What happens after liberation?

I received the following question: “I have read the sutras by Edwin Bryant and there is a concept that I don’t get. How can the individual soul, atman, be differentiated from another one, if the two beings were both illuminated? It seems to me that souls are distinguishable because of the imprints (karmasaya) they carry from life to life. Do the souls of jivanmukta “blend” together in some kind of cosmic Soul?”

While some of you may think that’s a problem that may not concern you unless you are well advanced on the path of yoga, the truth is unless you know where you are going you will end up somewhere else. After 40 years of yoga I wish I would have been very clear on these things right from the outset. I would have saved myself walking down a lot of dead-end streets.

Firstly, in the question above there is a trying to understand yogic philosophy against the backdrop of Buddhist/Vedantic terminology. The term Jivanmukta itself is usually associated with Vedanta whereas yoga uses more the term siddha. Also, in both Advaita/ Buddhism we have the idea that the atman/anatta merges into and dissolves in the Brahman/ nirvana like a drop that falls into the ocean and disappears into it. The very term nirvana means “extinguishing of the flame” or “entering nothingness”.

In his Brahma Sutra Commentary the great Advaitin Shankara expounds that the individual self (atman) is identical with the cosmic self (Brahman). The very term Advaita means “not two”, but one. The English name for Shankara’s school is Unqualified Monism. Monism because there is only One and unqualified because that One is without form and quality. Therefore whatever has merged with this One must be formless and cannot be distinguished from the rest.

In both systems, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, we would then see that what has merged with the Absolute (i.e. the soul of the fully liberated being) has disappeared or dissolved into it. Because this was the most vocal view held by Indian schools of thought modern Western yogis often identify if with the yogic view. However, there were many other ideas put forth in the history of Indic thought.

An important view we should investigate is the one held by Acharya Ramanuja, Shankara’s great adversary and founder of the Visishtadvaita Vedanta school (qualified monism). Ramanuja put forth the identity-in-difference doctrine (beda-abeda), which tells us that on one hand the individual self is identical with the cosmic self in that both are pure consciousness. On the other hand, however, they are different in that regard that the cosmic self is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent and the individual self isn’t. While this may sound abstract you can very easily ascertain it by the fact that when you identify in meditation with the consciousness within you you can experience yourself as infinite and eternal. When you get up, however, and walk away you notice that your body and mind are limited in scope and power. They are not infinite. Shankara’s Advaita solves this quandary by declaring the body and mind as unreal, as a mere mirage superimposed on the ocean of infinite consciousness. If that was the case then two liberated yogis would in fact not be distinguishable from each other. However, this view is not shared by the historical school of yoga.

Firstly let’s look at the fact that the school of Yoga is sometimes called “Sheshvara Samkhya”, meaning Samkhya with Ishvara. This refers to the fact that Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutra, took over the entire framework of the Samkhya system of philosophy and only added Ishvara, the Divine. If you look at how oddly Ishvara fits into the Samkhya we must say that Patanjali had serious reasons to do so. In sutra I.24 Patanjali defines the Divine as a “distinct purusha, un-assailed by afflictions and karma, whether it’s fruit or residue”. Firstly, it is very important that Patanjali almost always uses the term purusha (embodied consciousness) and hardly ever atman (pure consciousness). Atman is a term that is heavily used in Vedanta and one of its nuances is that consciousness here is untouched and pure, with an illusory world only superimposed on it. For this reason there can only be one atman, which we all share. In Yoga, however, there are many purushas. While we do share some essential similarities, your purusha (consciousness) is embodied in a different body and mind than mine and therefore expresses itself completely differently. In yoga we go as far as prescribing different sets of practices for people with different bodies and minds.

Let’s look now at the fact that Patanjali calls the Divine “purusha vishesha”, a distinct purusha. That means however high I may evolve through the practice of yoga, the Divine will always remain distinct from me. In this commentary to this sutra the ancient sage Vyasa says that as yogis we may become spiritually liberated and therefore in some way similar to the Divine. However, it will always remain clear that the Divine was eternally free whereas liberated yogis went through a course of bondage. This will leave a karmic residue behind, which is eternal. In yoga we see these residues as very important. For example Patanjali is thought to be an embodiment of the cosmic serpent Adishesha, meaning primordial residue. Adishesha is the combined residue of everything that was manifest and became un-manifest. This may become very clear in your life when an important person dies and their demise tears a hole into your life that will never be filled. Maybe you don’t want to fill it. Before my father died he said to me, “Keep me alive by remembering me”. Although my relationship with him was difficult at times, since that day I feel that he is always with me. That’s a case of residue. A living liberated person (jivamukti) will always carry a residue of who they were prior to liberation.

Let me make here a brief interjection addressed to those of you who may feel peeved because yoga does not let you become one with the Divine. Bhaktas (devotional yogis) do not aim to become one with the Divine but remain in an ecstatic swoon apart from it. The knowledge that permanent union may impede or end an ecstatic relationship, however, is not exclusive to Hindu mystics. In her book Mating in Captivity the psychologist Esther Perel says that too much intimacy may impede a successful relationship as “you cannot desire what you have become one with”.

Back to the sutras: Another important one to consider is III.32, “by samyama on the light in the head we get the view of the perfected ones (siddha darshanam)”. Here is a clear indication that a being that has attained a very high state of spiritual evolution does not just dissolve into some form of cosmic soup, ahem soul I mean. Patanjali actually suggests approaching them, the siddhas, for guidance. We must assume therefore that they remain distinguishable beings.

So who are those siddhas and how come that they haven’t merged with each other seeing that they are only pure consciousness? The answer simply is, “They are not!” Have a look at sutra IV.4. Here Patanjali says that a siddha can create minds from pure asmita (I-am-ness). Firstly this obviously means that a siddha does not just consist of pure consciousness but also of I-am-ness. This is one of the most subtle and important points of yoga that needs to be implored. Did you notice that this mysterious term asmita doubles up as a klesha (form of suffering) and a type of samadhi? How can that be?

Also, have a look at the sutras following IV.4. Patanjali says here that the mind(s) of the siddha are facilitated/empowered by the one pure mind (cosmic intelligence) (IV.5), what this intelligence brings forth is pure and without residue (IV.6), and if you follow it your doing will be karma-free, what the Daoists called wu-wei (IV.7).

While I don’t want to go into too much detail here there is what we could call, “The Way of the Siddha”. In the following passage I will describe how this process “feels” to me and the description may or may not stand up to scholarly word-mincing: By going through the eight limbs of yoga, culminating in the first four training samadhis you come eventually to what’s called asmita samadhi. In asmita samadhi you experience that a Cosmic Intelligence wants to express itself through you consciously. We did go through a 3 Billion + years of evolution of life but only unconsciously. Now for the first time there is a conscious co-creation with Cosmic Intelligence. Once you let this Cosmic Intelligence come through you life seems to become effortless and what seemed impossible before becomes possible. Contact with this Intelligence is made through the process of meditation (dhyana) and samyama. It leads to a process of surrender and acting for the good of all. Since personal interest is not in the foreground but acting for the good of all beings no further karma is accumulated although action takes place. Because this seeming action is powered by a higher intelligence it seems to take around a centre, which is completely inactive. While the centre may feel identical to other beings, on the action level one may completely differ from others.

Hence two liberated ones are easily distinguishable.

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle began his practice of Raja Yoga in 1978 and added Hatha Yoga a few years later. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.
Posted in Ashtanga Yoga, Meditation and Samadhi, Yoga Philosophy.


  1. I wonder if this distinguishing is being done by those on the outside? Might it be that when the person is experiencing Samadhi without seed that they “feel” like they are one, which conceptually, I guess if you feel like that, you are that. Words cannot describe these states. Not really. I always “feel” a lot of this is semantics. I know that to some people, knowing whether the soul stays separate or not is not semantics. But at the end of the day, it kind of still is. If I feel I am one with everything, whether someone else says I am not, well, does it matter? It seems like it would only matter to the person watching “me”. Not the the one experiencing the state, at that moment. Intellectualizing outside of the state probably happens. Sometimes I think these conversations still go back to a fear of death. This wanting to know whether we stay separate or not. In the end, does it matter? Whatever it is. It is. Everything else is just intellectualizing by the mind. Which is cool. This convo is too. I am just saying. I hope this make sense. LOL It is hard to talk about these things.

    • Hi Shanna,
      Thanks for your contribution. Yes, during a time when you are thinking and philosophizing you cannot technically be in objectless samadhi. Whenever you are using words or concepts you must be outside of objectless samadhi as the word processor (dichotomizing mind) will prevent the arising of samadhi. But then even when you tell your child or partner that you love them you are outside of objectless samadhi as the pure consciousness does not know about the difference between you and your child or love or absence thereof. I’m saying that because we do not want to reduce everything to objectless samadhi. It’s cool : ) but there are other things that matter, too.
      The reason why people communicate these things and teach them is because if those first few people that experienced those states had not spoken about them (and hence left them) we would have never created spiritual paths that can now be trodden with relative ease if we compare ourselves to those that actually blazed them. So yes, words cannot describe those states nevertheless we must do our best to achieve it.
      This leads me to Jacques Derrida’s “perception is semiotic” and Korzybskit’s “the map is not the territory”. The word “banana” will never become a banana. However, without the word we can’t ask for one. When we entered the world of perception, we created language and maps of the world (comes with perception). There is a philosophical view that this was essentially an error that needs to be rectified by “halting the wheel of samsara”. Essentially us all entering a state of non-existence and the last to leave switches the light off. Contrary to that indigenous cultures held the view that us humans are essentially from the same mental stuff as plants, animals, rocks, rivers, etc. They are our relations. You do vision quests and have mystical visions so that they inform and change our behavior. What counts in the end is not what you have seen in mystical vision but in how far you can embody it and enact upon it.
      You are right when you say that part of this conversation goes back to fear of death. But where does the other part go back to? Fear of life. Freud taught the human actions go back to two urges, Eros and Thanatos. The urge to live and the urge to die. When I was young I always thought Freud was dreaming or talking out of the top of his head. But today I see that so much of our philosophies and religions are based on the fear of life or death wish. Life hurts and implies suffering. You meet and love people, animals, places end then they disappear, die and get destroyed. You get tired of that and seek refuge in the only place that is safe from pain – non-existence. This has been said by others before but to me it looks as if the fact that we are destroying nature, wrecking the climate, melting the poles, the fact that we have felled 80% of all forests, make 60 species of animals and 40 species of plant extinct each day and have killed two thirds of wild mammals on the planet is that deep down we cannot handle their beauty and want to die and take them down with us. Why else would we do such a thing otherwise. We say we want to live and that we love life but it’s actually only lip service. That’s why we destroy our life base and create spiritual paths based on self-annihilation. Because deep down we are afraid to be alive.
      Definitely hard to talk about these things and thanks again.
      Hope you are well

  2. Gregor Sir,


    As, almost a regular reader of your blog this I find as your intensely and deeply philosophical post though I want to mention that all of your blog posts about any philosophy and even about human anatomy (often delivered by Monica ma’m too) to me seem “the absolute” content and by that I mean the content created after a serious, deep, dedicated study and research, well experimented and experienced all through its insight.
    Very interestingly I was already intrigued about two things but did not have proper words for that and lo! here I am coming across in this post:
    1) “A living liberated person (jivamukti) will always carry a residue of who they were prior to liberation”.
    I am too curiously searching the answer for that, you know! And if I have a chance to frame a question to the divine (a higher intelligence or the cosmic consciousness whatever we can try to name that) it would go as “why a person should seek the liberation if the residue of who they were prior to liberation is going to be carried always???” Well may be that is my “desire” to not carry that residue that is why I am curious and have this question. I don’t know that.

    2) Did you notice that this mysterious term asmita doubles up as a klesha (form of suffering) and a type of
    samadhi? How can that be?
    That is maddening, funny and crazy at the same time and I can hold upon my curiosity for that because I guess this mysterious term, to reveal its mystery is subjected to personal experience.

    Keep sharing your experiences.

    Thank you so much!


    • Dear Shuchi,

      Thanks for expressing your appreciation.

      To your first question: you can see the hurt, anguish and pain (and also the joy) that a person went through very much in their face and even their body. Without any residue it is actually not possible even to maintain a physical existence. Can you imagine a face that is not formed by the experience a person went through? No, but even if you could it would actually be a scary idea because a person’s experience and face tells us a lot about them and that is good so. If we look at sage Vyasa’s words again, liberation comes after a prolonged period of bondage. Even after a person becomes liberated they still have known bondage. The purusha that was always free is God. I can happily live with that. I do not aspire more. If you have not known bondage it is difficult to help somebody who is bound. This is why so many of us turn to human teachers and find it more difficult to learn from the Divine directly, which is of course the most direct road to freedom. Paramahamsa Ramakrishna said that he attained his liberation simply by accepting it. That is a case of learning directly from the Divine, the fastest route.
      To 2: The deep meaning of this double use is that through our “egoity” or “I-am-ness” or “sense-of-I” we provide an opportunity for the Divine to experience itself through one of the potential paths of being (us) or in other words, to individuate through us. The Divine is the Universal. Because it is omnipresent it cannot be for example you or me, i.e. beings limited in space and time. The ego is a limiter in space and time. Through the infinity of beings the Divine individuates, which otherwise as the Universal it could not do.
      If you take your own asmita (I-am-ness) as meaning that you are an individual cut off from the whole then you are in the throes of the klesha (sufferance) asmita. Once you realize that through your I-am-ness the Divine becomes itself as you you are in the samadhi asmita.

      Hope this helps

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