Recently I spoke to an acquaintance who is practicing “meditation” and I asked him the goal of his practice. The answer was, “Liberation. To merge with the one.” Expressions such as “annihilation of the ego” and “merging with the Supreme” are commonly passed back and forth in this age of the widely attended Yoga and meditation class. Regarding liberation, one significant question is—what is liberation? And also, we want to know—what are the chances of a person actually gaining liberation? For answers, we best go to the source of the very concept of liberation and the place where all its techniques are elaborately and carefully taught; that is, the scriptural literature of India, called the Vedas. Yoga technique and meditation are given in gist in the Bhagavad-gita, spoken by Lord Krsna, the Personality of Godhead, and expounded further in the Srimad-Bhagavatam which is considered the postgraduate study of the Bhagavad-gita.
Liberation generally refers to freedom from the bodily concept of life. But unless there is positive, non-bodily activity or spiritual activity, then liberation is a merely theoretical, lip-service liberation. To sit in a posture of meditation and think, “I am moving the moon, I am moving the sun, I am moving the stars,” and then 10 minutes later to be dictated to by the tongue—”I must have a cigarette”—is not liberation; nor at the time of death can such a “yogi” be expected to be liberated to the spiritual sky. Without practical devotional service to Sri Krsna, Giver of Liberation, the idea of liberation is just a negative concept of material life. The Vedic literature describes four material categories of civilized life, and liberation is among them. The first is religiousness. This means to perform sacrifice, churchgoing or pious acts with the aim of being rewarded by promotion to a heavenly material planet. The aim behind such acts is personal gratification; by being religious I will be rewarded. It is noted by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami in the Srimad-Bhagavatam that nowadays the church, mosque or temple is an empty place because the people believe that they can get their desired economic ends without making prayers to God. Therefore, the second material activity of civilized persons is economic development—building, making money, doing business. The third activity is sense gratification culminating in sex life. In fact, sex life is the essential background for the first two material activities. The fourth, mukti or liberation, is a little different, although it is a material activity. After being frustrated by all the material activities and seeing that either failure or success are really failure due to the disadvantages of birth, death, disease and old age, a person desires liberation. He desires to become One with the Supreme. He is too bitter with all his experiences to be happy in material life. But in itself this is only a negative concept. By such liberation he thinks he wants to lose the individuality which has caused him so much pain, and instead, to merge with the Oneness of spiritual existence.
The background for understanding liberation starts with gaining true identity of the self. In the beginning stages it expresses itself in the desire to be One with the Spirit. This is called Brahman realization. If someone is actually realized in Brahman that is a great thing. It is called Brahma-bhuta stage, and it is characterized by joyfulness. The joyfulness is due to understanding that, “I am not this body.” This is carefully described by Lord Krsna in the Second Chapter of the Bhagavad-gita. The living entity is there declared to be spirit-soul, or Brahman. In the Third Chapter Lord Krsna reveals that for full realization of Brahman, you have to work in Brahman. Bhagavad-gita (3.5) says, “Nobody can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment.” And in his Purport to that verse, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami writes, “This is not a question of embodied life; it is the nature of the soul to be always active. The proof is that without the presence of the spiritual soul there is no movement of the material body. The body is only a dead vehicle to be worked by the spirit soul and therefore it is the nature of the soul itself to be always active, and cannot stop even for a moment. The spirit soul has to be engaged in the good work of Krsna consciousness, otherwise it will be engaged in occupations dictated by the illusory energy.” When one realizes “I am Brahman,” that means he has no death, just like Krsna, the Supreme Brahman. This is a joyful position, “I am not this perishable body, that is not my self, I am spirit soul.” That is all well and good, but then, what do I do? It is not that the liberated state is without activities. This question was asked by Sanatana Gosvami, the learned disciple of Lord Caitanya: “You have said that I am already liberated, now what are my duties in the liberated state?” The impersonalists, however, do not like to take up the devotional service path; they are simply desirous of merging into the One, described as the Brahma-jyoti effulgence. That destination is explained in the Gita. Brahma-jyoti is not material, it is the spiritual effulgence coming from the Body of Sri Krsna; it is eternal spiritual light. This light illumines the spiritual world and the naturally dark material world is lit by its reflection. And to merge in this light is the goal of the impersonal liberation. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, who is a fully realized devotee of the Personality of Godhead, states the disadvantages of aiming at the Brahma-jyoti as the topmost goal: “In the Brahma-jyoti the spirit souls on account of their impersonal views are devoid of a body, exactly as here in maya there are ghosts who are devoid of any gross bodies. The ghost, being devoid of a body, suffers terribly because he is unable to satisfy his senses. The spirit souls in the Brahma-jyoti, although they have no desire for sense gratification, feel inconvenience like the ghost; and they fall down again in maya’s atmosphere and develop a material body. In the Bhagavatam therefore it is said that that intelligence of persons who are impersonalists and do not develop the dormant devotional attitude is not pure; because for want of a spiritual body, they come down again to the material world. In the Bhagavad-gita it is clearly said by the Lord that the only way of not coming back to the material world is to be promoted to the spiritual planets. For the impersonalists there is no such assurance of not falling down in the whole Vedic literature. The conclusion is that without developing the spiritual body and without being situated on one of the spiritual planets, the so-called liberation is also illusion, or it is not complete. A spirit-soul who falls down from the Brahma-jyoti to the Kingdom of maya may have a chance of associating with a pure devotee, and then he may be elevated to the spiritual planets of Vaikuntha or to the Goloka Vrndavana. From the Brahma-jyoti there is no direct promotion to the spiritual planets.”
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, many questions regarding liberation are asked by Devahuti the mother of the incarnation of Godhead Kapiladeva. Lord Kapila spoke the Sankhya philosophy whereby the material entanglement is analyzed and found to be not the true identify of the spirit soul. Lord Kapila describes to His mother that liberation from material entanglement can be considered in three different ways. As expounded by philosophers like Lord Buddha it is annihilation or cessation of material existence altogether; and after the cessation of material existence there is void. Then another concept, according to the Sankarite school, is that the material existence is false, and therefore one has to transfer oneself into the spiritual existence and that is not void but spiritual existence without variegatedness. This is the Brahma-jyoti. Devahuti, however, asks not only for freedom from matter, not only to be situated in the spiritual existence without variegatedness, but to be always associated with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As expounded by Kapiladeva this is actually the goal of the Yoga system. Some target at impersonal Brahman, some aim at the Paramatma realization and some aim directly at the Supreme Personality of Godhead. By understanding the Supreme Personality of Godhead, all other features including His different energies and manifestations become understood. As A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami once said, “When you get to the top, everything is included. This Bhakti-Yoga is explained in Bhagavad-gita where it is said that after many, many births of understanding. when one comes to understand that Vasudeva the Supreme Personality of Godhead is everything, he is a Mahatma, a great soul—and that is very rare. It is further explained in Bhagavatam that the Lord is called Hrsikesa, the Master of the senses. The senses and mind are naturally inclined to work, but when they are materially contaminated they work for some material benefit or for the service of the demigods, but actually they are meant for serving the Supreme Personality of Godhead. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami writes to this point in Bhagavatam: “When the senses, without any reason, without any material profit and without any selfish motive, are engaged in the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, that is devotional service and that service spirit is far, far better than salvation (mukti). Bhakti, then, begins after liberation. Without being liberated nobody can engage the senses in the service of the Lord. When the senses are engaged either in material activities or by Vedic injunction, it is for a motive of personal gratification, but when the same senses are engaged in the service of the Lord, there is no motive, and that is the natural, original inclination of the mind. When the mind is not deviated but fully engaged in Krsna consciousness for devotional service of the Supreme Person, that is beyond the most aspired after liberation from material encagement.”
There is a nice example regarding liberation in the case of a man who is confined to bed with a fever. His fever is compared to material activities. To bring down the high temperature of the fever can be accomplished by Brahman realization. Having brought the fever down, the man may be still lying in bed, in convalescence. Of course, full health is not enjoyed until he can get up from the bed and resume his normal activities. Those who are impersonalists or mayavadis, however, do not desire to get up from the bed of convalescence, but are content simply that their fever has gone down. They are described as afraid that because activities in the feverish state were so bitter, painful, if they take up activities again, it will be painful again. In this way the impersonalists fail to take up transcendental loving service of the Personality of Godhead in individual spiritual form. Refusing to take up full healthy activities, one puts himself in the dangerous position of facing a relapse in health: the patient who doesn’t resume his normal activities cannot expect to stay fixed in inactive convalescence, rather he will fall ill again. It is commonly experienced that those sannyasis or svamis of the impersonalist path, after declaring “all is false” but failing to take on the activities of real liberation, fall down to the material platform and become engaged sometimes in humanitarianism and material welfare work, opening hospitals, etc. For failing to take on the greatest service, preaching Krsna consciousness to those in the clutclies of illusory matter, the impersonalist svami falls back into feverish material activities. The failure is his neglect of the Lotus Feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, called Mukunda, the Giver of Liberation.
The endeavor to get liberation from the material encagernent is automatically served in devotional service. A devotee doesn’t have to try separately for liberation. Sri Bilvamangala explains, “If I have unflinching devotion unto the Lotus Feet of the Supreme Lord, then mukti or liberation serves me as my maid servant.” Liberation is no problem at all. The impersonalists are after mukti and they undergo severe penances and austerities to attain it, but the bhakta passes liberation by engaging his senses and especially chanting Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare and accepting the remnants of foodstuff offered to the Personality of Godhead. As soon as the senses are controlled in the tongue, the other senses follow automatically and the perfection of the Yoga principle is there. The devotee Prabhananda says that for a devotee sense control is as easy as anything, the pleasures of gorgeous life and fabulous duration of the upper planets is just phantasmagoria, and the pleasure of merging into the Supreme is seen as hellish. Lord Kapila states before His mother: “A pure devotee who is attached in the activities of devotional service and always engaged in the service of the Lotus Feet of the Lord does not ever desire to become One with Him. Such devotees are unflinchingly engaged and always glorify the Pastimes of the Lord.” Liberation becomes of no consequence and is realized as a material desire tainted with selfishness.
There are five kinds of liberation stated in the Vedic scriptures. One is to become otic with the Supreme Personality of Godhead or to forsake one’s individuality and to merge into the supreme spirit. A devotee never accepts such kind of liberation. The other four kinds of liberation are: to be promoted into the same planet as the Supreme Lord, to achieve the same opufence as the Lord, to associate personally with the Supreme Lord, and to attain the same bodily feature as the Supreme Lord. The pure devotee does not aspire to any of the five kinds of liberation, and especially he rejects the prospect of merging with the impersonal effulgence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead as being hellish. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes in the Bhagavatam: “Many so-called devotees say that we may worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the conditioned state but ultimately there is no personality, the Absolute Truth is impersonal. One can imagine a personal form of the impersonal for the time being and as soon as one becomes liberated, the worship is stopped—that is the theory. Actually, if the impersonalists merge into the Personal luster of the Supreme Person that is no different from His Personal Body, but that sort of oneness is not accepted by a devotee. The devotees are simply wanting to be fully engaged in reciprocatory loving devotional service.”
Aside from its desirability, what are the chances of the meditators really attaining liberation? The answer is stated in the Twelfth Chapter of Bhagavad-gita:
He whose mind is fixed on My Personal Form, always engaged in worshiping Me with great and transcendental faith, is considered by Me to be most perfect. But those who fully worship the unmanifested, that which is beyond the perception of the senses, the all-pervading, inconceivable, fixed and immovable—the impersonal conception of the truth … at last achieve Me. For those whose minds are attached to the nonmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme Lord, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that unmanifested discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied. (Gita, 12.1-2)
Speaking as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Kapila, the incarnation of Lord Krsna, makes clear that there is no salvation outside of direct reference to Lord Visnu (Krsna): “The terrible fear of death and birth can never be forsaken by anyone or by resorting to any other shelter than Myself, because I am the almighty Lord the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the original Source of all creation, and also the Supreme Soul of all souls.”
One may try to understand the Absolute Truth by mental speculation or through the mystic Yoga process, but unless he comes to surrender his attempts cannot give him liberation. That is the conclusion of Bhagavatam. Lord Brahma prayed to the Lord: “They think they are liberated or one with God, but in spite of thinking in such a puffed-up way, their intelligence is not laudable.” In spite of austerities, then, if there is no surrender unto the Personality of Godhead, the intelligence is understood to be not clear. The nondevotee transcendentalists can go to the brink of spiritual realization in Brahman realization, and they are suspended in the effulgence; but because they have no transcendental activities they fall down.
As for devotional activities, Lord Caitanya prescribed five items as the sum and substance of performing devotional service. These are: 1. to associate with devotees; 2. to read Srimad-Bhagavatam; 3. to worship the Deities; 4. to chant the Holy Name; 5. to live in a holy place. As the perfect devotee, Lord Caitanya described His own desires, transcendental to the desire for liberation from the chain of birth and death: “O Almighty Lord, I have no desire for accumulating wealth nor have I any desire to enjoy beautiful women; neither do I want numbers of followers. What I want only is that I may have Your causeless devotional service in my life birth after birth.”
Liberation does not mean to grow four heads and four arms, but to change the consciousness, to live in understanding. The bodily encagement means sense gratification, and when that is dissipated in favor of pleasing the transcendental senses of Krsna, then liberation is there. Finally, the pure devotee never thinks that he is fit for liberation. He prays, “My dear Lord, I may be born anywhere, that does not matter; but let me be born as an ant in the house of a devotee.” A pure devotee does not pray to the Lord for liberation from this material bondage. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami describes the mind of the devotee: “He thinks he is fit for being sent into the lowest region of all considering his past life, his mischievous and miscreant activities. Anyone in this material world must have committed so many misdeeds. If I am trying to become a devotee it does not mean I was 100% pious in my past life.” Therefore the devotee is always conscious of his real position. He knows that only for the purpose of attaining his full surrender unto Krsna, the Lord makes the suffering of the devotee shorter. Ultimately, even his attainment of the topmost spiritual planet, Krsna-loka, is not desired by the devotee; he goes there but he does not desire it. His desire is simply to work in service mood for Krsna and Krsna’s devotees. Liberation then is not the goal of spiritual life, but it is an automatic by-product of devotional service. With that understanding we can achieve success.