4 Paths To Liberation

The First Path to Liberation: Knowledge

To attain release, Hinduism acknowledges four distinctive paths: knowledge, devotion, good deeds, and meditation. Hindus do not see these four paths as exclusive one of another. There is a recognition that there are different personalities, and thus different paths. One may pursue one path, and have little to do with the others, or one may hold one path at the center and combine with it one or more of the rest.

The path of study is traditionally centered on the Vedic traditions of Hinduism (the Scriptures). It is the intellectual pursuit, but as such it is not limited to the writings. In tandem with the study of the Vedas, the pursuer of insight must come to know the world; the sciences, history, psychology and more must be studied in order to grasp fully the knowledge contained in the scriptures. The path of knowledge is considered the most difficult of the paths, as it is not simple knowledge alone, but a deeper discrimination of oneness that is required and sought.

Knowledge in Practice: Vedanta 

Textbooks list six traditionally recognized Hindu philosophical schools, six approaches to the path of knowledge that claim the Vedas as their basis. The dividing lines between the six systems are 1) the texts that they deemed central to the quest for knowledge; 2) their emphasis on the spectrum from the individual’s practice of yoga to the priestly rituals; and 3) their assumption about the relationship between the material world and the immaterial “self”. Of the six, three are essentially footnotes to Hinduism’s history. Another focuses exclusively on yoga, and will be considered later in that context.

The fifth is the oldest of the six schools, known as Samkhya. It offers a philosophy of dualism; that is, it assumes that one’s liberation comes through the proper distinction between the two eternal orders: physical and spiritual. Neither is the product of a Creator, and indeed, the spiritual Self cannot influence nor is it influenced by the material world. As the material world changes and evolves, the Self can simply watch silently. Samkhya continues to influence Hindus in large measure because Pajantali absorbed its ideas into the Yoga Sutra, the basis of much of the Yoga school already mentioned.

Vedanta, the sixth philosophical school, is the most influential in modern Hinduism. Its central position is “non-duality,” the idea that there cannot be two realities, physical and spiritual. Sankara, the primary voice of Vedanta tradition, developed his thought based heavily on the principal Upanishads, although he also sought to incorporate the Bhagavad-gita. Sankara insisted that Brahman alone was ultimately real, and the fleeting, ever-changing nature of the universe was evidence that it could not be real. The other great Vedanta thinker, Ramanuja agreed that there could not be two realities, but was not willing to deny the physical universe its reality. He taught instead that the universe was the emanation of Brahman.

The Second Path to Liberation: Devotion 

The second path is religious devotion. The best-known (but not the only) tradition of devotion is the ISKCON movement (the Hare Krishnas). This path seeks the union of the lover with the beloved through celebration, the repetition of the divine name, and ongoing dedication of the self's mind to the deity. Devotion is embodied in the countless temples of India, as the figures that represent the divine Lakshmi, Shiva, Devi, and others are paraded, dressed, "fed", and glorified.

Devotion in Action: The Puja 

By far the most widely-practiced approach to Hinduism, the puja is the worship of a deity or deities. It can happen at home or in a temple, and even at an outdoor shrine on a busy street. Pujas are carried out daily in many homes, and special pujas are held in the home and in local temples for festivals like Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights) or the birthdays of various gods and goddesses.

The puja may well be a descendant of the sacrifices carried out by the Brahmin priests thousands of years ago. The fire lamp is reminiscent of Agni, the fire god whose presence at the animal sacrifice was critical if the animal’s meat were to be cooked and its entrails sent heavenward in smoke. The prayers reflect the priestly focus on sound (the sacred syllables and chants) as the connection between the sacrifice and the gods. Because the puja is so typically home-centered, some have seen its practice as anticlerical; that is, the notion that the Brahmin priests were necessary gobetweens in the sacrifice is rejected. For this reason, it is appealing to imagine that the puja is the “push-back” by the indigenous Dravidians (who had carried their traditions to the south of India) against the imposing Aryan tradition of the north.

In simple terms, the puja is doting on a deity. The puja’s concern is the relationship between the individual, family or village and the universe’s ultimate power, rather than the maintenance of a cosmic order.

The typical Hindu home has a shrine where the images of a deity (either in statue or in painting) is kept. Because individuals are free to choose the gods or goddesses on which they will focus, there are often several deities in a family shrine. In the morning, the image of the deity is taken from its resting place, and bathed and dressed to prepare it for the day. Offerings of flowers, incense, various foods, hymns and prayers are presented to the deities. A small lamp is lighted, and the devotees pass their hands above the flame, drawing its light to the forehead. The ritual enacts the hope for enlightenment.

The Third Path to Liberation: Duty 

The third path seeks the union of one’s self and Brahman through the ethical life. By deeper and deeper commitment of the self to others, one can lose the sense of "otherness" and the subject can know oneness with the object of compassion. It is important that the practitioner of this path seek self-less action. Action undertaken to improve one's own personal status in this life or the next will only lead to a division between Self and Other.

Duty in Action: The Laws of Manu 

Some 2,000 years ago, the ethical world of India took what many would consider a conservative turn. The writing of two scriptures, the Bhagavadgita and the Laws of Manu, coincided with this shift, although it is unclear whether they created the shift, were the result of the shift, or both. They reflect a hardening of the line between the four caste divisions, and the Laws of Manu present a highly detailed description of the responsibilities and privileges of each caste. They cover the color of allowed clothing, the names allowed for one’s children, the age at which a person is allowed to begin study of the Hindu scriptures, and much more.

Many have argued that the caste system was designed by the Aryans to prevent ethnic mixing with the indigenous Dravidians. The publication of the Laws of Manu is itself an argument that, there was indeed movement between and among the castes, a book describing how the castes are to be separated would not be necessary in a world where the castes were already separated. Clearly, the delineation is sharper since the Laws of Manu was published, but not absolute. There continued to be a great deal of murkiness as to where one caste gives way to another. For instance, depending in one region, oil pressers are considered outcastes, but in another region they are part of the merchant class.

It also seems that before the time of the Laws of Manu, women were undergoing the ceremony of the red thread. This ceremony (held at age eight for children of Brahmins, and later for children of nobles and merchants) initiates a Hindu into the religious quest. The red-thread ceremony grants a Hindu the right to study Sanskrit and the scriptures, and in doing so opens the possibility for the pursuit of liberation. Since the Laws of Manu, that quest has been allowed only for males.

The Fourth Path to Liberation: Raja Yoga 

Finally, in the path of meditation, one turns inward to realize the Oneness. Yoga is the manipulation of the body in the service of meditation. It takes many forms, with names like Ashtanga, Hatha, Kriya and Kundalini. Ashtanga (a word that means “eight-limbed”) is often referred to as “Raja Yoga,” that is, “the Royal Path.” Its eight limbs include morality, ethics, posture, control of breath, control of the senses, concentration, meditation and absorption (the ultimate goal). Hatha yoga moves beyond simple sitting with a series of exercises whose purpose is to enable the body to approach the other aspects of Ashtanga with fewer limitations.

Over time, the yogi (as practitioners are known) will come to master his or her body in ways that otherwise might seem impossible. They can come to control heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing – even to the point of athe seeming cessation of breathing altogether. In time, the unconscious use of energy for maintaining body activity is minimized completely, and the yogi is said to enter psychic realms that may include awareness of others and events far away (the way one twin might sense the need of the other in another city), levitation and the manipulation of physical objects using only the mind.

Yoga in Action: Tantra 

To be fair, discussing Tantra under this category is something of a baitand- switch. The two are distinctive paths, but they have interacted deeply throughout the centuries. Meditation techniques from Tantra are now fully incorporated into schools of yoga associated with Raja Yoga. Still, Tantra pushes back against the Vedas and the Aryans who got the Vedic ball rolling, and while it now appeals to a significant population in India, it stakes out an approach to which many Hindus object.

Kundalini is an outgrowth of Tantra, The name “Tantra” dates to the 500s C.E., but the practices may predate that by as much as 2000 years. At the heart of Tantra is an emphasis on the feminine, especially as the goddess Devi. As India’s history unfolded under the authority of the Brahmins, the goddess was (they thought) reduced in power, relegated to the status of wife to the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

By the time Shankara and Ramanuja offered their own definitions of the relationship between the purely spiritual and unchanging Brahman and the very physical and ever-changing universe, Tantra had already resolved the question in another direction. The writer of the text known as the Visvasara Tantra asserts, "What is here is elsewhere. What is not here is nowhere." In other words, the physical universe is itself the very Brahman that Vedanta thinkers were seeking. The physical is the spiritual, and any attempt to separate the two would simply result in nothing. Pulling all the layers off the onion in order to find an essential onion at its center is absurd. Tantric tradition is the experience of divine bliss through the very tangible experience of the world. There is, however, more than one way to do this.

The practice of Kundalini seeks the unification of feminine and masculine powers within one’s own body. The focus is on the coiled serpent that runs from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. Rather than attempting, as in Raja Yoga, to still all physical activity so as to set the spirit free, Kundalini intentionally seeks to stimulate the sexual energy that resides within us. This is much more complicated than many assume. For most, sexual energy is the driver; for the Kundalini yogi, that energy must be absolutely mastered. Even more challenging is the effort to realize that energy on every level of our selves, becoming conscious on even the cellular level.

For many (probably most) Tantra practitioners, there is no need to go looking for that energy. In other words, sexual energy is explored within the context of individual exercises and meditation. This is usually referred to as “right-handed Tantra.” “Left-handed Tantra” is, however, the headline grabber in the West. No one is certain just how widespread this practice is, because social context usually requires that it be kept very quiet. But we do know that this too is a centuries-old practice.

Left-handed Tantra goes beyond visualization to actual participation in socially-forbidden behaviors. There are five “sacraments” of this tradition: wine, meat, fish, bread, and sex (all start with “M” in Sanskrit). Under the guidance of a guru (no one can pursue this path solo), an initiate prepares for as long as several years to be able to be the master of his or her own mind when the time comes to participate in the sacraments. To partake is to be intensely aware of each of one’s own senses and to focus them to the deeper essence of reality. Food is not simply food, sex is not simply sex.