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Thomas E.

Altizer
RELS 2300
Salt Lake Community College
10/16/2016
South Asian Religions Essay
Since the beginning of time, man has been asking himself, Who am I? and What is my
path? We fickle human beings are forever second guessing ourselves and wondering if we are
walking the right path in life. All religions attempt to answer these questions and give their
followers an answer to what their path is in life. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the term
Dharma is the answer to this ancient question. According to the text, Dharma in Hinduism
refers to a broad complex of meanings, encompassing duty, natural law, social welfare, ethics,
health, wealth, power, fulfillment of desires, and transcendental realization 1 Buddhism also
uses the word Dharma or Dhamma in Pali. Yet the meanings and implementation have many
differences between the two that clearly distinguish the two religions as two separate and unique
spiritual traditions.

Hinduism is a collection of traditions and beliefs that sprung from the Indus River
civilization over 4,500 years ago. Over time these beliefs have grown into the third largest, and
arguably the oldest, spiritual traditions of all time. What started as a collection of local beliefs
and deities which varied from region to region, became consolidated beginning approximately in
1500 B.C.E. with the first compositions of the Vedic Scriptures 2 The Vedas are said to have been
1 For more on the Dharma, refer to Fisher (2014).
2 For a very useful timeline on Hindu history, refer to page 74 in the text
(Fisher 2014).

directly communicated to rishis, or ancient sages, and eventually compiled into volumes by
Vyasa, of whom not much is known, and could potentially be the collective effort of ancient
scholars instead of one person3.
The Vedic scriptures contain many different holy texts from ritual observances to hymns to
descriptions of the major gods themselves. The original major gods as laid out in the Vedas are
Indra, Agni, Soma, and Ushas, and their part in the order and structure of the cosmos are all laid
out in the Vedas. However, even though there are many, many gods in the hierarchy of Hindu
cosmology, there is only one Supreme manifestation of the Godhead, which is Brahman. From
just the Vedic tradition alone, three main Dharmic paths are followed, namely the Samkhya
(dualistic Purusha and Prakriti nature) system, the Advaita (nondualist) Vedanta system of
oneness, and the yogic path which itself proscribes four distinct dharma paths depending on how
you are predisposed (raja, jnana, karma, and bhakti)4.
Another roadmap for the Hindu Dharma is the compilation of the Upanishads, compiled
around 600 CE5. These scriptures laid major ground for the present day Dharma followed by
millions of the Hindu faith. These writings contain many different passages regarding the
different gods and devotional practices (bhakti, pujas, etc.). Also out of this era, different subcults of different major gods like Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti all claimed supreme
godhead status for their gods and the emanations thereof, and different dharma paths ascribed in
the worship practices of these gods sprouted as well. Both the Upanishads and the Vedas ascribe
dharma practices according to caste and status, and as such, the way people are treated in society

3 Refer to page 75 in the text (Fisher 2014).


4 For more in depth on these paths, refer to the text on page 78 (Fisher
2014).
5 For more in-depth discussion on the Upanishads, see the text on pages 8389 (Fisher 2014).

is a direct result of this. Their view is that the position one finds themselves in at birth is the
result of their karma of a previous life, and they should live in society and be treated as such.
But just one hundred years later in India, a radical reformer came along that threw a major
twist in the etymology of spiritual evolution in that country. Siddhartha Gautama was born a
prince in India and was sheltered from many of the vices and superfluities of the world, and
when he finally ventured out of his palace one day, as the story goes, he saw the reality of the
world which is that everyone gets sick, everyone gets old and feeble, and everyone dies. He
dedicated the rest of his life and practice to learning, practicing, and teaching all beings about
their suffering and the truth of the world: all beings suffer, suffering is caused by craving, the
path to the cessation of suffering is non-attachment, and the path of non-attachment is the Noble
Eightfold Path6. These are the Four Noble Truths, and they eventually became the universal
Buddhist Dharma.
The Buddha realized these truths in his moment of awakening underneath the Bodhi tree
almost 3,000 years ago. From this realization, he gathered a group of ascetics together, and
created the first Sangha, or practicing Buddhist community, and within this community the
Buddhist Dharma (or Dhamma as it is pronounced in the Pali language) was compiled and
taught. The Dharma of Buddhism does have some things in common with the Hindu faith,
however. For instance, the principle of the karmic fruits of ones actions is very similar.
Moreover, the Buddhist concept of the wheel of samsara, or of birth, death, and reincarnation,
are also similar. But after that, Buddha turned conventional religion in India on its head.
In India, Buddhas country, all facets of society were sectioned off into ways of continuing
the caste system, sometimes known as the Varna system7. The Buddha taught that all beings,
6 See pages 143-146 in the text (Fisher 2014).
7 Refer to page 98 in the text (Fisher 2014).

even the untouchables, are suffering and deserved compassion and loving-kindness. He also
taught that all beings contain inside of them a Buddha nature and our attachment to situations
and experience being different than what it actually is causes greed, hatred, and delusion that, in
turn, causes our Buddha nature to be blurred, and we suffer and live in delusion as a result.
The Eightfold Path, therefore, are the prescribed actions in the Buddha Dharma that lead to
the end of suffering. They are eight ways of living that cultivate lovingkindness, compassion,
right ways of thinking and speaking, and living ones life that ends the viscous cycles we humans
find ourselves in by negative living choices. Since the death of Buddha, 3 major schools of
Buddhism have sprung up over two millennia as further adaptations and studies of the teachings
and Dharma of the Buddha: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vijrayana, and each of them has their
own specific teachings, adaptations, and add-ons to the original teachings of the Buddha8. Each
school has many different sects and variations just within that school alone. For instance, the
Mahayana School, or the Great Vehicle, has Zen, Pureland, Shingon, Nichiren, and many other
schools, and each one of those has further divisions within them, too! Another school, Vijrayana,
is the Tibetan esoteric sect that the Dalai Lama is a part of. But what all of the many different
schools and sects have in common, is they all subscribe to the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to
the end of suffering.
So all beings, no matter at what stage we are born in life can free themselves from their
suffering. Through the path of non-attachment, the Buddha taught that all beings can stop the
repetitive cycle of birth and re-birth, and achieve Nirvana, or freedom from suffering. Hinduism
and Buddhism both share this term, but where Hinduism describes Nirvana as a heavenly-type
realm, the Buddha described Nirvana as a desirable state of mind, quietude of heart, a state

8 For more in-depth on each school, see the text from page 151-171.

beyond grasping, and other states that all exist in the here and now9. Moreover, where Hinduism
boasts over 330 million different gods, the Buddha was not concerned with matters of those at
all. His total focus, and the focus of early Buddhism, was strictly on the suffering and delusion of
the here and now, and the cessation thereof.
Buddhism was a statement to the status quo of 5th century India, and still is to the majority of
the world today. Hinduism still reigns supreme in that country, but many heard what the Buddha
said and followed him because they were no longer bound to the damnation of their own caste.
They had a chance to transcend this existence in this lifetime. Buddha turned the ancient notions
of his country upside-down and taught a Dharma that went against the stream and will forever be
honored for the boundless compassion and lovingkindness that kept so many people chained to
their fate for such a long time.

Bibliography
Fisher, Mary Pat. (2014). Living Religions Edition 9. Pearson Publishing Company. Upper
Saddle River, New Jersey.

9 For more on nirvana, refer to page 149 in the text (Fisher 2014).