What exactly is it that liberates? Let’s ask Shankara!

Not only is knowledge that which liberates the self, but it is also, of all the other means, the only direct and immediate cause of moksha or liberation. This implies that all the other methods (self-discipline, austerity, devotion etc.) are but instrumental in bringing knowledge about. And bringing knowledge about is the bringing about of liberation.

We shall be studying two verses from Shankara’s Atmabodha where he answers this question and presents the logic that leads to this conclusion.

Just as fire is the direct cause for cooking, knowledge is the direct means of Liberation.
Compared to all other forms of discipline, knowledge of the Self is the only direct means of Liberation
(verse ii)

Action cannot destroy ignorance, as it is not opposed to ignorance.
Knowledge does verily destroy ignorance just as light destroys deep darkness
(verse iii)[1]

The (verse ii) here is the conclusive statement and (verse iii) is the logic that leads to it. Knowledge is here presented as a solution to a problem. What is the problem to which knowledge is a direct answer and solution? The (verse iii) identifies the problem as ignorance or avidya. It is interesting to note that (verse iii) does not use the term moksha. It instead equates the destruction of ignorance with the moksha that was promised as the direct effect of knowledge in (verse ii). What this means is that the destruction of ignorance or the generation of a state of knowledge is itself liberation. So, the word direct or sakshaat is used to mean a direct cause of an effect and also to mean the cause’s identity with the produced effect. It is in this that the direct cause is different from the other instrumental causes. Continue reading