While both Hinduism and Buddhism are rooted in the same cultural tradition and Buddhism is considered to be an offshoot of Hinduism, and hence there are lot of similarities between the two religions, Buddhism makes a radical departure from Hinduism on the question of the status of the individual. Buddhism denies the existence of individual soul and of the first cause (God), while the Hinduism cherishes the idea of individual human soul (Atman). Moreover, Brahman, according to Hinduism is the one and only Supreme creator inseparable from the individual soul or Atman in contrast to Buddhism that denies Supreme Soul as well as the individual soul. Buddhism by rejecting the duality of mind and body or the separation of the individual soul and the physical body encounters the problem of mind-body duality that has been the source of intense debate in the tradition of philosophy. Yet, interestingly both Buddhism and Hinduism explain karma and transmigration of soul within their respective systems that appear logical and compatible within.
The question, therefore, is what is Buddhist notion on individual and how is it distinct from the perspective on the individual in Hinduism? The Buddhist notion of self is central to the understanding of Buddhism religion. An individual is a combination if five skandhas or aggregates of existence – form, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Our physical form is the first skandha. The second skandha or sensation is made up of five senses of smelling, seeing, touching, hearing and tasting including our feelings. The third skandha or perception includes reasoning, cognition and conceptualization or thinking. This also includes recognition accompanying sense-object contact. The fourth skandha identified as mental formations includes predispositions, prejudices and habits. In other words, it includes virtuous and non-virtuous mental states such as desire, pride, vindictiveness, conscientiousness, faith and attention among several more. The fifth skandha is identified as consciousness that is, bare awareness of an object but devoid of cognition or conceptualization. In other words, these skandhas together constitute the essence of an individual. These skandhas are not qualities possessed by the individual soul, but the skandhas on the contrary are empty. In other words, Buddhism denies the existence of self and their doctrine of no self is known as anatman. (O’Brien, paragraphs 1-5).
The Hinduism, on the contrary claims that an individual is primarily a soul endowed with physical body and mind that serve as instruments to gain experience. The individual soul (Atman) and the absolute soul (Brahman) represent the two levels of realities – microcosm and macrocosm. The Upanishads speak of jivatman, the apparent soul and Paramatman, the real soul. The jivatman or the apparent soul is the experiencer of birth and death and its goal is freedom and liberation, while the real soul is the detached self and the serene witness consciousness. The apparent soul or the ego soul is the reflection of the real soul. The Self is identified with the real soul, while the apparent self is non-self. The individual, according to Hinduism consists of three bodies identified as the physical, subtle and the causal bodies. The physical body is made of the five basic elements, earth, air, water, fire, and earth, in their gross form and is subject to change, decay and death. The subtle body is made out of the subtle forms of the five elements and survives death in the form of thoughts and memories. The causal body, finer than the subtle body, is just the ego sense. The soul is distinct and separate from these bodies (Adiswarananda, paragraph1).
Buddhism doesn’t acknowledge the Hindu ideas of soul or the Supreme Soul, yet it would be surprising and paradoxical to learn that just like the Hindu belief in transmigration of soul and rebirth, the Buddhism also believes in transmigration and rebirth. Therefore, the question to ask is how can there be transmigration and rebirth if there is no soul? What is it that transmigrates.
Buddhism actually offers an alternative theory of transmigration without invoking the notion of transmigrating soul. Buddhism offers its own conception an entity, other than soul that transmigrates from one life to the next. This entity is actually a bundle of karmic energy identified under the generic term skandha, explained above. Skandha is unlike the ‘soul’ or jivatma described in Hinduism because it has no eternal essence. In other words, skandha is impermanent, yet as an entity, it can transmigrate with its capacity for volition, emotion, sensation, consciousness and perception as reflected in the human form. However, the same skandha dissipates into an empty void on attainment of liberation or nirvana (McFaul, 26).
In order to access a better comprehension of the Buddhist philosophy of no-soul and transmigration, we may split the question in two parts – (i) rebirth of what? And (ii) rebirth of whom? As to the first question, we need to understand the Buddhist conception of the body. The four elements of existence, according to this philosophy include (i) Prithivi or earth (ii) Apa or water (iii) Tej or fire, and (iv) Vayu or air. When the human body dies, these elements join the mass of similar elements floating in Akash or space. When the four elements from this floating mass join together, a new birth takes place. This is what Buddha meant by rebirth. The elements are not necessarily be drawn from the same body that died. In other words, the body dies or disintegrates but the elements live (Ambedkar, 330). In other words, the Buddhist understanding of rebirth appears more scientific and convincing.
Reincarnation and transmigration of the souls is the central doctrine in Hinduism. For a Hindu, one’s present life is an outcome of the karma of the previous life, and similarly one’s present will shape their future. Reincarnation is easy to explain with the basic foundation of mind-body dualism. The Samkhya philosophy as well as the Bhagvadgita in Hinduism posit two fundamental categories of reality – purusha (spirit/self) and prakriti (nature/matter). Purusha is pure consciousness and its pure state is eternally unchanging, while all activity is associated with prakriti. According to Hindu philosophy, and also as explained in Gita, immaterial self misidentifies itself with prakriti produced physical body and begins to consider itself as the agent or the doer. However, once the true knowledge dawns, the bondage of actions and their fruits is broken and liberation takes place. In addition, our action or karma also generates good and bad effects which must be experienced by the agent necessitating their rebirth but when the knowledge dawns, the agent doesn’t identify with action performed, and is hence freed from the cycle of multiple births and deaths (Perrett, 19).
According to Buddha, what we perceive or identify as our ego or self is the outcome of the skandhas. In other words, self is an illusion produced by a combination our bodies, emotions, beliefs, ideas, and consciousness. Together, they make us think that we are permanent “me”. On the contrary, the Buddhist theory of momentariness holds that we are born and undergo decay and death moment to moment. The illusion of permanent “me” exists because the momentary ‘me’ renews from moment to moment just as a wick of flame in a lamp renews from moment to moment. The universe according to Buddha is in a constant state of flux, changing each moment. So, the question arises, when change is taking place every moment, what is it that transmigrates. The Buddhist scholars like Walpola Rahula have attempted to explain this dichotomy by claiming that energies do not die with the death/disintegration of the physical body. However, the energies do transform into a different form or shape. This is known as the other life that continues to grow gradually. However, this does not take away from the fact that nothing remains beyond aggregates and skandhas and hence self or soul is a fictitious mental construct. The energies, atoms and molecules don’t die but take up another shape or form. In other words, while birth and death take place every moment in an unbroken chain, no permanent or unchanging substance passes from one life to the next (O’Brien, paragraphs 4-10).
In conclusion we notice two interesting points when we compare Hinduism and Buddhism. First, while Hinduism and Buddhism have most of the important cultural and philosophical elements to share, they differ radically on the question of ‘soul’ or self. While Soul or self is pure consciousness, and unchanging reality in Hinduism, the same is an illusory conception and a fictitious mental creation, according to Buddhism.
The second noticeable observation that might even appear contradictory is that both Hinduism and Buddhism have gone on to explain karma and reincarnation. While it is easy for Hinduism to explain karma and transmigration of soul because of their thesis that human soul or self is a changeless and indestructible entity, the Buddhist philosophy interestingly enough also explains karma and transmigration of some element from one life to another. In the process, the Buddhist philosophy raises further curiosity on issues like karma and transmigration.
It must not be forgotten that Hinduism is not a coherent and single body of philosophy, just as there are multiple philosophical strands in Buddhism. Yet, broadly it can be held that while soul or self in Hinduism is an unchanging core in each individual that transmigrates from one life to next till the attainment of liberation which the goal of every individual, nothing is permanent according to Buddhism, in contrast. If nothing is permanent as everything changes from moment to moment, there is no permanent and changeless soul or self. Sense of permanence is an illusion. For instance, the flame in a lamp changes from moment to moment and yet gives the illusion of permanence. Similarly, the physical body, thoughts, emotion, volition and consciousness change, that is die and are born from moment to moment. When the physical body disintegrates, the energy transforms into new form and shape. This is how Buddhism explains transmigration. Accordingly, the person who dies and is reborn, according to Buddhism is neither same nor different, but the person who dies and is reborn, according to Hinduism is essentially the same soul.
Adiswarananda, Swami. "Hinduism: The Human Individual." Ramakrishna.org. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York. Web. 18 July 2015. <http://www.ramakrishna.org/activities/message/weekly_message40.htm>.
Ambedkar, B.R. The Buddha and His Dhamma. Delhi: Siddhartha Books, 2006.
McFaul, Thomas R. The Future of God in the Global Village: Spirituality in an Age of Terrorism and Beyond. AuthorHouse, 2011.
O'Brien, Barbara. "What Is the Self? The Buddhist Teachings of Self and No-Self." About Religion. ABOUT.COM, 2015. Web. 18 July 2015.
O’Brien, Barbara. “Reincarnation in Buddhism”. About Religion. ABOUT.COM, 2015. Web. 18 July 2015.
Perrett, Roy W. Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study. University of Hawaii Press, 1998