Question: What is liberation (moksha) and what are the changes one experiences as one follows the path of sadhana?
The path to moksha is a gradual transformation or purification of one’s consciousness. Moksha means liberation from the contaminated consciousness of this material world and situation in pure consciousness. Those on the path of spiritual sadhana are situated on the transcendental plane of liberation. It is something like a man taking a shower. You cannot say he is dirty, yet he is not yet fully clean either. Sadhakas are still in the process of attaining liberation, yet they are situated far beyond the grips of material nature.
The first experience of one who is on the path of perfection is described as “ceto-darpana marjanam”, or cleansing the mirror of the mind. Due to our contact with the material energy from time immemorial our original pure consciousness has been covered by layers of contamination. It is like a mirror that has been covered by dust. In such a mirror one cannot see his reflection. Only when the dust has been wiped away is it possible to see clearly in the mirror.
In the same manner our mind has been contaminated with so many thoughts, desires, and activites from countless lives. We are all very careful to filter the water we drink, but how many of us filter what we see, what we hear, and what we do? Day after day, life after life, this pollution enters into our heart through our senses and acts as a poison. As a result our mind becomes uncontrollable, dominated only by lust (kama), anger (krodha) and greed (lobha).
The first transformation that one will experience on the path of self-realization is purification of the mind. The influence of lust, anger and greed will be overcome and one will be able to control his mind with spiritual intelligence. As the dust covering the mirror of the mind is removed, the natural qualities of the self (atma) begin to shine forth. One gives up false identification with the body and its possessions and realizes the spiritual qualitative oneness of everything and everyone. The eternality of the self and the temporal nature of matter are established within oneself as irrevocable facts. All that is troublesome within the heart will be removed, and one will be situated above material desire. One’s external nature will change as one’s natural qualities begin to manifest:
Humility; pridelessness; nonviolence; tolerance; simplicity; cleanliness; steadiness; self-control; renunciation of the objects of sense gratification; absence of false ego; detachment; freedom from entanglement; even-mindedness amid pleasant and unpleasant events; and constant unalloyed devotion to God.
The second transformation that occurs is described as “bhava-maha-davagni-nirvapanam”, or extinguishing the great forest fire of birth and death.
Sometimes in the forest a fire will start when the wind causes two bamboo trees to rub against each other. Simply by the rubbing of two small bamboo trees hundreds of miles of forest are burnt to ash. In such a huge forest fire, it is impossible to trace out the original cause of the fire. It almost seems as though it has no cause. The origin of our conditioned existence is similar in that it is impossible to trace out what was the cause. And just as in the forest fire, we are constantly being burnt by the various sufferings inherent in matter. Birth, death, old age and disease are our constant enemies in life, and they are insurmountable. The scriptures describe this world as dukhalayam, or “the abode of suffering”. Why such a negative description? Because the soul is constitutionally eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. To have our natural spiritual qualities covered by illusion, and replaced with a temporal body full of ignorance and suffering is certainly a negative change.
As one purifies his consciousness, the false identification with the body is removed, and the true qualities of the soul become visible internally. The sufferings of the external body are caste aside as nothing more than the interaction of material elements, the nature. Due to false identification with the body we identify with the sufferings of the body. If we become free from bodily identification, the sufferings of that body are also left. Thus this great forest fire of birth, death, old age and disease – and all the sufferings inherent in a matterial body – are extinguished. The example is given that the spiritual master is like a cloud who receives water from the ocean of mercy and pours this mercy on the forest fire of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, to extinguish our sufferings.
The third transformation that takes place for one on the path of self-realization is described as “anandambudhi-vardhanam prati-padam”. There is an ocean, not of water but of bliss (ananda). The liberated soul is able to always experience this ocean of bliss, for it is inherent within the soul. And this ocean of bliss is not static, it is constantly increasing (vardhanam) at every moment (prati-padam). This unlimited bliss experienced by the liberated soul is the aim of all living entities. It is the driving force behind the entire manifestation. The conditioned souls are looking for this same unlimited happiness, but they look externally towards matter for it. They fail in their search because happiness is not something external to us, it is our very nature, which is now covered by illusion.
One who has attained to this state of purified consciousness has nothing else to attain, for he has everything. He is living on the spiritual realm of existence even while being situated within the external body. Such a saint is constantly seeing God face to face: premanjana-cchurita-bhakti-vilocanena santah sadaiva hridayeshu vilokayanti.
In the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna asked a similar question to Arjuna. He said, “What are the symptoms by which one may identify a self-realized soul.” This is a summary of Lord Krishna’s answer:
1) When a man gives up all varieties of desire for sense gratification, which arise from mental concoction, and when his mind, thus purified, finds satisfaction in the self alone, then he is said to be in pure transcendental consciousness.
2) One who is not disturbed in mind even amidst the threefold miseries or elated when there is happiness, and who is free from attachment, fear and anger, is a self-realized sage.
3) In the material world, one who is unaffected by whatever good or evil he may obtain, neither praising it nor despising it, is firmly fixed in perfect knowledge.
4) One who is able to withdraw his senses from sense objects, as the tortoise draws its limbs within the shell, is firmly fixed in perfect consciousness.
5) One who restrains his senses, keeping them under full control, and fixes his consciousness upon Me, is situated in complete intelligence.
6) For one thus satisfied in the self, the threefold miseries of material existence exist no longer; in such satisfied consciousness, one’s intelligence is perfectly established.
This is just a very brief answer to your question. I have focused on the general transformations, but there are many other experiences one will go through as one nears moksha. As one’s mind slowly elevates itself from the physical realm, to the mental realm, to the intellectual realm, and finally to the spiritual realm, one’s senses will be attuned to a new reality. On each plane of existence one will experience a new world reality. Generally people’s minds are tuned only to the lowest physical realm of existence, and as such they perceive the world in three dimensions. The world does not actually exist as it appears. There are higher realms, higher personalities, and higher civilizations existing simultaneously over a single space that are completely unperceived to common man. As one’s mind tunes to the mental realm, he will begin to perceive these other realities. These are not spiritual experiences, but subtle material experiences. The process of purifying one’s consciousness begins from the gross matter and works its way to the subtle matter, thus these experiences will automatically occur. Simultaneously one will develop perfections known as “siddhis” which give one apparently mystical abilities to control matter. One must be firm in his conviction and not be allured by such displays, as they are blocks on the path of self-realization.