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Hinduism and Buddhism share in their attitude a fundamental quest: the human search for
an authentic and meaningful existence. The most reflective minds from both traditions identified
the futility of worldly existence, drawing attention to the pervasive pain of the human condition.
An inquiry into the nature of suffering, and the desire to escape it, are fundamental concerns.
Ultimately, both philosophies affirm that a release is possible, that a state of realization beyond
ignorance and bondage is attainable indeed. Almost every school of Indian philosophical thought
proceeds from these basic premises and reaches towards this transcendental goal.
Nonetheless, Hinduism and Buddhism could not be more distinct when considering their respective metaphysics, symbolism, practices, and many unique dimensions of religious thought. While sharing significant material from their historical and cultural contexts, no amount of overlap
could threaten their distinctive identities.
Several areas highlight the points in which orthodox Hindu and Buddhist thought
diverge. Among these are the debates regarding the existence and metaphysics of the self/soul
(atman), the authority of revealed scripture (Vedas), role of Brahmanical rituals and authorities,
and conflicting opinions on theism.
It must be stressed that Hinduism and Buddhism are not static entities, but more akin to vast streams with many sources; neither tradition has a singular voice of authority. However, the doctrinal differences mentioned underline the ways in which both religions have developed into unique movements.
The primary canonical texts of the Hindus, the Vedas, are believed to express eternal
truths that are beyond the provenance of humankind.
While there is significant variety within
Hindu philosophical thought, the theory of soul as spiritual substance is almost unanimously found throughout the various schools. Upanishadic philosophy perhaps most poetically articulates the essence of Hindu ideas regarding the soul. The Katha Upanishad states, “There is
one Supreme Ruler, the innermost Self of all beings, who makes His one form manifold. Eternal
happiness belongs to the wise, who perceive Him within themselves …” (Nikhilananda 80).
The ‘innermost Self’ that is spoken of, atman, is no other than the unchanging inner consciousness
behind all experiences. Moreover, the Vedic texts describe the atman as only an aspect or
appearance of Brahman, the “unchanging reality behind all appearances” (Nikhilananda 28).
Realization of this ultimate principle is the basic soteriological goal driving the many paths to
liberation laid out in Hindu texts. The doctrines of Atman and Brahman have been subject to
myriad interpretations, many with theistic or monistic tendencies. The emphasis on transcendent
principles and an ultimate metaphysical unity, verified by a set of sacred texts, is an area where
Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka, and other heterodox schools of thought diverge from orthodox
In a largely Vedic religious culture revolving around questions of self and ultimate reality,
the theories of Buddhism offered a provocative proposition. The Buddhist worldview emphasizes
the fleeting, momentary character of the world; this is based on the doctrine of anicca or
impermanence. The doctrine of anatman, also central to Buddhist philosophy, is a clear rejection
of atman, the Hindu theory of an eternal soul.
What is conventionally experienced as the ‘self’ is analyzed into five aggregates or composite parts. Thus, a conventional Buddhist argument regarding the soul can be given: “soul, in the sense of a permanent unchanging subject of consciousness, cannot be identified with any one or more of the five [aggregates], [therefore] soul cannot exist” (Lesser 59). This is not to deny the existence of an empirical self, but to view it as an interdependent, relational process rather than to imbue it with transcendental qualities.
Buddhist texts tend to caution against dogmatic interpretations of religious authority, whether
they are scriptural or institutional. The Kalama Sutta, for instance, states: “Don’t go by reports,
by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by
agreement through pondering views…” (Kalama Sutta).
Investigation, questioning, and inquiry are praised and encouraged. Beliefs and views must be tested by observing the results of their practical application. This seems to challenge a pivotal function of the religious hierarchy and acceptance of revealed text that is found in Hinduism. In regard to metaphysical questions, such as those concerning the existence or nature of God, the creation of the universe, etc., the Buddha was said to have remained silent.
The common interpretation is that such knowledge and beliefs do not ultimately extinguish suffering. This can be contrasted with the Hindu tradition where questions about ultimate reality are addressed vis-à-vis teachers and scriptures, even if the claims may be contradictory, esoteric, or unjustified.
My personal thoughts regarding these respective traditions involve a mix of humility and
bewilderment. I am honestly awed at the sheer variety of ways in which reality can be described,
and the utter conviction in which followers of each path maintain their own is true. I think it is
perhaps plausible to believe that both philosophies are grounded in profound insights, and that
neither has an exclusive domain on truth over the other.
I have a lot of sympathy for the straightforward and largely empirical approach of Buddhism, but there is something about the profoundly metaphysical nature of Hindu ideas that I find existentially satisfying.
Sometimes I am skeptical when ‘philosophy’ irrationally appeals to the authority of sacred texts, yet I am also reminded that the authors of such texts and many religious figures have devoted their entire lives to these religious and existential questions. Several scholars have suggested the possibility that both traditions are describing the same experiences, while appealing to different metaphysical and scriptural contexts or employing unique sets of symbolism.
I resonate highly with the words of David Loy as he described the unity of the two views:
The difference between the Buddhist nirvana and the Vedantic moksha is one of perspective. The Vedantic explanation-that of merging into the One-is a more objective philosophical view. The Buddhist interpretation is more accurately a phenomenological description. But in each case the actual experience is the same. (Loy 73)
Similarly, the scholar Ankur Burua writes: “the two figures (the Buddhist and Hindu) will
describe this experience in two different ways. The former as… ‘No introspective experience
includes experience of myself as enduring’ and the latter as each introspective experience
includes experience of myself as enduring’ (229). I find that seeking compatibility in seemingly contradictory views is where the most meaningful and holistic knowledge can be located. Thus
both traditions, while exceedingly distinct, also have significant points of overlap and
reconciliation that are suggestive of rich and relevant truths.
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