Hinduism and Buddhism A Comparison

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 David)

"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)


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 maintain 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. However, it is widely accepted that Buddhism gained popularity in India because it released many people from the shackles of tradition and orthodoxy who were otherwise ignored as victims of their own karma. Through his teachings and guidance, the Buddha created hope and aspiration for them, who previously had no hope of salvation and freedom of choice. India of his times was characterized by an unjust caste system, ritual methods of worship which only a few could perform and social inequality due to the exalted status of 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, which became popular in Tibet.

Similarities

Hinduism and Buddhism share some of the following similarities.

1. World: Both Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize the illusory nature of the world, and the role of karma and desire-ridden actions in keeping the beings bound to the cycle of births and deaths.

2. Bondage and suffering According to the Buddha, desire is the root cause of suffering and the removal of desire in all its forms results in the cessation of suffering. A similar view is held by almost all Hindu philosophical schools and sects. Hindu texts such as the Upanishads (Isa), the Vedas, the Tantras and the Bhagavadgita suggest that desire-ridden actions and attachment to worldly things are responsible for our bondage and suffering, while performing actions as a sacrifice without desiring their fruit would result in our liberation.

3. Doctrine: Both Hinduism and Buddhism are dharmic religions. Dharma is central to both, although its meaning and purpose are different. Both religions believe in the concept of karma, the cycle of births and deaths (samsara), the transmigration or reincarnation or rebirth of beings (or souls) according to their previous karma.

4. Virtues: Both emphasize the importance of cultivating compassion, nonviolence and selfless service towards all living beings to achieve liberation.

5. Heavens and hells: Both believe in the existence of several hells and heavens or higher and lower worlds, into which beings may enter upon death according to their desires and past deeds. However, they also believe that it delays liberation and does not resolve suffering.

6. Gods: Both believe in the existence of gods and celestial beings in different planes. The names of several deities such as Indra, Brahma, Yama, Varuna, etc., are also common.

7. Practices: Both believe in the importance of certain spiritual practices to achieve liberation such as yoga, the practice of meditation, mindful breathing, concentration, mindfulness, cultivation of certain bhavas or states of meditative absorption (jhanas), and so on.

8. Purity and character: Both believe in detachment, renunciation of worldly life, non-possession and cultivation of virtues such as nonviolence, truthfulness, taking of vows, etc., as a precondition to achieve liberation.

9. Desire: Both regard desire as the chief cause of suffering and renunciation of desire as the main solution to liberation.

10. Emptiness: The Advaita philosophy of Hinduism is similar to the Shunyavada (emptiness) theory of Buddhism in some respects.

11. Impermanence: Both believe in the impermanence (anitya) of the world as the cause of aging, sickness, death and decay, and the suffering which arises from them. They also hold that the apparent reality or the objective reality (not-self) is a temporary phenomenon or illusion.

12. Tantra: Buddhism and Hinduism have their own versions of Tantra and ancient Shamanic practices. Both have traditional right-hand and unconventional left-hand ritual practices.

13. Origin: Both originated and evolved in the Indian subcontinent. The founder of Buddhism was a Hindu prince who became the Buddha. Buddhism is the greatest gift of ancient India to the world. For nearly two millenniums, Buddhist teachings prevailed in many parts of the world and influenced the progress of culture and civilization there.

14. Death symbolism: Both Hinduism and Buddhism recognize Death as an inevitable and inescapable aspect of life. Both personify Death as a deity and refer to him as Kala, Yama, Mara, etc. Death is equated with Time in both traditions

15. Liberation: Both believe that liberation, not rebirth or heavenly life, should be the highest goal and the best and permanent solution to the problem of suffering and bondage.

16. Cosmology: The cosmologies of both religions have several common features. Both recognize a four-tier universe of multiple worlds and spheres. Hinduism recognizes a subterranean world, the mortal world, the mid-region and the immortal world of Brahman. Buddhism recognizes the underworld, the earth, the mid-region of gods and celestial, and the highest plane of Brahma lokas.

17. Universe: Both religions consider the earth the center of the universe, resting on Mount Meru, surrounded by seven concentric rings of tall mountains and seven oceans, with the hells of asuras below and the worlds of devas above. Both hold the Indian subcontinent as a sacred land and call it Jambudvipa.

18. Subtle worlds: Both believe in the existence of gross and subtle worlds. The subtle words can be experienced by humans in meditation.

19. Supernatural powers: Both believe in the human potential to attain supernatural or divine powers and the retention and recollection of past life impressions.

20. Theology: Both religions are liberation theologies. They consideration liberation (moksha or nirvana) from the cycle of births and deaths as the highest purpose of human life.

21. Diversity: Both Hinduism and Buddhism have numerous schools, sects and sub sects. With some exceptions, both religions approve the ritual and spiritual worship of deities. They also have many identical beliefs and opinions regarding the nature of existence, reality, true knowledge, states of consciousness, etc.

Buddha's attitude towards Hindus

Before his enlightenment, the Buddha was brought up in a traditional Hindu family. Before finding his own path, he went to Hindu gurus to find answers 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 Brahmanas (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors) due to their knowledge, learning and past-life karma.

Hence, he especially advised his disciples to treat the Brahmans 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 Brahmanas had free access to the Buddha and some Brahmin ascetics were admitted into the monastic discipline without being subjected to the rigors of probation which was otherwise compulsory for all classes of people. The Buddha converted many Brahmanas to Buddhism and considered their involvement a sure sign of progress and popularity of his fledgling movement. A few hundred years’ later, we find the echo of a similar sentiment in the inscriptions of King Ashoka who exhorted the people of his empire to show due respect to the learned Brahmanas.

Differences

The following are some of the differences, which we can see in the principles and practice of these two religions.

1. Founder: Hinduism is not founded by any prophet seer or guru. Buddhism was founded by the Buddha. Hinduism is not an organized religion. In many respects, Buddhism is well organized into three divisions namely the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma.

2. Scriptures: Hinduism believes in the inviolability and supremacy of the Vedas. The Buddhists respect the teachings of the Buddha, especially those concerning the Dharma or the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, but do not believe in the inviolability of any particular scripture.

3. Self and Not Self: Buddhism does not believe in the existence of eternal and indestructible souls as well in the first cause, or the creator God. Hinduism believes in the existence of Atman, the immortal and immutable, individual self, and Brahman, the all-pervading, omnipotent, Supreme Self.

4. Buddha: In Hinduism the Buddha is an incarnation of Mahavishnu, one of the gods of Hindu Trinity. In Buddhism, the Buddha is the highest deity. Buddhists do not accept any Hindu god as equal or superior to the Buddha.

5. Devas: In Hinduism, gods and goddess (devas) are immortal. In Buddhism, they are subject to change and decay, including those who bear the same name as the gods of Hinduism, such as Indra, Brahma, Varuna, etc. They live for millions of years, but are not immortal.

6. Worship: The original Buddhism as taught by the Buddha is known as Theravada Buddhism or Hinayana Buddhism. Its followers do not ritually worship the Buddha or his images. They also do not believe in the idea of the Bodhisattvas. In Hinduism, ritual worship of gods and goddesses is a central feature. However, some sects of Buddhism, such as the Mahayana sect ritually worship the forms and images of the Buddha.

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

7. Renunciation: Hinduism recognizes four ashramas or stages in human life, and encourages householders to practice renunciation (sanyasa) after fulfilling all worldly obligations. It is not followed in Buddhism. Buddhists can join the order of monks (Sangha) any time, even as little children, depending upon their spiritual preparedness. However, in both traditions people have a choice to become renunciants according to their inclination or at the behest of their parents or teachers.

8. Monasticism: Buddhists who take vows and enter monastic life organize themselves into an Order (Sangha) of monks. They live in groups and abide in strict monastic discipline according to a set of well-defined and codified rules. Hinduism is not a monastic religion. It is essentially a religion of the individual.

9. Bodhisattvas: Buddhism believes in the concept of Bodhisattvas or spiritually perfected beings, who postpone their own salvation to help others in their suffering. Hinduism does not have a similar concept.

10. Status of gods: The gods of Hinduism are very powerful who can be worshipped as the highest gods of creation. They play an important role in ensuring the order and regularity of the worlds. They are also ritually worshipped and made offerings. Buddhists gods do not enjoy the same exalted status or popularity.

11. Scope: Taking refuge in the Buddha, joining the Sangha and following the Dhamma are the three cardinal requirements in Buddhism on the Eightfold Path. In Hinduism you do not find a similar approach, which is universally practiced. It offers many choices and alternatives to the followers to work for their liberation.

12. Karma and rebirth: Although both religions believe in karma and rebirth, they differ in the manner in which these principles operate and determine the fate upon beings upon earth. In Hinduism, it is the embodied self (jivatma) which is caught in Samsara and goes through transmigration, and which needs to become free through self-purification. In Buddhism it is the being (jiva or the not-self) who is caught in the Samsara and who needs to achieve Nirvana through self-transformation and dissipation.

13. Life after death: Both religions also differ with regard to afterlife. Hindus believe that upon death, souls travel to the world of ancestors and stay there. In Buddhism, we do not find any reference to the ancestral world, but several hells and heavens where beings upon death may go and stay.

14. The state of liberation: Hinduism believes that upon achieving liberation, an individual Self becomes immortal. It may either merge in the Supreme Self or remain in the immortal world forever. Buddhists believe that upon attaining Nirvana, a being enters an indescribable state of non-becoming and non-being.

Conclusion

Of the two religions, Hinduism is older by at least a millennium or two. Some Buddhists do argue that the historical Buddha might have taken birth in the sixth century B.C., but the Primal Buddha, of whom he was a manifestation, might have previously incarnated upon earth several times and in different time cycles to teach the doctrine. According to them the historical Buddha is just one in the line of many Buddhas who may have preceded him and who may follow him. They belief is prevalent in some sects of Buddhism.

It is similar to the beliefs entertained by Hindus that Hinduism is an eternal religion, which manifests at the beginning of each creation through the mouth or the mind of God himself, and in each cycle of creation the Vedas reverberate in the subtle and gross realms of God's creation. Thus, some Hindus believe that the age of Hinduism cannot be determined and it has been in existence since the beginning of Time. However, they are beliefs which cannot be validated except through the authority of scriptures. Available evidence does not confirm the theory that Buddhism existed as a religion a body of teaching 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. However, 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 which share some fundamental and, in some respects, identical beliefs, regional variations, history, tradition and practices that are 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. Although it originated from the teachings of the Buddha, due to the freedom he gave to his followers, overtime it evolved into a multifaceted religion with numerous schools and sects. Structurally, present day Buddhism is as diverse and complicated as Hinduism.

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 Indian subcontinent. There were several religions, sects, subsects, ascetic movements and schools of philosophy, with regional and cultural variations. Historians of the British era collectively and rather erroneously included all of them under the generic name Hinduism.

Of the numerous doctrines and philosophies, Buddhism was the only religion from India which spread beyond the boundaries of the Indian subcontinent and went on to play a much greater role in many parts of Asia. In the process it developed a very complex sectarian, theological and geographical diversity 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 notice or understand the deep connection that existed and still exists between Hinduism and Buddhism or the significant influence they exerted upon each other over the last 2500 years.

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