Thursday, June 5, 2008

Copy Cat Buddha?

Repeat anything often enough and it will start to be seen as true. Take rebirth for example. How often have I heard or read this statement or versions of it - ‘The Buddha (Buddhism) borrowed (copied) the idea (doctrine) of rebirth (reincarnation) from Hinduism.’ Coming from Swami Vivekananda, Christmas Humphries, Paul Carus or the like, such a statement would be understandable – they were not scholars and they had hidden agendas. But coming from theologians, historians and even Indologists of repute it really is astonishing. It is also proof of the accuracy of the first line in this blog. I would like to briefly examine three words in this statement; (1) Hinduism, (2) borrowed and (3) rebirth.

(1) The Buddha could not possibly have borrowed the idea of rebirth/reincarnation or indeed anything else from Hinduism for one simple reason – Hinduism did not exist in the 5th century BCE. I am not being pedantic here, I’m being historically and chronologically precise. What we now call and recognize as Hinduism did not begin to take its present form until at least the 3rd century CE, a good 800 years after the Buddha. The majority religions that flourished during the Buddha’s time were Brahmanism (the worship of the Vedic gods) and Indian animism. Both these religions gradually merged, absorbed Upanisadic spirituality, various tribal gods (Ganesh, Hanuman), yoga philosophy, big chunks of Buddhism and emerged as what we would now recognize as Hinduism. To say that the Buddha copied rebirth/reincarnation from Hinduism is to be as uninformed about history as someone who would say that Jesus copied the idea of salvation from Islam. To take this comparison a little further, it is certainly true that Jesus borrowed or took for granted much of Judaism and it would be just as true to say that Hinduism borrowed the concept of rebirth/reincarnation from Buddhism; not the other way around.

(2) Now let’s have a look at ‘borrowed.’ Even if we accept the historically inaccurate notion that Hinduism existed at the time of the Buddha, the statement in question would still be wrong. Because from where exactly would the Buddha have borrowed the idea of rebirth? If we look at all pre-Buddhist (5th cent. BCE) Indian literature we find that there is only the Vedas, the Brahmana Shastras and the eairler Upanishads. Throughout the whole of the Vedas there is not a single mention of rebirth/reincarnation. They teach that when people die they go to the ‘world of the fathers’ (pitrloka). Read through all the Brahamana Shastras and there is no reference to rebirth/reincarnation there either.
The early Upanisads contain a lot of speculation about what will happens to the individual after death. The sage Yajnavalkya doubted the possibility of any after-death existence (Brhadaranyaka, 3,9.28,6). The Chandogya Upanisad says that when you die you go to the sun (Ch.3,17,6,7 and also Brh.5.6,1). In another place rebirth is mentioned but only to be dismissed as false (Brh.1,5,6). It is only in the Katha, the Manduaka, the Svetasvatara and the Maitri Upanisads that some form of reincarnation is accepted. Now the problem is that it is very difficult to date these Upanisads; they may be pre-Buddhist, contemporary with or after the Buddha’s time. Whatever the case, the evidence shows that reincarnation was neither a widespread nor a mainstream belief during the Buddha’s time or before. It is also worth pointing out that the Upanisads were secret teachings (upa + nisidati = to sit close) revealed only to the initiated; making it even less likely that their teaching of rebirth/reincarnation would have been widely known or accepted.
Now some Hindus may point out that the Bhavagat Gita mentions reincarnation and that ‘it was written 5000 years ago.’ Unfortunately, this claim belongs very much to the ‘Ancient Indians Invented the Airplane’ school of Indian history. The theme of the Mahabharata, from which the Bhagavat Gita comes, is certainly very ancient but in its present form it dates from somewhere between the 1st and perhaps the 4th centuries CE, long after the Buddha.

(3) Now let’s discuss the word ‘rebirth.’ The Upanisads, the earliest non-Buddhist Indian literature to mention the idea of rebirth/reincarnation, calls it ‘second death’ (punar mrtyu). The Buddha used the term ‘again becoming’ (punabbhava, e.g. Sn.163). The Upanisads that do mention a ‘second death’ give no details of why or how this happens, other than to say that it is a soul (atman) that is reincarnated. The Buddha by contrast gives a detailed explanation of the whole process of rebirth including the assertion that it is not a soul that is reborn but rather that an impersonal flow of mental energy re-animates a new being. In short, the Buddha’s teaching of rebirth differed significantly from that of the Upanisadic sages. So even to say that the Buddha copied the idea of some form of reincarnation from the Upanisads is wrong. It is like saying that because the Romans believed in a supreme god (Jupiter) and so did the Christians (Jehovah), that the latter must have copied the idea from the former.
Conclusion? It is unlikely that the Buddha copied the idea of rebirth from the Upanisads and he certainly did not and could not have copied it from Brahmanism or Hinduism. Whether he borrowed, copied or took for granted the idea from Jainism is another story. But that is something I might have a look at later.
The picture is a popular Hindu depiction of reincarnation.


piotr.paweł said...

Hello [i]bhante[/i]!

I will look forward for your comments on Jainism. It seems to be one of the most important contemporary teachings to Buddha's.

And thank you for this post! It gives the lie to so many ideas that are popular nowadays...

Best wishes!


Namo buddhaya, Bhante
The Buddha Siddharta Gotama never did copy ideas from Hinduism. He had attained arahatta level which made him having cula abhinha or 6 supernatural powers. One of these 6 was ability to gain knowledge once he needed the answer.

David said...

Hi Bhante,

I too would like to see a blog post from you sometime on Jainism.

Jainism and Buddhism are incredibly similar, from the shramana tradition of monks going forth, the precepts, a women's order, non-violence, no creator god, no caste system, etc., plus the birth and going forth story of Mahavira and Buddha are virtually identical.

The Buddha talked about the Niganthas (Jains) frequently and we also hear of the "naked ascetics." Which came first, the Jains or the Buddhists? When do you think the Svetembara school developed. The Svetembara school is quite progressive with female nuns and they also believe that a previous Tirthankar was female, something not found in the Buddhist sammasambuddhas.

Justin Choo said...


I am surprised that you wrote Christmas Humphries "had hidden agendas". This is news to me. Perhaps you might want to elaborate in your future post.

On a separate note, you sure are one very widely-read and learned monk.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

In some ways old Father Christmas, as he as sometimes called, was more or at least as much, a Theosophist as he was a Buddhist. He spent much of his life trying to smuggle the self into the Dhamma. His idea was that there are three selves – the self, the Self and the SELF and that anatta was actually not confusing the self or the Self with the SELF.

Justin Choo said...


Which leads us to ego, Ego and EGO; and that anatta was actually not confusing the ego or the Ego with the EGO.

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Robert said...

This was interesting. I always thought that the mainstream Brahmanical religions of the time did believe in reincarnation.

I wonder what Alara Kalama taught? Not sure anyone knows. The DPPN says "Asvaghosa, in his Buddhacarita (xii.17ff), puts into the mouth of Ārāda or Ālāra, a brief account of his philosophy. It has some resemblance - though this is slight - to the Sānkhya philosophy, but in Ālāra’s teaching some of the salient characteristics of the Sānkhya system are absent. In reply to Gotama's questions about the religious life and the obtaining of final release, Ālāra describes a system of spiritual development which is identical with the methods of the Buddhist monk up to the last attainment but one."

Sounds like even less is known about Uddaka-Rāmaputta.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Robert, please see my comments on June 6th which I accidently addressed to 'David'

Ti-lakkhana said...

This is another good post indeed. Thank you Bhante.

As David said, I'd also like to read more about similarities & differences between Buddhism and Jainism if possible.


Anish Shah said...

Jai Jinendra, I am a Jain and read your posts with interest. I get irritated when people claim that Jainism and Buddhism are offshoots of Hinduism and that they borrowed the concepts of Karma, Moksa, Samsara, Ahimsa from Hindusim. Most of the people in India seem to be suffering from this antiquity frenzy of Hinduism. This has led me to study the historical origins of Jainism in particular and Sramanas in general. Most of the scholars are of the view that Sramanas are pre-vedic and pre-aryan and the concepts of Karma-moksa-jnana-samsara are sramana concepts “borrowed by the Brahmins.” If you need scholarly references you can mail me at Similarly, although Mahavira was a senior contemporary of Buddha, it cannot be said that Buddha borrowed Mahaviras concepts, because the Buddhist theory of Karma, Atma, self etc seems to be prima-facie similar but quite different on the philosophical plane. Buddha may have been influenced by Parsva the penultimate Jain Tirthankara who historically existed 250 years before Mahavira. Whatever maybe the case, Jainism and Buddhism represent the ancient Sramana tradition that influenced and changed the entire landscape of the Indian philosophy.

Manapo said...

A very useful post. Thanks.

Anand Morakhia said...
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Siddharth Mehta said...

curious to know 'what hidden agenda did Swami Vivekanand have?'. from whatever little i have read about him i think he was a great man (without any hidden agenda!). please do reply.

PS. came across your blog only recently. read a few posts. like them shall read more. thanks.

Sahiba said...

Wonderful Post but few mistakes:

1. Hinduism was known as Sanatan Dharma.

2. There was/is any religion called Brahanism if you just try to even look at the history. Indian animism is very much part of Sanatan Dharma

3. India was much more open to debate and criticism that is not easy to understand if one is born and brought up in Abrahmic religion culture. Indeed India had many "Darshana" school of thoughts. However one man show is not the nature of Indian or Indian religion until the time of Buddha.

3. Vedas are clearly divided into two part : first one is talking abt rituals and second philosophical part. What Buddhist monk not Buddha though tried to borrow was later part.

4. Chandogya did talk about "gaati" so as kath and so as Gita. It does not stop at "Pitru lok"

5. The very word cause of 're-birth" cannot be directly accepted or understood unless one understand the ritual part along with upanisheda part. Hence just to have look at one side of the coin and come to conclusion is not acceptable

6. Even the meaning of Upanishads is wrong.
7. Yes, the new contribution of Buddha was different concept to soul, but what is mental energy? Who illuminate it?
8. Indeed Buddhism didn't borrow anything from Hinduism except Buddha.
9. Buddha followed the very teaching and path of Sanatan Dharam got enlighten.
10. He never rejected Hinduism, I wonder why neo-buddhist are so much obsessed with it.
11. It is against the teaching of any Indic religion to abuse and refute. But each religion which took birth on land of Bharat had healthy tradition of criticism and debate which give birth to two new religion though I wonder DID BUDDHA or Rishabdev ever wanted to start the new religion like that of Abrahamic or it is just his follower?

Andrew said...

Hinduism is a modern mixture of Vedic, Sramanic, and Dravidian animism. All of these strains existed during the time of the Shakyamuni. Jainism preceded Buddhism by hundreds of years and to it, the Buddha owed his lifestyle.

presa1200 said...
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presa1200 said...

How did Buddha know rebirth and reincarnation was true? He did not die and come back to life to tell everyone?