Most of our religious scriptures discuss liberation (moksham) as being an end in itself. Moksham is portrayed to be the ultimate goal that every living being in this world should strive for to free himself from the repeated cycles of birth and death. The essence of the voluminous literature on Hindu Religion is to essentially lead a human being to the abode of the Lord.
Knowledge about liberation requires answering two primary questions: i) Where do our good deeds take us? and ii) What factors decide the time that we take to reach God’s abode? Since the different philosophical schools within Hinduism vary in their ontological assumptions and in their belief of who the ultimate authority is, these questions can be answered only from the point of view of a particular philosophy.
Mainstream Hindu Philosophy is divided into six dharshanas (or Schools of thought) – Samkhya, Nyaya, Mimamsa, Vaisheshika, Yoga and Vedanta. Within the Vedanta school of thought, there are three different philosophies – Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita. Irrespective of the ideological differences between these philosophies, there are five philosophical questions that each of them have to address. The subject of this post deals with finding answers to two of the five questions:
1) How does an individual soul reach the eternal abode of the Lord? and
2) What does the soul do when it reaches there?
Advaita Vedanta discusses different worlds (or Lokas) which people inhabit in their journey to attain moksha. Sankara describes seven intermediary pitstops a soul encounters before reaching the ultimate abode ‘Brahmalokam’. These worlds range from the physical world (Bhuloka), to the worlds of the ancestors, the astral worlds (Devaloka), to the worlds of the Mahadevas and God, the causal world or the highest heavens (Bhramaloka). The seven worlds are divided further into sub-realms to create a total of 21 planes of existence.
The conception of our soul inhabiting different worlds before reaching the final abode requires us to view our deeds (karma) along a good-bad continuum. The Karma accumulated by a living being across different cycles of birth and death will affect/impair his spiritual progress to the divine abode. Since living beings differ in their positions across the spiritual scale of Karma, each of them is expected to occupy different worlds in the cosmos at a particular point in time. This article introduces us to the different lokas the wandering spiritual soul occupies as it transits the cosmos.
The Vaishnavite conception of liberation is slightly uncomplicated. Although Sri Vaishnavam believes in the Karma Theory, the preceptors of the school held that performing an act of unconditional surrender (called Sharanagathi or Prapatti), as advocated by Lord Krishna in the penultimate verse of the Bhagavad Gita, can supersede the effects that karma can have on a spiritual seeker. That is, when one surrenders Himself to the feet of the Lord, with the knowledge that being subservient to Him (seshatvam) and being dependent upon Him (paratanthriyam) is the true nature of the soul, the Lord will wash away all his sins and bless him with liberation.
According to Srivaishnavism, the ultimate divine abode is not construed to be a planet or a place in the universe. Alternatively, it is considered to be a state of present being. Sriman Narayana is considered the ultimate reality and everyone, including Brahma and Rudra, are treated as atomic, and thus are considered to lead a temporal existence like us. Vaishnavites hold Sriman Narayana as the Supreme Lord based on references from Mahanarayana Upanishad (which forms a part of Taittariya Upanishad under Krishna Yajur Veda), Satvika Puranas and from the Azhwar Pasurams.
One of the central arguments of Vishishtadvaitam, that sets it apart from Sankara’s Advaitam is that the Supreme Reality possesses a form, infinite auspicious qualities and wealth. According to Sri Ramanuja, the Supreme Lord, Sriman Narayana is known as Ubhaya Vibhuthi Nathan, i.e. owner of two states of existence. One is called the “Nithya Vibhuthi” (alternatively called Paramapadham, Thirunadu or Sri Vaikuntam). The other state is called “Leela Vibhuthi” or Samsaram, one where the Lord’s games (leelai) are played out. Leela Vibhuthi includes everything outside the state of Nithya Vibhuthi and encompasses Swargam, Narakam and every other cosmos in this universe. There is a river by the name Viraja, which is supposed to mark the boundary between Leela and Nithya Vibhuthis.
The ultimate goal of the jivatma is to release himself from samsara or Leela vibhuthi and attain Lord’s Nithya Vibhuthi. This would mean that every pitstop encountered by him in the journey to Sri Vaikuntam forms a part of Leela Vibhuthi. Also, there is a difference between Swarga Lokam and Paramapadham which is brought out by Sri Ramanuja in his Vaikunta Gadyam. Swarga Loka is a part of Leela Vibhuthi and is just a pitstop in the journey to reaching Nithya Vibhuthi.
Once a person dies, his soul leaves his body through the archirathi nerve (nadi), takes a dip in the Viraja river before reaching the ultimate abode of the Lord, the Nithya Vibhuthi. Once the soul reaches Nithya Vibhuthi, it spends its time by eternally engaging in the service of the Lord (Bhagavath kainkaryam). The services rendered by the soul can be classified into two categories. One is the performance of physical service at Paramapadham, whereby the soul assists the other realized souls in governing the daily activities at the place. Alternatively, some souls, usually the ones with deep spiritual knowledge, spend their time by experiencing the divine auspicious qualities of the Lord. Depending on which of the two activities the liberated souls carry out at the divine abode, they come to be called as Kainkarya Nishtars and Kalyana Guna Nishtars respectively.
*The term Vibhuthi means “Wealth”. Although, in the context of Leela and Nithya Vibhuthis, it would be fair to assume them as two different states of existence.