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On Buddhas & Hindu Avatars: The Links

Features Issue 89 Jul, 2010
Text by Eliz Manandhar / Photo: ECS Media & Yi Wen Tan

While taking a strolldown Lagan, in old Kathmandu, there is a Shivalinga that  is Hindu, over which rests a statue of the Buddha and a small stupa. Why was this structure built in such a manner? Does this hint at a connection between two major religions? Or is it just a whimsical piece of art built by an aspiring Newar architect

On researching this interesting structure, I found that it was built for practical reasons. It was built for rainwater to drip along the stupa and then pass on to the Shivalinga from which water could be collected. So, was it a structure without any religious significance whatsoever?

There exist several such structures that hint at links between Hinduism and Buddhism. These two religions are very closely interconnected considering the fact that Gautama Buddha was born a Hindu. So, most of the doctrines followed by Buddhists are the same as those of Hindus. According to the religious scholar Max Mueller, “To my mind, Buddhism has always seemed to be not a new religion, but a natural development of the Indian mind in its various manifestations, religious, philosophical, social and political.” According to another scholar, Rhys Davis, “Gautama Buddha was born and brought up and lived and died as a Hindu.” The Buddha’s relation with Hinduism is so close that it’s easy to confuse Buddhism with Hinduism because of Buddha’s refinement of Hindu philosophies and doctrines. Buddha distilled Hinduism and set forth a straightforward approach to which people could relate to more easily. The average Westerner finds Buddhism easier to learn than Hinduism because the former is less abstract and broad in its sum total.

Buddha himself began his meditation as a Hindu and after attaining Enlightenment, renounced Hinduism to found a new ‘religion’. Buddhism didn’t start off as a religion; it started off as lessons about morality and living a good life, and his followers were left so awestruck that they looked up to him as the holiest of saints and the best of teachers. This transformed Buddha’s image to one that was larger than life. To understand Buddhism fully, it shouldn’t be separated from Hinduism, but Buddha’s ways were free from the shackles of casteism and paganism that were abundant in Hinduism. Where Hinduism defined a person’s status in society by birth and caste, Buddhism defined the same by ‘karma’ (the good or bad actions that a person does in a lifetime). Morality and equality occupied a higher position in Buddhism. Swami Kriyananda compares Buddha and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the following manner: “Both men were reformers, and the structure reformed by each was not supplanted by his teachings. The Catholic Church survives to this day, and has in many ways been strengthened by Luther’s reforms. Hinduism similarly was purified and strengthened by the teachings of Buddha, and was in no way replaced by them. Most Hindus today look upon Buddha as one of their own Avatars or Divine Incarnations.”

Buddha is regarded by many to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu; therefore, to some, just another of the millions of Hindu deities! In Nepal, where there is an amalgamation of Hinduism and Buddhism, many people do not consider the two to be distinct. Experts believe that the term ‘Nirvana’ used by Buddha is actually a Vedic term.

A common link between Hinduism and Buddhism is provided by two major facets in each religion. Hindus hope to achieve peace through moksha. According to some Hindus, moksha is a process that allows a person to break the cycle of samsara (the continuous cycle of rebirth). A lot of Hindus believe that through moksha, a devotee rids himself of his lower caste and achieves a higher position in the next life. Others disagree with this and believe that moksha is simply the liberation of the soul and body from worldly life. It is more of “an assimilation of god with man” and it “leads to divine life”. Moksha has elements such as the aatman (spirit or soul) and parmatmaan (a higher or greater form of aatman) A lesser soul is a particle of the greater soul, and it always returns to the latter. The Buddhists, on the other hand believe in Nirvana, where the ultimate goal is to rid oneself from all kinds of suffering and an escape from rebirth. Although moksha and Nirvana are somehow synonymous in their aspects, but they also differ in some ways. Where moksha is attained only by people of higher castes (a controversial notion), Nirvana is for any person. So, for example, where only a Brahmin is thought to be eligible to attain moksha, any Buddhist can hope to attain Nirvana, although it is a difficult and sophisticated process.

Maya, karma and dharma are major aspects of Hinduism, and play a major role in Buddhism as well. Maya means ‘illusion’; it is a product of an individual’s failed interpretation and self-delusion. Maya is also one of the foundations of Buddhism, although the latter doesn’t entirely support the doctrine. Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, is unclear about the nature of Maya.

The Bhagavad-Gita tells Hindus that “Death is certain for anyone born and birth is certain for the dead; since the cycle is inevitable, you have no cause to grieve”(II, 27). Buddhists believe that the results of actions performed in the previous life are transmitted to that consciousness that brings about re-existence (reincarnation) and that this transmission takes place ceaselessly and uninterruptedly “like water flowing in a stream.” Thus both Hinduism and Buddhism strive to break free from the restraints of the cycle of life and death. Where Hindus seek unity with Brahmans, Buddhists seek Nirvana.

Another link both religions share is that of dharma. Dharma can be loosely translated as ‘good doings’. Hindus must live by their castes, placing caste above all else. A good example is found in the Hindu epic Bhagavad-Gita where Arjuna of the Pandavas fought against his own people. This was his dharma. Passages from the Gita define the path of action relating to both Hinduism and Buddhism.

According to Professor Naresh Man Bajracharya, Head of Department of Buddhism at Tribhuvan University, Buddha started something which others followed and then modified to form other schools of religion. When asked about the different forms of Buddha that are known to the general Nepalese people, Prof. Bajracharya mentions Dipankar Buddha (the most common form seen virtually everywhere), Bipashi, Karpochanda, Kashyapa, Sikhi, Kanakamuni, Shakyamuni and Bishwabhu. All these Buddhas imparted the same knowledge. Questioned about the significance behind chants that both Hindus and Buddhists perform during rituals and worships, Prof. Bajracharya points out that these chants, such as “Om Mane Padme Hum” in Buddhism, for instance, are for the concentration of one’s mind so that nothing else enters the ear and the mind, thus the soul and mind are at peace. This is also the same for a lot of Hindu chants. Prof. Bajracharya further says that Buddha preached that only meditation wasn’t enough to attain Nirvana or total peace and that other factors such as social service and family care were of equal importance.

“Although Hinduism also preached similar principles, it had its share of nihilistic features too”, says Bajracharya. Buddhism doesn’t believe in god, eternity or moksha. On asking about Nirvana, Prof. Bajracharya believes it to be the “liberation from the cycle of life and suffering”. Peace is the ultimate goal here. Buddha preached two kinds of peace—worldly peace, which is the management of the fulfillment of desires and worldly peace, and divine peace, which is to attain divinity and eternal bliss. Prof. Bajracharya goes on to say that the Buddha believed in co-existence and mutual respect, which were his major doctrines.

According to Buddhist philosophy, Buddha is not a re-incarnation of Vishnu or any other Hindu god as lots of the Hindus believe. “Buddha was against a lot of Hindu philosophies”, adds Bajracharya. When Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism flourished in ancient India, there was obviously some kind of competition between them. Where Hinduism and Jainism went to extremes, Buddhism always followed a Middle Path where there were no extremes. Happiness through religion, and an understanding of materialism and religion, were important for Buddhists.

In the beginning, the term Hinduism didn’t even exist. The word was supposedly coined by the Persians who named it after the Sindu river. So, Hinduism started off from the Vedas where two different rites flourished: sacrificial rites and Brahmanical rites. The Upanishads discuss aatman and Brahma while Buddha believed in anarman, which translates as ‘no-self’. At that time, Buddha organized the sangha (community of monks) who went on to preach and expand Buddhist philosophies. According to Ravi Karki, an ardent follower of Buddhism, the major similarities between the two religions are karma, re-incarnation, liberation, morality and dharma. According to him, the five precepts that Buddha preached were taken from ancient Brahminical practices that advised one not to indulge in “lying, stealing, drinking, gambling and prostitution.”

The most significant link between the two religions is brought about what we may call ‘hybrid deities’. Several gods are worshipped by both religions and there are also gods that have merged and thus are hybrid. For example, Lokeshwar-Machhendranath is a blend of Avalokiteshvara of Buddhism and Shiva of Hinduism. Mahakali is also a deity worshipped by both religions and so is Ganesha. A lot of Buddhist Newars worship Shiva in his other manifestations such as Lukma Dya. A fascinating example of the merging of the two religions can be seen at the temples at Taleju Bhavani (at Hanumandhoka) where Hindu and Buddhist gods are both represented. Even at Swayambhu, one can notice lingas and yonis, which are Shiva’s symbols.