Hinduism – Karma and samsara

Karma translates literally as action, work or deed and can be described as the “moral law of cause and effect”. According to the Upanishads, an individual, known as the jiva-atma, develops samskaras (impressions) from actions, whether physical or mental. The “linga sharira”, a body more subtle than the physical one, but less subtle than the soul, retains impressions, carrying them over into the next life, establishing a unique trajectory for the individual. Thus, the concept of a universal, neutral and never-failing karma intrinsically relates to reincarnation as well as one’s personality, characteristics and family. Karma threads together the notions of free will and destiny.

This cycle of action, reaction, birth, death, and rebirth is a continuum called samsara. The notion of reincarnation and karma is a strong premise in Hindu thought. The Bhagavad Gita states that:

As a person puts on new clothes and discards old and torn clothes,similarly an embodied soul enters new material bodies, leaving the old bodies.(B.G. 2:22)

Samsara provides ephemeral pleasures, which lead people to desire rebirth to enjoy the pleasures of a perishable body. However, escaping the world of samsara through moksha (liberation) is believed to ensure lasting happiness and peace. It is thought that after several reincarnations, an atman eventually seeks unity with the cosmic spirit (Brahman/Paramatman).

The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha, nirvana or samadhi, is understood in several different ways: as the realization of one’s union with God; as realization of one’s eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; attainment of perfect mental peace; or as detachment from worldly desires. Such a realization liberates one from samsara and ends the cycle of rebirth. The exact conceptualization of moksha differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that after attaining moksha an atman no longer identifies itself with an individual but as identical with Brahman in all respects. The followers of Dvaita (dualistic) schools identify themselves as part of Brahman and after attaining moksha expect to spend eternity in a loka (heaven), in the company of their chosen form of Ishvara. Thus, it is said, the followers of dvaita wish to “taste sugar,” while the followers of Advaita wish to “become sugar.”

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