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The Development of Religion: Part Seven, Buddhism separates from Brahmanism and Hinduism


photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer courtesy of

(The following descriptions should be seen as a simplification based on the Wikipedia texts that describe the concepts of the two religions, the Vedas, and other specific pages.  I tried to make sense out of them but only succeeded partially.  Some of what I’ve written is correct, some is oversimplified; I’ve tried to avoid obvious errors but if Wikipedia is mistaken, then I’ve just repeated the mistakes.  If you know differently, please tell me.)

Buddhism and Hinduism share their origins in the Vedic literature of northern India (circa 1500-500 BCE.)  Brahmanism can be thought of as the precursor to Hinduism; its rituals were recorded in the Vedas.  Hinduism asserts the authority of the Vedic scriptures but Buddhism criticizes them.  Brahmanism was preceded by Vedism– the religion described in the earliest Vedas.

Vedism was the religion of the Indo-Aryans who migrated into the Indus River basin circa 1500 BCE.  It is described in the Vedic literature, including the early Upanishads.  In Vedism, there was an afterlife but no reincarnation.  Ancestor worship was prominent, with rites like offerings of food; this declined but did not completely disappear in Hinduism.  Vedism is described in Wikipedia as a complex animistic religion, with pantheism.  Vedic rituals that survived into Brahmanism and Hinduism include (among many others): fire rituals, horse sacrifice, cow sacrifice, royal consecration, and cremation.  Human sacrifice is alluded to in the Vedas, but whether it existed in pre-Vedic times is highly controversial.

Vedism included the gods Indra, Agni, and Soma among many others.  Hinduism began with the change in emphasis from these gods to others: Vishnu and Shiva especially.  The hymns of Vedism described in the Vedas were given a different interpretation by Brahmanism and Hinduism.

In this period, the concept of rebirth developed and the afterlife was changed; ancestor worship was de-emphasized.  Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism all adopted the idea of rebirth.  The concept of rebirth includes the doctrine of samsara, an eternal cycle.  In this cycle, a person is reborn after death, but not necessarily into another human body.  As a result of karma, you can be elevated or degraded.  A particularly bad person may be reborn as a cockroach.  A good person will be reborn into a higher caste and eventually into a Bodhisattva or enlightened being.

The religions share basic concepts that include dharma and karma.  Briefly, dharma is the “law” or prescriptive doctrine which everyone is obligated to obey.  Karma is a kind of causality, the effect of obeying or disobeying dharma.  Karma is not necessarily an immediate result of one’s behavior.  The consequences may not play out in someone’s present life, but be carried over into one’s next life.

Brahmanism probably began with the “monist” (unifying) doctrine of Brahman, or the universal soul.  This universal soul was postulated to be at the center of all living things and also the unifying principle of the cosmos.  Brahmanism also brought together people into a system of castes.

Basic caste (varna) theory holds that each person is born into a certain category, of which there are four: brahmin (scholars and priests), kshatriya (warriors, kings, and princes), vaishyas (farmers, merchants, and artisans), and shudras (workmen and service providers.)  Not mentioned in the original caste theory are untouchables, who are outside the caste system.  The theory of caste, although based on ancient Vedic scripture, was not practically applied in India.

Instead, a system called “jati” or birth groups was applied in practice.  There were many categories of jati, each applying to a hereditary group of specific occupations.  The varna categories were actually applied by the British when they took over control of India and Pakistan in the eighteenth century and thereafter.  This made the caste system more rigid, which is ironic considering the criticism of its static nature applied by British sources.

What distinguishes Buddhism from Hinduism (and Brahmanism) is the Buddhist emphasis on fluidity of one’s merit, regardless of caste.  To a Buddhist, what matters is one’s behavior, not one’s caste, in accumulation of merit.  Ordination as a priest is available to people of all castes in Buddhism, whereas a Hindu priest had to be a brahmin.  Buddhists did not deny castes, but felt that a person’s caste was a reflection of their behavior in a past life rather than an “accident of birth.”

This brings us to the concept of liberation, called “moksha” or “nirvana” depending on the religion.  The ultimate goal of existence is liberation from the cycle of samsara or rebirth.  To reach this stage, one must first live in harmony with dharma or the rules.  Then one must become enlightened.  This is achieved through jhana, which is usually done in meditation but can occur spontaneously.  The Buddha reached jhana momentarily during his childhood in a particularly auspicious time of perfect calm.

To Buddhists, it is necessary to have the correct perceptions– the permanent transcendence of the belief in the separate existence of the self is integral to the enlightenment of an arhat or arahant (enlightened one.)  The most important difference between the two religions is their disagreement over the existence of a permanent, separate self or atman– Buddhists say there is no cosmic self.  Instead, there is a state of change or impermanence called anicca and a void called shunyata.  There is no true self and no universal self– there is only non-self, anatman or anatta.

All sentient beings are capable of enlightenment, eventually.  Sentience is a quality of being that can include plants as well as animals, although it is more remote for more vegetable beings (even non-organic items like rocks can sometimes be described as sentient.)   During one’s experience of samsara (rebirth), one cycles through many sentient objects or bodies, possibly including rocks.

Wikipedia says that sentience is characterized by specific qualities: “Sentient beings are composed of the five aggregates, or skandhas: matter, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness.”  Plants are capable of sensation (light and touch, for example), but perceptions may not be present.  Whether perception, mental formations, and consciousness are characteristics that plants share is questionable.

This is important because both Buddhism and Hinduism share the dharma of ahimsa: nonviolence towards sentient beings.  The concept of ahimsa starts in the Rig Veda and is extended throughout the Vedas.   A hymn to Indra in the Rig Veda (the earliest Veda) mentions satya (truthfulness) and ahimsa.  The concept gradually developed during the Vedic period, from a mention of meat consumption and animal sacrifice as being undesirable to, eventually, elimination of sacrifices and promotion of vegetarianism.

The Jain sect of Hinduism, already well-developed in the early Vedic period, emphasized ahimsa as its first principle and included vegetarianism from the beginning.  Even in consuming vegetable foods, roots were frowned upon because pulling them up kills the plant and involves violence against soil organisms.  Consuming yeast-made bread, fermented foods, beer, and wine are now forbidden to Jains because the micro-organisms in such foods are killed (before the invention of the microscope, no-one knew that yeasts were living organisms or that bacteria existed.)  Previously, intoxicating beverages were proscribed for Jains only because they impaired thinking rationally about non-harm.

Ahimsa imposes restrictions on warfare and self-defense but allows violence to preserve the lives of potential victims.  Cruelty to one’s opponents and harming noncombatants, however, is considered always wrong.  Negotiation in an attempt to prevent war is strongly encouraged.  The doctrine of ahimsa is most famous in the work and thought of the Mahatma, Mohandas Gandhi.  Wikipedia says: “In Gandhi’s thought, Ahimsa precludes not only the act of inflicting a physical injury, but also mental states like evil thoughts and hatred, unkind behavior such as harsh words, dishonesty and lying, all of which he saw as manifestations of violence incompatible with Ahimsa.”

Both Buddhists and Hindus agree on ahimsa as an essential part of dharma.  They both practice meditation, although in different ways.  They also agree on the use of mantras, which are symbolic phrases or poems that help in attaining concentration when one meditates (and for other purposes.)  The word “yoga” is shared between the two religions but seems to mean different things– in Hinduism, it means the binding of one’s soul to the universal soul through physical means.  In Buddhism, it appears to mean any spiritual practice, including tantras.

I have to stop here.  No more work today.   I’ve been reading too much scientific stuff which makes it all too clear that our country has a major crisis that is not being addressed by the current government.  The only clarity I’ve gotten is in the importance of ahimsa and the difference between brahman (universal soul) and anicca (impermanence).  I’m going to go back to the beginning and start again tomorrow.  Let me know if you can articulate where I’m mistaken– please.



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