Religions are guided by a set of dogmas that defined an individual’s spirituality. While there are overlaps in some of foundational beliefs of different religions, these dogmas are unique across different religious affiliations. These differences provide the points of departure that are useful in differentiating various religions across the globe. The central beliefs of any religious organizations act as its primary identifiers. Like many religious across the world, Hinduism and Buddhism have central beliefs dogmas that act convergence and differentiation points. One such dogma is the concept of self or no-self. The divergence in the belief of self or non-self as a religious dogma underscores the foundational differences between these two religions.
Comparing and Contrasting the Belief in Self or Non-Self in Hinduism and Buddhism
Primarily practiced in India and neighboring countries, Hinduism is one of world’s leading religions in terms of number of adherents. The religion is steeped in history and rich Indian culture, which makes Hinduism both a religion and a culture or way of life. Ranging from belief in Karma to different concepts of God, cosmology, mythology, and unique religious and cultural rituals, Hinduism has various dogmas that set it apart from other religions. While the religion is characterized by different schools of philosophy, there is consensus among the different schools on the existence of a Supreme or Ultimate Being, God, who is superior to several other deities. Therefore, Hinduism, unlike many religions, has embraced a distinct concept of God that extends beyond monotheism or polytheism commonly held by many religions around the globe. Among Hindus, God exists and manifests in different forms, including animals, human beings, and non-living things such as rivers and the sun. The key to true worship in Hinduism is finding divinity in different objects and people and embracing them as deities (Lipner, 2012). The recognition and worship of these different deities epitomize a Hindu culture and religious belief of oneness and interconnectedness of human and non-human forms.
One of the fundamental foundational beliefs of Hinduism is ātman, which is a belief in one’s true self. Ātman is the spirit or soul of an individual. To achieve atman, a Hindus must embark on a journey that extends beyond self-identification based on the physical phenomena such as material possessions or even worldly knowledge. Atman is a metaphysical state that extends beyond human consciousness. As a Hindu religious principle and concept, atman is the ultimate state of self-awareness and consciousness that allows a Hindu to connect with other organisms and deities (Lipner, 2012; Framarin, 2011). It is the essence of true worship in Hinduism. Considered the soul of every being, atman is the initiator of organ functions. Spiritually, all the organs in any organism functions for atman.
While atman forms the basic foundation of Hinduism, different sects within the religion considers its spiritual importance and meaning differently. In particular, members of the Upanishads sect of Hinduism primarily consider atman as the basis of their spiritual teachings. Upanishads Hindus believe that atman is not only the eternal core of an organism’s personality, they also view atman as ageless. Therefore, when an organism dies, the atman is released. This process is known as moksha. Alternatively, the atman can reincarnate by entering into a new life after being emancipated from the cycle of death and bonds of physical existence of organisms. Additionally, attaining atman or self-knowledge is unaffected by an individual’s personality or emotions (Lipner, 2012; Framarin, 2011). This is because such elements evolve over time and are subject to change by circumstances unlike atman. Atman is essentially the realization of an individual’s purpose devoid of ever-evolving individual characters and biasness.
Some school of Hindu philosophy perceive atman as non-dual and in oneness with the Absolute Spirit (Brahman). The non-duality concept holds that Brahman and atman of different organisms and forms are one and lack any distinctiveness. However, others believe that the Supreme Atma, Paramatma, occupies a higher spiritual realm, which elevates it above the atma of other organisms. But Absolute Atma and atman in other living beings are interconnected (Framarin, 2011). The oneness and interconnectedness of souls is an important pillar in Hinduism as it serves as the foundation of true worship of divinity.
From its roots in India, Buddhism has spread throughout many parts of Asia and the world and morphing into a way of life while also maintaining its foundational roots as a religion. The religion is characterized by unique philosophies and practices that distinguishes it from other religions including Hinduism, with which it shares numerous similarities including origin (Molloy, 2013). One of such distinct philosophies is anatta or anatman. A fundamental and foundational belief in Buddhism, anatta is the doctrine of non-self. Unlike Hindus, Buddhists believe that there no existence of soul (Hoang, 2019; Molloy, 2013). Therefore, humans lack any ageless or eternal inner core. Rather, human beings and other organisms are made up of ever-changing substance.
Anatta or non-self forms the three pillars of the existence of human and non-human forms. According to Buddhist teachings, all living beings are characterized by suffering (dukkha) and transience (anicca) in addition to substanceless (anatta). The Buddhist teaching on non-self as an important component of ti-lakkhana or the true essence of existence underscores its importance towards achieving true Buddhist liberation and enlightenment. Understanding all the three characteristics that mark all forms of existence is essential in achieving awakening. These three are critical in understanding the cycle of life, from birth to aging, death, reincarnation and karma. Anatta is closely linked with the nirvana doctrine in Buddhist teachings. It is through the understanding and embracing the concept of substanceless and the two other characteristics of existence that one can truly be released from a Buddhist can be rebirthed or attain nirvana (Hoang, 2019). Attaining nirvana requires the extinction of bodily desires and egos with the view of achieving a compassion and selflessness (Shiah, 2016). However, the non-self should not be misconstrued as a belief in annihilation upon death. Rather, it endorses the school of thought that view phenomena as incapable of a dualistic existence.
In conclusion, religions are founded on fundamental principles that act as guidelines for achieving spirituality and facilitating true worship of deities. Hinduism and Buddhism are some of the world’s leading religions. Tracing their origins in Indian, the two religions have similarities and differences in terms of principles and dogmas. The belief in self and non-self is one of the differentiating factors between Buddhism and Hinduism. While Buddhists believe in anatta or non-self, Hindus believe that all phenomena have spirits or souls. Anatta or substanceless view phenomena as impermanent and ever-changing. Hinduism teaching on self or atman view phenomena as capable of possession a duality that extends beyond the physical realm and is imperishable. Atman is the highest form of self-awareness and knowledge that is stripped all material attachments and ever-changing personality and emotions. Despite these differences, both religions perceive self or non-self as an important step towards achieving spiritual awakening or enlightenment.
Framarin, C. (2011). Ātman, identity, and emanation: Arguments for a hindu environmental ethic. Comparative Philosophy, 2(1), pp. 03 – 24.
Hoang, N. Q. (2019). The doctrine of not-self (anattā) in early Buddhism. International Review of Social Research, 9(1): 18–27
Lipner, J. (2012). Hindus: Their religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge.
Molloy, M. (2013). “Chapter 4: Buddhism” In Experiencing the world’s religions (6th ed.). New York City, NY: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.
Shiah, Y-J. (2016). From self to nonself: The Nonself theory. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(124), pp. 1 – 12.