The Message of Liberation
Ramakrishna Mission's motto is: "For one's own liberation and for the
good of the world."
Liberation of the soul is the promise of all religions and their
It is this promise that distinguishes religion from all other
quests of life.
Prophets and saints, mystics and philosophers, theologians and
scriptures assure us of ultimate liberation from the pain and suffering of
All seekers, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim,
dualist, qualified non-dualist, or non-dualist, strive for liberation.
All believe that through liberation they will attain immortality.
The desire for immortality is inherent in human nature.
Desiring immortality, people beget children, create works of art,
erect monuments, sacrifice their self-interest, and practice charity,
contemplation, and prayer.
What is the meaning of liberation?
What really happens to one who becomes liberated?
The general consensus among the religions of the world is that
liberation is eternal life in heaven and that such liberation, which is
possible only after death, is the reward for the virtuous and the
believers. The non-believers
and the sinners go to hell to expiate their wrongful actions on earth.
Enjoyment in heaven and suffering in hell are described in the
scriptures of different traditions in vivid terms.
But the religions vary in their views of the nature of liberation,
how to attain it, and how to verify it.
Some claim that liberation is reserved only for their own followers
and ask for unquestioning faith in their dogma.
Others claim that liberation is only for the elected and chosen
ones—and not universal. Immortality
for some is physical, for others, spiritual.
Some insist that liberation is dependent on effort, and to others
it is solely a matter of faith. Again,
some traditions declare that our life on earth is only for one term, and
therefore there is only one opportunity to strive for liberation. Others
speak of the law of rebirth and of many terms of life.
The questions that are often raised by the scientific-minded, and
quite reasonably so, are the following:
(1) If liberation is possible only after death, how can the reality
of such liberation be verified? The
conditions on the two sides of the grave are different.
The dead do not come back to testify about the validity of heaven.
Scriptural assurances are not enough to silence our doubt, since,
having been written by human hands, they are subject to human error.
Could it be that the ideas of heaven and liberation are merely the
result of pious imagination? Such
doubt persists. There is the
story of a mountain climber who was trying to scale a 5,000 foot peak.
At one point he lost his balance and began to fall uncontrollably.
Desperately grabbing hold of the stump of a tree, he found himself hanging
in mid-air. An avowed
atheist, the man did not believe in any prayer or in the hereafter.
But facing this harrowing situation, he look toward heaven and
called out, "Is there any one to save me?"
To his utter surprise, he heard a deep voice resounding from the
sky, saying, "My son, let go thy hold.
I shall bear thee up." There
was a pause, and then the man again looked toward heaven and asked,
"Is there anyone else?"
(2) Are the descriptions of the hereafter true?
If so, why do the accounts differ?
Immortality in heaven has been described as being of infinite
duration, that is, not bound by time.
But how can everlasting life be described in terms of time? What begins in time must end in time. Heavenly life has been described as enjoyment without
suffering, youth without old age, pleasure without pain—a claim which is
untenable from the point of view of reason.
The subtle or spiritual body through which one experiences heavenly
happiness cannot last for ever. How
can an embodied person be immortal? Can
it be that our individual desires create our ideas of heaven and that our
definition of heaven changes with the change of our desires?
So Swami Vivekananda says:
idea of pleasure is different. I
have seen a man who is not happy unless he swallows a lump of opium every
day. He may dream of a heaven
where the land is made of opium. That
would be a very bad heaven for me. Again
and again in Arabian poetry we read of a heaven with beautiful gardens
through which rivers run. I
have lived much of my life in a country where there is too much water;
many villages are flooded and thousands of lives are sacrificed every
year. So my heaven would not
have gardens through which rivers flow; I would have a land where very
little rain falls. Our
pleasures are always changing."[i]
(3) One cannot imagine how a soul which has a beginning in time can
be without end. The claim
that the soul is created at the time of birth and that life is for only
one term lacks a rational basis. Such
an idea fails to explain the inequalities that exist between one person
and another in the physical, mental, moral, and spiritual spheres.
To say that such inequalities are all due to the environment and
upbringing is not an adequate explanation.
To attribute such inequalities to the will of God only makes God
cruel and whimsical. Most
people die as sinners and consequently if there is only one term of life,
it must follow that most are destined to suffer eternally in hell.
How is it possible that the soul, being an integral portion of God,
can be punished forever? To
believe in the eternal punishment of the soul for the mistakes of a few
years on earth is absurd.
(4) The assertion of some traditions that theirs is the only way
raises very serious doubts about their validity.
Such a claim is possible only in a non-moral universe created by an
unjust God. Claims of
exclusiveness have prompted some traditions to proselytize and at times
persecute. Such claims have
prompted these traditions to increase the number of the faithful by
forcible conversion and to eliminate the unfaithful by means of
In a recent article in The
New York Times, the author Karen Armstrong writes:
acceptance of Jesus Christ necessary for salvation?
That is the question threatening to split the Dutch Reformed Church
in America, which has about 200,000 members.
The Rev. Richard A. Rhem, pastor of Christ Community Church in
Spring Lake, Mich., has said he no longer believes that Jesus is the only
route to God. Through their own religions, he argues, Jews, Muslims and
Buddhists can be admitted to heaven.
His stance shocked the regional Reformed Church authorities, who
censured Mr. Rhem in July. But
the pastor has been supported by his congregation as well as by some
Christian churches in other denominations.
Christians have been arguing about the salvation of unbelievers for
at least 1,600 years. (Before
that, the religion's struggle for survival overshadowed concerns about the
fate of unbelievers.) But the
debate has an urgency in the late 20th century because of our expanded
understanding of other religions....Christians like Mr. Rhem find it
difficult to believe that a just and merciful God would damn millions of
well-meaning men and women merely because they have not found faith in
Jesus. Others insist that the
Christian faith is an indispensable requirement for eternal
beatitude....In this century, the two tendencies have struggled against a
backdrop of greater religious communication.
Our new knowledge and new technology make the old isolation of the
world's religions seem parochial and outdated.
Christians are discovering that despite their obvious differences,
the great world religions are in profound agreement about essential
spiritual issues. People are
now beginning to seek inspiration from more than one religion....In the
21st century, people of all faiths will have to decide whether to embrace
the new globalization by expressing it in religious terms or to react
vehemently against it and retreat into denominational ghettos."[ii]
Exclusiveness always creates suspicion.
Spirituality is a universal phenomenon, not the exclusive
possession of any particular faith. No
religious tradition has a monopoly of Truth.
Moral and ethical virtues of purity, compassion, truthfulness, and
self-sacrifice—the means to liberation—are common to all traditions.
All are children of one and the same God, to whom all return at the
time of liberation. Prophets
and saints of different religions are the messengers of that one God.
Different religions are only the different paths to reach Him.
Those who deny these facts deny God Himself.
An individual brought up today with a scientific outlook insists on
the rule of law. In the
classroom and the workplace he is encouraged to raise honest doubt and
make critical enquiry about everything, and thus he feels puzzled when he
is asked to accept the teachings of a scripture or the tenets of a
particular tradition as infallible. Two
reasons are generally invoked in support of infallibility: Such teachings
and tenets have been handed down from ancient times and our ancestors
believed in them. Yet mere
belief in liberation does not make it real for us. Until Galileo told us
otherwise, the world used to believe that the sun moves around the earth.
If the laws of science work everywhere and at all times, should not the
same laws apply to religion? Science
has thrown open a window on the cosmos, which is now regarded as infinite.
Our sun is a speck on the edge of a vast galaxy—one of
innumerable galaxies, and our earth is a mere particle of dust circling
that speck. The creation did
not begin at a certain time on a particular day; it evolved through
billions of years. The view
of a universe with God at the top, the devil below, and the human world in
between can be accepted by only the most naive.
Science demands deduction from facts, not from dogmas.
In religion too we must draw our conclusions from facts, and not
attempt to create facts based upon preconceived conclusions. Too often in religious matters reason has been used as a
means of reinforcing our prejudices.
The strict methods of science require us to accept a proposition
only when we are in a position to prove it.
Skeptics think that the notion of liberation is nothing but wishful
thinking on the part of some visionaries who hope to fulfill their heart's
desire for eternal life, in defiance of the laws of science. (to
- Swami Adiswarananda
N O T E S
The Yogas and Other Works, chosen and with a
biography by Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
Center, New York, 1984, p. 265.
[ii]. "Whose Heaven Is It?," by Karen
Armstrong, in The New York
August 31, 1996, p. 21.