Most researchers agree that Buddhism appeared in the 6th century BC, while the dominant position at that time was held by Hinduism, having a history of 700 years before Buddhism. Early Buddhism contained some traditional aspects of Hinduism: doctrine of karmic law, belief in reincarnation, principle of good merit accumulation, major concepts and terms (dharma, karma, samsara, etc.). However, these aspects rather relate to the form and philosophical component of the doctrine, but the essence is completely different.
First of all, unlike Hinduism Buddhism does not contain the idea of caste, but the idea of equality of all people from the viewpoint of possessing the same capabilities. In classical Hinduism, a representative of the lowest caste (Shudra) is not only deprived of any hope for salvation, but doesn’t even dare to touch the mystery of the Vedas for improving his karma. In Buddhism, anyone, regardless of birth or social status, can and should strive for mercy and morality and has the same chances for finding salvation as a Brahmin does.
Moreover, in Hinduism the concept of karma is closer to the idea of debt. People are born in various living and social conditions as a result of belonging to different castes or are born women. Their karma is to follow classic patterns of behavior; then their position could be better in future lives. The Buddhist idea of karma means “impulses”ť, driving to do or think something. These impulses appear as a result of prior actions or habitual behavior patterns. But since there is no need to follow each impulse, our behavior is not strictly deterministic.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism include the idea of rebirth. Hinduism talks about Atman, or “I”ť, which is permanent and separated from body and mind, and which is just shifting from one life to another. All these Atmans are united with the Universe, or Brahma. Consequently, the diversity surrounding us is an illusion, because in reality we are all One. In Buddhism, on the contrary, “I”ť doesn’t exist as a fantasy, passing from one life to another. Buddhism doesn’t claim that everything is an illusion: everything can just resemble illusions.
Another major difference touches upon the special importance, given in Hinduism and Buddhism to different types of activities leading to deliverance from problems. In Hinduism external physical dimensions and techniques are emphasized (asana in hatha yoga, ablution in Ganges, diet). In its turn, Buddhism emphasizes on internal techniques, affecting mind and heart. This difference is also evident in the approach to mantras pronunciation (sound reproduction in Hinduism; and ability to concentrate in Buddhism).
In contrast to Hinduism, there is no exact path in Buddhism, which people should follow aiming at salvation. The way to salvation is very individual for every Buddhist. Surely, this scheme includes the Eightfold Path and Pratimoksha; however, their advice is far from the concrete system of Hinduism. In Buddhism, the entire responsibility for the destiny of a man is in his own hands.
Thus, Buddhism is a deeply personalized religion, which at the same time carries more freedom and more responsibility, in comparison with Hinduism. The ethics of Buddhism was totally different from the previous system, adopted in Hinduism, and based on the Vedic culture of that period. This could be grounded by evidence of major differences of Buddhism and Hinduism, such as:
1. Buddhism erased caste distinctions and gave the lower castes a hope for salvation.
2. Buddhism recognizes the right of women to seek for their own salvation.
3. Buddhism recognizes the equality of all local religious trends and the right to the existence of other religions.
4. Way to salvation is individual for every human being, who is responsible for his own fate.
5. Wisdom is inseparable from morality; the path to enlightenment lies through mercy, education and morality.
Thus, Buddhism forms a new ethical system, and it greatly differs from Hinduism.