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 an ascetic teacher who refused to believe blindly in the Vedas." 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 to the problem of mortality. 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 the 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 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 after the Buddha was born, about a thousand years after his departure, the Vedic, Hindu tradition accepted him as an incarnation of Vishnu. However, for a long time, strong rivalry existed in the subcontinent between both, as both differed in many respects with regard to principles, methods and practice. In the post Mauryan world, the followers of Shiva and the Buddha could hardly stand each other. Instances of Buddhist persecution by a few Hindu rulers in the South as well as in the North were not unknown, although most of the kings followed religious toleration as a matter of policy and royal duty. King Sasank, who ruled parts of present-day Bengal and Bangladesh and was a contemporary of King Harshavardhana, vandalized Buddhist monuments and burnt the Pipal tree under which the Buddha experienced enlightenment. A similar charge is made against the Sungas who ruled parts of Northern India after the fall of the Mauryan empire.

Despite the fundamental differences between both religions and competition for outreach and patronage 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 and upheld the ritual worship of the Buddha as beneficent karma. Buddhism influenced the growth and development of Indian art and architecture and contributed richly to the practice of breath control (pranayama) and contemplative practices in attaining mindfulness and higher states of restful consciousness or meditative absorption. The Hindu tantra influenced the origin and development of Vajrayana Buddhism which became popular in Tibet.


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 and desire-ridden actions in keeping the beings bound to the cycle of births and deaths.

2. 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. Both religions believe in the concept of karma, the cycle of births and deaths, the transmigration of beings and their rebirth according to their previous karma.

4. Both emphasize the importance of compassion and nonviolence towards all living beings as an essential practice to achieve liberation.

5. 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 karma. They also suggest that this is not a good option since it delays liberation and does not resolve the problem of suffering.

6. 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. Both have common spiritual practices such as the practice of meditation, concentration, mindfulness, cultivation of certain bhavas or states of meditative absorption (jhanas), and so on.

8. Both believe in the essential practice of detachment, renunciation, non-possession of worldly things, nonviolence, truthfulness, taking of vows, etc., as a precondition to enter the path. Both regard desire as the chief cause of suffering and renunciation of desire as the main solution to liberation.

9. The Advaita philosophy of Hinduism has some similarities with the Shunyavada (emptiness) theory of Buddhism. Both believe that the apparent diversity is a temporary formation or illusion.

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

11. 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 half of the world and influenced the course of human civilization in many respects.

12. 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 and Yama in Hinduism and as Mara and Yama in Buddhism. Death as the devourer of all animate and inanimate things figures prominently in the Bhagavadgita and Upanishads, and so also in Buddhist texts, imagery and iconography.

13. Both Hinduism and Buddhism believe that liberation, not rebirth or heavenly life, should be the highest goal for their followers since it is the best and permanent solution to the problem of suffering and bondage.

14. The cosmology of Buddhism and Hinduism have some common features. Both recognize a four-tier universe of multiple worlds and spheres. Hinduism recognizes a subterranean world, the earth or the mortal world, the mid-region or space (antariksha) which is inhabited by celestial beings, the heaven of Indra where immortal gods live, and the highest world of Brahman. Buddhism recognizes an underworld, the earth, the mid-region of devas consisting of many worlds of passions and desires, the higher region of devas consisting of many worlds of forms and perception, and the highest region of abstract worlds known as Brahma lokas which are inhabited by great beings.

15. Both religions recognize the earth as the center of the universe. It rests on Mount Meru, a cosmic wonder, surrounded by seven concentric rings of tall mountains and seven oceans, with the hells of asuras below and the worlds of devas above. Both recognize the Indian subcontinent, the land where the Buddha was born as Jambudvipa.

16. Both hold that the whole of cosmos with all its planes is represented in the inner subtle realms of the human mind and can be visualized and entered in deep meditative states.

17. Both believe in the potential of humans to attain supernatural or divine powers and the retention and recollection of past life impressions.

Buddha's attitude towards Hindus

Prior to his enlightenment, the Buddha grew up in a traditional Hindu family. His parents were deeply religious people. Before finding his own path, he went to Hindu gurus and practiced under their guidance 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 Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors) since he believed that due to their learning, past karma and higher birth they possessed refined intelligence to grasp his teachings and were ripe for liberation.

Accordingly, he advised his disciples to treat them with respect and consideration and seek their company. It is said that certain categories of Brahmins had free access to the Buddha, and some of the Brahmana ascetics were directly admitted into the monastic discipline without having to go through the rigors of initiation and probation, which were otherwise compulsory for all classes of people. The Buddha converted many Brahmins to Buddhism and considered their involvement a sure sign of progress and popularity of his fledgling movement. Two or three hundred years after him, we find the echo of similar sentiment in the inscriptions of King Ashoka in which he urged his subjects to show respect to learned Brahmanas.

A review of Buddha's contribution

The Buddha was not the first teacher in ancient India to contemplate upon suffering and find spiritual solutions to resolve it. It has been the part of a continuing tradition in the Indian subcontinent for a long time, starting with the Vedic sages and the Jain Tirthankaras who lived at least a thousand years or so before him. The growth of cities along the river banks, the devastation caused by famines, floods, pandemics, epidemics and other natural calamities, and frequent warfare among neighboring kingdoms, which resulted in large-scale bloodshed and disruption of normal life must have made people acutely aware of the nature of suffering and attracted the minds of scholars and philosophers to contemplate upon it and find solutions.

The Buddha continued the same tradition at a time when India was going through a period of intense spiritual and intellectual churning, with scores of ascetic movements and teacher traditions who were engaged in the exploration of knowledge and truths to find solutions to the problems of mortality and impermanence. He was also not the first teacher to discern the link between desire and suffering. Many ascetic and renunciant traditions that preceded him also considered desire to be the root cause of suffering.

It is also difficult to believe that the Buddha witnessed suffering for the first time only when he went out into the streets. Probably, what he saw during those visits must have triggered the discontent or the despair that was already taking shape in him. As a prince and heir apparent to his father's throne, he must have received formal education in various subjects that were related to governance, character and conduct, and he must have interacted with several teachers and spiritual masters as a part of  his learning. All that knowledge and wisdom and refinement of character and conduct, and his own observation of human nature, worldly life and relationships must have thoroughly prepared him for the arduous spiritual journey which he subsequently undertook to mitigate human suffering.

However, in establishing the basic tenets of Dharma the Buddha made a radical departure from the commonly held belief that all living beings possessed an eternal and indestructible and omniscient soul. He declared that beings did not possess eternal souls. Instead they embodied an unstable, impermanent reality or not-self, which was a formation or an aggregation like the body itself and which was subject to desires, attachments, karma, bondage and transmigration. It disappeared when desires and attachments were suppressed, and karma was fully resolved on the Eightfold Path. Unlike the other renunciant traditions, which admitted only qualified members, the Buddha had admitted all classes of people from all backgrounds since he felt that everyone was bound and subject to suffering and rebirth. He ignored the caste barriers and the social injunctions imposed upon certain classes of people by the Vedic laws, which prevented them from seeking liberation. Most importantly, he advised people to focus upon experiential reality with mindfulness to understand the source of suffering and states of consciousness rather than upon transcendental reality that could not be verified by any physical or mental means.

Thus, you may regard the Buddha not only as a teacher and proponent of the Buddhist doctrine but also as a social and religious reformer within the Vedic fold who challenged the basic principles and practices of the Vedic religion and freed people from the shackles of a discriminatory and unfair social structure. He suggested a practical philosophy of liberation which could be practiced and verified by anyone. You may also regard him as the founder of a new religion, which was organized and systematic and claimed no divine source, but the common wisdom which was within the mental and intellectual realm of the human mind. In these undertakings his purpose was not to propagate a new religion or undermine the Vedic religion, but to help people find relief from ignorance, delusion and suffering.

Hindus attitude towards Buddhists in ancient times

Since the early days of Buddhism, Hinduism (or its various sects) had a checkered relationship with it. Many Vedic texts such as the Puranas and the Shastras betray subtle animosity towards Buddhism and the Buddha. Over time, the chasm between the two traditions grew in depth, as Buddhism capitalized on the vulnerabilities of Vedic beliefs and offered a practical and verifiable alternative, forcing the latter to respond with justifiable negativity. The differences between the two continued, despite halfhearted attempts to recognize the Buddha as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. On a closer examination, it becomes evident that it was done for all for all the wrong reasons to undermine the Buddha and his teachings rather than elevate them.

The Puranas abundantly make it clear that Buddha Dharma was an aberration or perversion to distract people from the path of liberation rather than liberate them. They narrate that Lord Siva and Vishnu manifested as a Jina and Buddha respectively to mislead the demons through their teachings and sow the seeds of their destruction. By following their false teachings, when the demons ceased to be the true devotees of gods, the gods had little moral or spiritual compunction to attack them and destroy them. Thus, the purpose of including the Buddha and some Jinas in the Hindu pantheon was intentionally parochial.

This line of thought is well illustrated in a story which is mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.7. According to the story, Vairochana, the leader of the demons went to Brahma along with Indra to know about the Self. He returned with the deluded conviction that the physical self was the true Self. Indra on the other hand spent a long time with Brahma and eventually learned that the eternal Self was his true Self. Vairochana’s belief is very similar to the not-Self theory of the Buddha. By juxtaposing him with Indra in the same story, the Upanishad aims to establish the superiority of the Vedic belief regarding souls to the Buddhist belief in the not-self. Incidentally, Vairochana is considered one of the five Dhyana Buddhas of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Therefore, although religious tolerance was the hallmark of ancient Indian society, the relationship between Buddhists and Hindus was at times less than cordial as they tried to outsmart each other. When Buddhism was on decline, many caves, monasteries and sacred places of Buddhists were either occupied or converted by rival groups into places of Hindu worship removing or replacing the Buddhist deities with Hindu counterparts. It is possible that the opposite might have happened in areas ruled by Buddhism, when Hinduism waned and Buddhism gained ascendance.


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

1. 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. Hinduism believes in the inviolability and supremacy of the Vedas in validating metaphysical truths. The Buddhist do not believe in the Vedas or for that matter in any Hindu scripture.

3. Buddhism does not believe in the existence of souls as well in the first cause, or the creator God. Hinduism believe in the existence of Atman, the individual self, and Brahman, the Supreme Self.

4. Hinduism accepts the Buddha as an incarnation of Maha Vishnu, one of the gods of Hindu Trinity. The Buddhists do not accept any Hindu god as an equal or superior to the Buddha. In Buddhism all gods who go by the same name as in Hinduism are considered mortal and subject to gradual decay and impermanence.

5. The original Buddhism as taught by the Buddha is known as Theravada Buddhism or Hinayana Buddhism. Its followers do not worship the images of the Buddha nor do they believe in the idea of 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. However, it is doubtful if they consider the primal Buddha eternal or unchanging.

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. 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. 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 rules that are well codified to the last detail. Hinduism is not a monastic religion as Buddhism. It does not have an organized Sangha or a set of rules that can universally be applied. Individuals have a lot of choice and freedom to choose their paths and follow their own discretion.

9. Buddhism believes in the concept of Bodhisattvas, who are highly evolved beings and who postpone their own salvation to help others. Hinduism does not have a similar concept.

11. Buddhism acknowledges the existence of some gods and goddesses of Hinduism. However it does not consider them to be immortal or indestructible. It also accords to them a rather subordinate status.

12. Refuge in the Buddha, the Sangha and Dhamma are the three cardinal requirements on the Eightfold Path. In Hinduism you do not find a similar approach. It offers many choices and alternatives to the followers to practice their faith and work for their salvation.

13. Although both religions believe in karma and rebirth, they differ in the manner in which they operate and determine the course of transmigration. In Hinduism, karma and rebirth keep the eternally pure souls bound to the cycle of births and deaths until they are fully liberated. In Buddhism it is the being or the not-Self which is bound to the cycle of births and deaths and which suffers from the consequences.

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. Before 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 practicing 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 by at least a millennium or two. Some Buddhists do argue that the historical Buddha might have born in the sixth century B.C., but the Buddha himself might have incarnated upon earth several times before to teach the doctrine. According to them he is just one in the line of many Buddhas that preceded him and would follow him. They belief is prevalent in some sects of Buddhism, just as Hindus believe that Hinduism is an eternal religion that 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 that cannot be ascertained by any means. 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 large parts 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.

Updated on 9/18/2018

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