SAṂSĀRA is a Sanskrit word meaning "to wander or pass through a series of states or conditions." It is the name for the theory of rebirth in the three major indigenous Indian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Saṃsāra is the beginningless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, a process impelled by karman. Taken together, Saṃsāra and karman provide Indian religions with both a causal explanation of human differences and an ethical theory of moral retribution.
The term saṃsāra is also applied to phenomenal existence in general to indicate its transient and cyclical nature. Saṃsāra is the conditioned and ever changing universe as contrasted to an unconditioned, eternal, and transcendent state (mokṣa or nirvāṇa ). In all three Indian religions, the soteriological goal is defined as liberation from saṃsāra, that is, as release from bondage to the cycle of rebirth through rendering the process of karman inoperative.
The origins of the theory of rebirth in India are disputed. Some scholars trace the belief to the ancient Aryan religion of fire sacrifice known as Vedism. The Vedic view that a sacrificial act produces a future result is regarded as the precursor to the karman theory, and the Vedic notion of "redeath" in heaven (punar mṛtyu ) is seen as the forerunner of "return" (punar avṛtti ) to new life on earth. Other scholars believe that the rebirth doctrine had its origin among the non-Aryan tribal peoples of ancient India. Still others think it was produced by one or another of the mendicant and anti-Vedic groups of the ancient Gangetic regions. In any case, by the sixth century bce, the time of the rise of early Buddhism and Jainism on the one hand and of the Upaniṣads on the other, the theory of rebirth was nearly universally accepted. Since then all Indian religions, sects, and philosophies, save only the Cārvākas or materialists, have assumed the doctrine of karman and rebirth.
There is no one all-embracing view of the nature of saṃsāra and the process of rebirth. Each religion has a distinctive position and within each religion there will be sectarian variations. Some generalities, however, may be stated. In general, all traditions concur in characterizing saṃsāra by suffering and sorrow, as well as by impermanence. The source of those intentional acts leading to perpetual rebirth is usually found in desire (and especially the desire for continued individual existence) and in ignorance of the true nature of reality. One may be reincarnated in various heavens, as a human or an animal on earth, or in hells of one sort or another, depending on one's karman. Some traditions also claim that rebirth as an insect, a plant, or even a rock is possible, though obviously not desirable.
The predominant theory of Hindu traditions regards the rebirth process as similar to the movement of a caterpillar from one blade of grass to another. The eternal and universal self (ātman ) is totally unaffected by karman and rebirth. The transmigrating entity is the individual self (jīva ), which is endowed with a "subtle body" and encumbered with karmic residues that determine the direction it takes as it leaves the body at death. There are three possible paths it may take. The "way of the gods" leads to the highest heaven, equated with final liberation, from which there is no further rebirth. The "way of the ancestors" leads to the moon, where the soul is converted to rain and brought back down to earth, where it attaches itself to a plant. When eaten by a human or animal, the transmigrating soul is then transformed into semen, which subsequently brings new life to the individual self. The third possible course results in rebirth in hell or on earth as a small animal, insect, or plant.
Buddhist theories of rebirth are distinguished from others in that they postulate no enduring entity that moves from one existence to another. The problem that has exercised the minds of Buddhist philosophers over the ages is how to explain "transmigration" in light of the central teaching of "no-self" (anātman ). The Pudgalavādins, or Personalists, came very near to contradicting the anātman doctrine with their concept of a personal entity (pudgala ). Other schools posited an "intermediate being" (antara bhāva ) that, impelled by karman, goes to the location where rebirth is to take place and attaches itself at the juncture of its future parents' sexual organs. The Theravādins, however, strongly denied the existence of the "intermediate being," preferring to identify consciousness with its karmic dispositions as the link between death and rebirth. There is not a transmigration of consciousness but only a causally connected series of discrete moments. To illustrate this notion, Buddhist writers often rely on similes. The rebirth process is likened to the lighting of one lamp with the flame of another, the lamp representing the body and the flame standing for consciousness, or to the transformation of fresh milk to curds. The milk is not the same as the curds (i.e., there is no enduring essence), but the latter are produced out of the former (as one existence is karmicly related to its predecessor).
Saṃsāra, artistically represented as a "wheel of life," is analyzed into its twelve preconditions (the doctrine of "dependent origination," or pratītya samutpāda), which express the Buddhist law of cause and effect and explain on what suffering depends and the points at which the chain may be broken. In Theravāda Buddhism the conditioned realm of saṃsāra is opposed to nirvāṇa, while in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism the two are ultimately equated, both considered equally "empty" (śunya ) of essence.
Jainism is centered around the belief in an originally pure and perfect soul (jīva) that is trapped in saṃsāra because of the karman that accumulates on it. Karman, here regarded as a kind of substance, forms itself into a "body" that is constantly attached to the soul until liberation. There are four categories of karman responsible for the mechanism of rebirth. Nāmakarman determines different aspects of the future body, including its class (human, animal, or other) and its sex. Gotrakarman produces the spiritual quality of the new life. Vedanīyakarman determines the pleasant or unpleasant tone of that life, and āyuḥkarman its duration. Jain texts do not explain how the soul enters the womb but emphasize that there is no interval between death and rebirth. Reincarnation occurs instantaneously after death as the karmic body conveys the soul to its predetermined destination.
Although all three religions officially declare saṃsāra to be bondage and recommend the cultivation of knowledge in order to attain liberation from it, in practice many followers engage in what has been called "samsaric" forms of religion, that is, good works designed to procure a better birth in the next life. Gift giving, acts of devotion, vows of austerity, and other methods of merit making are designed not to obtain release from the cycle of rebirth but rather to achieve a better position within it.
For a collection of recent articles on saṃsāra in the three principal religions of India by leading authorities, consult Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, edited by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (Berkeley, Calif., 1980). Paul Yevtic's Karma and Reincarnation in Hindu Religion and Philosophy (London, 1927) remains a useful survey. For a comparative study of the classical views on saṃsāra in Hinduism and Buddhism, see Noble Ross Reat's "Karma and Rebirth in the Upaniṣads and Buddhism," Numen 24 (December 1977): 163–185.
Narayana Prasad, Muni. Karma and Reincarnation: The Vedantic Perspective. New Delhi, 1994.
Wayman, Alex. The Vedic Gandharva and Rebirth Theory. Pune, 1997.
Brian K. Smith (1987)