Buddhist Philosophy

The Upanishads And Teachings Of Sri Buddha – Part 1: Two Main Philosophical Concepts of Sri Buddha

This is The First Part Of Philosophical Paper Presented By Sunil Upasana In The Swadeshi Indology Conference – 2, Held At IGNCA, New Delhi On February 2017.

About Author: –

Sunil Upasana hails from Kerala (India) and has been a Bengalurean for 13 years. He has had a deep yearning to understand the profound philosophy that underlies Hinduism Read More.


Hinduism and its core concepts are facing many challenges today through the misinterpretation and distortion at the hands of western academicians who are neither practitioners nor insiders. Age-old traditions of Indic civilization are subjected to scrutiny using defective methods and recast with new interpretations and dimensions. New theories which are alien to the civilization are coming forth from various quarters. One such recent ‘discovery’, proposed by American Indologist Sheldon Pollock, is that Buddhism, a prominent religion of Dharma tradition, is opposed to Hinduism.

Prof. Pollock and his school of neo-orientalist scholars, proponents of this theory, take minor differences existing between the two religions in the vyavahārikā world, and give it an absolute meaning. They forget or willfully disregard that there are two degrees of expression, about Reality, in Indic tradition – vyavahārikā and paramārthika. While certain differences are common in vyavahārikā level, in the paramārthika, everyone’s aim is same – be one with the Reality, be it Brahman or Nirvāṇa. And this Reality is not external to the body, but internal. In the proposed paper, I intend to do a thorough philosophical evaluation of the two, to conclude that the foundation of Hinduism and Buddhism is the same. They both are well rooted in Vedic tradition, especially the Upanishads. This is evident by the outlook of the Upanishads and Buddha’s teaching.

I will strive to show that a philosophical research, rather than an evaluation of external ritualistic methods and arguments, will lead us to the conclusion that Buddha’s teaching is almost same as Upanishadic teaching, but in a new terminology. The Highest Truth represented by the Upanishads and Buddha shares similar aspects, only names are different. I will demonstrate that the two planes of Reality that we get from Buddha’s teaching are also well represented in the Upanishads. In contrast to the common belief, I will attempt to show how Buddha’s theories of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda), no-soul (anātman) are also not against Vedic tradition. In fact, it is clear that they are in harmony with Upanishadic teaching.


            It is often remarked by some scholars that, there are only two religions in the world – Hinduism and Judaism. The religions are offshoots of these two religions. Hence, Hinduism is considered to be the mother of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism while Judaism of the other Abrahamic religions. Only these two religions have robust and independent foundations. Other religions depend on these religions for their existence, myths, ritual, lore and theology. This is a commonly accepted norm in comparative studies in religions.

            Buddhism is the second religion that emerged from the Hindu / Dharmic tradition; the first being Jainism. Buddhism starts with the teachings of Siddhartha, the Buddha. Siddhartha after attaining Nirvāṇa, preached the Truth to the popular masses. This teaching is often alleged to be different from, or diametrically opposed to the then existing beliefs and customs of the masses, namely, the Vedic tradition. Though we may accept that there may have been some minor differences, because of the rise of a new sect, or say religion, great care must be taken before concluding that the new sect was totally opposed to the old traditions, because Buddhism in its outlook and tradition does not differ radically from Indic tradition. This is very evident when we compare the culture of predominantly Buddhist nations with India.

The sharp contradictions, in certain matters, that Buddhism has with Vedic tradition are also, in fact, not raised by Buddha himself. Take the example of Buddha’s objection towards ritual sacrifices. It is the Upanishads, which first showed opposition to sacrifices. Buddha continued to take that opposition forward vigorously. The pratītya-samutpāda and anātman theories of Buddha are also related to the Upanishads. The core teaching of the Upanishads (from the Advaita viewpoint) as indicated in the verses like tatvamasi, aham brahmāsmi, are ultimately against the concept of an individual ātman. We are Brahman at the ultimate level. Individuality is a product of avidyā. Buddha’s Nirvāṇa and anātman concepts also mirror the same ideas.

            Deliberately disregarding this relationship between Vedic and Buddha’s teachings, western Indologists like Sheldon Pollock have attempted to erect a wall between the two. They assert that Buddha’s teachings were opposed to the Vedas. In this paper I attempt to counter their fallacious theories with proper arguments and evidence.

This paper contains sections that can nullify certain theories of Mr. Pollock. In the next two sections I give a short description of ‘Vedism Vs Buddhism’, as an entry into the subject, and the two main philosophical tenets taught directly by Buddha. This will be helpful to set the tone for the positions that will be discussed in this paper. Pollock’s critique of Hinduism and the Vedas is also added for clarity. His comments on the topic are quoted. The next four sections are the core of this paper. In these I show that pratītya-samutpāda and anātman doctrines of Sri Buddha are not against Upanishadic teaching, but emerged from it. I quote the opinion of eminent scholars who are insiders to validate my points. The immense parallels between Nirvāṇa and Upanishadic Brahman, that make for a compelling case to state that both are same, are touched upon next. The claim that Buddha rejected the authority of the Vedas and the existence of two planes of Reality in the Upanishads and Buddha’s teaching are discussed in the remaining sections. The paper then discusses the implications of the fallacious theories propounded by the neo-orientalists and finally ends with the conclusion.

Thought development is a continuous process. So when we start from the Rigveda, the oldest of our Sruti texts and proceed to the Upanishads, which is the Vedanta, there is a refinement in the interpretation of the Vedas, from the ritualistic to the philosophical. This shows the dynamism of Vedic society and its evolving capacity. We cannot choose a particular part of the Vedic compendium, compare it with Buddha’s teaching and then conclude that Buddha was against Vedas. We should evaluate the core of Vedic thought with the teaching of Buddha. Only then the research and study will be impartial and output will be balanced. Such an attempt is made here.

Vedism Vs Buddhism

Vedism: –

            The means to attain/realize the Ultimate Reality mentioned in Vedic literature are mainly two – karma and jnāna mārgā-s. It is very important to note that one way to mokṣa never rejects the other in this worldview. Instead one mokṣa mārgā legitimates the other by giving it an evolutionary role. It is only the degree of importance given to each that differs.

            Among the Vedic texts, the Vedas and Brahmana-s predominantly reflect realism. In them, the existence of prakṛti on its own terms is recognized and upheld. Gods are invoked and their help is requested for prosperity and fight against opponents. A dualism between man and nature, man and God is visible there. However, it would be wrong to assume that, the idea of monism is not present in the Vedas. Even while worshipping multiple gods, Vedic people were sure that these gods are just manifestations of the One Reality[i]. Thus we can see a glimpse of monism, which later gets thoroughly expanded upon in the Upanishads. While Vedic injunctions primarily give importance to actions (karma), similar importance is given to knowledge (jnāna) in the Upanishads.

            It is also worth noting that the Upanishads did not approve of sacrifices. Also, Upanishadic statements like ‘tatvamasi’, ‘ayamātma Brahman’, if we took them in the ultimate sense, do not allude to the caste-class divide. When taking a stand that all this is Brahman / sarvam khalu idam Brahman, the meaning to be inferred is that everyone in the world irrespective of caste and creed is divine in the ultimate sense. Division exists only at the vyavahārikā level, where avidyā exists.

Buddhism: –

Buddhism, in its early period, was more or less a sect than a religion, established by its celebrated founder Sri Buddha. His teachings resembled those in the Upanishads, but in a different terminology. He was very liberal in matters of caste, though in some sutra-s (Ambattha sutta) he seems to show a preference for kṣatriya over others.

The anātman concept of Buddha does not accept the existence of any unchanging constant principle in the vyavahārikā world. But in the highest plane he also upholds a state akin to Ultimate Reality, which he terms as Nirvāṇa. It is pointed out by many scholars that there are many similarities between the Upanishadic and Buddha’s teachings[ii].

Two Main Philosophical Concepts of Sri Buddha

            There are some fundamental doctrines of Sri Buddha upon which the Buddhist belief and philosophy is built. Most important among them are ‘pratītya-samutpāda’ (theory of depended origination) and ‘anātman’ (no-soul). These two are considered as the kernel of Buddha’s teachings.

            Pratītya-samutpāda theory states that when this is, that is. From the arising of this, comes the arising of that. When this isn’t, that isn’t. From the cessation of this, comes the cessation of that. The simple meaning of pratītya-samutpāda is that, things in the mundane world arise depending upon other things. When a thing ceases to arise, the other thing also ceases. The law of causation is inherent in this doctrine.The real import of pratītya-samutpāda is believed to be, as adopted by Mahayanists, the theory of relativity.

            Another key teaching of Buddha is the anātman theory, a natural outcome of pratītya-samutpāda. According to this, there is no permanent agent called ātman because everything is relative. A relative entity cannot produce an unchanging, absolute entity like ātman. Everything in the mundane world is therefore without ātman.

            Many of the Buddhist concepts are centered on these theories, particularly on pratītya-samutpāda. These are considered as the direct teachings of Sri Buddha and this claim has never been disputed at any time in history.

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References: –

[i] They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutman.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan.

Rigveda. 1.164.46

[ii] “Buddha carries on the tradition of absolutism so clearly set forth in the Upanishads. For both, the Real is the Absolute which is at once transcendent to thought and, immanent in phenomena. Both take Avidyā, the beginning less and cosmic ignorance as the root-cause of phenomenal existence and suffering. Both believe that thought is inherently fraught with contradictions and thought-categories, instead of revealing the Real distort it, and therefore, one should rise above all views, all theories, all determinations, all thought-constructions in order to realize the Real. For both, the Real is realized in immediate spiritual experience. Both prescribe moral conduct and spiritual discipline as means to realize the Real, the fearless goal, the abode of Bliss”.

The Advaita Tradition in Indian Philosophy, Chandradhar Sharma. Page 31 – 32.

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