Saṃsāra refers to the cycle of death and rebirth. It is the natural cycle of creation, maintenance, and dissolution that all material things undergo.
For nearly all philosophical systems stemming from the Indian subcontinent, the true self is viewed as pure awareness. It is eternal and categorically different from all material things, although in each cycle of saṃsāra, it inhabits a material body and appears within one of the various species of life, including aquatics, plants, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, and humans. According to the dharmic traditions, the type of material body the self experiences is due to karma, which is the concept that one’s birth, life experiences, and life span are the result of deeds previously performed.
Because the true self is eternal, the “natural” cycle of saṃsāra is viewed as wholly unnatural to the true nature of the self. After all, how can the individual sentenced to death, but offered a last meal before the execution, enjoy that meal? In light of the fragility and impermanence of life, how can we find lasting happiness?
Grounded in the belief that saṃsāra is a cycle of birth and death imposed upon the true self, most spiritual systems of India, such as Yoga and Vedānta, concern themselves with removing this imposition by various spiritual practices, such as meditation, study, and devotion. Success in spiritual practice is said to confer mokṣa, or liberation from saṃsāra. Failure to attain mokṣa results in reincarnation, that is, consciousness is made flesh again in another round of life and the struggle for existence, that always culminates in death.
Saṃsāra as a concept calls upon one to examine what is truly important in life. In other words, it raises the question, what is ultimately meaningful if everything is ultimately impermanent? The answers to this question, either inherited or investigated deeply, largely influence the trajectory of one’s life and, possibly, the life to come. Thus, while the movement towards mokṣa may be gradual, each life contains the possibility for awakening and liberation.