By Syed Manzoor Alam, New Age Islam
Many believe that the idea of ‘freedom’ is a recent event, just after the birth of Enlightenment. The idea of freedom is not the product of enlightenment but it has its deep roots in diverse ancient texts. Freedom is not the monopoly of the Enlightenment and that from it other cultures take advantage from. This is a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding that needs to be corrected.
Freedom has roots in India (and Nepal). In ancient India, the early Hindu texts, especially the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, set forth a concept of freedom that is defined in two senses, and both of these senses are contained in one word. The word that the Hindus use is ‘Swaraj’. “Raj” means to rule over, and “swa” means one’s own. But this word can be understood in two ways.
On the one hand philosophers took Swaraj in a strict political sense: as rule over one’s own land or territory or property. So, in this sense you are free if your land is not ruled by someone else but by yourself. Swaraj, in that sense, means to control over one’s own territory, that is, freedom in the sense that you are free from alien rule.
There was another way in which this concept was used. Swaraj was also understood in a spiritual or psychological sense: as rule over one’s soul or rule over one’s self. Through self-knowledge one acquires a certain kind of spiritual freedom. One becomes free; free from ignorance, illusion and most importantly free from fear.
The highest level of consciousness is when our individual being is at one with all beings, and in this awareness of this unity of all beings, comes spiritual liberation. The freest person is one who sees all beings in himself and himself in all beings.
The second view of freedom was the Christian view. The whole Christian concept of freedom can be summarised in these Biblical statements: “ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” and “whoever committeth sin is the servant of sin”.
This idea of freedom was further expounded by St Augustine who wrote: “The will is truly free when it is not the slave of vices, passions and sins”.
For both the Hindus and Christ, freedom meant knowing God, whose knowledge led to freedom, freedom from fear, anxiety, troubles and worries; and also God’s knowledge led to spiritual liberation.
In Islam, by submitting our will to God we attain freedom. Freedom, in the Islamic sense means, doing what God wants us to do. We get spiritual liberation by carrying out his commandments.
There is another very important idea of freedom in Islam: “There is no compulsion in religion, truth stands out clear from error”. This means that we are free to choose our way of life and our choice will determine our action. It is almost like a cause and effect relationship.
There are of course differences among these ideas of freedom, because conception of truth differs among them. But the similarities far outweigh the differences. All these three views differentiate between lower and higher form of freedom: the higher being freedom from fear and ignorance, a freedom that allows us to see greater truth, greater than just being free to act as one wishes.
(Note Plato’s idea of freedom is ignored intentionally)
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