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.