Hinduism and the Buddha have much in common
The religion we call “Hinduism” is known to most Hindus as Sanatana Dharma (“the Eternal Law”), and traditionally governs every aspect of their lives. It is the third most widely followed faith in the world with roughly a billion believers, not only found in the Indian subcontinent, but also across the world with sizeable communities in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, the UAE, the UK, and the US. Unlike Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, Hinduism is not traced back to a single founder; and, unlike Christianity and Islam, it does have one god, but thousands.
Among the myriad deities found in Hinduism, are Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma,
Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, Parvati, Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Kali. The ‘big three’ are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. Brahma is the least popular of the three, whilst Shiva is very popular with ascetics and philosophers, and Vishnu (often in the form of Krishna) probably has more devotees than any other Hindu god. Rama is also an avatar (incarnation’) of Vishnu, while Ganesha is Shiva’s and sports an elephant’s head; Hanuman is a monkey-god. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism has female gods such as Parvati (consort of Shiva), Lakshmi (Vishnu’s missus), Saraswati (goddess of art and knowledge), and Kali (associated with sacrifice and death).
In the Pali Canon, the Buddha’s attitude towards gods is not atheist as many modern Buddhists would no doubt prefer, but rather he sees them as subject to suffering and death like all other living beings, only over a much longer time scale. Brahma – or a rough equivalent of him called Brahma Sahampati - makes regular appearances in the Canon, including at the Buddha’s enlightenment and death. He is one of many Brahma-titled gods in early Buddhism, along with other deities, demons, angels and ghosts also mentioned. None of these gods are exactly the same as their Hindu counterparts, however, and are neither eternal nor the origin of the universe, according to the Buddha.
The word dharma, which denotes ‘cosmic law’ or ‘ultimate truth’ in Buddhism, also means the former in Hindu parlance. It also has another meaning not found in Buddhism, which is ‘duty’. Hinduism teaches that we all have moral, social, and religious duties to perform, including worshiping the gods – or at least one or some of them; there are so many deities in Hinduism that it would surely be impossible to regularly worship them all. Encapsulated in the scripture called the laws of Manu, such duties dominate most devout Hindus’ lives, and have given rise to the caste system, with rules that dictate who a person can marry, what food they can eat, and the type of work they do, as well as other activities.
The Buddha’s view of castes seems to have been negative on the whole, seeing them as causing unnecessary suffering and divisions between people. Indeed, in the Dhammapada, he states that the true Brahmin (a member of one of the highest castes in Hinduism, the priests) is in fact anyone who achieves enlightenment, and that it doesn’t matter which caste that person was born into. Most predominately Buddhist societies have reflected the Buddha’s viewpoint and not inherited the Hindu caste system –
being the primary exception. The Buddha does teach us that we have duties of a sort, however, but that they are more general ones like being compassionate and friendly, rather than dictating specific social groupings. Sri Lanka
Hindus employ various kinds of art to stimulate devotion to its gods. This includes statues of them and carvings, the latter of which adorn not only the inside of temples, but are also found on their exteriors. Gods and goddesses are often represented in colourful paintings as well, which are found in peoples’ homes and workplaces, as well as in temples. Theatre and dance are used to not only entertain but also educate Hindus in their religion. The Mahabharata and Ramayana scriptures are often used in the theatrical shows, sometimes put on by special religious acting troupes that live in temples. Similar setups involve highly-trained dancers that have a variety of intricate dance routines, with events from the life of the popular god
Krishna being a common theme. Another art form used by Hindus is music, which includes both vocal and instrumental genres, typically involving hypnotic qualities that can induce meditative and devotional states of mind in both performers and their audience.
Although in early Buddhism, according to the Pali Canon, the Buddha discouraged his followers from such activities as acting and music, reflected in the modern world by the rather plain and unaccompanied chanting found in countries such as Burma and Thailand, later traditions have utilized incorporated music into their chanting, seeing this as skillful use of the medium to encourage attention and devotion in Buddhists. Art has long been used by Buddhists to illustrate the life and teachings of the Buddha and other great teachers, and statues are used in all Buddhist traditions across
Asia. It would seem that if done in a spirit of mindfulness, such endeavours can be considered as complementary to other Buddhist practices; and in using various art forms in this way, the Buddha Way has much in common with Hinduism.
When the animal features of the deities Ganesha and Hanuman are considered – the former with an elephant’s head, the latter in the form of a monkey – it is not surprising that Hindus often have a close and compassionate relationship with animals. Indeed, all the important Hindu gods have animal mounts that they are frequently portrayed with, almost as if the animals are extensions of the gods’ own selves. This also reflects the closeness and affinity with animals that exists within the Hindu tradition, as does the vegetarianism which can be encountered across the Indian subcontinent. Vegetarianism is also found amongst some Buddhist traditions, most notably in
, and the Buddha viewed animals with the utmost respect and compassion, something reflected in the behavior of many Buddhists to this day. In this, Hinduism and the Buddha are seen to have much in common again. China
Turning to some of the central doctrines of Hinduism and Buddha’s teachings, we again find similarities. Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation whilst the Buddha often taught about karma and rebirth. Essentially, Hinduism describes the human being as having three layers of being: the physical body, the jiva (soul), and the Atman, or (True) Self. The physical body is created in the womb, grows and ages, and then dies. The soul is believed to survive death And can be reborn in a variety of forms, such as an angel, demon, ghost, hell-dweller, animal or human, dependent upon the karma (actions) that it has done. The soul changes over its countless reincarnations. The Atman, on the other hand, travels from life to life unchanged, and is considered to be the imminent form of the transcendent impersonal God, Brahman. (Brahman is not to be confused with Brahma, the creator god.)
The Buddha also taught that we are subject to karma and rebirth, but with one major difference: anatta (not-self). All that we take ourselves to be, the body, mind, soul, and Atman do not comprise a self; they merely appear to. It is not a soul that is reborn, but certain aspects of the mind, and at heart we are empty of any permanent being or Being (Atman). That which we truly are, according to the Buddha, cannot be conceptualized or analytically dissected, for “it” is not a thing, and lies out of reach of the mind, which appears in “it” rather than the other way around. So, while karma and reincarnation/rebirth are common themes in the teaching of the Buddha and Hinduism, they are not identical. It is worth noting here that much of Buddhist teachings are derived from ancient Hindu ones, but because of the Buddha’s denial of an eternal self (soul) or Self (God), his understanding and that of Hindu theology can be seen to be different at heart.
Both Hinduism and the Buddha agree that liberation from karma and rebirth are the ultimate goal that all wise people will aim for. In Hinduism, this is known as Moksha, and in Buddhism it is called Nirvana. Basically, Moksha is the complete recognition that Atman and Brahman are one; it is the mystical union between devotee and God found in much mysticism around the world. The Buddha taught that even this idea should be let go of, however, and that Nirvana is the complete recognition that there is no Atman or Brahman. Some forms of Hinduism teach that the ultimate goal is not the liberation described above, however, but that it is living in a heavenly paradise such as that presided over by
Krishna. Again, even heavens and hells in Buddhism are considered impermanent, existing for eons before dying away and being replaced by other similar phenomena.
Of the three dominant religions in the world today, Hinduism is the one that is most similar to the teachings and practices taught by the Buddha. It contains ideas and practices that closely resemble those found in the Way of the Buddha such as karma and meditation, whereas the other two major religions, Christianity and Islam, differ greatly from Buddhism in much of their doctrines and religious practices. Historically, Hinduism and Buddhism have been rivals in the Indian subcontinent, and this continues today in some parts of that highly diverse region, most notably in recent years in
. The similarities described above reveal much that both Hindus and Buddhists can build on if they wish to create more harmonious relationships in the future. Let us hope that they do. Sri Lanka