The Religious Difference Between Hinduism and Buddhism

The purpose of this work is to study religious difference between Hinduism and Buddhism and to state the opinion on some controversial questions in the course of exposition of the present work.

Over a long historical period the formation of Buddhism was influenced by religious and philosophical traditions of Hinduism.

Hinduism and Buddhism have much in common but despite their many similarities, there are some differences in the interpretation of principal concepts of Karma, Dharma, and Moksha, which distinguish Hinduism from Buddhism.

Karma is one of the fundamental concepts in philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism. A little bit different from each other philosophical interpretations of concept of Karma are given in religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. But the basic conception remains common. Through the law of Karma an individual is responsible for his or her living activity and the results of this activity (i.e. all living beings carry responsibility for their Karma ”“ their actions and its results). All living beings are punished or rewarded according to their intentions and actions.

In Hinduism Karma is not fate. People act in accordance with their free will and create their own destiny. According to the Vedas (ancient sacred texts in Sanskrit), if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness, if we sow evil, we will reap evil. Karma constitutes the totality of actions of an individual and the results of these actions both in present and previous lives. These actions determine the future of an individual.

In the “Life of Hinduism” by John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan it is said:

Crops of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, grow strictly according to the seeds of good and bad karma. (John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan, 189).

Hindus hold that everyone has a chance of being born again to undo the mistakes committed in past lives. The form of the future life is determined by the actions performed in previous lives. (John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan, 250).


Karma is a fundamental concept also in Buddhism teachings. In Buddhist theory Karma defines intentional activity, but not every action and never means the results of actions.


Volition may relatively be good or bad, just as a desire may relatively be good or bad. So karma may be good or bad relatively. Good Karma (kusala) produces good effects, and bad Karma (akusala) produces bad effects. ”˜Thirst’, volition, Karma, whether good or bad, has one force as its effect: force to continue-to continue in a good or bad direction. Whether good or bad it is relative, and is within the cycle of continuity (Samsara). (What the Buddha taught, Walpola Rahula, Chapter III).

The law of Karma means that living creatures are reborn again and again, for better or worse depending on their moral conduct in previous lives. After the man dies, his karma complex gives rise to a new being who in turn will die and be reborn again and again. (A Concise Introduction to World Religions by Willard G. Oxtoby, Alan F. Segal, Ch. 8, Buddhist Tradition, Roy Amore and Julia Ching).


Moving trough the stages of spiritual development (Ashrams) an individual fulfils four vitally important aims (Purusartha). They are Dharma (moral law), Kama (sensual enjoyment and desire), Artha (material gains and worldly achievements) and Moksha (liberation from Samsara ”“ the cycles of rebirths, merging with the Brahman).

The last one, Moksha, is the most important among Ashrams. Dharma, however, plays the key role in four stages of spiritual development.

To both the Hindu and the Buddhist, Dharma is one of the fundamental concepts. Dharma is religious and philosophical term which is used to mean the moral duty of the individual or, in more common meaning ”“ the way of piety.

Conception of Dharma in Hinduism is referred to as a universal law, order of things and harmony. Dharma acts as a fundamental moral principle of the Universe and is the pure Truth.


The Sanskrit word dharma refers to both man’s nature and his religion. Thus, according to the Hindu, religion is a means toward establishing a person’s real nature, which is the fulfilment of the divinity in man – an inner harmony with the world to which he belongs. (John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan 250).


Buddhism occupied an indifferent position in relation to the Vedas, which are considered to be the spiritual basis of Indian culture, and replaced Vedas by conversations. In these conversations with near followers and relatives the Buddha used the term Dharma at least in two different meanings.

First is that Dharmas are small parts, which constitute the constantly changing stream (Santana) of individual consciousness (Chitta) and they are distributed into groups. They act in the laws of their own nature, which were created by the Buddha. For example, mental qualities like composure, modesty, laziness, hatred and so on, are called Dharmas.

Second, the founder of Buddhism also developed traditional for Hinduism philosophy understanding of Dharma as Natural Law or Reality. In this sense Dharma is the support of the Universe, the law of life and reincarnations of living beings.

Buddhists believe that beings who live in harmony with Dharma principles will achieve more quickly Moksha (liberation) or Nirvana.

In Dharmic religions Moksha means liberation from the circle of birth and death, of sufferings and privations of this world.

Moksha is not a posthumous reward for pious conduct. Liberation can be achieved during worldly life only by overcoming egoism and defining the true and pure essence of individual as a clean spirit.

Moksha in Hinduism is viewed as final release from material existence and understanding of eternal essence of clean spirit, filled with pure knowledge and pure bliss. This state cannot be described.


When an individual soul (Atman) is released, it realizes its Unity with the Brahman – the Divine and Eternal Source of all existence. Through this self-realization the individual soul achieves Moksha. According to the Upanishads (fundamental texts of Hindu religion), the Brahman is the source of births of all living beings and also the sum totality of the Universe. (An Anthology of Living Religions, Mary Pat Fisher, Lee W. Bailey, Ch. 3, Sruti texts)


Nirvana is the synonym of Moksha in Buddhist religion. In Buddhism the concept of liberation, or Nirvana, is a little bit different from the Hindu concept of salvation. In Buddhism Nirvana can be achieved only after a living being becomes free from the cycle of repeated birth and death.

Nirvana in Buddhism is understood as liberation from sufferings. Buddhism believes that all life is suffering because of human passions. In general sense Nirvana is the state of peace and happiness in which sufferings and passions do not exist.  Inherently Nirvana is the transcendent state of constant peace and satisfaction.


In Dhammapada (verses, which contains sayings of the Buddha) the Buddha says that Nirvana is the highest happiness. (An Anthology of Living Religions, Mary Pat Fisher, Lee W. Bailey, Ch. 5, Theravada,  The Dhammapada)


According to the Buddha teaching, in spite of suffering that exists at all levels of Samsara, there is a state where there is no suffering anymore. This state is possible to be achieved by following the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path (one of the principal teachings of the Buddha, the way leading to the achievement of self-awakening). Buddhism does not believe in the existence of an individual soul. The state of nirvana in Buddhism is connected with the term Amata (“non-death”). Amata is the state of absolute spiritual achievement.


Another term for the state of enlightenment that the Buddha has reached is nirvana. This state has two aspects, negative and positive. In its negative aspect nirvana represents freedom from worldly evils such as greed, hatred, and delusion. In its positive aspect it represents transcendent happiness. (A Concise Introduction to World Religions, Willard G. Oxtoby, Alan F. Segal, Ch. 8, Buddhist Tradition, Roy Amore and Julia Ching).


Another way in which Buddhism is different from Hinduism is the fact that Buddhism refuses the idea of the Brahman. In Buddhism anyone can achieve Nirvana, whereas in Hinduism only the Brahmins could achieve Moksha.

Buddhism has opened the door to Sangha (Buddhist community) for everyone and proclaimed that any person endowed with wisdom and compassion can achieve Nirvana.


The Buddha says in the Vasettha-sutta that all people belong to one group, thus all people must be treated alike. (An Anthology of Living Religions, Mary Pat Fisher, Lee W. Bailey, Ch. 5, Rejection of Birth Castes from the Vasettha Sutta).


Buddhism and Hinduism are closely related religions that in some ways are similar and in other ways are divergent in theory and practice.

The term “Hinduism” is of European origin. In India this religion is called Hindu-samaja or Hindu-dharma. Modern Hinduism originated from the Vedas. The Brahmans taught that without knowing the Vedas it is impossible to achieve liberation.

By the end of the 1st millennium B.C. in India there was a complex of religious conceptions which came into conflict with the Vedas. This complex was defined as Buddhism. It is doubtful that Buddhism could derive from some other tradition, except Hinduism. That’s why many people consider Buddhism to be simply a part of the larger Hindu religion. Many Hindus believe that Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism and long ago the Buddha was accepted as an incarnation of Vishnu. The Buddha was born in a Hindu family, he went to Hindu gurus and he used the language of Hinduism to speak with his followers.

But the opinion that Buddhism is a sect of Hinduism is totally incorrect.


Dr. K Jamanadas (Jamanadas Patruji Khobaragade) in his article “Buddhism: Is It A Caste, A Sect Or A Religion?”, referring to the book of  Dharmatirtha: “Menace of Hindu Imperialism”, 1946, says:

Swami Dharmatirtha has rightly observed, in an answer to those, who treat Buddhism as a sect of Hinduism, that we do not know of any Hinduism having existed before the Buddha and if Hinduism did not exist, Buddhism could not have been a sect of it. He observed that, Buddhism was a revolt against both the prevailing systems, Brahmanic as well as tribal religion of sorts. In fact it was the first organized religion in the modern sense of the term “religion”. [Swami Dharmatirtha: “Menace of Hindu Imperialism, 1946: p.109] (Buddhism: Is It A Caste, A Sect Or A Religion? Dr. K. Jamanadas, “Shalimar”, Main Road, Chandrapur).


Indeed, before Buddhism and Hinduism diverged completely, they had been developed in parallel. Buddhism assimilated a great number of elements of imagery and conceptual system of Hinduism but gave them other meanings.

The main difference between Buddhism and Hinduism is in the principle of equality of everyone before the highest salvation. Because of its non-caste doctrines, Buddhism gave an opportunity for low-caste Hindus to achieve greater respect. The teachings of the Buddha inspired hope in those who had no hope for liberation.

In fact, this difference resulted in expulsion of Buddhism by Hinduism because Buddhism could not harmoniously blend with the caste structure of India. Being unconnected with the caste structure of Indian society, Buddhism found a new motherland in a number of countries: China, Korea, and Japan also as Indonesia, Ceylon and Indo-China. As far as Hinduism is national and unthinkable without India and Indians, so far Buddhism is indifferent to all what is national. In this regard Buddhism can be similar to other two world religions, Christianity and Islam. However, here the similarity comes to an end. In all other respects Buddhism is different from other religions. In some things Buddhism is similar to Hinduism that allows to speak about their common Hindu-Buddhist civilization.

So we may conclude that both Hinduism and Buddhism originated in India and during first few centuries they were developed in parallel and influenced each other. As a result these two religions have much in common but at the same time they are different in many essential aspects.

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