This paper dwells upon the differences in roles of Hindu and Buddhist deities from mythological and scientific perspectives. It is noted that Hindu gods’ pantheon was very hierarchal while Buddhist deities were almost equal to people. In Hinduism, gods had supernatural powers and were knowledgeable while in Buddhist tradition. Deities had some supernatural powers but they were also bound to live in the samsaric circle until they achieve enlightenment. These differences can be explained by peculiarities of the societies where these religions developed.
Hinduism and Buddhism are two major religions in South Asia. They developed on the basis of the Ganges culture in Northern India and, hence, they share a lot of beliefs, values and practices in common. However, Hinduism and Buddhism developed and spread into different areas, which led to appearance of more and more differences between them. Olson (2003, p. 190) notes that Buddhism can be regarded as an “offspring” of Hinduism. This can be seen as one of the reasons why the two religions now have many differences as people built new values through reconsideration of Hindu practices and beliefs. Another reason the differences were developed is demographic, geographical and cultural peculiarities of the areas where the religions settled.
It is possible to focus on one important divergence to trace the way the two religions developed. Thus, Hinduism stipulates particular position of deities in the universe with the emphasis on their exclusiveness, which was manifested in their guiding and even controlling role, their creative power and their being above laws and rules of nature. However, Buddhism does not have such a strong emphasis on the leading role of deities and even though they exist and can have supernatural powers, they did not create the world and they also live in accordance with the laws of nature (for example, they all live in the samsaric circle just like any person in the universe). This paper will explore the way deities are seen in both religions and some of the reasons such differences exist with an emphasis on mythological and scientific approaches.
However, prior to considering arguments in support of this claim, it is important to provide a definition of the major term recurrent in the paper. Hence, it is important to define the term deity employed in this paper. In both religions, deities are supernatural beings that have infinite powers and can affect people’s lives. Williams (2002) notes that Buddhists did not deny existence of Hindu gods and, therefore, the two religions share certain deities. Nonetheless, the roles of the deities and some details of their existence were seen differently in both religions. This will be considered in detail further in the paper.
It can also be necessary to define the term caste, as it will be utilized later in the paper. Caste is one of four social groups in the Indian society that developed in the ancient times and reveals “one of the most ancient Indian preoccupations since it was expressed in the vedic hymn” (Stein, 2010, p. 108). The four castes were Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (commoners) and Shudras (servants). It is necessary to note that it was quite difficult to enter a higher caste but it was easier to lose certain status and become a member of lower caste. Children (even though born to parents of higher caste) could pertain to lower castes due to incompliance with certain rules. For example, it is possible if a child is born out of wedlock.
Difference in Deities’ Roles: Mythological Perspective
Hinduism will be the first religion to consider. Notably, the past is of paramount importance for Hinduism. For instance, there are certain texts that explain the beginning of the world. Thus, according to Hinduism, the world was created from an egg, “the Golden Embryo”, and “[o]nce he was born, he was the one lord of creation… he who gives life, who gives strengths, whose command all the gods, his own, obey” (The Rig Veda, 2005). It is also noted that it is not known who created the egg. However, it is clear that it was a deity, the creator. It is very important, as Hinduism stipulates that there was a creator of the universe (with its planets, gods, humans and so on).
Later, a pantheon of gods developed. Each deity had certain features and roles. For instance, Krishna is the primary deity and Shiva arises as a deity of fertility. It is noteworthy that the hierarchy of the pantheon varies depending on denominations. Interestingly, Vishnu was developed via assimilation of a number of god-figures and the rest of the gods of Hindu pantheon were also elaborated in this way (Stein, 2010). Brahma and Shakti as well as numerous devas (celestial beings) are also important deities in Hinduism.
The major role of Hindu deities was to “serve mankind through the powerful rites of expert priests” (Stein, 2010, p. 80). Notably, priests played quite an important role in the society as they were often regarded as the translators of gods’ will. People addressed deities in their search for help or, in the majority of cases, for spiritual guidance. People’s expectations from deities are revealed in the following lines, “Lead me from the unreal to the real! Lead me from darkness to light! Lead me from death to immortality!” (The Upanishads: Third Brahmana, n.d.). Only gods can tell the entire truth and help people achieve enlightenment. Only they are knowledgeable and can share this knowledge if they please. Thus, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, “I am knowledgeable… but you are not knowing” (Bhagavad Gita: Approaching the ultimate truth: Verse 5, n.d.). It is clear that, in Hinduism, people are unlikely to reach salvation or enlightenment without interference of gods. It is also noteworthy that revelations were often given to the royal families. The only thing people can do is to be righteous and live according to the values developed (Coomaraswamy, 2011). In that way, people can eventually unite with God.
It is important to add that worship was an important element of Hinduism. Interestingly, it was mainly borrowed from Buddhist tradition (Stein, 2010). Sacrifice was another important aspect of Hinduism. An important feature of Hindu deities is certain kind of subordination. There are supreme gods and minor divine entities, which can be seen as division into certain castes.
As has been mentioned above, in Buddhism, there is no emphasis on the Creator. Olson (2003) notes that there is even lack of explanations of the start of times. In Buddhism, this issue is not regarded as paramount and Buddhists focus on their present and future rather than their past. Buddhists are concerned with achieving enlightenment.
As far as deities are concerned, Buddhists believe there are numerous supernatural entities (both good and evil) that can perform different roles. These gods have supernatural powers and can affect people’s lives. Nevertheless, all these deities are not free from suffering as they are not enlightened in the vast majority of cases (Williams, 2002). Only enlightened gods (just like enlightened people) can be free from suffering. They are bound to live the same circle of existence. More so, these gods can be righteous people in their previous lives (Goodman, 2014). Williams (2002) also notes that for people it was easier to achieve enlightenment than it was for gods. Therefore, it is possible to note that, unlike Hindu gods, Buddhist deities are not very different from people as they are often reincarnated people. In Buddhism, deities are not beyond the humanity. It is possible to note that deities and people are in parallel worlds.
Importantly, in Buddhism, gods are not the ultimate source of knowledge. People often can achieve enlightenment without them. More so, there is an emphasis on communication between people. Thus, Buddhists believe that sages can help people reach enlightenment and become “Unbound” (Panditavagga: The wise, 1997, n.p.). Hence, people should communicate with sages as “[f]or the one who stays / with a sage of this sort, / things get better, not worse” (Panditavagga: The wise, 1997, n.p.). There is no such reliance on gods as in Hinduism. It is also important to add that any person irrespective of his/her social and economic status can achieve enlightenment. In Buddhism, all people should act in a righteous way and they will reach enlightenment.
Differences in Deities’ Roles: Scientific Approach
Clearly, mythology provides quite specific worldview. This worldview, however, can be explained with the help of a scientific approach. Thus, it is possible to trace the roots of Hindu beliefs in the peculiarities of the society of that period. As has been mentioned above, deities are seen as holders of the truth and gods often shared knowledge with rulers of the country. For instance, revelations of Lord Krishna that enabled Arjuna justify his power over people. This can be explained by the desire of rulers of the area to enhance their power and make people believe they were bound to be submissive as the ruler was gods’ “devotee and friend” (Bhagavad Gita: Approaching the ultimate truth: Verse 3, n.d.). Notably, the past of many rulers was somehow connected with the Hindu mythology as “genealogies for ruling families… extended from mythological pasts” (Stein, 2010, p. 94). Clearly, this had a particular aim.
It is also important to note that the society in South Asia (especially the Indian peninsula) was divided into different social groups, castes. People were born into these social groups and there was almost no mobility, as a person of lower castes could never become members of the higher caste. This division also transcends to the hierarchy of the gods’ pantheon. Hindu gods are also subjected to certain type of division into primary gods and other deities. The gods were worshiped and more sacrifices were made to them. However, it is necessary to add that other deities also received sacrifices from various groups (depending on the denomination). The division of the society and the gods’ pantheon suggests that religion was developed to enhance the existing social order and make one people benefit from hard labor of masses.
It is also important to note that people who lived in the area were concerned with their past. Thus, Hindu religion starts with creation of the world. Clearly, people are eager to know about the beginning of the universe. More so, people’s focus on their past is also seen through their attention to genealogy of their rulers. This peculiarity of people’s worldview is manifested in their religious beliefs.
Buddhist religious beliefs were also developed on the basis of the societal norms that existed at that time. The society in East Asia developed in somewhat different way and there was no such reliance on castes. Clearly, there was social division but it was more economically determined. There were rulers and nobility and there were warriors and peasants as well as servants and even slaves. However, there were no castes and there could be certain mobility.
The fact that development of Buddhism is assigned to a particular person (unlike Hinduism, which is thought to be given to people by the supreme deity) is very suggestive. Thus, Buddhism can be seen as an interpretation of some Hindu values by one man, Siddharta Gautama, who was a son of a “Hindu clan ruler of the Kshatriya caste” (Olson, 2003, p. 190). Clearly, he grew up in a luxurious palace and did not see the wrongs of the society but when he acknowledged the truth he left his home to find the meaning of life. This story is very important as it ‘humanizes’ Buddhism as the religion evolved from teachings of an enlightened human.
These teachings became very popular in the area where people were not bound to a caste and could rely on themselves in their search of the meaning of life as well as pleasures of life. According to the scientific approach, it is clear that such a religion spread in the area as it corresponded to the conventions of the societies that were developing in the area.
It is necessary to add that Buddhists were not concerned with their past as they concentrated on the future or present. This is also a peculiarity of the people’s worldview. It becomes clear that people living in East Asia tried to focus on their present existence and make it righteous rather than trying to understand what was happening generations before them.
On balance, it is possible to note that religions are developed on the basis of people’s worldviews. Thus, Hinduism became widespread in the territories where the society was highly hierarchal and divided into castes with almost no mobility. At the same time, Buddhism became popular in territories where the society was less divided socially. In Hinduism, deities have supreme powers and knowledge they could (or did not) share with people (usually rulers). Whereas, Buddhist gods have supernatural powers but they are similar to people in their desire to reach enlightenment to be free from suffering. Clearly, religions respond to the worldviews of people and they transcend their earthly lives to the heavenly world. Thus, even though the two religions are rooted in similar beliefs and share a lot in common, they developed many differences as people that practices them in different territories adjusted their religious beliefs to their lives.
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