Understanding Samsara

The word Samsara is so popular that even the Oxford dictionary defines it: as the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound. Although it is not an incorrect definition, it still is lacking in conveying the full import of the word.

I believe anyone who is seeking any kind of freedom must attempt to understand it. For students of Vedanta or those seeking Moksha, of course, it is indispensable. Let me try peeling through this word.

Saṃsāraḥ is transmigratory life; “that which keeps moving in perfect order”; the endless cycle of becoming, of repeated births and deaths. In Sanskrit, it is defined as śarīrādi-upādānam eva lakṣaṇam yasya saḥ saṃsāraḥ – “saṃsāraḥ is that which is characterised by the assumption of bodies, and so on.” ‘And so on’ refers to all that follows from the ‘assumption of bodies’ (actions and their consequences, and the various worldly contexts in which they are experienced, life after life). It is often characterised as a treacherous ocean the jīvaḥ is struggling to cross. Why is it treacherous and undesirable? Because a Samsari undergoes the pain of birth, disease, ageing and dying, again and again, endlessly. It is punishing, painful, frustrating and hopeless. That which you have seems not enough, that which you don’t, you long for. You have conflicts with those who are near and miss those who are far.

I find the phrase ‘vicious cycle’ or ‘vicious circle’ closer in meaning to what one means by Samsara. A vicious cycle is a sequence of reciprocal cause and effect in which two or more elements intensify and aggravate each other, leading inexorably to a worsening of the situation. Here is an example of how it is used: “debtors were caught in a vicious circle: they could not be freed until they had paid their debt and were not able to pay their debt as long as they were in prison”

The vicious cycle theory finds use in economics too. For eg. , ‘According to the principle of vicious circle in under-developed countries’ level of income remains low which leads to low level of saving and investment. Low investment leads to low productivity which again leads to low income. The same can be applied to a poor man: A poor man does not get enough food, this makes him weak. As a result of weakness his efficiency reduces and as a consequence he get low income and thus becomes or remains poor. A samsari is similar to a person trying to be debt-free by paying a credit card bill using another credit card.

Another example is the air conditioning paradox: How do we cool people without heating up the planet? The world is now 1.1 degrees Celsius — 2 degrees Fahrenheit — warmer on average than it was at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The planet is only going to heat more, rendering parts of the world unlivable.

A vicious cycle is a situation in which an attempt to resolve one problem creates new problems that lead back to the original situation. It is defined and applied in medical field too: A condition in which a disorder or disease gives rise to another that subsequently affects the first. For example, The fatter I get, the unhappier I am, so I eat to cheer myself up, which makes me fatter yet—it’s a vicious circle. Pleasure requires us to go through pain, then comes insecurity and fear from holding on to pleasure, requiring us to exert further to invest more.

This expression ‘vicious circle’ comes from the French Cercle vicieux, which in philosophy means “a circular proof”—that is, the proof of one statement depends on a second statement, whose proof, in turn, depends on the first.

It also finds definition and application in the field of psychology. In psychology, a vicious circle is a situation or behavioural pattern in which an individual’s or group’s problems become increasingly difficult because of a tendency to address or ignore them repetitively through unhealthy defensive reactions that compound them. If we are to believe that the root cause of most problems we face in this world is psychological, then this is a helpful definition.

Let’s get back to understanding Samsara: it’s a vicious circle. We all think that changing things in life like a partner, a friend, a boss, a car, a job, a home and so on can bring us lasting happiness, Ananda. Whatever we call a change or upgrade or promotion or growth or even prosperity is simply notional. It doesn’t work that way. You only change the name and form of your unsatisfactoriness, suffering and insecurity. It only makes life more complicated and it goes on and on; one generation after another. Irrespective of whether it’s a king or a pauper, the basic equipment that each has, his body and its emotional setup are similar. Whether our longing, suffering or insecurity is physical, intellectual or mental, it is still emotionally experienced. And it seems no one can escape this situation, it seems like it’s impossible to escape. This is Samsara.

Freedom from Samsara is Moksha. This, if there is such a thing, is the ultimate freedom. I will discuss this in another post. I hope we have a better understanding of Samsara by now. Reflect on it.

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