Pathways to Liberation
By K. Sankaranarayanan
Publisher: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2016.
The Vedas are among the world’s oldest sacred texts, estimated to date back at least to 1700 BC. Encompassing both ritualistic and metaphysical elements, Vedic teachings are at the heart of Hindu philosophy and customs. But a serious study of the Vedas, while aspired to by many, is attempted by few due to the sheer volume of texts, complexity of concepts and differing translations.
Students of the Vedas approach them in different ways, each according to his own proclivities. The author states that his own approach is framed by his lifelong search for supreme truth as a practitioner of Surat Shabd Yoga. He takes as his objective to identify the various pathways to spiritual liberation, meaning liberation from the cycle of transmigration, taught by these ancient scriptures. This book is, in essence, a summary of the philosophical underpinnings and essential concepts for such paths as taught in the Vedas, Upanishads and allied scriptures such as the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita.
The author does a commendable job of maintaining academic rigor while avoiding a scholastic style, so that the book remains accessible to the larger audience not intimately familiar with these texts. The book will certainly appeal to the interested layperson, and its logical and clear progression will keep the reader amply engaged.
The book is divided into three sections. The first section titled “Primary Texts” gives the reader a brief introduction of the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. The Vedas are divided into four parts: Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. The Samhitas are collections of hymns, prayers and formulae chanted to invoke the gods while pouring oblations into a sacred fire during sacrificial rites. The Brahmanas serve as reference manuals for priestly guidance. The Aranyakas are meant for recluses or forest dwellers. But it is in the Upanishads that the highest purpose of the Vedas is expressed. The author says:
The Upanishads are part of the Vedas, generally appended to the Brahmanas or embedded in the Aranyakas. However, they seem to come from a different world. In their conception and expression they make very little reference to the Vedic hymns. Instead, they stand on their own wisdom, strength, and authority. This does not mean that their ideas or concepts are completely alien to those in the Vedic hymns, but that they take them further. They develop the germ of reflective thoughts embedded in the Vedic hymns, refine and polish them, and lift them up to a profound philosophical or mystical level, aimed at leading seekers towards God-realization.
Due to the special importance of the Upanishads, they are discussed separately from the Vedas in a dedicated chapter, even though they are contained in the Vedas. The Bhagavad Gita, which translates to “Song of the Lord”, is part of the great Indian epic the Mahabharata. The Gita, the author explains, “is full of metaphysical and philosophical truths as revealed by Lord Krishna, who is revered by Hindus as a manifestation of the Supreme Lord himself.” In a short but succinct chapter, the author describes the Gita, offering a summary of the Mahabharata as the context in which Gita was expounded. In addition, he describes why the Gita is also considered to be an Upanishad.
The second section of the book, entitled “Concepts”, explores the key concepts employed in these primary texts. The author notes: “Hinduism is unique among world religions in that it has no central defining entity, no single founder, no single or central holy scripture and, therefore, no single pathway to liberation.” Many different doctrines have evolved as a result. The section begins with a very common question people have about Vedic times. Were Vedic sages monotheistic (believing in one God) or polytheistic (believing in many gods)? Scholars, historians and theologians have heavily debated this question. The author quotes the Vedas, as well as the views of many experts and scholars, and comes to the conclusion that:
It is clear that the Vedic people believed in one supreme Lord – the formless, indescribable, transcendent, and immanent reality – who was the architect and ruler of all aspects of creation. This reality was known in later Vedic literature as Brahman.
Concepts of the soul, the human form, action and reaction, transmigration, the purpose of human life, inner sound and light, and other key concepts are discussed, with many quotations from the primary texts.
Scriptures rely on concepts but with the purpose that these concepts guide practice. The third and final section of the book is aptly titled “Practice”. In this section, the author explores some of the well-known pathways to liberation that are based on the shad darshanas (six doctrines) and are in practice today: Nivritti Marga (the path of renunciation), Karma Yoga (the path of desireless action), Jnana Yoga (the path of knowledge), Bhakti Yoga (the path of love and devotion), Raja Yoga (the royal path), Prapatti Marga (the path of self-surrender) and Nada Yoga (the path of divine sound). The author notes that these seven pathways are not mutually exclusive, and several elements are common across all paths. Moreover, he states that “while Vedic tradition is goal-specific, it is not path-specific. It is believed that although the paths to the top of the mountain are many, the peak is one.”
As all the paths stress the need to discipline the mind and the importance of the practice of meditation, these two topics are discussed before the seven paths are taken up individually. Then seven chapters follow, each discussing one of the paths in depth, quoting the various scriptures and commentary by various experts, and interspersing fascinating and illustrative stories from the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita. As one reads about these various paths and notices how similar they are in so many aspects, the following statement by the author becomes increasingly self-evident: “Following one path does not preclude following the tenets of another. In practice, they complement each other.”
The importance of the guru and the grace of the Lord are emphasized in the last two chapters of the book. The author states:
When there are so many possible pathways to liberation, when the scriptures say so many contradictory things, when the mind is a strong adversary and worldly distractions and attachments are deep, how is a genuine spiritual aspirant to know the way forward? In all the paths, two things are noted to be essential: the guru and the grace of the Lord.
The author’s writing is logically structured, using the hierarchy of sections, chapters, headings, sub-headings and bullet points to great effect. This aids in understanding this complex material as well as in recalling it later. The author looks at each concept or teaching from diverse angles and quotes various experts, all to enhance the reader’s comprehension of the subject. Appendices explore certain concepts, traditions and scriptures in still greater detail. The book also includes an extensive glossary and a comprehensive bibliography.
Pathways to Liberation will serve as a valuable reference for readers by bringing together material and commentary from many sources on many topics, and, for particularly committed readers, as a starting point for further research in Vedic literature.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.