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A History of Sanskrit Literature by MacDonell

Forms part of the doctrine of samsara or cycle of existence


is the origin of the momentous doctrine which produced this change to be accounted for? The Rigveda contains no traces of it beyond a couple of passages in the last book which speak of the soul of a dead man as going to the waters or plants. It seems hardly likely that so far-reaching a theory should have been developed from the stray fancies of one or two later Vedic poets. It seems more probable that the Aryan settlers received the first impulse in this direction from the aboriginal inhabitants of India. As is well known, there is among half-savage tribes a wide-spread belief that the soul after death passes into the trunks of trees and the bodies of animals. Thus the Sonthals of India are said even at the present day to hold that the souls of the good enter into fruit-bearing trees. But among such races the notion of transmigration does not go beyond a belief in the continuance of human existence in animals and trees. If, therefore, the Aryan Indians borrowed the idea from the aborigines, they certainly deserve the credit of having elaborated out of it the theory of an unbroken chain of existences, intimately connected with the moral principle of requital. The immovable hold it acquired on Indian thought is doubtless due to the satisfactory explanation it offered of the misfortune or prosperity which is often clearly caused by no action done in this life. Indeed, the Indian doctrine of transmigration, fantastic though it may appear to us, has the twofold merit of satisfying
the requirement of justice in the moral government of the world, and at the same time inculcating a valuable ethical principle which makes every man the architect of his own fate. For, as every bad deed done in this existence must be expiated, so every good deed will be rewarded in the next existence. From the enjoyment of the fruits of actions already done there is no escape; for, in the words of the Mahabharata, "as among a thousand cows a calf finds its mother, so the deed previously done follows after the doer."

The cycle of existences (samsara) is regarded as having no beginning, for as every event of the present life is the result of an action done in a past one, the same must hold true of each preceding existence ad infinitum. The subsequent effectiveness of guilt and of merit, commonly called adrishta or "the unseen," but often also simply karma, "deed or work," is believed to regulate not only the life of the individual, but the origin and development of everything in the world; for whatever takes place cannot but affect some creature, and must therefore, by the law of retribution, be due to some previous act of that creature. In other words, the operations of nature are also the results of the good or bad deeds of living beings. There is thus no room for independent divine rule by the side of the power of karma, which governs everything with iron necessity. Hence, even the systems which acknowledge a God can only assign to him the function of guiding the world and the life of creatures in strict accordance with the law of retribution, which even he cannot break. The periodic destruction and renewal of the universe, an application of the theory on a grand scale, forms part of the doctrine of samsara or cycle of existence.

Common to all the systems of philosophy, and as old as that of transmigration, is the doctrine of salvation, which puts an end to transmigration. All action is brought about by desire, which, in its turn is based on avidya, a sort of "ignorance," that mistakes the true nature of things, and is the ultimate source of transmigration. Originally having only the negative sense of non-knowledge (a-vidya), the word here came to have the positive sense of "false knowledge." Such ignorance is dispelled by saving knowledge, which, according to every philosophical school of India, consists in some special form of cognition. This universal knowledge, which is not the result of merit, but breaks into life independently, destroys, the subsequent effect of works which would otherwise bear fruit in future existences, and thus puts an end to transmigration. It cannot, however, influence those works the fruit of which has already begun to ripen. Hence, the present life continues from the moment of enlightenment till definite salvation at death, just as the potter's wheel goes on revolving for a time after the completion of the pot. But no merit or demerit results from acts done after enlightenment (or "conversion" as we should say), because all desire for the objects of the world is at an end.

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