In the number of years I have been teaching both Indian and Chinese philosophical traditions, I have found that the topic that students in general have the most trouble engaging with is that of “release from rebirth.” Of course, this issue is treated differently in the various schools of Brāhmiṇical thought as well as, in somewhat distinct vocabulary, in the Jaina and Buddhist traditions. But since I usually begin introductory-level survey classes with pre-darśana Brāhmiṇical texts, I will write about it here under the general notion of mokṣa. In any event, my experience has been that, while students in intro courses are intrigued with a number of things from early South Asian thought and practice, what they often see as the refined psychological insights of yoga and the concrete practicality of the early Buddhist approach to life, for example, and while, by the time we come to early Chinese schools, they feel even more comfortable, the notion of “release” continues to be problematic for them, even one which provokes at least mild intellectual hostility. It would seem important for the regular instructor of Indian philosophy to understand why this can often be so, as well as have some good approaches for remedying the impasse.
To some degree, of course, it is not difficult to comprehend why the concept of mokṣa could be a potential nemesis for Western students, even those from other religious backgrounds, and especially when they are young. In the American context, identity, worldly achievement, the prolongation of life, the pull of attachment to other people and precisely the production and cultivation of desire are all quite frequently taken to be strongly positive values. To the extent that mokṣa represents the disassociation from and relinquishing of all these things, it may be perceived as an ideal so strongly contrary to student sensibilities, and even subversive of modern Western social aspirations, that one could only expect students to react unfavorably to it. And there are indeed times in the classroom when the profoundly contrary nature of these differences may be emphasized to great pedagogical benefit. I sometimes remark to students, for instance, that traditions which ultimately ennoble aims like mokṣa and nirvāṇa pose an even greater challenge to “typically” American ideals than Marxism. After all, the argument between advocates of Marxism and capitalism is largely, though hardly entirely, focused on how best to distribute economic resources in a society, while, in the light of mokṣa, these concerns themselves are supposedly no longer even remotely paramount, at least by the time they are entertained in the life of one who seeks release. And yet, there is still the need to create not just some kind of access to the motivation for a person to pursue mokṣa, but a framework within which students can positively reflect on and seriously consider it as important to relevant for their own lives.
So far, I have found that the framework that gets the farthest toward this goal is that of “freedom.” Obviously, there is at least some etymological justification for this association, since one of the primary meanings of the verbal root of mokṣa, “muc,” does have the sense of letting someone or something loose from bondage to something, as does the Old English “freo.” There is a limit of course to how far the merely etymological overlap between the terms mokṣa and freedom can be pushed, given the facts that the former also often means specifically to abandon or relinquish embodied existence in saṃsāra and the latter, to the slight surprise of some, also comes from old German “frijaz,” Frisian “fria” and even Sanskrit “priya,” meaning to “love” or one who is “beloved.” And yet, there is just enough overlap, I think, to begin a more substantive philosophical discussion about the different dimensions and perhaps even the most profound meanings of freedom. Freedom is of course an important topic for Western students and often especially for young people. Talking about mokṣa in the classroom can provoke deeper reflection about what genuine freedom is.
Of course, when one starts out by asking American students to identify freedom, they will point to all those things one would anticipate. For them, freedom primarily means the “rights” of both individuals and nations to be immune from the control of or coercion by others, the political empowerment of citizens to choose who will represent them in government and have a say in what laws they are to live by, or the “choices” that one should have in believing things and expressing those beliefs, in how to live and in one’s preferences and so on. These are all conceptions of freedom that in and of themselves are certainly genuinely personally, politically and philosophically important. But I have found that what the ideas of mokṣa and niirvāṇa add to this matrix of associations is the possibility of a kind of liberation that none of these other senses really address.
We are also very often bound, limited, restrained from the full potentials of our experience, more encompassing understanding and a greater significance of our actions not by any external powers but by ourselves, or at least what we have heretofore made of ourselves. In thinking, that is, about real freedom, we would all do well to consider how much our own habits (saṃskāra) of thought, preference and desires may encumber us as well as those whom we love, how firmly our accreted senses of identity (ahaṃkāra) bind us to damaging personal, cultural and even political ways of doing things, and how our individual and collective intentions and actions can perpetuate problematic consequences for others now and in the future that may remain long-unresolved (karmaphalaśeṣa). All of these maladies, after all, were exactly among those suffering-causing and promulgating patterns of conduct that mokṣa was believed to address. When mokṣa is seen in this light, it confronts us with the possibility that one of the most crucial challenges of freedom lies in our determination to liberate ourselves from all-too-narrow tendencies that limit not only our own lives but the lives of others. After all, much as it may be unpleasant to admit to ourselves, the inclinations to control, coerce, manipulate and shape the world according to only one set of ideals don’t emanate only from others, but have their roots in the inherited and psychic chemistry that constitutes each of us as embodied, living beings making our own rounds through the world. Failing to master or transcend these can diminish freedom just as palpably as any other “external” factors. And that in turn means that freedom is not only to be striven for through resistance to no-longer-wanted traditions, voting and civil protest, but also, and maybe even most importantly, through the practice of freeing oneself from one’s own fetters.
There is no need obviously to oversimplify and de-contextualize mokṣa in merely these terms. We are still left, of course, to teach about the place of mokṣa in some traditional Brāhmiṇical conceptualizations of the stations of human life (puruṣārtha-s), the Buddhist and Jaina debates over whether or not release from rebirth could only be pursued in an ascetic or monastic context, the Advaita contention that mokṣa is not really to be attained by the one true metaphysical self, which is ever-free, but realized by the living individual (jiva) and so on. The hermeneutics of teaching about mokṣa should not permit us to do violence to it. We must also still remain open to the inclinations that students may yet have to confront the ideal of mokṣa, remonstrating, as they often do at least in my classes, that it deprives our experience of its richness. Not only do these inclinations themselves prompt vital philosophical discussion, but this is, after all not just a Western reaction, but in some ways echoes the historical Chinese Confucian critique of Buddhist praxis. Nonetheless, in the spirit of the Gitā’s insistence that mokṣa can also be realized from within the very realm of human action (karma), its relevance to all of us should find a way to be live in the classroom. Bringing it into a discussion of the demands of freedom–for freedom does demand many things of us–has been fruitful for me.
I would be most interested to hear how you have dealt with mokṣa in your classrooms, and welcome your own, perhaps better, ideas for how to engage students with it as well.