Basic Concepts of Hinduism
Atman – in order to understand the Hindu world-view it is essential to grasp this first and foundational concept. Atman refers to the non-material self, which never changes. It is distinct from both the mind and the body. This real self is beyond the temporary designations we normally ascribe to ourselves, in terms of race, gender, species and nationality. Consciousness, wherever it is found (in other words not only human beings), is considered a symptom of the soul, and without it the body has no awareness. In short the atman or individual soul is spirit (Brahman), unchanging, eternal and conscious while the body is material, temporary and unconscious. At death the soul is carried within the subtle (astral) body into another body. The next body is determined by the state of mind at death, and by the soul’s desires and deserts.
Samsara – or cycle of reincarnation refers to the process of passing from one body to another throughout all species of life. Hindus believe that consciousness is present in all life forms, even fish and plants. However, though the soul is present in all species, its potential is exhibited to different degrees. In aquatics and plants it is most “covered”, practically asleep, whereas in humans it is most alert. This progression of consciousness is manifest throughout 6 broad “classes of life”, namely 1) aquatics, 2) plants, 3) insects and reptiles, 4) birds, 5) animals and 6) humans. Most Hindus consider samsara essentially painful, a cycle of 4 recurring problems: birth, disease, old-age and death.
Karma – The universal law of karma (action and reaction) determines each soul’s unique destiny. The self-determination and accountability of the individual soul rests on its capacity for free choice. This is exercised only in the human form. Whilst in lower species, the atman takes no moral decisions but is instead bound by instinct. Therefore, although all species of life are subject to the reactions of past activities, such karma is generated only while in the human form. Human life alone is a life of responsibility. The Bhagavd Gita categorizes karma, listing 3 kinds of human actions: 1) Karma; those which elevate, 2) Vikarma: those which degrade and 3) Akarma: those which create neither good nor bad reactions and thus lead to liberation.