Is Buddhism a Copy of Hinduism?

Bodhisattva

Bodhisattva, A Gandhara Sculpture

by Jayaram V

Question: We often hear that Buddhism is a form of Hinduism or a copy of Hinduism. We also hear the opposite view that many Hindu spiritual practices and beliefs are derived from Buddhism. How far these assertions are true?


The whole argument that Buddhism originated from a preexisting belief system is erroneous. The original teachings of the Buddha were born from his enlightenment, not  by his intellectual effort to copy them from existing faiths. It is fallacious to think otherwise, or examine this subject dichotomously with a modern mindset, placing Hinduism on one side and Buddhism on the other, as if other possibilities do not exist. Some Jain scholars argue that Hinduism and Buddhism owe some aspects to Jainism, an argument which is not entirely devoid of merit.

While comparing and contrasting Hinduism and Buddhism, we ignore the historical fact that the world in Buddha’s time was very different from the today’s world, and Hinduism did not exist then in its current format. There were many kingdoms and many faiths. You may compare and contrast Hinduism and Buddhism in retrospect in their current forms to know how they evolved or how they may agree or disagree on various doctrinal and technical matters. However, you cannot stretch that logic to antiquity.

When we examine who did copy the ideas from whom, we enter a nebulous area. There are valid reasons for this. First, Hinduism did not exist as a religion before 16th century ADE. Second, Indian history itself is imprecise and based on a shaky foundation due to the absence of proper historical records. Third, there may be other sources and established faiths which are unknown, lost or extinct, and from which both traditions might have drawn inspiration. Lastly all religions that originated in India underwent many changes, schisms and internal reforms about which we have scant information. Therefore, to develop a proper perspective, we need to reevaluate and refocus our perceptions about this subject. In this regard the following points are worth considering.

1. Hinduism and Buddhism are distinct faiths

Hinduism and Buddhism are distinct faiths. Neither of them was derived from the other, while they might have mutually influenced each other. Although they originated in the same country and has a shared history, their core beliefs and fundamental philosophy are very different. Buddhism is neither an offshoot of Hinduism nor an improved version of it. It was born out of the enlightened awareness of the Buddha. Theoretically, they are opposite faiths, with a few superficial similarities, which serve different purposes in each. This becomes clear when you examine the following differences between the two. They should settle any doubt one may have about their distinction and relationship.

  • Buddhism does not believe in an eternal Self. Hinduism does.
  • Buddhism does not believe in an eternal God. Hinduism does
  • Buddhism does not acknowledge that God created worlds and beings. Hinduism does.
  • Buddhism does not believe in eternal life through liberation. Hinduism does.
  • Buddhism holds the Eightfold Path as the only path to liberation. Hinduism does not.
  • Buddhism rejects the validity of the Vedas. Hinduism venerates them.
  • Buddhism rejects the divine basis of caste system. It is inbuilt in Hindu worldview.
  • Buddhism rejects the justification for animal sacrifices. Hinduism does not.
  • Buddhism does not believe in oneness with the Self. Hinduism does
  • Buddhism recognizes objective reality only. Hinduism recognizes subjective reality also.
  • Buddhism does not acknowledge transcendental states.  Hinduism does.
  • Buddhism does not believe that gods are eternal or immortal. Hinduism does.
  • Buddhism does not obligate sacrificial ceremonies to nourish gods. Hinduism does.
  • Buddhist nirvana is cessation of beingness. Hindu moksha is liberation into eternal freedom

While these differences define their core philosophies and spiritual practices, they do have some similarities, which, however, serve different purpose in each. We will discuss them later in the subsequent sections to know how they might have originated in each and what inferences we can draw from them.

2. It is a fallacy to compare them historically

Those who are familiar with Indian history know that Hinduism is a modern construct, which came into existence in its current format, only a few centuries ago. There is no reference to it as a unitary religion in any religious text before the 15th century. Historically, “Hinduism” is an English word, coined by Europeans, more particularly the British for administrative expedience to distinguish the native faiths from Christianity and Islam. Before that, there was no religion called Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma.

Today, Hindus may identify themselves as one group, but it was not the case in the past. Ancient India had numerous faiths or belief systems, some related and some unrelated. People identified themselves with their faiths or their teachers or the deities they worshipped. Thus, there were Brahmanas, Yajis, Athavaryus, Udgatris, Adishaivas, Jinas, Kevalins, Samkhyas, Yogis, Vaisheshikas, Vaishnavas, Mimansikas, Mundakas, Ganapatyas, Bhagavatas, Siva-bhagavatas, Svetamabaras, Digambaras, Pancharatras, Rishis, Munis, Shaktas, Tantrics, Kapalikas, Bauddhas, Lokayatas, Charvakas, Ajnanis, Ajivikas, Kesins, Parivrajakas, Sramanas, Smartas, Mahesvaras, Pasupatas, Kapalikas, Vrtyas, Bhairavas, Mlecchas, Yavanas, Siddhas and so on, but no “Hindus.” Each of them has a long history of at least 2500-3000 years. Many of them exist even today, and we call most of them Hindus. Within Buddhism also there are numerous schools and sects, each with a long history of its own. Therefore, comparing and contrasting Hinduism and Buddhism require a lot of effort and cannot justifiably done without generalizations, overs simplifications and "either this or that" categorization.

3. India gave birth to multiple religions and philosophies

Equally erroneous is the notion that India gave birth to four major world religions only. For most of us it is an irrefutable fact because we are still looking at Indian history from the European point of view, ignoring the religious diversity which existed then, and which still exists within each of the four religions. The truth is that the country gave birth to dozens of religions or faith-based systems. Most of them became either extinct or were artificially integrated into the existing faiths of India as sects and schools of philosophy.

For example, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Tantrism which are today considered sects of Hinduism are religions in themselves. They are religions by the same standards with which we recognize Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism. Judaism or Christianity as religions. Each of them commands widespread following, numbering millions. Each has a long history which is older than that of Christianity or Islam, with its own doctrines, pantheon, chief deity, sects, subsects and schools of philosophy, some of which may also qualify as independent religions.   

In the past, followers of each treated others as their rivals, and equally competed with them for patronage and propagation. For a Shaivite, Vaishnavism was as much of a threat and competition as Buddhism or Jainism.  The Muslim rulers and subsequently the British might have treated the native people as one community and discriminated against them all alike, ignoring the fact that they practiced diverse faiths, spoke numerous languages and belonged to several social, ethnic and lignuistic backgrounds. Because of our modern mindset we forget these important historical facts and engage in comparative studies, as if Hinduism has been in existence forever in its current format.

Similarly, Buddhism is also not a monolithic religion. It had numerous sects and subsects. Theravada Buddhism, for example, is as much different from Mahayana as from Vaishnavism or Shaivism. Therefore, if we have to arrive at truth, we have to break our modern mindset and examine the subject at the more granular level. We have to stop using the conventional approach, which is too general and simplistic and ignores historical reality.

4. Conversions played an important role

Religions evolve or decay overtime, as their core beliefs and practices are corrupted or new beliefs and practices creep into them. Comparatively, missionary religions which engage in indiscriminate conversions are more vulnerable to it as they admit people from various backgrounds. For example, Christianity underwent numerous changes since the days of the Roman empire. The original faith which was preached and propagated by its founder is entirely and unrecognizably different from the faith which its practitioners follow today. Some say that the Pauline Christianity is an antithesis of what Jesus initially preached, and many of his original teachings were lost or forgotten in the 300-400 years that followed his crucifixion.

You also find not one but numerous variations of it across the globe. You have the Catholic version, the Protestant version, the Jesuit version, the Syrian version, the Evangelical version, the Mormon version, and so on, with further variations and distinction of churches and institutions within each. When Christianity came to India during the British time, Indian Christians added many native practices and cultural expressions to their faith, creating a distinctly Indian Christianity. In Latin America, they incorporated many native beliefs and developed a distinctly Spanish version of Catholicism.

A similar development took place in Buddhism also, the oldest missionary religion in the world. Due to the efforts made by the Buddha and later by his followers, his teachings spread far and wide within and outside the Indian subcontinent and attracted many new converts from different backgrounds, cultures, faiths countries and regions. After the Buddha, three main branches of Buddhism emerged namely Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, besides numerous variations of them. There were at least 25-30 schools of Buddhism in ancient India alone, apart from numerous others in China and elsewhere. You also have many variations within each of the main sects in each country. Wherever it went, Buddhism assimilated many local traditions, beliefs and practices. As a result, today it has not only aspects of what we recognize as Hinduism but also those of the dominant faiths of all the countries where it thrived such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Tibet, Thailand, China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, etc.

How did it happen? How does a faith undergo changes, especially after its founder or Prophet passes away? Obviously, many of the developments happened because of admitting new people into the faith. Conversions have both positive and negative consequences. They change the people who convert to the faith, while the people who convert change the faith itself in unimaginable and imperceptible ways. Before anyone realizes, a faith may become completely unrecognizable from its original due to conversions, especially when it admits people who are ignorant, ill prepared or reluctant. It may be hard to believe but it is true that conversions may bring more people into the fold, but in the process, they also open the faith to random changes and unintended consequences to its originality, teachings and institutions.

The staunch adherents of any religion or faith would never allow its dilution or corruption, since their very identity depends upon it. However, if a religion constantly spreads to new regions and gathers new converts, it would be difficult to manage the change or the consequences arising from it. This is especially true if it is done in haste without proper safeguards or if the converts are not ready for the change or if the incentive for the conversion comes from outside such as a monetary or worldly gain or a personal benefit. The new converts bring with them their own baggage of past beliefs and practices. If they are not restrained or properly instructed, they may continue to practice their old faith alongside the  new and gradually corrupt the faith. Overtime, these changes add up and create divisions and dissentions.

The Buddha invented the idea of Sangha for this very reason so that the initiates could be grounded in the Dharma without family and societal influences or past habits and inclinations. Even today, many monasteries prefer to recruit young initiates. However, in the past the Sanghas were not always effective in enforcing discipline or settling doctrinal disputes.  History shows that Buddhists faced this problem in ancient India. After the Buddha’s departure, Buddhism rapidly spread to different parts of the subcontinent, acquiring a large number of followers from diverse backgrounds. As a result, many practices and beliefs crept into it which were not originally prescribed by the Buddha. Many versions of his teachings also came into existence, each tracing its authority to the Buddha.

Buddhist texts confirm that the second Buddhist council held at Vaisali settled many differences between Sthaviravadins and Mahasanghikas. The former stuck to the original teachings of the Buddha, while the latter preferred to adapt the monastic rules (Vinaya) with certain changes. The Council of elders also identified at least ten teachings ascribed to the Buddha as heresies and discarded them. The third council, which was organized during Ashoka’s reign at Pataliputra also settled many differences and condemned more heresies. These unintended consequences had an adverse upon the fortunes of Buddhism. Two of the reasons cited for its decline in India were, dilution of its teachings and introduction of unconventional and corrupt practices by some Sanghas.

Comparatively, Vedism, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Tantrism remained mostly free from outside influences. Unlike Buddhism, they were not driven by the missionary zeal or particularly interested in teaching their faith to new converts who were not ready for it. Some of them aggressively guarded their secrets and prohibited free dissemination of knowledge outside their families and social circles. However, they too did not escape from some dilution as they spread to many parts of India and admitted many people from both within and outside India.

5. Both benefited from religious diversity

Vedism, Jainism and Buddhism were not the only dominant faiths of ancient India. There were numerous other faiths, schools of philosophy, teacher traditions, liberation theologies and ascetic movements which broadly fell into theistic, atheistic and agnostic categories. Vedachara, Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimansa, Lokayata, Charvaka, Ajivika, Pasupatha, Shramana, Parivrajaka, Siddha, etc., were the prominent sects and schools of that time. Most of them incorporated several common beliefs such as belief in karma and rebirth or liberation, acknowledging them as existential truths, and some which were distinctly their own. As they thrived in the same milieu and drew followers from the same backgrounds, the shared beliefs helped them to facilitate the transition of the converts and neophytes without much resistance.  

The Buddha had a particular liking for upper caste Hindus, whom he considered knowledgeable, erudite and ripe for salvation. Hence, he made an active effort to recruit them in large numbers. These efforts enriched Buddhism by providing it with a strong intellectual base and strengthen its roots. At the same time, as we discussed before it must have led to the dilution of his original teachings, resulting in disputes and schisms. While in the early stages, Buddhism was influenced by the influx of new ideas from rival faiths, subsequently as Buddhism gained prominence, the opposite must have also happened. Many Buddhist beliefs, ideas and practices might have found their way into rival faiths through those who converted to them from declining Buddhism.

6. Both were enriched by the same milieu and shared beliefs

From the previous discussion, we can see that the synthesis of ideas in the dominant faiths of ancient India happened in various ways and at various levels mainly due to the admission of people from diverse backgrounds and exchange of ideas through debates and discussions. Since numerous faiths existed within the same social and geographical milieu, we cannot easily establish the source of influence of how different beliefs and practices entered each. Further, we do not have proper historical records to validate any conclusions. With this understanding, let us now examine how the similarities between the Hinduism and Buddhism might have developed overtime.  

Shared beliefs

The religious faiths of Indian origin share many common beliefs and practices, which impart to them their very distinctly Indian character and set them apart from other world religions. It is difficult to trace their origin, or how they happened to be so common and universal to all faiths. One possibility is that they derived them from a common ancient source or from the most ancient of them all, which can be either Vedism or Jainism or both. Both these traditions have a long, shared history, before the emergence of Buddhism.

The beliefs which are common to them are dharma, karma, rebirth, samsara (existence), detachment, sanyasa (renunciation), mantras (sacred chants). magical rituals, meditative practices, breathing techniques, the individual Self (atman), tattvas (basic components of nature), cyclical nature of time and existence, periodical destruction and revival of the world, sin, suffering, and liberation. With a few exceptions, all the religious traditions of India acknowledge them as facts of existence. Although they might have originated from a common source, they independently developed in each within the framework of their own doctrines and philosophical explanations.

We can discern their gradual development from their rudimentary forms into current forms within each. It is more noticeable in Vedism, which is probably the oldest of all Indian faiths. For example, in Vedism, dharma originally meant obligatory duty, and karma, sacrificial actions. Rebirth initially involved a journey back and forth between the earth and the ancestral world, located in the moon. Liberation meant a final journey to the immortal world of Brahman in the Sun. Subsequently these ideas acquired broader meaning and grew complex. Dharma meant not only duty but also a set of moral, natural and divine laws and instructions. God became the upholder of Dharma. Decline of dharma meant chaos. Karma which initially meant sacrificial actions became selfish and desire-ridden actions which produced consequences or fruit, resulting in bondage and suffering. Similarly, in the later Vedic texts, rebirth involved the transmigration of souls to many upper and lower worlds according to their karma. Apart from the immortal world of Brahman, the immortal worlds of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva also emerged. By the time Buddhism was founded, these doctrines were well developed and became accepted as facts of existence.

Ritual worship

Ritual worship is a predominant aspect of Vedism, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Jainism. Early Vedic people practiced elaborate sacrificial ceremonies (homas and yajnas) and daily sacrfices. Subsequently they adapted other methods of ritual worship such as domestic worship, temple worship and tantric forms of ritual worship. The Buddha was decidedly against ritual worship, and encouraged his followers to seek Nirvana by practicing the Eightfold Path. Even today, ritual worship is discouraged in the Theravada Buddhism. However, a few centuries after the Buddha, ritual worship found its way into Buddhism through the Mahayana sect, with its emphasis upon the ritual worship of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for self-purification. Ritual worship is also practiced in Vajrayana Buddhism. It is possible that these developments happened in Buddhism due to the admission of many people who were hitherto practicing ritual worship and brought their practices into the new faith. Some believe that Mahayana Buddhism developed in Southern India, where devotional worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Mahavira and other deities was widely practiced and where probably the idea of ritually worshipping the Bodhisattvas developed.

Tantra

Tantra as a distinct school emerged in the post Mauryan era (200 ADE). The roots of tantra probably lie in human and animal sacrifices and magical rituals of ancient, esoteric groups and shamanic cults. It may also have an early connection with the primitive forms of Shaivism. Rudiments of Tantra can be found in the Vedas, especially in the Atharvaveda which is essentially a treatise on magical rituals. Animal and human sacrifices were common in ancient India among many primitive tribes. Vedic people also practiced them as a part of their sacrificial ceremonies. However, it is doubtful whether tantra as a separate branch of knowledge existed in the renunciant traditions of early Vedic religions or whether it was ever practiced along side the standard Vedic rituals.  Because of its unconventional approach to liberation and primitive methods to invoke spirits and wrathful deities, it was initially rejected by the traditional schools. However, with the emergence of Shaivism and the inclusion of many converts from the mountainous and forest regions who believed in ritual magic, tantra might have found its acceptance in all the dominant faiths, including Jainism where it was initially practiced by some groups before it disappeared. Today, although some practices of Tantra are still regarded unconventional, it is practiced in many sects of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Stupas and temples

Early Vedic people did not worship any idols or icons or built any monuments or temples for their deities. Stupa worship is a distinctly Buddhist practice, not found in Hinduism. The Buddha would not have approved the practice. The idea was derived probably from a Sramanic tradition or from ancient renunciant schools where it was the norm to build a mound over the place where the body of a departed teacher was buried. After the departure of the Buddha, his followers built at least ten stupas over his relics. Thousands were built subsequently in the centuries that followed. Building memorials over the burial place of deceased spiritual teachers has been a common practice in Shaivism and many ascetic and teacher traditions. The Hindu Dharmshastras prescribe burial only for those who take up renunciation. Outwardly, the stupas look like large Shivalingas. Stupas and temples may have independent origins, although their subsequent development might have been inspired by each. Rudimentary temple structures, temple rituals and worship of images and icons were prevalent in India during Buddha's time. References to temples were found in ancient Vedic, Buddhist and Jain scriptures. Temple building in Hindu sectarian traditions probably picked up in response to competition from Buddhism and Jainism.

Yoga

 We do not know from where the early Buddhists derived their meditative practices. The Buddha might have introduced some on his own, and some might have found their way through other existing traditions. Yoga was not an established practice in early Vedic religion which was predominantly ritualistic rather than contemplative. Yoga had independent origins and developed as a distinct school of philosophy along with Samkhya, from which it derived its essential philosophy. It probably entered Vedism through Upanishadic seers, Shaivism, Tantra and early classical schools of yoga. The Yogacara school was originally associated with Mahayana Buddhism, and before that with Sautrantika and Sthaviravada schools. In Buddhism, it developed into a distinct school probably due to conversions from Vedism, Shaivism and the ancient yoga and renunciant schools. The early proponents of the schools were brahmin born scholars such as Asanga and Vasubandhu.

Conclusion

No religion would willfully or institutionally prefer to copy ideas and practices from other faiths. They would rather try to preserve their purity and distinction since their superiority and appeal depend upon them. The Bhagavadgita clearly states that it is better to follow one’s dharma even if it is inferior rather than to practice that of another. It is not that there was no exchange of information or transfer of ideas between the religious faiths of ancient India. It happened because they competed for followership and royal patronage and attracted people from other faiths to increase their own number.

It was more pronounced in Buddhism which was a distinctly missionary religion, where the Sanghas regularly recruited new converts and initiates to sustain themselves. As adherents from rival faiths joined, they brought with them their share of beliefs and practices and transformed their new faith in imperceptible ways. As time went by, the changes added up, resulting in internal dissentions and disputes and necessitating review and resolution, which often led to schisms and formation of new schools.

In the initial stages, after the departure of the Buddha, Buddhism absorbed many beliefs and practices from other faiths, which led to major developments and compromises within its core beliefs and practices. However, centuries later, when Buddhism declined and Vedism regained its dominance, many Buddhists and even Jains might have returned to the faith of their ancestors and incorporated into it the predominant aspects of their previous faiths. It might led to many changes, adjustments and adaptations within the various sects of what we know today as Hinduism. It is also possible that some practices entered it in a similar manner through other sources which were neither Buddhist nor Jain nor Hindu, but came along with the invaders such as the Sakas, the Bactrian Greeks, the Kushanas, etc. Many tribal and mountain kingdoms such as the Barashivas also enriched Hinduism by bringing their own beliefs and practices into it.

One can see that the gradual and imperceptible transformation of these faiths of India has been ongoing even now. In the last fifty years alone, both Hinduism and Buddhism underwent tremendous transformation as they spread into the Western countries and drew new converts who were previously practicing Abrahamic religions. Hinduism underwent numerous changes in the last hundred years due to the rise of popular Hinduism, decline of sectarian movements, commercialization of Hindu festivals and injection of nationalistic sentiments into religious thinking and identity. Western Buddhism has many distinct features. So is Hinduism, which has been taking shape in these countries as an independent force and as a part of many teacher traditions and new age movements. We have to see how the age of Internet and the free flow of information are going to leave their impact upon them and transform them.

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