Buddhism versus Hinduism: Encounters of the imagined kind(Part I)

The often misunderstood relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism is the work of those who intend to create a rift between the two Indic faiths.

Buddhism versus Hinduism: Encounters of the imagined kind(Part I)


One of the major disruptive narratives spread about India, starting with the colonials and continuing in the post-independent India, is the story of Buddhism and its supposed antagonism with Hinduism. Nehru, Ambedkar, later followers, and textbook writers finally crystallised the notion that though born a Hindu, Buddha at some point in his life broke away, rebelling especially against the ‘caste-system’, to form his own religion. Indians generally have internalised this story.

But no one knows when exactly did Buddha break away. Nehru had a poor understanding of traditional India and was west-oriented. Unfortunately, even a thinker of the calibre of Dr Ambedkar went wrong in his understanding of Buddha, Buddhism, and the traditions of India. This has now led to an unfortunate division in society and shows no signs of abating. On the other hand, Dr Ambedkar was right in the rejection of the Aryan theory which sadly his followers are not too keen to follow.

The persistent narrative is that Buddha was a revolutionary rebelling against the atrocities prevalent in Hinduism. In this manner, a deep discourse builds up of Buddha standing against Hinduism or the Vedas along with other narratives such as Adi Shankaracharya driving away the Buddhists. However, the facts are so different as Koenraad Elst sums up clearly in his brilliant essay, ‘Buddha was every inch a Hindu.’ In fact, Savarkar commented when Dr Ambedkar embraced Buddhism that the latter has ‘surely jumped into the fold of Hinduism.’

Gautama the Buddha

Prince Gautama (563 BCE-486 BCE) following his enlightenment after severe austerities became the Buddha. His teachings form the basis of the Buddhist tradition. Siddhartha Gautama was a Kshatriya of the Ikshvaku dynasty belonging to the Shakya clan, and often called a Shakyamuni– renunciate of the Shakyas. Buddha himself described Rama as his previous incarnation; it was not the work of wily Brahmins as Koenraad Elst says. The Shakyas, as Hindu as possible, considered themselves as the progeny of Manu, and the Buddha never rejected this name till the end of his life.

At 29, he became an ascetic following an existing tradition within the Hindu society of giving up rituals (karmakanda) for knowledge (jnanakanda). A knowledge of the Vedas is never a pre-condition for enlightenment in Indic traditions. Ramana Maharishi is a prime example of this and stressed this point many times. Buddha’s techniques like anapanasati (breathing practices), Vipassana (mindfulness), and extreme asceticism were rooted in the philosophy of Yoga. He exercised his freedom in the best of Hindu traditions to evolve his special method for helping people. Parallels with the Kriya Yoga technique of Paramhansa Yogananda or the Sudarshan Kriya of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are clear here. Developing an own method does not imply any rebellion; Hindu traditions liberally allow this.

He stressed that he was not the first one to achieve Enlightenment; many before had achieved a similar awakening. Finally, as guided by Vedic gods Brahma and Indra, he started teaching his way to others. His “wheel of the Law” (dharma-cakra-pravartana) and liberal use of Upanishadic terminology shows no break or rebellion against an existing system. He was simply promising a restoration of the degenerated Vedic ideal.

Buddhist Philosophy

The rich and vast Buddhist literature is divided into many traditions but two are the most important: the Hinayana in the Pali language and the Mahayana in Sanskrit. The core of the former is the Pali Canon, the original teachings of Buddha after his enlightenment. The Four Noble Truths formed the subject of the first sermon Buddha delivered in Benares:

1. Life is evil, full of pain and suffering.

2. The origin of all evil is ignorance (avidya)- not knowing the true nature of the self. The feeling of the self as apart from the body-mind complex is false and it undergoes constant change. Nirvana is the cessation of this change. The clinging to the false self is the reason for all misery in life.

3. There are twelve links in the ‘chain of causation’ of evil. This chain starts with ignorance leading to a craving. Unfulfilled desires lead to repeated cycles of rebirth and deaths. Breaking from this karmic chain of repeated lives, one attains a state of serene composure-Nirvana.

4. Right knowledge (prajna) is the means of removing evil. Right conduct was the means to attain authentic knowledge in the original teaching. This expanded in later forms of Buddhism to include meditative practice (Yoga).

The recommended middle path of Buddha for everyone to know the truth was devoid of severe austerities. Right conduct (sila), right knowledge (prajna), and right concentration (samadhi) being the most important. The rest five of the ‘Eight-Fold Path’ is for those entering the order of ascetics.

Buddhism spread to other countries like Sri Lanka, Japan, and China but broke up into many schools of thought. Common to the main two Hinayana (Pali) and Mahayana (Sanskrit) creeds is the most important doctrine of momentariness– nothing lasts for more than a moment (kshana-bhanga-vada). Everything continues as a series for any length of time giving the illusion of continuity. Regarding differences, Hinayana school was atheistic- looking at the Buddha as a human being but divinely gifted; the Mahayana deified Buddha with elaborate worship rituals.

The Mahayana school has two doctrines: the Yogachara and the Madhyamika. The former, akin to the modern subjective idealism, reduces all reality to only thought and mind with no external objective counterpart (Vijnana-vada). Madhyamika is nihilism that denies the reality of both the external world and the self too; its greatest proponent Nagarjuna concluded, ‘There is neither being nor cessation of it; there is neither bondage nor escape from it.’ The Madhyamika school hence maintains the important doctrine of sunya-vada– the ultimate reality is the void or vacuity-in-itself.

Hinayana Buddhism and the Yogachara doctrine (of Mahayana school) admit to an Absolute Consciousness, a positive ground for all experience. The goal of life would be to merge in this Absolute. The Madhyamika doctrine of Mahayana school rejects any positive ground and states the goal of life as the annihilation of all illusion into a void. In the latter, the enlightened person works for the good of society and doesn’t just stay satisfied with one’s own Nirvana. This Bodhisattva ideal is far more excellent than the person who is an arhan, concerned only with individual salvation.

Advaita and Buddhism: Different or Similar?

There are only a few differences in the philosophies of Advaita and Buddhism which, in the context of the essence of Indian traditions, could have never given rise to conflicts-violent or otherwise. Debates, maybe; violence, unlikely. In fact, Advaita philosophy is closer to Buddhism than to some other orthodox Indian philosophy schools.

Ignorance for Advaitins is thinking that our senses and intellect along with the phenomenal world is the ultimate reality; for Buddha, ignorance is absent knowledge about the impermanence of everything. Both believe that Karma is a state of bondage due to ignorance and generated by one’s own thoughts, words, and deeds leading to repeated births. Moksha or Nirvana is freedom from ignorance and bondage which one must strive to attain here and now.

Most importantly, both agree that Knowledge and Truth are of two kinds- the higher and the lower. The lower is the product of our senses and the intellect applicable to the phenomenal world, and the higher is transcendental; non-conceptual, non-relative, and intuitive. The higher knowledge is soteriological– capable of intense personal transformation.

With so many common ideas, it is an ignorant notion, enhanced by political agendas, that Advaita was in opposition to Buddhism.  Buddhism spread to other countries due to many factors- royal patronage and the missionary zeal of its monks to name a few. It just receded in the country of origin as people might have continued with their regular traditions. The destruction of Buddhist libraries by Islamic invaders helped its demise to some extent too.

The Buddhist tradition was one of the many popular ones in Indian society at the time. After the Buddha died, Buddhism divided into many schools and teachings, which included a good amount of ritualism, something which Buddha never encouraged in his life. It was another tradition that grew in India with an underlying essence of an indifference to differences.

It is easy to see that there is plenty of similarities between both philosophies except for some nuanced differences. Advaita Vedanta claims Brahman as the unchanging reality. A major school of Buddhism however believes there are no eternal entities. The final state of enlightenment is merging in the Brahman for Advaita, whereas Buddhism speaks of Sunyata, silence and nothingness- not eliciting an answer. Hardly a reason for violent or unpleasant encounters with the background of Indian traditions.

The Discovery of ‘Hindus and Hinduism’

Darius of the Achaemenid Persians used the word ‘Hindu’ in a geographical sense for those inside and beyond the Indus region. The medieval Muslim invaders used it for Indian people (without any doctrinal context) except for the Indian Muslims, Christians, or Jews. Koenraad Elst says,

‘It included all varnas, Buddhists, Jains, ascetics, tribals, and the future yet unborn Lingayats, Sikhs, Hare Krishnas, Arya Samajis, Ramakrishnaites, and any others who nowadays reject the label Hindu’.

The Hindu Marriage Act adopts this ‘neti-neti’ (not this-not this) definition of exclusion for a Hindu- not Christian, not Muslim, not Jew, and not a Parsi.

The Portuguese referred to Indians as ‘gentues.’ The British made them ‘Gentoos.’ These were the same ‘Hindus’ referred to by the Persians. The 18th-century world spoke of the ‘religion of the Gentoos’, which in the 19th century, became the religion of the Hindus. Later, it became a full-blown ‘Hinduism.’ The Asiatic Society in Calcutta began a ‘second Renaissance’ as they rediscovered the Sanskrit literary texts. This oriental Renaissance unified world history by absorbing a living heathen culture into the paganism of antiquity. The Romantic thinkers called India the ‘cradle of civilization’; no credit in fact. Such characterization implies that a living culture is still in the cradle, and has been in it for thousands of years, unlike their European counterparts.

Hindus became ’childlike’, ‘unspoiled’, ‘less sophisticated’ and so on; strangely, a living culture of antiquity became primitive and innocent. That included religion too as Hegel put it in unflattering terms, ’fantasy makes everything into a God here.’ The Romantics finally depicted India as the seat of a primal culture. From Hegel through Marx, India’s description was of stagnation. ‘A tremendous fossilized organism, dead at the core, yet standing strong by its vast mechanical solidity and hoary antiquity,’ said one. Of course, the social organization or the ‘caste system’ was the cause. One consequence of this extended childhood is the dominance of religion in all aspects of life. But, if all-pervasive, how does one define religion? The final message was that one could admire the good things that Indian civilization had to offer without having to admire its current state, living inhabitants and the actual culture, says Dr SN Balagangadhara in his book The Heathen in His Blindness.

Contradictions, Manipulations, and Obfuscations

The popular narrative now becomes contradictory because though Hinduism did not exist at that time, Buddhism still broke away from it. The historical definition of a Hindu having an advantage of primacy and not an idea of cunning Brahmins makes Buddha and his followers invariably Hindu, says Elst. Further, the word “Hindu” presently undergoes a lot of manipulations. Secularists put all kinds of groups (Dravidians, Sikhs, Dalits) as non-Hindus but when Hindus complain of aggression by minorities, the response is, “How can the Hindus who are more than 80% feel threatened?” Missionaries call the tribals “not Hindus”, but when they revolt, it becomes a narrative of “Hindu rioters”.

Koenraad Elst says,

‘‘One meaning which the word “Hindu” definitely did not have when it was introduced, is ‘Vedic’. Shankara debates against Patanjali and the Sankhya school (just like the Buddha) which do not cite the Vedas, yet they have a place in every history of Hindu thought. Hinduism includes a lot of elements which have only a thin Vedic veneer, and numerous ones which are not Vedic at all. In the Buddha’s case, ‘Hindu’ often narrows down to ‘Vedic’ when convenient, then restored to its wider meaning when expedient.’’

Continued in Part 2

About Author: Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Neonatal and Paediatric Surgeon practising in Warangal for the last twenty years. He graduated from medical school and later post-graduated in surgery from Ahmedabad. He further specialised in Paediatric Surgery from Mumbai. After his studies, he spent a couple of years at Birmingham Children's Hospital, UK and returned to India after obtaining his FRCS. He started his practice in Warangal where he hopes to stay for the rest of his life. He loves books and his subjects of passion are Indian culture, Physics, Vedanta, Evolution, and Paediatric Surgery- in descending order. After years of ignorance in a flawed education system, he has rediscovered his roots, paths, and goals and is extremely proud of Sanatana Dharma, which he believes belongs to all Indians irrespective of religion, region, and language. Dr. Gopal is a huge admirer of all the present and past stalwarts of India and abroad correcting past discourses and putting India back on the pedestal which it so truly deserves.

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