eternal recurrence

Eternal return (also known as "eternal recurrence") is a concept which posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur in the exact same self-similar form an incomprehensible and unfathomable number of times. The concept has roots in ancient Egypt, and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. With the decline of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the concept fell into disuse, though Friedrich Nietzsche briefly resurrected it.

In addition, the philosophical concept of eternal recurrence was addressed by Arthur Schopenhauer. It is a purely physical concept, involving no "reincarnation," but the return of beings in the same bodies. Time is viewed as being not linear but cyclical.

The basic premise is that the universe is limited in extent and contains a finite amount of matter, while time is viewed as being infinite. The universe has no starting or ending state, while the matter comprising it is constantly changing its state. The number of possible changes is finite, and so sooner or later the same state will recur.

Physicists such as Stephen Hawking and J. Richard Gott have proposed models by which the (or a) universe could undergo time travel, provided the balance between mass and energy created the appropriate cosmological geometry. More philosophical concepts from physics, such as Hawking's "arrow of time," for example, discuss cosmology as proceeding up to a certain point, whereafter it undergoes a time reversal (which, as a consequence of T-symmetry, is thought to bring about a chaotic state due to thermodynamic entropy).

The Oscillatory universe model in physics could be provided as an example of how the universe cycles through the same events infinitely.

Dharmic religions

The concept of cyclical patterns is very prominent in dharmic religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism among others. The Wheel of life represents an endless cycle of birth, life, and death from which one seeks liberation. In Tantric Buddhism, a wheel of time concept known as the Kalachakra expresses the idea of an endless cycle of existence and knowledge.[1]

Classical antiquity

In ancient Egypt, the scarab (or dung beetle) was viewed as a sign of eternal renewal and reemergence of life, a reminder of the life to come. (See also "Atum" and "Ma'at.")

The Bible appears to make reference to the idea of recurrence in Ecclesiastes 1:9: That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.

The ancient Mayans and Aztecs also took a cyclical view of time.

In ancient Greece, the concept of eternal return was connected with Empedocles, Zeno of Citium, and Stoicism.


Enlarge picture

The symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake or dragon devouring its own tail, is the alchemical symbol par excellence of eternal recurrence. The alchemist-physicians of the Renaissance and Reformation were aware of the idea of eternal recurrence; an attempt to describe eternal recurrence was made by the physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici of 1643:

And in this sense, I say, the world was before the Creation, and at an end before it had a beginning; and thus was I dead before I was alive, though my grave be England, my dying place was Paradise, and Eve miscarried of me before she conceived of Cain. (R.M.Part 1:59)

Heinrich Heine wrote the following passage which is said to have been where Friedrich Nietzsche first encountered the idea:

For time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies are finite.... Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again.... And thus it will happen one day that a man will be born again, just like me, and a woman will be born, just like Mary.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The thought of eternal recurrence is central to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. As Heidegger pointed out, Nietzsche never speaks about the reality of "eternal recurrence" itself, but about the "thought of eternal recurrence." Nietzsche conceived of the idea as a simple "hypothesis", which, like the idea of Hell in Christianity, did not need to be true in order to have real effects. The thought of eternal recurrence appears in a few parts of his works, in particular §125 and §341 of The Gay Science and then in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is also noted for the first time in his posthumous fragment of 1881 (11 [143]). The experience of this thought is dated by Nietzsche himself, in the posthumous fragments, to August 1881, at Sils-Maria. In Ecce Homo (1888), he wrote that the thought of the Eternal Return was the "fundamental conception" of Thus Spoke Zarathustra [2].

Several authors have pointed out other occurrences of this hypothesis in contemporary thought. Thus, the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, who revised the first catalogue of Nietzsche's personal library in January 1896, pointed out that Nietzsche would have read something similar in Eugen Dühring's Courses on philosophy (1875), which Nietzsche readily criticized. Lou Andreas-Salomé pointed out that Nietzsche referred to Ancient cyclical conceptions of time, in particular by the Pythagoreans, in the Inactual Considerations. Henri Lichtenberger and Charles Andler have pinpointed three works contemporary to Nietzsche which carried on the same hypothesis: J.G. Vogt, Die Kraft. Eine real-monistische Weltanschauung (1878), Auguste Blanqui, L'éternité par les astres (1872) and Gustave Le Bon, L'homme et les sociétés (1881). However, Gustave Le Bon is not quoted anywhere in Nietzsche's manuscripts; and Auguste Blanqui was named only in 1883. But Vogt's work, on the other hand, was read by Nietzsche precisely during this summer of 1881 in Sils-Maria [3]. Blanqui is mentioned by Albert Lange in his Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism), a book closely read by Nietzsche [4].

Despite his reading of Vogt, Nietzsche's conception of the eternal recurrence of all things differs from other seemingly similar hypotheses, insofar as it is intrinsically related to Zarathustra's announcement of the Übermensch and the ethical imperative of overcoming nihilism [5] On a few occasions in his notebooks, Nietzsche discusses the possibility of eternal recurrence as cosmological truth, but in the works he prepared for publication it is treated as the ultimate method of affirmation. According to Nietzsche, it would require a sincere amor fati (Love of Fate) not simply to endure, but to wish for, the eternal recurrence of all events exactly as they occurred — all the pain and joy, the embarrassment and glory.

Nietzsche calls the idea "horrifying and paralyzing," and says that its burden is the "heaviest weight" ("das schwerste Gewicht") imaginable. The wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' [The Gay Science, §341]

As described by Nietzsche, the thought of eternal return is more than merely an intellectual concept or challenge; it is akin to a koan, or psychological device that occupies one's entire consciousness, stimulating a transformation of consciousness known as metanoia.

In Nietzsche scholarship, the cosmological hypothesis of eternal recurrence is of extreme interest, being a crucial axiom of his philosophy. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part III, chap. 2, #2, "Of the Vision and the Riddle" (German; also called "The Vision and the Enigma," part XLVI in the Dover Thrift Translation) Nietzsche confronts his aforementioned inner demon and proves to him the reality of eternal recurrence, and this leads to a self-awakening in which the demon is exorcised. Nietzsche also described himself as "the bringer of eternal recurrence" in Twilight of the Idols. Much effort is still expended in attempts to understand Nietzsche's notebooks' fragmentary mentions of eternal recurrence.

In Carl Jung's seminar on Thus Spoke Zarathustra Jung claims that the dwarf states the idea of the Eternal Return before Zarathustra finishes his argument of the Eternal Return when the dwarf says, "'Everything straight lies,' murmured the dwarf disdainfully. 'All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.'"

The translation of Nietzsche's eternal return is from the German ewige Wiederkunft. The German word ewige also means perpetual. Though always translated as eternal it is worth noting this potential dual meaning.

Poincaré recurrence theorem

Related to the concept of eternal return is the Poincaré recurrence theorem in mathematics. It states that a system having a finite amount of energy and confined to a finite spatial volume will, after a sufficiently long time, return to an arbitrarily small neighborhood of its initial state. It should be noted that "a sufficiently long time" could be much longer than the predicted lifetime of the universe (see 10^19 seconds).

Proofs against eternal return

Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann has described a proof originally put forward by Georg Simmel, which refutes the claim that a finite number of states must repeat within an infinite amount of time:
Even if there were exceedingly few things in a finite space in an infinite time, they would not have to repeat in the same configurations. Suppose there were three wheels of equal size, rotating on the same axis, one point marked on the circumference of each wheel, and these three points lined up in one straight line. If the second wheel rotated twice as fast as the first, and if the speed of the third wheel was 1/π of the speed of the first, the initial line-up would never recur. [6]
It can be argued that this proof is flawed. Even if a system contains an infinite number of states as considered from the perspective of classical mechanics, applying quantum mechanics reveals that the system will repeat after an arbitrarily long time due to discretization. (Classical mechanics is only a rough approximation to the physics that goes on at the atomic scale.) However, not all quantum-mechanical operators have discrete spectra.

References in culture

  • James Joyce was influenced by Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), an Italian philosopher who proposed a theory of cyclical history in his major work, New Science. Joyce puns on his name many times in Finnegans Wake, including the "first" sentence: "by a commodius vicus of recirculation". Vico's theory involves the recurrence of three stages of history: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of humans—after which the cycle repeats itself. Finnegans Wake begins in mid-sentence, with the continuation of the book's unfinished final sentence, creating a circle whereby the novel has no true beginning or end.[7] See also Ages of Man and Greek mythology.
  • In "The Wise Men" G. K. Chesterton poked poetic fun at Nietsche's ideas, writing: "The Gods of violence took the veil/ Of vision and philosophy;/ The Serpent that brought all men bale,/ He bites his own accursed tail,/ And calls himself Eternity."
  • Itzhak Bentov the Czech American scientist, inventor, mystic, and author described his theory of The Continuous Big Bang Universe, a form of Eternal return, in his 1979 book Stalking the Wild Pendulum
  • Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being frequently references the concept of eternal return. Even the title comes from the idea that if there is no afterlife or eternal return, and earthly existence is final, then existence, or being, is "terribly light" — it has no gravity or cosmic weight. "If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make" (chap. 2).
  • Robert Jordan's massive 12-book series the Wheel of Time is based on the concept that time is a wheel which turns back to the same place again and again and the great ages are repeated.
  • At the end of the 2001 film K-PAX, the extraterrestrial named "prot" explains eternal return by scientific laws in the universe. Implying the big crunch will restart the big bang and every person and life will be lived out in exactly the same way each time this occurs.
  • In the 2003 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, the polytheistic religion of the humans of the Twelve Colonies is centered on the belief of eternal recurrence, and the religious elements of the show frequently incorporate this idea. The in-show scripture describes the idea thusly: "All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again."
  • Steven Berlin Johnson, uses the idea of eternal recurrence as a governing principle for the creation of quality pop culture that spurs repeat viewing in his book Everything Bad is Good for You.
  • The ending of Stephen King's epic magnum opus, the Dark Tower series, suggests the concept of eternal return by having the final, ultimate truth embodied at the absolute center of existence (the final door at the apex of the tower) be a trip back through time to start seeking ultimate truth (The Tower) again.
  • The sci-fi television series Lexx makes frequent references to this concept, and it is a relatively important plot point throughout most of the early and mid-series, including the concept of "cycles of time", and the line, "time begins, and then time ends, and then time begins once again."
  • The film Groundhog Day is based upon the concept of eternal return. Its director Harold Ramis claimed of the novel The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, the exemplary work upon eternal return that:
:While not the original inspiration for our film Groundhog Day, was one of those confirming cosmic affirmations that we had indeed tapped into one of the great universal problems of being... P. D. Ouspensky suggests the antidote to the existential dilemma at the core of Groundhog Day: that trapped as we are on the karmic wheel of cause and effect, our only means of escape is to assume responsibility for our own destiny and find the personal meaning that imparts a purposeful vitality to life and frees us from the limitations of our contempt.
  • The religious scholar Mircea Eliade has applied the term "eternal return" to what he sees as a universal religious belief in the ability to return to the mythical age through myth and ritual (see Eternal Return (Eliade)). Eliade's theory of "eternal return" describes a distinctly nonspontaneous process that depends on human behavior; thus, it should be distinguished from the philosophical theory of eternal return (the subject of this article), which describes a mathematically inevitable process.
  • The philosopher Albert Camus, in his famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, discusses the plight of Sisyphus as an example of living the eternal return with a spirit of affirmation.
  • In modern times eternal recurrence was a major theme in the teachings of the Russian mystic P. D. Ouspensky whose novel Strange tale of Ivan Osokin (first published St. Petersburg 1915) explores the idea that even given the free-will to alter events in one's life, the same events will occur regardless.
  • Other notable films which debate the concept of eternal return include Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, Vanilla Sky, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
  • The Rolling Stones reference the concept in their song "Sway" from the Sticky Fingers album: "Did you ever wake up to find / A day that broke up your mind / Destroyed your notion of circular time."
  • From The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, 1913:
:Greeting! I am recalled home by One who may not be denied. In much that I came to do I have failed. Much that I have done I would undo; some little I have undone. Out of fire I came—the smoldering fire of a thing one day to be a consuming flame; in fire I go. Seek not my ashes. I am the lord of the fires! Farewell. — Fu-Manchu
  • The Timefall novel trilogy incorporates the idea of time being cyclical, with people being reborn in each new era as the same person with different characteristics and in an altered history. In the modern cycle they discover that something has shifted the balance of the universe prompting them to save it from the end of time.
  • Therion has a song named "Eternal Return" on their 2000 album Deggial:
  • :''The time is running (veil of time) / The flame will burn / When today vanish, / But all return.
  • :''Time will come to an end but bring back the start again.
  • :''Queen of time will rise again / And bring forth the future / Wheel of time will whirl around / And bring back the past.
  • The PlayStation 2 RPG trilogy Xenosaga is heavily rooted in the philophies of Nietzsche, to the point of the three games' subtitles reflecting three of Nietzsche's more famous works; Der Wille zur Macht, Jenseits von Gut und Böse and Also sprach Zarathustra. The main story revolves around a plot to bring together several relics to form a system called "Zarathustra", which can stop time at a certain point and restart it from the beginning, to prevent the destruction of the universe caused by Anima.
  • Ken Grimwood's philosophical novel Replay is about a man trapped in a cycle of dying and then awakening in the past as his younger self, with his memories intact.
  • In the novel The Starlight Crystal by Christopher Pike (author), time is presented as cyclical. The protagonist's spaceship gets stuck going at the speed of light, making time speed up and die around her. Somehow surviving the Big Crunch and successive Big Bang the main character manages to stop the ship's acceleration and return to Earth before she left.
  • Poul Anderson's novel Tau Zero deals at the end with the possibility of surviving the Big Crunch and subsequent Big Bang.
  • James Blish's Cities in Flight series ends with several of the main characters surviving the end of the universe and becoming nuclei for new universes.
  • In his book "Is There Life After Death" (Chartwell Books in USA & Arcturus in Europe) 2006, Anthony Peake suggests a novel and unique interpretation of The Eternal Return in relation to Near Death Experience, Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Deja Vu.
  • In the webcomic 1/0, a debate between the characters Ghanny, Marcus, and Mock contains suggestions of eternal return. Marcus concludes that it is the case for their universe, because the alternative (according to Mock's unknowing use of the Kalam cosmological argument) would be to admit that the cartoonist, Tailsteak, exists.
  • The psychedelic trance artist Ubar Tmar has produced a track titled Eternal Return.
  • Parts of the Final Fantasy VIII storyline are very close to the concept of Eternal Return.
  • In the film Hannah and Her Sisters, Mickey (Woody Allen) comments on the theory of eternal return: "And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said that the life we lived, we're gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again."

See also


1. ^ August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism from Google Cache
2. ^ Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, "Why I Write Such Good Books", "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", §1
3. ^ See Posthumous fragment, 11 [312] 1881; See also Mazzino Montinari, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1974 (German transl. De Gruyter, 1991, French translation PUF, 2001) and also Nietzsche's personal library (see also [1] and revision of previous catalogues on the École Normale Supérieure's website)
4. ^ Alfred Fouillée, , in Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger. An. 34. Paris 1909. T. 67, S. 519-525 (French)
5. ^ See Martin Heidegger's 1930s courses on Nietzsche.
6. ^ Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. (Fourth Edition) Princeton University Press, 1974. p327
7. ^


  • Hatab, Lawrence J. (2005). Nietzsche's Life Sentence: Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence. New York : Routledge, ISBN 0-415-96758-9.
  • Lorenzen, Michael. (2006). The Ideal Academic Library as Envisioned through Nietzsche’s Vision of the Eternal Return. MLA Forum 5, no. 1, online at
  • Lukacher, Ned. (1998). Time-Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrence. Durham, N.C. : Duke University Press, ISBN 0-8223-2253-6.
  • Magnus, Bernd. (1978). Nietzsche's Existential Imperative. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-34062-4.
  • Jung, Carl. (1988). Nietzsche's Zarathustra: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934 - 1939 (2 Volume Set). Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691099538.
The Universe is defined as the summation of all particles and energy that exist and the space-time in which all events occur. Based on observations of the portion of the Universe that is observable, physicists attempt to describe the whole of space-time, including all matter and
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The word infinity comes from the Latin infinitas or "unboundedness." It refers to several distinct concepts (usually linked to the idea of "without end") which arise in philosophy, mathematics, and theology.
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Déjà vu (IPA: English /deɪʒɑː vuː/, French /deʒa vy/) (French for "already seen", also called paramnesia from the Greek word para
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Pythagoreanism is a term used for the esoteric and metaphysical beliefs held by Pythagoras and his followers, the Pythagoreans, who were much influenced by mathematics and probably a main inspirational source for Plato and platonism.
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Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy, founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early third century BC. It proved to be a popular and durable philosophy, with a following throughout Greece and the Roman Empire from its founding until all the schools of philosophy were
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Classical antiquity (also the classical era or classical period) is a broad term for a long period of cultural history centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.
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Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (October 15, 1844 – August 25, 1900) (IPA: [ˈfʁiːdʁɪç ˈvilhelm ˈniːtʃə]) was a nineteenth-century German philosopher.
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Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788 – September 21, 1860) was a German philosopher who believed that the will to live is the fundamental reality and that this will, being a constant striving, is insatiable and ultimately yields only suffering.
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Physics is the science of matter[1] and its motion[2][3], as well as space and time[4][5] —the science that deals with concepts such as force, energy, mass, and charge.
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Reincarnation, literally "to be made flesh again", is a doctrine or metaphysical belief that some essential part of a living being (in some variations only human beings) survives death to be reborn in a new body.
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prevew not available
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wheel of time or wheel of history is a concept in several religions and philosophies, notably religions of Indian origin such as Buddhism and Hinduism, which regard time as cyclical and consisting of repeating ages.
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The Universe is defined as the summation of all particles and energy that exist and the space-time in which all events occur. Based on observations of the portion of the Universe that is observable, physicists attempt to describe the whole of space-time, including all matter and
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matter is commonly defined as the substance of which physical objects are composed, not counting the contribution of various energy or force-fields, which are not usually considered to be matter per se (though they may contribute to the mass of objects).
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One view is that time is part of the fundamental structure of the universe, a dimension in which events occur in sequence, and time itself is something that can be measured.
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In physics, the term state is used in several related senses, each of which expresses something about the way a physical system is.
  1. State is sometimes used as a synonym for phase of matter.

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Stephen Hawking

Stephen William Hawking
Born January 8 1942 (1942--) (age 65)
Oxford, England
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John Richard Gott III is a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. He is especially well known for developing and advocating two cosmological theories with the flavor of science fiction: Time travel, and the Doomsday argument.
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time travel theoretically and practically possible? If so, how can paradoxes such as the grandfather paradox be avoided?

Time travel is the concept of moving backwards and/or forwards to different points in time, in a manner analogous to moving
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arrow of time, or time’s arrow, is a term coined in 1927 by British astronomer Arthur Eddington used to distinguish a direction of time on a four-dimensional relativistic map of the world; which, according to Eddington, can be determined by a study of organizations of
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Time reversal may refer to:
  • In physics, T-symmetry - the study of thermodynamics and the symmetry of certain physical laws where the concept of time is reversed — ie. where a mirror (reverse) transformation is applied to a forward direction time state.

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T-symmetry is the symmetry of physical laws under a time reversal transformation —
Although in restricted contexts one may find this symmetry, the universe itself does not show symmetry under time reversal.
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Ice melting - a classic example of entropy increasing[1] described in 1862 by Rudolf Clausius as an increase in the disgregation of the molecules of the body of ice.
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The oscillatory universe is a cosmological model, originally derived by Alexander Friedman in 1922, investigated briefly by Einstein in 1930 and critiqued by Richard Tolman from 1934, in which the universe undergoes a series of oscillations, each beginning with a big bang and
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Dharmic tradition (Dharmic religion) refers to any religion, religious philosophy, or tradition that has a notion of dharma:
  • Indian religions
  • Buddhism

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Hinduism (known as Hindū Dharma in modern Indian languages[1]
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Buddhism is often described as a religion[1] and a collection of various philosophies, based initially on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Gautama Buddha.
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Bhavacakra (Sanskrit; Pali: bhavacakka; Devanagari: भवचक्र) or Wheel of Becoming (Tibetan'i 'khor.lo) is a complex symbolic representation of
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