Kurute gaṅgā sāgara gamanaṃ vrata paripālanam-athavā dānam |
Jñāna vihīnaḥ sarvamatena bhajati na muktiṃ janma śatena || 17 ||
Meaning – A person may go to the banks of River Ganga or any ocean; he may observe all the disciplines that are to be adhered there; he may give away huge riches in charity; yet he cannot get liberation (mukti) even after many births because Jnana (Spiritual Knowledge) is the essential pre-requisite for liberation.
Jnana being referred to in this stanza is the most essential Sadhana for attaining liberation (moksha). It is the centre-most focal point behind Shankara Bhagawad-pādāchārya’s teachings.
Only one knowledge pertains to the natural state of the inner being. Such knowledge dispels all ignorance that exists about this Self. To drive away this darkness called spiritual ignorance there is nothing other than utpatti.
A person may visit Kashi and bathe in the waters of River Ganga. He may go to Rameshwaram and bathe in the ocean there. He may perform innumerable religious rituals and pujas. He could construct limitless choultries, temples and ponds as a service to society. All of these purify the mind and enable achievement of total concentration (ekagrata). However these cannot show the way that leads towards the supreme goal of human birth i.e. attaining liberation.
Attaining Jnana amounts to attaining liberation (moksha). ‘Jnanam vinā muktir na bhavati’– the person who does not obtain Supreme Knowledge (Jnana) cannot secure liberation even after countless births. Obtaining supreme knowledge is the path for attaining liberation.
Why does the path of karma not bestow liberation? This is because karma (action) cannot directly attack spiritual ignorance (ajnana). Good actions such as meritorious charitable deeds, pujas, reading holy texts etc. are extremely important as they purify the mind and enable the person to achieve total concentration (ekagrata). A pure mind makes it easy to grasp the supreme knowledge.
Spiritual ignorance (ajnana) can meet its end only in the hands of Supreme Knowledge (Jnana). In the darkness a rope is mistaken for a snake; a fool is mistaken for a thief. These are caused due to bhranti (misconception). It is due to this bhranti that from the existing object, knowledge of another object emerges.
In His commentary on Gita, Shankaracharya Swami has authoritatively declared that obtaining Jnana is the only way to obtain liberation. He has also said that this is the final opinion of all the Upanishads and Gita.
Many people may question here- ‘Isn’t it true that total devotion (bhakti) can grant liberation? Performing yagnas and yaagas and undertaking naadopasana also lead to liberation, don’t they?’ The answer here is that to attain that liberation from which there is no return, Jnana is the only path to be followed. All the other paths grant liberation (mukti) which is not permanent.
How can there be impermanent liberation? Here it is essential to understand that there is a difference between ‘swarga mukti’ and ‘jeevan mukti’. ‘Swarga’ means ‘heaven’. ‘Swarga mukti’ means attaining the state of heaven. The being will be in heaven in accordance with the balance of punya (merit) that is stored in his account. The moment this balance depletes totally, the being has to return back to earth. All the other paths grant this temporary liberation. There are many puranic stories that incorporate this kind of mukti. The story of Nahusha is an example of this.
‘Jeevan mukti’ means total permanent liberation from which there is no return and which can be achieved only by attaining the supreme knowledge.