The Meaning of Nirvana


by Jayaram V

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What is Nirvana?

To understand what Nirvana is or what Nirvana means, you should have some knowledge of eastern religions or philosophies, especially Sanatana Dharma, known as Hinduism, Buddha Dharma known as Buddhism, and Jain Dharma known as Jainism.

The word "Nirvana is commonly used in all the three religions to denotes the state of liberation, the end of suffering, in the mortal world. However, its interpretation and methods or paths or approaches to achieve it may vary according to the basic tenets of each.

Before we begin the discussion, let us look at the literal meaning of Nirvana, which is a Sanskrit word. Literally speaking, Nirvana means blowing out or putting out or extinguishing a lamp or fire. It was the tradition in ancient India to put out the domestic fires before one began the journey of renunciation and asceticism (sanyasa). It signaled the end of worldly life and the beginning of a life of renunciation, non-seeking and non-striving.

Nirvana also means extinction, the absolute and final extinction or annihilation of all desires, individuality and attachment. Nirvana was thus an appropriate word to described the existence of an ascetic who stopped cooking food, keeping fire and subsisted on what Nature provided as a discarded material, until he extinguished his body through slow starvation and, in the end, life itself.

In philosophical or spiritual terms, Nirvana signifies the end of such an austere effort. It refers to the state of non-existence, non-becoming and non-beingness resulting from the annihilation of beingness and individuality at the end of a long and arduous spiritual effort.

Everyone who is familiar with these three traditions, agrees that Nirvana is an indescribable state. So, whatever I am going to say will have exceptions and objections. Since, we can only speculate about Nirvana, and no one who enters into the state of Nirvana can really come back and tell us what it is, I would not find fault with those who speak differently about this state.

At the most fundamental and universal level, there are primarily two phenomena: existence and non-existence. They are also called real and unreal, the manifested and the unmanifested, beingness and non-beingness. These expressions are not the same, although fundamentally they refer to the same states of duality.

The three traditions, which I have named before, namely Sanatana Dharma, Buddha Dharma and Jain Dharma, view them differently because of their unique views on the nature of existence, creation, God and soul.

According to Buddhism, as the Buddha preached it originally in India, beings come into existence from nowhere, due to the aggregation of things and elements. No one creates them. They just happen to fall into place through a mysterious binding process and lo you have a phenomenal universe full of animate and inanimate objects. Thus existence, beingness, personality manifests from a state of emptiness (sunya) or non-existence or nothingness through a process of aggregations.

Once they come into existence, beings begin to desire for things and indulge in seeking and striving which results in further aggregation, accumulation, karma, bondage, delusion, births and deaths. Through desires beings are subjected to the process of becoming, being, change and further becoming.

Thus, beingness, desires, becoming, bondage, these are the states of existence. All these are impermanent states. Existence itself is impermanent. There is no soul, but a state of beingness which goes through birth and rebirths. This goes on, until the aggregates are dispersed through purification, detachment and renunciation. What happens at the end of this journey is returning to the state of non-becoming, non-beingness, non-existence or emptiness, which is Nirvana.

Thus existence is more or less like a bubble. Nirvana is the bursting of it. The bubble appears from nowhere and then disappears into nowhere. What you see in the middle is a mere drama, a mirage, a mere illusion, a temporary flux of seeking, striving and suffering.

According to Sanatana Dharma, Nirvana is a state of liberation, an indescribable, indestructible and eternal state of bliss.

The scriptures of Hinduism also speak about existence, non-existence, beingness and non-beingness, becoming and non-becoming. But their interpretation is different. They view these as the dualities of one eternal principle called Brahman, who is extolled in the Vedas as the highest, universal Supreme Self.

This Brahman, largely remains unmanifested. Then, a part of Him wakes up or comes into existence and become subject to becoming and being. The Vedas hint that this happens because of the stirring of a primal desire, the desire to be, to have, to become and to enjoy.

In other words, existence does not spring from emptiness or nothingness but from an eternal God who is both Being and Non-Being, Manifested and Unmanifested, Existence and Non-existence. He manifests Himself and the entire creation through aggregation of things and elements only and perpetuates them through desires, attachments, bondage, delusion, births and rebirths.

Thus, according to Sanatana Dharma, beingness and becoming happen by design and according to the will of Creator God. They come to an end only when the beings strive to overcome their desires and karma and achieve liberation.

Thus, in Hinduism, Nirvana signals the end of becoming and beingness and return to the pristine and eternal state of pure existence, characterized by non-becoming and non-beingness.

Jain Dharma also recognizes the dual states of existence, non-existence, beingness and non-beingness, becoming and non-becoming, but view the entire process in individual terms as the states of individual souls in varying states of bondage and liberation.

This is again because Jainism does not recognize a universal creator God, but only the eternal existence of individual souls, who during every cycle of creation become subject to desires, delusion, becoming and being, which results in their karma, bondage and the cycle of births and deaths. When beings manage to arrest these processes, through self-purification and intense austerities, they return to their original, pristine eternal state of aloneness and remain in the highest sphere of the universe as pure souls.

Thus, Nirvana in Jainism signifies the state of aloneness (kaivalya), awareness, liberation and purity.

Thus, we have three fundamental views of Nirvana.

  1. Nirvana - Emptiness, nothingness, a state of non-becoming and non-beingness.
  2. Nirvana - An eternal and independent state of non-becoming and non-beingness.
  3. Nirvana - An independent, lonely and liberated state of non-becoming and non-beingness.

The Buddha wanted his followers to experience Nirvana rather than debate and speculate about it. He largely remained silent about its nature. Therefore we do not know whether the state of Nirvana is also a state pure consciousness and all knowing awareness.

However, according to Hinduism and Jainism, the state of liberation is characterized by both these also, namely pure consciousness and all knowing awareness.

Bhagavadgita Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V Avaialbe in USA/UK/DE/FR/ES/IT/NL/PL/SC/JP/CA/AU

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