Samsara is a Sanskrit word meaning “to wander” or “to flow through,” and is recognized within the Hindu religion as the continuous cycle of death and rebirth. Samsara is the result of one’s karmic actions and thoughts throughout their present and pre-existing lifetimes. Samsara can also be seen as the ignorance of atman (true-self) and absolute reality (Brahman). When realizing atman one can then attain moksa (liberation). Moksa is seen as the highest achievement that any being can accomplish, and inevitably leads to ending samsara (Rodrigues 93-97). Samsara can also be tied to or known as worldly existence. It is the constant altering state on a continuous wheel which never ends nor begins, this is contradictory to the realization of atman, moksa or absolute reality which are eternal and infallible (Eliade 56-57).
The exact origins of samsara are unknown. There are several theories amongst scholars about the beginnings of the theory of rebirth amongst Asian traditions and ancient Indian civilizations. The concept does not appear in the Rg Veda but it does appear in the Upanisads (see Herman 70). There is a Vedic notion of re-death (punarmrtyu) in heaven which is viewed as a precursor to the notion of rebirth in the earthly realm. But these are simply theories; there is no historical evidence as to how and where the conception of samsara began (Eliade 56). However what is known is that by the time of early Buddhism and Jainism the concept of samsara was universal, and with each tradition particularly within Jainism and Buddhism samsara spread to consist of different views and beliefs from the Hindu religion. This article will focus on the Hindu Traditions view of Samsara. It should be noted that although samsara and other related religio-philosophical forms of worship are widely accepted within the Hindu tradition, scholars do not interpret these beliefs as fact.
The jiva or jivatman (soul) is that which travels continuously through birth, death, and rebirth carrying with it its karmic residue (Rodrigues 94). The jiva is reborn (punar janman) into various different realms and beings; three realms are widely accepted. One can be reborn into a heaven, hell, or earthly existence. Depending on the karmic nature of a jiva it can be reborn as an insect, animal, plant, human, or god in any of the three realms. The human form is one of the rarest that one can be reborn into and although it is one of the more desirable forms, it is moksa which is the ultimate attainment which stops the process of being reborn.
There are possibly three separate paths for the individual self to take once it has left its physical body at death. The “path of the gods” (deva yana) leads to the heavens where the jiva then becomes one with Brahman; this is reserved for those who have, through proper meditation and realization of atman, attained moksa. This is the end to samsara. The second is the “path of the ancestors” (pitr yana) which leads the soul to the moon, where they are led to the world of the ancestors and are fed upon by the gods; from there they are then moved into space and then finally move to the earthly realm to be reborn as a human or other creature. The third path involves travelling through the hellish realm and being reborn as a smaller life form such as an insect or rock (Mittal & Thursby 314).
There are two concepts commonly associated with samsara; the first is Karma and the second is Moksa. Karma is the cause to samsara’s effect; karma can generally be viewed as the law of action. However when studying the relationship between karma and samsara, dharma and kama must also be explored. According to Hindu tradition cause and effect are determined not by a supernatural force such as a deity or God. Instead it is determined by individual actions or thoughts. It is also believed that actions should be undertaken which uphold the cosmic order (dharma) as a part of cleansing ones karma. Karma and dharma are similarly tied to samsara: both directly influence the outcome of ones result after death depending on the jiva’s actions and behaviour in congruence with the cosmic order (Rodrigues 100). Kama deals with sensory pleasure; the pleasures of this world can sometimes corrupt ones jiva into ignoring their dharma or neglect the laws of karma. As such samsara would then have the offending jiva be reborn in hell, or as a lowly creature such as a plant.
The idea of karma suggests that a transcendent substance is generated and follows the soul based on one’s thoughts and actions. The Upanisads describe karma as being accumulated and even transferred from one life to the next; this cosmic “trail” influences one’s subsequent lifetime and form. Negative acts and thoughts are sometimes called bija (seeds) which can lay dormant for short or long periods of time, until the bija begin to bear fruit (phala)(Keys and Daniel 29).
The fruits of that karma can manifest in present or future lives. Depending on one’s actions and thoughts the bija can be good or bad. When the subtle body of the jiva dies, samsara then in accordance to the fruits of one’s karmic actions decides where that jiva will go. Hindus tend to see events, particularly hardships or tragedy, as karmic remnants manifested in present lifetimes; if a child should fall seriously ill and die, and the family is unable to find any bad karma in this life then it is likely they would blame fault on a former life, or that of an ancestor (Keys and Daniel 29). Wealth, long life, and prosperity are also viewed as karmic residue of former lives. Karma’s influence on samsara also includes dharma which appears in the RgVeda as dharman, signifying divine or natural law, dharman in particular characterizes personal action which maintains cosmic order. It is also in connection to rta which affirms orderly creation. Samsara is an eternal, never ending, never beginning cyclical event which can be argued as part of cosmic order (Eliade Vol.4 329).
One’s dharma is also interwoven with karma and subsequently entwined with samsara. A king’s dharmic action is in direct relation to the well-being of himself and his kingdom. If he performs the necessary rituals, samskaras (rites of passage) and sacrifices, then his kingdom will prosper and he himself has a chance to live a wealthy present and future life, or possibly even realize atman. However, if he were to neglect his dharmic duties then his next life may be lower in the caste system or even as a lower life form (Sharma 95). This is a very undesirable outcome as the act of re-death is on the opposite spectrum from moksa.
Kama (sensory pleasure) also plays an integral part in samsara as actions can be shaped by kama. Kama within the Hindu tradition is a part of human behavior; unlike Western notions, kama is a part of the mind which feeds the body. Kama can also be defined as “desire” desires born in the mind can influence the actions of the body. Although this notion is not seen as a “bad” thing, as in Western philosophy there is the idea of “too much of a good thing” which can affect karma and dharma. Karma can be argued as an effect of kama: action and thoughts caused by desire. When a jiva has been rid of desires and worldly pleasures it then has the ability to realize atman. One’s desire for life and worldly pleasures (bhukti) can also keep them within samsara, the Upanisads say one’s desire for life and its trivial matters can cause the soul to constantly be reborn again and again into the suffering world until its desire for life and the world ceases (Herman 71).
The Hindu view of life within samsara as a repetition of re-death and rebirth were present within the ancient Hindu traditions before samsara was named, and both are continuously associated with fear. The jiva is immortal; however its bodies must continuously die and be reborn into lives filled with the threat of fear or hunger, and the pain of sorrow and hardships, such as old age or disease in a seemingly endless cycle (Kaelber 76). The body and senses keep the soul tied to samsara until it can realize self.
The ignorance of atman is called avidya. Avidya could be equated to a veil; it is the jiva’s supposed perception of itself and its own limitations. Theory suggests that the true nature of ones soul is hidden from it, avidya is this force which hides atman from the jiva but can be removed though faithful meditation, ritual, and sacrifice (Rodrigues 96). Avidya is that which keeps the soul within the endless cycle of rebirth and re-death hiding the self’s true nature. Because of this the jiva is trapped in the bondage of karmic law and subject to samsara. Once that veil is removed it is possible for the jiva to realize Atman (Sharma 90-91).
Atman is absolute reality; when the jiva has lifted the veils such as karma (action), maya (Illusion), and anava (egotism) then they are able to realize their true nature. Once these veils are lifted “all” are then perceived or realized to be “one.” This realization is also associated with Brahman which is the knowledge and essence of all things, subsequently brahman is also one with atman. With the knowledge of atman and brahman comes the end to all ignorance such as ego, desire, illusion, and the jiva is then no longer subject to karma (Kaelber 76-77). From then one could be recognized as jivanmukti (liberated as a living being); these liberated beings are generally recognized as saints or sages and are highly sought after for knowledge and blessings (Rodrigues 96). It is in this state and through the realization of atman that one can attain moksa and stop the endless cycle of samsara.
Moksa is the highest attainment within the Hindu tradition generally referenced as liberation from samsara and derives from the Sanskrit root muc meaning “release.” The Bhagavad Gita states that liberation (moksa) can be attained through three paths of self discipline, action (karmayoga), knowledge (jnanayoga), and devotion (bhaktiyoga) (Sharma 114). Moksa, like samsara is not mentioned in early Vedic or traditional texts; however, following the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata the concept of moksa becomes more widely recognized. If samsara is associated with words such as ‘bondage’ or ‘pain’, then moksa is then associated with words such as ‘liberation’ or ‘freedom,’ it is a release from worldly pleasures as well as worldly existence. The two also contrast one another as samsara is seen as a never-ending cycle of pain, whereas moksa is recognized as a halt and a break from endless recurring pain to be replaced by redemption. Apart from samsara, moksa is always associated with three other traditionally recognized goals (vargas) of earthly living. These are dharma (moral value, duty or law), kama (sensory pleasure), and artha (material wealth); moksa (liberation) is widely accepted as the fourth goal within religious and philosophical texts. Philosophically the four goals can be recognized as a circle as well with moksa returning the jiva back to Brahman (Eliade Vol.10 28-29)
Samsara is viewed as an eternal wheel which continues without beginning or end, and though Moksa is seen as liberation from that eternal wheel, there are those who are seen to accept their position within the cyclical samsara. Though Samsara is viewed as a painful repetitious process, there are those who would aspire to gain the vargas without moksa. There are many devotees within Jainism and Buddhism as well as Hinduism that take on a “samsaric” form of worship or religion. In this case followers practice a more pious and charitable lifestyle seeking not to end samsara but instead to ensure a better birth in their next life following their present lifetime (Eliade Vol.13 57).
Herman, A.L. (1991) A Brief Introduction to Hinduism. Colorado: Westview Press.
Eliade, Mircea (1987) The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Kaelber, Walter O. (1989) Tapta Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi: SRI Satguru Publications.
Keys, Charles F. and Daniel, E. Valentine (1983) Karma An Anthropological Inquiry. London: University of California Press.
Mittal, Sushil and Thursby, Gene (2004) The Hindu World. New York: Routledge Press.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1980) Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions.Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2006) Hinduism the eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd
Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge Press.
Sharma, Arvind (2000) Classical Hindu Thought. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
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[Article written by Deserae Yellow Horn (2013) who is solely responsible for its content]