Q: What does the term “samsara’ mean in Hinduism?
A: Hinduism is very diverse, with numerous different religious sects and philosophical schools. So you’re going to get different answers depending on who you ask. To be clear, I am answering from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, particularly Advaita Vedanta as taught by Shankara, Swami Dayananda and Dayananda’s students.
Swami Dayananda defines samsara as “the life of becoming.” In other words, it is 1) Identifying with the body and mind, thinking it is who you are and 2) Subsequently believing that the mortality and suffering of the body and mind belong to you. Further, you believe that the qualities and character of the body and mind define who you are.
Because of this you are always trying to become something other than what you are. Perhaps you want to be happier, perhaps you want to become immortal to escape death. Or perhaps you want something more mundane like a slimmer waistline and a more respectable position at work. Either way, feeling like you need to be something other than what you are, that you’re not good enough as you are, or that you’re somehow lacking is a painful cycle: this is samsara.
This painful cycle of thinking that you’re the body-mind continues (perhaps over lifetimes if the theory of reincarnation is true) until you see directly realize that instead of being the flawed, mortal, ever-changing and limited body-mind, that you’re the immortal, changeless, limitless brahman (the very essence of the entire universe) that is always perfect just as it is.
But you asked “What is samsara?” not “how do I end it?” so I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s an answer for another day.
All my best – Vishnudeva