Hinduism and Buddhism
Thousands of years ago, two major religions—Hinduism and Buddhism—emerged in ancient India. The ethical and spiritual messages of both religions profoundly shaped Indian civilization.
Unlike most major religions, Hinduism has no single founder and no single sacred text. Instead, it grew out of the overlapping beliefs of the diverse groups who settled India. The process probably began when the Aryans added the gods of the Indus civilization to their own. Later people brought other gods, beliefs, and practices. As a result, Hinduism became one of the world’s most complex religions, with countless gods and goddesses and many forms of worship existing side by side. Despite this diversity, all Hindus share certain basic beliefs.
One Force Underlies Everything
“God is one, but wise people know it by many names.” This ancient proverb reflects the Hindu belief that everything is part of the unchanging, all-powerful spiritual force called brahman. Hindus worship a variety of gods who give concrete form to brahman. The most important Hindu gods are Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. Each can take many forms, human or animal, to represent the various aspects of brahman with which he is associated. Some Hindus also worship various forms of the powerful goddess Shakti. She is both kind and cruel, a creator and a destroyer.
Sacred Texts Reveal Hindu Beliefs
Over many hundreds of years, Hindu teachings were recorded in the sacred texts of the Vedas. The Upanishads (oo pan ih shadz) are a section of the Vedas that address mystical questions related to Hinduism. These sacred texts use vivid images to examine complex ideas about the human soul and the connectedness of all life. In addition, literary works such as the Bhagavad-Gita were also revered for their representations of Hindu beliefs.
Achieving Moksha Is the Goal of Life
To Hindus, every person has an essential self, or atman (aht mun). Some view it as the same as brahman and others as a form of brahman. The ultimate goal of existence, Hindus believe, is achieving moksha (mahk shuh), or union with brahman. To do that, individuals must free themselves from selfish desires that separate them from brahman. Most people cannot achieve moksha in one lifetime, but Hindus believe in reincarnation, or the rebirth of the soul in another bodily form. Reincarnation allows people to continue working toward moksha through several lifetimes.
In each existence, Hindus believe, a person can come closer to achieving moksha by obeying the law of karma. Karma refers to all the actions of a person’s life that affect his or her fate in the next life. To Hindus, all existence is ranked. Humans are closest to brahman. Then come animals, plants, and objects like rocks or water. People who live virtuously earn good karma and are reborn at a higher level of existence. Those who do evil acquire bad karma and are reborn into suffering at a lower level of existence. In Indian art, this cycle of death and rebirth is symbolized by the image of the wheel.
To escape the wheel of fate, Hinduism stresses the importance of dharma (dahr muh), the religious and moral duties of an individual. These duties vary according to class, occupation, gender, and age. Another key moral principle of Hinduism is ahimsa (uh him sah), or nonviolence. To Hindus, all people and things are aspects of brahman and therefore deserve to be respected. Many Hindus have try to follow the path of ahimsa.
Key Teachings of the Buddha
In the foothills of the Himalayas, a reformer appeared named Siddhartha Gautama (sih dahr tuh gow tuh muh). His teachings eventually spread across Asia to become the core beliefs of one of the world’s most influential religions, Buddhism.
From Boy to Buddha
Gautama’s early life is known mostly through various religious writings and literature. He was born a prince about 563 B.C. According to tradition, his mother dreamed that a radiant white elephant descended to her from heaven. Signs such as this led a prophet to predict that the boy would someday become a wandering holy man. To prevent that—in hopes of his son one day becoming a ruler—Gautama’s father kept him in the family’s palaces, surrounded by comfort and luxury. At age 16, Gautama married a beautiful woman and enjoyed a happy life.
At age 29, Gautama’s life changed. One day he took a ride beyond the palace gardens and saw an old man. On following rides, he also saw a sick person and a dead body. For the first time, Gautama became aware of human suffering. Deeply disturbed, he bade farewell to his family and left the palace, never to return. He set out to discover “the realm of life where there is neither suffering nor death.”
Gautama wandered for years, seeking answers from Hindu scholars and holy men whose ideas failed to satisfy him. He fasted and meditated. At some point, he took a seat under a large tree, determined to stay there until he understood the mystery of life. Throughout the night, legend tells, evil spirits tempted Gautama to give up his meditations, but he fended them off. When he rose, he believed he understood the cause of and cure for suffering and sorrow. He was no longer Gautama; he had become the Buddha, or “Enlightened One.”
Following the Four Noble Truths
The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching others what he had learned. In his first sermon after reaching enlightenment, he explained the Four Noble Truths that lie at the heart of Buddhism:
1. All life is full of suffering, pain, and sorrow.
2. The cause of suffering is nonvirtue, or negative deeds and mindsets such as hatred and desire.
3. The only cure for suffering is to overcome nonvirtue.
4. The way to overcome nonvirtue is to follow the Eightfold Path.
The Buddha described the Eightfold Path as “right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.” The first two steps involved understanding the Four Noble Truths and committing oneself to the Eightfold Path. Next, a person had to live a moral life, avoiding evil words and actions. Through meditation, a person might at last achieve enlightenment. For the Buddhist, the final goal is nirvana, or union with the universe and release from the cycle of rebirth.
Vocabulary Builder: aspiration—(as puh ray shun) n. desire or ambition to achieve something
The Buddha saw the Eightfold Path as a middle way between a life devoted to pleasure and one based on harsh self-denial. He stressed moral principles such as honesty, charity, and kindness to all living creatures.
Comparing Buddhism and Hinduism
Buddhism grew from the same traditions as Hinduism. Both Hindus and Buddhists stressed nonviolence and believed in karma, dharma, and a cycle of rebirth. Yet the religions differed in several ways. Instead of focusing on the priests, formal rituals, and many gods of Hinduism, the Buddha urged each person to seek enlightenment through meditation. Buddhists also rejected the caste system, offering the hope of nirvana to all regardless of birth.
Buddhism Spreads Beyond India
The Buddha attracted many disciples, or followers, who accompanied him as he preached across northern India. Many men and women who accepted the Buddha’s teachings set up monasteries and convents for meditation and study. Some Buddhist monasteries grew into major centers of learning.
Collecting the Buddha’s Teachings
Legend holds that at age 80, the Buddha ate spoiled food. As he lay dying, he told his disciples, “Decay is inherent in all things. Work out your own salvation with diligence.” After the Buddha’s death, his followers collected his teachings into the Tripitaka, or “Three Baskets of Wisdom.” One of the “baskets” includes sayings like this one, which echoes the Hindu emphasis on duty: “Let a man, after he has discerned his own duty, be always attentive to his duty. ” Other sayings give the Buddha’s version of the golden rule: “Overcome anger by not growing angry. Overcome evil with good. Overcome the liar by truth.”
Buddhist StupasRelics of the Buddha and other holy people are housed in Buddhist stupas, or large dome-shaped shrines like the Great Stupa at Sanchi, above. While stupas are quite plain, their gateways feature elaborate carvings that tell stories of the Buddha’s life.
Buddhism Spreads and Divides
Missionaries and traders spread Buddhism across India to many parts of Asia. Gradually, Buddhism split into two major sects, or subgroups. These were Theravada (thehr uh vah duh) Buddhism and Mahayana (mah huh yah nuh) Buddhism.
Theravada Buddhism closely followed the Buddha’s original teachings. It required a life devoted to hard spiritual work. Only the most dedicated seekers, such as monks and nuns, could hope to reach nirvana. The Theravada sect spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
The Mahayana sect made Buddhism easier for ordinary people to follow. Even though the Buddha had forbidden followers to worship him, Mahayana Buddhists pictured him and other holy beings as compassionate gods. People turned to these gods for help in solving daily problems as well as in achieving salvation. While the Buddha had said little about the nature of nirvana, Mahayana Buddhists described an afterlife filled with many heavens and hells. Mahayana Buddhism spread to China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.
Buddhism Declines in India
Although Buddhism took firm root across Asia, it slowly declined in India. Hinduism eventually absorbed some Buddhist ideas and made room for Buddha as another Hindu god. A few Buddhist centers survived until the 1100s, when they fell to Muslim armies that invaded India.