Hinduism and Buddhism are two of the world’s greatest and most influential religions. Both of these religions arose in South Asia, and thus stem from a similar philosophy and culture. While contrasting greatly with the monotheistic religions of the West, Hinduism and Buddhism also contrast greatly with each other. Although similar in respect to general philosophy, Hinduism and Buddhism differ greatly on matters of social structure. The two religions also contrast because Hinduism omits and Buddhism emphasizes individual freedom to progress spiritually and socially in the current life.
By comparing the two religions, one can easily see why it is that Hinduism has proved the more stable and Buddhism the more humanitarian philosophy. Both Hinduism and Buddhism are more philosophical than religious. Both describe an all-encompassing philosophy and define existence itself. For instance, the essential Hindu concept defining the individual and his responsibilities is dharma. A convoluted term, dharma is a sense of obligation. One must fulfill his roles in society and the world.
Such responsibilities include reproduction and caste duties, but extend into the philosophical realm of peaceful and humble acceptance of one’s position. Dharma defines correct living for a Hindu. Buddhism has a similar concept, dhamma (note even the linguistic similarity). Dhamma does not imply specific biological or social obligations, but maintains a comparable philosophical construct. The Buddhist definition of right conduct and personal obligation, dhamma is the path which must be taken to escape the suffering of worldly life.
Other similarities between Hinduism and Buddhism are more apparent. Both religions maintain a broad perspective of religious worship. Hinduism is polytheistic while Buddhism maintains no structured belief in an independent, sentient god-like entity (especially in human form). Either of these concepts yields a malleable religion which can adjust and conform to local tradition and fluctuations in intellectual and spiritual thought. Both religions believe in a system of reincarnation, and both religions emphasize the community over the self.
The major rift between the two religions seems to stem from the role of social structure in the two religions. Hinduism’s caste system perpetuates a fatalism and apathy toward social rights and advancement while reinforcing the ruling establishment. Buddhism concentrates on the individual’s release from suffering, implying no overriding social definition. The outstanding example of Hinduism’s establishment tendencies is the caste system. The caste system divides the Hindu people into four major classes, Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, and “untouchables,” or people outside of all the classes.
Members of certain castes have certain duties. Caste is determined by birth, allowing no social advancement, career choice, or individual freedom. The castes are socially ranked, forming an upper social division as well as lower ones. Caste, then, determines one’s profession, one’s potential education, one’s social position, even defining these limitations for your children. These social limitations are reinforced by the concept that caste is determined by sins or virtues in a previous life: how well one fulfilled his dharma in the past.
The responsibilities of one’s current caste also constitute the dharma; which will further advance or punish one in your next life. In other words, exceeding one’s dharma in not only unnecessary, but in all probability will hurt your dharma, causing you to fall into a lower caste in your next life. This intertwining of social strata with religion creates a fatalism derived from inevitable destiny, guilt complexes of past life caste determination, a philosophy of acceptance, and fear of punishment for transcending one’s dharma.
In this light, Hinduism becomes a tremendous force for stagnation, eliminating the initiative for progress in a philosophy of acceptance, which breeds apathy for social justice. Such a pervasive philosophy becomes an asset to the status quo and ruling stratum, stabilizing the social structure at the expense of individuals. Buddhism, on the other hand, plays little role in the social or political structure of a society. Buddhism actually began as a reaction to the violence of Hindu society, including the brutality of the caste system.
Buddhism concentrates not on the society, but on the individual, thus divorcing religion from the interests of the ruling stratum. The pessimism of Hindu reincarnation is replaced by a more optimistic and less fatalistic cycle. One is no longer born into a position due to past inequities. Although Buddhism does see life as pain and suffering and reincarnation as a renewal of this suffering, there is a potential escape. If one renounces his attachment to desire and self, Nirvana, or escape from the cycles of suffering, is possible.
The most important aspect of Nirvana, however, is its unrestricted access to people of any social background. In other words, although a Hindu “untouchable” cannot possibly advance in this life through any extraordinary effort of his own, any Buddhist can achieve Nirvana through the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, realizations of the essence of suffering and the methods to remove all suffering. Buddhism also seems to be less ritualistic and deity-dependent than Hinduism.
Cultures across the world have created man-shaped gods to emphasize the dignity and purpose of human existence. In my opinion, this shows an emotional dependency which flaws a religious philosophy. If a religion is created to emotionally satisfy its followers, it seems to contain less “truth” or philosophical rightness. I believe this is the case with Hinduism. While Hinduism has man shaped gods to emphasize human dignity, Buddhism manages to instill a respect for humanity through the intellectual and spiritual capacity of man.
This is evidenced by the supreme respect Buddhist have for those who achieve Nirvana, quasi-deifying these men, recognizing their superhuman wisdom and spirit while refusing to attribute them supernatural properties. The lack of an artificial “diety” to instill purpose in a religion’s followers makes Buddhism significantly different, and more advanced, than Hinduism. An especially important indicator of the contrast between Hinduism and Buddhism arises in their historical relationship. Buddhism, of course, arose as a reform movement out of Hinduism.
This in itself tends to put Buddhism in a more positive light as the religion that integrated Hindu beliefs while excluding the most negative aspects of Hinduism. This turns out to be the case when the caste system is examined. While Hinduism not only perpetuates, but is itself the caste system, Buddhism utterly rejects any system of caste. Buddhism actually reached high levels of support during the rule of Ashoka, who adopted the Buddhist concept of ahimsa, or non violence, and its tendency toward greater equality.
The attractiveness of a philosophy/religion of peace and general freedom, including a rejection of the social stigmas of caste for “untouchables” and lower caste members, brought thousands of converts. Again, however, the historical relationship of Hinduism and Buddhism shows the inherent malleability and strength of Hinduism. In order to integrate the Buddhist movement into Hinduism, the Buddha was made an avatar of Vishnu. Now even if one claimed to be a Buddhist, one could easily be dismissed as a Hindu.
By erasing the demarcation between the two religions, Hinduism managed to absorb the Buddhist movement. This result shows the power of a religion so closely tied to the social structure. Because Hinduism pervaded the very fabric of society, it was able to stifle and absorb threatening philosophies. Buddhism, on the other hand, has no interest in the structural model of a society to effect similar results. Between Hinduism and Buddhism, I believe that Buddhism is more positive religion. The myths and history of Hinduism create a field of immensely greater interest than that of Buddhism.
The culture of Hinduism also seems more captivating, although this is only by virtue of its distinct difference with Western class systems. Despite the draw Hinduism holds upon outsiders, Buddhism remains the more advanced religion. Whereas Hinduism represses others through caste, Buddhism projects ultimate acceptance. Both religions maintain an emphasis upon the community and a rejection of selfishness that is refreshingly different from Western religions. Although both of these religions instill respect and a genuine concern for others, Hinduism does so in a forced, repressive manner while Buddhism is more liberal.
The relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism is much the same as between Catholicism and Protestantism. One can equate Catholicism with Hinduism and Protestantism with Buddhism. Protestantism grew as a reform movement out of Catholicism. The corruption, immorality, and restrictive power structure of the Catholic Church became so intolerable that Protestantism, a religion emphasizing the individual’s personal relationship with the deity, was created. Protestantism offered more freedom and dignity to the people than did Catholicism.
Although the religions are vastly different, Buddhism also grew out of the corruption, immorality, and restrictive power structure of Hinduism to give the people more freedom and dignity. Unfortunately, the comparison stops here since the philosophy of Protestantism did not support a selfless, dignified religion, while the very essence of Buddhism supports a selfless and dignified view of humanity. This again results from Buddhism’s de-emphasis on social order. Hinduism and Buddhism are very similar religions in comparison to the monotheistic religions of the West.
On a direct comparison, however, the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism are great. Although the general tendencies of both religions lean toward the family and community, Hinduism does so at the expense of women and the lower castes while Buddhism remains more universally accepting. Both religions seem to have elements which would do the West good to learn, but only Buddhism lacks any large scale negative repercussions for its followers. On the basis of these criteria, Buddhism seems to have more positive character as a general life philosophy.