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From Morality to Moksa

From Morality to Moksa – Freedom in the Mahabharata*
by Sitansu S. Chakravarti, PhD

We are not going to define the word ‘freedom’ here, nor the opposite word, ‘bondage’. We take for granted that the meanings of the words are understood, and propose to build our discussion on the basis of that.

Freedom is taken as the antithesis of confinement, signifying openness to choice that satisfies. I remember having seen kids in North America carrying huge glasses of soft drink in public bearing the caption: ‘Freedom of Choice’. The choice of words here is quite significant. In today’s society what often goes in the name of freedom is drinking, and indulging in all kinds of pleasures. This way of ‘freedom’ is exemplified in a ‘happy’ lot of people, ‘free’ from the clutches of traditional ‘bondage’ of ideas and practice.

Does the above correspond to our understanding of the word ‘freedom’? To many of us the answer is a simple ‘No’. For, the concept of freedom is associated with the concepts of satisfaction (santosa), hannony (samatva) and peace (santi), which seem to be prominently missing in the form of life depicted. Indeed, the life-pattern above is replete, the world over, with consumerism, addiction and violence, negating the quality of life we seek after. Here we are inevitably drawn to the realm of ethics. The question naturally stares us in the face: Is freedom to be reduced to the concept of freedom of choice, or is there a finner holding ground for it, so that humans are not at the beck and call of each and every choice they are taught to cultivate in today’s technological society with the help of the mass propaganda machinery it has perfected? The Mahabharata seems to have something definite to say in this regard.

In ethics choice per se is not absolute. It is circumscribed by the concepts of the rightness and the goodness of actions. An action is right or proper only if it is according to dharmaDharma is the justification for the ethical duties. We propose to turn to the Mahabharata for insights into it, as, finally, relating to the concept of freedom.

Dharma – The Two Senses

In the Hindu system there are four aims of action. These are dharma (righteousness, justice), artha (wealth, money), kama (desire, pleasure) and moksha (salvation, freedom).

Kama is the urge for satisfaction of desires1, which must be pursued to an extent in order for one to be able to transcend to a greater spiritual height. Everybody has to follow his/her own nature, and desires are too true to be ignored. Kama has been defined also as “the satisfaction arising out of contact of the five senses, the mind and the heart with objects”,2. Although craving for pleasures is normal, excess of indulgence in sensual satisfaction (or indulgence in it for its own sake in isolation from the total life situation) is considered as the defect of kama3.

Artha, or wealth, is an aim of action only derivatively, not directly. It seems to acquire an independent status due to the tremendous power it wields on our lives. It is indispensable toward attainment of the other ends. There is need for it not only for the sake of pleasures, but also for dharma and moksha. For, an excess of earning is conducive to their pursuit, as in the case of building a temple or performing a sacrifice, which helps both dharma and moksha.

In ethics the consideration of dharma comes after that of artha and kama, for it is mainly in relation to them that its significance is to be found in everyday life. It is not only in a situation of conflict of interests – either one’s own incongruous interests, or those of several individuals – that dharma has a role to play. It is quite relevant to, and rather indispensable for, the pursuit of sensuous pleasure itself, for the logic of pleasure demands the guidance of dharma toward its own attainment. Thus, pleasure needs to be circumscribed by dharma for its own sake. Similar considerations hold true of wealth, too4.

The word ‘dharma’ has been used in two senses in the Mahabharata relevant to our present context of discourse. One is of specific actions or sequences thereof, like sharing of wealth with others, performing sacrifice and austerities, and studying the scriptures5. These may be termed act dharmas, i.e., actions regulatory of pursuits of both sensual desires and wealth. These actions correspond to the broadly ethico-religious prescriptions in communities, diverse as they are, aimed at utilitarian considerations and those of social justice, as well as considerations of the individual’s transcendence of the confines of narrow selfishness. Performed in the right spirit, they contribute to a balance in society, and its consequent prosperity, rather than disintegration through exclusive selfishness.

Laudable as the actions are, they are not strictly ethical if not done in the proper spirit. “Austerity per se is not with any fault,” says the Mahabharata, “nor are studying the scriptures, following the injunctions of the Vedas and earning money with all effort. All of them, however, are affected with fault when not associated with the proper spirit6.” Again,

Carrying a stick, maintaining the vow of silence, donning matted hair as well as bark and hide, or having a shaved head, following strict control of sex, attending to the holy fire, living in the seclusion of the forest, and drying the body up through fasting – all this is false if the spirit is not pure.7

Thus, all the four kinds of actions may turn defective when associated with a motive of ‘showing off’ in order, for instance, to earn people’s attention and respect. The ritual of sharing one’s wealth with others may, under certain circumstances, become a meaningless practice, if not a harmful one of nepotism. All the actions of dharma must be guided by the principle of it that constitutes the other sense of the word, if they are to pass the test of morality. It is not only the codes of dharma as the ones mentioned above, but also pleasure and wealth, that are to be pursued according to these principles8. Four virtues have been mentioned as the principles of dharma. They are truth, forgiveness, sympathy to others and non-attachment (to the objects of the senses). Each of the four principles is a necessary and sufficient condition for the rest. Truth, for instance, manifests itself in forgiveness, and forgiveness itself is truth. Similar conditions can be shown to hold for the other three. Unlike the four codes of dharma, however, the four principles exist without defects9, in so far as they are attitudes and not actions. These may be termedattitude dharmas.

Actions may be performed rudely, with audacity, or with an ulterior self-seeking motive in mind. From an ethical perspective, these associated attitudes would constitute the defects of the actions concerned, as we have seen already. The attitudes of forgiveness, sympathy and others, however, may not be contaminated with any of the defective attitudes mentioned above. We have to keep in mind that it is not forgiveness as an act performed, say, in the court of law, that we are talking about here. An act, of course, may be associated with the blemishes mentioned. We are concerned here with the mental attitude of forgiveness, which is closely connected with a himsa or non-violence. Forgiveness as an act, perfonned with a declaration “You are pardoned,” may take effect even when mixed with a show of pride, or a gesture of rudeness. Forgiveness as an attitude, however, shuns such association. There may be gradations of achievement of forgiveness as an attitude through practice – a dimension absent in the case of the acts. One may make a gift of one’s property, unfortunately with an unhappy show of rudeness, though it does not make much sense to say that the person concerned is in the process of (achieving the virtue of) making a specific gift, as a person may be said to be trying to inculcate the virtue of forgiveness10. Making a gift is an act that may be performed irrespective of its moral quality or tone. There is little room for improvement in the act itself. It is either performed or not. The moral quality of the act, however, can be improved upon. It is based upon the principles involved, as reflected in the associated attitudes.

We must not lose sight of the fact, however, that performance of an appropriate action itself, in keeping with one’s nature and capabilities, is also demanded by the morality of the situation. An act, nonetheless, and the attitude involved in performing it, have to be basically differentiated in order to understand the logic of the moral situation. Attitudes manifest themselves in actions. In them lies the moral tone of an action, as we have already seen. The appropriateness, or otherwise, of an action, however, constitutes the other dimension of morality. It is an answer to the question: “Is this action proper? If not, which one is?” For the moral tone the question that would be in order is of the type: “Is the action (which is appropriate for the occasion) performed in the moral way?” The appropriateness of a moral action is determined by the prosperity it generates for all creatures through the maintenance of justice. The moral tone, which lies in the spirit in which the action is carried out, not only ensures its proper and efficient performance, but leads on to a state of total and absolute freedom, and unconditional joy. “Wrong intention is the defect of dharma, hoarding of wealth, enjoyment for its own sake is the defect of desire; they, however, lead to prosperity when shorn of the faults11.” Here moral tone is evidently suggested as generating prosperity out of actions, which, though proper for the occasions, do not lead to their utilitarian goal on their own. The moral tone is empty without the actions, and the actions are imperfect without it. It is in actions that the moral tone finds its expression; one on the way to perfecting the moral tone in life definitely suffers from the fault of non-performance12 if the relevant actions are skipped by any chance.

Utilitarianism is a main ingredient of the ethical consideration of an action as indicated above, with the important proviso that (1) the satisfaction of all creatures, including human beings, is taken into account, and (2) utilitarianism is circumscribed here by the moral tone of an action: in order (a) for the action to be perfectly effective toward the utilitarian goal, and (b) for it to lead to the higher goal of unconditional freedom. Freedom goes hand in hand with the attitudes, which ensure the utilitarian goal.

“The ways of dharma are eight-fold,” says Saunaka to Yudhisthira, “they are: performing sacrifice and austerities, studying the scriptures and sharing of wealth with others, truth, forgiveness, restraint and non-attachment (to the objects of the senses). Of these, the former four do not lead to freedom and release. As duties they should be performed without egotism. The latter four, however, lead to the desired freedom, and are followed by the good all the time. They must be inculcated with the help of the eight-fold paths only. The eight-fold paths are: the right determination, the right restraint of the senses, the right performance of the austerities, the right service to the teacher, the right eating, the right study, the right quitting of work and the right control of the mind13.” The four attitudes are the overriding factors in relation to the four acts. They can be cultivated by the practice of acts or their negations as indicated by the eight fold path. It is interesting to note the similarity that the eight fold path of Buddhism has with the one laid down above. If it is objected that there is a circularity here in so far as following the eight-fold path involves an awareness of the four attitudes, the objection may be readily granted. What is being suggested here is how to be well adept in these attitudes in life in and through this epistemic dependence.

The attitudes at the level of the moral tone incorporate a mystic thrust at transformation of the total being, indicated specially by the right control of the mind, the last item of the eight-fold path, which ensures freedom, as the concept is understood in the system. These attitudes are not to be equated with motives or intentions of actions. According to Kant, the good will, i.e., the right motive, constitutes the rightness of an action in a human situation, which is a situation of conflict of duty with impulse and desires. The right attitudes in our case, however, put an end to moral conflicts, when properly cultivated, for one achieves non-attachment to the objects of the senses through their pursuit. If non-attachment is achieved, how can there be conflict with desires for the objects of the senses?

The mystic dimension is not confined to the moral tone only of an action. It extends to the moral appropriateness of the action in so far as utilitarianism at that level includes benefit to all beings, respect to all, and a holistic sense that does not alienate nature.

IV Truth

We have touched on the concept of truth so far without having gone into it in detail. Now we must make up for the lapse. Truth may be taken either as an act of speaking (or writing) the truth, or as an attitude of truthfulness. In the former sense, it means reporting exactly what happened, and may have its own defects similar to the ones specified before of other acts. For instance, it may be associated with egotism, self-attachment, harm to others, or lack of sympathy and forgiveness. The example of a defective act of truthfulness cited in the Mahabharata is about truthfully reporting to the robbers the whereabouts of a fugitive, which indicates lack of sympathy. Speaking the truth to earn fame indicates egotism.

As an attitude, truthfulness is a necessary and a sufficient condition for the other three attitudes, and comprises the moral tone behind truthful actions. Following the attitude of truth one is expected to behave truthfully, and not necessarily report what has happened exactly, or carry out a promise to the letter. Muna is ready to kill his elder brother when it is suggested that he gets rid of his dear bow, following his vow to kill anybody who makes such a suggestion. Sri Krishna, however, advises him to go by the spirit of the promise, and make unkind remarks of the brother instead, in the latter’s presence, for to the brother, who is the king, such insult is as good as death14. “Non-violence is the greatest virtue,” says Narada, “forgiveness the utmost strength, self-knowledge the highest knowledge, nothing, however, surpasses the truth. Although truth in words is by far preferable, that which is conducive to good, indeed, should be said. Truth, in my mind, is that which brings about great benefits to all living beings15.” Thus, the spirit of truth may not be easy to decipher. “Although truth in words is preferable,” Narada says at another place, “the knowledge of real truth is rare16.” Real truth is the spirit of it. What is of benefit to all creatures is indicative of the real truth, and via truth of the goodness of an action. This is what we have called the utilitarianism of the Mahabharata.

Although real truth or truth in the broader sense is indicated by benefit to all creatures, truth is not necessarily to be defined in this way. The state of benefit to all is accompanied by a total, holistic attainment in the subject. This wholeness, in most general terms, apart from the particularities in individual situations, has been brought to bear on the definition of truth. “That which is changeless in and through the specific virtues of the various classes of people is truth,” says Bhisma to Yudhisthira, “it is invariably the dharma of the honest and the upright. Truth is the eternal dharma, it is the only principle to abide by, it alone is the final end. … Truth is God eternal, …everything is grounded in it.”17 Cultivation of truth in this sense is, indeed, cultivation of an attitude not only of speaking the truth, but being true in a broader sense. “Truth, the eternal, unchanging, can be attained only by the spiritual control of the mind, unopposed to any of the dharmas18. Spiritual control of the mind does generate attitudinal changes. There are some specific attitudes, however, which the broad attitude of truthfulness manifests itself into, viz., justice based on harrnony and equanimity, restraint, lack of jealousy, forgiveness, humility, steadfastness, perseverance, nonviolence.19 Thus, attitude dharma is basically the general principle of truth, which expresses itself into other specific principles. The first principle of morality is not the categorical imperative, as in Kant, but the principle of truth in its most general form. It touches both dimensions of morality, viz., the appropriateness of an action, as well as the moral tone. Following of truth brings about prosperity to all creatures through a holistic process, which is the “end in itself’, to borrow the expression from Kant20 The kingdom of ends21 here includes not only human beings, but all living beings

Morality, as we have already noticed, is not concerned simply with performing the appropriate action. It is also a journey toward freedom or moksha, the fourth and final aim of actions. The basis of morality is said to be freedom of choice for actions. This is the realm of the appropriateness or otherwise of an action in a situation. The state of freedom, however, which is the end of a moral action, is not to be equated with the freedom of choice. The state of freedom is a state of unconditionality that can be experienced through the cultivation of the virtues that constitute the moral tone of actions22. It is a state of supreme satisfaction and joy23, a state of the highest truth. One can attain this state at any station in life and does not have to renounce the world for it24 . This state is not conditioned by the dictates of passions or desires. It is only after the satisfaction of desires that one is ready for it25 . This is a state of balance and equilibrium, of equanimity and justice to all26. It is this absolute freedom, i.e., the phenomenology of the unconditionality of existence, that leaves its mark of authentic existence on human beings. Janaka, the emperor of Mithila, says: ” If Mithila burns down (with all its riches), I am not touched at all27.”

Attainment of the state of freedom sets one above the domain of duties, in so far as this is a state of complete detachment from pleasures and is bereft of passions. One in this state of freedom does the “right” thing not from a sense of duties, but as a matter of course. Thus, although morality is shaped by the cultivation of the four virtues, morality ceases to exist when the virtues have been thoroughly imbibed.


In the course of our discussion we have seen that morality has two facets, which, though intimately connected, are logically separable: the appropriateness or otherwise of an action, and the way the action is performed, i.e., its moral tone, reflecting the spirit of performance of the action, or the attitude involved in its perfonnance. The g round for the appropriateness of an action is the broad utilitarian principle of satisfaction of all, including the non-humans. The grounds for the commendable moral tone of an action are the principles or virtues which, when cultivated properly, lead to freedom or moksha. Utilitarianism, however, is anchored to the principles in so far as they provide a sound basis for it, for cultivation of the virtues equips one for the practice of justice through sympathy and self-restraint. The virtues, to repeat, are: truth, forgiveness, restraint (or, alternatively, syrnpathy)28 and non-attachinent to the objects of the senses. Truth, as we noticed above, can be defined in a way that includes the other virtues. Any voluntary action, we must note, is a preparation for freedom or liberation, and is an occasion for the cultivation of the proper spirit. The agent’s vision of freedom gives shape to the action he undertakes.

Freedom of choice thus does not stand on its own. It is connected with, and is circumscribed by, freedom in the other sense, viz., absolute freedom, which manifests itself in the cultivation of the moral tone. Freedom of choice, in so far as it pertains to the area of morality, may be said to be based on freedom in the other sense, for the latter provides its direction, via the associated attitudes, both at the level of choice of actions, as well as regarding their goal. The state of freedom is a basis for morality in so far as it is a necessary condition for the self-transcendence involved in every moral act. It is the unifying principle in moralities for different peoples and the different cultures. Absolute freedom is innate. Taking a cue from Shankara’s commentary on the Brahmasutra 1/1/1, we may say that we are peripherally aware of it, even when not totally established, and saturated, in the state of freedom, in as much as the awareness lacks in the desired clarity and perfection. Indeed, the utilitarian considerations generate out of such awareness, however vague they be. The total moral situation, therefore, both the appropriateness of actions and their moral tone, are grounded in absolute freedom. The degrees of morality are a function of the varying degrees of unfolding of the awareness of absolute freedom in an individual or a society. The innateness of freedom reminds us of the Chomskyan depth grammar facilitating the leaming process of the various surface languages. Here we have some universal moral, and spiritual, principles translating themselves into societal variances in moral or religious codes. The human form of life must be seen as incorporating the beckoning calls of freedom via attitudinal overtures, failing which the Wittgensteinean concept leaves us isolated in fragmented islands of morality and religion, pertaining to the various societies.

Freedom of choice, we have seen, is grounded in absolute freedom, which, however, is not in need of the former as its necessary condition. Freedom being innate is present even when there is little freedom of choice. The question is: Can it be made overt, and in more manifest, without the freedom of choice? The answer seems to be ‘No’. Enjoyment of freedom of choice, for all practical purposes, is a necessary condition for some clarity of awareness of absolute freedom for a person lacking the awareness. Freedom of choice, by no means, is the sufficient condition for overt awareness of absolute freedom. Some enhanced, overt awareness, however, of absolute freedom is the sufficient condition for harnessing and guiding freedom of choice. The basic problem in today’s world is that the concept of absolute freedom, which, to my mind, is a precious gift to us from the ancient tradition of India, is almost totally disregarded in our ‘secular’ academic world. As a result, freedom of choice suffers, in being about non-existent for the vast majority of the people, who are literally brain-washed by the media and the politicians, victims as they themselves are of the system in their own turn. The net result is that freedom of choice is not being put to its proper use to the advantage of society even where it does exist.

Freedom, we notice, manifests itself in the attitude dharmas which are defined in terms of the former, in so far as they lead onto it, being its necessary and sufficient conditions. Freedom also ensures the performance of the act dharmas through our adherence to utilitarianism. There is no utilitarianism without a feeling for others, which originates out of a sense of freedom from confinement to one’s own self. Thus, freedom has its two arms – one pointing to the attitude dharmas, and the other to the act dharmas, via the former. Even the acts of morality that are performed on the basis of truth, and not utilitarian considerations, are based on the former.

* Some ideas contained in the paper were presented at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto, in 1994, and at an international philosophy conference at Utkal University in 1999. The paper was delivered at a seminar organized by the Indian Academy of Philosophy at Ramaluishna Mission Institute of Culture, India in 2000.


1. Mahabharata, 3/33/30.

2. Ibid. 3/33/37.

3. Ibid. 12/123/10.

4. “One seeking pleasure and wealth should follow dharma to start with.” Ibid. 5/134/37.

5. Ibid. 5/35/56-57; 3/2/75-79.

6. Ibid. 1/1/275.

7. Ibid. 3/200/96-97.

8. Ibid. 13/111/18-19.

9. Ibid. 5/35/37; 3/2/76-77.

10. True, the procedure of making a gift may be complicated in a land, and one may get entangled in the process. This endeavour at making a gift does not correspond to the attitudinal sense, as in the case of trying to forgive the sor’s murderer. Neither does it correspond to the pathological case where making a gift means quite an endeavour on the part of the agent, because the person lacks in the requisite attitude normally expected of people.

11. Ibid. 12/123/10.

12. Manusamhita, 11/44.

13. Mahabharata, 3/2/75-79.

14. Ibid. 8/69.

15. Ibid. 12/329/12-13.

16. Ibid. 12/287/20.

17. Ibid. 12/162/3-5.

18. Ibid. 12/162/10.

19. Ibid. 12/162/8-9.

20. Immanuel Kant, The Moral Law, Chapter 11.

21. Ibid. Chapter II, cf., “So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.”

22. Mahabharata, 3/2/77. “Devayana” means the path that leads to freedom, cf, Brhadaranyakopanisat, 6/2/15, also Kausitaki Upanisat, 1/3, Gita, 8/26.

23. Gita, 14/20. Also, “That is the state of eternity,” Mahabharata, 5/44/30; “Whoever knows that, attains eternity,” Ibid., 5/44/31; Ibid., 12/187/30.

24. “The student, the householder and the renunciate reach the final end on attending to their respective duties properly.” Ibid. 12/241/13; 12/326/26; 14/18/32; 12/320/50.

25. Ibid. 12/288/10.

26. Ibid. 14/51/39; 12/308/16.

27. Ibid. 12/178/2.

28. Ibid. 5/35/56.