Esoterics 0 24 July 2020

Samsara Definition and the Cycle of Samsara: what is it?


Those who are into esoterics have probably repeatedly come across the concept of “samsara” or “sansara”. Let’s discuss the samsara definition together so we could understand what is cycle of samsara.

So, what is samsara? With regard to the meaning of the word itself, then samsara is translated as “flow through” or “wander” from Sanskrit. Philosophical meaning implies a continuous chain of birth and death. That is after we die, we are reborn into the next life. And the way we behave in our current life defines who we are going to turn into in the next life: a plant, an animal or a person. Also there is a concept of reincarnation in Samsara.

So basically, samsara is the result of a person’s karmic actions and thoughts throughout his present and previous life.

Samsara means relationship between atman and brahman

Samsara definition

Samsara Definition

Samsara has another definition, but in order to understand it, you will have to get acquainted with two new terms – atman and brahman.

According to the Vedic concept, atman is the true self, an unchanging spiritual substance that has managed to understand the meaning of its existence. Brahman is an absolute reality in its all-pervading aspect.

So, samsara is nothing else than the atman’s lack of knowledge about brahman. Such a condition pushes him to an endless cycle of birth and death, rotating like a wheel. As soon as the atman realizes itself as a particle of the supreme spiritual being, it attains moksha or liberation.

The exact origin of samsara is unknown. There are several theories among scholars about the origin of the birth cycle in Asian traditions and ancient Indian civilizations. This concept is not found in the Rig Veda, but it can be observed among the Upanishads. It is known that by the time of early Buddhism and Jainism, the concept of samsara was already universal.

To find the answer to the question “What is Samsara?” and samsara definition you will have to get to the bottom of the concepts “karma” and “moksha”.

Karma is the cause and effect of samsara. Karma is usually considered as the “law of action.”

According to the Hindu tradition, karma is not determined by a supernatural force such as a deity or God, but by the individual actions or thoughts of the jiva. It is commonly believed that actions that maintain the cosmic order (dharma) should be undertaken as part of cleansing karma. Karma and dharma are associated with samsara: both affect what comes after death and depends on the actions of the jiva.

Karma is considered as the accumulation and even as transfer of the “trace” of actions from one life to another. This luggage influences subsequent life and birth form. Negative actions and thoughts are sometimes called bija (seeds), which can be hided for a short or long period of time until the bija begins to bear fruit (phala). The results of this karma can be manifested in present or future life. Depending on the actions and thoughts of the person, the bija can be good or bad.

When the subtle body of the jiva dies, samsara, in accordance with the fruits of a person’s karmic actions, decides where it will go. Hindus tend to view events, especially hardships or tragedies, as karmic remnants that manifest in real lives.

For example, if in the present life a person committed theft, fraud or profited from someone else’s fortune, in the next life he/she will be homeless or a very poor person. Such people are usually said to be “reaping the fruits of his karma”

If a child becomes seriously ill and dies, and the family cannot find bad karma in this life, then, most likely, they will blame the past life or the life of the ancestor for everything. Wealth, long life and prosperity are also seen as karmic remnants of past lives.

Therefore, samsara is an eternal, never ending, never beginning cyclical event that can be seen as part of the cosmic order. 

samsara definition

Samsara Cycle or the Wheel of Samsara

What is the Samsara cycle? Who will you be reborn into in your next life and what does it depend on? 

Samsara is an existence conditioned by ignorance, suffering and the irresistible passage of time. Quite often in Vedic and Buddhist sources one can find the concept of “cycle of samsara” or “cycle of rebirth”.

Beyond samsara, the world is filled with nirvana; such world is untouched by negative emotions, which by definition is the true nature of happiness and the ultimate fulfillment that we all strive for. According to the Buddhist sages, we are all Buddhas waiting for enlightenment.

Samsara cycle or bhavachakra, are three synonyms that describe the essence of the reincarnation of the human soul. Who you will be in the next life is determined by your behavior in the current life. If you have earned good karma, then you become a supreme being; if you have gained bad karma, you become a plant or animal.

Here is a picture of the samsara cycle. Further we will consider it piece by piece deciphering each part in detail.

Cycle of reincarnation can often be found on the outer walls of Buddhist monasteries. This image is considered as the core of Buddhist philosophy because it illustrates one of the most important concepts in this religion – rebirth. The wheel of life explains the cyclical nature of reincarnation and various aspects of reality. It clearly shows the importance of the actions of every living being, which directly affect karma.

In Vedic literature, the cycle of samsara is defined by the word bhavachakra. It consists of two concepts: “bhava” – origin or wordly existence and “chakra” – rotation or wheel. The idea of a rotation or cycle is nothing more than reincarnation. We don’t have a stable place in samsara, but move from one plane (state) to another depending on our karma.

samsara definition

A Guide to the Samsara Cycle

Buddhist cosmology usually identifies six spheres of rebirth and human existence:

  • gods,
  • demigods,
  • people,
  • animals,
  • hungry ghosts,
  • hell.

The six kingdoms are usually divided into three higher ones, where the good, justice and happiness reign, and three lower ones with evil, hatred and unhappiness. We invite you to take a virtual journey along the Buddhist wheel of life, which perfectly illustrates the law of samsara in action.

samsara definition

Cycle of Rebirth: The Realm of Gods

Here we see that the Gods rest from all worldly concerns, float through heavens on a comfortable bed. It is believed that rebirth in this heavenly kingdom comes from the accumulation of a very good karma. If you lived in goodness, then in the next life you turn into God. The gods don’t have to work, they only enjoy all the pleasures that earth can offer in the heavenly kingdom. However, the pleasures of this sphere lead to dependency, lack of spiritual quest and therefore makes it impossible to achieve nirvana.

samsara definition

The kingdom of the demigods (asuras)

The demigods (asuras) are notable for their irascibility, however there are endowed with some supernatural powers. We see an endless battle with the Gods on the picture of the wheel of samsara. Asuras bring discomfort to people by sending diseases and natural disasters to them. According to the laws of samsara, asuras are very powerful creatures, whose main engagement is participation in conflicts and disputes. Legend has it that the Tree of Life grows in this world, but the fruit of eternal life that it bears falls into the world of the Gods, which is the reason for their jealousy and constant conflict with the Gods.

samsara definition

Human kingdom

In the picture we see our ordinary world: people worship Gods, give birth to children, cook food, being born and die. The second name of this area is the kingdom of Manushya. Buddhism claims that a person is born with those physical abilities and moral nature, which he/she deserved by past karma. People suffer mainly from birth, aging, disease and death, but also from many other hardships and challenges. Unlike other worlds, in this world you can get spiritual knowledge, which is impossible in other ones. Birth in this area is considered successful because it makes it possible to achieve nirvana and complete the cycle of samsara.

samsara definition

Kingdom of animals 

This kingdom in the wheel of samsara is traditionally considered to be similar to hell. Buddhist texts say that animals are driven by impulse and instinct; they hunt each other and suffer from cold, hunger, disease, enslavement, exploitation by people, very limited intellect. The negative karma associated with ignorance leads to rebirth in the animal world of samsara. Some Buddhist texts claim that plants also belong to this area, since they have a primitive consciousness.

what is samsara

The kingdom of hungry ghosts

Hungry spirits or ghosts have no body; they are invisible and constitute only the “subtle matter” of the being. Greed and the associated negative karma result in the rebirth in this kingdom of the wheel of life. Buddhist texts describe them as beings that are constantly thirsty and hungry. They have very small mouths and huge stomachs. Buddhists in Asia try to take care of them on ritual days every year, leaving food and drink open to feed the hungry spirits nearby. When their bad karma ends, these beings are reborn into another world.

what is samsara

Kingdom of hell 

Living beings fall into this part of the wheel of samsara because of evil karma and sins such as theft, murder, hatred, lies, adultery. Buddhist hell consists of different areas, each of which brings a certain amount of suffering. Souls are subjected to various punishments depending on the accumulated evil karma.

Hell-dwelling creatures are born in another kingdom after their evil karma has exhausted itself. It is important to note that this kingdom is not like the afterlife in Christianity, because in Buddhism there is no kingdom of “final punishment” for sins, and the period of stay in this part of wheel of life is temporary.

what is samsara

Rooster, snake and pig

The central zone of the wheel of samsara: what drives the world?

There are forces at the center of the wheel of life that make it spin – greed, anger and ignorance. The rooster, snake and pig are located at the center of the bhavachakra, which represent these vices. In Buddhism, greed, anger (or hatred) and ignorance are referred to as “three poisons” because they poison the one who feeds them. These are the forces that make the wheel of samsara spin, tying a person to it.

The circle outside the center (see picture above) is called Sidpa Bardo, or intermediate state. It is also sometimes called the white path and the dark path. The sector is divided into two parts. On the one hand, bodhisattvas (beings who have made the decision to become a Buddha) lead the beings to rebirth in the higher spheres; on the other hand, demons accompany souls to the lower spheres. This sector symbolizes good and evil karma.

cycle of samsara

Yama, lord of the underworld

Yama is the creature holding the wheel of samsara in his hands, the wrathful lord of the kingdom of hell. The terrible face of Yama, personifying impermanence, looks over the wheel of life. Despite his appearance, Yama is not evil. He is an angry dharmapala, a creature whose purpose is to protect Buddhism and Buddhists. Although we may fear death, it is not evil, but inevitable.

According to legend, Yama was a holy man who believed that he would achieve enlightenment if he meditated in a cave for 50 years. In the 11th month of 1949, robbers entered the cave with a stolen bull and cut off the animal’s head. When they realized that the holy man had seen them, the robbers beheaded him too.

But he put on a bull’s head and took the terrible form of the Yama. He killed robbers, drank their blood and threatened all of Tibet. It was impossible to stop him until Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, defeated Yama. So the sage, who did not achieve enlightenment through the fault of the bandits, became the defender of Buddhism.

cycle of samsara


The Buddha is depicted in the upper right corner of the wheel of samsara symbolizing the hope of liberation. Often this Buddha is portrayed pointing to the moon, which symbolizes enlightenment. In some images of the wheel of life, the Buddha is drawn with his hands raised up, this gesture symbolizes a blessing.

cycle of samsara

Temple with seated buddha

Door to nirvana

The upper left corner of the bhavachakra has an image of a scene or symbol representing liberation from the wheel of samsara – this is a temple with a seated Buddha. The flow of creatures rises to the temple, which represents nirvana. The samsara wheel artists paint this corner in various ways. Sometimes the top left figure is Buddha, which is associated with bliss, or the Moon, which symbolizes liberation.

As you can see, no world is forgotten, and enlightenment is possible in any of the kingdoms that constitute a part of the cycle of Samsara However, the inhabitants of the human world have the opportunity to maintain a balance between good and evil, and this gives a chance to break out of the wheel of samsara and achieve enlightenment.

Even if you do not practice Buddhism, you can take this method as an example: if we live a good life and spread good karma, we will lead a happy life and achieve spiritual enlightenment at the end of the path. If we spread evil karma, various hardships and failures occur in life. The choice is yours!

Now you know what the samsara means and what is samsara definition. What do you think of it? Share in comments section.

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