Samsāra refers to the state of perpetual reincarnation or rebirth, in which all beings are ensnared, according to the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Etymologically, samsāra is derived from Sanskrit and Pāli, meaning “continuous movement,” “continuous flowing” or “wandering.” The term is also generally applied to conditioned, transient existence within the material world, which is in juxtaposed with notions of liberated states such as moksha and nirvana.
Although understandings of samsāra vary between the Indian philosophical traditions as well as within their sects, certain points are consistently acknowledged. Indic religions typically assert that rebirth is an ongoing and beginningless cycle as well as an observable principle of nature. This cycle is inextricably linked with the doctrine of karma, which states that human action has consequences not only in this life, but in future lives as well. Karma is said to determine the nature of one’s rebirth in the samsaric world. Most of these traditions regard samsāra negatively, as a fallen condition marked by suffering, sorrow and impermanence. Actions motivated by desire, selfish individualism or ignorance of the true nature of the self and reality lead to rebirths. According to the merit of their karma, an individual may be reincarnated as another human, animal, or even as an insect or plant. One may also be reborn in a particular locale, such as heaven or hell. The ultimate goal of all three religions is to escape from samsāra. However, in all three religions, some lay practitioners engage in so-called “samsaric” forms of religiosity, which refers to the performance of good works in order to improve karma and thereby gain a more favorable birth in the next life.
The precise origin of the Indic belief in samsāra is uncertain. The idea of cyclical time was a widespread presupposition of many ancient cultures who celebrated the cycles of nature, the various seasons, and human-earthly fertility rhythms. The concept of rebirth may also have been prominent in India’s ancient Harrapean culture that pre-dated Aryan and Vedic beliefs, subsequently reappearing in Upanishadic times. The rise of the samsāra doctrine, however, seems to have been contemporaneous with a shift towards more metaphorical interpretations of sacrifice found in the Aryanaka and Upanishadic texts, as well as with the appearance of Buddhism and Jainism.
The early Vedic emphasis on precisely executed ritualistic sacrifices that were thought to bring about specific results in this world, or in heaven, eventually lead to the idea that any action (karma) could have specific results in the future. Vedic religion upheld the idea of punar mrtyu, or “redeath” which took place in heaven, and preceded punar avrtti, or return to life on earth. Alternate theories have suggested the rebirth doctrine emerged among ancient non-Aryan tribal people of India, or else groups located around the Ganges who opposed the Vedas. Regardless of origin, the doctrine of rebirth was gradually accepted in India by the sixth century B.C.E. when the Upanishads were composed, and the new religions of Buddhism and Jainism were being developed.
Samsāra in Hinduism
All Hindu traditions view samsāra negatively, although they disagree on its causes. Why beings are ensnared in samsāra is a point of contention among various Hindu schools of thought. Some suggest that it is beginningless karma that binds us to samsāra. They say that the perpetual transmigration of the individual self (or jiva) to another body, as determined by their karma, after it departs the body at death. The eternal self, or atman, which resembles the western concept of the soul, remains unaffected by karma. In other forms of Hinduism, it is avidya (ignorance) of one’s true self that leads to ego-consciousness of the body and therefore the perception of the phenomenal world. This material world breeds desire within the individual and grounds them in the perpetual chain of karma and reincarnation.
Since the doctrine of karma and reincarnation are inextricably tied together in Hinduism, there are several possible outcomes for a being trapped in samsāra. Karma of the worst variety may result in rebirth in hell, or else on earth as an insignificant being such as an insect, plant, or small animal. A step up from this is the so-called “way of the ancestors,” which is the fate of those who are householders and performers of sacrifices. Here the soul, upon death, is converted to rain and brought back down to the earth where it nourishes plants. These plants are then consumed by animals, who expel the soul in the form of semen which provides it with a new body after conception. At this level of rebirth, one can potentially gain what is supposedly higher incarnation through birth into a more advantageous caste. However, it can also be a step downward to the life of an animal or an outcast, which are believed to be less advantageous positions for karmic advancement. The Chandogya Upanishads describe the weight which rests upon karma in determining the nature of rebirth:
Accordingly, those who are of pleasant conduct here (…) they will enter a pleasant womb, either the womb of a Brahman, or the womb of a Ksatriya, of the womb of a Vaishya. But those who are of stinking conduct here — the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a stinking womb, either the womb of a dog, or the womb of a swine, or the womb of an outcaste. (Chandogya Upanishad V:10:7)
The third and most desirable result of reincarnation is the “way of the gods,” and is only attainable by those who have led austere lives dedicated to isolation and contemplation. Such discipline allows for the transcendence of notions of space and time, which leads to the cessation of rebirth, and therefore liberation. Hinduism has many terms for the state of liberation, such as moksha, nirvana, and mahasamadhi, among others.
Hindus believe that once the karma of this eternal self is purified, one can escape the bonds of existence in samsāra. Hinduism provides four different means by which to attain liberation:
- Bhakti Yoga, or love and devotion to a personalized form of God
- Raja Yoga, or psycho-physical meditation
- Jnana Yoga, or discrimination of what is real from the unreal through intense study and contemplation
- Karma Yoga, the path of selfless action and subversion of the ego
Generally, all of these paths provide an equal opportunity for liberation, though certain paths may be favored by particular schools.
The school of Advaita Vedanta believes the atman to be one and the same as Brahman, the supreme divinity. Any perception of a difference between the two is merely human egoism, caused by maya, or illusion. The phenomenal world itself and samsāric participation in it is fundamentally a consequence of maya. Illusion is the bondage, then, but bondage is also an illusion; therefore, once the illusion is understood, it can be overcome. For Advaitans, liberation from samsāra is gained when one transcends the illusion of samsāra and comes to realization of the equivalence of their soul with Brahman.
The tradition of Visistadvaita Vedanta, in contrast, believes that the individual soul is only a part and not wholly equivalent with Brahman. Therefore, mere realization of the nature of atman is not sufficient for purposes of escaping samsāra, and one must practice bhakti in order to obtain liberation through Ishvara’s grace. For Visistadvaitans and other followers of bhakti, samsāra is problematic in that it commonly involves failure to acknowledge the existence of a personal deity. Release, then, for a bhakti devotee, is characterized by emancipation from the temptations of everyday life so that one may become fully absorbed in their chosen god or goddess. Thus, samsāra does not necessarily need to be “transcended” in these traditions.
Samsāra in Jainism
Like Hinduism, Jainism also centers its belief in samsāra upon the notion of a pure and perfect soul, which they refer to as jiva, fettered by karma and the material world. For the Jains, however, karma is conceptualized as a kind of substance rather than a metaphysical force. The jiva becomes trapped in the cycle of rebirth due to the accumulation of karma upon it. This karma forms the physical body or bodies which becomes attached to the soul and determines various characteristics of each rebirth.
Jains identify four types of karma which are responsible for these characteristics. The various aspects of the body, such as class, species, and sex are determined by Namakarma (“naming karma”). Spiritual qualities of any given incarnation are determined by Gotrakarma (“status-determining karma”). The extent to which each incarnation is punitive or pleasant is determined by Vedaniyakarma (“feeling producing karma”), and Ayuhkarma (“age-determining karma”) determines the length of this punishment or pleasure. The fate of the soul is dictated by these four types of karma until liberation. Jains refer to liberation from samsāra as mukti, in which souls are said to float to the top of the universe to an abode of liberated beings (siddha loka). However, much like in Advaita Vedanta, so long as the ego (anuva) remains unconquered, the veil of maya persists, and liberation is impossible.
Samsāra in Buddhism
While the Buddhist concept of samsāra parallels Hinduism’s in so far as it posits a cycle of birth, decay, and death that can only be escaped through the attainment of enlightenment, it is summed up as unenlightened life characterized by suffering. For this reason, samsāra is typically described by Buddhists as a “Wheel of Suffering” or “Wheel of life.” Entrapment within samsāra is conditioned by akushala, or, the three roots of suffering: dvesha (hatred), trishna (desire or craving) and avidya (delusion).
Whereas in Hinduism it is the soul (jiva) that is trapped in samsāra, Buddhism teaches that such a self does not exist (a doctrine known as anatman.) How exactly reincarnation can occur without an eternal self has been a topic for Buddhist philosophers since the time of Siddhartha himself. Buddhists originally accounted for the process of rebirth by appeal to phenomenological or psychological constituents.
Theravadins, for instance, identify consciousness as the link between death and rebirth. Although there is no existence of self, perpetual ignorance from moment to moment causes every changing psychological states (or the skandhas) to be perceived to be indicators of selfhood. As long as mental representations of self persist, so too does the cycle of rebirth. Theravada, therefore, places the realm of samsāra in direct opposition to nirvana, though the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools actually equate the two realms, considering them both to be devoid (or “empty”) of essence. If everything is a mental representation, then so too are both samsāra and nirvana, which are nothing more than labels without substance. In these schools, realizing this simple fact allows for the realization that samsāra itself is the sole attainment, and existence is nothing other than the moment as it is.
Others schools of Buddhism dealt with the difficult coexistence of the samsāra and anatman doctrines in different ways. For instance, the Pudgalavāda school resurrected the concept of a “person” (pudgla) which transmigrates after death. Although this concept of a “person” is not necessarily equated with conceptions such as atman, such a teaching very nearly contradicts the notion of anatman. Another concept used by this school as well the Sarvastivadins to explain rebirth was that of antarabhava. This doctrine suggested the existence of an “intermediate being” present between life and rebirth. This being scouts out the location where rebirth is to occur as is dictated by karma from the previous life, and proceeds to attach itself to the sexual organs of the prospective parents of new child in which the soul will dwell.
One of the most florid representations of samsāra in the Buddhist tradition comes from Tibeta Buddhism, where the cycle of existence is commonly referred to as bhavacakra. Here the samsaric cycle is depicted as being contained, fittingly, within a circle (or mandala). The bhavacakra most often drawn or described as having six sections, each of which represents a realms of existence, spanning the world of hell, demigods, hungry ghosts, humans, animals, and to the world of the gods. The bhavacakra is held in the jaws, hands, and feet of a malevolent being, usually Mara (the demon representing sensual pleasures) or Yama (the God of death), who continually turns the wheel. The goal of life, naturally, is to proceed from the innermost rings of this circle to the outside, where liberation is attained.