The Concept of Nirvana


by Jayaram V

Summary: The historical origin and concept of Nirvana (Nibbana) in Hinduism and Buddhism and what it means from different perspectives.

Nirvana is the final goal, the end of all spiritual journeys. It is a journey from which no one returns after departing from here to tell you what it is or what it means. It is as if they have forever entered a different dimension with which we cannot communicate by any means. Those who have experienced it and still alive may not share the experience with others to avoid causing confusion and preconceived notions. The concept is unique to the religious traditions of India, not just Buddhism.

The Buddha did not coin the word. He used a preexisting concept to explain the enlightenment which he experienced under the Bodhi Tree. The roots of Nirvana are in Sanskrit, the Vedic culture and its associated ascetic traditions. Long before the Buddha, the ascetic people of ancient India knew the concept of final liberation and used different names to describe it. Of them, Nirvana was one. The Buddha suggested that Nirvana was a state of peace, joy and happiness which arises in the absence of desires, seeking and striving. It is the state of a monk who reached the end of his spiritual journey and experienced bliss and freedom.

However, no one knows with certainty what happens to that awakened monk after his death. The Buddha, who discouraged speculation on many subjects to avoid confusion and distraction, did not elaborate much upon that aspect of Nirvana. He felt that speculation upon the state of Nirvana was not going to help people resolve their suffering or achieve the desired end. He briefly wanted them to know what it was, without going too deep into the details. The Buddhist path begins with the awareness of the Dhamma, continues with the practice of Eightfold Path and living with mindfulness, and ends with Nirvana or the final dissolution. There is nothing after that. Therefore, some believe it is a journey into nothingness.

The meaning of Nirvana

The literal meaning of Nirvana is blowing out, putting out or extinguishing a lamp or fire. In ancient Vedic society, fire was central to religious practice since all offerings were to be made to gods through fire only. Householders were obliged to maintain four or five types of domestic fires at specific places in their houses to perform daily sacrifices and other rituals. Those fires were to be continuously kept alive by all means. If for any reason they died down, the head of the householder had to ritually rekindle them according to a well-established procedure.

The Vedic tradition encouraged people to practice Varnashrama Dharma, according to which every upper caste male who chose to lead the life of a householder had to pass through four designated phases of life namely, Brahmacharya (life as a celibate student), Grihasta (life as a householder), Vanaprastha (life as a forest dweller) and Sanyasa (life as a renunciant).

It was customary for householders to renounce the use of fire and extinguish domestic fires before taking up Sanyasa or the fourth stage of Varnashrama Dharma. That path of Nirvana (life without the use of fire) eventually led to the extinguishing of all the fires in the body, the fires of desires, delusion, greed, envy, hatred, lust, etc., and eventually to liberation. When these fires are extinguished, one experiences peace, happiness and contentment, and become stable minded (sthitibhuta), which according to the Buddha is the state of Nirvana or of those who attain it.

Nirvana has several other meanings. Generally speaking, it means the end of everything. In a simple sense, it means death, cessation, dissolution or disappearance. Nirvana is anything that signals the end of something or everything. For example, in a limited sense the sunset also qualifies as nirvana. In a spiritual sense, it means the end of individuality, beingness, personality or individual existence.

Nirvana is also used to refer to the state of ecstasy. Hence, unfortunately it is often misused to denote the hallucinatory states caused by the use of intoxicating chemicals and drugs. That kind of tamasic nirvana does not resolve suffering, but intensifies it to the point it becomes self-destructive.

The state of Nirvana

In Buddhism Nirvana denotes the state of freedom in which all desires are extinguished and suffering becomes resolved. It arises when the mind is freed from its effluents (asava) and afflictions (klesas). Hence, it may be construed as a state of supreme calm which is free from seeking, striving, suffering and struggling. According to Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha explained the state of Nirvana in the following words.

“There is that dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support (mental object). This, just this, is the end of stress.”

Nirvana is also a state of perfection, especially moral and mental perfection, which results from the practice of self-transformative techniques such as the Eightfold Path, austerities, different types of yogas or the practice of yamas and niyamas (rules and restraints). As the impurities or the defilements of the mind and body are totally resolved on the path, the seeker cultivates discernment and freedom from desires and attachments whereby he learns to see things as they are and avoid the snares of life. Thus, Nirvana is distinguished by four special qualities namely bliss or happiness, perfection, realization or insight, and freedom from all fetters and suffering.

In many traditions of Indian origin, the state of Nirvana is further characterized by the following attributes.

  • Absence of egoism, fear, individuality, personality, duality, attraction and aversion
  • Freedom from death and rebirth or from Samsara (bondage to the cycle of births and deaths).
  • Complete satisfaction, supreme happiness or bliss, which arises when the mind is freed from the afflictions and modifications.
  • Complete freedom from association, relationship or attachment, whereby one alone remains.
  • Tranquility, equanimity, sameness, oneness and transcendence which are difficult to explain since they are ungraspable by the mind and the senses.

Nirvana is not a dramatic experience in which one sees lightning, heavenly images and flashes of brilliance or hears thunderous noise and sweet music, but an auspicious state of peace, beatitude and quietude in which one is no more troubled by what happens within and without. A person who attained that state may not show any visible signs of it and remain calm and composed with humility in the presence of others.

Alternate terms

Nirvana is also known by different names. The following are well known ones.

  1. Moksha: The state without ignorance, delusion and duality.
  2. Mukti or Vimukti: Freedom or liberation
  3. Kaivalya: Aloneness or oneness.
  4. Vimochana: Final release.
  5. Visarga: Dissolution

Associated words

The following are a few important words and concepts which are associated with Nirvana or the concept of liberation

  • Nirmana: Construction or coming into formation as opposed to Nirvana which is destruction or dissolution.
  • Niryana: Death, leaving, going away. Sometime loosely used to mean final liberation.
  • Samvega: Restlessness which prompts a person to search for truth or seek liberation.
  • Mumukshatva: Desire or longing for liberation.
  • Jnanodayam: Enlightenment or the flowering of true knowledge
  • Vairagya: Detachment or dispassion.
  • Sanyasa: Renunciation of desires and attachments.
  • Muktimarg: The path which leads to liberation.
  • Samadhi: Self-absorption.
  • Prajna: Insight or true discernment
  • Bodhijnana: The knowledge or insight which leads to enlightenment.
  • Avidya: Ignorance.
  • Sati (Vipasana or Anapana) : Mindfulness

The factors, which lead to Nirvana

The Buddha identified seven factors which lead to Nirvana. They are known as the limbs of enlightenment (bodhi angas), which are listed below.

  1. The fourfold Mindfulness (sati) namely of body, feelings, mind and mental objects.
  2. True enquiry into Dharma (dharma vichara) to gain clarity, right awareness and understanding.
  3. Tireless energy (virya) so that one can be active and attentive with resolve and right attitude even when subsisting on light food.
  4. The mental state of contentment and happiness (priti) which is not associated with pleasures.
  5. Physical and mental tranquility (passaddhi) which is attained by practising self-control and right living.
  6. Concentration (samadhi) which leads to discernment or the clarity to see things as they are as the mind becomes stable.
  7. Equanimity (upeksha) sameness, indifference or freedom from attraction and aversion which is cultivated through detachment.

According to Hinduism a person achieves liberation when he overcomes the following

  1. Desires and attachments (trishna and pasa)
  2. Egoism (anavatva), which manifests as separation, selfishness, self-centeredness, envy, greed, pride, anger, fear, etc.
  3. Ignorance (ajnana) of the true nature of Self, creation, God, and true knowledge).
  4. Delusion (moha), which is mistaking truth for falsehood and vice versa due to lack of discernment (buddhi kusalata).
  5. Predominance of one or more gunas (guna pravritti) namely sattva, rajas and tamas.
  6. Past karmas (karma phala sanga), which bind the soul to the cycle of births and deaths.
  7. Worldliness (vishayasakti) or involvement with the material world and sense objects.

What happens to a person after Nirvana?

This question is not adequately answered in Buddhism. Buddhists believe that whether a person exists or not exists after attaining Nirvana is immaterial to the people who are subject to suffering and bondage and who are striving to attain perfection on the Eightfold Path, since such knowledge does not help them in any way to resolve their suffering or experience peace and happiness.

The Buddhist texts suggest that the state of the liberated person after death is immeasurable and indescribable, just as one cannot explain what happens to the fire after it is extinguished. (Does it exist or not exist or exist but not exist or exist elsewhere? ) The human mind cannot simply grasp the state which is attained when a liberated person passes away because the mind has no knowledge of it and no way to understand it The incomprehensibility is not only a problem of logic but also the limitation of the mind to grasp an ungraspable state or concepts.

Inspite of such difficulties, the Buddhist texts distinguish the ordinary death (marana) of a person from the death (parinirvana) of an enlightened master (arhant). Both are not the same because the enlightened person (arhant) does not truly die but passes into an indescribable and incomprehensible state, which is also the state of the unborn (ajata). Whether he exists as an entity or as the primordial soup, that question no one answers with certainty.

In Hinduism, you will find different opinions and explanations regarding the state of the liberated person when he departs from the body. The following are two main possibilities.

  • The liberated Self merges into Brahman just as a wave subsides into the ocean since only Brahman is true and the individual Self is just an appearance or a projection.
  • It travels to the world of Brahman by the path of gods (devayana) and lives there forever as a liberated soul (mukta) with omniscience or all-knowing awareness. Although it has a separate existence, it is forever connected to Brahman through the same Bhava (state or consciousness) as his very Self and is never subjected rebirth or bondage again.

Nirvana and the Quantum mind

Out of their enthusiasm to find parallels between modern science and ancient religious and philosophical ideas, some free thinkers prefer to equate the state of Nirvana with the state of quantum mind. However, quantum mind is a vague term, which no one can explain adequately. Besides, according to quantum physics it is a theoretical impossibility. If you truly understand what a quantum state is, you will realize that the idea of quantum mind is a paradox, and cannot exist as a definable and identifiable entity in the quantum world. The quantum state is the state of quanta or particle state, in which matter is reduced to its minutest aspect. (What can be the particle state of a thought, feeling or emotion in the quantum mind? Can they still be deciphered?)

It is also an indeterminate state, because until the particles are excited or activated no one knows where they exist or whether they exist at all. The behavior of the particles is also unstable, whereas nirvana is believed to be free from modifications and formations. Nirvana is a stateless state which cannot be excited or activated into any other state or reduced into objectivity, whereas quanta can be excited into an active state and made to interact with other particles to produce reactions and altered states.

Thus, while the name quantum mind seems fashionable and modern, it does not truly describe the state of Nirvana. Perhaps at some point all matter may resolve itself into quantum state, but it is difficult to imagine that there will be identifiable entities within that primordial sphere or that only an enlightened monk becomes dissolved into a quantum state and the rest of the matter does not. If everyone eventually ends up there, there is no need for Nirvana.

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