Buddhism And Hinduism: The Similarities And Differences Of Views

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There are three ways to achieve moksha which is when a person’s atman (individual soul) is released from the eternal cycle of reincarnation. Reincarnation is a core idea of Hinduism as according to Upanishad (the third and final Vedic scripture) literature the atman would go through another life after the passing of a person’s physical body. A person’s atman would be reborn into a new physical body based on their actions in their previous life- those who lived morally were rewarded with a “good body” while those with a track record of unethical behavior were punished with a “bad body.” This idea of the rebirth being decided by moral actions is known as karma. Upanishad scripture differed from earlier Vedic literature that placed ritual actions as the only way to accrue good karma because it claimed that every moral decision and action that a person performed impacted their Karma. In Upanishad literature, at the end of a person’s life, every one of their actions would be weighed and their new body would be decided upon having accrued either more good or bad karma.

This cycle is viewed as undesirable as a person may be reborn, but they must also face re-death as they are dependent upon each other. The unpredictability of this cycle also made it unappealing as there was a huge possibility of the next life being worse than the previous one. This has led to the idea of moksha or release as one would no longer build up any karma either good or bad to escape this unwelcome cycle of reincarnation. The first thing Hindus had to do was understand that “atman is brahman” or every individual soul is connected to ultimate reality (Deeming 18.) After realizing this, they would abstain from all worldly objects that may cause desire. The idea behind this was that as the person rejected the human world they became less connected with it and more connected to the divine. The “renouncers” would refrain from desire and thus escape karma as without desire as an influential factor- the deeds had no “good or bad intention (Deming 19).” Eventually, the karma that had accumulated over their lifetimes would run out letting them “enter the worlds of brahman (Deeming 19)” and they would no longer face reincarnation.

The Brahmins- the priestly class who are responsible for the sacrificial aspect of Hinduism for the entirety of Hindu society- focused on the idea of dharma instead of renunciation like the Upanishads. Previously, dharma only meant the “sacrificial duties of householders (Deeming 21),” but was changed by the Brahmins to encompass all religious duties of every Hindu, not just the sacrificial ones. At the time, the extreme caste system had people working specific jobs and thus their duty lay in their occupation as well as staying within their class with no marriage or even friendship outside of their own. People were taught that any endeavor to switch one’s caste or interact outside of it would only accumulate bad karma for them which scared many people as no one wanted to be reborn in a worse body.

The three ways to achieve Moksha came about after a sacred text known as “Bhagavad Gita” or Song of the Lord was told. In this scripture a king faces suspicions about what it means to do one’s duty. During a battle, he questions his duty of ordering men to kill so many and if that bad karma would be passed to him. He decided to leave society and abandon his duty to become a renouncer. This was relevant to a lot of Hindus in society as many faced fear over having to make the decision of carrying out their duty as a way to participate in Hindu society or engage in renunciation to help themselves achieve Moksha. People were stuck in between choosing their place in society or leaving it all behind to protect themselves. At the end of the text, the king combines the two by completing his duties without having any motives behind them- only fulfilling a person’s designated role in society. As long as a person distanced themselves from the action, no bad karma would come to them as they were not doing it for their own immoral purposes but rather doing what society as a whole needed from them. This scripture led to the three ways to achieve Moksha as now there was an example of someone having both duty and renunciation, not just one.

The first way was through action (Karma-marga) with those who decided to fulfill their duty in their class. Many people who used this way were faced with the same dilemma as the king in the story- fear of bad karma coming back on them for the action. The second was Jnana-marga or knowledge in which people would seek out the ideas of humanity and existence which helped them escape karma. This search for knowledge led people to understand the true meaning of atman, brahman, and their connection to each other. The last of the three was Bhati-marga or devotion in which Hindus could achieve Moksha through an “eternal union with God (Deeming 26). In this, they are connecting more to the divine world instead of the human world.

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Siddhartha Gautama who eventually achieved enlightenment and became associated with the title Buddha lived a lavish lifestyle growing up as his father was wealthy. He had a wife named Yashodara who eventually gave birth to their son. One day Siddhartha wandered outside of the palace he was raised in and saw multiple sights which made him question everything. These sights he stumbled upon- a bent old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic- made him question death, the afterlife, mortality, and the weakness of humanity. These sights troubled him as he was confronted with the idea of life as fleeting moments. He questioned the worth of his luxurious life which led him to leave everything including his wife and son behind in pursuit of enlightenment. If he had never seen these sights, he may have never decided to follow the path of enlightenment which eventually led him to discover the Four Noble Truths. The six years following his departure from his former life were spent learning from many teachers and practicing many forms of asceticism- a lifestyle of severe self-discipline. All of these practices never helped him achieve the enlightenment he wanted and so he decided on a different lifestyle.

Siddhartha pursued the “Middle Way” which relied upon discipline and dismissed the ideas of self-indulgence and self-denial in asceticism. After years of practicing this lifestyle, he sat underneath a fig tree which is now known as the Bodhi tree and achieved the enlightenment and peace he had searched for. This is where he came to discover the Four Noble Truths and claim the title of the Buddha or the Enlightened One after being tempted by the demon Mara. He concluded that human existence is simply a series of moments that only “seem to have substance, reality, and meaning (Deeming 66).” The Buddha went against the Hindu teachers of that time, who claimed that each person has an atman or an “unchanging core (Deeming 66)” by saying all humans were an-atman or “devoid of true self (Deeming 66).” He also discovered that dukkha (pain and suffering) is constant in existence even with the best things in life as nothing is permanent. The more people wanted these things in life, the more suffering they received when they inevitably disappeared as they had become attached to them. The Buddha believed that these desires caused the person to accrue karma which would lead to rebirth as this karma prompted a new existence for this person not a soul passing on to another body like in the Upanishads (Deeming 66). The “Middle Way” lifestyle led to his realizations as other practices were unable to help Siddhartha discover these ideas and the Four Noble Truths.

3. In the Upanishads, atman which is one’s soul and brahman which is “ultimate reality” in Hinduism are connected. The Upanishads pondered over the idea of everything’s existence being intertwined meaning every single thing in existence “would have brahman as its foundation (Deeming 18).” They believed that brahman was in each person and any other living thing as it was a part of every person’s atman. This essentially means every person is connected to “ultimate reality (Deeming 18)” by the very makeup of their soul. This idea of atman being a personal belonging also goes into the idea of reincarnation as the atman is what is reborn into a new body after the physical body dies. A person’s karma that is calculated at the end of their life decides whether the atman will receive a “good” or “bad” body based on the person’s moral decisions.

In Buddhism, Siddhartha Guartama rejected the idea of the atman in favor of an-atman- the idea of being “devoid of true self (Deeming 66).” After following the path to enlightenment through the “Middle Way,” the Buddha claims to have “discovered the true nature of the world and the human condition (Deeming 66).” He argues against the teachings of Hindu leaders which were claiming that all humans had a personal soul or atman. The Buddha taught that what may seem like the “human self” was simply something that humans had misinterpreted as their “being (Deeming 66).” His other teachings state that these events in a person’s life led to dukkha or suffering. Even the best things in life only caused more suffering as people would eventually have to deal with the loss of whatever they had become attached to.

This idea of people having no control or own soul leads to a change in the idea of karma and rebirth. Buddha claims that everyone is an-atman and thus they are reborn but not by a soul transferring to a new body or reincarnation like the Hindu leaders were teaching (Deeming 66). In their ideology, the atman is what is being reborn while Buddhists say that the “intentional actions (Deeming 66)” or karma are what causes the new life as they must continue a cycle of new lives to suffer until they understood the idea of an-atman and desire. The Buddha taught that people’s ignorance of an-atman was the reason for their prolonged suffering as it caused them to desire and thus act in ways that accrued more karma. To escape it, they must end this ignorance by acknowledging this and live in a way that ended their desire. This is different than the Upanishad stance as they believe the only way to escape the cycle of reincarnation is through their atman by achieving Moksha in one of the three possible ways. Hindus must first understand that atman is brahman or every person’s soul is connected to the ultimate reality which will lead them to renunciation and eventually escape. While the Upanishads view the acknowledgment of atman and their connection to the universe as a necessity to escape the endless cycle, Buddhists believe the acceptance of an-atman is necessary to escape dukkha as it will lead people to stop feeling desire. 

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