The Hindu Theology of Samsara
Common to virtually all Hindus are certain beliefs, including, but not limited to, the following:
- Belief in many gods, which are seen as manifestations of a single unity. These deities are linked to universal and natural processes.
- Preference for one deity while not excluding or disbelieving others.
- Belief in the universal law of cause and effect (karma) and reincarnation.
- Belief in the possibility of liberation and release (moksha) by which the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) can be resolved. (3)
The concept of Samsara is reincarnation, the idea that after we die our soul will be reborn again in another body — perhaps in an animal, perhaps as a human, perhaps as a god, but always in a regular cycle of deaths and resurrections.
Another concept is Karma , which literally means “action,” the idea that all actions have consequences, good or bad. Karma determines the conditions of the next life, just like our life is conditioned by our previous karma. There is no judgement or forgiveness, simply an impersonal, natural and eternal law operating in the universe. Those who do good will be reborn in better conditions while those who are evil will be reborn in worse conditions.
Dharma means “right behavior” or “duty,” the idea that we all have a social obligation. Each member of a specific caste has a particular set of responsibilities, a dharma. For example, among the Kshatriyas (the warrior caste), it was considered a sin to die in bed; dying in the battlefield was the highest honor they could aim for. In other words, dharma encouraged people of different social groups to perform their duties as best as they could.
Moksha means “liberation” or release. The eternal cycle of deaths and resurrection can be seen as a pointless repetition with no ultimate goal attached to it. Seeking permanent peace or freedom from suffering seems impossible, for sooner or later we will be reborn in worse circumstances. Moksha is the liberation from this never-ending cycle of reincarnation, a way to escape this repetition. But what would it mean to escape from this cycle? What is it that awaits the soul that manages to be released from samsara? To answer this question we need to look into the concept of atman and Brahman.
The Upanishads tell us that the core of our own self is not the body, or the mind, but atman or “ Self ”. Atman is the core of all creatures, their innermost essence. It can only be perceived by direct experience through meditation. It is when we are at the deepest level of our existence.
Brahman is the one underlying substance of the universe, the unchanging “ Absolute Being ”, the intangible essence of the entire existence. It is the undying and unchanging seed that creates and sustains everything. It is beyond all description and intellectual understanding.
One of the great insights of the Upanishads is that atman and Brahman are made of the same substance. When a person achieves moksha or liberation, atman returns to Brahman, to the source, like a drop of water returning to the ocean. The Upanishads claim that it is an illusion that we are all separate: with this realization we can be freed from ego, from reincarnation and from the suffering we experience during our existence. Moksha, in a sense, means to be reabsorbed into Brahman, into the great World Soul. (4)
The following passage explains in metaphorical terms the idea that atman and Brahman are the same:
“As the same fire assumes different shapes When it consumes objects differing in shape, So does the one Self take the shape Of every creature in whom he is present.” (Katha Upanishad II.2.9 (4) )
How is moksha achieved?
There are many ways according to the Upanishads: Meditation, introspection, and also from the knowledge that behind all forms and veils the subjective and objective are One, that we are all part of the Whole. In general, the Upanishads agree on the idea that men are naturally ignorant about the ultimate identity between atman, the self within, and Brahman. One of the goals of meditation is to achieve this identification with Brahman, and abandon the ignorance that arises from the identification with the illusory or quasi-illusory nature of the common sense world. (4)
One accrues karma over the course of one’s life by fulfilling the duties associated with one’s caste, as well as through the various yogas. In whatever way a Hindu defines the goal of life; there are several methods of yoga that sages have taught for reaching that goal. Texts dedicated to Yoga include the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and, as their philosophical and historical basis, the Upanishads.
Paths that one can follow to achieve the spiritual goal of life (moksha, Samadhi, or nirvana) include:
- Bhakti Yoga (the path of love and devotion)
- Karma Yoga (the path of right action)
- Rāja Yoga (the path of meditation)
- Jñāna Yoga (the path of wisdom)
An individual may prefer one or some yogas over others, according to his or her inclination and understanding. Some devotional schools teach that bhakti is the only practical path to achieve spiritual perfection for most people, based on their belief that the world is currently in the Kali Yuga (one of four epochs which are part of the Yuga cycle). Practice of one yoga does not exclude others. Many schools believe that the different yogas naturally blend into and aid other yogas. For example, the practice of jnana yoga, is thought to inevitably lead to pure love (the goal of bhakti yoga), and vice versa. Someone practicing deep meditation (such as in raja yoga) must embody the core principles of karma yoga, jnana yoga, and bhakti yoga, whether directly or indirectly. (2)