Infinite Reincarnation


This series of activities helps students come to grips with the concept of samsara in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Background Information


Students who grew up in Western cultures often think of reincarnation (when they think of it at all) in terms of a small, finite number of reincarnations (e.g. 5 past lives). But, to truly grasp the concept of samsara and the role it plays in motivating striving towards moksha or nirvana, these students must re-conceptualize reincarnation. This activity helps students to do so.


The main component of this activity is an essay, although it could easily be converted into a discussion.

Texts / Connections

Relevant texts:

  • The Upanishads

  • The Bhagavad Gita

  • The Dhammapada

Activity Plan

Select verses and words from the desired texts (see Additional Documents for further examples. For example, from the Isha Upanishad:


“The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all.
The Lord is the supreme Reality.
Rejoice in him through renunciation.
Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord.”

Or, from the Katha Upanishad:

“The immature run after sense pleasures
And fall into the widespread net of death.
But the wise, knowing the Self as deathless,
Seek not the changeless in the world of change.”

Students are assigned one of the bolded words. They should write an essay that:

  • explains the verse in the context of the overall text

  • discusses how major concepts in the text are are work in the verse

  • analyzes the assigned word - what synonyms could have been used instead and how would they have changed the meaning?

Students are told that this is "their word" for this lifetime - if they keep studying the text, one word per lifetime, by the time they get through all of the words, they might finally be starting to begin to make progress towards moksha.

Assigning several students to the same word can help facilitate future class projects.

Variations / Extensions


Group discussions after students have turned in their papers can be helpful:

  • group discussions for all students assigned the same word, so that students can see how their peers tackled the same project

  • group discussions for students who were assigned the same verse but different words, so they can see a deeper complexity in the verse


As a class warm-up challenge, ask students to draw their assigned word. Tell them they are allowed to use the English version of Sanskrit words that might be relevant ("Upanishad", "karma", etc.), but otherwise they are not allowed to write on the paper. Then, without talking, they must find the other students who have been assigned the same word.


Seth Robertson (University of Oklahoma)