What is the Best Path to Liberation (Moksha)?

Spirituality and Self-realization

by Jayaram V

Question: Some claim that it is Shankara's view that the scriptures are the one and only means of Self-knowledge, and as the sole pramana (which they define as means of knowledge), listening to them alone (sravanam) yields jnanam. Mananam and nididhyasanam are only for the assimilation of knowledge gained through Sravanam. According to them nothing yields jnanam, not nirvikalpa samadhi, nor any type of mystic experience. There is only one way, and that is Sravanam of Vedanta through a Sampradayika Guru with Sankara Bhashya, given to a qualified Sadhaka with Sadhana Catushtayam. This upset me at a deep level....it was always my understanding, experience, and conviction that Truth is available for direct experiential knowing (aparoksha anubhuti) through the culmination of various spiritual disciplines, resulting in Samadhi, or the false self simply "disappearing," or being seen through. I humbly request your insight on the subject.


It is better to have faith in any method as the only method for better results, but to hold it as the universal absolute or a spiritual imperative for everyone and make it a philosophical argument is a mistake. In its essence, it is very similar to the argument put forward by some religions that their scripture is the only absolute truth and everything else is false.

You can reach any destination in the universe in several ways, and by a number of means. One may argue that there is only one way and only one method. For those who have seen the destination and know the paths, it does not make a convincing argument. There is nothing definitive about Brahman. To say that you can reach him by only one method means you are making him finite and definable. Brahman is all. He is both "Is" and "Is not," existence and nonexistence, manifested and unmanifested. For those who believe, he is, and for those who do not believe, he is not. The same holds true for spiritual life and spiritual journey. All paths lead to him only. Many lifetimes may pass before you find the right one to become liberated.

In this journey you have many options, but they are limited by your faith and your karma. You may choose the right one but may not succeed, or you may choose the wrong one, but may still find your way. You current effort is always a culmination of the merit you accumulated through several lives. There are no limits to divine possibilities, but there can be limitations to what you may choose since there are limitations to your knowledge, intelligence, and discretion.

You can reach from point B from point A in innumerable ways. Nowadays, astrophysicists tell you that you do not have to even go from point A to point B. You can just make point A and point B the same by folding space. The possibilities, therefore, are numerous to perform any task and reach any goal. As our knowledge grows, so are our methods, paths, and solutions. Some may take longer and appear more strenuous. Hence, I would not question the wisdom or the methods of any who are definitive about their methods to achieve liberation. If they found them useful, good for them. A wise teacher would tell his students to focus solely on the method that has been taught to them as the only superior method and not to worry about anything else. It is because faith can make any method more powerful than otherwise. However, he would not make that an absolute or universal truth, and confuse those who do not practice his teachings. In spirituality you are not in competition with any one, but yourself, unless you have other aims to promote your brand of spirituality as a marketing opportunity to gain popularity and prestige.

The scriptures are a great source of knowledge and have their own value in spiritual practice. They are very valuable to cultivate right awareness about oneself and know the methods one can practice to purify oneself and achieve liberation. However, I am not sure whether reading them or remembering them is the only means to self-realization, without corresponding effort and preparation. They may lead you on the journey and prepare you for liberation over several lives, but having a mental connection to the scriptural knowledge by itself does not lead to liberation, unless the knowledge contained in them becomes a reality for you through effort.

Many spiritual people do not study the Vedas. They know little about them. Yet, they achieve liberation. For example some sects of Shaivism reject the Vedas and follow the Agamas and Tantras. They also follow different methods to discipline their minds and bodies. There were saints and sages from certain Hindu castes, who were not traditionally allowed to study the Vedas and who did not practice any sravanam before they attained liberation. Many saints like Ramana Maharshi, Shirdi Baba, achieved liberation before they studied any scripture. The Jains and Buddhists do not approve of the Vedas or the Upanishads. They do not worship our gods. Yet, they have their own ascetic and spiritual methods to achieve liberation.

Sravanam (listening), Dhyanam (contemplating), Mananam (remembering) are some of the means for the Direct Experience of (pratyaksha) the Self (atmadarshana), which is the goal. Everyone who practices them is not automatically liberated. Knowledge must become the living reality in you through experience for the knowledge to become validated. Unless knowledge comes to life as experience, how can you confirm that it is valid?

Direct experience (pratyaksha) is therefore invaluable in both spiritual and worldly life. It is through personal experience only that knowledge becomes truth. All the six schools of Hinduism place their emphasis primarily upon Direct Experience (pratyaksha). The Bhagavadgita suggests knowledge (jnana), dutiful actions (karma), devotion (bhakti), combined with renunciation of desires (sanyasa) as the best method.

In the transcendental state you are free from the duality of the knower and the known. Your mind and senses do not participate in it. Therefore, there is neither perception nor cognition in any transcendental experience, unless it is incomplete and unless some vague mental activity is still going on. Hence, the person who experiences the transcendental state of the Self may not know or remember what happened or what was experienced. The experience itself brings a profound transformation within that person, whereby sense control, renunciation, detachment, sameness, etc., become natural to him and require no effort or inner struggle on his part to practice them. They become secondary to his nature, or part of his natural disposition, whereby it becomes certain to him and to others that his spiritual practice has reached its culmination, purity (sattva) has become firmly established, and the natural state of the Self has become integral to his consciousness.

Advaita is one of the several schools of thoughts in Hinduism. It is not the only philosophy, nor is Sri Adi Shankaracharya the only credible, spiritual guru of Hinduism. This is not to discredit him, but to state the fundamental truth about spirituality. There are many schools, sects, and teacher traditions, each having their own methods. Even within Advaita there are several streams of knowledge. That we have six Darshanas (philosophies) and several sects, each with a history of over 2000 years and methods that are peculiar to them, is a conclusive proof that the Paths to Truth are many.

You can take any of these sects and say, "This is it. This is the best." When you say it, you must know whether you do it because of your personal experience or because of your attachment to the tradition or to the teachers. Attachment to a path, sect, religion, belief, or guru is also like any other attachment. It binds and limits and can seriously hamper anyone's spiritual progress. At some stage in your spiritual journey, you have to even stop meditating upon a particular form or aspect of Brahman because you are not free from worldliness and you cannot achieve liberation until you have transcended all names, forms, dualities, and delusions.

Faith plays an important role both in your religious and spiritual life. In the spiritual journey, faith is more important than even a Guru. Here, it is your faith, which supports your reason rather than the opposite. Your effort sustained by your faith produces the result. The same holds true for the teachings of your guru. It is not your guru, but your faith in your guru which makes possible your liberation. The same principle applies to any scripture, prayer, mantra, deity, or belief.

Sometimes a guru may prove to be an imperfect person. Because of his past karma, imperfections, and impurities, he may possess character flaws. He may be a scholar-teacher rather than a self-realized yogi, but my still assume the mantle of a guru because his own guru failed to recognize the truth about him and allowed him to be his official successor.

Even then, if your faith is strong, and if you have not followed him for selfish reasons or developed physical or mental attachment to him, your guru's bad karma or his imperfections will not taint you. It can be an emotional setback for you because of the social and psychological repercussions, but unless your own karma is involved your spiritual progress remains unimpeded. The Bhagavadgita clearly states that there is no loss on this path. You can restart from where you have left. If your faith is strong and if your resolve is unshaken, your journey will continue even if you have been a victim of your guru's mischief.

Therefore, faith is important, faith in your guru, faith in your scriptures, faith in your methods, and faith in your goal. If you believe that you cannot achieve self-realization without a guru or without studying scriptures, they become your limiting factors, and your faith makes sure that they become your reality. If you believe in some other method or standard, that becomes your reality and leads you on the path. A wise teacher (jnani) knows it. Therefore, he tries to reduce your confusion by suggesting that you should trust him and let him show you the path or the method. The determining factor as well as the limiting factor in your spiritual life, and in any teaching and teacher tradition that you follow, is your faith, or your belief, which creates the intended reality for you. Since faith varies from person to person, and from group to group, according to the gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas), we have many paths, many teachers, and many religious traditions, each holding itself to be true and, sometimes, at conflict with others.

Your true guru is your Isvara. If your faith is strong and free from doubts, the Isvara in his eternal wisdom will make all your wishes, methods and intentions come true. I am not speaking of Isvara in the ordinary sense of God as the one who sits in the heaven and keeps a watch over the worlds. I am speaking about the one indivisible Self who is you, your true Self. For humans, he is the only refuge, the true guru, and the door way to liberation. Since you are an aspect of Brahman, you have the ultimate power to make things possible with the methods you choose. It is not blasphemy in our Dharma to think subjectively "Aham Brahmasmi," "I am God." What is blasphemous is to expect that others should treat you like God and worship you. Unfortunately, many people let themselves become trapped in that delusion and develop attachment to the form of their gurus rather than practice the faith they teach as part of their guru-dharma.

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