Religious Beliefs

How did the Buddha reinterpret Hindu teaching?

Key notions Siddhartha learned as a young Hindu included those of karma (action), dharma (law), samsara (cycles of rebirth), and moksha (final liberation). Most Hindus of his day understood the concept of karma as external ritual action performed in the hope of tapping into divine power. Some religious thinkers were beginning to suggest that, along with ancient Vedic ritual under the direction of the priestly class, the acts of individual people might also influence their spiritual as well as material prospects.

Others, like the Buddha, took their questioning of the old ways much further. They began to spiritualize the law of karma, explaining that choice and intent were more important than outward deeds. Along with their reinterpretation of karma, some contemporaries of the Buddha were also rethinking the Hindu concept of dharma. No longer merely the impersonal, inscrutable law of cosmic order, dharma now took on a personal ethical dimension. In the Buddha’s view, karma included all the results of each individual’s choices. He emphasized the need to purify one’s intentions of all self-centeredness. Perform each act purely because it is your “dharma,” not because you hope to gain personally.

The Hindu notion of samsara meant that the souls of individuals who died unliberated from the negative effects of their past actions would return in another form. The Buddha understood samsara to mean not only the cycle of physical rebirths, but the whole series of interior or spiritual stages the individual went through on the way to enlightenment. Finally, the Hindu idea of moksha meant the release of the indestructible soul (atman) of each individual from the cycle of samsara.

The Buddha also taught the possibility of a final liberation, but he gave it an important twist. Genuine liberation meant the complete cessation of all craving— even of craving for liberation itself. He called that final freedom nirvana, “no wind,” symbolizing the extinction of the flames of desire. Most radical of all, the Buddha rejected the Hindu concept of an immortal soul, teaching that there was in fact no permanent “self” at all.


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