Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Compare and contrast views about life after death in Hinduism and Buddhism

Hinduism and Buddhism are perhaps two of the oldest religions the world has seen.  But just how their names might mislead us into thinking that they are two completely different religious systems; they do in fact share common ground.

Just how Judaic beliefs set the foundation for the subsequent development of early Christian thought, so too did the ancient Hindu ideas and beliefs influence the later philosophy and thought of early Buddhism.  However, when it comes to the concept of an after life, the similarities between the two philosophies end.
This essay will compare and contrast views about life after death between two closely related creeds of Hinduism, the Veda and Upanishad texts, and the Buddha’s own doctrine of Buddhism.  The first part of the essay will talk about Hinduism, while the second part will compare and contrast it with Buddhism.  It will conclude that although they share some fundamental similarities, they differ heavily on the exact nature of what life after death might mean.


Hindu ideas concerning life after death generally come from an ancient text encompassing a range of hymns and rituals.  This scripture is called the Vedas[1], a text whose source is said to have come from the Gods themselves.  However, a more likely theory is that the Hindu doctrine originated from the Aryan culture[2]

Much of the Hindu belief in the after life, as described by the Veda scripture, can be said to be influenced by the caste system.  A caste is a system of social stratification in which individuals are naturally born into a certain class.   Either they are born into a socially perceived low caste, such as the Shudra, a caste of service workers, or a higher one such as the caste of Brahmins, a caste of priests and teachers.  Once born into his caste, movement within a society becomes restricted to the chores and responsibilities of that caste.  Movement out of one caste and into another therefore becomes almost impossible.[*]

It can be said that the caste system has influenced Hindu thought on the after life by way in which the Veda’s offer a way out for those born into a lower caste.  By adhering to the rituals and offerings as stipulated by the text, provides one with a good chance of entering heaven – the world of the fathers.  If one doesn’t keep up with the offerings, then not only does this jeopardize one’s chance of entry into this heavenly realm, but it also jeopardizes the souls of the already departed.  According to scripture, ones duty is to appease both the gods and the souls of the dead by providing a constant stream of offerings to them at specific times and events.  This is to ensure that those in the after life remain happy and content in the world of the fathers, while also appeasing the gods and prevent them from inflicting the living with disease and natural disasters.  Therefore the Vedic view of the after life is seen as a permanent place where one’s soul resides after death.  Life here on earth is temporary and is seen as a place where one must make the correct preparations for their own death, while both appeasing the gods and ensuring that their ancestors remain in heaven.  Such offerings imply that the value of the after life is measured by a material standard.  This can be seen in description of the world of the fathers as a place of fine foods and wine, and by the fact that the living provide offerings to the recently deceased to aid their journey into the after life.

Since following rituals and making offerings according to the Vedas appear as a means to an end approach to salvation, the Upanishad text offers a more philosophical interpretation of the afterlife.  Introducing the concept of reincarnation, the idea that at death one is re-born as another human, or animal[†] in an endless cycle of birth and death.  Depending on our own our behaviour and action (karma) in this life, whether we act good or bad toward other human beings, or animals, determines what life we partake in the next life.  However, the aim is to break free from this eternal chain of birth and death, and the only way of doing so is by coming to an inner state of realization through meditation that our soul, atman, is part of a bigger universal reality, Brahman, the Absolute, or pure consciousness[3]. Once one recognizes this, they are then supposed to be led to a further understanding that “the self is indeed Brahman”[4].   It comes to pass that the self is indeed the creator – “he is the maker of everything”. “He is the world itself”[5].  The later texts go on to say that although, “a person consists of desires, the man who does not desire goes to Brahman”[6]  Hence the after life isn’t a heavenly realm like the world of the fathers; in fact, it isn’t a realm at all, but a view in which one merges with an absolute mind[‡] after death.  

The comparison and contrast with the Buddhism of the Buddha

In many ways, Buddhism can be described as a protest philosophy.  Its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, was not only born and raised within the Hindu traditions, which would have exposed him to the religious and philosophic sides of both Vedic and Upanishad scriptures; he was also nurtured and educated within an aristocratic, yet powerful, family.  Such exposure to Hindu text, coupled with his own experiences of living a rich lifestyle and observances of the ‘real’ world, would have a significant effect on his rebellious thought and ideas.

In many ways then, the spirit of the times played a large part of the development of Gautama’s religious beliefs.  Yet, it is his own personal experiences that influenced his beliefs about the world – especially those concerning the notion of an after life.  Taking on the Hindu ideas of desire and reincarnation from the scriptures, Gautama too saw life as an eternal cycle of birth, death and re-birth inside the world.  As long as one is reincarnated, one is forever trapped inside a life of constant struggle and suffering, since the world is essentially a place of suffering.  But whereas salvation is granted by way of a heavenly realm according to the Vedas, and according to the Upanishads, by way of coming to the realization that one is a part of an Absolute mind in God, Gautama instead contends that this cycle of suffering ceases when one reaches a higher state of consciousness called Nirvana, or enlightenment, by cutting out desires.  This state of consciousness is not a realm of residing gods like the world of the fathers - a realm where our soul journeys to after death.  Neither is it a place, or part of anything at all.  For Gautama, and subsequently later Buddhist traditions, especially that of the Japanese school of Zen, the concept of an after life as stipulated by both the Vedic and Upanishad texts is an inherent illusion.  Since the process of reincarnation shifts being from one life form to another, the notion that there is a soul that belongs to us, and has the ability to merge with God or travel to heaven, is a misconception.  Such a misconception leads us on to falsely believe that there exists a me, in the form of a self or otherwise, that survives death and travels to a heavenly after life. 

It can also be said then that the notion of even possessing a soul as something that is mine is also an inherent illusion.  Although Gautama doesn’t fully endorse the view that there is no reason to suppose that the self survives death, his belief that every state of existence is temporary – as stipulated by his doctrine of impermanence – leads him on to the belief that even if there is a heaven or God, such a place must also be temporary as well.  These ideas are in stark contrast to both Veda and Upanishad texts, which imply that the soul is permanent and something that contains a ‘me’ that has the ability to journey to a heavenly realm. 

The notion that Nirvana is a higher form of consciousness one achieves through the realization that cutting out desire ceases suffering, is very similar to the Upanishad texts when they say that one becomes Brahman when one realizes that he is part of an absolute consciousness.  But for Buddhists, enlightenment comes when one learns to detach their self from the world of suffering, not through any metaphysical notion that we are a part of something cosmic.  It is then a form of personal release from the world’s evils.  Just as how the Vedic texts stipulate that the world of the fathers is supposed to be a release from the world; Buddhists on the other hand take a self-conscious approach to release.  Life shouldn’t be lived in accordance to what scripture tells us to do.  Since Buddhists see their philosophy as a realistic doctrine – that is in terms of the world being a place of suffering, desire, as well as a place in which all living share a temporary existence, it makes no sense why one should live their life believing that after death they could be sharing a seat in heaven with the gods by their side.  Salvation doesn’t come from the prospect of giving offerings to the dead or to the gods, neither do Buddhist’s think that our actions on earth aid us and our ancestors journey into the after life.  But this is mainly because Buddhists reject any form of materialism on the ground of impermanence.

Where as the Hindu’s seem to care about their ancestor’s souls is another difference between the Hindu’s and Buddhists view of life after death.  Whereas the after life is seen as a cosmic union, or a place in which the living must tend to their dead ancestors, implies that there is a strong communal bond between the living and the dead.  However Buddhism is a very individual philosophy.  Although Buddhists remain sensitive to those who have passed away, they are not primarily concerned with those who have passed on.  It is the task of Buddhists to develop a state of mind that operates independently.  That means coming to a firm understanding that our own existence is an issue for itself, an existence that needs to be tamed, or controlled until detachment from ones self in achieved.

In conclusion then, although Buddhism borrows certain ideas from Hinduism, there remains some fundamental differences that make Buddhist belief in the after life different to that of Hinduism.  Firstly that the possibility of an after life in terms of heaven or a state of realization that we are a part of a supreme cosmic union, is rejected on the grounds that everything is temporary and hence an illusion.  Secondly, that the concept of the self is temporary, and hence doesn’t contain a ‘me’ that might survive my death.  Thirdly, that our actions in this life does not influence those who have already passed on, or aid them in the after life since this would be to endorse an after life parallel to a materialistic realm – something the Buddhists whole heartedly deny.  It seems then that where as the Hindu’s believe in some kind of ‘realm’ that the soul enters or enjoins to after death, the Buddhists, on the contrary, reject but seem to accept that an after life is a higher state of consciousness.  But whether we can interpret this as ‘life after death’ remains debatable.


[*] One exception is by marriage
[†] Or in some traditions, a tree, or plant
[‡] Perhaps this philosophy influence Hegel’s work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, where Hegel believes that human civilization is progressing toward the realization that we a part of an Absolute mind.

[1] Moreman, Christopher, Beyond the Threshold: Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions, (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2010), p .97
[2] ibid. p.98
[3] Swami Muni Narayana Prasad, Karma and Reincarnation (New Delhi: D. K Printworld, 1994), p.22
[4] Feibleman, J, Understanding Oriental Philosophy (New York: First Meridian Printing, 1984 ) p.15
[5] ibid. p.15
[6] ibid. p.15

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