What is samsara in Hinduism?

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

Steady Wisdom: Day 39

Steady Wisdom: 108 Verses On Changing My Thinking

DAY 39

Just as all clay pots are nothing but clay, the whole universe is nothing but me.  Thus proclaims Vedanta.
-Brahma Jnanavali V.19

Everything that exists is me, existence itself.  And yet, I myself am not a thing.  Just as all clay pots are nothing but clay, the whole universe is nothing but me.  But just as clay is never truly a clay pot, I am never truly the universe or any part of it.  Therefore, I am free from samsara. 

Read Series Introduction

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 17

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Ashtavakra said:
10:1 – Be indifferent to everything:  Give up the enemy of desire (kama), the pursuit of gain (artha) which is inevitably mixed with loss, and their cause, the performance of good works (dharma).   

Desire is a helpful tool for achieving your goals but it’s the enemy of happiness because no one is truly happy when they want something.  Even when desire helps you get what you want, the happiness you feel won’t last because you’ll inevitably lose what you’ve gained.  And in the meantime you still won’t be happy because desires for other things will most likely pop up.  The takeaway here is that happiness isn’t maximized by wanting more.  Rather, it’s by wanting less. 

Since getting what you want is usually accomplished by dharma—here meaning skillful right actions—Ashtavakra recommends giving those up as well since they’ll just lead to more accomplishments which lead to more desire.  But take note that in this verse the dharma Ashtavakra is imploring you to give up is not proper everyday conduct.  That should never be given up, especially if you’re interested in happiness.  If you act like a jerk and break the accepted rules of society, you’ll have so much conflict in your life that happiness will be very difficult to come by.            

10:2 – Rightly understand that friends, spouses, land, houses, wealth, gifts and such other marks of good fortune are like Indra’s Net, a dream that does not last.

The symbol of Indra’s Net is employed by certain schools of Buddhism to represent the interdependent and inherently empty nature of all things.  But that isn’t the case here.  Contrary to Buddhism, Vedanta says that the inherent nature of everything is the fullness of consciousness-existence i.e. yourself.  So in this verse, Indra’s Net is used in the Vedic, pre-Buddhist sense of illusion or magic.  Ashtavakra is pointing out that friends etc. (meaning objects in general) are like a dream—they’re transient and unreal.  This means they’re an unreliable—and therefore unsuitable—source of satisfaction.  Being aware of this allows you to appreciate objects for what they’re worth while not depending on them for contentment, the true source of which is your own self, consciousness-existence.  That’s why self-knowledge should be sought above all else.           

10:3 – Know that wherever there is desire there is samsara (the world). To become content and free of desire, seek recourse in a mature dispassion.

Desire isn’t pleasant.  And reducing desire through mature dispassion—meaning a cultivated sense of objectivity—undoubtedly improves your mental state.  But seeing as 1) desire never truly ends and 2) the true definition of samsara is identifying with the contents of the mind (such as desire), the real solution to samsara is to break identification with the mind altogether through self-knowledge.        

10:4 – Bondage consists of desire itself.  Liberation is said to be the destruction of desire. Only by non-attachment to the world does one attain constant joy.

On the relative level, being a slave to the pursuit of desired objects is bondage and breaking that cycle is liberation.  But truly speaking, bondage consists of self-ignorance alone.  And liberation is either the destruction of that ignorance or the gain of self-knowledge, however you want to think of it.  As pointed out above, gaining self-knowledge is the only solution to desire—it’s the true liberation. 

All the same, non-attachment to the world of objects is a crucial step on the path to self-knowledge.  Why?  Because if you haven’t truly seen that attaining objects won’t solve the problem of desire then you’ll most likely keep seeking them compulsively.  And when that’s the case, you won’t see the value of seeking the real solution: self-knowledge. 

10:5 – You are the one pure consciousness.  The universe is non-conscious and unreal.  Ignorance itself is nothing (unreal / non-existent).  What can you yet desire to know?

Pure consciousness is one—there’s nothing but consciousness.  So from the absolute viewpoint, when you know that you’re consciousness there’s nothing left to know.  At that point, it’s still necessary to learn relative knowledge about the universe since it pertains to your day-to-day life but on the issue of your true nature, the case is closed.  And since you know that the universe is unreal, you don’t take the pursuit of relative knowledge too seriously. 

10:6 – Kingdoms, sons, wives, bodies and pleasures have been lost to you birth after birth—being attached to them has never stopped this from happening. 

Whether reincarnation is real or not, the point of this verse remains true:  holding on to something doesn’t keep you from losing it and grieving for its loss doesn’t bring it back.  Hence, other than pain, there is nothing to be gained from attachment.  For peace of mind, enjoy things while they last.  And when the time comes, let them go.      

10:7 – Enough of wealth, desire and good deeds—they are part of the forest of samsara.  The mind will not find peace in them. 

Samsara is identifying with the body-mind.  And when you identify with the body-mind, it seems like acquiring wealth, fulfilling your desires and doing good deeds will lead to satisfaction.  But unfortunately this isn’t possible because no accomplishment in samsara lasts. It makes sense, therefore, to seek what does last—consciousness-existence.  When you realize that you are consciousness-existence the mind has a reliable source of satisfaction to draw on at all times.    

10:8 – For how many births have you done hard and painful work with body, mind and speech? Therefore cease today.

Striving with the body-mind for even a single lifetime is an arduous task, one that never leads to lasting satisfaction.  Knowing this, it makes sense to ‘cease’ doing work with the body-mind (which includes speech).  But does that mean you should literally stop the mental and physical activity of the body-mind?  No, because refraining from activity is just another activity that continues to presuppose you’re the body-mind.  So to ‘cease’ here means to give up the idea that you’re the body-mind in the first place.   

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There Is No Other Freedom

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Paul, my good friend and guru-brother.  While staying with him he showed me a book of Swami Dayananda’s transcribed talks and pointed out one titled, “Freedom – Absence of Self-Judgement.” While I’ve read a fair amount of Swami Dayananda’s voluminous body of work (all of it high-quality), this piece immediately became my favorite.  Why? First, while brevity and directness are not always Vedanta’s strong-suit, this talk had both in spades.  Second, and most importantly, it dealt with the most pertinent topic of Vedanta, freedom, an issue that every student of Vedanta finds perplexing at one point or another in their study.

One of the reasons for the confusion regarding the nature of freedom is the close association—and subsequent mixing up—of yoga, meditation and Vedanta.  Despite the fact that yoga and meditation are excellent practices (practices that Vedanta advocates), their ideas of freedom are usually different from Vedanta.  While yoga and meditation often aim to fully change, control or stop the mind, Vedanta does not.  Why?  Because Vedanta recognizes a simple fact:  While the mind can (and should) be disciplined, it can never be fully changed, controlled or stopped.  This means that freedom, as commonly defined in yoga and meditation is impossible.  Since freedom is desirable, that seems to present a major problem.  However, Vedanta says not to worry.  The condition of the mind is not an insurmountable obstacle to freedom because you, the self, are always free from the condition of the mind.    

The idea that freedom depends on a certain condition of your mind is by far the most common, persistent and harmful misconceptions about freedom.  Because Swami Dayananda clearly pointed out the error of this idea in his talk, I’ve re-printed the transcript below, taking the liberty of italicizing the parts I thought were of particular interest.  May it help you make your goal crystal clear.    


P.S. – I am always hesitant to quote teachers owing to the possibility that I may misrepresent them in some way.  I have a lot of respect for Swami Dayananda so if I have misrepresented him in any way, the fault is mine. 


To judge oneself, at any time, on the basis of the obtaining condition of one’s mind is an error.  The present condition of the mind may be sorrow, depression, frustration, regret, disappointment, or just a response to failure.  As long as you judge yourself based on the condition of your mind, you are a samsari (one enmeshed in the relative world of beginnings and endings.)  When you refuse to judge yourself from the condition of your mind, you are a mumuksu (one who seeks freedom from all apparent limitation) and a jignasu (one who seeks freedom through knowledge). And when you cease to judge yourself based on the obtaining condition of the mind, you are free.  This is the only freedom there is—the freedom from the error of self-judgement that is based on the condition of the mind. 

The error is evident.  The nature of the mind is to keep changing all the time.  In the morning you judge yourself in one way, and in the evening in a different way.  When the judgement is harbored, the harbored judgement, stored in memory, creates a “personality” out of a person.  The personality is purely psychological.  It is against the vision of the self that Vedanta is unfolded in the teaching of Vedanta.  And if the knowledge of the self that Vedanta unfolds does not work for you, it does not work only because of this judgement.  When you refuse to judge yourself on the basis of your mind then you are serious in seeking clarity in the vision of the truth of the self. 

This does not mean that you have to always have a particular type of mind.  Mind does and will change, unless you anesthetize yourself psychologically, which is unnatural.  Thoughts do not “dry up” because the source of thoughts, perception and memory, is always there. 

The student says, “I seem to understand the vision, but then why am I still bothered by a jumble of thoughts?”  Because of a condition of the mind, the student doubts the vision, the very knowledge.  The doubt is an obstacle to gaining the knowledge.  Knowledge is not an obtaining condition of the mind, not a state of mind.  Knowledge is recognition of the fact that I am thought-free.  This recognition is different from a state of mind that is thought-free.  The difference between recognizing my fundamental nature as thought-free and aiming for a thought-free mind is the difference between knowledge and ignorance. 

Refuse to judge yourself on the basis of the obtaining condition of the mind.  Then you are serious in the pursuit of freedom.  Then there is freedom.  There is no other freedom

Swami Dayananda – Piercy, CA March 1983