In the text Kaivalya Navaneeta (The Cream of Liberation; a 16th century traditional advaita text that was often recommended by Sri Ramana Maharshi), four types of liberated sages are described starting at verse 94.
Understanding these descriptions can help explain and reconcile the different views of liberation one may come across, such as whether or not the body and world appear after liberation, what type of lifestyle a liberated sage would exhibit and whether or not they would experience any kind of afflictive or suffering-causing emotions at all. My comments are in italicised red:
94. The wise, remaining like ether and liberated even here, are of four classes, namely Brahmavid (i.e. a knower of Brahman), vara, varya, and varishta, in order of merit.
Tom: The four types of liberated sage are called Brahmavid, Vara, Varya and Varishta. First we will discuss the Brahmavid or or ‘knower or Brahman’ (Vidya is Sanskrit for knowledge). The phrase ‘remaining like ether’ refers to the previous verse 93 and means the wise sage abides as consciousness, fully liberated.
95. The Brahmavids who by steadfast practice have gained clear realization of Brahman, continue to perform even the hard duties of their caste and stage in life, exactly as prescribed by the shastras for the benefit of others, without themselves swerving from their supreme state.
96. Should passions rise up they disappear instantly and cannot taint the mind of the Brahmavids who live in society detached like water on a lotus leaf. They look ignorant, not showing forth their knowledge, and remain mute owing to intensity of inward Bliss.
Tom: the first type of liberated sage is called the Brahmavid. They continue to be fully engaged in society and the world whilst simultaneously being liberated. Occasionally afflictive emotions and passions arise but they are short lived and do not affect the Brahmavid. They may seem like an ordinary person with nothing particularly special about them, but they are often outwardly quiet.
97. Prarabdha, i.e., karma which is now bearing fruit, differs according to the actions in past incarnations. Therefore the present pursuits also differ among jnanis, who are all, however, liberated even here. They may perform holy tapas; or engage in trade and commerce; or rule a kingdom; or wander about as mendicants.
Tom: Prarabdha essentially refers to the destiny of the particular body-mind based on its previous actions, ie. its karma . This verse states that the actions of the (body of the) jnani or sage (jnani literally means ‘knower’, ie. ‘knower of truth’ or ‘knower of Self’) varies depending on what the activities the body did prior to realisation. So the sage may, for example, perform holy penance, or engage in the world, or be a ruler, or a wandering monk. Basically there is no fixed description of what a sage would do in daily life in terms of their ‘occupation’.
98. They would not think of the past or future; would partake of what comes unsolicited; would not wonder, even if the sun turned into the moon, or at any other marvel, whether the sky were to spread its shoots down like a banyan tree or a corpse were to be revived; nor would they distinguish good and bad, for they always remain as the unchanging Witness of all.
Tom: the last point on the Brahmavid is that they are unaffected by whatever appears to happen, no matter how marvelous, calamitous or ridiculous. Why? Because they are liberated, ‘fixed’ as the Self, remaining as the ever-unchanging ‘Witness of all’.
Now let us look at the other three classes of Jnani or Liberated Sage:
99. Among the other three classes, the vara and the varya remain settled in samadhi. The vara feels concern for the maintenance of the body; the varya is reminded of it by others; the varishta never becomes aware of the body, either by himself or through others.
Tom: Here the vara and varya are both aware of the body at times whilst the fourth type of Jnani, the varishta, is not even ever aware of the body at all, even though others may perceive him or her as a body. The vara has a desire to maintain the body, whilst the varya occasionally becomes aware of their body if someone else prompts them.
So which of these types of liberation is best? Let us see…
100. Although there are distinguishing characteristics in the lives of the different Sages, who are themselves very rare in the world, yet there is absolutely no difference in the experience of Liberation. What can be the use of the hard-won samadhi? The Brahmavid, who is outwardly active, seems sometimes to feel the misery of calamities, whereas the others remain in unbroken Bliss.
Tom: Here it is made clear: all of these four types of sage are rare, and all are the same in that they are all fully liberated. They all in themselves have the same essential experience of Liberation, the differences being only superficial and present from the point of view of other non-liberated people, ie. from the point of view of ignorance.
However a point is raised that is dealt with in the next verse. The Brahmavid may appear to suffer and stress like the unliberated, whereas the other three categories of liberated sage are lost in eternal Peace and Bliss. How can this be? How can the Brahmavid be said to be truly liberated?
101. Now if the Brahmavids live like the ignorant, how are they free from the cycle of births, and how is their ignorance gone? The all-pervading ether remains untainted by anything; the other four elements are tainted by contact with objects. So it is with the Brahmavid and the ignorant.
Tom: The answer given is that, as Consciousness, the Brahmavid remains unaffected and untouched by whatever seems to happen in the world of objects that we ordinarily call life.
Tom’s summary: So we can see there are various types of liberated sage that are all fully and totally liberated, but appear different to each other only from the point of view of ignorance or the ‘unliberated’. Some jnanis are active in the world and appear to stress and suffer, some are immersed in constant experiential bliss, some are totally unaware of their body or only aware of it to some degree, and others seem to have a need to look after their body. Some appear to be holy sages, other just ordinary mundane people int he world. However, all of this does not matter from the point of view of Liberation – Liberation is only One. Know Thy Self!