Gautama Buddha & Hindu concepts

Author: Rami Sivan (Hindu priest and teacher of Indian Philosophy)

There were four metaphysical doctrines shared by the Hindus, Jains and Buddhists since the beginning – and these are:–

  1. Punar-bhava (Sanskrit) Punna-bhava(Pali) — Rebirth/ reincarnation/ metempsychosis or whatever you want to call it – it’s all the same – i.e. consciousness transmigrating into another body.
  2. Karma (Sanskrit) Kamma (Pali) – the idea that actions have reactions which are experienced in either this or future births.
  3. Saṁsāra – the concept of a cycle of existence – death and rebirth.
  4. Nirvāna/ mokṣa – the possibility of achieving liberation or freedom from suffering and ultimately saṁsāra itself.

The three traditions had a few variations on these themes, but in general it is taught that we can be reborn through 5 or 6 realms of Being.

Manuṣya – Human world

Tiryak – Animal world

Deva – God realm

Asura – Anti-god realm

Preta – Hungry Ghost in the astral realm.

The Buddhists also added Nāraki – or “Hell-being” which the Hindus skipped over in most texts.

Many western Buddhist do like to distance themselves from the traditional teaching on the subject and prefer to regard it as a purely psychological process only and not a real-time rebirth – but this is not how the Jataka tales portray rebirth or what the vast majority of Buddhists believe.

Below is a traditional Tangka showing the 6 realms of rebirth – the Tangkas are usually painted by Newari Hindu artists.

This site has an excellent explanation of them. THE SIX REALMS | buddhism

All the teachings on this topic are completely in harmony with Hindu philosophy. The Buddhists are just so much better at explaining things in a systematic and pragmatic manner 🙂

Buddhism & Brahman

Depends on which Buddhist sect you are talking about. There are different schools of Buddhism with differences in teachings and doctrines. When discussing Buddhism and Hinduism the most frequent marker of division is Brahman and Ātman. The schismatics will say Buddhism rejects the notions of Brahman and of a Self (anātta), but when examined in detail we find the differences in fact are only in nomenclature and not in essential philosophical and metaphysical concepts.

In Vedānta “Brahman” which literals means “the Immensity” is defined as Being, Consciousness and Bliss (sat-cit-ānanda). It is the all-pervading Ground-of-Being, the Universal Consciousness.

In Yogacāra Mahāyāna Buddhism there is the doctrine of the trikāya — the three “Bodies”


Dharma-kaya means “truth body.” The Dharma-kaya is the Absolute; the unity of all things and beings, all phenomena unmanifested. The Dharma-kaya is beyond existence or nonexistence, and beyond concepts. The late Chogyam Trungpa called the Dharma-kaya “the basis of the original unbornness.”

The dharmakaya isn’t a special place where only Buddhas go. Dharmakaya is sometimes identified with Buddha Nature, which in Mahayana Buddhism is the fundamental nature of all beings. In the Dharma-kaya , there are no distinctions between Buddhas and everyone else.

The Dharma-kaya is synonymous with perfect enlightenment, beyond all perceptual forms. As such it is also sometimes synonymous with sunyata, or “emptiness.”

So this is the Buddhist equivalent of The Hindu BRAHMAN.


Sambhoga-kāya means “bliss body” or “reward body.” The “bliss body” is the body that feels the bliss of Bodhi — enlightenment. It is also a Buddha as an object of devotion. A Sambhoga-kāya Buddha is enlightened and purified of defilements, yet he remains distinctive.

This body is explained in many different ways. Sometimes it is a kind of interface between the dharma-kāya and nirmāṇa-kāya bodies. When a Buddha manifests as a celestial being, distinctive but not “flesh and blood,” this is the Sambhoga-kāya body. The celestial Buddhas who reign over Pure Lands are Sambhoga-kāya Buddhas.

Sometimes the Sambhoga-kāya body is thought of as a reward for accumulated good merit. It is said that only one on the final stage of the bodhisattva path can perceive a Sambhoga-kāyaBuddha.

This is the equivalent of The Hindu concept of Trimūrti and their celestial manifestations. In Srivaishnava theology the sambhoga-kāya is the equivalent of the four Vyūhas.


Nirmāṇa-kāya means “emanation body.” This is the physical body that is born, walks the earth, and dies. An example is the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who was born and who died. However, this Buddha also has sambhogakaya and dharmakaya forms as well.

It is understood that the Buddha is primordially enlightened in the dharma-kaya, but he manifests in various Nirmāṇa-kāya forms – not necessarily as a “Buddha” — to teach the way to enlightenment

Sometimes buddhas and bodhisattvas are said to take the form of ordinary beings so they can hep others.

This is the equivalent of The Hindu doctrine of avatāras.

Together, the three bodies are sometimes compared to weather – dharma-kāya is the all pervading atmosphere, sambhoga-kāya is a cloud, Nirmāṇa-kāya is rain.

A similar analogy is used in Srivaishnava theology.

Another doctrine which equates to The Hindu Brahman is the ālaya—vijñāna

Ālaya-vijñāna is the eighth of the eight levels of consciousness of Yogacara, that is primarily concerned with the nature of experience. In this context, vijñāna refers to the awareness or consciousness that connects a sense faculty with a sense object. It is the awareness that connects an eye to a sight or an ear to a sound.

The ālaya means the “storehouse” or “ground of”— and is the foundation or basis of all consciousness, and it contains impressions of all of our past actions. These impressions or saṁskāras form bija, or “seeds,” and from these seeds or subliminal activators, our thoughts, opinions, desires, and attachments arise. The ālaya-vijñāna which in Hindu Yoga is called citta– forms the basis of our personalities (svabhāvas) as well.

These samskāras or subliminal activators are also identified as the seeds of karma. KARMA is created primarily by our intentions and acting on our intentions with thought, word, and deed. The karma thus created is said to reside in our subconscious (or, the storehouse consciousness) until it ripens, or until it is eliminated. The several schools of Buddhism offer a range of practices and approaches for eliminating harmful karma, such as performing meritorious acts or cultivating bodhicitta.

Yogacara scholars also proposed that the ālaya-vijñāna was the “seat” of Buddha Nature is, basically, the fundamental nature of all beings. It is because we are fundamentally buddhas that we are able to realize Buddhahood. In some schools of Buddhism, Buddha Nature is understood to exist as something like a seed or potentiality, while in others it is already complete and present even if we aren’t aware of it. Buddha Nature is not something we have, but what we are — in other words bodhi-citta corresponds to the Advaitic concept of jīvātman.

So the Ālaya-vijñāna doctrine corresponds perfectly to the teachings of the Yoga school of Hinduism and to the Advaita Vedānta concepts of ātman-Brahman. Nomenclature differs but the metaphysical concepts are the same.

Buddha & Atman

This topic or ATMA versus ANATMA is misunderstood by many.

Especially westerners love to point to this as a major difference between Hinduism and Buddhism. There is a increasing tendency in Western academia to demonise Hinduism and glorify Buddhism – driving a wedge between the two sister Dharmas.

The Buddha never rejected the Vedāntic concept of ātman.

Let us read the Pali text. — Annattalakhana Sutta Mahavagga 1, 6, 38

And the Blessed One thus spoke to the five Bhikkhus: ‘The Body (Rupa), O Bhikkhus, is not the Self. If the body, O Bhikkhus, were the Self, the body would not be subject to disease, and we should be able to say: ” Let my body be such and such a one, let my body not be such and such a one.” But since the body, ‑ O Bhikkhus, is not the Self, therefore the body is subject to disease, and we are not able to say: ” Let my body be such and such a one, let my body not be such and such a one.” ‘…………..

‘Therefore, O Bhikkhus, whatever body has been, will be, and is now, belonging or not belonging to sentient beings, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, distant or near, all that body is not mine, is not me, is not my Self: thus it should be considered by right knowledge according to the truth.

So the Blessed One is reiterating exactly what the Vedānta says — the body and everything associated with it – thoughts, feelings, memories etc are not the SELF – they are the percepts of the Self.

In Vedānta the primary problem of human birth is Avidya — cognitive error or nescience. This cognitive error leads to the creation of identities – Asmita – this clutching to identities such as parent – child, male, female, trans, high class, low class, middle class, teacher – pupil etc are all delusions, and attachment to these identities is productive of duḥkha — grief, sorrow, neurosis.

In the Yoga sūtras Patañjali says that Avidya is characterised be seeing the non-self (anātman) as Self (ātman.)

So anātma = object and ātma = subject. So just as the Blessed One said – confusing the body/mind with your own Self rather than merely the body that YOU inhabit, is what is known as Spiritual Ignorance, nescience or Avidya.

For someone to say – “There is no Self” or “I looked everywhere in my body and mind and could not locate a Self” – is a sign of insanity – because as long as a person has a sense of “I” …. Self-identity exists. Otherwise one is denying one’s own existence.

What many are conflating with the Vedāntic concept of ātman is the doctrine of an early Buddhist sect which was extremely popular for about 1000 years – the pudgala-vādins. They believed there was a homunculus (little person) inhabiting the body called the pudgala – and this accounted for Karma and reincarnation – since in absence of an ātma – explaining karma and reincarnation is problematic.

There are a variety of ideas about the ātman in the different schools of Vedānta and much debate about them.

The dominant school – Advaita Vedānta holds with one single ātman also known as Brahman (the terms are used interchangeably in the Upaṇiṣads) and ultimately in the state of Mokṣa all identity ceases and there is a merging into the Bliss of the Divine Consciousness. The example of the river entering the sea is used.

The Viṣiṣṭhādvaitis believe that the ātmans are separate but not different units of consciousness (prakāra) and they blend with, but do not merge into the Divine Consciousness which is Nārāyaṇa (Brahman)

The Dvaitis believe that the ātmans are many and different from each other and eternally retain their individual identity.

Buddha & Vedanta

Jan 10th, 2020

I wouldn’t argue that the Buddha taught Vedanta per se.

Vedanta, being the teachings of the Upanishads is not a systematic philosophy. There were several sages mentioned in the Upanishads who had different takes on metaphysical matters e.g. Aruni, Udālaka, Śvetaketu, Yajñavālkya, even the female theologian Gārgi et al. Then there were the contemporary philosophers of the Ājīvika, Lokāyata schools as well as the Jinas and several others.

Bādarāyana attempted to systematise and structure the various opinions of the sages in his work — the Brahmā sūtras which form the basis of the modern school of Vedanta which scholars estimate was completed in its current form around 400 CE which is about 900 years after the Buddha.

India of the time was a wellspring of philosophical and metaphysical speculation, discussion, argument and the “workshopping” of ideas. So the Buddha was one of many who spoke on the same issues. For example ALL schools on Indian philosophy start from the existential experience of duḥkha or suffering. They all concluded that duḥkha is based on desire, craving and attachment but they differed on the details of the complexity of human-nature, of the world conditioned by time-space and the ultimate goal mokṣa/nirvāna/kaivalya.

So the Buddha was not alone in criticising tradition. There is a very cynical parody of Brahmins engaged in a Vedic yajña in the Chandogya Upanishad.

I-xii-1: Therefore next begins the Udgitha seen by the dogs. Once Dalbhya Baka, called also Maitreya Glava, went out (of the village) for the study of the Vedas.

I-xii-2: Before him a white dog appeared and other dogs gathered around it and said, ‘Revered sir, please obtain food for us by singing; we are hungry.’

I-xii-3: The white dog said to them, ‘Come to me over here tomorrow morning.’ (The sage named) Dalbhya Baka and Maitreya Glava kept watch there for them.

I-xii-4: Just as those who recite the Stotras singing the Bahispavamana hymn move along clasping one another’s hand, even so did the dogs move along. Then they sat down and began to pronounce ‘him’.

I-xii-5: ‘Om, let us eat ! Om, let us drink ! Om, may the (sun who is) god, Varuna, Prajapati and Savitir bring us food here. O Lord of food, bring food here, yea bring it, Om !’

Many passages like this can be found scattered throughout the Upanishads. The caste system is deconstructed in the famous Vajra-sūcika (Diamond Needle) Upaṇiṣad which some believe is a Buddhist work.

There are hundreds of passages in the Pali Tripitaka which have parallels in the Upaniṣads and related texts, so the Buddhas teaching was not new but it was unique.

The controversy of the ātma (self) vs anātma (non-self) is simply vexatious and in my experience is stressed more by western Buddhists than traditionalists.

In Sanskrit ātma has several meaning as illustrated by this verse in the Gītā

uddhared-ātman-ātmānaṁ nātmānam avasādayet |

ātmaiva hy-ātmano bandhur-ātmaiva ripur-ātmanaḥ ||

Translation:– One should raise one’s Self by one’s own mind and not allow one’s Self to sink; for the mind alone is the friend of the Self, and the mind alone is the adversary of the Self.

So ātma means self as in “I myself did it” or it can mean “mind” or it can mean “Self” as an individual mode or unit of consciousness. It can also refer to the Absolute Brahman or the Supreme Being (paramātman)

And then there are 2 levels of TRUTH promulgated both by Buddha and the Rishis – vyavahārika satya (conventionally or everyday truth) and paramārthika satya (Absolute Truth.)

So in Advaita Vedānta and in Patanjali Yoga there is a “self” in the everyday conventional sense but “non-self” in the absolute, abstract sense in which individuality is transcended. There are many Vedānta texts which also talk about No-mind.

So one needs to examine the sense and context in which the Buddha was teaching.

In the Annatta-lakhana sutta mahavagga 1:6:38 the Buddha says:–

‘Therefore, O Bhikkhus, whatever body has been, will be, and is now, belonging or not belonging to sentient beings, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, distant or near, all that body is not mine, is not me, is not my Self: thus it should be considered by right knowledge according to the truth.”

So what the Buddha is saying is that what you think of, or identify as “self” – body/mind, complex is not YOU. This is exactly the same as what the Rishis of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita are saying. When the Buddhist says – “I looked everywhere but could not find a self (ātma)” The Vedāntin asks “who is doing the looking?” There cannot be a process without an observer.

Now we have determined that the mind/body is not the true Self in both Vedanta and Buddhism and that somehow our true identity is related to our sentience or consciousness and our perception, the question arises – so what is that “observer” or sākṣi. Different opinions are held by different teachers.

Some say that the sākṣi is simply a delusion of separation and that with the dawning of enlightenment (bodhi) all individual consciousness coalesce into a homogeneity of unified consciousness.

Others say that the units or modes of consciousness merge like atoms of h2o merging into the sea.

Others say that the units of consciousness remain eternally separate like grains of rice in a pile.

The Buddha never encouraged metaphysical speculation since it is beyond the capacity of humans to conceive or to articulate – a sentiment echoed in the Taittiriya Upanishad.

The major difference I find lies in this – the Buddha’s refusal to speculate and Tthe Hindu sages attitude – “well yes it is inconceivable and inexpressible but we’re going to speculate and articulate it anyway!!

So, if the Buddha indeed denied the existence of a Self then who, or what is it that experiences Nirvāṇa?

The Buddha gives 30 metaphors for nirvana/nibbana, an otherwise inconceivable (non)state: the taintless, the truth, the far shore, the subtle, the very difficult to see, the un-aging, the stable, the un-disintegrating, the unmanifest, un-proliferated, peaceful, deathless, sublime, auspicious, secure, the destruction of craving, wonderful, amazing, the unailing state, nonbinding, unafficted, dispassion, purity, freedom, un-adhesive, the island, the shelter, the asylum and the refuge. (SN 43)

None of these refer to nihilism or a doctrine of extinction – so the question is who is the subject of these adjectives?

Do Hindus disagree with Buddhism?

Jan 17th, 2020

We don’t much disagree with Buddhism or its teachings which are by and large similar to ours. Hinduism and Buddhism are extensively cross-pollinated systems having arisen from the same fertile intellectual matrix.

The major differences centre around the abstract Self vs Non-self debate which is so arcane as to be irrelevant to daily life as lived by 99.9% of humans struggling with dukha (dis-ease, suffering, default low-level neurosis). The problem of suffering (dukha) being the pivotal focus of ALL schools of Indian Philosophy.

The proposition by both camps is that whatever we consider to be Self or a buttress to notions of self – i.e. name, form, sex, gender, race, class, nationality, qualification, relationships, interests, ideas, beliefs, thoughts etc. are all FALSE cognitive constructs and are of the nature of Spiritual nescience (avidyā) and the cause of all suffering.

This much we all whole-heartedly agree in unanimity.

The next question is where the putative disagreement lies – once all of the ego-generated self-clinging (asmitā/ahaṅkāra) is stripped away what remains? Is there a thing or is there nothing? In Vedanta it is known as the iti-neti paradox (affirmation vs denial.)

There are many different views and conjecture on the nature of the Ultimate Reality in the many schools of Hinduism and Buddhism but these arguments and debates are practically futile because both agree that the Ultimate Reality is beyond the ability of the mind to comprehend. Hence the Buddha avoided discussion on them and discouraged metaphysical speculation.

Jan 5th 2020

As Ranjiv said – there are no authorities in Hinduism.

But what Buddha said exactly echos what the Hindu scriptures teach as well in many places – here are just a few examples from the Mahābhārata.

He in whom is seen truthfulness, charity, forgiveness, noble conduct, absence of anger, austerity and compassion; he is a brahmin. (MB Vana Parva 179;21)

Listen about caste, Yaksha dear, not study, not learning is the cause of being “twice-born”. Noble conduct is the basis, there is no doubt about it. (MB. Aranya-parva 312. 106.)

The cause of brahmanhood is not birth, or sacraments, or learning or progeny, noble conduct alone is the cause. (MB. Anusasana Parva 143:50)

Discipline, austerity, self-control, liberality, truthfulness, purity, vedic learning, compassion, erudition, intelligence and faith — these are the characteristics of a Brahmin. (Vasishtha Dharma Sutra. 4:23)

Righteousness, truth (abstaining from injury and truthfulness of speech), self-restraint, asceticism, delight in the happiness of others, modesty, forebearance, love of others, sacrifices, generosity, perseverance, knowledge of the scriptures — these 12 constitute the practice of brahmins. (MB Ud.Parva. 43)