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Early Buddhism versus the concept of the unchanging self in Hinduism– a highly condensed summary

2020-06-23

Gandhara Buddha circa 1900 years ago, courtesy of wikimedia commons

Hinduism and Buddhism derive from the same roots in prehistoric northern India, in the culture of the Ganges River before 500 BC.  They share parallel beliefs and have existed side by side.  One of the primary differences between the two is that, in Hindu thought, there is a constant and unchanging “Atman” or permanent self, whereas in Buddhist thought, the self is not permanent or even non-existent.

Despite their differences, the two religions are intermingled in important ways; there are even temples devoted to both.  Angkor Wat is said to be a combination of the two, originally dedicated to the god VIshnu but changed to a Buddhist temple in the twelfth century.  To Hindus, Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu.

The two schools of thought share many concepts.  First, there is the eternal cycle (sansara) of birth, death, and rebirth.  Second, there is the concept of karma or “the fruits of action”– that is, actions have consequences although the effects may be remote or even occur after one has undergone death and rebirth.  Third, there is the concept of dharma, which is natural law, religious duty, right conduct, or simply virtue.

They also share a number of terms that have different meanings in each school.  To Hindus, yoga is thought of as a practice of assuming postures that induce union of Atman (the individual self) with Brahman (the universal soul).  To Buddhists, however, it has different meanings.  In Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, “yoga” refers to any of a number of spiritual practices involving tantras (esoteric systems.)  This is too complex to even begin to describe here (this includes Vajrayana Buddhism in general.)

Meditation is also shared by both schools of thought.  In Hindu meditation, it is a means to attain self-realization.  Buddhist meditation, however, is a means to self-effacement.  There are several levels of enlightenment attained in meditation, but, to Buddhists, the best is the sudden insight that can even be achieved by a child under certain conditions.

There are major differences between the two schools of thought.  First, the Buddha rejected the existence of a Creator God (Brahman) and the idea of an eternal Self (Atman), which are central to Hindu thought.  Perhaps “rejection” is too strong a word, however, for Buddhists simply ignore the Brahman and Atman as unnecessary to the liberation from suffering obtained by meditation, right view, and right conduct.  The Buddha felt that the devas (the Hindu gods) were still trapped in the same cycle of birth and rebirth as ordinary humans– so they weren’t worthy of special veneration.

The Nobel Eightfold Path does not require that one unify with the Godhead (Brahman) but merely follow right intentions and conduct oneself arightly.  One is to attain liberation from suffering by extinction of self-will, selfish desire, and passions, not by yearning for union with Brahman.

To Hindus, the thought of withdrawal from everyday life and existence as a mendicant was escapism.  They felt that one must perform the dharmas, or duties of day to day life, study scriptures, support family, and take care of one’s children and parents, before retiring to the forest to meditate in one’s later years.  Union with Brahman really only occurred at death– not during daily meditation.

To Buddhists, attachment is the source of sorrow, and to be liberated, one must detach and become “non-involved.”  To Hindus, sorrow and happiness is the result of karma (good and bad), and bad karma can be overcome and good karma can be obtained by following dharma or righteous duty.

An example of the difference between Buddhist and Hindu concepts is the Agganna Sutta, a discourse by the Buddha in response to questions from two aspiring monks who are from the Brahmin caste.  Brahmins are a high caste and hold a predominant position in society.  To the Buddha, the two aspirants describe their origins and say that when they decided to become monks, they were ridiculed by their peers.  They were told that it would be foolish for someone of high caste to abandon his position and mix with those of lower caste in the Sangha (religious community) of the Buddha.

The Buddha responds by explaining that everyone, regardless of caste, is allowed to become a member of the religious community, because what matters is not one’s birth but what one does in life.  He explains that anyone who does wrong will get into trouble for it, regardless of their caste, while anyone who conducts themself rightly, no matter what their origins, will be rewarded.  The Buddha goes on to describe a sort of cosmology, in great detail, reciting the origin of the world and the development of the castes.  The reason behind this cosmology is that he is explicitly rejecting the brahmanical doctrine of caste which separates people on the basis of their birth rather than their behavior.

One commentator even describes this cosmology as a satire of the “Brahminical claims regarding the divine nature of the caste system, showing that it is nothing but a human male convention.”  (Wikipedia)  The sutra is explained as a satire of the Rig Veda “Hymn of the Cosmic Man.”  This is not a well-accepted explanation; others describe the verses as a fore-runner of currently accepted scientific cosmology.  The real point of the verses is that one’s position at birth does not preordain one’s position throughout life; it is more important to adhere to the truth and do right.

Buddhists appear to reject the Hindu teachings that there is a fixed, permanent self, but they do not seem to have been rejected by Hindus.  Rather, the Hindu position looks like one of tolerance to all religions.  Hindus do not appear to have been proselytizers, while the Buddhist religion has spread throughout Asia by proselytism.  Originally, Hindus were defined by ethnicity rather than by doctrine, although that view is obsolete and has been rejected by India’s Supreme Court.

Buddhists touted their faith without regard to the ethnicity of their subjects, and Buddhism was taught to every ethnic group in Asia (although it seemed to mostly die out in India as it spread elsewhere.)  Typically, rulers acquired Buddhism from monks who taught their faith to the court; the countries involved then became officially Buddhist while their subjects were still unconverted.

This quote from Wikipedia summarizes the core difference between the two schools of thought:

Upanishadic [Hindu] soteriology is focused on the static Self, while the Buddha’s is focused on dynamic agency. In the former paradigm, change and movement are an illusion; to realize the Self as the only reality is to realize something that has always been the case. In the Buddha’s system by contrast, one has to make things happen.

Thus, the Hindu worldview is static and the Buddhist is dynamic.  To a Buddhist, the universe is characterized by constantly changing phenomena; nothing remains the same and there is no constant upon which one can rely.  To the Hindu, there is a universal axis which is stationary and around which the universe revolves; there is a Brahman (Godhead) which is reliable and to which the self (Atman) can be connected.

To both forms of thought, the empirical Truth is the most important thing.  Both believe in the primacy of one’s experience and the promulgation of Truth.  A person should always see the truth and tell the truth.  There is no space for lies and deception.  There are no secrets (until you get to esoteric Vajrayana Buddhism.)

[This post is a radically condensed summary of the relevant Wikipedia pages on Buddhism, Hinduism, the Agganna Sutta, soteriology, and so on.  The reader is warned that important details have been omitted.  Additional posts on these subjects are forthcoming.]

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. 2020-08-05 9:44 AM

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