Śrī Praśānt Neti

Jīvanmukti as per Advaita Vedānta Śāstra

1. On ‘jīvanmukti

What Vedānta (or Ācārya) refers to as adhyāsa or avidyā is only a label used for the sake of instruction while imparting the Non-dual (Advaita) message. Śaṃkarācārya never meant that an entity called avidyā/adhyāsa ever really exists.

And this labelling is made taking into account the already *observable and existing* human behavior. That is why we do not explain avidyā/adhyāsa as anything other than (or beyond) the very natural human behavior based on the fundamental notions — ‘I am this’ and ‘this is mine.’ This is a very very important point to be always kept in mind, in my opinion.

The most natural human behavior (both in laukika and vaidika vyavahāra) is what we call adhyāsa/avidyā. That much only.

That means the idea ‘I am this,’ or a slightly refined idea that a pūrva mīmāṃsaka holds i.e. ‘I am in this’, is what is already established/observed.

The idea of being a śarīri (notion of being embodied) is something we take for granted. Vedas do not teach us this idea that “you are embodied and you are bound.” However, it is a trait available naturally in all human beings. Hence, it is नैसर्गिकोयं लोकव्यवहारः, as Bhagavatpāda says in his Adhyāsa Bhāṣya. It is my own behavior and, to some extent, a behavior provisionally supported by certain portions of Veda also, that ‘I take myself to be a śarīri’ and think that ‘I am embodied and bound because of the limited upādhi (the body-mind).’

In order to remove this notion (because this notion is the hetu (cause) for all anarthas (difficulties/miseries/sorrows) and also because everyone with the idea that “I am bound” wishes for and seeks “to be free”, it is but appropriate to present/accept mokṣa (Freedom or Liberation) as a puruṣārtha (a goal worthy enough to be pursued by the human beings).

The paramaguru (Śrī Gauḍapāda Ācārya) points out:

विकल्पो विनिवर्तेत कल्पितो यदि केनचित् ।
उपदेशादयं वादो ज्ञाते द्वैतं न विद्यते 

1.18, Gauḍapāda Kārikās on Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad.

Meaning: If anyone has ever imagined the manifold ideas (such for instance as the teacher, the taught, and the scripture), they might disappear. This explanation is for the purpose of teaching. Duality (implied in the explanation) ceases to exist when the Highest Truth is known. (Trans: Svāmī Nikhilānanda).

I club the idea of mokṣa too into this category of ‘imagined concepts’ for the purpose of teaching. In other words, there is no real bandhana (bondage) to which a real mokṣopayam (a ‘way to get liberated’) is being taught here.

The (mis)conception that we are “bandha,” (embodied/bound), arises in us because we do not “know” the Truth. The Śāstras reveal to us the Truth that we were never in bandhana. Bondage or being embodied is not our real nature, they teach us. We only assume we are in bondage without verification.

Here again, in the statement above, the teaching gives a cause for bandhana when it says “because we do not ‘know’ the Truth.” It does not, however, automatically imply that because of not “knowing” the Truth, there comes into play a “real bandhana.”

As I said, ‘bandhana or the idea of embodiment’ is what a man *finds himself to be in* by default (most naturally). We are simply pointing to that notion already taken for granted by a man by repeating the same label, i.e. bandhana, just to facilitate instruction.

The fact is that everyone assumes ‘to be bound/limited’ by default without examining the nature of the bondage (bandhana). The scripture and the Ācārya goad us to examine our assumption. That’s what Vedānta is all about. Nothing more and nothing less.

These fundamental facts have to be very attentively appreciated and understood. To repeat,

  • We, by default, falsely assume that we are embodied and bound and hence, limited;
  • In order to offset that false assumption, the teaching begins by assigning a ‘cause’ for the de facto assumption on our part. The ‘cause’ is said to be “not knowing the Truth”. This is done just for the purpose of teaching and one should not think that “not knowing the Truth” produces a real bondage!
  • The aim of both the scripture and the teacher is to nudge us to examine our unverified assumptions and discover for ourselves our True intrinsic nature.

Now, with these clarifications in place, we can see what is mukti or mokṣa about.

Mukti’ (liberation) is simply giving up the wrong notion that ‘I am in bandhana / I am embodied,’ based on the śruti pramāṇa which vouchsafes the true nature of Ātmā (the essence or substrate of “I”). That giving up is based on śruti pramāṇa, which results immediately upon ascertainment of the meaning of the Upaniṣad sentences, as Śaṃkara says,

वाक्यार्थज्ञानसमकाल एव तु पर्यवसितो भवति, केवलशब्दप्रकाशितार्थज्ञानमात्रनिष्ठाव्यतिरिक्ताभावात् ।

Śaṃkara at 1.1.6, Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad.

Meaning: [The Knowledge of the brahman] is accomplished simultaneously with the realization of the import of the text; for, there is nothing here except being centered in the Knowledge revealed by mere words. … (Trans: Sītārāma Śāstrī).

And that giving up, when we closely look at, is giving up the wrong idea that ‘I am bound’. But it is not about a real mukti from a real bandhanaThe nature of the Self (Ātman) is that It is never in bondage.

And most importantly that nature of the Self as eternally free is same in all – Self is, after all, One, not many!

Summing up, my conclusions are:

  1. In śuddha śāṃkara prakriyā, if we have to teach about mukti, jīvanmukti alone is mukti. Though we use the word videhamukti here and there, it is not primary — all instruction “completes” with jīvanmukti.
  2. The jīvanmukti we speak about is the intuition into real nature of Ātmā which is based on the ascertainment of the meaning of the Upaniṣad sentence that ‘Ātmā is ever aja (unborn), advaya (Non-dual).’ Therefore, irrespective of my so-called status of liberation, Ātmā stands in Its real nature ever liberated and my wrong notion of taking Ātmā to be bound never makes it really bound! Recall adhyāsa Bhāṣya vākya,

तत्रैवं सति, यत्र यदध्यासः, तत्कृतेन दोषेण गुणेन वा अणुमात्रेणापि स न सम्बध्यते

Adhyāsa Bhāṣya

Meaning: This being so, whenever there is superimposition of one thing on another, the locus is not affected in any way either by the merits or demerits of the thing superimposed. (Trans: Svāmī Gambhīrānanda).

  1. There is no special status for jīvanmukta in this grand prakriyā, in the sense that Ātmā is not many and it is never in bondage to start with.

2. Only ‘mukti’, No ‘mukta

Does this all amount to showing disrespect or too quick an intellectual claim that “I am brahman and after all this guru is also my dream character?”

The answer is that it will never be the case for a proper adhikāri.

It is always like how Śrī Bhagavatpāda Śaṃkara expresses in a concluding salutation for Māṇḍūkya Kārikā:

यत्प्रज्ञालोकभासा प्रतिहतिमगमत्स्वान्तमोहान्धकारो
मज्जोन्मज्जच्च घोरे ह्यसकृदुपजनोदन्वति त्रासने मे ।
यत्पादावाश्रितानां श्रुतिशमविनयप्राप्तिरग्न्या ह्यमोघा
तत्पादौ पावनीयौ भवभयविनुदौ सर्वभावैर्नमस्ये ॥

verse 3, Śaṃkara at the end of Māṇḍūkya Kārikā.

Meaning: I make obeisance with my whole being to those holy feet—the dispellers of the fear of this chain of births and deaths — of my great teacher who, through the light of his illumined reason, destroyed the darkness of delusion enveloping my mind; who destroyed forever my (notions of) appearance and disappearance in this terrible ocean of innumerable births and deaths; and who makes all others also that take shelter at his feet, attain to the unfailing knowledge of Scriptures, peace and the state of perfect non-differentiation.

Therefore, earnest seekers always remember that:

ईश्वरो गुरुरात्मेति मूर्तिभेदविभागिने ।
व्योमवद् व्याप्तदेहाय दक्षिणामूर्तये नमः ॥

1.30, Mānasollāsa1.

Meaning: Īśvara – Guru – Ātmān – (Underlying) these different forms of (apparent) separation, who pervades, like Space (i.e. Consciousness-space or cidākāśa), Salutations to that Dakṣiṇāmūrti.

All in all, the status of jīvanmukti should never be a sign of prestige or high achievement. The respect a student holds for his teacher should never be based on the pride of being under the tutelage of a jīvanmukta teacher. It should only make the student humble but not filled with pride.


Question 1:  Who or what exactly the entity that can be christened “jīvanmukta”?

In my comment, as you see, I have mentioned only about “mukti”. I have not put forward my understanding about “mukta”. In fact, I have used word “mukta” only once (in conclusion # 3, Part – 1/3) and that too in saying ‘there is no special status to ‘jīvanmukta’. Whereas I used the word mukti 11 times. Therefore, my comment was only about mukti but not about mukta.

As I understood it, from the viewpoint where teaching and seeking are valid, mokṣa is puruṣārtha and jñāna is means to mokṣa inasmuch as jñāna itself is mokṣa. Therefore, my understanding is, there is jñāna but not jñāni. There is mukti but not mukta.

It is always an onlooker who asks about jñāni and/or about mukta, similar to how Arjuna enquired asking:

स्थितप्रज्ञस्य का भाषा समाधिस्थस्य केशव ।
स्थितधीः किं पृभाषेत किमासीत व्रजेत किम् ॥

2.54, BG.

Meaning: What, Keśava, is the description of one of steady Knowledge, who is constant in contemplation? How does one of steady Knowledge speak, sit, and move?

To such an enquiry, I agree there exists a teaching such as:

प्रजहाति यदा कामान्सर्वान्पार्थ मनोगतान्… ।
आत्मन्येवात्मना तुष्टः स्थितप्रज्ञस्तदोच्यते ॥

2.55, BG.

Meaning: When a man, satisfied in the Self alone by himself, completely casts off all the desires of the mind, then is he said to be one of steady Knowledge.

But what is the main or primary teaching of Śāstra? i.e. Is it paramagati or about ‘one who attained paramagati’?

As I understood it, the teaching is about paramagati but not about the holder of paramagati. There are indeed teachings about the ‘man of realization’ here and there. I think the purpose of such teaching is only to make the so-called seeker (i.e. one who considers himself to be a seeker) take up a sādhana, so that it helps the seeker to reduce the attachment to his misconceptions and thus indirectly aid in “bestowing” mokṣa (note bestowing in quotes).

Bhagavatpāda says:

सर्वत्रैव हि अध्यात्मशास्त्रे कृतार्थलक्षणानि यानि तान्येव साधनानि उपदिश्यन्ते, यत्नसाध्यत्वात् ।
यानि यत्नसाध्यानि साधनानि लक्षणानि च भवन्ति तानि ।

Śaṃkara at 2.55, BGB

“For in all the scriptures without exception, dealing, with spirituality, whatever are the characteristics of the man of realization are themselves presented as the disciplines for an aspirant, because these (characteristics) are the result of effort. And those that are the disciplines requiring effort, they become the characteristics (of the man of realization).”

That much only is the purpose of teaching related to the ‘man of realization.’ The purpose is not to promote a concept of jñāni and mukta in the sense that as if person/personality holds this jñāna and/or that jñāna resides in a specific body (and not in other bodies).

This way taking jñāna to be personal and ask about jñāni is what an ignorant does and Śāstra takes advantage of that and prescribes sādhana. As I understood brahmajñāna is impersonal.

Therefore, for the question “Who or what exactly the entity that can be christened “jīvanmukta”?”, my answer is:

If this question is what an onlooker is asking, then Śāstra provisionally gives certain lakṣaṇas as indicative of mukti. But even while giving such lakṣaṇas, Śāstra’s ultimate message is always:

न निरोधो न चोत्पत्तिर्न बद्धो न च साधकः ।
न मुमुक्षुर्न वै मुक्त इत्येषा परमार्थता ॥

2.32, GK.

Meaning: There is no dissolution, no birth, none in bondage, none aspiring for wisdom, no seeker of liberation and none liberated. This is the Absolute Truth.

When we pay attention to what is negated in this sloka, we find that all *concepts* stand negated.

निरोधः(nirodhaḥ — dissolution / death);

उत्पत्ति(Utpatti – birth);

बद्धः (baddhaḥ — one in bondage); 

साधकः (sādhakaḥ — one aspiring for wisdom);

मुमुक्षुः (mumukṣuḥ — one seeking liberation); 

मुक्तः(muktaḥ – one who is liberated);

all the above words in the verse are mere *concepts* out of Ātmā-anātmā adhyāsa (out of identification with upādhi – body mind complex) and therefore, stand sublated.

The significant point to be noted in the verse at 2.32, GK (which, incidentally, appears in four Upaniṣads), is that like everything else, मुक्तः(muktaḥ – one who is liberated) is also a concept and hence, gets rescinded. However, मुक्ति(mukti – Liberation) alone is not *denied*.

We can infer from the above that there is no मुक्तः (muktaḥ), but there is only मुक्ति (mukti), which is Ātmā Itself, One without a second. In other words, there is no ज्ञानी (jñānī), and there is only ज्ञान (jñāna), which is none other than Ātmā Itself.

In short, jīvanmukti is impersonal. So, also brahmajñāna is impersonal.

Question 2The Body-mind are insentient and they perish; they have no mukti.

The ‘pratyagātmā’ is actually Ātmān which is equivalent to brahman and does not need mukti.

The body-mind-pratyagātmā combo is just an illusion and hence no scope for an illusory entity to have mukti.

Fine. Let it be so. “Having no mukti” does not contradict the ultimate message – Ātmā is never in bondage, hence, no siddhānta hāni.

3. Imaginary ‘mokṣa’ for Imagined ‘bandha’

Question 3: The body that (notionally) housed previously a seeker…

Please Sir, body does not really house Consciousness. Not even the so-called limited consciousness. But it is Consciousness in which body appears just like any other object – and this is easily graspable even to the so-called limited consciousness, with a bit of subtle and impartial observation.

Question 3 (Contd.): … who is now liberated, (the body) is just a part of the ‘world’ which only exists as an “appearance” in the perception of the ‘ignoramuses.’ That body is now ‘without’ anyone as a claimant of ‘ownership’ to it. …

Let it be so. What is the problem if there is no claimant of ownership to a body?, I ask the ignoramuses.

Well, is not the Śāstra saying that taking oneself to be owner of the body (in the sense ‘I am this’ and ‘this is mine’) ignorance?, I ask the ignoramuses.

Also, is it that the ignoramuses are concerned about ‘no claimant of ownership’ because they are worried as to who/how can a body is kept / taken care of, if there is no claimant of ownership?

There is no need for such a worry because Bhagavad-Gita tells us:

प्रकृते: क्रियमाणानि गुणै: कर्माणि सर्वश: |
अहङ्कारविमूढात्मा कर्ताहमिति मन्यते ||

3.27, BG.

Meaning: All activities are carried out by the three modes of material nature. But in ignorance, the ‘self,’ deluded by false identification with the body, thinks itself to be the doer.

Thus, by reminding Gītācārya’s vākya, I would ask the ignoramuses to enquire first of all into the validity of their own claim about being the ‘owner of the body’. When their claim itself is not correct, why then worry about the modus operandi of the body of a so-called mukta?

Question 4: The now freed pratyagātman from Its own imagination of limitation is imperceptible to the senses and mind; therefore, none can see it and call it a mukta

First of all, pratyagātman is thought to be bound, which is a wrong notion, because pratyagātman being brahman, was never really bound. Then what to say about its “now becoming free,” as if it is an event in time? – it is also a wrong notion only.

Question 4 (Contd.): Thus, there is no entity that can be labeled a ‘jīvanmukta’.

Let it be so, Sir! As I said before, we are least bothered about locating a mukta. We are only interested in mukti but not mukta and mukta’s whereabouts.

Question 5: After the seeker has done śravaṇa, manana and nididhyāsana as needed, it is tantamount to say that the manifold (kṣetra) just continues on with all business as usual with just a notional change happening in the mind of the former seeker. ‘Jīvanmukti’ then gets trivialized to being a mere ‘conceptual’ exercise.

This kind of value-seeking is what an ignorant man does. That is why to such an ignorant man, Śāstra gives certain lakṣaṇas about a man of realization as sādhanas. I think the lack of sādhana and hence, lack of cittaśuddhi is what made this ignorant man look for value in mokṣa. If the adhikāritvam (eligibility) is ripe enough, the worry about value-seeking out of jīvanmukti drops off – the Knowledge that ‘Ātmā is pūrṇam’ takes hold.

On the other hand, if there is a value-seeking and thereby worrying about mukti becoming trivialized, the onlooker/seeker should stop worrying about mukti and focus on prescribed sādhana – because it shows that this ignorant man is lacking cittaśuddhi and seeking value in mukti. Moreover, it also shows that he takes mokṣa to be an event in time which is also wrong.

I don’t think there is any better way to deal with this issue because, when the teaching is urging us to recognize the already pūrṇa Ātmā, what is this unnecessary worry about mukti being trivialized?

Question 6: While a few seekers may be driven by the insatiable desire to “know” what is the Absolute really real Reality in the midst of ever changing ‘jagat,’ majority of seekers look for a Vedāntic solution for their body-mind related problems and suffering. They tested everything available at the body-mind-world level and failed to get a lasting solution to happiness in the time-space-phenomenal world.

If the manifold were to continue on after liberation, the now-liberated-seeker will still be burdened with a body and has to continue to face its suffering, need for food etc. and the downstream enchilada that ensues.

Will Advaita not become then a mere ‘coping mechanism’ using denial as a tool to say, ‘I am not this body nor mind?’

There is no continuation of the manifold in that “state” and we say so on the strength of the Upaniṣad pramāṇa!

Let the seeker hold on to śraddhā on śruti vākya and properly enquire into the reality of manifold (and its associated afflictions) by taking avasthātraya vicāra through a proper prakriyā. It becomes clear that both manifold and its afflictions are not real as neither of them are present in Deep sleep while you remain in your True nature as ever, asangaḥ.

Therefore, all in all, the point is, for an imagined bandhana, let there be an imagined mokṣa. That is why adhyāsa and means of removing adhyāsa, both are within adhyāsa only and Ātmān/brahman remains ever free!

Oṃ Tat Sat

“Though I owe my allegiance to Truth itself but not to a teacher per se, to address the interest of the readers who may want to know more about my “allegiance / inclination,” I take this opportunity to say: ‘I am grateful to (a wide spectrum of) the teachings of Vedānta which I happened to come across by listening to teachers like Śrī Svāmī Tattvavidānanda Sarasvatījī of Ārṣa Vidyā Gurukulam on one hand and Brahmaśrī Yellamrāju Śrīnivāsa Rāojī on the other. I make obeisance with my whole being to the holy feet of Śrī Svāmī Satchidānandendra Sarasvatījī, of Holenarasipura, who through his books, corrected my misunderstandings and pointed me to the right method of Vedānta, which shines in all its uniqueness in the Prasthānatraya Bhāṣya of Sri Śaṃkara Bhagavatpāda.”

  1. The Mānasollāsa is a commentary (vārttika) by Śrī Sūreśvarācārya to the Śaṃkara’s hymn Dakṣiṇāmūrti Stotra. The total number of ślokas out of the ten verses of the original is 367 [Ed. note].