Buddhism and Hinduism share several similar concepts, some of the most essential being ideas on karma and reincarnation. Karma is the ethical concept that proposes a natural connection between human actions and its fitting consequence. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, it is believed that sin is followed by suffering, while virtue is followed by reward. However, differences exist in the way the two religious beliefs understand karma and rebirth. In Hindu for instance, karma is purposed at appeasing gods, while the concept of appeasing deities is not acknowledge in Buddhism. Similarly, the two religions hold divergent views on the afterlife. The purpose of this document is to provide a comparative analysis of the concepts of karma and rebirth in Hindu and Buddhism. It will be observed that, while the two religions may be founded on similar concepts, important differences exist in the interpretation of karma and reincarnation.
Karma is the ethical dimension through which Buddhist teachings understand morality. Karma articulates a close relationship between what one opts to do and what they become over time. According to Dale Wright (2005), the sophistication of karma as understood in Buddhism and Hinduism ought to be counted as the most sophisticated achievement of the South Asian culture and should be used to inform modern day ethical thinking globally. It is worth noting that in both the Buddhist and Hindu interpretation of karma, the connection between human action and corresponding consequence does not require supernatural intervention. Thus, the human suffering and reward occurs as the result of the natural consequence of the actions themselves, rather than through the intervention of a supernatural power. In spite of the similarities between the Buddhist and Hindu understanding of karma, the two differ in the sense that – karma in Hindu traditions was used for religious ritual, while Buddhism seeks to extend its application to all human acts (Wright, 2005; Kalupahana, 1975). Thus, although the Hindu understanding of karma detaches the concept from supernatural intervention, Hindu religious practices advocate for the use of karma as a guide for doing good deeds, and with the aim of appeasing the gods.
Differences in the understanding and application of the concept of karma in the Buddhism and Hinduism is informed by the central factor that distinguishes the two religions. In this regard, Buddhism does not believe in the existence of souls and deities, while Hinduism believes in the existence of Atman (the soul of the individual) and Brahman, the supreme creator (Wright, 2005). With this understanding it becomes easier to understand most of the differences between the two religious beliefs that are interconnected in so many ways. Buddhists, unlike Hindus, conceive that the world is full of sorrows and that humans have a duty to end these sorrows. Thus, in the natural process of karma, Buddhists believe that doing good acts consistently will generate positive outcomes, ultimately diminishing evil. Hindus, on the other hand, believe that the process is a bit more complex. They acknowledge the importance of doing good deeds, but this is not enough, as humans have to serve several mandates in life. These aims, known as arthas, include religious duty (dharma), wealth or material possession (artha), desire and passions (kama), and salvation (moksha). Hindus thus believe that, while doing good deeds will bring corresponding good outcomes, human duty is not accomplished until the four aims are met.
It is worth noting that Buddhism has a singular understanding of karma that is informed by the teachings of Buddha. Buddhism understands that karma is not rigid and mechanical process but a fluid, flexible and dynamic process with no set linear relationship between an act and a consequence. On the contrary, Hinduism has multiple interpretations of karma as informed by the multiple schools of Hinduism. In one of these (the Nyaya school), karma is not just understood as a natural cycle but also as the evidence that God exists.
Just like there are similarities and differences in the understanding of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism, the understanding of rebirth in both religions is founded on similar concepts but key differences emerge in the way the concept is interpreted in the two religions. The concept of reincarnation in Hinduism is tied to the belief in the existence of the soul (Atma) (Halbfass, 2000). Hindus believe that the human body is vessel in which the soul is placed. They believe that unlike the body, the soul is the eternal and indestructible. The Hindus believe that when death occurs, the soul is reborn in a new vessel and the cycle continues. Karma plays an important role in determining how one reincarnates. Depending on one’s karma, one may reincarnate on earth, in heaven or in hell. On earth, one could reincarnate as another human being or an animal (Halbfass, 2000). Most Hindu believes also argue that gods also die when their karmic merit runs out. Those in hell also reincarnate as they get another chance on earth. As such, Hindu religion posits that hell is not permanent but more of a correctional facility for souls (Jacobsen, 2009).
The Hindu beliefs suggest that the reincarnation cycle continues until one pursues spiritual fulfilment and realizes self-knowledge. At this stage, the soul gains moksa, which is the release from the cycle of reincarnation (Jacobsen, 2009). However, because there are multiple differing traditions within the Hindu religion, differences in the interpretation of reincarnation also exist within Hinduism. For instance, the dualistic tradition argues that being fully devoted to God is the way to release the soul from the cycle of reincarnation. The non-dualistic tradition, on the other hand, suggests that meditation and self-knowledge is the path to liberation.
The Buddhist interpretation of reincarnation is based on the teachings of Buddha on the same. In line with the central understanding of rebirth in Hinduism, Buddha believed that an afterlife exists and that karma influences the cycle of rebirth. According to Buddha, understanding the role of karma in the rebirth cycle is relevant in guiding humans to lead responsible lives. The view that human life ends at death, according to Buddha, serves as a justification for living irresponsibly (Kalupahana, 1975). Contrary to Hindu beliefs, however, Buddhism does not believe in the concept of the soul. The idea of permanence underpinned in Hindu believes is revoked in Buddhism which suggests that the cycle of reincarnation can be ended through the realization of Nirvana (non-self/emptiness).
Although Buddhism and Hinduism are founded on similar concepts, important differences exist in the interpretation of karma and reincarnation. These differences are tied to the fact that Hinduism believes in the existence of deities, a concept which is opposed in Buddhism. Hinduism is also grounded on the idea that a soul exists, a concept that is opposed in Buddhism. Nonetheless, the two religions share similar ideas on the relevance of doing good to appease karma.
Halbfass, W. (2000). Karma und Wiedergeburt im indischen Denken. Kreuzlingen: Hugendubel.
Jacobsen, K. (2009). Three functions of Hell in the Hindu traditions. Numen, 56(2-3), 385-400.
Kalupahana, D. J. (1975). Causality: The central philosophy of Buddhism (p. 265). University of Hawaii Press.
Wright, D. S. (2005). Critical questions towards a naturalized concept of karma in Buddhism. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 12, 78-93.