Atman is Brahman & Nirvana - A Comparison

Doresa McCombs
PHI213 - Comparative Religions
October 23, 1997

The process of life begins when one living being gives birth to another. Although this child may be in the image of its parents, it will grow to be a unique individual. This is also true in respect to the two mystic religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. The beliefs the two religions share have kept them linked together through time while their differences have made them two separate and distinct religions.

When a child is born, they have characteristics like those of their parents. They may have the same pale-blue eyes, or have the same allergy towards cats, or have the same love for brussel sprouts. Hinduism and Buddhism can be expressed in this same manner. They both maintain that an individual creates their own destiny through the things they do - Karma. Both religions contend that the end-all destiny of an individual will be found through his inward movement towards the center within himself. Still another similarity they share is their belief in reincarnation which I believe is why they are tolerant of other religions.

Hindus and Buddhists alike believe in Karma - work - and its power over the living. They believe in part that what an individual does will affect their destiny over the course of many lives. Harming someone would cause an individual to have a successive life. This new life would be negatively affected by this action. The individual would be born in a status further away from the centeredness he strives to attain. With Karma we make all the choices through our actions - maybe not fully knowing of the cause and effects and maybe not fully caring either but once again they are our actions.

Although the paths to the final destination and the final destination - itself - vary between Hinduism and Buddhism they both maintain an individual must move inward within themselves to find Moksha - liberation - or (as I see it) the key to exit the rebirth cycle. Where Hinduism focuses on the four stages of life, Buddhism focuses on the Four Noble Truths. Both processes send the individual step by step to Moksha. It is in these paths' later segments - forest dweller in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the Hindu's Sannyasin and the Buddhist's enlightenment - that the individual begins the inward journey. The Hindu's forest dweller begins to look at himself to find the self within them unlike the self projected upon them by the outside world. The Buddhist's forest dweller, like the Hindu's Sannyasin, disconnects himself from the world becoming not of the world and of the world as well. Buddhism seemingly takes an extra step with enlightenment being its key to the individual's final destination, but as I see it enlightenment is a kind of liberation. So to me, Hinduism's Moksha (the fourth want of man) encircles the Fourth Noble Truth. This final step is what allows the individual to see and become part of the final destination within himself.

The Wheel of Rebirth is a symbol in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Both religions maintain that if an individual has not reached the end-all goal at the end of their life they will be reborn. As I stated earlier, reincarnation - the return to and from the Wheel of Rebirth - is a result of Karma. I see it as Hinduism and Buddhism's means for a second chance. Whereas in Christianity if an individual asks forgiveness from God, he would earn his second chance. In Hinduism, there is no personal God, and in Buddhism, God is not known. Therefore this is a cleansing process always allowing an individual the ability to find his final destination.

I believe because there is a rebirth cycle in both religions, Hinduism and Buddhism are tolerant of other religions. To the mystic religions, all human beings are a part of their religion. It is maintained that anyone walking outside of his inward path must have done something wrong in a past existence. However, they also equally believe that these non-practicing mystics can attain the end-goal within time when they do find their path.

Although Hinduism and Buddhism share a vast amount of common ground, they also have their differences. Of these differences, I find two to be the major beliefs that make these mystic religions distinct from each other. The first difference is the final destination of these religions' inward journeys. The other difference between these religions is the status of their followers.

Because we live in Anicca - the turning world- we all seek permanence. It is in this search that Hinduism says an individual moves to unify with Atman, the God within them, while Buddhism says an individual will find Nirvana. Hinduism's Atman is not a personal god but in my view the internal essence of that which is and that which is not. Atman is the Godhead which is the core within the layers which masks us. In Buddhism, we peel away the layers of ourselves to find Nirvana - the still point. Nirvana is the point where the individual has blown out his flame, freeing himself from his fetters - those things which stand in his way.

Since both religions encompass all humans as being members apart of them, wouldn't it be logical that they would both see all humans as equals? It may be logical, however Hinduism maintains a caste system - Stations of Life - where Buddhism does maintain that all humans are equal. In Hinduism, the Stations of Life are steps upon a ladder measuring an individual's closeness to Atman in relation to their station. This is why Hinduism has so many paths to Atman is Brahman, because people traverse the ladder in different ways so as one path could not be attainable by all. In Buddhism, all people are equals measured on their Karma alone and even if there are many paths to nirvana there is one proven path that all can traverse to find it.

In my opinion, Hinduism and Buddhism will always be the self-saving religions that allow an individual to set and find their own destiny. Like the parent and child who have a bond due to their vast similarities, I feel they will endure time joined at the hip. However, their differences will leave them eternally distinct in all the lives they embrace.