddhist idealism: it maintains its particular identity and differentiation according place, time, state, and even shape, as well as various more arcane parameters.
Such temporary persistence of karma and ultimate retention of elements of individuality may seem to compromise the degree of transcendence offered by the Jain notion of liberation. But it serves the important function of maintaining the coherence and salience of the very notion of karma and the yogic practices meant to eliminate it. These practices seem fruitless in the most gnoseological forms of Vedānta and Buddhism: if liberation solely requires dissociation from the gratuitious aspects of one’s personality and the insight that one truly is not who one usually takes oneself to be, karma turns out to be an illusion and one can apparently dispense with the physical ascetic practices that target it.
This tension between asceticism and a purely gnoseological approach to liberation is felt acutely in the eminent Jain philosopher Kundakunda during the period of Umāsvāmi. Many philosophers in the ensuing millennium wrestle with this tension and resolve it in their own ways; but it is not until the rather heterodox Adhyātma movement at the dawn of modernity that Jain thinkers inspired by Kundakunda boldly disclaim the importance of all external practices, favoring the liberating power of inner faith.
Overview of significant references/uses
Jaini’s is the classic work on the purificatory path of asceticism seeking liberation, although it is surprisingly silent on the nature and achievement of liberation itself. Potter’s rather idiosyncratic reading of the basic concerns of Indian philosophy centers liberation and provides an unusual treatment of the Jain theory of relations. Tatia reviews Jain criticisms of other philosophical attempts to reconcile gnoseological liberation with the metaphysics of the soul and karma. Johnson reads Kundakunda’s ambivalence between asceticism and gnoseology sociologically as a capitulation to the laity’s need for opportunities to pursue liberation without having to go in for the full renunciation required of mendicant specialists.
mokṣa, mukti, nirvāṇa, kevala, kaivalya, apavarga, saṃsāra, karma, bandha, tapas, siddha
Liberation, freedom, bondage, renunciation, ascesis, asceticism, identity
Jaini, Padmanabh S. The Jaina Path of Purification. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Johnson, W. J. Harmless Souls: Karmic Bondage and Religious Change in Early Jainism with Special Reference to Umāsvāti and Kundakunda. 1st ed. Lala Sunder Lal Jain Research Series, vol. 9. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1995.
Potter, Karl H. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1991.
Tatia, Nathmal. Studies in Jaina Philosophy. Sanmati Publication 6. Banaras: Jain Cultural Research Society, 1951.