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What is moksha?

Moksha (mokṣa) equates to freedom, but freedom from what, exactly? In mythology and popular culture, moksha is synonymous with “enlightenment,” which has been misconstrued for centuries as a kind of special spiritual experience or event that somehow, instantly and magically, grants the seeker omniscience and everlasting peace. However, moksha isn’t as romantic as storytellers would have us believe. In fact, moksha might be simply be defined as the permanent removal of ignorance regarding one’s true nature. According to scripture, moksha is a release from the cycle of birth and death, commonly known as saṃsāra. Maya causes us to misinterpret reality and identify with that which we are not, which throws us into samsara, a sort of negative psychological condition that makes us susceptible to suffering. So, samsara is the opposite of moksha. One binds based on our desires, actions and their results, while the other releases.

Vedanta describes four human pursuits sought consciously or unconsciously by all human beings. They are security (artha), pleasure (kama), virtue (dharma), and a fourth—freedom (moksha). Although moksha might be the least obvious of human pursuits, everyone is pursuing moksha whether they know it or not, because everything we do, we do to gain freedom. We seek work to be free from debt, seek entertainment to be free from boredom, or seek a partner to be free from loneliness (to name just a few). Vedanta teaches that the reason we are constantly seeking freedom is because the feeling of being bound is unnatural to us. Thus, we scour the earth trying to find objects, people and experiences that will permanently provide us with a sense of release and satisfaction only to be left in the end, disappointed and exhausted. And yet, ultimately, what we’re all seeking isn’t more security and satisfaction, but freedom from feeling insecure and unsatisfied in the first place.

Moksha can also be seen as the result of assimilating Self-knowledge to the extent that I no longer have any doubt regarding the truth about my identity. It’s a gradual transition away from identifying with the limited body-mind to identifying with limitless, unchanging, eternal, infinite, non-dual awareness (a.k.a., the Self). However, it’s important to understand that moksha isn’t something to be attained at some time in the far off future. You already have it because it’s your actual nature. It’s easy to get confused by the idea that the individual must first obtain knowledge and then get moksha. But the knowledge one gets only helps the seeker to see that which was obscured by ignorance. What is “gained” was yours all along—you just didn’t know it.

Also important to understand is that moksha isn’t for the Self, it’s for the jīva (individual), who is born into ignorance. The limitless Self doesn’t need moksha because it was never bound in the first place. In the end, we can say that moksha is freedom from and for the jiva. It’s the ability to discriminate between the jiva and the Self, thereby, relinquishing one from a sense of doership. The jiva is fine the way he or she is, they only have an ignorance problem. Once this problem is resolved, they will now identify as the Self, but still appear as the jiva.

Similar to the old Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water,” nothing particularly changes after moksha. You may be omniscient in the sense that you know that “which there remains nothing else to be known,” and you might also have gained everlasting peace because it’s now obvious that your true essence is that which is never born or dies; but otherwise, reality for the jiva doesn’t change. Life continues as it did before with its joy and sorrow, except now the jiva has a new outlook. Instead of identifying with the unreliable body-mind with its conditioning and likes and dislikes, the jiva identifies as the Self.

However, the jiva’s work isn’t finished once moksha is gained. While there is no expectation that the jiva should change its persona post-moksha, he or she will still make an effort to monitor and diminish any lingering, binding tendencies (vāsanas), as well as continue to follow both universal and personal dharma in order to reap the benefits and maintain a happy existence for itself. He or she will also never stop discriminating between satya (what is real; the truth) and mithyā (what is apparently real; illusory). Because as the wise say, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”


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