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Archive for May, 2013

Today, one of my friends posted an article from the National Post entitled What Would Bonobos Do? The short article is a blurb on polyamory, where men and women live in “open relationships” (look it up if you don’t know what I mean). My friend added the quote “What would bonobos do? Always a good question to ask.”

The thinking behind my friend’s comments is this: Humans are descended from apes, and bonobos are one of our ancestors (or, more accurately, humans and bonobos share a common ancestor; you and your cousin share a common ancestor in your grandparents but you are not descended from your cousin nor vice versa. Also, humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than bonobos. But bonobos are the second closest to us on the human evolutionary chain of all species that still survive).

Anyhow, because humans are descended from bonobos, then we should have many of our behavioral practices in common with them. Bonobos have very promiscuous sexual relationships. Males and females have many sexual partners and even have it recreationally. What my friend on Facebook is saying is that polyamory is perfectly acceptable in the animal kingdom, even among our closest ancestors. Why does society condemn this perfectly, biologically normal behavior in humans? It must be because we have rules imposed by others (usually religious in origin, but not always) that tries to regulate our sexual behavior.

That’s the meaning behind “WWBD”. It is a play on the term “What would Jesus do?” because a bonobo has no problem with multiple sexual partners, males or females. Therefore, what’s the big deal if humans do it? Prohibitions against it are arbitrary, and the enforcement of it was arbitrary.

I know this is what my friend means because he is a Libertarian, but also because I have read other articles that try to use nature as way to rationalize non-monogamous relationships as okay since animals do it (especially our closer primate relatives), but it was only through society’s rules that it became condemned.

Does my friend have a point? Are humans naturally promiscuous, and have authorities places rules on us in order to regulate our behavior because of their own standards of morality and tricked us into agreeing with them?

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To answer this question, we need to understand a few facts about human evolution.

  1. The goal of evolution is survival and reproduction.

    Species that procreate survive. The ones that don’t go extinct. Thus, many of the behaviors we have today are optimally designed to ensure that we survive in our environments, and that we can reproduce.

  2. Humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than bonobos.

    While it is true that bonobos are polyamorous (many-to-many sexual relationship), it doesn’t mean that humans originally were. Our common ancestor may have been monogamous and then after we branched off, bonobos became polyamorous and humans remained monogamous.

    Or, the other possibility is that our common ancestor was a one-to-many relationship where one male had sexual relationships with many females (think of a harem). This is what we see in chimpanzees. Anthropological research has determined that is the most likely behavior we see in our common ancestors as well.

    Thus, while bonobos may be many-to-many, our more recent ancestors were one-to-many. You don’t see too many (male) writers advocating that in the western world.

  3. Males and females have different reproductive goals.

    From a biological perspective, men increase their chances of reproducing by engaging in sexual relationships with more than one partner. However, women do not. They cannot have more than one child than they could normally deliver. That is, having more sexual partners does not increase the number of children they can have in a certain time frame.

    Thus, from an evolutionary standpoint, promiscuity doesn’t make sense for women. But what does make sense for them? Selecting a strong partner.

    They can increase their offspring’s chance of survival by picking a partner with good genes. In the animal kingdom, this is done by picking the strongest, best looking males. The Birds of Paradise in New Guinea and Australia best exemplify this – the top male on the pyramid mates with 80% of the females. The number 2 male mates with the remaining 20%. The other males get nothing.

    You don’t see too many male writers advocating that in the western world because most of us realize we are not at the top of the pyramid.

  4. Females increase their odds of offspring survival if males help raise the children.

    Humans are expensive to raise. They consume a lot of resources compared to other animals. A male who sticks around and helps raise his child increases the child’s chances of survival, and therefore ensuring his genes proliferate.

    Females benefit from this also, but it doesn’t necessarily matter which male it is – the father or some other male.

  5. Males don’t want to raise other males’ children.

    In the animal kingdom, the biggest losers are the males who raise the children of other males. He’ll ensure that his rivals’ genes survive while not spreading his own genes.

    This is a big point. The male wants the female to not be promiscuous and it makes sense for her to not be because it doesn’t help her much. But the male increases his odds of spreading his genes if he is not monogamous but is promiscuous.

    So, he could be the father of two sets of children and help raise two different sets of kids.

  6. Females don’t want males to split their time between her kids, and some other female’s kids with the same father. They evolved strategies to combat this.

    From the female’s perspective, if the male bird mates with her and some other bird, he may help raise both sets of children. However, this weakens her position. The time the male spends with the other birds’ children diverts resources away from her own. This decreases their chance of survival.

    To combat this, human females developed a very powerful strategy: concealed ovulation.

    For much of human history, females did not know when they ovulated and become fertile to reproduce. Neither did men. It is only during the 20th century that we became fully aware of when pregnancy could occur. This is concealed ovulation, and it differs from the animal kingdom because most females signal their receptivity such as emitting scents, changing colors on parts of their bodies, and so forth. In other words, it is obvious when females can conceive.

    But not to humans. We didn’t know when conception was likely.

    What is the ramifications of concealed ovulation?

    It means that if neither men nor women are sure when a women can conceive children, then neither the men nor women can be certain who the father is in a polyamorous society. It could be Father A, or Father B, or Father C.

    But neither Father A, B, nor C want to raise each other’s children. In order to combat this, they need to ensure that their mates are faithful and not promiscuous. And in order to ensure that their children survive and proliferate their genes, they need to stick around and help raise the kids. They also need to guard against any other males who may “raid the nest” when they are out of town. This ensures a one-to-one relationship instead of a one-to-many relationship amongst males and females.

    Thus, concealed ovulation is an evolutionary strategy to increase a species odds of survival. One of its consequences is monogamy.

  7. Monogamy results in winners and losers.

    In a society of birds, there are high status males, high status females, low status males, and low status females.

    Who wins and loses in monogamous birds society?

    Low status males win because if the females flock to high status males, they can’t all have high status males. After the best, all that’s left is the rest.

    High status females and low status females win because males cannot divert their resources raising multiple sets of kids, thereby decreasing their offspring’s chance of survival.

    High status males sort-of-win, but not entirely. They win by ensuring monogamy for everyone else, but promiscuity for themselves. They will still be seen as valuable by females, high or low status.

    However, unattached low status females lose. They don’t have their pick of the litter because the high status males are taken. They have to settle for the left-overs of low status males.

Taking all of this together, humans did not spell out monogamy because someone wanted to impose rules on others. Instead, it arose because it increased the species’ odds of survival and worked better than other mechanisms.

To ask “What would bonobos do?” is not relevant because the circumstances of bonobos is not the same as humans. We developed in different ecological niches.

It was only after we evolved monogamy that we rationalized  them using various means: It promotes family values, or it’s the natural way of things, or it forms the nucleus of the family.

Our ability to reason and create logical arguments arose in our brains (the neo-cortex) after we became monogamous. That’s why it’s hard to describe why we should be one-to-one (this doesn’t guarantee we will be, it only explains why it arose).

But it did not come about because some people wanted to control the behavior of others; it only seems that way because we aren’t familiar with its evolutionary advantages in our species’ history.

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The last part of Hinduism I want to talk about is coming back full circle to the questions I had at the beginning.

What’s the deal with the religious ceremonies?

Why did the Hindus have a religious ceremony at the top of Mt. Batur?

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My theory is that this is a form of bhakti yoga, the way of devotion. It is the self-surrender to one of the gods through acts of worship (the ceremony), ritual (burning incense) and pilgrimage (climbing the mountain).

What about the stone carvings outside the home?

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I think that this is part culture but also partly about the religion. Hindus are free to choose their own gods and through acts of worship – bhakti yoga – they can achieve moksha (salvation).

I don’t know how seriously they take this. Do they really believe in devotion to the gods? Or is it socially reinforced?

Probably a mixture of both.

What about the sacrifices Hindus make outside their homes three times a day?

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We saw these sacrifices everywhere outside people’s homes. I think this is bhakti yoga which has rituals and sacrifice as part of its ordinates. However, it also plays to dharma. Hindus believe that they must repay their debt to the gods for their blessings, and this is done through rituals and offerings.

Why build Angkor Wat?

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Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Once again, I think this is a form of bhakti yoga. The king was showing his total devotion to Vishnu, and perhaps trying to minimize his bad karma.

Does yoga in the west have anything to do with the Hindu version of yoga?

This past weekend, I saw a yoga place called “Moksha yoga” which means “salvation meditation.” However, yoga in the United States is basically a way to stretch and gain flexibility. There’s nothing in it to minimize your bad karma, achieve knowledge, or devote yourself to the gods.

What is the deal with that 20 foot angry monkey?

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I can’t figure this one out. I didn’t get the sense in Hinduism that the gods are angry.


And that concludes my series on Hinduism.

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I thought I would wrap up my summary of Hinduism with some odds and ends about it.

Namaste

Namaste is a greeting where you bend your elbows, fold your hands, bow and say “namaste.” It is a way of saying “I bow to you”, that is, negating or reducing one’s ego in the presence of another.

I can’t remember if we saw this in Bali or not, but I saw it all the time at the hotel we stayed at in Cambodia. Cambodia is primarily Buddhist, but perhaps this tradition was inherited from Hinduism.

Om

Om is a sacred syllable representing Brahman. It helps to realize the unknowable and is meant to attune sympathy with the cosmic vibration. A picture of the symbol (the red part) is below:

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Castes

Even though I have heard of castes all the time, I didn’t find a lot about it when reading about Hinduism.

Castes are essentially classes of people, divided officially into four divisions in descending order of importance:

  1. Priests
  2. Kings or Rulers
  3. Businessmen or merchants
  4. Slaves and Labor.

Technically, there is a fifth class – the untouchables. These are people whose jobs are very low such as people who deal with human waste (e.g., sewer workers) or garbage collectors.

In India, there used to be a strict enforcement by birth in previous societies although today it is mostly downplayed. It was officially abolished in India in the 1940’s. I’m not sure what led to its importance in society although it was probably used as some sort of way of creating order in society, even though it was unfair to the lower classes, and bestowed undeserved status upon the higher classes.

Castes are still used to arrange marriages. Parents of the same class will often get together to marry off their children. Even though in the west we think we don’t do the same, we do. It’s just not intentional nor reinforced culturally. According to most sociological studies, most people marry within the same class. The “rags to riches” story is romanticized in the west but occurs rarely. 

Yoga

Yoga is meant to help achieve enlightenment, it is a form of meditation. Salvation (moshka) can be achieved three ways:

  • Karma yog – The way of self-less works. This was described in my previous post about karma. You minimize your bad karma to increase your good karma, and eventually you break the cycle of samsara and your atman merges into Brahman.

  • Jnana/jyana yog – The way way of knowledge. This type of yoga dethrones ignorance and achieves a state of consciousness where we realize our identity with Brahman. It is done through deep meditation as part of yoga.

    This is what we westerners often associate with yoga – deep meditation.

  • Bhakti yog – The way of devotion. This is the self-surrender to one many gods of Hinduism through acts of worship, rituals and pilgrimages. The majority of Hindus practice this mode of Hinduism.

The number of gods in Hinduism

Many websites and sources claim that Hinduism has 330 million gods. While I was researching this, I said “Come on. There is no way anyone could have counted up that many and made a list. It is impossible for a person in a single lifetime to do it, and in the time before computers a team of people couldn’t keep a list of them.”

So where does this number come from?

In the Vedas, 33 deities are listed followed by the Sanskrit word koti which is used for “class” but can also be a number meaning 10 million. Some believe this is a misinterpretation of the actual meaning of the word (i.e., 33 classes of gods vs 33 x 10 million gods). Others think that 330 million is a large number indicating infinity, i.e., there are indefinite forms of Brahman. Still others think that the number 10 million was the largest number the original writers had at the time, and that there were 10 million living things and that all of these living things were representations of Brahman.

In any case, the original Vedas most likely don’t claim 330 million gods but instead that Brahman can be represented many different ways.

This has an analogy in Christianity. In Revelation 9:16, we hear about an army numbering 200 million. Some expositors think that this can only be a reference to China and its huge population base. However, the literal meaning of the phrase comes from a military term – a double myriad of myriads. A myriad can refer to 10,000, and so 10,000 of 10,000 and then doubled is 200 million. However, it is simply a colloquial term for “a lot.”

More in my next post.

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Continuing on in my series about Hinduism, here are some more of my notes.

 

The purpose of life 

In Hinduism, there are four major beliefs which are the purpose of your life:

  1. Dharma

    Dharma means “law”, “teaching”, and “religion”. It is one’s destiny or purpose. It is often defined by vocation or career. If a man’s father is a tire maker, his purpose is to make tires.

    Dharma also means righteousness, or living morally and ethically at all times.

    I found a website that said that Hindus believe they are born into debt to the gods and must repay those debts. I only found it on one website, but these debts are:

    – Debt to the gods for their blessings: Paid by rituals and offerings.

    – Debt to parents and teachers: Paid by supporting them, having children of one’s own and passing along knowledge.

    Debt to guests: Repaid by treating them as if they were gods visiting one’s home.

    – Debt to other human beings: Repaid by treating them with respect.

    – Debt to all other living beings: Repaid by offering good will, food or any other help that is appropriate.

    Looking at these, everything that people do in response to these debts – the actions they produce – are good things. Treating people with respect is good. So is offering good hospitality. In Hinduism, behaving morally is built into the religion as something you need to do.

    Christianity is different. These same behaviors are viewed as moral in Christianity, but whereas in Hinduism they are required to repay your debts, in Christianity they are quasi-optional although this depends on the denomination of Christianity.

    Christian belief is by “faith alone”, that is, what makes you a Christian is what you believe. Afterwards, you are expected to do good works and behave morally. Doing these good works is not required but instead is an outward sign that you have changed and are living your life according to God’s (optional?) moral commands.

    I use the term “optional?” because while you don’t have to do them, if you don’t people will question whether you actually made a commitment to become a Christian since a real Christian “naturally” wants to become more like Christ, and becoming more like Christ means following his teachings which is to behave morally. So they are more than “optional” but not quite “required.” But it’s close.

    It’s complicated, so I’ll move on. The point is that in both religions, good works are required.

    BTW, after learning about dharma, the name Dharma Initiative from the TV show LOST makes no sense. It had nothing to do with this.

  2. Artha

    Artha means Prosperity. It is success in worldly pursuits. While the ultimate goal of Hinduism is enlightenment, pursuit of wealth is seen as appropriate in this lifetime.

    This strongly contrasts from most religions, not just Christianity where the pursuit of wealth is not actively encouraged.

  3. Kama

    Kama means Pleasure, and also means Desire. It is romantic love and sexual pleasure. It is seen as appropriate to pursue.

    This is where the term “kama sutra” comes from.

  4. Moksha

    Moksha means Enlightenment. This is the ultimate goal of Hinduism. It is the liberation from the endless cycles of rebirth (due to reincarnation). It is self-realization or awareness or union with God/ultimate reality (sometimes said to merge into nirvana).

    I did a bunch of reading on this and the descriptions of moksha are vague. It is not exactly like the Christian concept of heaven.

    Once you achieve moksha, you escape limits of worldly existence like time, space, and karma. It is the highest purpose in life, but it is difficult to achieve in a single life time.

More in my next post.

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Continuing on in my series about Hinduism, below are some more of my notes.

Karma

Another one of the central tenets of Hinduism is karma. Even we in the west have some idea what this word means because it makes its way into our vocabulary – “I’m trying to resolve my bad karma.”

In Hinduism, karma is the intentional, moral actions that affect one’s fortunes in this life and the next. It is free will with consequences.

It is Cause-and-effect, that is, a way of explaining evil and misfortune. It explains that people’s bad luck in this life is because of actions they did in a previous life. Karma can affect your class in the next life. Hindus try to minimize their bad karma in this life to get a better next life.

Karma is a fundamental law of nature that is automatic and mechanical. It is not imposed by gods as punishment or reward.

When I think of karma, I contrast it from Christianity, the religion I am most familiar with. I found it hard to wrap my head around karma being a law of nature that is automatic, and not imposed by gods. In Christianity, there is some assertion that bad outcomes in this life are because of punishment by God for one’s actions. There are other Christians who claim that bad actions are not because of one’s actions, but because God is testing people, or not giving them more than they can handle (e.g., natural disasters). However, not all Christians assert this although many say that there is hidden meaning behind suffering.

On the other hand, nearly all Christian denominations do claim that your actions in this life time will affect your next one, just like Hinduism. However, God takes an active role in Christianity by punishing the wicked and imposing suffering (depending on the version of Christianity) whereas in Hinduism the gods do not cause suffering.

In fact, in all of my research I never found any doctrines that state that the Hindu gods do cause human suffering. Maybe it’s in there somewhere and I need to get more familiar with it, it’s just that I didn’t find it.

But on the other hand, I also think that the idea that one’s suffering in this lifetime is due to the cause-and-effect of bad karma is also a weak explanation. It “blames the victim”. My own view is that suffering is complex and has to deal with many environmental factors (overpopulation, living in dangerous places, human violence) that is not easily explained by someone doing something that caused their circumstances (as asserted by Hinduism, and some in Christianity) or that there is a secret purpose to suffering (as claimed by some in Christianity).

More in my next post.

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Continuing on in my series on Hinduism, Hindus have a number of sacred writings.

The most important set of scriptures are the Vedas. There are four main types:

  • Rig Veda, or Royal Knowledge
  • Sama Veda, or Knowledge of Chants
  • Yajur Veda, or Knowledge of Sacrificial Rituals
  • Atharva Veda, or Knowledge of Incarnations

Hindu was mostly an orally transmitted religion for centuries until the Vedas were written down. They are viewed as authoritative but their contents are not really known by most modern Hindus since they were originally written in Sanskrit.

I thought I would say that this contrasts from Christianity, although it’s not true. I think many modern Christians know some parts of the Bible but much of what we know has been transmitted to us by teachers and other Christians (in Catholicism, this is through priests and sacred tradition, whereas in Protestantism it is through ministers). Still, the Vedas are the source of Hindu thought and basis for rituals.

Next up are the Upanishads. These are later-written texts expounding on more ideas and thoughts about spiritual wisdom from the Vedas. They were not just written by priests but instead also contain content from others, such as poets who had flashes of insight.

There are 108 Upanishads (I think; I couldn’t find a source for this), of which 10 are the most important. Most were written between 800 and 400 BC.

Of these, the Mahabharata is the most important. It contains stories and poems and also contains the Bhagavad Gita which is the most famous poem. It is a 2nd century BC poem about the nature of God and of life. It (or maybe the Mahabharata) is sometimes called the fifth veda.

The Bhagavad Gita (or maybe the whole of the Mahabharata) is the most widely read spiritual text; it is a conversation between Krishna and the god Arjun and acts as spiritual guidance for humanity.

Briefly, the Ghagavad Gita tells the story of Krishna and expounds upon Vishnu who had 10 incarnations – a god becoming a being. Whereas in Christianity, God becomes human, in Hinduism, a god becomes a creature known as an avatar. They are not necessarily human. Some are animals, some are human, and some are combinations of the two. Krishna was 9th or 8th avatar of Vishnu, although this depends on how they counted. Rama the one avatar before Krishna. Some Hindus believe Buddha (the founder of Buddhism) was an avatar of Vishnu.

The reason Vishnu incarnated is in response to the struggle between good and evil, to restore the balance when evil started to get the upper hand. In response to this, Vishnu became a physical creature known as an avatar to restore the balance between good and evil. After its purpose was fulfilled, the avatar dies and is absorbed back into Brahman.

Hinduism does not go into a lot of proof about this (which contrasts from the Christian field of apologetics). Some say that the footprints in the sand are invisible.

Hindus also have a belief in the power and authority of the Brahmans class.

This is a priestly class that has the highest rank and authority. Furthemore, individuals called gurus are needed to know the Transcendent Absolute.

Also, the priesthood is less important in rural India. Non-Brahmins carry out rituals and prayers in the local villages.

More in my next post.

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Continuing on in my series about Hinduism, there are a few modern ones that you are familiar with.

Mohtama Gandhi, famous Indian revolutionary who campaigned for change through non-violent resistance:

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M. Night Shymalan, famous movie director with only two good films:

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Dhalsim, famous street fighter:

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That is Hinduism’s present. What about its past? Here’s what I have discovered.

The Origins of Hinduism

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It started at least 1500 BC but some estimate it to goes back to 6500 BC (and every point in between). There are some who claim that it goes back to 10,000 BC. Either way, it’s one of the world’s oldest religions.

Hinduism has no one central founder which differentiates it from many other religions. On the other hand, this may contribute to the many different versions of it (although, to be fair, there are many different versions of Christianity even though it has a fairly narrow set of founds).

Hinduism is both a culture and a religion. It started in the Indus River Valley in India. “Hindu” is the Anglicized name given my European explorers; the religion does not name itself.

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Doctrines

There is no formal set of Hindu doctrines similar to the way Christianity does. For example, while Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity have major differences, they also have agreement on many things. However, Hindus do agree on some things:

  • Tolerance – All religions are genuine paths to understanding, no one religion is totally correct. Thus, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are genuine paths to understanding. They are different versions of getting to the truth.

  • Life is sacred – Because all life is sacred, they are non-violent. I don’t know how well they practice this, but this is reflected in Gandhi’s social movements during the 1960’s through 1980’s.

  • Concept of God – Hindus believe there is an all-encompassing impersonal power known as Brahman and all other gods are representations of this god.

    I sort of liken this to pantheism – the belief that “god is in all” – as opposed to theism – “there is a god separate and distinct from the universe. Earlier versions of Hinduism had elements of henotheism which is a belief in many gods but there there is one that is the most powerful.

    Brahman is "the eternal, conscious, irreducible, infinite, omnipresent, spiritual source of the universe of finiteness and change.”

  • Concept of gods – The main or highest gods (called “devas”, which are personal representations of the impersonal Brahman) believed in by Hindus are Brahma, the creator (not Brahman); Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer (yet sometimes compassionate because he/it creates anew. You must destroy an old building in order to construct a new one).

  • Denominations – Hinduism is divided into different denominations. The main ones are Saivism (Shiva is God), Shaktism (Goddess Shakti is supreme), Vaishnavism (Vishnu is God) and Smartism (more for liberals – you can pick your own path).

    Each denomination has its own sages, rituals, and temples but more or less agree on the basics.

    Rama and Krishna (popular names I was previously familiar with) are popular incarnations of the Divine (Vishnu).

  • Doctrine of Spiritual Competence – Hinduism grants its practitioners the freedom to choose or invent a form of Brahman that satisfies one’s spiritual cravings.

  • The nature of reality – Hinduism further breaks down into believing (1) the physical universe is reality, or (2) the universe is an illusion (maya).

    Nondualists believe that Brahman is real and the world is illusory (this strongly contrasts from western physics).

    Qualified dualists believe that Brahman is real and the universe is an extension of Brahman.

    Dualists believe that Brahman and the universe are distinct.

  • Reincarnation

    Reincarnation is one of the key concepts in Hinduism. The ultimate goal of Hindus is the release (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation (samsara). That is, Hindus believe that the soul (atman) continues to reincarnate, moving from one life to the next; this is called samsara. Breaking this cycle of reincarnation is called moksha.

    This cycle is called the purification of atman. In addition, Brahman and atman are in some sense the same. There is a saying in Hinduism: the air outside the jar is the same as the air inside of it.

    This concept of reincarnation Hinduism is reflected in its stories about the origin of the world. The world (or universe?) has gone through numerous cycles of birth, death and rebirth, and this was activated by one of the gods.

More in my next post.

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