India Adventures (4): Buddhism is Not Hinduism

Early during the pilgrimage, our Indian Hindu ‘sub-guide’ (who isn’t the main guide, who is instead Buddhist) introduced God (Trimurti) as he believed in this way – conveniently as an acronym that stands for ‘generator’ (represented by Brahma), ‘operator’ (represented by Vishnu) and ‘destroyer’ (represented by Shiva). Buddhists are of course able to accept the natural forces of creation, sustenance and destruction, but would precisely disagree with the anthropomorphism and deification of these phenomena since they are just selfless aspects of nature at play.

Like many Hindus without in-depth understanding of Buddhism, he brought up God because he assumed that Buddhists believe in an omnipotent, omni-benevolent and omniscient God too. This is not true, as the Buddha spoke against the existence of such a deity – because if he exists with these attributes, there would be absolutely no suffering in the world at all. Even Buddhas, though they are omni-benevolent (in terms of having perfect compassion) and omniscient (in terms of having perfect wisdom), are not omnipotent. They can only help beings accordingly when karmic conditions permit.

Unmindfully adding ‘fuel to the fire’ of controversy, the guide said the ninth avatar of Vishnu the god is the Buddha. Saying this to us, a group of Buddhists earnest enough to go on pilgrimage, who surely do not entertain any lowering of the perfectly enlightened Buddha to a mythological god is a big mistake. None of the eight avatars are historical, while the Buddha is – which is why we are on pilgrimage – to revere him at the places he lived and taught. (I learnt that none of the avatars are historical from the book ‘Why I am an Atheist’ by Dr. Dharmakirti, which I bought at the bookshop just outside the Mahabodhi Temple. On this important temple that marks the place the Buddha attained enlightenment, Hindus are still in semi-control of it – seemingly for the ‘benefits’ it brings.)

With the permission of our Buddhist guide, I politely took the mike over and clarified that the Buddha taught that there is no God as defined by other religions, and that the Buddha is a supreme ‘Teacher of humans and gods’, whose enlightenment, as he said, was not a result of any god’s teaching. Neither is he the manifestation or messenger of any god. This clearly rules him out as an avatar of anyone.

If Hindus truly see the Buddha as the latest avatar of Vishnu, they ought to convert to become Buddhists – since the Buddha would be the most up-to-date spokesperson of G.O.D. – a revolutionary reformer, especially in human and animal rights. That they don’t convert is because there are indeed irreconcilable differences between Buddhist and Hindu teachings upon further investigation. For example, the Buddha preached against the injustice of the caste system, that segregates the worth of human beings artificially to the advantage of some over others. Yet, though politically illegal, many still suffer from casteism today in India, as enforced by those who adhere to it stubbornly and selfishly.

Though many Hindus are vegetarians, another example of a drastic difference would be the practice of having animal sacrifices among some Hindus to appease gods. Such offerings the Buddha also spoke against. Interestingly, some Hindus saw the Buddha to be teaching ‘adharma’ – that which is ‘anti-Dharma’, so as to lead unworthy beings astray to hell, away from truth and liberation! This is a horrible instance of twisting the Buddha’s pure teachings. While the average Hindu today might not play a part in abusing the Buddha’s teachings, they are, like the guide, not aware of the vast differences between Buddhism and Hinduism. If Buddhists are agreeable with all Hindu teachings, we would be on a Buddhist cum Hindu pilgrimage; not just a Buddhist one.

I heard that the very skilful bus driver we had throughout the trip is a Buddhist. But, probably because he is slighted by society as one belonging to a lower caste, he is not allowed to eat with us. Drivers in Indian society are seen to be lowly – but the truth is, his role during the pilgrimage was more important that the Indian guide who was his manager. I slipped the driver a Buddha card with our collective tips before we returned to Singapore – to thank him. Even in these days, thousands of Dalits (‘Untouchables’, of the lowest caste) convert to become Buddhists to free themselves of the discriminating shackles of the caste system – for there is apparently no other way out. However, phantom shackles tend to stay.

I saw a few statues of Dr. Ambedkar during the trip too – the famed Dalit who struggled to become a lawyer, who converted to be a Buddhist, who fought against the caste system legally – even against Gandhi, who was unwilling to let it go. While Gandhi might be the national father of politically democratic India, Ambedkar can be seen as the national father of spiritually democratic India, who helped some 500,000 convert to Buddhism. (However, his ideology cannot be said to represent pure Buddhism.) At an airport bookshop, I bought a comic on his biography. Reading it in the waiting lounge, I finally got to appreciate the great lengths he went through to seek justice for his fellow countrymen. On casteism, an awkward question came to mind… What caste are we foreigners of other races seen to be of? Are we Untouchables too? Perhaps one of the reason Hinduism is less likely to be embraced by non-Indians is because of the caste problem. E.g. Middle-class Caucasians are not synonymous with any caste, yet the system requires that every Hindu be fit into a caste! Insistence would make casteism racism!

Some say ‘God’ is the most dangerous idea in the world. Look at millions in history who have died at war in the name of God (e.g. crusades)… and those who continue to do so (e.g. in the Middle East). In Malaysia recently, the Muslim and Christian community are facing tensions with the usage of the world ‘Allah’. Some say it’s exclusively for Muslim use, while some say the word predates Islam. Nine church-related places have been vandalised by extremists so far. It’s violence in the name of God over the name of God, while ‘God’ remains silent on the issue. Same name, same God? Same name, different God?

That two call their gods by the same name
neither means they believe in the same god
nor that either exists.

– Stonepeace

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The Buddha is Not a Godsend

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Two Ways to End Animal Sacrifice

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5 thoughts on “India Adventures (4): Buddhism is Not Hinduism

  1. Hi,

    I joined the India trip organised by Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery during 6-16 Dec 2009, covering Bodhgaya and Viranasi.

    After having read what you wrote above, to my surprise, the tour guide of my trip at Viranasi said the SAME thing as well.

    If we could tell the chief of these tour operators, we might be able to save them from sharing the same thing with the rest of the future visitors.

    With Metta

  2. This seems to be a problem with introducing Buddhism back to India.

    I wonder what is the difference between the Buddhist Brahma and Hindu Brahma?.

    Thai Buddhists (and some Chinese) are fond of praying to the four faced Brahma (mistakenly called the four faced buddha) for wealth and blessings.

  3. Hi Siow Yee, It’s best to send your feedback above to enquiry [at] Direct feedback from participants is much more effective :-]

    If the guides are Hindus, what they say is just a reflection of how deeply ingrained the mix-up is. On my part, I’ll try to send this article to the Hindu guide who ‘led’ the group I was in. Amituofo

    Hi Visitor, the Buddhist Maha Brahma is seen as a god who mistaken himself to have created the world, while the Hindu Brahma is seen as a god who created the world. There are many more differences. In the Pali Canon, Maha Brahma is described to be good but prideful, and not perfectly wise, who nevertheless acknowledged the greatness of the Buddha. (The four-faced Brahma represents the Hindu Brahma too.)

  4. Hi,

    Certainly, I will forward the above to the organiser.

    Thanks for posting the India Adventure above.

    With Metta

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