Home    Articles    Working Towards nirvANa and New Humanity (1 of 2)
Working Towards nirvANa and New Humanity (1 of 2)

T K Parthasarathy,  Tuesday, February 08, 2011 06:35 AM
Text Size :    |    | 


Liberation has always been regarded as one of the main four puruShArtha-s in human life in our tradition from time immemorial the other three being dharma , artha and kAma .Different religious concepts project Liberation in different perspective but they have the unified view that it is the ultimate goal for any sentient object! Let us at the outset have a cursory glance on what the three major indigenous religions Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism have in store about the Liberation concept. Liberation is mokSha in Hinduism which is nothing but attaining the Glorious Feet of God after leaving this tinsel world. It is a permanent disassociation from the bondage of birth-death cycle.

In fact in one of the branches of Hinduism, Sri Vaishnavism, depicts Liberation as perpetual service to God by the Atman once it has shed the sharIra or body -'At all times and forever by His side we must perform stintless service to the radiant Lord of Venkatam.' This experience is paripUrNa brAhmaNandam  - Ecstasy in whole!

The goal of Jainism is liberation of the soul from the negative effects of unenlightened thoughts, speech and action. This goal is achieved through clearance of kArmic obstructions by following the triple gems of Jainism. It is therefore important not to waste human life in evil ways. Rather, strive to rise on the ladder of spiritual evolution.

When Liberation is viewed as a goal both in Hinduism and in Jainism it is the summum bonum of Buddhism. Buddhism is, in essence, a proclamation of the truth of nirvANa, a clear statement of the truth of nirvANa, a search for nirvANa and a sure path leading to nirvANa.

Concept of nirvANa in Buddhism

Man suffers from various kinds of miseries. These miseries have and are due to certain causes, if these causes are removed miseries cease. Is this attainable in this life itself?  'Yes' is the answer in Buddhism. This state is achievable in this life itself if certain conditions are fulfilled.

With perfect control of passions and steady contemplation of truth a person can attain perfect wisdom as he is no longer attached to any worldly desires. He becomes totally free from all fetters and is liberated in true sense. He is said to have become an Arhat. He becomes venerable by other members of the society and this state is known as nirvANa which means extinction of total passions and also annihilation of all miseries.

Buddhism describes nirvANa as the perfect peace of the state of mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflicting states -klesha-s. It is also the 'end of the world'; there is no identity left, and no boundaries for the mind. The subject is at peace with the world, has compassion for all and gives up obsessions and fixations. This peace is achieved when the existing volitional formations are pacified, and the conditions for the production of new ones are eradicated.

In nirvANa the root causes of craving and aversion have been extinguished, so that one is no longer subject to human suffering that is duHkha or further rebirth...nirvANa  is linked to seeing the empty nature of all phenomena. It is also presented as a radical reordering of consciousness and unleashing of awareness. Scholar Herbert Guenther states that with nirvANa 'the ideal personality, the true human being' becomes reality.

Etymological Analysis of the Word nirvANa

The dictionary meaning of the word nirvANa is 'Extinction of individuality and absorption into supreme spirit as the Buddhist highest good'. Buddhism acknowledges no individuality apart from the mix of the mental and material aggregates wherein the man in this world entertains the notion of individuality through selfish craving. Hence nirvANa means perfect control of thirst- thirst for worldly objects. It means annihilation of passion, hatred and delusion - rAga, doSha and moha.

The cessation of suffering out of these factors is nirvana - a word formed from the negative prefix NIR added with VA which means 'to blow'. It is the inner fire going out for want of fuel-the fuel of lust, ill-will and delusion. As the fuel is annihilated there is perfect balance of mind with full of enlightenment and the life-affirming impulses come to an end and there is no more rebirth.

The Abhidharma -mahavibhasa-sastra- a sarvastivAdin commentary, gives a complete picture of the meanings from its Sanskrit roots: vANa implying the route of rebirth and added with Nir meaning 'leaving off' conveys permanently avoiding all paths of transmigration. vANa meaning stench or stink and Nir meaning opposite to it in total implies 'without and free from all stench of karma-s'. vANa meaning forest and Nir meaning without totally implies 'a state which has got rid of, for ever, of the dense forest of the three fires of lust, malice and delusion'.

In the same way when vANa meaning weaving the word implies 'freedom from the knot of the vexations of karmas and in which the texture of both birth and death is not to be woven'

Dhammapada's explanation of nirvANa

In the Dhammapada the Buddha says of nirvANa that it is 'the highest happiness'. This happiness is an enduring, transcendental happiness integral to the calmness attained through enlightenment or bodhi rather than the happiness derived from impermanent things. The knowledge accompanying nirvANa is expressed through the word bodhi. Bodhi is achieved by ridding oneself of false beliefs and the hindrance of passions through the discipline of the

Eightfold Path. Though not supported in canonical texts, commentaries give a threefold classification of bodhi: that of a perfectly enlightened one, or a Buddha; that of an independently enlightened one; and that of an arhat...The Buddha explains nirvANa as 'the unconditioned'-asankhata- mind, a mind that has come to a point of perfect lucidity and clarity due to the cessation of the production of volitional formations.. This is described by the Buddha as 'deathlessness' which in Pali called Amata or Amaravati.This is the highest spiritual attainment, the natural result that accrues to one who lives a life of virtuous conduct and practice in accordance with the Noble Eightfold Path.

Such a life engenders increasing control over the generation of karma. It produces wholesome karma with positive results and finally allows the cessation of the origination of karma altogether with the attainment of nirvANa. Otherwise, beings forever wander through the impermanent and suffering-generating realms of desire, form, and formlessness, collectively termed saMsAra.

Each liberated individual produces no new karma, but preserves a particular individual personality which is the result of the traces of his or her karmic heritage. The very fact that there is a psycho-physical substrate during the remainder of an Arhat's  lifetime shows the continuing effect of karma. But the early scriptures take a stand that attaining nirvANa either in this birth or in subsequent births is not pre-determined.

Is the Conccept of nirvANa a Negative Expression Only

The idea of nirvANa in Buddhism is wrongly viewed by many as only negative in character as it is defined as the extinct of lust, hatred and delusion. Of course it is partly acceptable but as the ultimate aim is Arhatship it is not merely negative.

It is not a state of absence but something to be achieved as the ultimate good through the destruction of the evil qualities in a man. It is achieved through moral and intellectual pursuits. The positive aspects are the Tranquility, Purity the state of bliss and emancipation and the like. nirvANa is the only real destiny for humanity because it is only the escape from existence which is conditioned.

Mr M N Pathak, a scholar on Buddhist studies logically enumerates the indefinability of nirvANa in the following step by step analysis. nirvana is the only escape from conditioned existence. That which is conditioned is phenomenal. That which is phenomenal can be perceived, measured and defined. It is subject to the limitation of time and space.

That which is within the limit of time and space is necessarily transient and subject to law of change. That which is subject to the sovereignty of law of change cannot be happy or free from danger because it is impermanent. The ultimate object of a man is not to achieve what is not permanent but which is everlasting. What is everlasting must be beyond all conditions and limitations. It is absolute.

Hence nirvANa is not only immeasurable but also indefinable. nirvANa is conceived as not as an abstraction but as a living reality. It is not just a mere subjective state of mind but as something that transcends any individual mind. It is the secure, the refuge, the shelter, the asylum and as it provides everlasting peace it removes all fear. nirvANa is not affected by the process of decay since it does not disappear on account of death.

is unborn and uncreated and also transcendental, unsurpassed unequalled and unmatched and in short summum bonum of Buddhist philosophy. nirvANa is not simply inactivity. Once wisdom has been permanently obtained through concentration of thought the liberated man should always remain neither rapt in meditation nor wholly withdrawn from active life. Buddha's life was full of activity even after enlightenment. Buddha's life history shows that active life of travelling, preaching founding brotherhood was carried out  by him during the forty five years that he lived after enlightenment .

From the above it is clear that nirvANa does not mean total extinction of existence. It is only the extinction of all misery and of the conditions that cause future existence in this world or in short stops all conditions for rebirth. The gain from nirvANa is interpreted by many as two-fold-both negative and positive. The negative aspect is it is a guarantee that, as the conditions have all been destroyed, there is no rebirth. It also positively means that one who has attained it enjoys perfect peace even in this life so long his life continues after enlightenment.

Part 2


Discuss this Article

More Comments

About T K Parthasarathy

Born in the year 1942, of a South Indian Srivaishnavite family deeply rooted in the path laid down by Sri Ramanuja, the founder of Visishtadvaita philosophy, Thillaisthanam Krishnaswamy Parthasarathy had his early education in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. He is primarily a graduate in Physics and later he qualified in Law and Business Administration. 

He had a long innings of service in the paper industry and after retirement, he started an interest in the study of Vaishnavism and Comparative Religious Studies. He completed his graduation and post graduation in Vaishnavism in the Department of Vaishnavism at the University of Madras, where he had the opportunity to understand the basics of Jainism and Saiva Siddhantham.

He had his traditional tutelage under Dr Mannargudi U V Rajagopalachariar, a renowned Srivaishnava scholar and an expert in Visishtadvaita philosophy.

At present he is a research scholar in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Madras, doing research on the topic 'Transcendence and Immanence in Visishtadvaita Philosophy'.