An ancient Sanskrit term, nirvana has been translated into distinct words in all languages where Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism have been traditionally practiced: Pali, Prakrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Burmese, Chinese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Thai. It is thus a belief of half the world’s humans.
Nirvana literally means snuffing out a fire, either by blowing it out or by removing the items that feed the flames. It was adopted as a religious metaphor for the extinguishing of human passions. Passion, in Asiatic philosophical religiosity, is the reason humans become miserable, and it is the cause of karmic recycling of souls in reincarnation. Removal of passion is elimination of the combustible material that produces suffering and samsara.
Nirvana represents the ultimate spiritual goal of Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. It is not the same as moksha. Moksha is escape from reincarnation. Nirvana is an after-moksha, post-carnal, destination.
In Hinduism, after the soul (atman) is permanently released (moksha) from reincarnation (samsara), it achieves nirvana by blissfully dissolving into The Absolute, the One thing that actually exists. Immediately before nirvana, all the karmic accretions of past lives are burned off, and the soul is everlastingly liberated into its ultimate place. Hindu nirvana is not like the Christian or Islamic heaven where individuals persist as individuals, like fish within an ocean. Rather, to continue the marine analogy, in nirvana the soul is like a grain of salt dissolved into an already salty sea.
Notwithstanding Hindu and Buddhist repudiation of personal immortality, everyone can understand that personal immortality is a sexy idea.
Buddha may have believed personal immortality was an egotistical fantasy, but some Buddhists living in subsequent eras could not resist the appeal of a heaven where, precisely, individual souls live on and on unencumbered by flesh and bones. Pure Land Buddhism, for instance, espouses belief in a heavenly post-mortem destination: a pure, spotless, land of personal ecstasy.
Westerners might understand this need to tweak Buddha’s notion of nirvana. It might be less easy for Westerners to understand religions that do not rest upon the promise of personal immortality (some version of Judaism have no afterlife belief too).
But wouldn’t nirvana as the end of suffering be enough?
For that matter, wouldn’t death be enough?
Featured image ‘To sleep, to dream’ by Nigel Paine via Flickr