Dharma, Karma, Moksha and Samsara


Dharma and Moksha.  Central beliefs in Hindu traditions cluster around two concepts: dharma and moksha.  Each idea concerns the direction of human destiny.


1.     Dharma-focused traditions: it is necessary to uphold, preserve, perpetuate, and refine the physical world generally, and human society specifically; Human beings are affirmed as essentially social, governed by physical needs and must live with other human beings

a.      Definition: The word dharma refers to (a) the cosmic and social order and (b) the rules pertaining to it.

b.     Texts:

                                                              i.      Vedas – insuring constant fertility and well being of the world via sacred rituals meant to nourish gods an other powers that sustain the world

                                                            ii.      Gita – each person responsible for own duty, social function, upholding order of society and so contributing to welfare of society as a whole

                                                          iii.      Dharmashastras (“treatises on dharma”) – individual well-being and prosperity dependent on order of society and cosmos.  Disorder is a constant threat (collapse of caste distinctions, etc.)

c.     Dharma and Caste: the dharma-focused tradition are often concerned with the maintenance of caste system in order to preserve social and cosmic stability

                                                              i.      Caste or varna: the ideal social order

                                                              i.      hierarchy and occupation

                                                            ii.      Purity and impurity

                                                          iii.      Caste mobility and rebirth

                                                         iv.      The emphasis on doing your own dharma (Cf. the story of ekalavya)

b.     Dharma and the destabilizing course of time

                                                              i.      Hindu notion of time as cyclical (cf. Vishnu and the lotus stem)

                                                            ii.      Yugas and the decline in virtue (cf. the mythical cow)

1.     Krita: 1,728,000; Treta: 1,296,000; Dvapara: 864,000; Kali: 432,000

2.     1 cycle = 4,320,000 years = 1 mahayuga (then minor dissolution of the world for 1 mahayuga)

3.     1000 mahayugas = 4,320,000,000 years = 1 kalpa = one day in the life of Brahma, followed by return to cosmic nondifferentiation for 1 kalpa of time

                                                          iii.      Brahma lives for 100 Brahma years of Brahma days and Brahma nights 315 trillion, 360 billion years (315,360,000,000,000 years), after which nothing exists, including Brahma, but primal substance.  Then the cycle begins again and continues endlessly.

1.     Individual, society, history = insignificant.  Even the gods are trapped in the cycle and eventually fall

2.     Moksha-focused traditions: it is necessary to find ultimate release from the world (moksha), which is often accomplished by renouncing society;

a.      Definition: moksha means “release” or “liberation” from karma and so from the cycle of death and rebirth.  In moksha one becomes unbound by the laws of karma and samsara = the ultimate spiritual goal in Hinduism

b.     The end of births; an anonymous, impersonal and blissful state

c.     Articulated in philosophical schools such as Yoga and Advaita Vedanta, which advocate renunciation and control of the senses, detachment

d.     Represented in Hindu mythology

                                                              i.      Shiva: world renouncer, destroys Kama

                                                            ii.      Kali: reminds us that death, sickness, and suffering are inevitable within the order of dharma

e.      Human beings affirmed as a uniquely spiritual and solitary animal who at some point yearns to transcend all physical and social limitations.

f.       Hindu traditions have often sought to harmonize these two demands (of dharma and moksha) or to show how they are essentially related.


Karma and Samsara:  two basic concepts that inform the notions of dharma and moksha.


1.     Karma: law of cause and effect by which one reaps what one sows.

a.      “karma” means “works,” “deeds”

b.     All actions, particularly moral actions, have predictable effects – each person is responsible for every action he or she performs; every action will influence one’s future

c.     One’s present conditions, character, circumstances are all the result of past actions

d.     Textual and popular understandings of karma

2.     Samsara: as the cycle of rebirth / as the flux and flow of creation

a.      The cycle of birth and rebirth

b.     One’s present life = one of a long chain of lives, countless lives in human and non-human forms (including existence as deities)

c.     Hierarchical order of all species in existence, such as caste

d.     Samsara as the fluid and changing universe



1.     karma

2.     dharma

3.     moksha

4.     samsara

5.     yuga