"The Buddha's relation with Hinduism is
so close that it's easy to confuse Buddhism with Hinduism. The two
religions have close connections, and yet they are distinct. This was
because of Buddha's reform movements and his refining of Hindu beliefs. It
would not be wrong to state, then, that Buddha founded a noble religion by
distilling Hinduism, and offering a commonsense approach to self-betterment
to which the people can relate easily.
Swami Kriyananda (J Donald Walters) in his book The Hindu Way of Awakening,
perspicaciously notes how Westerners confuse between these two closely
connected religions, and why people mistakenly consider Buddhism and not
Hinduism as the religion of India:
"Hinduism is often omitted from rosters of the world's great religions.
Everyone knows, of course, that Hinduism exists. Even so, it is confused in
many people's minds with what they think of as Buddhism. For Buddhism fits
into their concepts of what a religion ought to be...
"Even if the Westerner holds good intention towards India… he may see
Hinduism as containing some of the worst examples of Paganism. Small wonder,
then, that many people look upon Buddhism as the noblest representative of
India's religion, and turn to it when wanting an Indian religion to place
among the great religions of the world.
"While Buddhism is relatively simple, Hinduism is complex…Buddhism seems, to
Westerners especially, to offer a benign and palatable form of the Indian
religious experience. Most students of religion know that Buddha tried to
reform some of the ancient practices; they think of him as having brought
order and sophistication to primitive chaos. When they prepare lists of the
great world religions they think of themselves as demonstrating respect for
the religion of India by calling it Buddhism. Most of them are not conscious
of their mistake."
Buddha, as we know, began his meditation as a Hindu. He was awakened with a
new enlightenment only to denounce Hinduism and emerge as the founder of a
new religion. Therefore, to understand Buddhism fully, one should not
separate it from Hinduism; while at the same time view it separately from
Hinduism. Buddha's way of life was "the golden mean" and a relief from the
pagan stigmas and caste system prevalent in Hinduism.
The Hindu caste system defined a person's position in society as determined
by their birth. Buddha condemned the Hindu caste system and said that it is
karma or the good and bad actions of a person and not birth that should
determine a person's caste. He introduced the idea of placing morality and
equality on a higher place than genealogy of a person.
Jesus had the same relationship to Judaism as Buddha to Hinduism. Both
Hinduism and Judaism are ethnic and non-missionary traditions, and are
characterised by an element of segregation between the castes and races,
unlike Buddhism and Christianity.
Swami Kriyananda compares Buddha's position relative to Hinduism with Martin
Luther's to the Roman Catholic Church: "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."
Hindus believe that the purpose of the avatar of Buddha, like all divine
avatars, was to re-establish dharma where "adharma" (irreligiousness) had
become prevalent. Buddha is regarded by some sects of Hindus as an
incarnation of Vishnu, or even as a Hindu. This is because Buddha's theistic
beliefs are not contrary to Hinduism, but only a step ahead. This is also
because the nature of Hinduism itself is such that all beliefs are
recognized as being facets of the Ultimate Truth. It is interesting to note
that the word "Nirvana" — used by Lord Buddha to describe the state of
permanent bliss — is indeed a Vedic term.
The great unification of Buddhism and Hinduism is still prevalent in Nepal,
the birthplace of Buddha. Ironically, Nepal is the world's only Hindu
nation, where people don't consider the two religions distinct from each