How Samsara Works: The Cycle of Death and Rebirth

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Table of Content:

  • What Is Samsara

  • Samsara Meaning in Hinduism: Mortal and Eternal

  • Samsara Meaning in Buddhism: Samsara and Nirvana

  • Samsara in Our Lives

Samsara is one of the most important beliefs in India. And because of the influence and spread of Indian spiritual beliefs around the world — it has become one of the most important beliefs globally. Many have heard this word, but how many of us have grasped its full meaning? And how can we use this idea to live more meaningful, fulfilling lives? To answer this, we must answer the simple question: what is Samsara? To understand this important concept, we will look at its definition. But we will also look at how it plays into two of the most beautiful religions on earth: Hinduism and Buddhism. Then, we will try to take what we’ve learned and bring it home with us, so that the idea can take flight in our own lives.

What Is Samsara

Samsara can be defined as the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It is the path that leads to reincarnation. It comes from Sanskrit, and it literally means “world.” This gives us a hint to a broader meaning of Samsara. It refers to the cyclical nature that makes up the universe. Day and night. The four seasons. The death and birth of stars in the sky. Everything goes through cycles. The cycle is the way that time and eternity coexist. We are passing through this day, and like all things, this day will end. But a new day will dawn after the night. So in a way, there is an eternal day. This allows things to be both limited and never ending. For many Indian spiritual traditions, Samsara — particularly as it refers to death and rebirth — is something we seek to escape. This experience of escape, sometimes called Nirvana or Moksha, allows us to stop returning to earth. Instead, we are able to experience our true nature as divinity. This idea, then, is at the heart of the grandest wisdom traditions ever known to humanity. It is a way of seeing not only the course our own souls travel, but the course of all things — by the very nature of their being.

Samsara Meaning in Hinduism: Mortal and Eternal

For many Hindus, Samsara is important for understanding how we are to act in the world. Karma is a critical component of Samsara for Hinduism. One way to think about this is through cause and effect. When we act in the world, we cause certain things to happen. This creates effects that must be dealt with or at least experienced. Just as with mundane things, karma builds up like effects that we’ve caused in the world. As we create more karma, our souls (or Atman) become caught in the cycle of Samsara. They must continually return to this plane to burn off that karmic load.

To do this, we have to live virtuously. And that means that while we are incarnated in this body, we must follow our dharma. In other words, we must act according to our roles, be they social, familial, societal, or spiritual. Over enough lifetimes, as we strive ever more to follow our dharma and stop generating karma, we attain a state at death where there is nothing more to work through. At long last, the work is done. Then, upon death, we experience liberation (or Moksha). There is no more karma to be dealt with or experienced. There is only the bliss of return to the eternal one. For many Hindus, then, Samsara describes the ways that our limited, mortal bodies are born only once, live only once, die only once. At the same time, it describes how that immortal and unchanging element of us, our Atman, continues to return to a flesh and blood body. And if we take the rest of the teachings seriously, then we also discover a route of escape.

Samsara and Nirvana - A Unifying Vision

Samsara Meaning in Buddhism: Samsara and Nirvana

As Buddha taught us, life is suffering. For the Buddhist, Samsara also describes the cycle of death and rebirth, but with an emphasis on the continuation of suffering.

If we continue to desire, we will continue to suffer. And it is that suffering that causes Samsara. Once we end desire, we are able to step off the wheel of reincarnation. Our souls no longer keep reaching for another life.

This can be both literally true and also act as a metaphor for everyday life. Continuing to reach out for things, to grasp at the objects of our desires (which are always shifting and morphing, always popping back up once we think we’ve obtained them), we continue to experience a form of Samsara in our lives. We go through the little birth of a new fixation, the little death of disappointment.

So then, our souls are not so unlike our bodies in their mortal state. There is similarity, even harmony, between the two.

The wheel of Samsara, in this view, gives us insight into how suffering itself continues. And it illustrates how desire creates this suffering. That reminds us what a liar desire is, for it always seems to promise that final respite from suffering. Instead, it wreaks havoc by bringing us more suffering.

Samsara in Our Lives

Understanding Samsara brings with it many insights. It tells us how to live in the here and now. By fulfilling our role and not chasing after desire, we can stop generating undo pain in the world and end suffering in ourselves.

Whatever your religious beliefs, this path through life will no doubt bring more peace. 

And when we take the idea of Samsara seriously and try to understand all the implications, we begin to understand so much about the spiritual ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism — as well as other noble traditions like Jainism.

It is the key to a better life and to so much wisdom once hidden from us.

Key Takeaways:
1. Samsara is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in Hinduism.
2. Karma and the three gunas determine the course of one's life and future births.
3. The five elements make up the physical body and the world around us.
4. Dharma guides one's actions and decisions, while Moksha is the ultimate goal.
5. Understanding Samsara can help individuals find meaning and purpose in life.

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