Trimarga

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 29/02/2020

Last modified: 29/02/2020

The trimarga are three methods of liberation found within Hindu traditions.

Practices

Table of Contents

Escaping suffering

Within the Indian family of religious beliefs (understood broadly as Hinduism), one of the prominent areas of concern is moksha, or liberation from suffering (and the cycle of rebirth). This emphasis on liberation emerges from the Hindu concept of rebirth, and the cyclical nature of time, which leads one into repetitious patterns of ignorant and painful behaviour over many lifetimes. In light of this, Hindu religious philosophy has attempted to clarify methods of release from samsara – the rounds of birth and death – and these methods can be classified according to a tripartite schema: the trimarga. In this essay, we will attempt to explore the three approaches recognised by orthodox Hinduism, and how they relate to one another.

The 20th century Indian thinker Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan described moksha as ‘…spiritual realization … the fulfilment of the spirit in us in the heart of the eternal’ (1971, p.58) and elsewhere as, ‘…the extinction of the individual, his annulment in the Absolute’ (1940, p.100). It is worth noting, however, that this leans towards an understanding of moksha rooted in knowledge (jnana); as we will see, there are other ways in which the goal may be reached and understood. Whilst this fulfilment might, in theory, represent the apogee of human existence, it is also a profoundly difficult proposition (Beckerlegge, 2005, p.72), and for many Hindus it represents a goal that is ‘…often indefinitely postponed while theoretically extolled’ (Doniger, 2010, p.208).

In order to approach moksha, there are three recognised methods (trimarga is Sanskrit for three ways); in alphabetical order they are bhaktimarga, jnanamarga, and karmamarga. Each represents a differing style and emphasis for the religious adherent, and to some degree also presupposes a differing theological framework.

Liberation through devotion

Bhakti is the way of devotion to a divine power, which (despite apparent multiplicity) is envisioned as the supreme deity (Beckerlegge, 2015, pp.75-6). According to Swami Prabhupāda, bhakti-yoga is ‘…the proper activity of the soul, and when one actually engages in unalloyed, uncontaminated devotional service, he is already liberated…’ (2016, p.65). This devotion frequently takes the form of ecstatic love, expressed through activities such as singing, worship, and chanting.

Depending on the theological background of the adherent, the chosen deity (or Ishta-Deva) generally has an anthropomorphic personality via which one may approach, and the goal is liberated existence ‘…in a world of selves, forms, bodies, and relationships’ (Frazier, 2013, p.108). Devotees will often assume the position of a servant, a child, or a lover - human relationships that embody love, adoration, and respect (Martin, 2003, in Frazier, 2013, p.107). Some notable examples of the personal nature of these relationships include the Indian mystic Ramakrishna, who was reported to have carried a small statue of an infant Krishna, which he treated like a child (Nikhilananda, in Gupta, 2007, p.24)). The loving relationship between Krishna and his consort Radha is also held as an aspirational ideal for vaishnavites in their pursuit of God (Prabhupāda, 2016, p.98-9), while more physical engagement are not unheard of; the ancient text of the artha-shastra makes a point of prohibiting sex with images of gods (Doniger, 2010, p.203)).

Liberation through knowledge

The second route to liberation is jnanamarga, or the way of knowledge. It centers around the principle of emancipatory knowledge of the Self, usually won by ‘…solitary, ascetic and yogic practices…’ (Beckerlegge, 2005, p.75). This understanding of reality is contrasted with avidya, or ignorance, which is presented as the usual state of perception for people, and the underlying cause of their suffering.

As with bhakti, theology has an impact on the nature of the truth revealed by jnana, though it is usually presented in advaitic terms. In the Chandogya Upanishad we find the passage ‘The Self is one, though it appears to be many. Those who meditate upon the Self and realize the Self go beyond decay and death, beyond separateness and sorrow. They see the Self in everyone and obtain all things’ (trans. by Easwaran, 1996, p.190). This approach requires introspection and philosophical insight, and is not recommended to the majority; Krishna advises in the Bhagavad Gita that ‘…greater is the toil of those whose minds are set on the Transcendent, for the path of the Transcendent is hard for mortals to attain’ (trans. Mascaró, 1962, p.96).

Before exploring the last of the three ways, it is necessary to consider the Indian concept of karma from which it draws its name. From the Vedic period onward, karma was understood as ritual action that appeased the gods or ensured a favourable outcome, and was the domain of brahmin specialists. During the Upanishadic era, a more general, ethical principle developed that one’s actions bind to oneself in the form of consequences, both metaphysically and psychologically; in this sense karma became not just religious action - but all action, and by extension, its impact on one’s life (Hamilton, 2001, p.10-12). This development in the idea of karma is highlighted by Beckerlegge, who distinguishes between karmamarga: the older, ritualistic approach to leading a good life, and karmayoga: the practice of ‘disinterested detachment’ that leads to liberation presented in the Bhagavad Gita (2005, p.91).

The consequences of one’s actions, therefore, are important from both a material and spiritual perspective in Hinduism, and it is easy to see that since most actions carry with them some negative consequences, many would seek to renounce the world and abstain from action altogether. It is this renunciation in search of freedom from karmic blowback that Krishna challenges in the Gita; he states quite robustly that ‘Not by refraining from action does man attain freedom from action … not even for a moment can a man be without action…’ (trans. Mascaró, 1962, p.56). This insistence on the reality of material existence, and the necessity of working within it, typifies karmayoga, and helped inspire the social activism of Mohandas Gandhi (Knott, 2000, p.79).

Liberation through action

Karmayoga, stated simply, is action in accordance with dharma and without attachment to the outcome of that action, liberation in this sense results from a life unhindered by worries and doubts, where action is performed for its own sake because it is righteous. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna sums this up by instructing Arjuna, ‘Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward … Seers in union with wisdom forsake the rewards of their work, and free from the bonds of birth they go to the abode of salvation’ (trans. Mascaró, 1962, p.52-3).

In summary, we can see that all three approaches provide a potential solution to the suffering found in life, but there are differing opinions about this multiplicity. In keeping with the tripartite theme, we can articulate three possibilities:

  1. the margas are evidence of historical and cultural development (historical approach)
  2. the margas are alternative (and equally valid) pathways designed to accommodate a plurality of human temperaments (pluralistic approach)
  3. the margas are a series of ascending spiritual practices (hierarchical approach)

The first possibility approaches the practices and theories as cultural products, and therefore articulates a historical relationship between them. Based on the available evidence, it seems that some form of karmamarga emerged during the vedic period, alongside bhakti as described in early texts like the Rig Veda. This approach to securing salvation was later developed by Upanishadic thinkers and mystical practices of personal emancipation came to predominate, with a particular focus on experiences of unity with the transcendent other. It was only later, as more popular forms of worship began to find footing, that devotion of a more relaxed kind was recognised as a legitimate route to salvation, and the intercessory power taken from brahmins. As Frazier highlights, ‘…from the Gita’s defence of bhakti over renunciation and ritual onwards … [bhakti] has sometimes been used to empower marginalised groups, to some extent justifying its reputation as a form of ‘protest’ Hinduism that championed direct access to the presence and the gifts of the divine…’ (2013, p.103).

The second possibility takes a relaxed attitude to the relationship between the margas, and instead suggests that how salvation occurs is less important than the fact that it does. The Bhagavad Gita states that all three have merit, albeit with differing levels of difficulty. This suggests that the different methods may simply have developed (or been presented) in order to accommodate the significant differences between human personalities. There are, of course, more than three types of personality, but by offering a specific pathway for those who seek a devotional relationship with God, and those who seek an intellectual understanding of reality, and those who are compelled to make their faith a reality in the world, a far broader section of the population can engage with the orthodox religious tradition than would otherwise be possible.

The third option can be framed in a number of combinations, but ultimately it requires some value judgements about what counts as authentic, and what counts as worthwhile. In discussing the work of the bhakti Rupa Gosvami, Prabhupāda writes that a jnani’s knowledge is ‘…considered impure because he has no information of devotional service and thus neglects the direct worship of the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead’ (Prabhupāda, 2016, p.94). He also stresses, while providing commentary on verses from the Bhagavad Gita, the difficulties faced by jnana-yogis (while tacitly acknowledging that they ultimately achieve the same goal as bhakti-yogis) (Prabhupāda, 2008, pp.504-6). Here, the hierarchy is clearly bhakti-first. Elsewhere, particularly in the works of advaitins like Shankara, we can find an emphasis on the supremacy of jnana, with devotion to a personal god ranking proportionally lower.

In conclusion, we can see that the trimarga has been understood with differing degrees of emphasis by different Hindu groups, and whilst none have outright denied that the alternative routes to salvation exist, they have certainly made value judgement about their efficacy. We must also be careful of taking this analysis too far; the very notion of Hinduism as a self-contained, religiously homogenous unit is widely disputed, and tends towards a misunderstanding of India’s vast cultural heritage (Knot, 2000, p.116-7). There are no simple answers to the question of how Hindus understand the trimarga, but there are many interesting perspectives. We can, with some certainty however, say that a historical process of religious development has occurred in the land east of the Indus, and the value of these multitudinous branches is as divergent and elaborate as the modern complex of Hinduism.

Bibliography

  • (1962) The Bhagavad Gita (trans. J. Mascaró), London, Penguin Books
  • (1996) The Upanishads (trans. E. Easwaran), Berkeley, The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation
  • Beckerlegge, G. (2005) Hinduism Study Guide, Milton Keynes, The Open University
  • Doniger, W. (2010) The Hindus, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  • Frazier, J. (2013) ‘Bhakti in Hindu Cultures’, The Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, pp.101-113 [Online]. Available at: https://doi-org.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/10.1093/jhs/hit028 (accessed 28/02/2017).
  • Gupta, M. (2007) The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (trans. Swami Nikhilananda), New York, The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center
  • Hamilton, S.(2001) Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  • Knott, K. (2000) Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  • Radhakrishnan, S. (1971) The Hindu View of Life, Bombay, George Allen & Unwin (India)
  • Radhakrishnan, S. (1940) Eastern Religions and Western Thought, London, Oxford University Press
  • Swami Prabhupāda (2016) The Nectar of Instruction, Alachua, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust
  • Swami Prabhupāda (2008) The Bhagavad Gita: As It Is, Alachua, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

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