Oct 272010

Dharma, Karma, Samsara, and Moksha

by David Satterlee

[This is only an exploratory treatise by a non-Hindu. Comments are moderated but not disabled. That is to say that I may post a well-written clarifying comment or two but I do not care to debate the finer points of religious faith.]

Samsara is the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The reason we do not call it reincarnation is because you do not inhabit the same body when you return. The goal of Hinduism is to escape this cycle.

Moksha is the term for those who achieve enlightenment and will not be reborn. When this occurs, they will cease to exist as an individual being and will merge with the Supreme God called Brahman. Brahman is an impersonal force, more similar to the energy of the cosmos.

Karma is what keeps you from moksha and bound to samsara. Karma is negative. People want to generate as little karma as possible, because your karma determines how you will be reborn. Will you move up the social scale or down? The less karma, the higher your rebirth. Eastern religions do not believe in good karma, or that good actions will bring an attendant reward. Good karma is no karma.

Dharma means duty. Doing your duty in all things, according to your place in society, is the main way to avoid karma. Duty is traditionally defined as duty to the responsibilities of your caste.

Hinduism does not have a concept of an eternal heaven or hell. There are places similar to heaven or hell where souls wait until being reborn, but the ultimate goal is to return to Brahman, which is the source of creation. At that point, you cease to exist as a person. When enlightenment occurs, the person sees that this world of death and suffering is an illusion and that Brahman is all that actually exists. In Hinduism, it is illusory to think you are an individual being with a separate soul. Hindus can truly say, “you are God.”

Finally, since Brahman is an impersonal force, Hinduism does not require a belief in God. Hindus can be atheistic, monotheistic, or polytheistic, because each perspective does not change the basic goal of escape from samsara and returning to the energy of the universe.

The following is a Westernized analogy of Hindu beliefs:

Mrs. Hooper walked into her classroom on the first day of 5th grade and announced, “You may not remember, but you have been in classrooms before (samsara). I understand that however well you did last year, that will be your starting place this year and I accept you just the way you are. I want you to always do your best so that you can be ready to go on to the next grade. Just in case you need reminding, there are certain expectations for academic performance and behavior (dharma). Always be kind and gentle to the smaller children when you meet them in the hall and be respectful to your teachers and the administrative staff (caste system). Always do your assigned work and turn it in on time (path of action). If you want, you can try out as a cheer leader or join a service organization (path of devotion). But, the best students are usually those who devote themselves completely to academic studies (path of knowledge). It is my philosophy that everybody starts out with a full 100 points, an A. If you take care of yourself, you can expect to do well, but misbehavior will result in demerits, detention, and possibly being held back (karma). Your goal is to progress through your elementary, education all the way through college and earn your degree (moksha).”

I’m glad to recall that Mrs. Hooper (hoop/circle/cycle pun intended) did chance to mention that she already loved and accepted each child just the way they are.

I suppose that a disabled or retarded child might be considered an appropriate life situation for parents who needed to learn further lessons in compassion in this life, rather than as punishment for something the child had done in the previous. In any event, whatever their condition or situation in this life, all that would be expected of a disabled child (or their parents) is positive actions within the limits that their condition/position allowed.

I have a friend who used to assert that the universe will keep on putting the same challenge in front of you until you learn the necessary lesson. One could be grateful for that.

We may be tempted to be outraged at the amount of tragedy and suffering in this world and be upset that it is unfair. However, the fact of the matter is that we can’t do much, individually, about “unfair.” The Hindus (and others), seem to have embraced a workable (or at least sanity-saving) approach. Just deal with what is in front of you and you always have hope, even if gratification is delayed. Expecting what-is-not will only make you suffer more. The path of liberation is to let go of grasping for unfulfilled expectations.

Copyright 2009, 2010 David Satterlee

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