SAMSARA IN HINDUISM: The Secret of the Boat Ride


The concept of Samsara in Hinduism explained by an ancient story recited by Lord Krishna. The story explains the meaning of Samsara beautifully.

Samsara in Hinduism

In Sanskrit, Samsara comes from the word “wandering” and the interpretation of Samsara is done as “wandering around the world in a cyclic pattern.”

Hinduism teaches us that the body is made of the 5 elements of nature and is perishable. The soul inhabits the body due to its past karma and then continues its journey in different bodies across many births to fulfill the unresolved desires which keep on arising due to the illusory identification of the soul with the body. This is called Samsara.

Samsara hinduism meaningThus Samsara in Hinduism refers to the cycle of life and birth that the soul undergoes in various bodies; the soul wanders across the mortal world in different incarnations getting caught in a mesh of karma and desires.

The liberation from Samsara is called Moksha.

 In Srimad Bhagavatam, Shri Krishna explains the truth about Samsara by reciting a parable about a boat ride.

THE BOAT RIDE: Meaning of Samsara

“You do not remember, but a long time ago, you had found yourself standing along a river bank. You saw a river in front of you with water as sparkling as a blue sapphire. The river was gently curving surrounded by dense forests and your mind was enticed by seeing the diverse, colorful flowers mounted on the rocks in the water. A cool breeze was flowing on the tranquil water and there were various species of birds and butterflies flying over the surface of the river.

There arose a desire in you to cross the river and get to the other side. As soon as you willed, a boat appeared in the river. The boat was sturdy and was being steered by five oarsmen.

You got in the boat and began your journey. The five oarsmen were guides par excellence and they made your journey delightful by regaling you with different stories and making you experience different things along the journey. Sometimes, the ride was peaceful and sometimes turbulent waves shook the boat.

Finally the journey came to an end, and the five oarsmen, who had become dearer to you than your own life, dropped you on the other side of the river and departed.

By the veil of illusion, you forgot about the journey as soon as you stepped out of the boat and you again found yourself standing on a river bank. Again, you saw a river in front of you with water as sparkling as a blue gem. Again, there arose a desire in you to cross the river. Again, a new boat with a new set of five oarsmen appeared. Again you took the same journey through a different route. You reached the other end, the oarsmen departed, and like before, you forgot about the journey.

You were again standing on the river bank and there arose a desire to cross the river. You are still standing on the same river bank.  Some of you have taken this journey a million times, and some of you a thousand times.

Interpretation of the Story: Samsara meaning

The journey is what we call life, the two river banks are life and death for this particular incarnation. The five oarsmen are our own five senses, and the boat is the body in this birth. The senses take us through the same repetitive cycle, delighting or frustrating us with perceived observations, and we are caught in a web of attraction and repulsion. This web is known as Samsara.

In every age or kalpa, there is that rare soul,who is able to achieve to break the shackles of Samsara. This soul, mid-way through the boat ride is able to pierce through the veil of illusion and realizes that there is actually no need to make this journey. This seeker makes his or her mind firm, bids farewell to the extremely persuasive oarsmen and takes a leap of faith in the cool stream leaving the boat. He or she will never be standing along the river bank again. Such a person is called enlightened. For the stream between the two shores of life and death is the realm of pure consciousness.

The one who devoid of fear, stops getting swayed by the senses and begins self-inquiry by trying to understand the truth, will experience this stream of pure consciousness. The immersion into the pure consiousness and detachment from the body is called liberation from Samsara.

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