How to Reach Nirvana: Getting Rid of Karma

Karma allows the endless cycle of reincarnation to happen. The secret to ending it and reaching Nirvana, is to reject egoistic motives and realize your caste’s moral duty.

Aug 4, 2022By Aurora Passarini, BA Anthropology, MA Int'l Cooperation w/ Intercultural Heritage Concentration
buddha burma sikkim wheel of life
Print of the Buddha, 1991, from Mandalay, Burma, via the British Museum; with Bhavacakra, Thangka Painting of Sikkim, the Wheel of existence, at the Tsuklakhang Chapel and Monastery, 2018, Gangtok, Sikkim in India, via Google Arts & Culture

 

Nirvana in Buddhism, along with karma, are popular concepts nowadays. However, they are often used in an improper manner, and their roots in Hinduism and Buddhism have been erased by western-related values. What do we actually refer to, when we talk of karma, cakra, and Buddhist Nirvana? In this article, we will explore the origins of these notions in ancient Southeast Asian traditions.

 

How does one reach Nirvana in Buddhism? By getting rid of karma.

 

Understanding Nirvana in Buddhism: Karma and Dharma

dharma wheel nirvana shanti stupa
Shanti Stupa Dharma Wheel, by Chris Hunkeler, 2018, Shanti Stupa, Leh in Kashmir, India, via Flickr

 

What is karma? From the Sanskrit, karma means “action”, and it is a core concept in many southeast traditions and religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. Karma works across many lifetimes, and, according to the cause and effect law, it transports the positive or negative outcomes of action through time. If an act performed is moral, a more positive reincarnation is expected in the next successive lifetime. This is connected to the cycle of death and rebirth (in Sanskrit, samsara). It is fueled by the consequences of our actions, that cause the soul to be reborn into a new physical body, human or non human.

 

Another central element of many Southeast Asian traditions is dharma. For Hinduism, this is a broad term that means law, duty, or morality. Dharma entails a general reverence towards life’s systems, since it shapes nature’s order, society, and human morality. Moreover, dharma has a specific connection with Vedic literature, the sacred texts of early Hinduism, and, therefore, with the caste system. In fact, this law is not universally applicable, but only refers to the cultural community of Aryans that colonized the Indus Valley, in the 2nd millennium BCE.

 

ganges map rajasthani artist
Map of the Ganges, Rajasthani Artist, early 18th century, Garhwal, via Google Arts & Culture

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For each of the four castes (brahmins, warriors, farmers, and servants) and each of the four life stages (student, married man, hermit, ascetic) there are certain duties and norms, ergo a specific dharma, called sva-dharma. The Brahmin duty is to learn and teach the Veda, and perform sacrifice and sacerdotal services. The noble warrior must rule, and the farmer takes care of agriculture and cattle. The last caste must serve the three upper ones. Many variants of life’s order and dharma exist within each caste, and at a regional level.

 

Moreover, dharma has a religious value, for it has a connection with salvation. It does not have a direct connection to any kind of theism, but rather it can be empirically assessed from the Vedic teachings or from a general consensus about what is good. Thus, Dharma is a model of behavior with positive significance for achieving nirvana in Buddhism. The deeds made in dharma’s name are called karma. They can be positive (according to dharma) or negative (against dharma, adharma), and have an impact on human fate and the future of the soul. However, ultimate salvation cannot be achieved only by accomplishing dharma, instead one must follow a different path.

 

Bhavacakra, the Wheel of Existence 

sikkim existence wheel nirvana
Bhavacakra, Thangka Painting of Sikkim, the Wheel of existence, at the Tsuklakhang Chapel and Monastery, 2018, Gangtok, Sikkim in India, via Google Arts & Culture

 

The Bhavacakra is the wheel of worldly existence and depicts the samsara cycle. It can be found on the walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples, because in Buddhism painting is a popular method to teach philosophy, so as to explain Buddhist teachings to non-monastic visitors. Tradition tells us that the first wheel of life was painted by Buddha himself, while illustrating the truths of suffering and the path towards its cessation. The wheel shows a wide range of Buddhist imagery.

 

In the center, there are three animals. These represent the three poisons that, according to the second Noble Truth, are the causes of suffering. The pig symbolizes ignorance, the snake wrath, and the bird desire. Most times, snakes and birds are depicted as coming out of the pig’s mouth, to symbolize the growth of rage and attachment due to ignorance. The second layer is formed by two half circles, one light and the other dark. They represent the law of cause and effect, or karma, illustrating the dichotomy of virtuous and non-virtuous action.

 

wheel of existence nirvana tibet
Wheel of Existence, early 20th century, Tibet, via Google Arts & Culture

 

Furthermore, the third layer shows the six realms of samsara. Since rebirth is, in fact, the core of life’s pain, samsara represents the first Noble Truth, the truth of suffering. The realms shown include the three higher ones, containing god, demi-god, and humans, and the three lower ones, containing animals, ghosts, and hell. The fourth part depicts the 12 Nidanas, the twelve causal links that explain the influence that past lifetimes have on the rebirth process. The allegorical individuals painted show the faults of cause and effect during a lifetime.

 

The most noticeable element is the figure holding the wheel. It symbolizes impermanence, the philosophical dilemma of continuity (anitya), one of the basic elements of existence. This figure is Yama, the god of Death, whose three eyes symbolize the three fundamental aspects of existence: dissatisfaction, non-self, and impermanence. But, the drawing also shows a way to escape this cycle of suffering. For this purpose, in the upper part, we find Buddha pointing towards the moon. The moon is, in fact, nirvana in Buddhism, ergo the truth of the cessation of suffering. The way to liberation suggested by the Buddha has many variations in the different Buddhist traditions; we will discuss the one suggested in Theravada Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold path.

 

The Buddhist Way Towards Liberation From Karma

mahayan buddhism nirvana
Leaves from Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, ca, 1150-1200, Bengal, India, via Asianart.com

 

What is Nirvana in Buddhism? From the Sanskrit for “being extinguished,” it is commonly associated with the Buddhist final path. It means the cessation of suffering, and, therefore, of the end of cycles of reincarnations. The path towards liberation starts by acknowledging the Four Noble Truths, which summarize the essence of Buddhist teachings.

 

The first identifies the illness that is suffering (dhukka). Old age, sickness, and death are all standard parts of life, for existence is not ideal and satisfaction is only temporary. After having established this, one must find its cause. The root of all suffering is displaced and selfish desire, tanha. The third truth states that the cessation of suffering is pursued through estrangement, nirodha. This means that, in order to reach Nirvana in Buddhism, one must extinguish passion. The last truth reveals the device for the cessation of suffering (magga): the wheel of Dharma, also called the Noble Eightfold path. It consists of eight practices that lead to wisdom, morals, and focus in meditation.

 

buddha karma clay kaohsiung taiwan
Buddha in Wholesome Karmic Clay, 618-907 CE, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, via Google Arts & Culture

 

The canonical writing that explains all this is the Fire Sermon, the Adittapariyāya Sutta, the discourse in which Buddha preaches liberation.

 

“He grows disenchanted with the intellect, disenchanted with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness at the intellect, disenchanted with contact at the intellect. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: He grows disenchanted with that too. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’”

 

The Bhagavad Gita: Reaching Nirvana in Hinduism

mahabharata karma yoga indian epic
Selections from the Mahabharata, 18th-19th century, India, via Google Arts & Culture

 

The concept of nirvana means the attainment of an individual’s natural state, beyond good and evil. According to tradition, the liberated person does not act or trigger any kind of action, for they work for humanity’s sake without moral obligation. Those who achieve nirvana join God and merge their atman (pure self) in perfect communion with divine life. In this state, there is no ego or desire, and the atman is free from any kind of earthly manifestation, for it is one with eternal peace and perfection, also known as the state of yoga.

 

This popular and interesting theory regarding action and rebirth is the one narrated in the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. It is a poem inserted into the popular epic the Mahabharata, between the 2nd  century BCE and the 2nd century CE. The epic tells the episode in which the warrior Arjuna faces the moral dilemma of battling with his own kin. Krishna, one of the main deities of Hinduism, advises him to keep fighting but to reject the fruits of his actions, performing his dharma.

 

Arjuna’s duty, since he belongs to the warrior’s caste, is to lead in war, and by doing so, he will fulfill his dharma. Krishna suggests to him the three disciplines (yoga) of knowledge, devotion, and action. Jnana-Yoga, the discipline of knowledge, instructs one on the magical value of knowledge, through which one knows how to get rid of the consequences of one’s actions, and erase all deeds acted out with selfish motives. Moreover, Bhakti Yoga, the discipline of devotion, proposes the total worship of God. Bhakti, culminates with the merging of one’s soul with God.

 

mahabharata folio indian epic
Abhimanyu Hunting, Scene from the Story of the Marriage of Abhimanyu and Vatsala, Folio from a Mahabharata ([War of the] Great Bharatas), ca. 1850, India, Maharashtra, Paithan, via Google Arts & Culture

 

The turning point comes with Karma-yoga, the discipline of action, that centers around not expecting any fruits from service. An action’s fruits are what cause the samsara cycle to happen, and the solution doesn’t lie in the action per se, but in the intentions of the one performing it. Therefore, in order to free oneself from karma (and achieve Nirvana), one must renounce any kama (desire). In this case, to act will merely mean to conform to one’s own sva-dharma, which determines each castes’ role within society.

 

Bibliography

 

Bora M. (2018). The Concept of Liberation (Moksha) in the Bhagavad Gita. MSSV Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 2, No. 1

 

Hacker P. , R. Davis D. Jr (2006). Dharma in Hinduism. Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 34, No. 5

 

Marchignoli S. (2005). L’India filosofica: un percorso tra temi e problemi del pensiero indiano. Eurocopy- Bologna

 

Tamang, D. D. (2020). A Comparative Study of Bhavacakra Painting. Historical Journal, 12(1), 80–96

 

Sitography

 

BBC. Religions. The Four Noble Truths. Retrieved May 28th, 2022, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/beliefs/fournobletruths_1.shtml

 

BBC. Religions. Hindu Concepts. Retrieved May 28th, 2022, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/concepts/concepts_1.shtml

 

Britannica. Philosophy and Religion. Nirvana. Retrieved May 28th, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/nirvana-religion

 

Eric Huntington. Wheel of Existence (Bhavacakra). Retrieved June 1st, 2022, from https://erichuntington.org/?da_image=wheel-of-existence-bhavacakra-zurmang-shedrup

 

Thanissaro Bhikku (1993). Adittapariyāya Sutta: The Fire Sermon. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition). Retrieved June 2nd, 2022, from https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.028.than.html



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By Aurora PassariniBA Anthropology, MA Int'l Cooperation w/ Intercultural Heritage Concentration Aurora is a university student based in Italy. She holds a BA in Anthropology, Religion and Oriental Cultures and is an International Cooperation student from the University of Bologna. She is passionate about social and cultural anthropology, religious studies and political sciences. She also enjoys European literature and learning oriental languages.