JĪVAN-MUKTA, in Sikhism the ideal and aim or objective of man's spiritual life. The term is derived from jīvan-muktī (jīvan=life; muktī=release, liberation, emancipation, freedom from bondage), and means one who has attained liberation from human bondage or one who has attained to the highest spiritual state of being in tune with the Ultimate while still living. The idea of muktī is encountered, with some conceptual variations, in practically all religious faiths, e.g. mokṣa in Hinduism, nirvāṇa in Buddhism, nijāt in Islam and salvation in Christianity. The belief underlying the concept of muktī is, that the soul, a particle of the Supreme Soul, is, while embedded in the physical frame, in a state of viyog or separation and longs for saṅyog or reunion with its source, which for it is the supreme bliss.
If the body is the cause of the soul's bondage, it is clear that its release essentially invovles its separation from the earthly cage, meaning death; and that is how it is generally understood. In the Indian context muktī means deliverance of the human soul from the cycle of birth, death and birth to which it is destined in consequence of its past and present karma (actions, deeds). Various ways, such as spiritual knowledge (jñāna mārg) disinterested service, ritualism (karma mārg) , austerities (haṭh yoga) and devotion to God (bhaktī mārg) are suggested to break the incarnation cycle. Whatever the soteriological means, the end is usually sought in the cessation of incarnate existence. Besides this idea of videh (incorporeal) muktī, however, references to the concept of jīvan-muktī are also found in the ancient scriptural literature of India. But it is in the bāṇī (utterances) of the Sikh Gurūs that jīvan-muktī and jīvan-mukta receive a greater emphasis and fuller treatment. The saint-poets of the Bhaktī movement had freely employed the vocabulary of muktī. Gurū Nānak and his spiritual successors accepted the terminology made current in the preceding generations by sages and men of piety. But, as in the case of numerous other concepts, the expression muktī is invested with a new meaning in their bāṇī. It is no longer the annihilation of human existence but the spiritual quality of one's life that serves as the central principle in the Sikh conception of muktī. The body constitutes no barrier between the soul and the Supreme Soul. On the contrary, "the body is the fort limitless wherein resides He, the Cherisher Himself" (GG, 514). "Within the body resides the Ineffable One; the manmukh (the self-willed) fool does not know this and roams abroad in search of Him" (GG, 754). Gurū Arjan goes to the extent of rejecting muktī in the traditional sense of a post-death state and substitutes it with constant love of the Divine as the ideal state of being (GG, 534).
The root cause of the alienation of the human soul from its Supreme source is avidyā (ignorance), according to the Vedāntic way. In Buddhism, where nirvāṇa means soul's freedom from suffering, the cause of suffering is tṛṣṇa (craving). The Gurūs, however, hold haumai (the individuating sense of ego or I-ness) as the cause of ignorance, craving and bondage, as also of suffering. If liberation is sought, it is not from life or body but from the shackles of ego. Gurū Nānak's definition of jīvan-mukta, therefore, is in terms of the negation of egoism:
He alone is liberated while still living
Who is cleansed of the ego inside
The state of egolessness is the state of perfect detachment, not of renunciation, nor of self-mortification.
The jīvan-mukta of Sikh conception is the realized soul, identified as gurmukh (one whose face is turned towards God). He leads the life of a common householder enriched by the experience of spiritual harmony within. "He surrenders himself completely to the Will of God; joy and sorrow are the same to him; he experiences bliss always and viyog (separation) never" (GG, 275). Instead of the differentiating ego, the all-encompassing Divine Spirit resides in him. Existentially he belongs to the world, essentially he transcends the world.
A variant of the term jīvan-muktī in gurbāṇī is dying-in-life (Jīvat marnā). The paradoxical expression of dying while alive is employed by the Gurūs in order to stress the importance of abandoning one type of life and the adoption of another. It is dying to the life of haumai, of five evils', and entering into a life of contemplation, altruism and love of God. The person attaining to the state of jīvat-marnā, in this sense, is the one qualified for the designation of jīvan-mukta. He or she is the one who has realized the essence of human life, the essential life, concealed under the sheaths of egoism, of ignorance, passion, avarice, pride and infatuation.
The ideal state of jīvan-mukta is, notionally, within the reach of every human being, since anyone following an ethical and spiritual course faithfully, may receive the nadar (God's grace or blessing). Yet, as the Gurūs point out, rare are the individuals who actually arrive at the summit. The blessed few, fulfilled by the experience of Supreme realization, set out to serve their companions. They strive for the total well-being of fellow men, in all spheres of existence. However, the success of a jīvan-mukta in heralding an order of enlightened individuals or the Kingdom of God on earth, is not to be measured in terms of the number of "converts" to his way of life, but in terms of the model of humane, and enlightened living he presents for emulation.