The doctrine of transmigration is a definitive concept for Hinduism. It postulates the existence of an innermost self (atman) for all beings, ranging from the highest god to the meanest insect, that is essentially immutable. By becoming incarnate, this self becomes further involved with matter, which some philosophical systems hold to be fundamentally illusory and others regard as the primordial source of intellect, ego, elements, and the material world. According to the conduct of the embodied being, the soul or self is carried at death to another body, in which it flourishes or suffers according to previous behavior (the law of karma). This process is called samsara. From an outsider's perspective, the force of karma operates as a tangible manifestation of an ethical system associated with principles of righteous conduct and moral values inherent in the concept of dharma, a difficult-to-translate term that embodies cosmic order, sacred law, and religious duty. Within the system, however, the effects of karma are typically conceived more as the operation of natural law governing the effects of behavior than a statement of moral and ethical values.
Transmigration links all living beings in a single system. Unlike the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religious systems, Hinduism makes no sharp distinction between human and animal. Dharma as a guide to proper behavior is relative, not the same for different people or different beings. The ideas of karma and sa^sara motivate values of nonviolence (ahimsa) and vegetarianism. Nonviolence, which was never so prominent a value in Hinduism as it was in Jainism and Buddhism, has less stringent implications for laypersons than for ascetics, and it does not interfere with righteous warfare, punishment of criminals, or self-defense.
The process of transmigration is considered painful, and the main quest of classical Hinduism has been to find "release" (mokga) from the cycle of birth and death and thereby enter a state of timeless bliss. For the orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy and systems of Buddhism and Jainism that sprang from them, knowledge provides a means of escaping this repetitive cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Each of these schools has a somewhat different interpretation of the problem and the solution. Both the Sa^khya school, identified with yoga practice and once very influential, and the heterodox sect of Jainism, define release as the complete separation of the individual soul from matter. The Advaita Vedanta system, which exerts the greatest influence on intellectual Hinduism, interprets it as a full realization of the illusory character of the material world, the speciousness of individual personality, and the recognition of the soul's identity with an underlying impersonal world spirit, often called Brahman. Theistic Hinduism of the VisIgtadvaita school, which has had the greatest influence on popular ideas, interprets release as union with the personal God not through knowledge but through devotion to Vig^u, who is identified with Brahman, the ultimate reality of the universe and out of whom the world repeatedly emerges in the course of cosmic cycles.
Ideally, release is the aim of all striving, but Hinduism recognizes the validity of other aims, which for laypersons are fully legitimate. The ascetic (sannyasi), on the other hand, "who has given up the world," should pursue only release. Ordinary people approach this goal through gradual stages over many lives. For them there are three legitimate aims: dharma, adherence to religious and ethical norms in order to ensure a happier rebirth; artha, amassing wealth for the benefit of oneself and one's family; and kama, seeking pleasure and the satisfaction of personal desires. These three aims are valued in descending hierarchical order, but each is fully acceptable for different persons at a particular stage of life and for caste-based communities, which may emphasize one of them.
The Hindu pantheon begins with one primeval being, or God, and innumerable supernatural beings, all of whom are endowed with individual volition. Some of these beings adhere to the will of the higher gods, but others oppose the work of creation. Battles between gods and demons, light and darkness, and good and evil were important features of the earliest Hindu literature, and these themes are widely represented in popular beliefs and practices. Complementing more intellectual naturalistic explanations that are also a prominent feature of Hinduism, some look upon the world as a place full of demons, which are normally at war with gods, and which can be potent factors in causing misfortune and disease.
Hindu cosmology refers to four ages (yuga) over the period of a great cycle (4,320,000 years). The current cycle, the Kali yuga, is the worst, but fortunately the shortest, lasting 432,000 years, about 5,100 of which have elapsed. Looking backward to better times provides a guide in this troubled age. Neither the doctrine of karma nor that of cosmic decline, however, implies fatalism. Human effort may influence the process, and it holds potential for gaining release from the personal cycles of birth and rebirth. Hindu texts emphasize the virtue of human effort (purugakara), rather than passive acceptance of adversity that may follow from destiny or chance.
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