The world’s major religions reveal significant diversity in their approaches to ‘salvation’. In this post, I will explore the knowledge path to moksha and compare it to salvation beliefs in Islam. Two more divergent views of the human condition would be difficult to find.
Hinduism’s belief is that we undergo an extended cycle of birth, death and rebirth known as samsara. This cycle continues through potentially thousands of lives, but it can be brought to an end by the realisation of moksha. Moksha means ‘release’, or ‘liberation’, as opposed to bandhan, or bondage, in the sense that we are bonded to the cycle of birth and rebirth.
In addition to this image of moksha as release from being chained to the cycle, it is the attainment of a free, eternal, immortal spiritual life. According to Hindu belief every man has within the inner core of his being a soul which is, as if, a divine spark within him. The soul is potentially perfect in all respects, and free from all limitations. It is due to ignorance that the soul misses its real divine nature of perfection and falls in bondage.
There is believed to be three paths to moksha: knowledge (Jnana), devotion to God (Bhakti) and moral actions. The knowledge path interests me because it appears to directly relate to samsara, which is said to be a function of ignorance, or a lack of knowledge. Hindu philosopher Samkara (c. 700 CE) was an advocate of Jnana as the only path to moksha, emphasising the other two paths as paving the way for Jnana.
In the context of Jnana, moksha is depicted in the Upanishads and later interpretations of them, as a sudden flash of profound understanding – that Brahman, the essence of the cosmos, is your atman or inner self. Brahman = atman. You, minus your karmic constructions of body/mind/ego, are nothing but Brahman. That, for the Upanishads, is the liberating knowledge, the “lightbulb” experience by which moksha is realised.
The knowledge path (Jnana Marga) is the adoption of a number of approaches outlined in the Upanishads, with the goal of realising the Divine intuitively. One tactic is to seek to identify the essence of the empirical world with its underlying unity (e.g. Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.3). Another is to raise the ultimate questions that seek to reveal the reality underlying all change and suffering (e.g. Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1ff). Blockages on the knowledge path include avidya (wrong knowledge) and maya (illusion). Ultimately, man attains enlightenment whereby he perceives reality, renounces unreality, and, realising his own immortal self, thus obtains liberation.
The Islamic view of liberation is radically different, although at a fundamental level of human aspiration, there are similarities: Muslims believe in the soul, some essence of the self. They also hold to the notion that the soul survives this life. However, in Islam, there is only this life and the (eternal) next life. Samsara is not recognised. The next life is a source of hope in Islam, however to Hindus the survival of the soul, only to be reborn into samsara, is in itself an indication of failure, since the ultimate hope of a Hindu life experience would be the realisation of moksha in this life. On the other hand, for most Muslims, progress toward perfection can be made in this life, but it can only be fully realised in the next.
Hinduism’s knowledge path may involve decades of internal striving, through the various stages of life, to arrive at the realisation of ultimate reality. Moksha may nonetheless elude the devotee altogether. In comparison, Islam presents a relatively simple choice at the outset: submit to Allah in this life and salvation awaits in the next life. Muslims will be rewarded in heaven – a place of green meadows, beautiful gardens, running waters, orchards filled with ripe fruits, plenty of wine and beautiful black-eyed girls. The extent of the reward depends on the good deeds done in this world. Failure to submit altogether results in eternal damnation to hell – a place of torment. Eternal reward and punishment are to be meted out by God at the Last Judgement. Islamic salvation imagery offers nice things from this world, whilst Hinduism offers path-travellers the possibility of realising universal reality. In King’s taxonomy of salvation, Islam is salvation by deed, whereas the knowledge path is salvation by insight. [King, p. 279].
Another differentiation is that in Hinduism, the true Self (atman) is identical with Brahman, the ultimate reality and the single conscious, efficient, and substantial cause of the world. In Islam, Allah is a personal God and above all others. The equating of anything with Allah is an unforgivable blasphemy: ‘Shirk’. “Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him” [Quran 4:48]. A Muslim may attain heaven and live forever in the company of God, however in no way will they attain a status equal to God.
The differences are fundamental between the knowledge path to moksha in Hinduism with salvation beliefs in Islam. The Hindu knowledge path is primarily an internal quest of the mind; in Islam, salvation is the gift of a personal God who is external to the Self, and one must submit to that God to attain it. Islam does not recognise the cycle of birth and rebirth – there is only this life and the next, and the hope of salvation lies in the next life. These different views of salvation assist in understanding the disharmony that has occurred between the two religions’ adherents in India over the centuries.
1Aka Sankara, Shankara