Category Archives: C. Karma, Time, and Cosmology

Manvantaras and Kalpas

The Hindu notion of cosmic time consists of four major cycles, yugas, manvantaras, kalpas, and the full life of the creator deity Brahma. There are four yugas with decreasing lengths [satya yuga (the most dharmic yuga), treta yuga, dvapara yuga, and kali yuga (the least dharmic yuga)], and each cycle of four is called mahayuga. Seventy one mahayugas is equal to one manvantara, and fourteen manvantaras is equal to one kalpa. The life of Brahma is made up of 36,000 kalpas and the same amount of nights. This is the “traditional Puranic model” (Morales) and is the most widely agreed upon.

A manvantara is ruled by a Manu, and “each Manu has a distinct group of sages, gods, Indra, and so on to help him with his duties” (Saraswati 33). Manus are the first man of each manvantara. They are of the ksatriya class and are the father to that human race. The Brahma Purana, [the Puranas are a genre of non-Vedic texts] lists each Manu of the manvantaras of the present yuga by name. In chronological order they are Svayambhuva, Svarocisa, Uttama, Tamasa, Raivata, Caksusa, Vaivasvata, Savarni, Raibhya, Raucya, “and four Merusavarnis” (Shastri and Bhati 29-30), although some of these names are different in other Puranas. The Manu of our present manvantara is Vaivasvata. The Brahma Purana also outlines the children of each Manu as well as the sages that will accompany them. Svayambhuva is believed to be the son of Brahma, and is sometimes called Manu, because he was the first Manu of the first manvantara of the present yuga. He believed by some to be the author of the Dharmasastra [also sometimes called the The Laws of Manu. This book outlines how to live dharmically, and includes details on the class and caste systems, the stages of life, and the goals of life]. The Encyclopedia Britannica compares Svayambhuva to the figures of Adam and Noah in Abrahamic texts, because he was the first man, like Adam, and he also survived a great flood with the help of a fish [an avatar of Visnu], like Noah (Encyclopedia Britannica: “Manu”).

Along with a Manu, each manvantara has a new Indra as well. Indra is generally known as the Vedic god of thunder and storms, father of Arjuna in the Mahabharata, and the king of heaven. However, Indra is also a title that can be earned through extreme dedication. Just like humans and animals, gods and demons are subject to karma and samsara (the cycle of rebirth), and so those who do extremely good actions, receive a good rebirth, like the role of Indra (Zimmer 7). The role of Indra is the king of the gods. In the myth “The Parade of Ants,” a brahmin boy visits Indra and tells him about the cosmic time cycles, and how there have been many Indras before him, and there will be many more after him. He tells him that “when twenty eight Indras have expired, one Day and Night of Brahma has elapsed” (Zimmer 6). There is also an old man that comes into Indra’s palace, and says that for every Indra that falls, one of his chest hairs falls out. The reason behind the title is that there is a parade of ants walking through the palace, and the brahmin boy tells Indra (after some prying), that the ants all used to be Indras themselves. The story concludes with a summary of how Indra was too prideful, was taken down a notch, and learned his role in the grand cycles of time (Zimmer 11). It is not only a summary of the cosmic cycles, but also an existential look at life.

These units of cosmic time are not exclusive to Hinduism. Jainism and Buddhism also use them, but they are slightly different. Jains believe in cyclical time, but without periods of destruction between any divisions, and they also use terms like koti and sagaropamas (Rocher 96). There is no specific amount of human or god years in either of these divisions. In Buddhism, they use mahakalpas, which are similar to yugas in the way that their quality declines with each one, and that there are four in total (Rocher 96). They divide the mahakalpas into 20 antarakalpas. Ludo Rocher describes the 20th antarakalpa as containing “4 brief periods of increase, and 4 equally brief periods of decrease. These periods are, once again, designated with the names of the Hindu yugas: kali, dvapara, treta, and krta in an ascending period, and [the reverse order] in a descending period” (Rocher 97). However, of these three, cosmic time is the most important to Hindus. Rocher concludes that Jains seem to prefer to “live in the moment” and focus on what happens while they themselves are alive. Louis de la Vallee-Poussin also says that the cycles are not essential to Buddhist philosophy (Rocher 98).

With the exception of the yugas, at the end of each cycle there is an event of destruction marking it as such. Between the four yugas, there is no specific indication of the end. It is believed that the Kali Yuga began in 3102 BCE, not long after the war in the Mahabharata, an epic that describes a battle for the kingdom Kurukshetra between two groups of cousins. However, according to the Bhagavatam Purana, at the end of the Kali Yuga, “Displaying His [Visnu’s] unequaled effulgence and riding with great speed, He will kill by the millions those thieves who have dared dress as kings” (Bhagavatam Purana SB This passage signifies the belief that Visnu [the preserver deity] will manifest as the avatar Kalki and destroy those who do not act dharmically righteously. In doing so, he would leave behind only the most pious Hindus and thus would begin a new mahayuga, beginning with the new satya yuga.

At the end of a manvantara, the universe is partially destroyed, though there is some disagreement on what exactly happens during this period of destruction. In An Introduction to Esoteric Principles, McDavid describes this as “a reverse process of withdrawal” in which the universe is reverted to its simplest form (McDavid 7). However, the philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy (1967) believes the earth is flooded, and a few select beings are kept alive to repopulate the following manvantara (Morales). The Handbook of Hindu Mythology calls this destruction laya [dissolution], the destruction between kalpas pralaya, and the final destruction at the end of the life of Brahma mahapralaya (Williams 39). The period between manvantaras, when the universe is in a dissolved state, is called sandyaa (Mohapatra, Dash, and Padhy 436). There are fifteen sandyaa periods, one before a manvantara, fourteen in between them, and one before the end of a kalpa.

At the end of a kalpa, there is pralaya, which is often translated as “dissolution.” In the Brahma Purana, it is described as simply “the living beings will be burned by the sun” (Shastri and Bhati 32). Even this destruction is temporary, however, because the living beings from that kalpa can still be reincarnated in the next day or night of Brahma (Morales).

At the end of the life of Brahma [also sometimes called a mahakalpa (Williams 38)], everything is completely destroyed. After this mahapralaya, everything is fully absorbed into Siva  (Williams 161) and living creatures can no longer be reincarnated. In the myth called “The Annihilation”, there is a man and a woman who are dining on the eve of pralaya and are surrounded by natural disasters such as storms, hurricanes, and earthquakes. The woman, who is representative of Parvati, is worried about the end of her life, but the man, who is representative of Siva tells her not to worry and is very optimistic. He says “what imagined an independent form, different from you, that was not in existence, it was an aberration” (Williams 159). This is a reference to brahman [the true nature of reality], and how the destruction is meant to happen.

The Handbook of Hindu Mythology cites the Mahabharata and the Manu-Smrti as possibly the earliest “scriptures to record what later became the prevailing view of [Hindu] mythic time” (Williams 37). Ganita [a sage] is credited with the calculation of the four yugas into human years in the Anusasana Parva [a book in the Mahabharata that talks about the duties of the people, as well as certain laws and rules Hindus should follow]. Ludo Rocher also acknowledges these two texts as the possible origin for the yuga kalpa system (Rocher 98). That being said, he believes that the manvantaras were introduced later and “forced to fit” due to their inexact alignment with the yugas and kalpas (Rocher 95). Because of the lack of mentions of cosmic time in the Vedas, it is generally unanimously concluded that the system came into use in post-Vedic India, but scholars such as David Pingree think the system may have been adapted from other cultures such as the Babylonians or the Greeks (Rocher 99-100).

Cyclical time is not unique to Hinduism, but the specific Hindu version is very distinctive and certainly the most detailed of the other Indian time cycles. Yugas are especially relatable, as they are the most calculable, and the end of the third yuga is considered to be within “recent” history. Manvantaras and kalpas are a way to make the lives of gods easier to understand as well as creating an explanation for the beginning and inevitable end of the universe.


Board of Scholars (2001) Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Volume 33: The Brahma Purana.  Edited by J. L. Shastri and G. P. Bhati. Delhi: Motilal Banaridass Publishers Private Limited.

Dasa, Prahlada “Bhagavatam Purana: Symptomes of the Kali Yuga” in BhaktiVedanta Vedabase. SB 12.2.1- SB 12.2.44. Accessed October 15, 2018.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010) “Manu” in The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed October 4, 2018.

McDavid, William Doss (2007) An Introduction to Esoteric Principles. Wheaton: Theosophical Society in America.

Mohapatra, Ratnaprava, S.K. Dash, and S.N. Padhy (2017) “Ethnobiographical Studies from Manusmrti: XII Facts on Dissolution (Pralaya) and Geological Time Scale.” Journal of Human Ecology 12:433-439. Accessed October 25, 2018. Doi: 10.1080/09709274.2001.11907650.

Morales, Joseph (1997) “The Hindu Theory of World Cycles in Light of Modern Science”. Karma and Reincarnation: a Philosophical Examination. Accessed October 15, 2018.

Rocher, Ludo. 2004. “Concepts of Time in Classical India” in Time and Temporality in the Ancient World. Edited by Ralph M. Rosen, 91-105. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Saraswati, H. H. (2013) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. San Rafael: Mandala Publishing.

Williams, George M. (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Richard A. and Sankar, Jaya (1978) “The Annihilation (Pralaya).” Journal of South Asian Literature 14:157-161. Accessed October 20, 2018.

Zimmer, Heinrich Robert (1962) “Eternity and Time: the Parade of Ants” in Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilisation. Edited by Joseph Campbell, 3-11. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


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Related Readings

Sharma, P.R.P. (2007) Encyclopaedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.


This article was written by: Sydney Savage (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its contents.

Avidya (Ignorance)

Avidya is a Sanskrit word most commonly defined as ignorance. This can be misleading if we think of ignorance as a lack of knowledge. Avidya is not simply a lack of knowledge; it is a lack of  what Hindu philosophers sometimes refer to as true knowledge (Singh 394-395). The knowledge we have of the material world around us, our minds, thoughts, bodies, and emotions is worldly knowledge. Avidya is our mistaken belief that these things make up reality, or our true self (Puligandla 218).  Avidya, then, is not simply ignorance, but spiritual ignorance (Lipner 246). It is ignorance of our true selves and of the true nature of reality (Puligandla 244). “It is no accident that light and the reflection of light are common symbols in Hinduism of vidya and the knowing process, respectively. Avidya is spiritual ignorance, symbolized by darkness” (Lipner 247).

Frequently in literature on Hinduism, avidya is said to be synonymous with, ajnana, prakrti, and maya (Nikhilananda 43). There are fine distinctions that need to be made between these words in order to better understand Hindu literature and philosophy. Ajnana is a Sanskrit word that can also be translated to ignorance or without knowledge. More specifically, without true knowledge, or knowledge of one’s true self. Avidya is also a lack of higher knowledge. Both terms allow for lower, or worldly knowledge. Avidya and ajnana can be used synonymously (Chatterjee and Datta 49).

The Sankhya or Samkhya system of Hindu philosophy is based on the dualistic principles of purusa and prakrti (Singh 75). Purusa and prakrti are separate and distinct. Purusa is pure consciousness, spirit, or self. Prakrti is nature or matter. In Sankhya, prakrti is the cause of our minds, bodies, thoughts, and feelings (Puligandla 115). The elements that make up the universe as well as all the physical properties in the universe are prakrti (Chatterjee and Datta 257).  The air we breathe, sunlight, our physical as well as mental composition are all prakrti. Our bodies and minds, and our interaction with the finite, ever-changing world in which we live cause us to have a perception of ourselves and the world that is not true reality. The way we look, feel, and behave is not the true essence of who we are.  In this way, prakrti is the same as avidya, as these are the causes of our false knowledge, or false sense of reality; our ignorance of purusa, the true self. The only way to know purusa is to rid one’s self of avidya (Puligandla 123).

The Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism can be traced to the Upanisads, which are the last part of the Vedas.  Advaita means oneness or non-dualism. It is here that the concept of avidya is explored and tied to the concepts of maya, Atman, and Brahman (Puligandla 244). Unlike the separate and distinct entities prakrti and purusa in the Sankhya system, Atman and Brahman are identical. In Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualism comes from the belief that Atman (the true self) is Brahman (reality, pure consciousness). They are not separate, but one (Puligandla 244). That is to say, we are always Brahman, but because of the delusion caused by maya, or avidya, we are ignorant. Avidya is our ignorance to the fact that we are Brahman. When avidya is extinguished, we recognize Atman, which is Brahman (Puligandla 244).

Maya is most often translated as illusion. Maya is also sometimes referred to as magic, magical power, and even fraud. Much like prakrti, maya presents us with a material or false reality that keeps us from seeing our true self or Absolute Reality (Atman and Brahman) (Deutsch 28-29). “Maya generally signifies the cosmic illusion on account of which Brahman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer of the universe. It is under the influence of avidya that Atman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the jiva, or individual self. Prakrti is the material out of which the universe is evolved. But Vedantic writers do not always strictly maintain these distinctions” (Nikhilananda 43). So prakrti is to purusa as maya is to Brahman, they are both illusions that keep us from seeing our true self.

Dualist or non-dualist, avidya is what keeps one from seeing one’s true self. Avidya is the cause of samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth that keeps us trapped in a worldly existence (Chatterjee and Datta 18). In order to be freed from samsara, avidya must be destroyed. Samsara is caused by illusion and once the illusion is destroyed, moksa, or liberation from samsara is achieved (Deutsch 75-76). Once you realize that worldly existence is not reality, there is nothing tying you to it. Avidya is the antithesis of vidya, which is the Sanskrit word for knowledge, or insight.       According to all Indian schools of philosophy, humanity’s state of suffering is due to ignorance (avidya) of his true being and nature (Puligandla 22-23). The Upanisads teach that a person’s true being is Atman (Brahman), which is infinite, eternal, and immortal (Nikhilananda 35). But in ignorance (avidya), one identifies themselves with perishable things such as their mind, body, ego, and thereby develop attachments to them and suffer sorrow when they inevitably lose them (Puligandla 22-23).

Buddhism also recognizes avidya, and it is also defined as ignorance. Buddhists believe that there are four Noble Truths. These are: 1) Sorrow/Suffering: All living, sentient beings experience suffering; 2) Origin/Cause: The major cause of suffering is craving or desire for the illusory; 3) Cessation/Ending: The ending of suffering is the ending of the craving that causes it. This ending of craving, which is an ending of the condition of ignorance at its root, is described as nirvana. 4) Path: The Noble Eightfold Path is prescribed in Buddhism as a means of attaining nirvana (Robinson and Rodrigues 192).  The ignorance referred to in the third Noble Truth is avidya, and its cause is also the illusory. In Buddhism, the ending of the illusion is nirvana, or enlightenment. Just as in Hinduism, liberation from samsara comes through the ending of avidya.

The fact that the end of avidya is the path to liberation (moksa), or enlightenment (nirvana) does not mean that these can only be achieved at the end of one’s life or after death. Ideally, it can be achieved in this lifetime and then one can live without the suffering caused by avidya (Puligandla 23). Siddhartha Gautama achieved nirvana in his lifetime and this is how he came to be known as the Buddha (Enlightened one) (Chatterjee and Datta 115).



Chatterjee, S., & Datta, D. M. (1968) An introduction to Indian philosophy. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deutsch, E. (1969) Advaita Vedanta: A philosophical reconstruction. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.

Indich, William M. (1995) Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kumar, R., & S. Ram (2007) Hinduism-religion and philosophy. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.

Lipner, J. (1994) Hindus: Their religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge.

Murthy, B. S. (1985) The Bhagavad Gita. Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications.

Nikhilananda (1963) The Upanishads: Katha, Isa, Kena, Mundaka, Svetasvatara, Praśna, Mandukya, Aitareya, Brihadaranyaka, Taittiriya, and Chhandogya. New York: Harper & Row.

Puligandla, R. (1975) Fundamentals of Indian philosophy. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Robinson, T. A., & H. Rodrigues (2006) World religions: A guide to the essentials. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Singh, S. P. (2004) Vedic vision of consciousness and reality. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Advaita Vedanta











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Article written by: Robin Wilcox (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Monasteries (Matha)

Hindu monasteries or mathas are any residential monastic establishments or educational centre for renouncers or sannyasis; even though, the ideal monk is classified as a wanderer. A matha can also refer to a single hut with only one ascetic or a large community of ascetics and their disciplines and students. They were founded by Sankara, a great teacher, in the 8th century. The original four mathas were strategically placed in India to be used as bulwarks for the missionaries and centres for Sankara’s ten religious groups: on the east coast, in Puri, the Govardhana matha for the Aranyakas and the Vana orders; in the Himalayas, near Badrinath, the Jyotih matha for the Giri, Parvaya, and Sagara orders; on the west coast, in Dvaraka, the Sarada matha for the Tirtha and Asrama orders; and lastly, in south India the Srngeri matha for the Bharati, Puri, and Sarasvati orders (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Later a fifth matha arose in Kancipuram, near Madras, called the Saradaptha matha (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Each matha that was founded by Sankara is led by either a teacher or a spiritual leader also known as a Sankaracarya or a Jagadguru. Individual mathas and their history are directly associated with the succession of its spiritual leader; therefore each matha operates completely independent to any other matha. Typically, the current Sankaracarya appoints one of his followers to become the new spiritual leader in the event of his passing; however, issues can arise if no successor was named and the Sankaracarya passes away unexpectedly. Eventually gurus were even given the responsibility of providing social and economic services to the community. Each Sankaracarya has their own set of followers and their goal is to meet their own religious needs such as “focus on ritual activity and devotional worship rather than renunciation or meditative realization of non-dual brahman” (Fort 613).

There are several important initiations rites to the ascetic life. According Miller and Wertz the first being that after one has determined they want to enter the ascetic life they need to acquire a guru who is willing to take them as his discipline (84). The guru can either be an ascetic from one’s village, a religious teacher or in some cases an uncle (Miller and Wertz 84). Then the discipline must cut all his family ties by performing death ceremonies with his parents (Miller and Wertz 85). After the death ceremony the discipline will no longer be allowed to perform any household services (Miller and Wertz 85). The head ascetic of a monastery will then administer a ritual called diksa (Miller and Wertz 84). The head ascetic must be a man who has already performed his last vows of renunciation (Miller and Wertz 84). The two forms of diksa are when the guru administers the ritual to a lay disciple and the other is only given to ascetic disciples (Miller and Wertz 84). This recognizes the “would be” ascetic and that he is permanently separating himself from his former life (Miller and Wertz 84). Finally, the discipline must acquire a religious name that ends with his sub-order’s name (Miller and Wertz 84). After performing these basic initiation rites a man can enter the ascetic life.

According to Guru Saccinananda the main function of a matha is to give ethical advice and moral teachings to the disciples in hopes of creating “honest, peace-loving, independent, moral, and well behaved” people (Miller and Wertz 25). However, according to Saccinananda several other functions are “to provide education in Sanskrit, to feed guests, to give money to the poor, shelter to the helpless, and the burial to the dead who have no family’ (Miller and Wertz 25). He also claimed that there are ten daily practices that are basic steps to liberation. The first is that the discipline must get up before sunrise each morning (Miller and Wertz 26). The second is that they must pay respect every morning and evening to the sun God Savitri (Miller and Wertz 26). The third is each day while bathing the discipline must recite sacred mantras or verses to a deity of their choice (Miller and Wertz 26). The fourth is that they must perform daily sacrificial fire offerings and yoga postures (Miller and Wertz 26). The fifth is that they must service all their guests (Miller and Wertz 26). The sixth is that the funeral offerings to one’s ancestors must be performed at noon (Miller and Wertz 26). The seventh is that they must take sacred food in the  afternoon and before each evening (Miller and Wertz 26). The eighth is that each evening the disciples’ deity of choice must be worshipped (Miller and Wertz 26). The ninth is that each evening before they go to bed they must perform meditation for the welfare of humanity (Miller and Wertz 26). Lastly, they are only allowed to sleep from the hours of 11pm to 4pm (Miller and Wertz 26).

According to Jagadananda, in a Hindu matha, there a ten precepts of ethical behaviour that one must follow. The first is that you must act kind towards a harsh and unpleasant man and by doing so you have the ability to change him (Miller and Wertz 34). The second is that even if others do not like you that does not mean you have to dislike them back. Eventually these people will lose their power and someday feel bad for their negative actions (Miller and Wertz 34). The third is that you need to ensure you are using the appropriate dialogue when conversing with others as this is a main factor when determining if they will be an enemy or a friend (Miller and Wertz 35). The fourth is that you must respect others when it is their turn to talk as everyone was created equally and by God (Miller and Wertz 35). The fifth is that you should not be disrespectful to people in lower classes as you might be born into that class or position on your next rebirth (Miller and Wertz 35). The sixth is that only ignorant men are prejudiced to one’s caste and skin colour (Miller and Wertz 35). The seventh is that you must consider your “superiors as well wishers and your inferiors as blessed” (Miller and Wertz 35). The eighth is that you need to be independent but also care for your parents needs at the same time as they were the ones who made you into the man you are by giving up their money, time and resources (Miller and Wertz 35). The ninth, is that when you pray to a deity you should be praying for the greatness and happiness of humanity  and not for yourself; the deity will only listen and respond to a man who is concerned about the welfare of others (Miller and Wertz 35). Lastly, “do not grasp onto things” or be materialistic; Brahman, the Vedic creator god, is always around and is everywhere in the universe (Miller and Wertz 35).

Even though numerous mathas have been established over the years as either additions to other institutions or by an individual guru, the original four mathas created by Sankara are still the main ones. Srngeri, Dvaraka, Badrinath and Puri are special and are also known as the amnaya mathas as they are connected with the four Vedas, the matching Upanisad Mahavakyas and Sankara’s four main followers (Sundaresan 110). The most famous and influential matha is Srngeri, in Karnataka State, in South Asia. It is also known as the centre of the Sankaran Vedanta tradition and was originally used as a place to stay and study for samnyasins. In the Srngeri matha the samnyasins who reside there highly regard the Vivekacudamani (Sawai 22).  However, since the fourteenth century it became a place for pilgrimage, worship and philosophical study (Fort 613). The main goddess that is now worshipped at Srngeri is Sri Sarada (Fort 613). The lay adherents of the Vedic tradition or smartas also now visit Srngeri for advice and boons from the Sankaracaryas (Fort 613).



Fort, Andrew (1994) The Faith of Ascetics and Lay Smartas: A Study of the Sankaran Tradition of Srngeri. Journal of Asian Studies 53.2: 613. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Isaeva, Natalia (1993) Shankara and Indian Philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Matha (2016) Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web. 07 Feb. <>.

Miller, David M., and Dorothy C. Wertz (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Prasad, Leela (2006) Text, Tradition, and Imagination: Evoking the Normative in Everyday Hindu Life. Numen 53.1: 1–47. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Sawai, Yoshitsugu (1987) The Nature of Faith in the Sankaran Vedanta Tradition. Numen 34.1: 18–44. Web. 5 Feb 2016.

Sears, Tamara (2008) Constructing the Guru: Ritual Authority and Architectural Space in Medieval India. The Art Bulletin 90.1: 7–31. Web.7 Feb 2016.

Shankara (2016) Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web. 07 Feb. 2016 <>.

Sundaresan, Vidyasankar (2000) Conflicting Hagiographies and History: The Place of Sankaravijaya Texts in Advaita Tradition. International Journal of Hindu Studies 4.2: 109–184. Web. 7 Feb 2016.


Related Topics for Further Investigation




Smarta tradition


Advaita Tradition

Srngeri matha

Amnaya mathas




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Article written by: Hailey McLean (March 2016) who is solely responsible for the content




Dasanami Samnyasins

The development and the components of Hindu monasticism may appear complex. Sankara, the famous Indian philosopher, founded a Hindu monastic federation referred to as the Dasanami Order (Wade nd). Hindu monks, known as samnyasin, were divided into ten lineages which trace back to Sankara and compose the Dasanami Order. The ten different monk/renouncer groups were then divided up among the four monasteries founded by Sankara (Clark 2). The four monasteries (mathas) are located in the east, west, south, and north of India and they are respectively called Govardhan, Sarada, Srngeri, and Jyotir (Clark 115). This order is the most respected and influential in the Hindu tradition (Werner 148).

Historically, it has been viewed that the four monasteries are representative of Sankara’s travel and his spiritual authority. Sankara’s life is regarded as somewhat legendary. He lost his father at a young age and he was an admirer of the samnyasin life style. Sources claim that at the age of eight, Sankara was captured by a crocodile while he bathed in a river. Sankara told his mother that if he did not receive her blessing to become a samnyasin the crocodile would have taken his life (Pande 31). Historians believe that three factors contribute to why Sankara is held in the highest regard. It is said that Sankara was an incarnation of Siva (Pande 73). His strong connection to and the belief in his embodiment of Siva could be due to Sankara’s connections to miracles. Secondly, the implementation of authentic practices was to emphasize the social and spiritual claims of the reorganized monasteries. The final aspect which made Sankara legendary was the expansion of the Advaitic and non Advaitic schools (Pande 73). The rationales behind legends of his incarnation have been to fortify the Vedic faith and help spread the spiritual way of living across India (Pande 82).

Samnyasin (renouncing) is the final stage of one’s life. One may renounce after they have completed the householders’ stage grahastha (Miller 3). However, some Hindus enter renunciation earlier, once they have completed their education, though such young renouncers are less common. A renouncer is considered to be a wise holy man. He is expected to withdraw from society. From that point on, his life is dedicated to the attainment of moksa (Werner 147). A renouncer’s withdrawal from society is theoretical because, he may live in close proximity to society and interact with its members however, physical detachment is essential (Olivelle 272). One must leave their family and possessions in order to discover the meaning of life and gain inner peace (Burghart 635). Renouncers are placed outside of the caste system and are highly valued. A renouncer who receives offerings and praise from Hindus is not uncommon.

Once Hindu monks formally renounce, they are categorized in relation to the method of initiation and their way of life (Wade nd). Renouncers may fall into one of three distinct categories: the dandis, nagas, or paramahamsas. However, all Dasanami consider themselves as Siva (Clémentin 2). Many Dasanami renouncers decorate themselves with rudrāka beads and put three white horizontal stripes on their forehead to embody the symbolism of Siva and Visnu (Clémentin 3). Each type of renouncer group is affiliated with one of the four monasteries. To formally renounce, a monk must attain a new identity. He is given one of the ten surnames which made him a part of that particular spiritual lineage. The name one receives is linked to the monastery they are associated with and reflects their caste as well as their renouncing lifestyle. The monasteries from the south and west are mainly composed of dandi renouncers. The lineages commonly assigned to these monks, once they formally renounce include: Bharati (speech), Sarasvati (learning), Tirtha (sacred bathing), and Asrama (hermitage). Puri (town) and Giri (hill) are lineages linked to naga renouncers. Other names, sometimes received by all types of renouncers include: Vana (woods), Aranya (forest), Parrata (mountain), and Sagara (ocean) (Dazery na). Receiving a new name is significant because it symbolizes the relationship one has under a guru which acts as an investiture. An opportunity for the new renouncers to teach and ordain followers is given (Clémentin 16). Once a name is received, one is able to initiate another person into the samnyasin stage of life. All three branches of the Dasanami (dandi, nagas, and the paramahamsa) have networks of mathas (monasteries) spread across India.

The dandis traditionally come from a high caste background and hold knowledge of the Sanskrit language. They are the wanderers who usually carry a staff. The staff may be embellished with a saffron cloth with an axe head under it (Clark 28). Generally, dandi renouncers were previous householders, have short hair, and believe that they are the true samnyasin (Clark 41). Their initiation ceremony is completed by a guru and the name given depends on what matha one is affiliated to (Clark 41). One of the four brahmacari names is given at the ceremony either being Svarup, Prakasa, Ananda or Caitanya (Clark 42). The second ceremony a dandi partakes in is called the viraja home (Clark 89). A short sacred utterance that presumably encapsulates the essential wisdom of Vedanta from the monk’s monastic lineage is spoken (Wade nd).

Renouncers, who fall under the paramahasa grouping, discard all belongings including their staff, perform the most asceticism and obtain the highest amount of respect (Clark 102). They more frequently live in mathas and are affiliated to an akhara. However, paramahamsan monks are not deeply connected to the akharas life compared to the nagas (Clark 42).

Lower caste members form the naga renouncer group (Clark 39). Some scholars refer to them as “naked fighting monks” (Wade nd).  The naga have been known to travel nude and they cover their entire bodies (sometimes just their private areas) in ash, especially on festive holidays (Clark 35). The nagas are organized into seven akharas (Clark 48). To be initiated into the akhara as a naga, one must go through a third process referred to as the tang tode (Clark 98). This is a unique initiation among the three groups.

Typically, males are the ones who enter the stage of renunciation. However, women renouncers have recently been reported. About ten percent of female renouncers belong to the Dasanami (Clark 31). However, women may become brahmacarini, but they cannot enter the second stage of initiation in becoming “full” samnyasin (Clark 33). Women remove all jewelry as a symbol of their renunciation. The majority of women belong to the paramahamsa renouncer group. Two known monasteries exclusively admit women. The least number of women belong to the naga group (Clark 34).

A life apart from society cultivates detachment through a community which shares similar perspectives (Clémentin 2). Some renouncers may choose to join a monastic community (Tambiah 300). Monastic communities provide a shared living space between many samnyasin monks. It is where asceticism is ingrained through tradition (Clémentin 2). This concept of communal settlement was introduced by Sankara, and is referred to as the matha system (Miller 4). The purpose was to create a sense of solidarity through group support. The matha was a larger unit comprised of temples, a traditional Sanskrit school, a library, and a shelter for lay followers (Clémentin 4). The caste system was embedded into the institution. Individuals were born to specific gurus. Gurus raised money to support children’s education for their caste (Aya 58). Donations from patrons allow for monks to teach, provide medical care, and help feed the community (Miller 5). Service to the community was viewed as important and resembled Hindu cohesion. Monks may continue traveling, but if they remain in a community for an extended period of time they are less respected, except if it is the rainy season (Olivelle 271).  Clémentin addresses that, “the important point to stress is that they do not owe their allegiance to a monastery, but to a lineage of spiritual succession” (3). Sankara’s successor, a Sankaracarya (head of 1 of the 4 monasteries) essentially becomes “the teacher of the world” by representing the founder of his lineage (Clémentin 6). Sankaracaryas have substantial spiritual power and settle disputes within the matha by helping with court cases (Clark 79). For example, cases may include initiation and personal affairs, adultery, abuse, and caste pollution. Sankaracaryas help decide the punishment of a fine, a fine, forms of social exclusion, and sometimes even excommunication ceremonies (Clark 80).

The origins of the Dasanami Samnyasin illustrate the prominence of Sankara’s philosophical influence in creating the order. Spiritual lineages of the samnyasin monks are traced back to Sankara. The samnyasins aquire a new religious identity in which they abide by certain roles, codes, and practices (Clark 2). The different groupings of renouncers across the four cardinal directions are symbolic of Sankara’s spiritual journey and the prominence of Brahman (Wade nd). The caste system is significant to the Dasanami Order because it allows for different renouncer groups to exist. Subtle differences exist among the samnyasins such as, their appearance, initiation process, status, and their affiliation to a distinct lineage (Clark 39). The matha system was important for the development of education and philosophical ideas for the samnyasin and their lay followers (Clémentin 4). Life consisted of days of expressing bhakti in prayer, meditation, and lectures (Werner 147). Overall, evidence suggests that the Dasanami Order has been very influential and is a representation of Sankara’s philosophy. 


References and Further Recommended Readings

Burghart, R., (1983) “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia”. Man18(4), 635–653.

Clark, Matthew (2006) Dasanami Samnyasis. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2006) “Replacing the Abbot: Rituals of monastic ordination and investiture in modern Hinduism”. Asiatische Studien, Etudes Asiatiques, Vol.60, 535- 573.

Ikegame, A (2012) “The Governing Guru”. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London & New York, NY: Routledge 5, 46.

Miller, D. M., & Wertz, D. C (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

 Olivelle, P. (2001)”The Renouncer Tradition”. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism,  G. Flood (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing  271-287.

 Pande, G. C (1994) Life and thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

 Tambiah, S. J. (1982) “The renouncer: his individuality and his community”. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 15(1), 299-320.

Wade, D. (2012) “Dasanamis.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from < hinduism/dasanamis-BEHCOM_9000000043>

Werner, Karel (2013) Love Divine: Studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism, London & New York, NY: Routledge 147-152.


Topics for Further Investigation

The Ramanadi Order



The Four Monasteries




Noteworthy Websites


Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Concept of Samsara

Samsara is a Sanskrit word meaning “to wander” or “to flow through,” and is recognized within the Hindu religion as the continuous cycle of death and rebirth. Samsara is the result of one’s karmic actions and thoughts throughout their present and pre-existing lifetimes. Samsara can also be seen as the ignorance of atman (true-self) and absolute reality (Brahman). When realizing atman one can then attain moksa (liberation). Moksa is seen as the highest achievement that any being can accomplish, and inevitably leads to ending samsara (Rodrigues 93-97). Samsara can also be tied to or known as worldly existence. It is the constant altering state on a continuous wheel which never ends nor begins, this is contradictory to the realization of atman, moksa or absolute reality which are eternal and infallible (Eliade 56-57).


The exact origins of samsara are unknown. There are several theories amongst scholars about the beginnings of the theory of rebirth amongst Asian traditions and ancient Indian civilizations. The concept does not appear in the Rg Veda but it does appear in the Upanisads (see Herman 70). There is a Vedic notion of re-death (punarmrtyu) in heaven which is viewed as a precursor to the notion of rebirth in the earthly realm. But these are simply theories; there is no historical evidence as to how and where the conception of samsara began (Eliade 56). However what is known is that by the time of early Buddhism and Jainism the concept of samsara was universal, and with each tradition particularly within Jainism and Buddhism samsara spread to consist of different views and beliefs from the Hindu religion. This article will focus on the Hindu Traditions view of Samsara. It should be noted that although samsara and other related religio-philosophical forms of worship are widely accepted within the Hindu tradition, scholars do not interpret these beliefs as fact.

The jiva or jivatman (soul) is that which travels continuously through birth, death, and rebirth carrying with it its karmic residue (Rodrigues 94). The jiva is reborn (punar janman) into various different realms and beings; three realms are widely accepted. One can be reborn into a heaven, hell, or earthly existence. Depending on the karmic nature of a jiva it can be reborn as an insect, animal, plant, human, or god in any of the three realms. The human form is one of the rarest that one can be reborn into and although it is one of the more desirable forms, it is moksa which is the ultimate attainment which stops the process of being reborn.


There are possibly three separate paths for the individual self to take once it has left its physical body at death. The “path of the gods” (deva yana) leads to the heavens where the jiva then becomes one with Brahman; this is reserved for those who have, through proper meditation and realization of atman, attained moksa. This is the end to samsara. The second is the “path of the ancestors” (pitr yana) which leads the soul to the moon, where they are led to the world of the ancestors and are fed upon by the gods; from there they are then moved into space and then finally move to the earthly realm to be reborn as a human or other creature. The third path involves travelling through the hellish realm and being reborn as a smaller life form such as an insect or rock (Mittal & Thursby 314).

There are two concepts commonly associated with samsara; the first is Karma and the second is Moksa. Karma is the cause to samsara’s effect; karma can generally be viewed as the law of action. However when studying the relationship between karma and samsara, dharma and kama must also be explored. According to Hindu tradition cause and effect are determined not by a supernatural force such as a deity or God. Instead it is determined by individual actions or thoughts. It is also believed that actions should be undertaken which uphold the cosmic order (dharma) as a part of cleansing ones karma. Karma and dharma are similarly tied to samsara: both directly influence the outcome of ones result after death depending on the jiva’s actions and behaviour in congruence with the cosmic order (Rodrigues 100). Kama deals with sensory pleasure; the pleasures of this world can sometimes corrupt ones jiva into ignoring their dharma or neglect the laws of karma. As such samsara would then have the offending jiva be reborn in hell, or as a lowly creature such as a plant.


The idea of karma suggests that a transcendent substance is generated and follows the soul based on one’s thoughts and actions. The Upanisads describe karma as being accumulated and even transferred from one life to the next; this cosmic “trail” influences one’s subsequent lifetime and form. Negative acts and thoughts are sometimes called bija (seeds) which can lay dormant for short or long periods of time, until the bija begin to bear fruit (phala)(Keys and Daniel 29).


The fruits of that karma can manifest in present or future lives. Depending on one’s actions and thoughts the bija can be good or bad. When the subtle body of the jiva dies, samsara then in accordance to the fruits of one’s karmic actions decides where that jiva will go. Hindus tend to see events, particularly hardships or tragedy, as karmic remnants manifested in present lifetimes; if a child should fall seriously ill and die, and the family is unable to find any bad karma in this life then it is likely they would blame fault on a former life, or that of an ancestor (Keys and Daniel 29). Wealth, long life, and prosperity are also viewed as karmic residue of former lives. Karma’s influence on samsara also includes dharma which appears in the RgVeda as dharman, signifying divine or natural law, dharman in particular characterizes personal action which maintains cosmic order. It is also in connection to rta which affirms orderly creation. Samsara is an eternal, never ending, never beginning cyclical event which can be argued as part of cosmic order (Eliade Vol.4 329).


One’s dharma is also interwoven with karma and subsequently entwined with samsara. A king’s dharmic action is in direct relation to the well-being of himself and his kingdom. If he performs the necessary rituals, samskaras (rites of passage) and sacrifices, then his kingdom will prosper and he himself has a chance to live a wealthy present and future life, or possibly even realize atman. However, if he were to neglect his dharmic duties then his next life may be lower in the caste system or even as a lower life form (Sharma 95). This is a very undesirable outcome as the act of re-death is on the opposite spectrum from moksa.


Kama (sensory pleasure) also plays an integral part in samsara as actions can be shaped by kama. Kama within the Hindu tradition is a part of human behavior; unlike Western notions, kama is a part of the mind which feeds the body. Kama can also be defined as “desire” desires born in the mind can influence the actions of the body. Although this notion is not seen as a “bad” thing, as in Western philosophy there is the idea of “too much of a good thing” which can affect karma and dharma. Karma can be argued as an effect of kama: action and thoughts caused by desire. When a jiva has been rid of desires and worldly pleasures it then has the ability to realize atman. One’s desire for life and worldly pleasures (bhukti) can also keep them within samsara, the Upanisads say one’s desire for life and its trivial matters can cause the soul to constantly be reborn again and again into the suffering world until its desire for life and the world ceases (Herman 71).


The Hindu view of life within samsara as a repetition of re-death and rebirth were present within the ancient Hindu traditions before samsara was named, and both are continuously associated with fear. The jiva is immortal; however its bodies must continuously die and be reborn into lives filled with the threat of fear or hunger, and the pain of sorrow and hardships, such as old age or disease in a seemingly endless cycle (Kaelber 76). The body and senses keep the soul tied to samsara until it can realize self.

The ignorance of atman is called avidya. Avidya could be equated to a veil; it is the jiva’s supposed perception of itself and its own limitations. Theory suggests that the true nature of ones soul is hidden from it, avidya is this force which hides atman from the jiva but can be removed though faithful meditation, ritual, and sacrifice (Rodrigues 96). Avidya is that which keeps the soul within the endless cycle of rebirth and re-death hiding the self’s true nature. Because of this the jiva is trapped in the bondage of karmic law and subject to samsara. Once that veil is removed it is possible for the jiva to realize Atman (Sharma 90-91).


Atman is absolute reality; when the jiva has lifted the veils such as karma (action), maya (Illusion), and anava (egotism) then they are able to realize their true nature. Once these veils are lifted “all” are then perceived or realized to be “one.” This realization is also associated with Brahman which is the knowledge and essence of all things, subsequently brahman is also one with atman. With the knowledge of atman and brahman comes the end to all ignorance such as ego, desire, illusion, and the jiva is then no longer subject to karma (Kaelber 76-77). From then one could be recognized as jivanmukti (liberated as a living being); these liberated beings are generally recognized as saints or sages and are highly sought after for knowledge and blessings (Rodrigues 96). It is in this state and through the realization of atman that one can attain moksa and stop the endless cycle of samsara.


Moksa is the highest attainment within the Hindu tradition generally referenced as liberation from samsara and derives from the Sanskrit root muc meaning “release.” The Bhagavad Gita states that liberation (moksa) can be attained through three paths of self discipline, action (karmayoga), knowledge (jnanayoga), and devotion (bhaktiyoga) (Sharma 114). Moksa, like samsara is not mentioned in early Vedic or traditional texts; however, following the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata the concept of moksa becomes more widely recognized. If samsara is associated with words such as ‘bondage’ or ‘pain’, then moksa is then associated with words such as ‘liberation’ or ‘freedom,’ it is a release from worldly pleasures as well as worldly existence. The two also contrast one another as samsara is seen as a never-ending cycle of pain, whereas moksa is recognized as a halt and a break from endless recurring pain to be replaced by redemption. Apart from samsara, moksa is always associated with three other traditionally recognized goals (vargas) of earthly living. These are dharma (moral value, duty or law), kama (sensory pleasure), and artha (material wealth); moksa (liberation) is widely accepted as the fourth goal within religious and philosophical texts. Philosophically the four goals can be recognized as a circle as well with moksa returning the jiva back to Brahman (Eliade Vol.10 28-29)

Samsara is viewed as an eternal wheel which continues without beginning or end, and though Moksa is seen as liberation from that eternal wheel, there are those who are seen to accept their position within the cyclical samsara. Though Samsara is viewed as a painful repetitious process, there are those who would aspire to gain the vargas without moksa. There are many devotees within Jainism and Buddhism as well as Hinduism that take on a “samsaric” form of worship or religion. In this case followers practice a more pious and charitable lifestyle seeking not to end samsara but instead to ensure a better birth in their next life following their present lifetime (Eliade Vol.13 57).



Herman, A.L. (1991) A Brief Introduction to Hinduism. Colorado: Westview Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1987) The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Kaelber, Walter O. (1989) Tapta Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi: SRI Satguru Publications.

Keys, Charles F. and Daniel, E. Valentine (1983) Karma An Anthropological Inquiry. London: University of California Press.

Mittal, Sushil and Thursby, Gene (2004) The Hindu World. New York: Routledge Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1980) Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions.Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2006) Hinduism the eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge Press.

Sharma, Arvind (2000) Classical Hindu Thought. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Related Topics For Further Investigation




Bhagavad Gita

















Rg Veda




[Article written by Deserae Yellow Horn (2013) who is solely responsible for its content]

Navagrahas: The Nine Planetary System

The worship of nine planetary gods, the navagraha, is widespread among Hindu sects.  Nava is translated as “nine” and graha as “planets,” although it etymologically means ‘one which is seized’ (Yano 381).  The concept of graha as a heavenly body has evolved into the current nine planetary system, the navagrahas.  First, a demon which eclipses the Sun and Moon was recognized, which was later given the name Rahu and his truncating tail, Ketu, was considered separately.  Next, five planets were included in this system followed by incorporating the Sun and Moon which brought the count of celestial bodies to nine.

Navagraha (Nine Heavenly Forces) Temple, Assam

The nine “planets” in the system followed, in order by the days of the week, are the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, with Rahu and Ketu added as influential bodies but not lords over a weekday.  The order of the planets aligning with the days of the week is thought to have originated during the third century and became widespread amongst Hindus during the following century (Yano 383).  Most Sanskrit texts describing the planets in the weekday order, therefore, should be dated past the third century.  By this time, it became a general, widespread and unbreakable rule that the planets were to be named in accordance with their corresponding days of the week (Pingree 251).  Before this, many arranged the planets by how advantageous they were beginning with the most positive as Venus and Jupiter, the neutral planet of Mercury next, and then the unfavourable Mars and Saturn (Pingree 251).  The study of the heavens (astronomy) at this point in time in India was thought of as sacrosanct among the educated classes.  The celestial beings were thought of as gods and the worship of them is reflected in the Vedas (Das 197).

Navagraha (Nine Celestial Forces) Shrine, Veerammakaliamman Temple, Singapore

The nine grahas worshipped by the Hindus are seen as heavenly bodies that bring fortune or misfortune to people’s lives (Coleman 128).  The Hindus who worship these celestial bodies are mainly those who believe in astrological influences over their lives (Pingree 249).  Within Sanskrit texts, descriptions and characters of the nine planets are given in such a way so they can be applied to the lives of those born under the planets influence (Pingree 250).

The most powerful is the Sun known as Surya or Ravi.  Surya is seen as the personification of the orb of light and heat and is portrayed with a golden complexion and rays of glory surrounding his head.  He will sometimes be seen as having two or four arms and holds a lotus in one hand.  Some have even termed him “the lord of the lotus” (Coleman 128).  Surya is complex as he is believed to be tri-form; Brahma or creation in the morning (east), Visnu or preservation at noon and Siva or destruction in the evening (west) (Coleman 129).

The next graha is the moon known as Candra or Soma.  Candra is depicted as a young, beautiful male who has two arms, one holding a club and the other a lotus, and is generally riding an antelope drawn cart.  Occasionally, the moon is depicted as a female and is then known as Candri.  Candra is of the warrior caste and presides over Monday.  It is believed that those born under Candra will have many friends, high distinctions and an enjoyable life (Coleman 131).  The daily positions of the moon are considered the twenty-eight lunar mansions in the zodiac called naksatra.  They are thought to be invented by Daksa and are the personification of the daughters of Daksa and the mythological wives of Candra (Coleman 131).

Mangala, or Mars, presides over Tuesday.  This planet is also believed to be of the warrior caste and produced from “the sweat of Siva’s brow” (Coleman 132).  Mangala is represented as red of flame-coloured with four arms, holding a trident, club, lotus and spear, while riding on a ram (Coleman 132).  The disposition of Mangala is said to be fierce and those born under him are thought to undergo great misfortunes and losses.  However, to battle under him is considered to be fortunate.

Mercury is the next graha known by the Hindus as Budha, and rules over Wednesday.  He is thought to be the son of Candra/Soma and Rohini and thus the firstborn of the Candrabans which are considered to be the “lunar race of the sovereigns” (Coleman 133).  He is represented in many different ways including on a carpet, on an eagle, cart drawn by lions, mounted on a lion or mounted on a winged lion.  In some depictions he is holding a sceptre and lotus and in others a scimitar, club and shield.  Budha is the god of merchandise and the protector of merchants and being born under him is considered fortunate.

The regent of the planet Jupiter and preceptor of the gods, called their guru, is Brhaspati.  He is of the Brahmin caste and rules Thursday.  He is depicted in a golden or deep yellow hue, sitting on a horse holding a stick, lotus and his beads (Coleman 133).  Hindus are in strict worship of him and believe it is fortunate to be born under him.

The planet Venus and the god Sukra, comes next.  He is Brahmin as well and is the preceptor or guru of the ‘giants’ and is held in great esteem within Hinduism (Coleman 134).  Sukra presides over Friday and is thought to be the son or grandson of Brghu.  He is depicted as middle aged with a white complexion and is mounted in a variety of ways including on a camel or an animal resembling a rat or a horse and is holding a large ring, stick, beads, lotus or sometimes a bow and arrows (Coleman 134).  Being born under Sukra is said to bring great fortunes such as the gift of the power of omniscience and blessings of life which include many wives.

Sani, the planet Saturn, presides over Saturday.  He is of the Sudra caste and is depicted as a dark, old, ugly and lame with long hair, nails and teeth and an evil disposition.  He is usually clothed in black, mounted on a black vulture, raven or elephant holding a sword, arrows and two daggers in his hands (Coleman 134).  To be born under him is considered unfortunate as the tribulations of life are attributed to Sani’s influence and wickedness (Coleman 134).  Ceremonies held in worship of him are often just to appease him so no bad will come to those partaking in the ceremony.

Varuna, the planet Neptune, is the Hindu god of waters and regent of the west side of Earth.  He is illustrated as a four armed light skinned man riding a sea animal with a rope in one hand and a club in another (Coleman 135).  He is worshipped daily as one of the regents of the earth, especially by those who fish the lakes in Bengal before they go out.  People also often repeat his name in times of drought to obtain rain (Coleman 135).  It is believed that his heaven was formed by Viswakarma and is 800 miles in circumference.  Varuna and his wife, Varuni, are said to reside there seated on a throne of diamonds while they are attended by others (Coleman 135).

The next, and last of the navagrahas are Rahu and Ketu.  Rahu is thought to be the son or grandson of Kasyapa and is the planet of the “ascending node” (Coleman 134).  He is often worshipped to avert evil spirits, nasty diseases, earthquakes and other unfortunate events, and especially during an eclipse (Coleman 135).  He is portrayed in numerous ways including being mounted on a lion, flying dragon, an owl and a tortoise and sometimes with a spear in his hand.  As well, Rahu is generally portrayed without a head as it is thought to belong to the other part of him, Ketu.  Ketu is the planet of “descending node” (Coleman 135) and is described as sitting on a vulture or as a head on the back of a frog.  Ketu is thought to be Rahu’s tail by some while others believe Ketu to be comets (Yano 383).

Woman appeasing Rahu (Navagraha temple, Assam)

The navagrahas represent more than just a system of astrology within Hinduism, but a belief system that alters how the believers live from the moment of birth.  With the seven planets of varying fortune residing over each weekday, the timing of events is essential.  Within this study of the heavens has come a deeper understanding of the surrounding universe early on in Indian culture, as can be seen through further research, such as in Das’ Scope and Development of Indian Astronomy as well as in articles by Pingree (such as Representation of the Planets in Indian Astronomy and Indian Planetary Images and the Tradition of Astral Magic).  The magnitude of worship of the grahas is certainly rooted deep within Hindu practices as people strive to achieve the ultimate fortunes that each day offers in this life.


Coleman, Charles (1995) The Mythology of the Hindus. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Das, Sukumar Ranjan (1936) “Scope and Development of Indian Astronomy.” Osiris. Vol. 2. pp. 197-219.

Pingree, David (1965) “Representation of the Planets in Indian Astrology.” Indo-Iranian Journal. Vol. 8. pp. 249-267.

_____ (1989) “Indian Planetary Images and the Tradition of Astral Magic.”  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. 52. pp. 1-13.

Yano, Michio (2005) “Calendar, Astrology, and Astronomy.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Gavin Flood (ed.). Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 376-392.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Brishput or Vrihuspati
Shuni or Sani
Brahman Caste
Sudra Caste
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Samantha Ludwig (2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Creation in the Markandeya Purana

The Brahmanical tradition encompasses a vast body of literature commonly referred to as the Puranas (Pintchman 261). The Puranas are categorized as smrti (i.e., literature that has been passed on by human beings to the next generation through oral tradition), but often claimed as sruti-like or “divinely heard” (Coburn 343-344). For instance, the Markandeya Purana states that “as soon as Brahma, whose origin is inscrutable, came into being, this Purana and the Vedas issued from his mouths” (Mark. P. 219). The Puranas are classified according to sectarian perspectives; a majority of the eighteen Mahapuranas, or major Puranas, are Vaisnava or Saiva in orientation as the gods Visnu and Siva are deemed to be Brahman, the Absolute reality (Pintchman 261).  Four of the eighteen Upapuranas, or minor Puranas, celebrate the goddess Sakti, and are thus Sakta in orientation (Pintchman 261).  Other Puranas, however, such as the Kurma Purana and the Markandeya Purana do not appear to have any clear sectarian orientations (Rodrigues 290).

The Puranas mainly comprise several myths on “creation, renewal, genealogies, manvantara periods of time, and tales of genealogical figures” (Rodrigues 290). According to Pintchman (262), the Puranas distinguish between the two significant phases of universal creation. The sarga, or primary, creation phase occurs after a major dissolution, while the pratisarga, or secondary, creation phase refers to the renewal of the universe after a minor dissolution. These two stages illustrate the Hindu notion of eternal repeating cycles whereby the universe is constantly being created, dissolved, and renewed (Miller 63-66). In the Markandeya Purana, both the sarga and pratisarga creation phases are explained through a dialogue between three rsis (sages): Jaimini (the first inquirer), Kraushtuki (the second inquirer), and Markandeya (the informer).

Markandeya begins the creation myth by claiming that Brahma is the cause and effect of everything in the universe (Mark. P. 220). Within Brahma, the three gunas, or qualities, exist in equilibrium: Brahma is one-third sattva (pure/luminous), one-third rajas (active/passionate), and one-third tamas (passive/dark). In accordance with Sankhya philosophy, Markandeya states that the disruption of Brahma’s gunas lead to the creation of the Mahatattvas, or great categories (Pintchman 263; Mark. P. 220). First the Pradhana, or the Imperceptible, came into existence; from this, came the Mahat, or Intellectual principle, which can be identified by goodness, passion, and ignorance. Mahat in turn led to the creation of the Ahankara, or principle of Individuality. Ahankara, much like Mahat, has three characters: the Modifying, the Energizing, and the Evolving.   The Evolving Ahankara then creates the subtle elements; from each element, a complementary element was created:  From sound came ether, from touch came air, from form came light, from taste came water, and from smell came earth (Mark. P. 220-221). Following these creations, the Modifying Ahankara generated the eleven human organs. Of the eleven, five were organs of the buddhi, or intellect, and five were organs of the taijasa, or action (Mark. P. 221). These ten organs constitute the ten Vaikarika deities, while the manas, or mind, is the eleventh organ. Markandeya then continues by stating that Mahat, along with the other tattvas, give rise to a hiranya-garbha, or cosmic egg, which floats on a cosmic ocean (Mark. P. 222). [The notion of a cosmic egg that holds the universe in its incipient form is consistent with Rg Vedic accounts on creation, for an example, see Bhattacharyya 2-5]. This hiranya-garbha contains the Absolute and the universe in its embryonic form.

At this point, Markandeya is interrupted by Kraushtuki, a third rsi, who wishes to know what happens “when things are not created, and nothing exists, everything has been destroyed by time at the end of the dissolution of the universe” (Mark. P. 224). In response to this question, Markandeya commences by declaring that Brahma possesses three qualities that are manifested as Brahma the creator, Visnu the maintainer, or nurturer, and Rudra the destroyer. He continues by stating that Brahma, who is the first of all gods, lives for a hundred years. These years, however, are different from the years of human beings and deities (Mark. P. 226).  Markandeya explains that the fundamental unit of time is an age, or yuga.  There are four yugas that make up a mahayuga: the krta yuga, the treta yuga, the dvapara yuga, and the kali yuga. A thousand mahayugas constitute one kalpa, while seventy-one cycles of a mahayuga form a single manvantara. Thus, one kalpa can be divided into 14 manuvantaras; manvantaras are presided by divine beings known as Manus (Mark. P. 226-227). A single day of Brahma comprises two kalpas (For a thorough explanation of the computation of Brahma’s life, see Appendix A).

After computing Brahma’s lifespan, Markandeya continues with the creation myth. Markandeya explains that at the end of each kalpa, Brahma sleeps and a minor dissolution, which is referred to as a causal dissolution or naimittik pralay, takes place (Mark. P. 227). During the naimittik pralay, residents of the triple-world, which includes the bhurloka (earth), bhuvarloka (atmosphere or mid-region), and svarloka (heaven), temporarily relocate to the maharloka, while the residents of the maharloka travel to the janaloka (Mark. P. 227-228). [For a more detailed explanation of the triple-world system, see Prakash 55-61 and Miller 83-86]. The entire universe is also submerged in the cosmic ocean at the time of the naimittik pralay. When Brahma awakens, he starts to create the universe.

First, Brahma creates Narayana, or ‘the one who dwells in water’, who assumes the body of a boar, to dive into the cosmic waters to bring up the previously submerged world (Mark. P. 229). Markandeya continues by claiming that “the earth floated like an immense boat on that ocean, but [did] not sink by reason of the amplitude of its size” (Mark. P. 229). Narayana then began creating the triple-worlds, as well as the maharloka. Brahma is extremely satisfied with Narayana’s creations, but desires to create other superior beings to inhabit the worlds. He begins to meditate, and through this process, he creates nine classes of creations. As Brahma had already created mahat (intellect) and the subtle elements, he began meditating to create the vikaras. The vikaras comprised of sense capabilities (i.e., seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling) as well as action capabilities, such as grasping, speaking, walking, procreating, and excreting (Pintchman 270). These three creations (i.e, the mahat, subtle elements, and vikaras) are thought to evolve from Prakrti, and are thus deemed to be prakrta, or primary, creations (Mark. P. 232).

The fourth class comprised the vegetables, which are described as the “creation incapable of causation” (Mark. P. 230). The fifth class comprised the four-legged animals, such as cattle, that can be characterized by ignorance. Brahma realized that even these creations were incapable of causation, and thus, he continued to meditate and created the sixth class of beings known as the urdhva-srotas, or the gods. According to Markandeya, Brahma was exceptionally pleased with this creation because the gods are primarily characterized by goodness, pleasure, and affection. Brahma prolonged his meditation to create the seventh class that was capable of causation, and characterized by ignorance and passion; these were the human beings. Since “the streams of life in them moved downwards”, human beings were deemed the arvak-srotas. The eighth class of beings was the anugraha, characterized by goodness and ignorance. These latter five creations are thought to derive from the Vikaras, and are thus known as the vaikrta creations. The ninth and final creation was the kaumara creation; kaumara consisted of both prakrta and vaikrta (Mark. P. 232).

Markandeya continues reciting the creation myth to Kraushtuki by explaining the details of Brahma’s four created beings: the asuras, or demons, the suras, or gods, the pitrs, or ancestors, and the humans. Brahma created each being from a different and separate body (Mark. P. 233-234). After using each body to create a specific being, Brahma discards the body to form different periods of the day. Night came from the body that created the asuras, while day emerged from the body that created the suras. Twilight, or dawn, derived from the body that created the pitrs, and moonlight came from the body that created the humans. According to Pintchman (270), Brahma “then creates all other existing entities from his own bodily form.” One such notable category of entities include Brahma’s manasa, or mind-born, sons (Mark. P. 247-248).

Brahma created nine sages from his mind alone (Mark. P. 247). These sages were named Bhrigu, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu, Angiras, Marici, Daksha, Atri, and Vasishtha. These mind-born sons were supposed to continue Brahma’s work of creation. However, the sages disregarded Brahma’s work and, instead, pursued a renouncer-like life typified by contemplation, meditation, and asceticism (Pintchman 271).  Realizing that his creations were at great risk of meeting an abrupt end, Brahma grew angry (Mark. P. 248). Amidst his anger, Markandeya explains, Brahma creates a divine being that is half male and half female (Mark. P. 248). In order to sustain his creations, Brahma orders the being to “divide thyself” to create several other females and males (Mark. P. 248).  With several other beings created from the half male and half female divine being, Brahma generates Manu Svayambhuva to guard these numerous beings.

Markandeya’s account of how the world came to be is one of several in the Hindu tradition. Although many Hindu texts bear close resemblance to the account in the Markandeya Purana (e.g., Brahmada Purana, Garuda Purana, and Padma Purana), several other texts describe differential versions of creationism. For instance, the Purusa Sukta hymn, in the Rg Veda, depicts the universe as an enormous cosmic being, known as Purusa, that is three quarters transcendent and one quarter manifest (Rg Veda 10.90). From Purusa, a feminine principle named Viraj, or the widespread, is generated. Together, Viraj and Purusa beget a son, also named Purusa; this son is sacrificed by the gods, and from this sacrifice Purusa creates the cosmos (Rodrigues 89). As this account of creationism is vastly different from Markandeya’s account, it is worth noting that many creationist accounts in the Hindu literature may be contradictory. Although most Puranic creationist accounts are valued by Hindus worldwide, the Puranas have not been granted a sruti status, and thus, Vedic accounts of creationism, such as the Purusa Sukta hymn, may be deemed more significant.


Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1983) History of Indian Cosmogonical Ideas. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal.

Chatterji, Suniti Kumar (1936) “Purana Legends and the Prakrit Tradition in New Indo-Aryan.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London 8, no. 2/3: 457-466.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1980) “The Study of the Puranas and the Study of Religion.” Religious Studies 16, no. 3: 341-352.

Knipe, David M (1991) Hinduism: Experiments in the Sacred. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Miller, Jeanine (1985) The Vision of Cosmic Order in the Veda. London: Routledge & Kegan.

Pargiter, F Eden (1981) The Markandeya Purana: Translated with Notes. New Delhi: Indological Book House.

Pintchman, Tracy (1998) “Gender Complementarity and Gender Hierarchy in Puranic Accounts of Creation.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66, no. 2: 257-282.

Prakash, Satya (1985) Hindu Religion and Morality. New Delhi: Asian Publication Services.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Shourie, Arun (1979) Hinduism: Essence and Consequence. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.

Singh, Jai Pal, & Khan, Mumtaz (1999) “Hindu Cosmology and the Orientation and Segregation of Social Groups in Villages in Northwestern India.” Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Human Geography 81, no. 1: 19-39.

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Brahmada Purana




Creation/Creator/ Creationism/Hindu Creationism


Dvapara Yuga

Garuda Purana

Genealogical figures


Hindu cosmology

Hiranyagarbha/World egg/Golden Embryo



Kali Yuga





Krta Yuga

Kurma Purana






Major dissolution




Manu Svayambhuva




Markandeya Purana

Minor dissolution


Naimittik pralay

Padma Purana














Rg Veda

Rg Vedic Cosmology







Sankhya philosophy






Supreme Being







Treta Yuga

Triple-world system












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Article written by: Sara Kafashan (April 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Hindu Cosmic Time Cycle

The Hindu Cosmic time cycle makes a distinction between a human year, a godly year and a year in the life of Brahma. It follows that one human year is equal to that of one day in the life of the gods, and one day (or kalpa) in the life of Brahma is 4 320 000 000 human years with an equal amount of time dedicated to his sleep. The cyclical nature of the Hindu cosmic structure comes from the dissolution and rebirth of the world that takes place when Brahma goes to sleep and wakes. This cycle of dissolution and rebirth takes place for one hundred Brahma years until Brahma returns to the supreme being in which he came to be reborn again (Morgan, 89).

The composition of a day in the life of Brahma consists of dividing time up. At the most basic level, time is divided into yugas or ages. These consist of the Krta or Satya yuga, the Treta yuga, Dvapara yuga, and the Kali yuga. Each of these yugas contains a descending level of dharma. At the end of the Kali yuga there is a period of dissolution which if followed by a new Krta yuga (Mitchiner, 48). The total time that a four yuga cycle takes is 12 000 godly years or 4 320 000 human years. These are divided between the yugas with the Krta yuga receiving 4000 years, the Treta yuga receiving 3000 years, the Dvapara yuga receiving 2000 years and finally the Kali yuga receiving 1000 years, each with supplemented dawns and dusks of one tenth their totals.

The four yuga cycle is known as a mahayuga. It takes 1000 mahayuga to create one Kalpa or day in the life of Brahma which is also equal to 4320 million human years. These 1000 mahayuga are divided into 14 manvantaras or (intervals of the manus) in which seven new rsis will arrive every 71.42 mahayuga to teach man the Laws of Manu (Mittal and Thursby, 563).

It is at this time that Brahma will dissolve the universe and sleep for an equally long length of time (4320 million human years) to complete his day and then he will rise and start the process all over again for one hundred years consisting of 360 day years. This will put the life cycle of Brahma at 311 040 Billion human years. This is said to pass in a “moment, wink or blink” (nimesa) of Visnu (Mittal and Thursby, 563).


Mitchiner, J. (1982) Traditions of the Seven Rsis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Mittal, S. and Thursby, G. ed. (2004) The Hindu World. New York and London: Routledge

Morgan, K. ed. (1953) The Religion of the Hindus. New York: Ronald.

Related Research Topics

Creation and Destruction of the Universe




Laws of Manu

Related Websites

This article was produced by Jason M. Blades, who takes full responsibility for the contents.

Yugas (Aeons of Time)

Time is a very important concept for many of the world religions, and for the Hindu tradition the concept of time is explained through yuga. The concepts of the yugas were first mentioned in the popular Mahabharata epic, as well as the Manusmrti (Simms, 71). The cycle of time is divided up into four different sections. Each section is known as a yuga, or time period (Simms, 71). Each successive period brings the world into a greater state of decreased dharma, because through each cycle the earth gets further and further away from the Absolute (Simms, 71). Within every subsequent era there is less order, cosmic law, and the life expectancy of humans is shortened (Simms, 71). A metaphor commonly used to explain this dharma is the image of a bull. In the very beginning of the cycle, the animal is strong and sturdy. This is the stage closest to the Absolute (the krtayuga). At the end of each yuga, one leg deteriorates from the bull and makes it more unsteady than it was before. After the first yuga, the bull has only three legs (tretayuga), in the third yuga it will only have two legs (dvaparayuga) and by the last yuga, it will be teetering on only one leg (the most unstable time known as the kaliyuga period). The bull will eventually collapse and the cycle will start all over again (White, 290).

Each cycle is divided in ten parts within the four yugas. The first yuga is known as the krtayuga and composes the first four units, then there is the tretayuga, which lasts three units, the daparayuga which lasts two units and finally the kaliyuga which is only made up of one unit. Each yuga originates from the numbers in a Vedic dice game vis-a-vis mentioned in the Mahabharata (White, 288). In the game, a krta was the number each player needed to achieve in order to win. It was known as the best throw. Krta was the complete throw with no remaining numbers. Any other throw that did not result in krta had remainders of one, two, or three dice. The treta became the next best throw after the krta throw which resulted in three leftover dice. After that, there was the dvapara outcome (two dice left over) and finally the kali throw (which only had one leftover dice) (White, 288). The kali throw was known as the most unfavorable throw.

Each of the four different yugas are combined to make one mahayuga (Simms,72). A mahayuga is a massive unit where one age of the gods are made (Glucklich, 31). A thousand mahayugas make up one day of Brahma. A kalpa is one day of Brahman the creator-god and a thousand caturyugas make up one day of Brahman (Washburn, 63). Creation lasts until the end of a thousand caturyugas (Washburn, 43). During the day the heavens, as well as the planets rotate to produce both existence and destruction. It is at night that the moving planets and heavens rest (Kennedy, et al, 276).

The first stage, the krtayuga (or satyayuga) is a pure state in existence. It is known as the “age of truth” and the “Golden Age” (Simms, 71) and is characterized by simplicity, timelessness and serenity. It is the closest era to the Absolute and virtue is 100% complete (Cairns, 75). There is a sense of eternity and fluidity and there is no sickness. Death and sin are not in existence and people are very moral. This state of bliss lasts the longest of the four yugas, extending for 1,728,000 years (Cairns, 75).

Tretayuga, the second stage, begins the deterioration of existence and marks the end of the “Golden Age”. Cosmic dharma is disturbed, however still intact and there is a greater separation from the Absolute. Things are still mostly pure, even though sin has been introduced and virtue is reduced to 75%. Tretayuga lasts for 1,296,000 years (Cairns, 75)

The dvaparayuga is marked by an increase of evil and further loss of dharmic balance. Dharma not only decreases, but the deterioration is also accelerated in this yuga (Simms, 71). Virtue is decreased by ½, and the human lifespan also decreases. This stage lasts for 863,000 years.

The last stage, the kaliyuga is our current era and lasts only 432,000 years. It is believed civilization has been in this era ever since the Mahabharata war occurred, as well as the death of Krsna (Simms, 71). In this stage social order is broken down and there is a need for royal authority to keep rules and dharma intact (Glucklich, 31). The ruled however question authority, confusing and corrupting social order (Sen, 91). Kali (the goddess of death and destruction) makes men deceitful and greedy (Sen, 91). There is an increase of human death, time goes by at a rapid pace and there is a massive spiritual and physical breakdown in humans (Simms, 71). There is little respect for God or Brahman (Sen, 91) and it is the “age of strife” (Simms, 73). It is the shortest sequence of time in the cycle. Human virtue is decreased to ¼ and there is enormous suffering worldwide (Cairns, 72).

These cycles are consistently repeated until a mahayuga is completed (also known as a kalpa and is composed of 100 yuga cycles) (Simms, 72). Once there is a mahayuga, the universe is destroyed (pralaya), normally through a massive flood, before it starts at the first krtayuga once again (Thapar, 25). This sequence is repeated endlessly and there is an idea that the cycle really is without a beginning or an end (Sen, 126).


Cairns, Grace, E. (1970) “Social Progress and Holism in T. M. P. Mahadevan’s Philosophy of History”. Philosophy East and West; 20; 1; p. 73-82.

Glucklich, Ariel (1984) “Karma and pollution in Hindu dharma: distinguishing law from nature”. Contributions to Indian Sociology; 18; 25; p. 25-33.

Hopkins, Washburn E. (1903) “Epic Chronology” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 24; 7-56

Kennedy, E. S., Engle, Susan, Wamstad, Jeanne (1965) “The Hindu Calendar as Described in Al Buruni’s Masudic Canon” Journal of Near Eastern Studies; 24; 3; 274-284

Sen, Amiya, P. (1998) “Bhakti Paradigms, Syncretism and Social Restructuring in Kaliyuga: A Reappraisal of Some Aspects of Bengali Religious Culture”. Studies in History; 14; 89.

Simms, Robert (1992-1993) “Aspects of Cosmological Symbolism in Hindusthani Musical Forms”. Asian Music, 24; 1; p. 67-89.

Thapar, Romila (1991) “Genealogical Patterns as Perceptions of the Past”. Studies in History; 7; 1; p. 1-35.

White, David G. (1989) “Dogs Die”. History of Religions, 28; 4; p. 283-303.

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Article written by: Lauren O’Dwyer (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Reincarnation and Karma

The belief in rebirth and various realms is a common ideology in Hinduism. According to Hinduism a soul is reincarnated again and again, undergoing many experiences, until it achieves perfection and unites as one with the divine. This idea of rebirth is referred to as reincarnation, that death relates only to the physical body but the soul continues on and is reborn into another body, human, animal or sometimes even a vegetable (Wadia 145). This continuing worldly existence is called samsara, which literally means “to wander” or “to flow together,” and thus refers to the cycle of repeated births (Rodrigues 94). Reincarnation is never a stand-alone doctrine; rather it is dictated by the law of karma. The word karma is derived from the ancient Sanskrit language of India, which literally means to “work” or “to act” (Garrett 37). Karma stands for all activity, motion or change which the world experiences, and thus the entire world is subject to the law of that which is karma (Singh 11). It is the law of the cosmos and the path leading to the absolute reality, Brahman. The idea that one’s actions have consequences in this life or the next and on subsequent rebirths, developed during the Upanisad period. It is in the Upanisad stories, for example that of the great sage Yajnavalkya, that the idea of reincarnation emerges (Wadia 146). Since then it has become a core ideology in the whole of India. Karma thus sets up a world of justice whereby every action has its outcome, whether good or bad. [For more interesting facts on karma and rebirth in classical Indian traditions see O’Flaherty (1980)]. It is difficult to write a paper on such a topic as reincarnation, as it takes on diverse meanings to individual Hindus. This paper attempts to only give a broad and general sense of the doctrine of reincarnation and karma.

In certain schools of Hindu metaphysics, the true identity of the self, the true Self, is not limited to the physical body; rather it is of a spiritual essence which is subject to rebirth when the current body possessed dies. This spiritual essence undergoes a chain of rebirths into many different bodies, forms, and personalities that are all just temporary vehicles of the true self, until one finally achieves liberation, moksa (Garrett 18). One can only achieve moksa through realizing this so called “true self” (or atman) and renouncing this worldly life. This would entail embodying the Dharma ideals of Hinduism so that you build good karma, and instead of coming back as say an animal or a lower class Hindu, you could become a god. [Singh (1981) explores more on the concept of Dharma]. It is important to note that Karma Yoga from the Bhagavad Gita takes a bit of a different stance then that of orthodox views on reincarnation and karma; in that it states that anyone, no matter what class, can be liberated. Even a householder can achieve liberation through self-realization. Moksa can be achieved simply by doing the right thing, in practicing your duties and with interaction in everyday societal life, as long as one avoids attachment to the fruits of the action; that is one should not be concerned with success or failure. Basically one should perform their duty while at the same time renouncing the world (Rodrigues 250). [For more on this topic of Karma yoga see Singh (1981)].

The idea of karma and reincarnation provides one with motivation to be better, or as some may say “fighting the good fight.” Being selfless in action, doing good to/for others, performing duties, practicing rituals, obeying class systems, is all a part in building good karma and seeking liberation in the Hinduism view. Karma can also present a solution to the everyday question of why good people sometimes suffer, or why bad people seem to get away with things (Wadia 145). Instead of feeling like the world is unfair and being confused as to why all this would happen, one need only to look at the ideas of reincarnation and karma, and see that life is everything but unfair. This allows people to view suffering, misfortune, their current position in society, or even the way they look (i.e. their appearance), as consequences to their actions. In this sense it promotes one to take responsibility for their action. But it is important to realize that samsara, karma and reincarnation are not to be viewed as a burden from which to flee. Rather these are doctrines that promote growth, education and opportunities to learn from mistakes (Neufeldt 16).

The idea of reincarnation is not limited to Hinduism, it can be found in other faiths (e.g. Buddhism) and it touches some who do not even relate to a specific religion. But it is important to note that reincarnation takes on different meanings in relation to different faiths and cultures. For example, Henry Ford spoke on the importance of reincarnation theory to his life by stating: “I adopted the theory of reincarnation when I was twenty-six…Religion offered nothing to the point…Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilize the experience collected in one life in the next. When I discovered Reincarnation …time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the clock…the discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease…” (Garrett 22). In Henry Ford’s case the idea of reincarnation is not from a religious perspective, but more of an avoidance of the idea of death and an opportunity to continue in the enjoyment of this worldly life. He looks forward to being reincarnated again and again, not to reunite with any god or for liberation of any kind, like in the case of Hindus, but for the mere pleasure of continuing on in this world and basking in its enjoyment. This is the appeal of reincarnation to some, in that it is a kind of way to escape the fears of death in hopes of being reborn over and over again, providing a kind of immortality. This is one way to look at the doctrine. But for Hindus reincarnation as an escape from the reality of death tends to take away from the beauty of the doctrine to begin with. The doctrine, in Hinduism, was not build on such principles; to hope for an eternal worldly life is to never realize the true self.

The doctrine of reincarnation is not itself difficult to understand, but the way in which people believe it is what makes for a more challenging task. More often than not there are differing views, as with any faith, on how reincarnation works in Hinduism and in many other religions and cultures adopting the doctrine. There are typically two ways in which one understands concepts in religion, literally or metaphorically (Garrett 18). And the question becomes should reincarnation be taken literally? Or should it be taken in a more metaphorical sense? There may be some dangers to taking the concept of karma and reincarnation too literally. The idea of reincarnation has found expression in India not as a metaphor, but as a metaphysical certainty. Reincarnation has justified social disparities and misery as being due to bad karma (Garrett 20).

Some controversy has surrounded certain practices in India as being social consequences to the doctrine of reincarnation and karma. For example, the caste system, varna, in India is well known to be firmly established to this day as a possible by-product of karma and reincarnation. There are four classes within the caste system, with the priestly class (i.e. Brahmin class) at the high end of the scale, who would represent good karma in action. Then there are the lowest of all lows, those who do not even get grouped into the caste system, but rather are the outcastes of society. The untouchables (or Candalas) represent the lowest end of the scale in the caste system, and embody bad karma in action. Because karma states that one pays consequences for action from past lives, it has provided some with the mentality that the untouchables deserve everything they get. In this sense, some believe that reincarnation and karma have increased tensions in India between the different classes, and justified mistreatment of individuals. To illustrate the point, Tom O’Neil says (from an issue of National Geographic): “During the winter I spent in India, hardly a day passed that I didn’t hear or read of acid thrown in a boy’s face, or a wife raped in front of her husband, or some other act whose provocation was simply that an Untouchable didn’t know his or her place” (Garrett 71). Here it is evident that the cultural manifestation of karma in India is very different from the formal terms of the theory (Garrett 58). These tragic outcomes have been explained by some as simply a tragic misunderstanding of reincarnation and karma. Swami Shivananda tries to clear these misconceptions: “Caste is a question of character. Varna is not the color of the skin, but the color of one’s character or quality,” (Garrett 71). Reincarnation and karma need not necessarily be linked to the caste system, as stated previously; in karma yoga untouchables can seek moksa just like a Brahmin can. Hindu texts have offered different ways to looking at the concept of reincarnation and karma, leaving much room for different interpretations.

The doctrine of reincarnation and karma are a means to promote good behavior, morality and growth in Hinduism. Karma speaks not only of how things are, but also of how they ought to be, it points towards the goal of liberation and enlightenment (Garrett 37). It is not easy for one to say that tensions within the caste system in India exist because of reincarnation and karma, because they are not necessarily linked to one another. Hinduism is a religion of diverse thoughts and beliefs, and its followers carry differing views and ideas on religious concepts.


Ducasse, Curt John (1961) A critical examination of the belief in a life after death. Springfield, Illinois: C.C. Thomas.

Garrett, William (2005) Bad Karma: Thinking twice about the social consequences of reincarnation theory. Lanham: University Press of America.

Knapp, Stephen (2005) Reincarnation and Karma: How They Really Affect Us. New York: iUniverse.

Neufeldt, R. N. (1986) Karma and Rebirth: Post-Classical Developments. New York: State University of New York Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy (1980) Karma and rebirth in classical Indian traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The E-book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Singh, Balbir (1981) Karma-Yoga: The Discipline of Action. Delhi: Humanities Press.

Singh, Balbir (1981) Dharma: Man Religion and Society. Delhi: Humanities Press.

Wadia, A.R. (1965) Philosophical Implications of the Doctrine of Karma. University of Hawai’i Press.

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Article written by: Hala Higgy (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.