Essay, Research Paper: Karma And Samsara


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The belief in Karma and Samsara form the basis for the Hindu’s religious
worldview. It has been central to Hinduism for thousands of years, and as a
result forms a major part in the philosophical thinking of many Hindu’s today.
The ideas of Karma and Samsara are evident in almost all of the great Hindu
scriptures, being touched on in the Veda’s, but first properly introduced in
the Upanishads. When the idea of Samsara was first introduced it led to a quest
for liberation through the practice of austerity or meditation or both. To be
released form this life the Hindu’s needed to wipe out the effects of their
past actions or Karma. It is this set of beliefs that formed the background of
many of Hindu’s religious movements and beliefs. Karma is the belief according
to which a person’s future life is determined by past and present actions.
Every action, bodily, intellectual or ethical, good or bad, big or small will
have its effect. Nothing other than the effects of earlier actions has
determined the present state of affairs and nothing other than the present
actions will determine the future circumstances. The law of Karma allows no room
for chance or divine intervention as everything is inevitably determined by it.
The Brhardaranyaka Upanisad simply sates “By good actions one becomes good, by
bad actions one becomes bad”(4.4.5) (Koller 1982: 59). Intertwined with belief
in Karma is the idea of Samsara, which is the cycle of repeated births and
deaths that subjects an individual not merely to one death but to innumerable
deaths (Koller 1982:9). Hindu’s believe that as a person dies the Atman (the
unconscious, immaterial part of a human) carries the results of their good and
bad actions (Karma) into their next existence. This previous Karma will
determine what sort of position a Hindu will occupy in their new existence, for
example, if a person in a low caste has been very good in their past existence
they will be born into a higher caste in their next life. The ideas of Karma and
Samsara have justified the unequal Caste system, which has been an integral part
of Indian society for hundreds of years. At the time of the Rig Veda (the
earliest Hindu scriptures around 1000 B.C.E) (Smart 1989: 60) the key concepts
of Karma and Samsara had not actually been stated. However, it does mention that
a person’s conduct in this world determines his life after death. The brahmins
(the religious leaders) stressed the importance of the sacred act of sacrificing
which was supposed to have a bearing on man’s fate in the next world, and
consequently the Satapatha Brahmana 11.1.8,6, states that “the Sacrifice
becomes the self of the sacrificer in the next world”(Stutley 1985: 23). So,
even at this early stage of Hinduism, the idea of Karma played an important role
in the Hindu’s worldview. It was not until the Upanishads (the principal ones
dating from 800-400B.C.E) (Smart 1989:49) that we first meet with the doctrines
of Karma and Samsara. The Upanishads are concerned essentially with the meaning
of the sacrificial rites, and come to the conclusion that knowledge in the
‘true reality’ is the key rather than expertise in rituals like the Rig
Veda’s were. In the process they introduce profound metaphysical and religious
ideas, such as Karma and Samsara. The Chandogya Upanisad sums up the ideas of
Karma and Samsara “those who are of pleasant conduct here the prospect is
indeed that they will enter a pleasant womb, either the womb of a Kshatriya or
the womb of a Vaisya (high Indian Castes). But those who are of a striking
conduct here the prospect is indeed, that, they will enter the womb of a dog, or
the womb of a swine, or the womb of an outcast”(Lipner 1994: 45). The central
concept in the Upanishads is that of Brahman. Brahman is the highest truth, the
eternal being on which all other beings depend on. Brahman is the same as the
atman, in other words, that ultimate being out there, is the same as that
eternal something within you. The goal for many Hindus became at this time to
gain Moksha (release from Samsara) which meant a person’s atman would be
released from the cycle of rebirth and therefore become one with the ultimate
reality, Brahman, like a drop of water into an ocean. To understand the Hindus
preoccupation with breaking the cycle of Samsara and gaining Moksha one must
understand the Hindu’s view of time and space. For Hindu’s the world was not
created once and for all, nor was their an end to it, for all eternity it has
been recreating itself and dissolving back into its ‘unformed’ and
‘unmanifest’ condition. These periods of evolution and devolution were
called days and nights of Brahma, which convert into Billions and Billions of
human years. The Hindu’s eternal life becomes a crushing burden in it’s
endless, pointless, senseless repetitiveness and as the twin doctrines of Karma
and Samsara developed the revulsion against never ending-life through never
ending death in a manifestly imperfect world become more and more extreme (Zaehner
1966: 61). Therefore, the aim is to escape from this continuos rebirth (Samsara)
by obtaining Moksha. Since it is Karma that binds one to the cycle of repeated
births and deaths, to achieve Moksha a way must be found so a person will not
accumulate any further Karmic forces and will also ‘burn up’ any Karmic
forces already accumulated (Koller 1982:59) Almost all of India’s religious
and philosophical thinkers have addressed the way in which this could be done
and they came up with several differing ways of how to achieve liberation from
Karmic bondage. During the Upanishads it became popular for Hindu’s to achieve
this through asceticism, which required the Hindu to renounce the world and live
a world of isolation without the distractions and sufferings of the world hence
not forming any Karmic forces. Through this asceticism Karma was overcome by
shifting existence to a deeper level, where the ultimate energy is experienced
not as fragmented and limited but as the whole and perfect expression of
undivided reality at it’s deepest level (Koller 1982:59). Other ways to break
Karmic bondage were through yoga, rituals, devotion and through Dharma
(fulfilling one’s duty/ truthful action). All these techniques enabled the
self to break karmic forces and become closer to the ultimate reality. These
techniques are all still widely used in Hinduism today. The Bhagavad Gita
(probably composed in third or fourth century B.C.E)(Zaehner 1966:78) marks a
dramatic turning point in Hinduism. The gita accepts both the Vedic and
Upanishad ways and draws some elements from both, but for the first time a
totally new element appears in Hindu spirituality, in the love of god for man,
and the love of man for God. The Gita personalises Brahman through the god
Krishna who is the supreme lord of self, the doer and knower, and stresses the
fact that devotion to Krishna is the best way to break the cycle of Samsara and
gain Moksha so as to become part of the divine. Throughout Hinduism’s history,
Samsara and Karma have been enshrined into various sub-groups of Hinduism that
have all tried to escape these forces through alternative paths that best suit
the individual. The main solution for all Hindus is to break the cycle of
Samsara, which will lead them to results of the ultimate reality and therefore
be able to share in the divine presence.BibliographyBhaktivedanta, A.C. 1986. Bhagavad Gita: As it is. Sydney: Black Book Trust.
Ellinger, Herbert. 1989. Hinduism: The Basics. Vienna: SCM Press Ltd. Fredrick,
Paul. 1975. Karma: Rhythmic return to harmony. U.S: Quest Books. Koller, John M.
1982. The Indian Way. U.S: Macmillan Publishing. Lipner, Julius. 1994. Hindus:
their religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge. Smart, Ninian. 1989.
The World’s Religions. Cambridge: University Press. Stutley, Margaret. 1985.
Hinduism: The eternal law. Northamptonshire: Aquarian Press. Zaehner, R.C. 1966.
Hinduism. London: Oxford University Press.
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