Gautama Buddha in Hinduism

In Vaishnava Hinduism, the historic Buddha or Gautama Buddha, is considered to be an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. Of the ten major avatars of Vishnu, Vaishnavites believe Gautama Buddha to be the ninth and most recent incarnation.

Buddha‘s portrayal in Hinduism varies. In some texts such as the Puranas, he is portrayed as an avatar born to mislead those who deny the Vedic knowledge. In others, such as the 13th-century Gitagovinda of Vaishnava poet Jayadeva, Vishnu incarnates as the Buddha to teach and to end animal slaughter. In contemporary Hinduism, state Constance Jones and James D. Ryan, Buddha is revered by Hindus who usually consider “Buddhism to be another form of Hinduism”.

Buddha as an avatara at Airavatesvara Temple

Buddha as an avatara at Airavatesvara Temple

Avatar of Vishnu

Main article: Dashavatara

The Buddha has been important to Hinduism since the ancient times, given his teachings and royal support. The Hindu views (Brahmanical tradition) for the Buddha have neither been consistent nor constant. They have ranged from actively contesting the Buddhist premises and theology to sharing or adopting terminology, concepts as well as more recently, the persona of Siddhartha as someone who was born in and matured into the Buddha in a Brahmanical system. One such integration is through its mythology, where in Vaishnava Puranas, the Buddha is adopted as the ninth avatar of Vishnu.

Buddha is considered as an avatar of Vishnu, by traditions within Hinduism. Buddhists traditionally do not accept the Buddha to be a Vishnu avatar. The adoption of Buddha may have been a way to assimilate Buddhism into the fold of Hinduism. Much like Hinduism’s adoption of the Buddha as an avatar, Buddhism legends too adopted Krishna in their Jataka tales, claiming Krishna (Vishnu avatar) to be a character whom Buddha met and taught in his previous births. The adoption of the Buddha in texts relating to Hindu gods, and of Hindu gods in Buddhist texts, is difficult to place chronologically. According to Alf Hiltebeitel and other scholars, some of the stories in Buddha-related Jataka tales found in Pali texts seem slanderous distortions of Hindu legends, but these may reflect the ancient local traditions and the complexities of early interaction between the two Indian religions.

Interaction between Buddhism and Brahmanical traditions

Hinduism regards Buddha (bottom right) as one of the 10 avatars of Vishnu.

Hinduism regards Buddha (bottom right) as one of the 10 avatars of Vishnu.

In contemporary Hinduism, state Constance Jones and James D. Ryan, Buddha is revered by Hindus. They usually consider “Buddhism to be another form of Hinduism”. However, regional Hindu texts over the centuries have presented a spectrum of views on Buddhism, possibly reflecting the competition between Buddhism and the Brahmanical traditions. Some pre-13th-century Hindu texts portray the Buddha as born to mislead the asuras to the false path, some to stop all killing of animals. Some pre-14th-century Hindu temples include Buddha reliefs with the same reverence they show for other avatars of Vishnu. In recent and contemporary Hinduism in India, Buddha is considered a holy being and revered as one who was awakened. Outside India, some contemporary Hindus revere the Buddha along with other gods during their festivals.

Scholars contest whether the Hindu perceptions and apologetic attempts to rationalize the Buddha within their fold are correct. Though an avatar of Vishnu, the Buddha is rarely worshipped like Krishna and Rama in Hinduism. According to John Holt, the Buddha was adopted as an avatar of Vishnu around the time the Puranas were being composed, in order to subordinate him into the Brahmanical ideology. Further adds Holt, various scholars in India, Sri Lanka and outside South Asia state that the colonial era and contemporary attempts to assimilate Buddha into the Hindu fold are a nationalistic political agenda, where “the Buddha has been reclaimed triumphantly as a symbol of indigenous nationalist understandings of India’s history and culture”.

According to Lars Tore Flåten, Hindu perceptions, particularly in the literature by Hindu nationalists, are that “Buddha did not break away from the spiritual ideas of his age and country”. They claim that scholars such as Hermann Oldenberg, Thomas Rhys Davids and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan state there is much in common between “Buddhism and the contemporary Hinduism”. These perceptions cite, for example, the Pali scholar Rhys Davids’ analysis in Buddhism: Being a Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha, where he wrote, “But the foregoing account will be sufficient, I hope, to remove at least one misconception – the prevalent notion that Gautama was an enemy to Hinduism, and that his chief claim on the gratitude of his countrymen lies in his having destroyed a system of iniquity and oppression and fraud. This is not the case. Gautama was born, and brought up, and lived, and died a Hindu”. In present-day scholarly consensus, Buddhism is considered very different from pre-Buddhist Indian religion, however. For example, Indologist Richard Gombrich wrote that the Buddha was a radical religious reformer, making religious practice and salvation a more personal matter than it was before the arising of Buddhism.

The Oxford professor and later President of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan states that “as a matter of fact, nowhere did Buddha repudiate the Upanishad conception of Brahman, the absolute”; that Buddha, if anything, “accepted the Upanishad’s position”. Buddhologists like K.R. Norman and Richard Gombrich meanwhile, argue that the Buddha’s anatta theory does indeed extend to the Brahmanical belief expounded in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that the Self (Atman) is the Universal Self, or Brahman. They point to the Pali Alagaddūpama-sutta, where the Buddha argues that an individual cannot experience the suffering of the entire world.

Gombrich and other scholars have argued that the Buddha did not begin or pursue social reforms, nor was he against caste altogether, rather his aim was at the salvation of those who joined his monastic order. According to Gombrich, modernists keep picking up these erroneous assumptions “from western authors”.

B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader who in 1935 declared his intention to convert from Hinduism to Buddhism and converted about 20 years later, rejected that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu. Ambedkar, while he was a Hindu and before he launched a new form of Buddhism, reinterpreted Buddha’s teachings into what he called Navayana (New Vehicle), wherein he developed a Marxist interpretation of said teachings. He founded and converted to a new version of Buddhism, a version which criticized and rejected Hinduism, but also Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism because, according to Ambedkar, they all misrepresented the Buddha.

According to Donald Swearer, the understanding of Buddha in Hinduism is a part of his wider and diverse influences. Even within Buddhism, states Swearer, Buddha and his ideas are conceptualized differently between Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan, Japanese and other traditions. Similarly, in various traditions of Hinduism (and elsewhere), Buddha is accepted and interpreted in different ways.

Texts

The Buddha is mentioned as an avatar of Vishnu in the Puranas and the epics such as:

  • Harivamsa (1.41)
  • Vishnu Purana (3.18)
  • Bhagavata Purana (1.3.24, 2.7.37, 11.4.22)
  • Garuda Purana (1.1, 2.30.37, 3.15.26)
  • Agni Purana (16)
  • Naradiya Purana (2.72)
  • Linga Purana (2.71)
  • Padma Purana (3.252)

In the Puranic texts, he is mentioned as one of the ten Avatars of Vishnu, usually as the ninth one. Another important scripture that mentions him as an avatar is Parashara’s Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra (2:1-5/7).

Interpretations

Helmuth von Glasenapp attributed these developments to a Hindu desire to absorb Buddhism in a peaceful manner, both to win Buddhists to Vaishnavism and also to account for the fact that such a significant heresy could exist in India.<

The times ascribed to one “Buddha” figure are contradictory and some put him in approximately 500 CE, with a lifetime of 64 years; they describe him as having killed some persons, as following the Vedic religion, and having a father named Jina, which suggest that this particular figure might be a different person from Siddhārta Gautama.

Mutual adoption of iconography

Chakra (wheel) has been a historic identifier of Vishnu’s dharma, but it as Dharmachakra is also an esteemed symbol in Buddhism for the Buddha’s doctrine.

Mutual adoption of revered figures

While Hinduism adopted the Buddha in its mythology, Buddhism adopted the Hindu god Krishna in its own mythology. The story of Krishna occurs in the Jataka tales in Buddhism, for example. The Vidhurapandita Jataka mentions Madhura (Sanskrit: Mathura); the Ghata Jataka mentions Kamsa, Devagabbha (Sk: Devaki), Upasagara or Vasudeva, Govaddhana (Sk: Govardhana), Baladeva (Balarama), and Kanha or Kesava (Sk: Krishna, Keshava).

The Arjuna and Krishna interaction is missing in the Jataka version. In the Buddhist version, Krishna laments in uncontrollable sorrow when his son dies, and a Ghatapandita feigns madness to teach Krishna a lesson. The Jataka tale also includes an internecine destruction among his siblings after they all get drunk. Krishna also dies in the Buddhist legend by the hand of a hunter named Jara, but while he is traveling to a frontier city. Mistaking Krishna for a pig, Jara throws a spear that fatally pierces his feet, causing Krishna great pain and then his death.

At the end of this Ghata-Jataka discourse, the Buddhist text declares that Sariputta, one of the revered disciples of the Buddha in the Buddhist tradition, was incarnated as Krishna in his previous life to learn lessons on grief from the Buddha in his prior rebirth:

Then he [Master] declared the Truths, and identified the Birth: ‘At that time, Ananda was Rohineyya, Sariputta was Vasudeva [Krishna], the followers of the Buddha were the other persons, and I myself was Ghatapandita.”

— Jataka Tale No. 454, Translator: W. H. D. Rouse

While the Buddhist Jataka texts co-opt Krishna-Vasudeva and make him a student of the Buddha in his previous life, the Hindu texts co-opt the Buddha and make him an avatar of Vishnu. Similarly, in Dasaratha Jataka Buddha identifies himself as Rama.

Differences between Buddhism and Hinduism

Buddhism, like Hinduism and other major Indian religions, asserts that everything is impermanent (anicca), but, unlike them, also asserts that there is no permanent self or soul in living beings (anattā). The ignorance or misperception (avijjā) that anything is permanent or that there is self in any being is considered a wrong understanding in Buddhism, and the primary source of clinging and suffering (dukkha).

Buddha endorsed and taught the concept of rebirth. This refers to a process whereby beings go through a succession of lifetimes as one of many possible forms of sentient life, each running from conception to death. In Buddhist thought, however, this rebirth does not involve any soul, unlike Hinduism and Jainism. According to Buddhism the atman concept is incorrect, untrue.

See also:

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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