Is Buddhism a Reinterpretation of Hinduism?

Religion in India can be divided into several periods. The important ones for this discussion are:

  1. The Vedic period (1750 to 500 BCE)
  2. The second urbanization (500 to 200 BCE)
  3. Classical Hinduism (200 BCE-1100 CE)

During the Vedic period the predominant religion of what is now North India and Nepal was Vedic Brahmanism (Vedism). This is the ancient form of Hinduism. During this period the concepts of reincarnation, Brahman and atman originate.

The sramana movement started in 600 BCE and continued into the second urbanization. It was characterized by sramanas, wandering spiritual seekers, who had renounced their worldly lives. Among these sramanas were Mahavira, who founded Jainism and Siddhartha Gautama, who founded Buddhism.

During this period, the concept of karma first appears in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which was written in 700 BCE. This predates the Buddha.

 The origins of samsara are uncertain. It appears in the Katha Upanishads, however scholars debate whether it pre-dates Buddhism or not. So whether it was of Hindu or Buddhist origin is uncertain.  

Liberation (moksha) is first seen in the Svetasvatara Upanishad, which was written around the time the Buddha was believed to live. 

Nirvana clearly originates with Buddhism.

In the Classical Hinduism period, the Upanishads become the central text for the Vedanta school of Hinduism.  Also during this period was the Hindu synthesis, a period where Hinduism synthesizes Vedic Brahmanism with elements of the shramana movements, which includes elements of Buddhism. 

There was such constant interaction between Vedism and Buddhism in the early period that it is fruitless to attempt to sort out the earlier source of many doctrines, they lived in one another’s pockets, like Picasso and Braque (who, in later years, were unable to say which of them had painted certain paintings from their earlier, shared period).

— Wendy Doniger

Both Buddhists and Hindus believe in multiple life times. Hindus call it reincarnation (punarjanma). Buddhist call it rebirth (punarbhava). The reason for the distinction is in what is being reincarnated. Soul or Self (Atman) for Hindus. Mindstream (citta-santana) for Buddhists.

They both believe in the law of karma. Although each has a different conception of how it works.

Buddhism would have become the seventh school of  Hinduism (astika, which is roughly translated as orthodox) if it wasn’t for the three following disagreements:

  • Hindus recognize the authority of the Vedas. Buddhists do not.
  • Hindus believe in a Self or soul (atman). Buddhists do not (anatman).
  • Most schools of Hinduism assert the existence of a supreme being (Ishvara). The Buddha rejected the idea.

Since Buddhism rejects all three, it is regarded as nastika (roughly translated as heterodox).

In summary, Buddhism rejects three essential concepts of Hinduism. This makes it a separate religion distinct form Hinduism. In terms of being a reinterpretation of Hinduism, Buddhism took reincarnation and karma from ancient Hinduism and significantly altered these concepts. This led to the renaming of reincarnation to rebirth to clarify the distinction. On the other hand, it is unclear which religion first conceived of samsara and Buddhism created its own description of liberation named it nirvana.

©2016 Stephen L. Martin

Photo: Hindu Temple, no other information known

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