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Nirvana vs. Moksha
The doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism seem identical in several respects. But there are some key concepts that make each religion unique. Among them, the most significant one is ‘Nirvana’, the only goal that Buddha proposed for attaining eternal bliss. Many critics believe that Nirvana is not about anything new, but only a modified version of the Indian (Hindu) concept of Moksha. Admittedly, the influence of Indian scriptures and beliefs is evident in Buddha's doctrines. However, Buddha has given distinct definitions for the terms like Karma and Yoga that are standard to both religions. Only people who study Buddhism intimately can understand in what respects Nirvana is different from the Hindu concept of Moksha.
Who Was Buddha?
Siddhartha Gautama (that was his real name) was a prince of the Sakya tribe in present Nepal. At the age of 29, he denounced all royal comforts and left home to explore the meaning of suffering. He found that no worldly pleasure would give him satisfaction. Gautama is said to have obtained enlightenment while he was meditating beneath a tree. Thus he became Buddha and traveled across Northeastern India to proclaim his new doctrine. Dharma and Karma are the two essential aspects he discussed while explaining his philosophy. Buddhism, unlike many of its counterparts, survived all critical challenges in the world.
“Health is the highest gain,
Contentment is the highest wealth,
Those inspiring trusts are kinsman supreme,
Nibbana (nirvana) is ease supreme”
— (Dhammapada 204).
The term ‘Nirvana’ refers to one’s extinguishing the fires of worldly attachment, ignorance, and aversion so that sufferings can come to an end. When individuals get free from dukkha (sufferings), they get free from the cycles of rebirth. Buddhism intended to give people insights regarding the mystery of death and sufferings. Obviously, Buddha’s audience was the common people who had been exploited by the higher castes of the society, mainly the Hindu clergy. Although Vedas and Upanishads, the Great spiritual texts of ancient India, were potential sources for spiritual enlightenment, their content was esoteric and did not serve the laity. Buddha preached that human development engages a process of constant transformation, and man has to undergo or initiate this change to attain a better status than the present one. And, the change should come from nowhere but from within. It is one’s mind that plays the crucial role in this process of transformation. So, Buddhism intends to focus much on the mind. Buddha ignored the Hindu concepts of the Soul and the Ultimate Reality. Hinduism is founded on the philosophies of Atman and Brahma. Atman is the soul that dwells in one’s body whereas Brahma refers to the Universal truth. Buddha addressed only the worldly problems, and according to him, it is on account of self or desires one suffers. Therefore, only when one conquers desires, one can attain Nirvana.
Meditation is the tactic Buddha suggests for attaining a positive state of mind, and this positivity refers to one’s calmness, awareness, and concentration. When a person moves through this path, he/she would finally attain enlightenment and understand the nature of reality clearly. An enlightened individual can live naturally per that new revelation. The complete consciousness achieved through meditation means an individual’s state of being when he is fully aware of himself, fellow beings, and the life as a whole. Hence, Buddha perceived meditation as the single route to wisdom.
Same Terms: Different Meanings
What Is Karma? How It Affects Nirvana
In a single line, Meditation is the concentration of thoughts on a specific subject and becoming wholly aware of oneself. Enlightenment gave Buddha answers to all the questions that bothered him during the term of his worldly life. Regarding transformation, Buddha introduced three Universal Truths.
- Whatever that loses its current state turns into another form
- There is nothing in this world that can withstand change
- There is a law of cause and effect, ‘Karma’
Karma refers to the kind of life we get. Karma lets a person undergo the unending cycle of rebirth in this world. The relationship between our thoughts and actions decide the type of life that we are to live. If then, can a person change Karma? Yes, it is possible. As Buddha purports, it is possible by paying attention to our thoughts, words, and deeds positively.
Religions should help people to break the cycle of reincarnation and attain the highest level of freedom or happiness. Buddha designed an Eight Fold Path for this task.
The Eight-Fold Path
Nirvana is the supreme state of individual freedom. One who attains Nirvana realizes that one was not created, but was the part of the cosmos that existed.
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How to Bypass 'Samsara'
The Eight Fold Path is a practical guide for eliminating the pain and suffering of the material world. As per Buddhism, one who follows this Eight Fold Path will come out of the chain of rebirth. The chain of rebirth is termed as Samsara, and one who bypasses Samsara attains the ultimate free state of being ‘Nirvana’. Nirvana is a supreme state of individual freedom. At this stage, an individual realizes that he/she was not created, but was the part of the cosmos that existed.
Buddha realized Dukh (affliction) as the cause of suffering. And, the reason of Dukh is nothing but desire. If then, as described by Trainor (2004), to attain Nirvana, one needs to abstain from all worldly desires. Desire breeds negative emotions like greed, hatred, and delusion that constitute Karma, and subsequently Samsara (the cycle of birth) (p. 68). In simple terms, Dukh is the gap between our desire and reality. So, Nirvana is the state of supreme freedom achieved through the removal of desires.
Karma and Rebirth in Hinduism
The concept of Karma is not unique to Buddhism. It originated from the Hindu scriptures. Hinduism also maintains that Karma is the hindering factor in one’s pursuit of salvation. Therefore, an individual’s sole attention should be how to avoid rebirth and attain ‘Moksha’. The terms Karma and Yoga are standard in both the philosophies. Unlike Buddhism, Hinduism acknowledges two other elements Atman and Brahma. Also, Nirvana and Moksha are entirely different from each other although people use them interchangeably.
According to the Hindu perspective, it is the soul that goes through the unending cycle of death and rebirth. Realizing the soul (Atman) is the initial step for attaining ultimate freedom. Atman is the individual self and Brahma the supreme universal self. The sole aim of the human life is to attain Brahma. This actualization, attaining Brahma, is termed as Moksha. However, it involves challenges.
Although Buddhism and Hinduism converge at certain points, the concept of Maya is unique for Hinduism. Maya refers to the illusion. According to this concept, we gather information through our senses, which are highly prone to the illusions. Whatever we experience here is only an illusion of objectivity as if we are like in a mirror house. Karma in Hinduism refers to duty which we are bound to perform in order for escaping the bondage of rebirth. In the Hindu perspective of the rebirth, the soul (Atman) leaves the body once it has no meaning of dwelling in it further, and enters into a new body. Soul has no beginning and no end. It never perishes; instead, it takes a new body once it has nothing to do with the old one. Only through Karma and meditation, one can control one’s mind and thus skip rebirths. When the Eight Fold Path is the tactics Buddha proposes, Gita and other Hindu scriptures recommend Dharma in order to attain these goals. Hence, according to Hinduism, life is all about controlling or managing emotions.
In Hinduism, Karma is something that one ought to perform without expecting the result whereas in Buddhism it is created by our desires, and causes rebirth (Samsara). Buddha says nothing about the soul; instead, freedom from reincarnation is the ultimate goal of human life, and this is possible through meditation. When one accomplishes this task one attains Nirvana. Moksha refers to the process of the soul dissolving in the ultimate reality (Brahma) by escaping the binds of rebirth through Karma and meditation.
The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching
Check your knowledge
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Gita is the base of Buddha's Eight Fold Path
- The word Karma has the same meaning in Hinduism and Buddhism
- According to Buddha, desire is the cause of Karma
- Buddhism and Hinduism believe in Ultimate Reality (God)
- Nirvana and Moksha aim at the same goal
- The Purpose of meditation is same in Hinduism and Buddhism
- According to the author, the concept of Nirvana is superior to Moksha
- Not mentioned
- In Buddhism Avidya refers to wrong knowledge
- In Hinduism raga refers to passion
- Nirvana means the supreme state of individual freedom
- Not mentioned
Interpreting Your Score
If you got between 0 and 3 correct answers: Thanks for the attempt. But your reading skill is below average.
If you got between 4 and 6 correct answers: Good attempt. You can improve next time
If you got between 7 and 8 correct answers: Good score. But you need to improve your reading skills. Try well next time
If you got 9 correct answers: Good score! Congrats
If you got 10 correct answers: Excellent score! Congrats
- Carter, J.R & Mahinda, P. (Eds.). (2000). Dhammapada. US: Oxford University Press.
- Trainor K. (Ed.). (2004). Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide. US: Oxford University Press.
© 2018 Paul Joseph