Samsara: The Cycle of Reincarnation

Samsara refers to the continuous cycle of reincarnation to which all human beings belong.

The concept of samsara was first developed in the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, produced in India between c. 1500 and c. 500 BCE. Though samsara is principally associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept features in other religions such as Jainism and Sikhism, and is often referred to in popular culture. Samsara or transmigration as it is called in some schools of Buddhism is found in most Indian philosophical traditions.

Samsara means “to flow together” and refers to the cycle of rebirth in which an individual is reincarnated in a succession of lives based upon the karma (a sort of metaphysical record of a person’s moral worth) received for deeds committed during each life. This rebirth is more of a curse than a blessing, though it does offer the opportunity for spiritual cultivation that can bring about release. In Hinduism, this is closely tied to the varna (caste) system: living according to your dharma (duty) can eradicate karma and earn rebirth in a higher caste that is more capable of attaining moksha, the state in which you realize union with Brahman (ultimate reality) and exit the cycle of rebirth. Even in orthodox Hindu and heterodox Buddhist and Jain philosophical traditions, an ongoing cycle of birth, death and rebirth is considered as a fact of nature.

The sacred and the profane meet head-on in “Samsara,” which traces the fateful decision of a young Buddhist monk to forsake the order for the secular world. Geshe Sonam Rinchen said in Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas (1997,) “Samsaric pleasures are like salt water, the more we indulge, the more we crave.”

It is believed that the law of Samsara, everything is said to be in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Buddhism teaches that there is no individual soul and that the existence of individual self or ego is an illusion. What transfers from one existence to another is only a collection of feelings, impressions and that the individual in the present life will not be the same in the next life but be an individual with similar characteristics.

In Buddhism, karma causes a person to be reincarnated as one of six types of beings: humans, gods, demigods, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-bound beings. Only humans can realize nirvana, the state in which ignorance is vanquished and karma is eliminated so that you may exit the cycle of rebirth upon death. The desire to exit samsara is the driving force in many Eastern rel igions. Reincarnation is taken as a base metaphysical assumption throughout Indian religion and it is the primary justification for the varna system that has structured Indian society for millennia.

According to core belief of Buddhism, all living beings are born into one of the six states of existence. Etymologically, the word Samsara in Sanskrit means the cycle of life and death. Tibetan Buddhism calls it a wheel of life in which all beings are trapped. It is believed that all beings trapped within the six realms are subjected to death and rebirth in a recurring cycle of Samsara over incalculable ages until they reach enlightenment.

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