Liberation (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Liberation is a central religious notion both in South Asian religious traditions and in contemporary Christian theology, but in what way are South Asian meanings of liberation (mok'a, mukti, nirvna) comparable to liberation as understood by contemporary Christian theologians? This entry will highlight significant differences regarding the meanings of liberation across traditions, then draw conclusions about the meaning of those differences for how each tradition engages the sciences. The discussion will focus on those traditions that seem most philosophically unlike Western religious traditions, namely the nondualism of Advaita Vednta (constituted as a school by the eighth-century theologian, akara) and Buddhism, particularly the Madhyamaka tradition (inaugurated by first-century C.E. Buddhist philosopher Ngrjuna).
South Asian traditions, although they have typically maintained that all sentient beings are in bondage, have traditionally been anthropocentric in focus. Even if all beings are in bondage, it is primarily human beings who can be liberated. Moreover, only individual human beings, not communities, are liberated from the cycle of transmigration. Human bondage is rarely construed in sociopolitical terms. Liberation is understood largely as a matter of freedom from afflictions of the heart and ignorance of the mind, the root causes of bondage to the process of rebirth. Liberation from craving, ignorance, and delusion (the three poisons in Buddhism and also in akara's Advaita) does lead to more compassionate living, but the essential locus of transformation is the person.
Until contemporary attention to ecological matters transformed Western religious thinking, Western traditions have also been anthropocentric in character. And, like South Asian traditions, the religious goal has most often been understood as salvation for individual human beings. Salvation was understood as healing, as a reunion with God that brings about the reintegration of the divided self and reconciliation with neighbor. A comparison that focused on salvation as healing would find important similarities with the South Asian goal to be free from craving, ignorance, and delusion.
However, for nearly the entire history of Western monotheism, the predicament from which one needs to escape has always included a sociopolitical component, even when that component has been muted by the quest for personal salvation. The sociopolitical character of Western religious anthropologies has meant that communities qua communities, and not just individual persons, can and must be healed. Communal healing requires doing justice. Doing justice in turn has concretely meant the liberation of persons from oppressive socioeconomic and political structures that disfigure human flourishing. This is the meaning of liberation that finds vital expression in contemporary Christian liberation theology.
Here, communities are liberated and their collective well-being is the focus. Liberation is not construed as individual escape from the threat of an otherworldly judgment but freedom from a this-worldly hell. This particular kind of communal liberation is not commonly found in South Asian religious reflection. The compassionate presence of liberated individuals can and does have social and political consequences, but groups and communities are not liberated in their collectivity. This deep difference has important ramifications for thinking about the scientific implications of the notion of liberation in Western and South Asian thought.
The human predicament in South Asian religions
The human predicament in South Asian religions is construed as bondage to a beginningless process of rebirth. That process is fueled by karma, which generates consequences for all human actions, consequences that exert their presence across multiple lifetimes. That law-like process is driven by some fundamental affective cause, usually described as craving. Craving leads persons to act, and action in turn generates the consequences that insure rebirth.
But craving itself is analyzed as deriving from a cognitive factor, namely ignorance. What exactly one is ignorant of depends on the specific tradition in question. Ignorance is always the failure to know or realize what each tradition takes to be ultimately true. For example, whereas Advaita Vedntins argue that persons are ignorant of their true, infinite, and unchanging Self (antman), South Asian Buddhist schools concur in arguing that ignorance consists in entertaining the very idea of any substantial, enduring or permanent self (antman).
This analysis of the root causes of transmigration indicates yet another meaning of liberation in South Asian traditions. Liberation is not understood merely as a post-mortem escape from the cycle of rebirth. Liberation is also the cessation of ignorance and the elimination of the three poisons in and through which ignorance is expressed and perpetuated.
Action, karma, craving, and ignorance are all crucial links in a complex chain of causes and conditions that extend over multiple lifetimes by which the process of transmigration operates. The Buddhist term for this complex cycle of causes and conditions (hetupratyaya) is pratitya-samutpda, best translated as "dependent co-origination." Buddhist and Hindu reflection on liberation focuses precisely on those cognitive, affective, volitional tendencies that generate karma because the cycles can be interrupted precisely at these points. But the vision of complex causality and interdependence evinced in the chain of links that both perpetuates and is the process and reality of transmigration is worthy of attention to those interested in the implications of Hindu and especially Buddhist thinking about science.
Despite radical disagreements about the object of ignorance, these traditions do agree that "ignorance" does not refer to matters of everyday experience. There are all sorts of things that an enlightened person may not know about the empirical world which do not imperil liberation. Because liberating knowledge is knowledge about ultimate matters and not conventional ones, religious knowledge is not contingent on, nor does it need to control, what counts as knowledge in conventional matters. Cosmology or quantum mechanics, theories about how the world works, either at the macroscopic or the subatomic realm, are not directly relevant to liberating knowledge. There is, therefore, the possibility of a comprehensively hands-off attitude about scientific ventures. The working and operation of the world are matters of conventional truth (vyavahra satya).
The term "ignorance" refers to the failure to apprehend the ultimate truth (paramrtha satya) about the underlying nature of reality, about the being of things and not about how things work. A radical distinction is made between the operation of the world as it is ordinarily experienced and the ultimate truth about the being of things, even if, as it turns out later, these two perspectives turn out to be profoundly interrelated, as is the case in the Madhyamaka Buddhism of Ngrjuna.
Ultimate truth and scientific truth: South Asian approaches
The possibility of radically severing religious truth from conventional truths that are the objects of scientific inquiry is far easier for Hindu nondualists than Buddhist nondualists. For the classical Hindu Advaitins like akara, the empirical world, the experienced world, is not ultimately real. Nothing given in experience endures. It is intrinsically impermanent and doomed to perish.
The fleeting realities of everyday experience need a basis, a substratum, apart from which they would not be. That basis or substratum itself is free from change, beyond temporality, indivisible, self-identical, and intrinsically real. Because it is free from fragility, it is radically transcendent, but because it is the being of all things, it is also radically immanent as the ground and basis of the conventional world of experience. This reality is pure being (sat) and is known as brahman. Only this underlying reality is truly real and thus this tradition qualifies as nondualistic. From the point of view of persons, liberation consists in coming to know that one is in truth this ultimate reality and not the finite self of ordinary experience.
The Buddhist nondualism of Ngrjuna is strikingly different from Advaita Vedanta. Ngrjuna's nondualism is a radical reinterpretation of early Buddhist insights regarding the impermanent dependent co-arising of things. Ngrjuna argues that the pluralistic view of reality in which each thing is a stream or a flow of momentary arisings does not represent the deepest truth taught by the Buddha. The ultimate truth taught by the Buddha is to be found in the affirmation that everything arises in dependence on the causes and conditions that give it rise. If everything arises through the causes and conditions that give it rise, then no thing has any intrinsic being or self-existence (svabhva). Indeed, if anything did possess intrinsic being that did not arise dependently on causes and conditions, it would be unconditioned and therefore eternal. But no such things are given in experience. Nothing, in that sense, exists. Thus, the fundamental notion at the heart of Ngrjuna's system is emptiness (nyat ), the affirmation that all is empty of self-existence.
Buddhist nondualism of Ngrjuna's variety is different from the Hindu nondualism of akara. Ngrjuna's nondualism does not affirm a single nondual reality that lies beneath the unreal world of experience. Rather, Ngrjuna's nondualism argues that conventional reality is nondual because it is fundamentally interrelated or relational. The reifying conceptual processes that lead one to believe that reality is thing-like, composed of a plurality of unrelated entities, is produced by craving and ignorance. Liberation here means removing those affective and cognitive afflictions that obscure persons from understanding the interrelatedness of all reality.
The implications of these two different kinds of nondualism for the relationship between science and religion are intriguing. Nondualist Hindus are freer to say that religion and science are unrelated and independent ventures because religious persons seek to know the infinite reality of brahman that undergirds all things but is itself beyond all particulars. Scientists are free to pursue their own investigations as are the religious because both attend to different dimensions of reality. Science explores conventionality but religion inquires about the ultimate truth of brahman. In the terms used by the philosopher Harold H. Oliver (1984), it is possible to read Advaitins as subscribing to a "compartment theory" of the relationship between religious and scientific truth because each has for its object a different "domain."
Unlike Advaitins, Buddhist nondualists of Ngrjuna's variety cannot say that science and religion are inquiring about different domains. For Madhyamaka, there is no ultimate reality that lies beneath the conventional realm. Ultimate truth is simply seeing that everything conventional is empty of own-being. Emptiness is not an ultimate reality behind the world of phenomena. Thus science and religion must be two "complementary" ways of interrogating the same domain of conventional experience.
Buddhist nondualists, therefore, can more strongly expect that scientific knowledge should disclose that the world of experience is fundamentally relational. Just how and where this relationality will show itself is not the concern of Buddhist thinkers, although Buddhists do point to the strong parallels between Madhyamaka Buddhism and quantum mechanics. At a still deeper level, Buddhist thinkers can be suspicious of scientific models that imagine reality to be particulate, composite, and unrelated. Such models cannot falsify Buddhist intuitions because Buddhists maintain that spiritual transformation is required before persons are capable of experiencing reality as radically relational. Scientists are not themselves committed to these technologies of transformation but rather to technologies of experimentation. Consequently, Buddhists can have robust expectations about what the sciences are likely to discover and can celebrate those discoveries that seem consonant with Buddhist intuitions, but they need not predict or control scientific research.
Ultimate truth and scientific truth: comparative judgments
Christian liberation theologians and others committed to particular conceptions of the just social order called for by God may be constrained to be more intrusive in their stance towards the sciences, especially the social sciences. Such intrusion need not be supernaturalistic or irrational in character. For liberation theologians, scientific theories that mandate the inevitability of economic disparity are morally and theologically suspect, as are visions of the social order that suggest that coercion and hierarchy are unavoidable. Because such visions imply that a just, equitable, and free social ordering is impossible, they render liberation impossible, thus contradicting what the God of justice requires. Such prima facie contradictions can lead theologians to maintain that the science in question is pseudo-science or that unwarranted conclusions have been drawn from data capable of being otherwise interpreted.
The natural sciences are also suspect insofar as they suggest that human beings do not have the freedom or capacity to structure personal and social life in just and compassionate ways. Thus, if evolutionary biology or behavioral psychology is employed to undercut theological commitments to visions of full human flourishing, such scientific claims are subject to critical scrutiny and suspicion. It is safe to assume that Christian theologians of liberation are in general more likely than Buddhists to question the putatively authoritative discoveries of natural or social science. This possibility suggests that such theologians allow for what Oliver would call a "conflict theory" model of the relationship between religion and science, rather than a compartment or complementarity model, because both modes of inquiry are making incompatible claims about the same domain of experience in the same respect.
These differing approaches to liberation seem to be intimately tied to each tradition's understanding of ultimate reality. Hindus can, in principle, maintain that the quest for liberation can be radically independent and non-intrusive about matters scientific. Christian claims about liberation, on the other hand, are not about a transcendent reality that is unrelated to conventional reality (as brahman is). The possibility of conflict between what is theologically required and what the sciences indicate cannot be overlooked.
For Buddhist thinkers, liberation is understood primarily as the transforming insight that enables one to recognize the radically relational character of reality, a recognition that generates compassion. While the emphasis on compassion is shared across traditions, Christian understandings of liberation are intimately connected to reordering contingent economic and sociopolitical structures so that communities can be freed from oppressive ideologies and structures. A wholly irenic relationship with the natural and social sciences seems unlikely when liberation is so understood. It would appear that Madhyamaka (the Middle School) Buddhists truly do hold the middle ground between Advaitins and Christian liberationists. Although M?dhyamika Buddhists can expect and commend discoveries that confirm their own relational intuitions, they are not compelled to critique the results of particular scientific ventures.
See also BUDDHISM; HINDUISM; KARMA; LIBERATION THEOLOGY; TRANSMIGRATION
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JOHN J. THATAMANIL