Devotion is the culmination of our aspiration for liberation
We all aspire to be free, to be liberated from external limitations to our pursuit of happiness. The Statue of Liberty appeals to many because it symbolizes this human aspiration for freedom. This same aspiration makes many countries celebrate the achievement of independence as a defining moment in their national history.
Such forms of liberation, however desirable, don’t free us from the most fundamental limitation – the limitation of our inevitable mortality. Nothing limits our pursuit of happiness as much as death. And what subjects us to the sentence of death is our material shell, which is temporary and destructible.
Recognizing the fetter of matter, most Eastern wisdom-traditions have equated liberation with disentanglement from matter. Yet even while seeking liberation from matter, many Eastern conceptions of liberation have still remained matter-centric.
For example, among the six systems of Indian philosophy, the Nyaya-Vaisheshika schools hold that consciousness emerges when the soul contacts samsara through the mind. So liberation occurs when the soul is uncoupled from the mind. Such liberation involves attainment of eternity but without consciousness or happiness, that is, sat without cit or ananda.
The Sankhya-Yoga schools accept consciousness or Purusha to be eternal. They hold that bondage begins when the Purusha becomes attached to prakriti (material nature) and thereafter starts perceiving the duality of subject and object. So liberation involves dissolution of this duality, leading to consciousness without any observer or observed, just content-less consciousness. Such liberation features sat and cit, but no ananda.
Vedanta recognizes that sat, cit and ananda are innate features of the soul, features that are obscured due to absorption in matter. So liberation, which occurs when the soul becomes detached from matter, leads to the experience of sat, cit and ananda. But Vedantic liberation is sometimes misconceived in impersonal terms, wherein the conception of personality is dissolved to attain cosmic consciousness. The attainment of such consciousness is deemed to be liberation. Though impersonalists claim this liberation to be blissful, the prospect of an eternity without personality or reciprocity is bankrupt of emotional richness and tangible happiness.
The problem with all the preceding conceptions of liberation is that they are incomplete – they focus on the removal of outer obstacles to happiness such as foreign rule or worldly entanglement or personal existence. However, Personalist Vedanta, which is essentially the path of devotion, sees liberation positively, as an inside-out process, as the revival of what lies within. Complete liberation is the fulfillment of our core longing – the longing for love. When misdirected towards matter, this longing causes bondage; when directed purely towards the Supreme Absolute Truth, Krishna, it brings liberation. Such liberation is a life of immortal love that is permeated through and through with sat-cit–ananda.
The Bhagavad-gita establishes this liberation as the summit of the spiritual quest. The Gita (18.54), after delineating the conventional notion of impersonal liberation, declares pure devotion to be the zenith attained as the post-graduate stage of such liberation. The next verse declares that such pure devotion reveals Krishna as he is, in his full transcendental glory. He is seen not as a product of mythological human imagination or as a transitional tool for spiritual meditation, but as the transcendental Supreme Person, the embodiment and fulfillment of our heart’s deepest longing for love, the bestower of the supreme liberation. The eternal life of love with him fulfills our longing for happiness, perfectly and eternally.
Thus the life of devotion comprises the culmination of our aspiration for liberation.