Moksa/Nirvana

Fitzgerald, James James_Fitzgerald at BROWN.EDU
Tue Mar 23 09:46:23 EDT 2010


Dear colleagues,

I would toss a couple of considerations into the general discussion of this topic, #2 being the most germane:

1) I prefer the word (final, or absolute) "beatitude", as a general Western term for discussing the ultimate goal of the various Indic traditions that seek to realize some absolutely good state beyond life in this world (iha, samsara). It is not a perfect word by any means, but it seems to me to import less undesirable semantic freight than "soteriology" and its kin.

2) On the Brahminic side, the oldest and most fundamental conceptualization and metaphors of ultimate beatitude involved the absorption of the person into some concept of a highest being or ultimate reality, a sampad in brahman, amRtabhAva, and the like. The language of escape, mokSa, comes later and is, I suspect, originally exogenous, to the Brahminic tradition. MokSa, of course, is a negative conceptualization, consistent with ethics that start with the presumed facts of karmabandhana, duHkha, samsara, and their attendant themes. The language of completion and fulfillment, sampad, amRtatva, does not depart from those presuppositions and works just fine without them. Of course at some point in time (about 350 BCE +/- 100 years) these two conceptual and rhetorical complexes begin to merge in brahminic discourse, though the merger is often rough and is, I think, not complete and thorough until about 100 CE or so. Eventually brahmabhAva and mokSa became, often, flip sides of the same coin in general descriptions of, or ethical exhortations to pursue, absolute beatitude, however that beatitude may have been conceived by any given writer, which is how they are often taught in undergraduate courses.

3) Words have, I think, more volatility and variability of practical usage than we often credit them with having. While some philosophers in some circumstances use words with great precision and consistency--creating technical vocabularies that persist in their own works and traditions--(and too, they often fail to be as precise and consistent as we would like), most forms of verbal discourse are always more variable than that, words proving more malleable, bending to different pragmatic uses in different contexts. Words definitely have some kind of '(slowly changing) semantic center' (which may be sharp and clear or vague and fuzzy) established by a history of usage (some very small part of which is knowable by us), but no matter how sharp and clear and relatively stable that semantic center may be, the applications of a word in a given context must be 'figured out' in each actual sentence of each given context.

I make these last observations specifically in reference to words such as brahman, nirvANa, dharma, guNa, karman, mokSa, jJAna, etc. Early Buddhist uses of brahman and dharma are obviously quite different from contemporaneous Brahminic uses of the words, while at the same time being applications from a shared history of usage of those terms based on common knowledge of their basic semantic charges. The same applies to brahminic uses of nirvANa. While I think it is cerainly the case than when the term nirvAna is used in (pre Gupta) Brahminic texts there is awareness that it is a "nAstika" (they don't typically say "bauddha") term of ultimate importance, I think we need to establish carefully how the word is being used in the specific context, without assuming that highly detailed or specific Buddhist themes are carried with it.

With all best wishes, Jim Fitzgerald

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Indology [mailto:INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk] On Behalf Of 
> Viktoria Lyssenko
> Sent: Monday, March 22, 2010 3:01 AM
> To: INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk
> Subject: Re: Moksa/Nirvana
> 
> Dear Mary,
> In my opinion, the meanings of the both largerly overlap in 
> signifying the release from samsara, and in no way the belief 
> in soul/no soul does determine the difference between them as 
> the word nirvana was used not only in Buddhism but in other 
> traditions, like Jainism and Ajivika, especially during the 
> sramana period. The term moksha may seem  more litteral 
> (moksha from the root muc - to let loose) while nirvana more 
> metaphorical (nirvana means "blowing out [the fire of 
> passions]"), but, in the final analysis, both are 
> metaphorical as their sense is quite different from that in 
> the ordinary usus (vyavahara). Still there is a difference in 
> nuances: nirvana puts to the fore the state of overcoming the 
> affects (klesha, nivarana, avarana) and the tranquil state of 
> mind which is rather associated with the absence of suffering 
> then with the state of bliss (ananda), while moksha 
> underlines the release from the burden of samsara as such 
> which does not determine the character of this state - it may 
> be either bliss (ananda) as in the majority of schools or 
> absence of sufferings as in Vaisheshika .
> Victoria Lysenko
> Russian Academy of sciences
> 
> 22.03.10, 10:58, "Mary Storm" <mnstorm at MAC.COM>:
> 
> > Dear Indologists,
> >  
> >  I wonder if someone could clarify for me the nuances between the  
> > meaning of moksa and nirvana? Do both imply release from 
> samsara?  It  
> > seems as if a belief in soul/no soul has to determine the 
> meaning and  
> > I know the meanings change over the centuries.... but some quick  
> > insights would be very welcome.
> >  
> >  Apologies for such a broad question.
> >  
> >  Thanks so much for your thoughts!
> >  
> >  Mary
> >  
> >  Mary N. Storm, Ph.D.
> >  Academic Director and Lecturer
> >  India: National Identity and the Arts  and  Himalayan Buddhist Art 
> > and Architecture  SIT Study Abroad  www.sit.edu
> >  
> >  F 301 Lado Sarai
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