Universalism in Various Religions: The Dharmic Faiths

Last time, we looked at universalism in the Abrahamic faiths.  In this post, I want to look at universalism in the Dharmic religions.  The Dharmic faiths are the great religions which originated in the Indian subcontinent, stemming ultimately from the ancient beliefs of the Indo-Aryan peoples.  The oldest of these is the religion we refer to  as Hinduism, traditionally known to its adherents as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal religion”.  From Hinduism gradually developed the Śramaṇa movement, which developed eventually into Buddhism and Jainism.  The most recent of the Dharmic faiths, Sikhism, came into being in the 15th Century, evolving from the branch of Hinduism known as the Sant Mat movement.

All of the Dharmic religions share certain basic concepts.  Chief among them are

  1. The idea of an eternal universe that goes through infinite cycles of creation, evolution, decline, and dissolution
  2. Many levels of existence beyond the earthly
  3. A belief in reincarnation or rebirth, in which beings take on numerous lives in numerous realms
  4. A belief in karma, the principle by which one’s actions are requited, for good or for ill, in the present life and/or future lives
  5. Finally, a belief that beings can ultimately end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) through proper spiritual practice

Having laid our the similarities, let’s look at the religions individually.


Hinduism posits numerous realms and states of being.  Every being has a soul or self (ātman), which passes at death into a new body.  Depending on one’s good or bad deeds–one’s karma–one is reborn in any of various states–human, animal, demonic, divine, or in any of a plethora of hell and heaven realms.  Though heavens and hells especially may last for eons (billions of years or more, according to some Hindu teachings), all of these states of birth are ultimately limited.  The worst bad karma and the best good karma both eventually run out, and the atman is cast once more into the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.  The ultimate goal of religion is, by means of spiritual practice (yoga–not the poses and exercises, which are only one part of one form of yoga, but in the broader sense of spiritual path) to escape samsara to reunite with the Supreme Atman (i.e. Brahman, or God).  This release from samsara is called mokṣa (also spelled “moksha”) or mukti.

The relevant point here is that even the worst and longest-enduring of the various Hindu hells is nevertheless not eternal.  Everyone in hell eventually gets out.  Everyone, in every religion, can ultimately progress through countless lives to the point of attaining moksha and reuniting with the Divine.  In short, Hinduism is full-bore universalist, the most so of any major religion.


We will treat the Dharmic faiths in chronological order, so Jainism is next.  The founder of Jainism, Mahavira, was an older contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha; and Mahavira is thought to have practiced an already existing religion in the lineage of the semi-mythical Pārśvanātha.  Thus, Jainism is slightly before Buddhism, though both arose from the Śramaṇa movement.

The view of Jainism in regard to life and death is not enormously different from that of Hinduism.  Like Hinduism, Jainism teaches that the soul (jīva) is reborn again and again in various forms and various realms, according to its karma.  Jainism differs from Hinduism in a few ways, though.  First, each jīva is totally and completely separate from the others, whereas in Hinduism the atman is considered a facet or aspect of the Eternal Atman, that is, Brahman (God).  To Hindus, the liberated soul reunites with Brahman, whereas to Jains, the liberated soul enters a state of total peace and self-contemplation, since there is no Jain belief in an over-arching super-soul.  As to karma, to Hindus this is a cosmic principle, whereas Jains view it as a sort of super fine matter that actually “sticks” to the soul, weighing it down.  Spiritual practice “un-sticks” the karma, eventually allowing the liberated jīva to “float” to the top of the cosmos, where it dwells in eternal peace.  Still, despite these significant differences, the Jain model of samsara, rebirth, and liberation are broadly equivalent to the Hindu picture of things.

Therefore, any hell realms, though potentially long, would be limited.  Except…well, according to this, “Further, Jaina traditions believe that there exist Abhavya (incapable), or a class of souls that can never attain moksha (liberation).  The Abhavya state of soul is entered after an intentional and shockingly evil act.”  In more detail, here, we read:

From the point of view of potentiality of mokṣa, Jain texts bifurcates the souls in two categories–bhavya and abhavya. Bhavya souls are those souls who have faith in mokṣa and hence will make some efforts to achieve liberation.  This potentiality or quality is called bhavyata. However, bhavyata itself does not guarantee mokṣa, as the soul needs to expend necessary efforts to attain it. On the other hand, abhavya souls are those souls who cannot attain liberation as they do not have faith in mokṣa and hence never make any efforts to attain it.

Now I have to say that my understanding of Jainism is much, much less than my understanding of Hinduism or Buddhism.  Certainly, I’m loathe to let a Wikipedia article have the final say on such a matter.  I’ve been looking at some Jain sites, and from a cursory review of them, it’s not completely clear to me that the abhavya state is necessarily eternal.  Nevertheless, at this juncture, and pending further research, I’d have to say that Jainism does not appear to be universalist.


Buddhism shares the general Hindu and Jain picture of samsara and many realms of rebirth.  Unlike Hinduism and Jainism, Buddhism rejects the existence of a soul or self.  This is the doctrine of anātman, literally “no-self”.  Of course, this begs the question of what it is that is reborn.  There is not space for the necessary detail, but to simplify, Buddhism gives the analogy of one candle lit from another–nothing actually “passes across”, but one candle’s state results from that of the previous candle.  Alternately, one could use the terminology of an ever-changing, impermanent “mindstream” that flows from one life to another.

Buddhism also takes a more subtle view of karma.  “Karma” in Sanskrit literally means “deed”.  Thus, the effects of one’s  deeds determine one’s status at rebirth.  Buddhism, though, emphasizes the state of mind that led to the deed.  The Dhammapada, the popular verses expounding the Buddha’s teaching, said to be in his own words, begins,

1.  Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an
impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
2.  Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow’
3.  “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.
4.  “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

It is thus clear that it is not the deed as such but the mind-state behind it that drives karma and rebirth in Buddhist thought.  Still, despite the concepts of anātman and karma, as viewed in Buddhism, the basic picture of samsara and rebirth is essentially similar.  Therefore, as in Hinduism, the various hell realms are temporary.  Except….

The lowest level of hell in Buddhism is called Avīci (not to be confused with the singer!), reserved for those who kill a parent or an arhat, shed the blood of a Buddha, or cause schism in the Sangha.  The Wikipedia article gives contradictory information about the duration of the Avici Hell.  In the first section of the article, it says, “Avīci is often translated into English as “interminable” or “incessant”, due to the idea that those beings that have been sent there languish there eternally.”  Farther down, though, is this:

Buddhism teaches that rebirth into Naraka is temporary, while the offenders works off the karma they garnered in life. Rebirth into Avīci hell is not eternal. However, the Lotus Sutra provides an example of humans who have to endure long-term suffering in Avīci. Some sutras state that rebirth in Avīci will be for innumerable kalpas (aeons). When the offender passes away after one kalpa, it is reborn in the same place, suffering for another kalpa, and on and on until it has exhausted its bad karma.  For this reason, Avīci hell is also known as the “non-stop way” (無間道).

So is it eternal–“non-stop”–or very, very long but ultimately limited?  Most sources I’ve ever read over the years have said, either explicitly or implicitly, that Buddhist hells, like Hindu hells, are temporary, however long they may endure.  It seems out of character for Buddhism to posit an eternal hell, with the corollary of unforgivable sins.  Still, I can’t say with 100% certainty what the doctrine on Avici is–it may well vary from school to school, in fact’

Thus, I’d wrap up Buddhism by tentatively saying that it seems for the most part to be universalist.


Sikhism, the newest of the Dharmic faiths, arose in the Punjab.  It arose from the Sant Mat movement in a region inhabited by both Hindus and Muslims; and it is sometimes said (oversimplistically) to be an amalgam of Hinduism and Islam.  Sikhism is indeed more explicitly monotheistic than Hinduism; it tends to view God (Waheguru) in more personal terms than does Hinduism; like Islam and unlike Hinduism, Sikhism is a Religion of the Book (the place of the Sikh holy book the Guru Granth Sahib within the faith is much like that of the Quran in Islam); and like Islam (particularly Sufism), Sikhism puts emphasis on prayer by repeating the Names of God.  Still and all, though, I think that Sikhism is more strongly akin to Hinduism than to Islam.

One small aside:  The correct pronunciation of “Sikhism” is not, as most Americans would assume (and as I once assumed) “Seek-ism”, with a long vowel, but “Sihk-ism”, with a short vowel.  Thus “Sikh”, pronounced properly, sounds like “sick”, not like “seek”.

The Sikhs joins Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism in accepting the concept of reincarnation or rebirth; and it joins Hinduism and Jainism in positing an actual soul that undergoes rebirth.  Sikhism also accepts the general Dharmic concept of karma, viewing it in much the way as Hindus do.  I have studied more about Sikhism than I have Jainism, but still much less than I have Hinduism or Buddhism; thus, my knowledge is imperfect.  I’m not aware of any detailed teaching on heaven and hell realms in Sikhism.  Still, the overall notion is that evil deeds result in bad rebirths, and good deeds in good rebirths.  A brief discussion of this from a Sikh website is here.  Ultimately, if one is able to fix one’s mind and heart on God, one will ultimately break the cycle of samsara and reunite with God, never being reborn again.  My overall impression is that Sikhs, while holding a real belief in samsara and karma, put less emphasis on them than do Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, concentrating more on the present life.  In any case, I’ve not ever run across any Sikh teaching of an eternal state of damnation or abhavya, or the equivalent thereof.

Thus, while it’s not totally clear, it would appear that in the big picture, Sikhism is universalist.


By contrast with the Abrahamic religions, the Dharmic religions have a much stronger strain of universalism.  As discussed above, one couldn’t give a blanket definition of the Dharmic religions as universalist, since there seems to be at least some doubt in the case of Jainism and Buddhism.  Still, on the whole, the Dharmic traditions are much more optimistic about the possibility of salvation for all than are the Abrahamic traditions.

The next post will look at a miscellany of religions that fall neither under the categories of Abrahamic nor Dharmic.

Part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)

Posted on 02/02/2018, in Buddhism, Hinduism, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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