Mokṣa and the Undergraduate Classroom

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.

About Douglas Berger

Douglas Berger is Professor of Global and Comparative Philosophy at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is also the former president of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy and the current chief editor of Dimensions of Asian Spirituality, a book series published by University of Hawai'i Press

11 Replies to “Mokṣa and the Undergraduate Classroom”

  1. Excellent thoughts, Doug. I think it’s a good idea to translate mokṣa as “freedom”.

    I tend to start the discussion of mokṣa with Buddhism, which provides another straightforward avenue for making the concept more accessible, because the problem is not saṃsāra so much as duḥkha. Which in turn is a motivation most humans can understand: you might not want to be freed from rebirth, but who doesn’t want to be freed from suffering? You might argue against that mokṣa by pointing out that being freed from suffering is also being “freed” from joy, or the like, but it’s not hard to get sympathy for the basic point that, other things being equal at least, release from suffering is a good thing.

  2. Thanks so much for this rich post, Doug. I am traveling, so I will respond with a fuller comment that does more justice to this post later, but for now, I’d just add that when I teach Buddhism and the moksha traditions, I start by just asking students what makes them suffer and in a natural classroom discussion, we do a kind of broad, phenomenological reflection on suffering. Students tend to confront things like the problem of impermanence, and the fact that desire itself can be a source of suffering, fairly quickly without being led there by me. From that point it is a bit easier to discuss why Buddhists and Moksha-oriented Hindus and the like would strive for liberation without it all just seeming like they are depressed or something.

  3. I’ve not had a similar experience (at least nor more difficulty with mokṣa than with most other concepts*), but I probably spend more time on the notion of karma beforehand than the notion release from rebirth proper or saṃsāra when introducing the concept of mokṣa and I always teach Hinduism (pointing on the continuity and differences between the Vedic and post-Vedic periods) before Buddhism. Because students appear to have some intuitive feel for the notion of karma (although often they of do not truly understand what the concept means), I stress as far a possible what generates karma and what is thought to stop its production, relying largely on the Yoga tradition of Patañjali (and then, on Karl Potter’s wonderful exposition of same), if only because I find it provides a nice transition later to Buddhism. (Please bear in mind that I’m teaching a class that introduces seven, yes seven religious worldviews in the course of one semester. Of course this is utterly absurd, but as I’m only an adjunct instructor, I have no say in such matters.) Students do seem fond of the notion of different mārgas or yogas to emancipation (or freedom) and by the time we get to Buddhism, they’re receptive to the idea that inordinate desire (trṣna/tanhā) and ignorance (avidyā/avijjā) are the primary causes of karma and that the pursuit of religious knowledge or wisdom, combined with the practices of moral virtue and meditative concentration (as the triune nature of the Eightfold Path) are necessary to freedom from saṃsāra or nirvāna/nibbāna.

    Of the three main yogas, not surprisingly perhaps ,they have the most difficulty with jñāna-mārga (and perhaps owing to their acquaintance with theism, readily respond favorably to bhakti-yoga), which is discussed in Advaita Vedāntan terms, and yet they are intrigued by the possibility of “freedom” while embodied, in this very lifetime so to speak: they also tend to ask questions about how the liberated yogi behaves in light of the hard-won experiential insight into the illusory nature of the world or māyā. I emphasize the fact that māyā is not truly or adequately grasped prior to liberation, so it makes little sense for us to prattle on about how “all this is an illusion anyway,” because we don’t really fully know what that means and entails until the attainment of mokṣa.

    Finally, I teach the idea that at least in several respects, the direct pursuit of mokṣa is incoherent or not spiritually availing insofar as it appears to be a species of spiritual selfishness or egoism. Thus, for instance, the focus would be on one’s yoga and sva-dharma and dharma more broadly (yes, I go into the motley meanings of this term), rather than a self-conscious or direct pursuit of freedom. How does one do this? I introduce to them the notion of “willing what cannot be willed” (with regard largely thus not only to mental states) or “states that are essentially by-products” from Jon Elster’s classic study, Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality (Cambridge University Press, 1983). They discover how there are certain mental states and states of affairs in the world: sleep, spontaneity, courage, forgetfulness, mental absence or “empty-mind,” wisdom, faith, understanding, and so forth (even happiness!), the direct pursuit of which involves a pragmatic or living contradiction (like Stendahl’s obsession with becoming ‘natural’) but can and do come about indirectly, that is, as a by-product or spillover effect from something else (the ground for this is tilled a bit by an earlier discussion of wu-wei in Daoism). I spend some time exploring the relevance of this to meditation and why, therefore, the effort to will an “empty mind” or the higher states of consciousness is frustrating and to some extent self-defeating until one learns to “let go” and not be preoccupied with the attainment. To be sure, one begins, understandably enough, with “willing what cannot be willed,” an intentional project of some sort, but one’s spiritual praxis or askesis serves as a “therapy of desire” and ignorance that lessens dependence on the egoistic will that is an obstacle, to put it mildly, on the path to spiritual (invoked along the lines spelled out by John Cottingham in his book on same) freedom. Well, much more could be said, but as only a blog comment, this will have to suffice.

    If anyone is interested, they receive a “study guide” for Hinduism that is available on my page (sans some diacritical marks). They are not responsible for all the terms in the guide (depending on what we have time to cover, I select the specific terms they might be tested on).

    * I perhaps should note that many of my students, at least those from Christian backgrounds of one degree or another, often have difficulty with concepts they should be somewhat familiar with, like atonement doctrine (be it substitutionary or exemplary).

  4. Does one cease to enjoy a movie when one, previously lost in a movie, remembers again that it is a movie? Does one gain greater or lesser enjoyment of the movie when one is able to move *back* and *forth* from absorption into contemplation? I would argue such an ability augments, not detracts from, pleasure and richness.

    What is freedom from rebirth, after all? Is it simply oblivion, the extinguishment of individual consciousness — something akin to a neverending sleep? That would indeed be a diminishment of faculties.

    A better argument is that moksa is a cessation of identification with *that which is reborn*, a realization that rebirth itself is not what we think it is.

  5. Thank you for this rich post. I teach Asian Religions to high school students (often in term-long courses), and I’ve tried to give this question some thought.

    I approach your question from a slightly different perspective. Rather than beginning with freedom, I begin with the idea of enchainment – even though I use a non-Indian thinker to do it. As early as the first day of the course, I put on the board the well-known quotation from Rousseau: “[Humans are] born free and everywhere [they are] in chains.” I then ask students to write for a couple minutes about the various things that enchain them in their own lives. I then solicit their answers, trying to involve as many students as possible in the process, and write their answers on the board. We discuss them, and pretty quickly we are able to see a range of different responses: some are physical (DNA, lack of height); others are emotional (anger, fear, unhappiness); others seem to come from the outside (expectations, the college process, societal laws and expectations); others are more internal (a bad temper, stress). We reflect a bit on the different types of chains, playing around with some kind of typology. This exercise helps students to think about all the ways in which their own lives might be limited or constrained or otherwise unfree.

    Class usually concludes before I introduce the term moksha, but that’s fine. The idea of freedom (and its lack) has been discussed. When we learn about moksha a couple classes later – and this point relates to Amod’s comment above – we can refer back to this discussion and understand it as freedom from these undesirable things. I’ve found that the time spent reflecting on a lack of freedom can give a richer context to subsequent discussions of freedom and liberation. It is especially valuable in helping students think about moksha as freedom from, as opposed to merely freedom to. And when we then learn about a worldview that takes seriously ideas of karma and reincarnation, we can see these ideas in the context of our earlier discussion, and can understand moksha as freedom from those things as well.

  6. Aware of the constraints of not straying outside the texts and syllabi, let me mention for the sake of discussion that later day philosophical formulations contain many ingenious notions like Sanghita or Loka-Sangraha to predicate emancipation. The problem of rebirth itself undergoes substantial transformation in the hands of Sri Aurobindo and hence antiquity of sources shouldn’t be the only criteria for ontological veracity. [TNM55]

  7. Thanks Doug, I really enjoyed your post. And I like Andy’s classroom strategies such as starting by getting students to write for a couple of minutes about the various things that enchain them in their own lives.

    I have just, along with Dominic Goodall and Anjaneya Sarma, published a long (over 500 pages) book on mokṣa – on 20 different Indian theories of what happens to the individual at the time of liberation. In the Introduction, pp. 19–23, which can be downloaded from here
    I consider why mokṣa, a state that according to many of the twenty theories is completely devoid of experience, was held to be an attractive prospect.
    I discuss the characterisation of mokṣa as ‘freedom from’, showing how some conceptions of the liberated state are actually better characterised as ‘freedom to’.
    Apologies for the self-advertising 🙂

  8. To follow up on something Tushar brought up, I also try to make a point to explain that while a great number of Indian thinkers and traditions aim for soteriological release of some kind, the exact content of liberation was something that was a bit up for grabs. Buddhists, Jainas, Yogis, Vedantins, both nondualistic and theistic, Naiyaiyikas, Tantrics, etc. could agree that in ordinary life, and in the sway of ordinary sorts of desires, we are missing something, and yet fill out the details of what it means to be free in very different ways. Aside from being true, this also helps blunt the danger of students turning off to the idea from the outset as it seems static, dreary, and alien from the start.

    @ Patrick–thanks for your post. Will read it more carefully a bit later. . .

    @Alex–thanks for this link. I will read it shortly.

  9. Thanks for this very thoughtful post, Doug. When I introduce ‘mokṣa’ to my students in World Philosophies, we have just finished a studying the Stoicism of Epictetus. They also find the Stoic view of happiness and virtue (esp. the view that anything outside one’s control is indifferent) quite counterintuitive. So I spend a lot of time talking with them about what ‘inner’ or ‘psychological’ freedom might mean. In fact, I discuss Stoic, Hindu (primarily from the Gita in that class) and Buddhist traditions as ‘inner freedom’ traditions and have them work out the similarities and differences between them. So, by the time we reach India, they’ve been softened up a bit. There’s always a few students who argue that non-aatachment and inner freedom made sense as goals in the past, but that ‘nowadays’ it’s too hard to attain! I suppose we are in the Kali Yuga . . .

    • Matt, I concur with your experience: I teach Indian thought in a number of courses, but in a similar sort of World Phil course, it comes after both Daoism and some of Plato’s works which already have allowed students to reflect critically on desire, happiness, virtue, and freedom. From that point, it is a bit easier for them to get their head into liberation and the yogic quest.

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