Before study of Vedanta, ‘I’ means for one, the ahamkara ‘I’, i.e.ego ‘I’ associated with the three bodies, gross, subtle and causal , together referred to as sareera triam, along with the consciousness manifested in the mind i.e. chidabasa. While studying Vedanta, one comes to know of the second ‘I’, the witness ‘I’ or the sakshi ‘I’. One also learns that this sakshi ‘I’ is the real ‘I’ and the ahamkara ‘I’ is only the transactional ‘I’, which is useful for distinguishing oneself in one’s transactions with the world. One further learns that this sakshi ‘I’ is pure Consciousness, one without attributes, not subject to modifications, beyond time and space and has no birth or death and that this is the ‘I’ that is referred to in the mahavakhya, “Aham Brahmasmi”, I am Brahman.
When one in ignorance considers ahamkara ‘I’ as the real ‘I’, then that one considers the limitations of the body and mind as his limitations and is subject to the emotional ups and downs caused by the raga and dwesha, likes and dislikes of the mind, and the physical struggles to make oneself complete and fulfilled. This struggle and turmoil is called samsara. This samsara is the result of Self-confusion, mistaking the ahamkara ‘I’ as real Self, and the consequent activity to overcome the resultant feeling of limitations and this samsara causes the sense of bondage. Since the sense of bondage is caused by mistaken notion, freedom from this sense of bondage can come only from correcting the wrong notion and getting established in the knowledge that one’s real self is the Sakshi ‘I’.
The person who has acquired this right knowledge through sravanam, then made it doubt-free through mananam, and got established in this knowledge unshakably by removing habitual dehatma buddhi through nitidhyasanam, is called Jeevanmuktha. Jeevanmuktha is one who has become a mukthapurusha, a liberated person, while living and his state is called Jeevanmukthi. The final liberation from the cycle of birth and death which is attained when the body, which continues until exhaustion of prarabhdha karma, is shed at death is called videha mukthi. Jeevanmukthi is a concept unique to Advaita Vedanta. Jeevanmuktha realizes that he has never been bound and the notion of bondage was one born out of his ignorance, Ajnanam. Both bondage and liberation are only concepts and one’s true Self, the sakshi ‘I’ which is Athma, is always free of all concepts. Being established in this right knowledge is only called liberation. As he is firmly established in this knowledge he is also referred to as Sthithaprajna. Lord Sri Krishna refers to such a person as Gunatheetha (Gita-ch.14) as well besides Sthithaprajna (Gita-Ch.2). Athma is free of all attributes, and as one who has identified himself with Athma, he has transcended the three gunas and so is called Gunatheetha. As Jeevan muktha is one who has realized the jeeva-Brahma-aikyam and is established unwaveringly in that, he is also called Para-Bhaktha, a supreme Bhaktha . He is also referred to as Brahmavid, knower of Brahman, since he has realized his real Self as Brahman.
Since we normally identify ourselves with the ahamkara ‘I’, we have sense of incompletion and non-fulfillment. To complete ourselves and feel fulfilled, we go after wealth, possessions, positions, relationships, status etc. and this leads to activity aimed at self-aggrandizement and material enrichment. Such activities in self-interest lead to karma and karmaphala, which may be beneficial or adverse. Unfructified karmas of present birth are called agami karmas, the accumulated karmas over previous births is called sanchitha karma and that part of the sanchitha karma that determines the present birth with its environments, equipment and length of lifetime is called prarabhdha karma. For a Jeevanmuktha, agami karma is annihilated, sanchitha karma is liquidated and only the prarabdha karma, remains. Prarabdha karma is like the arrow that has left the bow shot at a target. It cannot be got back or arrested in its movement but has to exhaust by itself, by reaching the target. But the balance of prarabdha karma does not affect Jeevanmuktha mentally, as he does not identify himself with his body/mind. But prarabdha’s influence can be seen in his interaction with the external world. This accounts for different types of Jeevanmukthas. Some retiring to a forest or a lonely place to spend their days in silence; some being active in society, teaching, running ashrams and working for the physical and spiritual welfare of the people; some staying in Samadhi mostly, coming out of it only to satisfy essential biological needs etc.
Swami Sridharananda, while explaining the term ब्रमविदां वरिष्ठः,Brahmavidham varishtaha, in Mundakopanishad (3-1-4), used to classify Brahmavids thus. ( As Jeevanmuktha is synonymous with Brahmavid, I am using that term only.) Jeevanmuktha superlative is one who goes out to people to help them spiritually and in other ways. Jeevanmuktha comparative is one who does not shun society but keeps himself aloof in society and helps those people who come seeking him, in all ways possible. Jeevanmuktha positive is one who keeps away from people and society and pursues his spiritual practice in a secluded place like forest or cave. A Jeevanmuktha engaging in pravritti, activity or nivritti, withdrawl, is due to the influence of residual prarabhdha. But either way he is working for loka sangraha, universal welfare, only, through seva or through silence or through both.
When Lord Sri Krishna speaks about Jeevanmuktha, Arjuna’s curiousity is aroused and he wants to know how Jeevanmuktha speaks, how he sits, how he walks, in short how he behaves and conducts himself (Gita 2-54). This curiousity is understandable as Jeevanmuktha having evolved into unity consciousness, sees everything in himself and himself in everything. Further as he has awakened to the state of Thuriyam, the waking world is also another dream to him, only this dream is long, continuous, useful and shareable. I will not go into Lord Sri Krishna’s reply now but only state this much. Though a Jeevanmuktha is fully conscious of his identity as the sakshi ‘I’, he makes use of ahamkara ‘I’ in his interactions with the external world. In his case, ahamkara is a non-binding one and like a roasted seed it cannot germinate fresh karma, as his desires are non-binding and actions are selfless ones arising out of a sense of fulfillment and a sense of love and compassion for all, with no sense of doership, karthrutvabhava.