As Buddhism arose out of Hinduism, they naturally share many similar beliefs. One such idea is that we are adrift, cycling from life to life. We are born, we live, we die and we are reborn in another form determined by our karma. But because Buddhism began as a rejection of certain Hindu beliefs, their conceptions of this process varies. From the Buddhist point of view, the Buddha brought knowledge of enlightenment to this world so that people here could reach nirvana. From an outsider’s point of view, as well as founding a fascinating religion he helped develop and promote an overall stronger sense of social constructivism in the region.
Hinduism accepts four goals as legitimate objectives of human existence. Wealth and pleasure are the lowest two, followed by dharma (which in Hinduism can be defined as one’s duties, or ethical and religious principles, an example of which would be following through with the four stages of life. Other rituals must also be carried out in order to maintain the cosmic order), but the highest goal in Hinduism is also that of Buddhism: freedom from samsara, or the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This freedom is known as moksha in Hinduism and nirvana in Buddhism.
Even though the reason we are believed to suffer, according to both Hinduism and Buddhism, has been by described scholars as “ignorance,” (Masumian, p.47 and Coward, p.70), the knowledge we are said to lack is quite different in each case. While Hinduism contains several schools of thought, a common argument is that we are ultimately unhappy because we are unaware of our true nature. This view states that the soul or essence (atman) of each individual is actually one with brahman, or the impersonal supreme consciousness according to Hinduism. Brahman actually has multiple potential meanings, and others view it as a personal god (Johnson, p.112). Our oneness with brahman also implies that the souls of every human are all parts of a single divine Absolute Reality. Hinduism asserts that once we understand this, we can be free of suffering (Masumian, p.8).
According to Buddhism, on the other hand, we fail to understand the Four Noble Truths: 1) life is dukkha (frustration) 2) dukkha is caused by tanha (desire) and attachment 3) we can get rid of dukkha, and 4) the way to eliminate dukkha is to follow the Eight-Fold Path
Desire and attachment of course refer to objects, people and also to anything intangible such as titles. Some anecdotes refer to Buddhist monks who claimed to have been much further along the path to enlightenment than most but who would get visibly upset whenever someone failed to address them by their title. It is important to note that while Hinduism asserts exactly the same cause for each individual’s suffering (creating a single root for each person’s problems), whereas Buddhism acknowledges the uniqueness of every individual. While we say that it is those four precepts we fail to understand, the understanding still remains that dukkha for each individual is different based on their particular desires and attachments, which are the result of their personal experiences throughout life. In this sense as well as others, Buddhism began a step toward a more comprehensive idea of social constructivism.
Multiple paths toward moksha are offered in Hinduism, and the three primary routes are found in the Bhagavad Gita. The path of action offers the opportunity to assist brahman with maintaining the cosmic order by committing to service “in a spirit of faith and detachment” (Johnson, p117). The path of wisdom or knowledge offers the opportunity to learn one’s true nature through studying sacred texts and through meditation. The path of devotion, which many believe to be the most sacred path, is followed by developing and maintaining a love of God. One must also purify one’s thoughts, speech, and actions (Johnson, p.117). The Upanishads offers another path which the Advaita branch of Hinduism views as acceptable. The text states that” those who have sought God with intensity but whose understanding is still conditioned and limited by human conceptions” will go to brahmaloka after death, where they will be able to study and further their spiritual knowledge. Once they understand the oneness of the human soul with Brahman, they will be granted liberation “at the time of cosmic dissolution” (Coward, p.81).
As mentioned above, part of the Buddhist view of the way to relieve suffering, attain enlightenment and achieve liberation is to follow the Eight-Fold Path. A path toward an ethical life and ways to control the human tendency toward desire and attachment are offered by this general guideline. It consists of belief in the Four Noble Truths and adherence to the dharma (in Buddhism this is the teachings of the Buddha), purity of thoughts and speech as well as actions, refraining from having an occupation that is harmful to other life, overcoming temptations, being constantly aware of the state of your mind and body, and practice meditation (Masumian, p.48-49).
In this particular area there doesn’t appear to be a significantly higher emphasis on individuality within Buddhism. Multiple avenues toward liberation are offered in Hinduism and each seems to give its adherents some room to follow their own paths within it. Buddhism offers its Eight-Fold path with the understanding that some points on the path will help some people more than others. And in Buddhism, nothing is written in stone. However, the Buddhist idea of what is reborn in future lives is much more strongly influenced by social constructivism than its Hindu counterparts.
The Buddhist and Hindu views of what happens when we die, what it is that moves from life to life, and what precisely moksha or nirvana entail are challenging concepts for any Westerner brought up with the typical Judeo-Christian mindset. In the Hindu view, during our lives we are composed of four parts, the atman, the physical body, the subtle body, and the causal body. The first of these is a consciousness that is unchanging and eternal. The physical body, composed of fire, water, air, space and earth is what we use to interact with the earth and with others. The sense organs of our physical bodies are able to be used only because of the sensory apparatus of our subtle body as well as the mind and the intellect (which are also in the subtle body). According to Coward, our subtle body is “the link of continuity between the old and new bodies” of each life (p. 74) and he likens a rebirth to an individual putting on a new set of clothes. The subtle body is also what stores our karma, which in Hinduism is determined by our actions the consequences they have. Finally, the causal body is described by Coward as being equivalent to the subtle body in an inert state (such as between lives or while one is asleep but not dreaming).
In Hinduism’s view, the subtle body detaches from the physical body via an eight-step process and travels toward the new body (the question of how is not addressed) within one of any number of either positive or negative realms, determined in advance by one’s karma. Since moksha is achieved by understanding one’s unity with brahman and subsequently becoming one with brahman, it seems that the personality (contained in the subtle body) would then dissipate.
Karma in Buddhism is determined by the intent behind one’s actions, as opposed to their consequences. Coward (p.91) asserts that there are two points on which the vast majority of Buddhists, if not all Buddhists, agree. First, one’s mental components separate from one’s physical components at death. Second, the mental components are driven to a new body which is determined by one’s karma. As to what the “mental components” are, Reverend Ani Kunga Chodron mentioned that it is the mind that moves from life to life. The Johnson and McGee text (p.58) also states the consciousness itself travels from one body to the next guided by an attraction to “its vision of a copulating couple… if one is to be born as a female, one rushes there due to an overwhelming attraction to the father, and if as a male, out of attraction to the mother.” This idea is depressingly heteronormative. However, both scriptures and the Buddha himself were very quiet on precisely what nirvana is, saying little more than that it is “bliss.” It is likely that we cannot comprehend such a state of being. Asking whether an enlightened person is reborn (or even still exists) after death and asking for a description of nirvana most likely requests information that our language is too clumsy to convey. And the answers are perhaps so far beyond our range of experience as to render any available explanation meaningless (Smith, p.118).
As explained, in Hinduism even though the subtle body moves from one body to another also the primary component of the individual is the atman. The eternal and unchanging atman is the essence of the individual, as opposed to Buddhist doctrines which state that one’s mind is the most basic foundation of the individual. These differ substantially in that the mind according to Buddhism is always changing and always in flux. Every moment and every experience changes a person to create drastic changes over a period of years and decades. What’s more is that the experiences that change us are influenced by others, so our concept of the self is mediated by others. In making this is the fundamental aspect of an individual and dropping Hinduism’s unalterable concept of the atman the Buddha not only shared the path to enlightenment, but also helped to develop and promote a stronger sense of social constructivism in India and into Asia as the religion spread.
1) How Different Religions View the Afterlife. Christopher Jay Johnson and Marsha McGee (eds.)
2) Life After Death in World Religions. Harold Coward (ed.)
3) Life After Death. Farnáz Ma’súmián