Hinduism and Buddhism


by Jayaram V

Gautama was born and brought up and lived and died a Hindu...There was not much in the metaphysics and principles of Gautama which cannot be found in one or other of the orthodox systems, and a great deal of his morality could be matched from earlier or later Hindu books." (Rhys Davids)

"To my mind...Buddhism has always seemed to be not a new religion, but a natural development of the Indian mind in its various manifestations, religious, philosophical, social and political" (Prof. Max Mueller.

"Buddhism, in its origin at least is an offshoot of Hinduism." (S.Rahdhakrishnan)

"The Buddha reset the native thinking and breathed fresh life into certain ancient beliefs providing them with a new perspective and interpretation that was indisputably a product of human intellect with its roots firmly entrenched in virtue and righteous conduct. He was a ascetic teacher who refused to believe in the Vedas blindly." Jayaram V

"The more I study Hinduism and Buddhism, the more I realize how similar they are except for the fundamental differences. Both were born in the womb of the same Mother. Both grew in the light of the same wisdom. Both understood the implications of death and the need for a permanent solution. For example the deity of Death who is holding the wheel of existence in this Buddhist painting (of Kalachakra) is the same god of Death who is mentioned in the Upanishads and who manifests before Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita. He is also Rudra and Bhairava, and Mara and Yama. This image of Death, holding the wheel of existence in his Hands and between His teeth with fierce eyes and a terrible form, symbolizes mortality of life and the fact that in the end Death consumes us all." Jayaram V

There are then based on this common foundation three main religions, Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism. Of the second, a great and universal faith, it has been said that, with each fresh acquirement of knowledge, it seems more difficult to separate it from the Hinduism out of which it emerged and into which (in Northern Buddhism) it relapsed. This is of course not to say that there are no differences between the two, but that they share in certain general and common principles as their base. Brahmanism, of which the Shakta doctrine and practice is a particular form, accepts Veda as its ultimate authority. Sir John Woodroffe

Both Hinduism and Buddhism originated in the Indian subcontinent and share a very long, but rather peculiar and uncomfortable relationship, which in many ways is comparable to that of Judaism and Christianity. The Buddha was born in a Hindu family, just as Christ was born in a Jewish family. Some people still argue that Buddhism was an offshoot of Hinduism and the Buddha was a part of the Hindu pantheon, a view which is not acceptable to many Buddhists. It is however widely accepted that Buddhism gained popularity in India because it released the people from the oppression of tradition and orthodoxy. The teachings of the Buddha created hope and aspiration for those who had otherwise no hope of salvation and freedom of choice in a society that was dominated by caste system, predominance of ritual form of worship and the exclusive status of the privileged classes which the Vedic religion upheld as inviolable and indisputable.

Long ago, over 1500 years ago, Hindu tradition accepted the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. However strong rivalry existed between both traditions in the subcontinent for a very long time. The followers of Siva and the Buddha could hardly stand each other in the earlier times. There were instances of Buddhist persecution by Hindu rulers, though a great majority followed a policy of religious toleration. Sasank, a ruler from Bengal and contemporary of Harshavardhana vandalized Buddhist monuments and burnt the Pipal tree under which the Buddha got enlightenment.

Despite the fundamental differences between both the religions, Hinduism and Buddhism influenced each other in many ways. The Buddhist notion of non-injury and compassion toward all living beings took deep roots in the Indian soil, while Mahayana Buddhism took cue from the traditional Indian methods of devotional worship. Buddhism influenced the growth and development of Indian art and architecture and contributed richly to the practice of breathing and meditation in attaining mindfulness and higher states of consciousness. The Hindu tantra influenced the origin and evolution of Vajrayana Buddhism.


Hinduism and Buddhism share some of the following similarities.

1. Both Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize the illusory nature of the world and the role of karma in keeping men bound to this world and the cycle of births and deaths.

2. According to the Buddha, desire is the root cause of suffering and removal of desire results in the cessation of suffering. Some of the Hindu texts such as the Upanishads (Isa) and the Bhagavadgita consider doing actions prompted by desire and attachment would lead to bondage and suffering and that performing actions without desiring the fruit of action would result in liberation.

3. Both religions believe in the concept of karma, transmigration of souls and the cycle of births and deaths for each soul.

4. Both emphasize compassion and non violence towards all living beings.

5. Both believe in the existence of several hells and heavens or higher and lower worlds.

6. Both believe in the existence of gods or deities on different planes. They also use similar names for several deities such as Indra, Brahma, Yama etc.

7. Both believe in certain spiritual practices like meditation, concentration, cultivation of certain bhavas or states of mind.

8. Both believe in detachment, renunciation of worldly life as a precondition to enter to spiritual life. Both consider desire as the chief cause of suffering.

9. The Advaita philosophy of Hinduism is closer to Buddhism in many respects.

10. Buddhism and Hinduism have their own versions of Tantra.

11. Both originated and evolved on the Indian soil. The founder of Buddhism was a Hindu who became the Buddha. Buddhism is the greatest gift of India to mankind.

12. Both Hinduism and Buddhism recognize Death as an inevitable and inescapable aspect of life. Both personify Death as a deity, as Kala and Yama in Hinduism and as Mara and Yama in Buddhism. Death as the devourer of all life figures prominently in the Bhagavadgita and Upanishads and so also in the Buddhist texts and iconography.

13. Both Hinduism and Buddhism believe that liberation, not rebirth or heavenly life, is the best solution to the problem of suffering and bondage.

14. Both Buddhism and Hinduism recognize a four tier cosmology of multiple worlds and spheres. Hinduism recognizes a subterranean world, the earth, the mid-region populated by celestial beings, the heaven of Indra and the world of Brahman. Buddhism recognizes an underworld, the earth, the mid-region of devas inhabiting the worlds of passions and desires, the higher region of devas inhabiting the worlds of forms and perception and the highest region of abstract worlds known as Brahma lokas inhabited great beings.

15. Both religions recognize the earth as the center of the universe, resting on the mountain Meru, surrounded by seven concentric rings of mountains and seven oceans, with the hells of asuras below and the worlds of devas above. Both recognize the land where the Buddha was born as Jambudvipa.

16. Both hold that the whole cosmos is represented in the inner world a human being.

Buddha's attitude towards Hindus

Prior to his enlightenment, the Buddha was brought up in a traditional Hindu family. Before finding his own path, he went to Hindu gurus to find an answer to the problem of suffering. He followed the meditation techniques and ascetic practices as prescribed by the Hindu scriptures and followed by the Hindu yogis of his time. It is said that after becoming the Buddha, he showed special consideration to the higher caste Hindus especially the Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors). He exhorted his disciples to treat especially Brahmins with respect and consideration because of their spiritual bent of mind and inner progress achieved during their previous births. It is said that certain categories of Brahmins had free access to the Buddha and that some of the Brahmin ascetics were admitted into the monastic discipline without being subjected to the rigors of probation which was other wise compulsory for all classes of people. The Buddha converted many Brahmins to Buddhism and consider their involvement a sure sign of progress and popularity of his fledgling movement. Much later, we find a similar echo of sentiment in the inscriptions of King Ashoka where he exhorted the people of his empire to show due respect to the Brahmins.

A review of Buddha's contribution

The Buddha was not the first teacher in ancient India to contemplate upon suffering and find solutions to remedy it. It has been part of a long tradition in the subcontinent, starting with the Vedic sages and the Jain Tirthankaras who lived at least a thousand years or so before him. The growth of cities in the plains of India along river banks, famines, pandemics, epidemics and natural calamities, and frequent warfare among neighboring kingdoms must have made people acutely aware of the nature of suffering and occupied the minds of scholars and philosophers.

The Buddha continued the tradition at a time when India was teeming with scores of ascetic movements and teacher traditions. He was also not the first to find a link between desire and suffering. The ascetic and renunciant traditions that preceded him also considered desire as the root cause of suffering. It is also difficult to believe that the Buddha had the first glimpse of suffering only when he went out into the streets. As a prince and as the designated successor to his father's kingdom, he must have had formal education and interacted with several teachers and spiritual masters as he grow up. The knowledge he gathered and the experiences he had in the public must have triggered in him the resolve to find a solution to the problem of suffering.

The Buddha however made a radical departure from the commonly held belief that the soul was eternal and indestructible. He declared that the self-identity was just a formation or an aggregation like the body itself and it disappeared when the desires were annihilated and  karma was full burnt away. Unlike the other renunciant traditions that preferred to live in seclusion or in isolation, the Buddha went to the masses with his teachings and tried the breach the caste barriers that prevented a number of people from practicing faith or seeking liberation. Thus you may regard the Buddha as a social and religious reformer within the Vedic fold who challenged the basic tenets of Hinduism or as the founder of a new, organized religion. In these undertakings his purpose was not to propagate a new religion, but to help the people find relief from suffering and achieve liberation.

Hindus attitude towards Buddhists in ancient times

The Vedic texts, especially the Puranas betray a pointed animosity towards Buddhism and the Buddha. The chasm between the two traditions grew in course of time as Buddhism tried to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of Vedic beliefs. The Buddha is considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu for all the wrong reasons. The Puranas suggest that Lord Siva and Vishnu manifested as a Jina and Buddha respectively to mislead the demons and cause their destruction. Once the people lost their dharma and cease being devotees of gods, the gods such as Vishnu and Shiva would have no problem launching an offensive against them and destroying them. Thus the purpose of including the Buddha and some Jinas in the Hindu pantheon was entirely parochial. The Buddha's not-self (anatta) theory is very similar to the belief held by the demons that the body is the soul, which is mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.7), as the doctrine learned wrongly by Vairocana while he was receiving instruction from Brahma. This gave the Vedic scholars valid justification to draw parallels between the two. Incidentally, Vairocana is considered one of the five Dhyana Buddhas in Vajrayana Buddhism. Therefore, although religious tolerance was the hallmark of ancient Indian society, the relationship between the Buddhist and the Hindus was less than cordial. When Buddhism was on decline, many caves and monasteries belonging to the Buddhist monks were either occupied or converted by Hindus into places of worship by installing Hindu deities. It is possible that a similar practice might have been followed by Buddhist monks when Buddhism was in ascendance.


Following are some of the differences we can see in the principles and practice of these two religions.

1. Hinduism is not founded by any particular prophet. Buddhism was founded by the Buddha.

2. Hinduism believes in the efficacy and supremacy of the Vedas. The Buddhist do not believe in the Vedas or for that matter any Hindu scripture.

3. Buddhism does not believe in the existence of souls as well in the first cause, whom we generally call God. Hinduism believe in the existence of Atman , that is the individual soul and Brahman, the Supreme Creator.

4. Hinduism accepts the Buddha as an incarnation of Mahavishnu, one of the gods of Hindu trinity. The Buddhist do not accept any Hindu god either as an equal or superior to the Buddha.

5. The original Buddhism as taught by the Buddha is known as Theravada Buddhism or Hinayana Buddhism. Followers of this do not worship images of the Buddha nor believe in the Bodhisattvas. The Mahayana sect considers the Buddha as the Supreme Soul or the Highest Being, akin to the Brahman of Hinduism and worship him in the form of images and icons.

6. Hinduism recognizes four chief aims of human life, namely dharma (religious duty), artha (wealth or material possessions), kama (desires and passions) and moksha (salvation). Buddhism considers the world full of suffering and resolving it as the chief purpose of human life. Therefore, it recognizes only two aims, namely the practice of Dharma (Buddha's teachings) and liberation (Nirvana).

7. Hindus also believe in the four ashramas or stages in life. This is not followed in Buddhism. People can join the Order any time depending upon their spiritual preparedness.

8. Buddhists organize themselves into a monastic Order (Sangha) and the monks live in groups. Hinduism is basically a religion of the individual.

9. Buddhism believes in the concept of Bodhisattvas. Hinduism does not believe in it.

11. Buddhism acknowledge the existence of some gods and goddesses of Hindu pantheon, but give them a rather subordinate status.

12. Refuge in the Buddha, the Sangha and Dhamma are the three cardinal requirements on the eightfold path. Hinduism offers many choices to its followers on the path of self-realization.

13. Although both religions believe in karma and rebirth, they differ in the manner in which they operate and impact the existence of individual beings.

Hinduism, Buddhism and Yoga

Yoga is essentially a Hindu tradition with its roots in the Vedic ritual symbolism and its internalization. Yoga is mentioned and explained in several ancient Upanishads, long before the emergence of Buddhism. Prior to the Buddha, yoga was practiced in many forms by the ascetics and ascetic traditions of ancient India, including Jainism. The rudiments of yoga practice are found in the Katha and Svetasvatara Upanishads, while a more advanced version in the Maitri Upanishad. The epic Mahabharata makes many references to yoga. According to Edwin F. Bryant, the terms yoga and yogi occur about 900 times in the epic.

By all accounts, Patanjali did not invent the wheel of yoga. He codified it and standardized its teaching. During his wanderings as an ascetic monk, the Buddha practiced various forms of austerities and yoga. His enlightenment was a direct result of dhyana, an ancient form of meditation. The ascetic practices of both Buddhism and Hinduism draw heavily from ancient Yoga traditions in their respective ways to practice self-transformation. Both rely upon Yoga to restrain human nature and overcome desires and attachments. They use many common terms to explain the practices of yoga or stages in self-absorption. However, yoga has a much wider connotation in Hinduism than in Buddhism. Hindu yoga aims to achieve liberation through union with the inner Self and in some yogas through union with the Supreme Self, whereas in Buddhism it is meant to suppress the modification and disperse the formation of ego. In Buddhism self-absorption denotes the end of all desires and modifications and an experience with emptiness. In Hinduism also it denotes the end of all desires and modifications but an experience with transcendence or union with the transcendental Self.

Hindu and Buddhist meditative practices

Apart from some similarities, there is a main difference between Hindu and Buddhist meditative practices, although they share a common history and geographical influence. In Buddhist meditation and contemplative practices, the focus or the emphasis is mainly upon the Not-self, which in Buddhist parlance means anything other than the Self. It includes the mind, the body, the world and all the objects in them such as thoughts, feelings, emotions, images, objects, etc., which we experience through our mind and senses. According to Buddhism, the not-Self is just a temporary formation. It exists both externally and internally. By knowing it and dissolving it from within, one can reach Nirvana.

By practising mindfulness upon the Not-self (objective reality), the monks realize the impermanence of things and the important aspects of Dharma such as the Four Noble Truths. Thus, the Buddhist contemplative practices are outward. They keep the mind engaged with things through mindfulness practice, until peace and happiness are attained through equanimity, discernment and enlightenment.

In contrast, the Hindu meditative practices are inward oriented. They are meant to know the subjective reality, or the reality which is self-existent and free from objective reality. Therefore, they focus the mind upon the Self rather than the Not-self and aim to disengage the mind and senses from the Not-self or the world within and without. By withdrawing the mind and senses from worldly things (the Not-Self) and silencing them, a yogi concentrates his mind upon the thoughts of the Self or God to experience peace and equanimity. Thus, in Hinduism Samadhi is achieved by silencing the mind and senses, rather than keeping them mindful and actively engage with the objective reality.

It is true that over the centuries, both the religions influenced each other in many ways. Hence, presently you may see similarities between them in their contemplative techniques and spiritual practices and the use of both passive and active meditation techniques. However, their primary emphasis upon the Self and not-self can still be discerned in them.


Of the two religions Hinduism is older perhaps by at least a millennium or two. Some Buddhist may argue that the Buddha that we know historically as born in the sixth century B.C. in the Indian subcontinent was but one in the line of many Buddhas that preceded him and would follow him. Such a belief may enjoy some validation and approval in the metaphysical realm of enlightened monks, just as the Hindus believe in the existence and continuation of Sanatana dharma, (popularly known as Hinduism) through endless cycles of creation and dissolution of worlds spanning across a time frame of millions of years. However available evidence do not confirm the theory that Buddhism existed as a religion prior to the birth of the Buddha. In case of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism we have evidence that he was the last in the long line of 24 Jain Thirthankaras, But in case of Buddhism we do not have such confirmation.

Technically speaking, Hinduism is not a religion but a group of religious and sectarian movements that share some fundamental and in some respects identical beliefs, regional variations, history, tradition and practices peculiar to the land and the times in which they originated and evolved. In contrast, Buddhism is a well established and organized religion having a set of beliefs and practices, commonly known as the Dhamma, based on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

We can safely conclude that in the first few centuries following the nirvana of the Buddha, Buddhism was an integral and significant part of the complex religious character of the subcontinent that was later came to be recognized as Hinduism by the outside world. However subsequently Buddhism crossed the boundaries of the Indian subcontinent and went on to play a much greater role in the whole of Asia. In the process it developed a very complex sectarian, theological and geographical diversity and tradition of its own to become one of the most significant and influential religions of the world. No wonder many people who are not familiar with the history of the Indian subcontinent fail to understand and notice the deep connection that existed between Hinduism and Buddhism in the earlier days and the significant ways in which they enriched each other.

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