SAṃSāRA is a
Sanskrit word that means "wandering" or "world", with
the connotation of cyclic, circuitous change. It also refers to the
theory of rebirth and "cyclicality of all life, matter, existence", a
fundamental assumption of all
Indian religions .
sometimes referred to with terms or phrases such as transmigration,
karmic cycle, reincarnation , and "cycle of aimless drifting,
wandering or mundane existence".
The concept of
Saṃsāra has roots in the Vedic literature , but the
theory is not discussed there. It appears in developed form, but
without mechanistic details, in the early
Upanishads . The full
exposition of the
Saṃsāra doctrine is found in Sramanic religions
Jainism , as well as the various schools of Hindu
philosophy , after about the mid 1st millennium BCE. The Saṃsāra
doctrine is tied to the
Karma theory of
Indian religions and the
Saṃsāra has been at the core of the spiritual quest
of Indian traditions, as well as their internal disagreements. The
Saṃsāra is called
Nirvana , Mukti or
* 1 Etymology and terminology
* 2 Definition and rationale
* 3 History
* 3.1 Punarmrityu: redeath
* 3.2 Evolution of ideas
* 4 Samsāra in
* 4.1 Differences within the
* 7 Saṅsāra in Sikhism
* 8 See also
* 9 References
* 9.1 Bibliography
* 10 External links
ETYMOLOGY AND TERMINOLOGY
Sanskrit : संसार) is a term that means
"wandering", as well as "world" wherein the term connotes "cyclic
Saṃsāra is a fundamental concept in all Indian religions
, is linked to the karma theory, and refers to the belief that all
living beings cyclically go through births and rebirths. The term is
related to phrases such as "the cycle of successive existence",
"transmigration", "karmic cycle", "the wheel of life", and
"cyclicality of all life, matter, existence". Many scholarly texts
Saṃsāra as Samsara.
According to Monier-Williams,
Saṃsāra is rooted in the term
Saṃsṛi (संसृ), which means "to go round, revolve, pass
through a succession of states, to go towards or obtain, moving in a
circuit". A conceptual form from this root appears in ancient texts
as Saṃsaraṇa, which means "going around through a succession of
states, birth, rebirth of living beings and the world", without
obstruction. The term shortens to Saṃsāra, referring to the same
concept, as a "passage through successive states of mundane
existence", a transmigration, metempsychosis, a circuit of living
where one repeats previous states, from one body to another, a worldly
life of constant change, that is rebirth, growth, decay and redeath.
The concept is then contrasted with the concept of moksha , also
known as mukti, nirvana, nibbana or kaivalya, which refers to
liberation from this cycle of aimless wandering.
The concept of
Samsara developed in the Vedic times, and is traceable
Samhita layers such as in sections 1.164, 4.55, 6.70 and 10.14
Rigveda . While the idea is mentioned in the
of the Vedas, there is lack of clear exposition there, and the idea
fully develops in the early
Upanishads . Damien Keown states that
the notion of "cyclic birth and death" appears around 800 BCE. The
Saṃsāra appears, along with
Moksha , in several Principal
Upanishads such as in verse 1.3.7 of the
Katha Upanishad , verse 6.16
Shvetashvatara Upanishad , verses 1.4 and 6.34 of the Maitri
Samsara is related to Saṃsṛiti, the latter referring to
the "course of mundane existence, transmigration, flow, circuit or
DEFINITION AND RATIONALE
The word literally means "wandering through, flowing on", states
Stephen J. Laumakis, in the sense of "aimless and directionless
wandering". The concept of samsara is closely associated with the
belief that the person continues to be born and reborn in various
realms and forms.
The earliest layers of Vedic text incorporate the concept of life,
followed by an afterlife in heaven and hell based on cumulative
virtues (merit) or vices (demerit). However, the ancient Vedic Rishis
challenged this idea of afterlife as simplistic, because people do not
live an equally moral or immoral life. Between generally virtuous
lives, some are more virtuous; while evil too has degrees, and the
texts assert that it would be unfair for god
Yama to judge and reward
people with varying degrees of virtue or vices, in "either or" and
disproportionate manner. They introduced the idea of an afterlife
in heaven or hell in proportion to one's merit, and when this runs
out, one returns and is reborn. This idea appears in ancient and
medieval texts, as the cycle of life, death, rebirth and redeath, such
as section 6:31 of the
Mahabharata and section 6.10 of
The historical origins of a concept of a cycle of repeated
reincarnation are obscure but the idea appears in texts of both India
and ancient Greece during the first millennium BCE.
The idea of
Samsara is hinted in the early Vedic texts such as the
Rigveda , but the theory is absent. The early textual layers of the
Vedas mention and anticipate the doctrine of
Karma and rebirth,
however states Stephen Laumakis, the idea is not fully developed. It
is in the early
Upanishads where these ideas are more fully developed,
but there too the discussion does not provide specific mechanistic
details. The detailed doctrines flower with unique characteristics,
starting around the mid 1st millennium BCE, in diverse traditions such
as in Buddhism,
Jainism and various schools of
Hindu philosophy .
Some scholars state that the
Samsara doctrine may have originated
Sramana traditions and was then adopted by the Brahmanical
traditions (Hinduism). The evidence for who influenced whom in the
ancient times, is slim and speculative, and the odds are the historic
development of the
Samsara theories likely happened in parallel with
Saṃsāra is usually described as rebirth and reincarnation of
living beings, the chronological development of the idea over its
history began with the questions on what is the true nature of human
existence and whether people die only once. This led first to the
concepts of Punarmṛtyu ("redeath") and Punaravṛtti ("return").
These early theories asserted that the nature of human existence
involves two realities, one unchanging absolute Atman (soul) which is
somehow connected to the ultimate unchanging immortal reality and
Brahman , and that the rest is the always-changing
subject (body) in a phenomenal world (Maya ). Redeath, in the Vedic
theosophical speculations, reflected the end of "blissful years spent
in svarga or heaven", and it was followed by rebirth back in the
Samsara developed into a foundational theory of the
nature of existence, shared by all Indian religions.
Rebirth as a human being, states John Bowker, was then presented as a
"rare opportunity to break the sequence of rebirth, thus attaining
Moksha, release". Each Indian spiritual tradition developed its own
assumptions and paths (marga or yoga) for this spiritual release,
with some developing the ideas of
Jivanmukti (liberation and freedom
in this life), while others content with
and freedom in after-life). THE FIRST TRUTH
The first truth, suffering (Pali: dukkha; Sanskrit: duhkha),
is characteristic of existence in the realm of rebirth,
called samsara (literally “wandering”). —
Four Noble Truths ,
The Sramanas traditions (
Buddhism and Jainism) added novel ideas,
starting about the 6th century BCE. They emphasized human suffering
in the larger context, placing rebirth, redeath and truth of pain at
the center and the start of religious life.
Samsara was viewed by the
Sramanas as a beginningless cyclical process with each birth and death
as punctuations in that process, and spiritual liberation as freedom
from rebirth and redeath. The samsaric rebirth and redeath ideas are
discussed in these religions with various terms, such as Āgatigati in
Pali Suttas of Buddhism.
EVOLUTION OF IDEAS
Across different religions, different soteriology were emphasized as
Saṃsāra theories evolved in respective Indian traditions. For
example, in their
Saṃsāra theories, states Obeyesekere, the Hindu
traditions accepted Atman or soul exists and asserted it to be the
unchanging essence of each living being, while Buddhist traditions
denied such a soul exists and developed the concept of Anatta.
Salvation (moksha , mukti) in the
Hindu traditions was described using
the concepts of Atman (self) and
Brahman (universal reality), while
Buddhism it (nirvana , nibbana) was described through the concept
Anatta (no self) and
Ajivika tradition combined
Saṃsāra with the premise that there
is no free will, while the
Jainism tradition accepted the concept of
soul (calling it "jiva") with free will, but emphasized asceticism and
cessation of action as a means of liberation from
Saṃsāra it calls
bondage. The various sub-traditions of Hinduism, and of Buddhism,
accepted free will, avoided asceticism, accepted renunciation and
monastic life, and developed their own ideas on liberation through
realization of the true nature of existence.
SAMSāRA IN HINDUISM
Release from Saṃsāra, or Moksha, is considered the
ultimate spiritual goal in Hinduism, but its traditions disagree on
how to reach this state. Left: Loving devotion is recommended in
Hindu traditions. Right: Meditation is recommended in
Saṃsāra is a journey of the soul. The body dies,
Hindu traditions, but not the soul which it assumes to be
the eternal reality, indestructible and bliss. Everything and all
existence is connected, cyclical and composed of two things, the soul
and the body or matter. This eternal soul called Atman never
reincarnates, it does not change and cannot change in the Hindu
belief. In contrast, the body and personality, can change, constantly
changes, is born and dies. Current
Karma impacts the future
circumstances in this life, as well as the future forms and realms of
lives. Good intent and actions lead to good future, bad intent and
actions lead to bad future, in the
Hindu view of life.
A virtuous life, actions consistent with dharma, are believed by
Hindus to contribute to a better future, whether in this life or
future lives. The aim of spiritual pursuits, whether it be through
the path of bhakti (devotion), karma (work), jnana (knowledge), or
raja (meditation) is self-liberation (moksha) from Samsara.
Upanishads , part of the scriptures of the
primarily focus on self-liberation from Saṃsāra. The Bhagavad
Gita discusses various paths to liberation. The Upanishads, states
Harold Coward, offer a "very optimistic view regarding the
perfectibility of human nature", and the goal of human effort in these
texts is a continuous journey to self-perfection and self-knowledge so
as to end Saṃsāra. The aim of spiritual quest in the Upanishadic
traditions is find the true self within and to know one's soul, a
state that it believes leads to blissful state of freedom, moksha.
DIFFERENCES WITHIN THE HINDU TRADITIONS
Hindu traditions and Darśanas share the concept of Saṃsāra,
but they differ in details and what they describe the state of
Saṃsāra to be. The
Saṃsāra is viewed as the
cycle of rebirth in a temporal world of always changing reality or
Maya (appearance, illusive),
Brahman is defined as that which never
changes or Sat (eternal truth, reality), and moksha as the realization
Brahman and freedom from Saṃsāra.
The dualistic devotional traditions such as
Madhvacharya 's Dvaita
Vedanta tradition of
Hinduism champion a theistic premise, assert the
individual human soul and
Brahman (Vishnu, Krishna) are two different
realities, loving devotion to
Vishnu is the means to release from
Samsara, it is the grace of
Vishnu which leads to moksha, and
spiritual liberation is achievable only in after-life (videhamukti).
The nondualistic traditions such as
Adi Shankara 's Advaita Vedanta
Hinduism champion a monistic premise, asserting that the
individual human soul and
Brahman are identical, only ignorance,
impulsiveness and inertia leads to suffering through Saṃsāra, in
reality they are no dualities, meditation and self-knowledge is the
path to liberation, the realization that one's soul is identical to
Brahman is moksha, and spiritual liberation is achievable in this life
SAṃSāRA IN JAINISM
Saṃsāra (Jainism) and
Symbolic depiction of
Saṃsāra at Shri Mahaveerji temple of Jainism.
Jainism , the
Karma doctrine are central to its
theological foundations, as evidenced by the extensive literature on
it in the major sects of Jainism, and their pioneering ideas on karma
and samsara from the earliest times of the Jaina tradition.
Jainism represents the worldly life characterized by
continuous rebirths and suffering in various realms of existence.
The conceptual framework of the
Saṃsāra doctrine differs between
Jainism traditions and other Indian religions. For instance, in
Jaina traditions, soul (jiva) is accepted as a truth, as is assumed in
Hindu traditions, but not assumed in the Buddhist traditions.
Saṃsāra or the cycle of rebirths, has a definite beginning
and end in Jainism.
Souls begin their journey in a primordial state, and exist in a state
of consciousness continuum that is constantly evolving through
Saṃsāra. Some evolve to a higher state, some regress asserts the
Jaina theory, a movement that is driven by the karma. Further, Jaina
traditions believe that there exist Abhavya (incapable), or a class of
souls that can never attain moksha (liberation). The Abhavya state
of soul is entered after an intentional and shockingly evil act.
Jainism considers souls as pluralistic each in a karma-samsara cycle,
and does not subscribe to Advaita style nondualism of Hinduism, or
Advaya style nondualism of Buddhism.
The Jaina theosophy, like ancient
Ajivika , but unlike
Buddhist theosophies, asserts that each soul passes through 8,400,000
birth-situations, as they circle through Saṃsāra. As the soul
cycles, states Padmanabh Jaini,
Jainism traditions believe that it
goes through five types of bodies: earth bodies, water bodies, fire
bodies, air bodies and vegetable lives. With all human and non-human
activities, such as rainfall, agriculture, eating and even breathing,
minuscule living beings are taking birth or dying, their souls are
believed to be constantly changing bodies. Perturbing, harming or
killing any life form, including any human being, is considered a sin
in Jainism, with negative karmic effects.
A liberated soul in
Jainism is one who has gone beyond Saṃsāra, is
at the apex, is omniscient, remains there eternally, and is known as a
Siddha. A male human being is considered closest to the apex with the
potential to achieve liberation, particularly through asceticism.
Women must gain karmic merit, to be reborn as man, and only then can
they achieve spiritual liberation in Jainism, particularly in the
Digambara sect of Jainism; however, this view has been historically
Jainism and different Jaina sects have expressed
different views, particularly the Shvetambara sect that believes that
women too can achieve liberation from Saṃsāra.
In contrast to
Buddhist texts which do not expressly or unambiguously
condemn injuring or killing plants and minor life forms, Jaina texts
Jainism considers it a bad karma to injure plants and minor life
forms with negative impact on a soul's Saṃsāra. However, some
Hinduism do caution a person from injuring all
life forms, including plants and seeds.
SAMSARA IN BUDDHISM
Traditional Tibetan thangka showing the bhavacakra and six
realms of saṃsāra in Buddhist cosmology. Main articles:
Saṃsāra (Buddhism) ,
Bhavacakra , and
Saṃsāra in Buddhism, states Jeff Wilson, is the "suffering-laden
cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end". Also
referred to as the wheel of existence (Bhavacakra), it is often
Buddhist texts with the term punarbhava (rebirth,
re-becoming); the liberation from this cycle of existence, Nirvana, is
the foundation and the most important purpose of Buddhism.
Samsara is considered impermanent in Buddhism, just like other Indian
Karma drives this impermanent
Samsara in Buddhist thought,
states Paul Williams, and "short of attaining enlightenment, in each
rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance
with the completely impersonal causal nature of one's own karma; This
endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath is Saṃsāra". The Four
Noble Truths , accepted by all Buddhist traditions, are aimed at
ending this Samsara-related re-becoming (rebirth) and associated
cycles of suffering.
Buddhism developed its own
Samsara theory, that evolved
over time the mechanistic details on how the wheel of mundane
existence works over the endless cycles of rebirth and redeath. In
early Buddhist traditions,
Saṃsāra cosmology consisted of five
realms through which wheel of existence recycled. This included hells
(niraya), hungry ghosts (pretas), animals (tiryak), humans (manushya),
and gods (devas, heavenly). In latter traditions, this list grew to
a list of six realms of rebirth, adding demi-gods (asuras). The
"hungry ghost, heavenly, hellish realms" respectively formulate the
ritual, literary and moral spheres of many contemporary Buddhist
Saṃsāra concept, in Buddhism, envisions that these six realms
are interconnected, and everyone cycles life after life, through these
realms, because of a combination of ignorance, desires and purposeful
karma , or ethical and unethical actions.
Nirvana is typically
described as the freedom from rebirth and the only alternative to
suffering of Samsara, in Buddhism. However, the Buddhist texts
developed a more comprehensive theory of rebirth, states Steven
Collins, from fears of redeath, called amata (death-free), a state
which is considered synonymous with nirvana.
SAṅSāRA IN SIKHISM
Sikhism incorporates the concepts of
Saṃsāra (sometimes spelled as
Sansara in Sikh texts),
Karma and cyclical nature of time and
existence. Founded in the 15th century, its founder
Guru Nanak had a
choice between the cyclical concept of ancient
Indian religions and
the linear concept of early 7th-century Islam, and he chose the
cyclical concept of time, state Cole and Sambhi. However, states
Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, there are important differences between the
Saṅsāra concept in Sikhism from the
Saṃsāra concept in many
traditions within Hinduism. The difference is that Sikhism firmly
believes in the grace of God as the means to salvation, and its
precepts encourage the bhakti of One Lord for mukti (salvation).
Sikhism, like the three ancient Indian traditions, believes that body
is perishable, there is a cycle of rebirth, and that there is
suffering with each cycle of rebirth. These features of Sikhism,
along with its belief in
Saṃsāra and the grace of God, is similar
to some bhakti-oriented sub-traditions within
Hinduism such as those
Vaishnavism . Sikhism does not believe that ascetic life,
as recommended in Jainism, is the path to liberation. Rather, it
cherishes social engagement and householder's life combined with
devotion to the One God as Guru, to be the path of liberation from
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