Buddhism Vs. Hinduism Similarities and Differences
India, the Land of Dharmic Traditions
Summary: Find here a comparative study and analysis of 20 Common beliefs and concepts of Buddhism and Hinduism.
As we study Buddhism and Hinduism, it becomes fascinatingly clear how these two traditions benefited from an intense rivalry between them in the land of their birth. It may sound paradoxical but it is true that in their attempt to assert themselves and establish their superiority they mutually strengthened their respective belief systems and philosophical ideas, drawing profusely from each and without compromising their own. Buddhism originated as an alternative faith to Vedic religion, but in due course it made several compromises to its original doctrine to resolve its own internal schisms and doctrinal matters which were not fully resolved or clarified or elaborated by the Buddha and his immediate disciples.
The two traditions are identical in many respects and dissimilar in many others. They mutually influenced each other and were benefited by each other’s strengths as well as weaknesses. When you study them, you cannot fail to notice how the same beliefs and concepts assume different connotations and shades of meaning in each tradition. As a Hindu Buddhist, I am fascinated by the fact that I can relate to the best of the beliefs and practices of both these religions and assimilate them into a philosophy of my own, without suffering from incongruity or compromising my fundamental faith.
Since they originated in the same soil and shared the same social, religious, spiritual and geographical milieus for a long time, it is but natural that they assimilated the wisdom of numerous teachers and scholar who lived in the same environment and often shared their wisdom or resolved their differences through debates and discussions. Both traditions attempt to address the most striking problem of our lives namely Death, and aim to resolve it through liberation in their own ways. In that process, they not only strike different paths but also share many common beliefs and practices.
For example, the deity of Death (Yama) who appears in many Buddhist paintings and who is worshipped in many sects of Buddhism is the same god of Death who is mentioned in the Upanishads as the first manifestation of Brahman (Shiva or Isvara) upon earth. It is the same deity with a different name (Mahakala) who manifests before Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita as the universal form of Brahman. He appears in the Katha Upanishad as Yama, a spiritual teacher. He is known as Rudra, Bhairava, etc., in Hinduism, and Mara, Vajrabhairava, Yama, etc., in Buddhism. He is the enforcer of justice (dharmapala) in both traditions. He is Yama for the ignorant and Yamantaka for the enlightened. This image of Death with fierce eyes and a terrible form symbolizes the mortality and impermanence of life in both traditions. This is but one example of how similar and yet dissimilar the two are.
In the following discussion, we examine 20 common beliefs and practices of both traditions, and see where they agree and disagree. Readers may please note that Buddhism and Hinduism have numerous sects and schools. They widely vary in their beliefs, practices and philosophical interpretations. Therefore, whatever comparison we have drawn here may not necessarily reflect all the diversity, complexity, contradictions and exceptions found in them. This is just a broad overview, or rather an oversimplification in some respects, which should give you a fairly good understanding of their comparative features arising from their prolonged historical and geographical relationship.
1. Atma and Anatma
In Hinduism, Atma or Atman is the eternal Self, which is infinite, self-existing, transcendental and indestructible, and Anatma is all that which is not the Self. Anatma represents the dependent, destructible, transient objective reality. Hindus believe in the existence of both Atma and Anatma. According to it, the eternal Self is caught in the cycle of births and deaths, as it is enveloped by the impurities of Nature and remains so until they are removed through spiritual transformation and purification. Buddhists do not believe in the eternal Self, but the not-self. For them, there is nothing eternal in existence. All reality or existence is impermanent and objectified in both gross and subtle realms and constitutes the not-self reality. The beings are also a part of that not-self reality, and what exists in them and around them is also the dependent, destructible not-self. Each of them represents the same not-self or the objective-self, made up of aggregates of parts (khandas) and consciousness or awareness in various states of ignorance. They are caught in the cycle of births and deaths, and remain so until they achieve liberation.
Both religions believe in the doctrine of karma, according to which desire-ridden actions have consequences and bear fruit. It is the fruit of Karma, which moves the wheel of life and continuation of the worlds. Beings accumulate positive and negative karma according to their actions. Good actions produce good fruit of karma, and vice versa. Both have consequences and lead to bondage, suffering, death and rebirth. According to Hinduism, karma is unavoidable, but can be resolved through desireless and selfless actions, transformative and purificatory yogas and the grace of God or a personal deity. Buddhists believe that one can overcome karma by practicing the Dhamma on the Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha, renouncing all desires and attachments, and purifying and controlling the mind and body. Some Buddhist sects do believe that worshipping the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other divine beings may have beneficent effect, since one may earn meritorious karma by doing so and partially neutralize their sinful past. However, both traditions believe that the best remedy to suffering is not engaging in good karma, but achieving liberation.
Belief in the impermanence of the world is a common to both religions, which they recognize as a major source of suffering and the reason to practice Dharma and achieve liberation. Both agree that the world is in a state of flux and unstable, just as the mind and body are. Death, decay, aging, sickness and suffering are unavoidable problems of life. No one can escape from them. All objects in the objective realm are subject to decay and destruction. The impermanence of things becomes a problem when we become attached to them or form a relationship with them. Caught in between attraction and aversion to things, we experience gain and loss, and various conflicting states, emotions and feelings which constitute suffering. Hence, in both religions, you will find a great emphasis upon cultivating equanimity, sameness, detachment, renunciation, etc., to bring the mind to complete rest. However, as stated before, Buddhists believe that nothing in existence is permanent, while Hindus hold that the Self (Isvara) is eternal, constant and indestructible. Hence, one can escape from impermanence into permanence and immortality by knowing oneself and attaining liberation.
4. Reincarnation or rebirth
Belief in rebirth or reincarnation is common to both religions. Both agree that rebirth is an unintended consequence of engaging in desire-ridden actions, and becoming involved with the world and its objects and pleasures. Both affirm that beings are born repeatedly until they achieve liberation. Although humans have some control over where, when and how they can take birth, it is not true that humans are always reborn as humans, and animals as animals. It is determined by karma. Humans may be born as animals, and vice versa according to their deeds. Some may even languish in the afterworlds such as the world of ghosts for their cardinal sins (suicide, etc.). . In other words, immediate rebirth is not guaranteed for all. Upon death, beings may go to different heavens or hells according to their karma, where they stay in subtle states until they return to earth to take another birth. How long they stay there, this is also determined by their past actions only. However, while Hinduism believes that the eternal Self (Atman) participates in rebirth or transmigration, Buddhism holds that it is the not-self or the impermanent self which goes through numerous births and deaths until it is completely dissolved.
Both religions believe in the doctrine of Dharma. Both are also known as Dharma traditions or Dharmic religions. Hinduism is called Sanatana (eternal) Dharma, and Buddhism Bauddha (बौद्ध) Dharma. However, its meaning and interpretation differ in each. For example, in Hinduism, dharma refers to a set of moral and spiritual duties and obligations which are eternal and arise from God. Human beings are expected to perform them for the order and regularity of the world. Dharma in Hinduism also refers to religion, morality, code of conduct, teachings, moral instructions, etc. In Buddhism Dharma (Dhamma in Pali) principally means the basic teachings of the Buddha, which leads to Nirvana or freedom from suffering and rebirth. It refers to righteous living or right living. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path constitute the core teachings of the Dhamma. Not knowing it is considered ignorance (avijja). In both religions, Dharma is represented by the symbol of wheel, since they believe that the laws of existence are subject to fluctuations due to the revolving or cyclical nature of existence. However, in Hinduism Dharma is eternal, and in Buddhism it is subject to decay and destruction.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism recognize the existence of numerous gods and goddesses. They are also ritually and mentally worshipped by several sects and schools in each. Each of them possesses distinguishing characteristics, powers, names and forms. Some of the deities have the same names in both religions, although they do not enjoy the same status. Hindus believe that all the gods and goddesses contain the essence of Brahman and are eternal. They may be withdrawn at the end of each cycle of creation, but reappear again during the next. Buddhism holds that the divinities and the Buddhas of the higher realms are also impermanent, just as the whole existence. They may live for a long time, spanning eons, but in the end, they too decay and disappear. Both traditions hold that by worshipping them one may accumulate good karma and enter higher worlds. However, both agree that it is an inferior choice because it delays liberation. Hinduism reveres Isvara as the lord of the universe and the creator God. For Buddhism, there is no creator God, but they do worship the Buddha in some sects as the highest deity or an almost God like being.
You will find many similarities between Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies and their descriptions and nomenclature of the worlds, planes and geographic locations in the cosmos. However, since each of them has numerous sects and subsects, you will find in each not one but many versions of them, which makes the comparison rather tedious. Both hold that existence is cyclical, but without an ultimate beginning or an end. It is filled with numerous subtle and gross worlds and planes of existence. Buddhism recognizes upper and lower realms, pure realms, impure realms, realms with forms and without forms, realms inhabited by divinities, celestial beings, bodhisattvas, demigods, animals, demons, ghosts, etc. Both identify Time (Kala) as the personification of Death and destruction. Hinduism recognizes seven upper worlds and seven lower worlds, with the earth in the middle. The upper worlds are inhabited by divinities and celestial beings, and the lower worlds by demons and numerous dark and evil beings. All these worlds may also exist in our consciousness in subtle form and manifest in meditation. Both religions also believe that Mount Meru is at the center of the spiritual realm, surrounded by seven concentric islands and seven concentric oceans. Of them, the Jambudvipa (Indian subcontinent) constitutes the innermost landmass.
Although the Buddha is the founder of Buddhism, he is looked upon in Hinduism as a world teacher, a god and an incarnation of Maha Vishnu. Hindus may not ritually worship the Buddha as Buddhists do, or follow his teachings with the same zeal, but treat him with respect as an enlightened master. Some Puranas do recognize him as a manifestation of God who was born upon earth as a heretic teacher to delude humans and lead them astray as a part of his play. The Hindu Pachangam records his birth anniversary (Buddha Jayanti) as a Hindu festival. Before he renounced worldly life and wandered off into forests, the Buddha himself was a Hindu. As the eldest son of a Hindu ruler, he received his education from Hindu teachers, married a Hindu princess and practiced Vedic religion. For the Buddhists, he is their highest god, supreme teacher, savior and path finder. They venerate not only the historical Buddha but also several past and future Buddhas of higher realms and their manifestations. For them, he symbolizes enlightenment, pure intelligence, the state of Nirvana and the highest goal.
In Hinduism Buddhi is the highest aspect of Nature. It is considered the very essence of Brahman (prajnanam brahma). In the being, it is the meeting ground between the Self and the not-self, where the light of the Self shines in pure brilliance. As an aspect of Nature (tattva), it is responsible for knowledge, insight, intuition and mental brilliance. However, because of the impurities such as egoism, delusion and attachments, the intelligence of many people remains clouded. Through various yogic practices one can purify the mind and body and let the intelligence of the Self shine through it. The same ideas are present in Buddhism also, where instead of Brahman, the Buddha personifies pure intelligence. For Buddhists, there is no such thing as eternal or supra mundane intelligence. All intelligence is a part of the not-self reality only. Enlightenment or awakening arises from the purification of natural intelligence on the Eightfold Path when one practices right mindfulness and right concentration, resulting in insightful awareness (prajna) and freedom from delusion. The Bhagavadgita recommends Buddhiyoga to sharpen the intelligence and stabilize it to cultivate discerning wisdom.
Hinduism has six main speculative philosophies known as Darshanas, with further diversity and variations within each. They were well developed long before the birth of the Buddha, and played an important role in the development of Indian philosophy. Hindu philosophies may be classified into theistic, atheistic, materialistic and agnostic schools. Buddhist philosophies are principally atheistic and agnostic. Just as Hinduism, Buddhism also has several schools of philosophies. However, they are difficult to categorize because of the emergence of diverse schools of thought due to sectarian and geographical influences. Hindu and Buddhist philosophies share many common notions, concepts and methods of inquiry, although the nature and substance of their philosophies do fundamentally differ due to the differences in their essential doctrines and beliefs. For example, they have a shared history and thought process with regard to the inquiry into nature of mind and body, reality and existence, nature of substances (dravyas), aggregates of the mind and body, theories of causation, suffering and its resolutions, turbulent nature of the mind, or methods (pramanas) to ascertain right knowledge, etc. However, they do not necessarily see the world and existence in the same way. Many philosophical concepts of Tantra are also common to both.
Buddhism was not the first religion of India, nor was the Buddha the first, to identify desire as the root cause of human suffering. The idea is central to Hinduism, Jainism and several other ascetic sects. They all acknowledge that desire-ridden actions lead to karma and bondage. Desires arise because of the activity of the senses, ignorance of the beings (jivas) and the deluding nature of the world. However, credit goes to the Buddha for popularizing it among the lay people by making it the central feature of his Four Noble Truths. Many scriptures of Hinduism, including the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, the Yogasutras, the epics, the Tantras and the Puranas repeatedly emphasize the binding nature of desires and the need to control them for the peace of mind and liberation by cultivating purity, dispassion, detachment, etc., through various yogic practices. Buddhism also recognizes desires as the chief obstacles to peace and equanimity and nirvana, and prescribes the Eightfold Path to cultivate self-control and discernment.
12. Renunciation or Sanyasa
Renunciation or the practice of giving up worldly pleasures, possessions and attachments to attain liberation is common to both Buddhism and Hinduism. Adherents in both traditions can take up renunciation at any time in their lives. However, Buddhism is primarily is a monastic tradition with an organized Sangha or the brotherhood of monks, who play a vital role in the preservation and propagation of their faith and discipline. The Sangha is one of the triple jewels. In some Buddhist traditions, it is customary to contribute at least one young male child from each family to a monastery as an ultimate sacrifice. Hinduism, does not have a similar practice. In Hinduism, the onus of preserving and protecting the Dharma rests mainly with the Householders (grihastas). They may take up sannyasa at a later stage in their lives, after fulfilling their obligations. Another major difference is that the Middle Way or the Middle Path is central to Buddhist, monastic discipline whereas in Hinduism ascetic groups who give up worldly life may follow either moderate or extreme methods of penances and austerities according to their respective beliefs.
Samsara means the course, passage, cyclical nature of existence, transmigration of souls, mundane existence, the world, etc. In philosophical terms, it refers to the cycle of births and deaths and the aimless wandering of the souls in the phenomenal existence through numerous births and deaths until they attain liberation. The concept was originally found in Hinduism and Jainism (and probably several extinct traditions), and subsequently adapted by the Buddha as he too recognized it as the fate of every being upon earth and the main source of our suffering. The main difference is that according to Hinduism, it is the embodied souls who are caught in the transmigration, while Buddhism holds that it is the being or the not-self which keeps wandering from birth to birth until it is fully dissolved into nothingness or pure emptiness. Both religions describe Samsara in negative terms as painful existence and the cause of suffering, which one should shun rather than embrace.
Buddhism and Hinduism are primarily liberation theologies. Their aim is to liberate the beings of the mortal world from the cycle of births and deaths. The concept is peculiar to all the religious traditions that originated in India. Both suggest that the world is a major source of suffering, and one should aim to escape from it through liberation, popularly called Nirvana in Buddhism and Moksha in Hinduism. However, the meaning of the word and the methods to achieve it differ in both. For example, in Hinduism, liberation means the liberation of the individual Self from the impurities of Nature such as egoism, delusion, ignorance, etc. In Buddhism, it means the dissolution or cessation or the extinguishment of the being or the not-self itself. According to Hinduism, upon liberation the liberated souls travel to the immortal world of Brahman and remain there forever. Buddhism holds that upon Nirvana beings cease to exist in any form or shape. Their individuality and consciousness become dispersed into their original elements, and they enter an indefinable and indescribable state of existence in which is nothing is distinguishable.
Hinduism is primarily a ritualistic religion, in which spirituality is a natural offshoot and an internal form of ritual or sacrifice only. Although some Upanishads declare rituals as inferior, one can say that there is a fine balance between the ritual and spiritual aspects of worship in Hinduism. Buddhism was originally a monastic and spiritual religion, in which rituals and sacrifices entered later as sectarian practices due to the influence of the Vedic and Tantric beliefs. Idol worship or image worship is common to both religions. In many sects of present-day Buddhism, people worship the images and idols of the Buddhas and other deities just as Hindus worship their gods and goddesses. However, their methods of worship may vary with regard to details, techniques and offerings. Some sects of Buddhism said to practice Homa rituals (fire sacrifices) also, similar to those practiced in Hinduism. In both traditions, ritual offerings are accompanied by the recitation of scriptures and sacred mantras (japa), remembrance of sacred names (smarana) and offering of food, incense, prayers, etc. In both cases, ritual worship is considered good karma, which may lead to purification, alleviation of sin and suffering or fulfillment of desires. One may also find similarities in their funeral rites. Cremation is the standard method of disposing of the body. Funeral rites are meant to prepare the departed ones for the next birth, in which relatives of the deceased play an important role.
Both religions have a large volume of religious texts, composed over a long period of time. Hindu religious texts were originally composed in Sanskrit, while Buddhist texts were composed in both Sanskrit and Pali. Subsequently, the texts of both religions were translated into numerous other languages. In both religions the texts are traditionally divided into sutras, tantras, agamas, pitakas, shastras, bhashyas, vachanas, etc. Hindu religious texts are broadly classified into Shruti (the heard ones) and Smriti (memorial or intellectual works). The Smriti comprises the entire gamut of Hindu religious and secular literature, except the Vedas. The Hindu law books (Dharma Shastras) which prescribe the code of conduct for householders and renunciants are included in it. Buddhist literature is broadly classified into three baskets, the Dhamma Pitaka or Sutta Pitaka (Buddha’s discourses), the Vinaya Pitaka (monastic rules) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Commentaries and explanatory texts). In Hinduism, the Vedas constitute Shruti. They are used in verbal testimony. In Buddhism, the discourses of the Buddha (buddha vachanas) are considered the heard ones. They are used as verbal testimony in religious discussions and debates.
Philosophical and doctrinal diversity is a distinguishing feature of Buddhism and Hinduism. Both are complex religions, with a long history and with several sects and sub-sects, each distinguished by its own set of doctrines, beliefs, deities, rituals, teachers and philosophies. The main sects of Hinduism are Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Tantrism. Each of them is further divided into several subsects and schools of philosophy, where you may also find secondary distinctions due to local influences. The main sects of Buddhism are Hinayana (the lower vehicle) or Theravada (the teachings of the elders), Mahayana (the greater vehicle), and Vajrayana (the diamond path). Just as in Hinduism, these sects have their own religious texts, beliefs and practices. They also contain several subsects, schools of philosophy and methods of worship. Since, unlike Hinduism, Buddhism was practiced in several countries outside India, it has also developed many local and geographical flavors and goes by distinct names such as Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Burmese Buddhism, Thailand Buddhism, Western Buddhism, and so on.
Yogic practices constitute the foundation of Hindu and Buddhist spirituality. It is where probably both find a common ground and come closest in their beliefs and practices. The roots of Yoga are in Hinduism. References to it are found in many ancient Hindu texts. Meditative and contemplative practices were widely prevalent in India by the time of Buddha’s birth. He incorporated several methods of Yoga in the practice of the Eightfold Path, which are collectively known as the Buddhist Yoga. Many concepts of Patanjali’s classical yoga seems to have found their way into Buddhism although we cannot clearly ascertain when and how it happened. It may not be a coincidence that Ashtanga Yoga has eight limbs, and Buddha’s Middle Way has eight practices. Buddhist scholars of ancient India studied Yoga to refine their methods of Dhyana. The Yogacara school of Buddhism was popular at one time. Its early proponents namely Asanga and Vasubandhu probably had a good knowledge of the beliefs and practices of Samkhya and Yoga schools of Hinduism. They were probably Hindus before they converted or received formal instruction in Hindu scriptures. The Vajrayana sect of Buddhism drew richly from the principles and practices of Hindu Tantra Yoga.
19. Dhyana and Samadhi
As stated above, Hindu and Buddhist Dhyana practices have many similarities. In both the approaches, the withdrawal of the mind and senses, breath control, concentration, passive and active meditation and silencing and stabilizing the mind are common practices. They are meant to purify the mind and stabilize it, so that one enters higher states of meditative self-absorption. The idea of Samadhi as the culmination of such practices is also common to both. Hindu Yogis use images of their personal gods and goddesses or mystic diagrams (yantras) to practice concentration and meditation. Buddhists use images of the Buddha or a Buddhist deity and mandalas (mystic diagrams) for the same purpose. While Hindus practice pranayama for breath control, Buddhists practice Anapanasatti for the same purpose. However, there are subtle differences. Hindu meditative practices are primarily meant to disassociate the subjective, witness Self from the not-self (objectivity) so that the mind becomes dissolved in a purely subjective state (Samadhi) which is free from duality, objectivity and otherness. In Buddhism, the primary approach is to practice mindfulness to observe insightfully the mind and body and the not-self reality, so that one eventually realizes how unstable and impermanent all existence is and falls into deep silence, which is free and detached from all formations, movements, becoming and being.
Tantra means weaving the mind and body into a harmonious whole through self-transformation or purification. Compared to the mantra tradition, it is more physical and sensual. Historically, it is a very ancient Indian practice, whose origins can vaguely be discerned in the Vedas and in the earliest beliefs of Shaivism. Tantra essentially relies upon the unconventional methods of using the mind and body in ritual worship for self-purification in association with various ritualistic objects, symbols, sacred words, mantras, icons and mystic diagrams (mandalas or yantras), and even sexual intercourse. Such practices are found in some sects of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Tantra has its origin in Hinduism, but found its way into Buddhism nearly a thousand years after the birth of the Buddha. The Hindu Tantra is mostly associated with Shiva and Shakta traditions (although Vaishnava Tantra is also in existence). In Buddhism, it is mostly found in the Vajrayana Sect and in some Chinese schools. Some fringe tantric traditions in both religions also reportedly engage in extreme left-hand methods, including witchcraft, magic, sorcery, necromancy, and the ritualistic use of sexual and erotic symbolism. However, most of the tantric practices in both are conventional and used in self-purification and liberation.
Thus, one can see that Hinduism and Buddhism share many common beliefs and practices, while they hold diametrically opposite beliefs regarding the nature of existence, the existence of permanent Self, and belief in God. In the period following the departure of the Buddha and the emergence of the Mauryan empire (400 BCE), an intense rivalry developed between the two, which continued for a few hundred years before they found common ground and made peace with each other. Buddhism declined in the Post Gupta period (500-600 AD), but continued to dominate the religious and philosophical milieu of India as a major religious force. It is popular in India even today, although it has yielded considerable ground to Hinduism. For Buddhists all over the world, India is still Jambudvipa, the land where the Buddha was born and established the Wheel of Dharma. For Hindus, the Buddha is still a venerable teacher, an exalted divinity and one of the incarnations of Maha Vishnu.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Hinduism and Buddhism A Comparison
- An Analysis of Hindu Buddhist Meditation Techniques
- What Samsara Means in Buddhism
- Vedanta and Buddhism A Comparative Study
- Hinduism and Judaism
- Hinduism and Islam, A Comparison of Beliefs and Practices
- Hinduism and Christianity, Jesus in India
- The Complexity of Knowing Hinduism
- The Origin and Definition of the Name Hindu
- Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali
- Ten Incredible Reasons Why Hinduism is an Amazing Religion
- Theism and Atheism in Hinduism
- Buddhism and Jainism
- Karma Doctrine in Hinduism and Buddhism
- Practical Buddhism - Meditation Techniques and Ethical Practices
- Buddhism - Belief in Rebirth or Reincarnation
- Buddhism is the First and the Last Scientific Religion of the World
- Essays On Dharma
- Esoteric Mystic Hinduism
- Introduction to Hinduism
- Hindu Way of Life
- Essays On Karma
- Hindu Rites and Rituals
- The Origin of The Sanskrit Language
- Symbolism in Hinduism
- Essays on The Upanishads
- Concepts of Hinduism
- Essays on Atman
- Hindu Festivals
- Spiritual Practice
- Right Living
- Yoga of Sorrow
- Mental Health
- Concepts of Buddhism
- General Essays
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