Concept of Samsakars and Modern Biology
Submitted / Updated On: Thursday, May 8, 2008 | Written By: Rajiv Krishna Saxena | Hits since Feb 1, 2014: 8991
In this short article, I would like to present a biologist’s view point about the concept of samsakaras in ancient Indian thoughts. There seems to be no good equivalence of the Sanskrit word “samsakara” in English. No language is perfect, especially when it comes to expressing ideas derived from alien cultures. Ideas that have purely arisen from Indian culture may adequately be expressed in Indian language, but equivalence words may not exist in languages of other cultures where such ideas were alien. Consider for example words like that have no English equivalent. Similarly, there are a large number of English words for which there are no original Sanskrit or Hindi equivalent words. See for example “engine, commode, motor, polymer, Sodium”.
Richness of vocabulary of a language indicates the affinity of that culture to specific ideas. In last several centuries, there has been a mind boggling progress in basic sciences like Physics, Chemistry and Biology in the West. Technical and scientific vocabulary has therefore grown very rapidly in English. Comparable growth in science and technology did not occur in the India. Hindi and other Indian languages therefore do not have most of these scientific and technical words and therefore lately we are adopting technical and scientific English words as such in our languages.
In ancient times when Sanskrit evolved, thinkers in our culture were pre-occupied with spiritual matters. Indeed as a culture, we are still fascinated by spiritual matters, more so than the western cultures. Vivekananda said that different cultures have distinct roles to play in the world community and India has a prominent role in the community of nations as a spiritual teacher. The ideas of Dharma and pursuit of Truth were central to Indians. India has always been a fertile ground for the birth of a wide variety of philosophies (Darshanas) about the nature of universe and the Ultimate Truth. As a result, Sanskrit has a remarkably rich vocabulary in this area as compared to Western languages like English. For this reason, Sanskrit is also referred to as the language of Gods.
Samsakara is a word that is used to explain the tendencies of a human being to act or behave in a particular way, to have affinity for certain types of work and to be predisposed to certain ideas. The concept of Samsakara is intimately linked with the Hindu belief of cycles of rebirths. Hindus believe that at the time of death, a sukshama sharira (fine body) comprising the Atman and Tannmatras carrying imprints of lives lived so far, leaves the body and acquires a new body in the womb of a pregnant woman, to start a new life. The child born according to Hindus therefore does not enter the world with a clean slate. The child carries the burden of accumulated good and bad deeds (sanchita karma) of previous lives and rewards and punishments for the same are mated out in the current and the future lives. It is believed that the accumulated deeds and samsakaras from previous lives determine where the child will be born and what type of parents and family he or she would have. The family should be such that it is appropriate for living a life where destined rewards and punishments can be experienced. Some samsakaras are also received from parents.
It is difficult to interpret the idea of samsakaras from the view point of modern science, especially biology. In biology, an individual’s character is believed to be derived from two main determinants. These are Nature and the Nurture. By Nature we mean the natural instincts that the individual is born with. Nurture refers to the role of upbringing and environmental factors on the personality of the individual. Nature is basically concerned about survival and proliferation of a species. Natural instincts are therefore always geared to assure survival of the species and to facilitate its proliferation. As per modern biology, innate behavior is determined by genetic make up of the living being. Genes of a given individual inherited from both parents assure survival and reproduction. A very similar concept of “Abhinivesh” has been described in sutra 9 of the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Darshana.
This sutra can be expended in translation as follows1:
The ever present fear of death
Wise and fools alike, pervades
That instinct along with life one gets
is Abhinivesh that never fades
Every living being, be it a mighty elephant of a tiny insect, runs to save its life when any danger is perceived. Where do this knowledge and the fear of death come from? We generally learn things by experience. But living beings do not have this experience of death. As per Hindu thoughts, this experience of death may not have occurred in this life but is a behavior learnt in previous lives and inherited as samsakaras. While biology has no concept of previous lives, it explains innate behavior patterns as mechanisms that have been encoded in genes. Thus instincts can be considered as behavior patterns encoded in genes, learnt over millions of years of evolution. Abhinivesh is one such instinct for survival. What biologists consider as evolution can perhaps be equated with cycles of rebirths of Hindus and samsakaras received from parents may perhaps in some way be equated with the modern day genes.
There is however a yet another class of samsakaras about which biology has no clue whatsoever. These are the samsakaras that determine where a sukshama sharira would find new birth. Consider following dialog between Arjuna and Lord Krishna in Gita2:
In this conversation Arjuna asks about the fait of those yogis who have gotten distracted and could not complete their search for Truth in their life times. “Do such Yogis get destroyed just as a cloud in the sky disperses?” asks Arjuna. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that such an unsuccessful Yogi does not get destroyed. Due to their samsakaras such yogis take rebirth in the families of wise seekers of Truth. Practice of yoga that the yogi had been carrying out in previous lives, push them back on the path of Yoga in their present life also and they eventually find God.
This proposed mechanism of influence of samsakaras of previous lives is totally beyond the comprehension of modern biology. It is clear that carrying over the impressions of past lives cannot be through genes because genes are derived from parents. Biology cannot even start contemplation on this question because the nature of Atman and suksham sharira is not known. Scientists are trained to develop a healthy skepticism as well as a open mind about any possibilities. Thus a scientist can all together refuse to recognize the idea of an Atman, suksham sharira and rebirths. Yet the possibility exists that in future progress in science may enable us to understand the concept of Atman and sukshma sharira. The latter may exist in the realm of levels of organization of matter that we do not understand as yet.
A comparative view of the structure of matter from the point of view of modern Physics and Samkhya Yoga Darshana of Kapil muni are given in Table 1. While the modern Physics view has been evolved and proven by scientific experimentation, the Samkhya view of matter has been described by Yogis3 and is beyond experimental scrutiny. There are unanswered questions in both views. May be one day we shall understand more about both views and may be at a certain level of organization of matter, we may discover Atman and the vehicle for carrying samsakaras.
Table 1: Comparative views of Samkhya Yoga dershana and modern science on the structure of matter
No equivalence of stages in right and left columns of the table, is implied.
1. Saxena, R.K. (2005) Metered Hindi translation of Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Yoga Darshana (unpublished work of the author).
2. Saxena, R.K. (2004) in “Gita Kavya Madhuri”, a translation of Gita into metered Hindi verses , Second Edition, Pustak Mahal, New Delhi
3. Pandit Raja Ram Shastry (1906) Yoga Darshanam (Hindi Bhashya) Arya Pradeshik Pratinidhi Sabha, Lahore.