Central Concepts: Dharma, Moksha, Karma, Samsara



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

  2. Moksha tradition: it is necessary to find ultimate release from the world (moksha), which is often accomplished by renouncing society;
    1. Human beings affirmed as a uniquely spiritual and solitary animal who at some point yearns to transcend all physical and social limitations.

  3. Hindu traditions have often sought to harmonize these two demands or to show how they are essentially related.


II.  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.
    1. “karma” means “works,” “deeds”
    2. 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
    3. One’s present conditions, character, circumstances are all the result of past actions
    4. Textual and popular understandings of karma: interpreting a deadly fire

  2. Samsara: as the cycle of rebirth / as the flux and flow of creation
    1. The cycle of birth and rebirth
    2. One’s present life = one of a long chain of lives, countless lives in human and non-human forms (including existence as deities)
    3. Hierarchical order of all species in existence, such as caste
    4. Samsara as the fluid and changing universe


III.  Dharma: The Temporal Perspective

  1. Definition: The word dharma refers to (a) the cosmic and social order and (b) the rules pertaining to it.
  2. Texts:
    1. Vedas – insuring constant fertility and well being of the world via sacred rituals meant to nourish gods an other powers that sustain the world
    2. Gita – each person responsible for own duty, social function, upholding order of society and so contributing to welfare of society as a whole
    3. Law books – individual well-being and prosperity dependent on order of society and cosmos.  Disorder is a constant threat (collapse of caste distinctions, etc.)
  3. Caste: the dharma tradition focuses on maintenance of caste system in order to preserve social and cosmic stability
    1. Caste (varna): the ideal social order

                                                               i.      hierarchy and occupation

                                                             ii.      Purity and impurity

    1. Caste mobility and rebirth
    2. The relativity of karma: do your own dharma (Cf. the story of ekalavya)

  1. Dharma and the destabilizing course of time
    1. Hindu notion of time as cyclical (cf. Vishnu and the lotus stem)
    2. The yugas and decline in virtue (cf. the mythical cow)

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

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

                                                            iii.      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

                                                           iv.      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. Cyclical conception of time represented in the image of reclining Vishnu (see images)


IV.  Moksha: The Eternal Perspective

  1. 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
  2. The end of births; an anonymous, impersonal and blissful state