Moksha and the Modern Indian

For centuries, the Indian subcontinent has been a cradle for journeys into the inner worlds of the human mind and spirit. Though never a mass pursuit, spiritual adventurism has existed for several millennia, emerging in the form of individual seeking, texts and manuscripts, as well as the birth of religions and wisdom traditions.

What is the enlightenment that these seekers sought? It has been called by different names in different eras and by different teachers – moksha, nirvana, kaivalya, self-realisation, liberation, and so on. Essentially it is a state of transcendence, characterized by stepping beyond the boundaries of the human condition. Interpretations might vary, but enlightenment is undoubtedly the Holy Grail of all spiritual paths, the point where seeking ceases, and something happens to transmute the human into the possibly divine.

Whether it is an actual tipping point or a cumulative process, resulting in a cataclysmic inner event or a gradual realization, seems to be subjective and determined by each individual’s experience and journey. The end result, however, seems to be similar – an opening up, a falling away, a boundlessness, a liberation. Just like one who has never tasted honey can neither describe its taste nor understand it wholly, those of us who have not experienced the bliss of enlightenment cannot hope to understand it in its entirety.

To give credence to this search, there exist enough examples in spiritual literature of the enlightened ones, some universally acknowledged and others lesser known and understood. Just the fact that there have been actual human beings who have attained enlightenment and have spoken about it, like the Buddha among many others, holds out hope for the rest of humanity that indeed, this is not only the stuff of myth. It is a real and reachable state of existence.

As India hurtles towards ‘Project Development’, and a materially affluent lifestyle is what everybody seems to be intent on, what is the state of the enlightenment quest in India today? Gurus of various persuasions seem to abound, but what are they offering, and what are their followers interested in imbibing from them? Is Indian spirituality about enlightenment any longer, or has it become a purveyor of quick fixes to relieve urban stress and angst?

Dharma, artha, kama, moksha – roughly translated respectively as righteousness, prosperity, pleasure and enlightenment – were traditionally placed as the four goals of human life in India. A well-managed pursuit of all four was the measure of success. If we were to evaluate our lives today according to this yardstick, I think most of us would find that we focus inordinate amounts of time and energy on one or two of these, while neglecting the others. How do we find a path that includes a consideration of moksha, alongside achieving appropriate amounts of artha, kama, and of dharma as well? This is the creative challenge of the modern spiritual seeker, and one that each of us must grapple with in the battleground of our individual lives.

Anatomy of Awakening

The term “awakening” has long been used to denote the experience of spiritual realisation — of self, reality, God, emptiness. It has been described as a point of transition, where a limited way of seeing and being is altered because of an immense opening up that happens in one’s consciousness.

Conditioning, barriers, perceptions — filters and masks through which one normally responds to the world — are knocked off and consequently whatever one experiences feels raw, direct, deep and true. Distinctions between self and the other and self and the world cease to exist, leading to a profound experience of interconnectedness. There are no thoughts in the conventional sense. Whatever arises naturally subsides without causing the mind to ripple after it. There is peace and stillness, and often, bliss.

The analogy of death is often used to describe an awakening. For the “old” way of being dies forever, one is no longer who one used to be in the moment before the awakening. Something dies so that something new can arise. In the case of awakening, it is the blinkered, afflicted self that dies, even as one is born anew into a radically changed way of experiencing oneself and the world. In some cases, this “death” seems to become mirrored in the individual’s body through physical pain and a loss of control. The mind, shorn of the crutches it used to manoeuvre its way through the world, appears to have collapsed. Mystics have at times been mistaken for madmen simply because they are liberated of the conditioning and social graces with which we “sleepers” operate.

Herein lies a dilemma for the awakened one. How to integrate their awakening with their worldly lives? For, the transformation of awakening appears to be so total that there is no going back to what one was prior to it. It is as if one’s eyes have been blown open and one can never go to sleep, to unknowing, again. Some find the balance in taking on the responsibility of sharing their journeys with others, becoming gurus and teachers. Others might continue to live everyday lives, their awakening informing every aspect of their being and conduct.

What about awakening itself? Is it like a thunderbolt, direct and immediate, or is it gradual? On close examination, one finds that it is really a process, a river that unfolds and undulates through the individual’s experiences. The actual realisation might occur in a flash, but often it is part of a process that includes questioning, perhaps working with a teacher, or self-study, and chipping away at emotional and mental blocks.

Even if an initial awakening happens through a thump on the heart or the activation of the point between the brows by a master, it often needs to be backed up with inner work. At times, the awakening might happen in stages, spread over a period of time, assisted by circumstances and teachers. And while the ultimate realisation might be similar, the paths through which people have arrived to it are myriad and many-hued, as varied as humankind itself.

[This article appeared under the title ‘Be the Awakened One’ in The Asian Age, October 20, 2011.]