Chapter 11: The Oriental Religions

What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By
by Louis Cassels

Chapter 11: The Oriental Religions

We have a tendency in the West to swing violently from one extreme to the other in our appraisal of anything Oriental. For example, before the Korean War most of us held a very low opinion of Red China’s military power. Today, many regard it as the greatest menace confronting the free world.

A similar flip-flop has occurred in our attitude toward Oriental religions. Not too many years back, we were looking down on them as pagan idolatries. Now we’re inclined to speak of them with awesome respect. In some intellectual and pseudo-intellectual circles, you are not au courant unless you can speak knowingly about the Bhagavad-Gita, or recite a Zen Koan.

The two attitudes have one thing in common: both are based on ignorance. We used to sneer at what were really caricatures of the Oriental religions. Now we are adulating what are really highly idealized portraits of them.

In this chapter we’ll try to take an honest, unbiased look at the ancient faith of Hinduism, and its thriving offshoot, Buddhism. We’ll look at them respectfully, recognizing the important role they have played in human history and acknowledging gratefully the profound truths and insights they offer. But we shall hopefully avoid the current vogue of romanticizing them to the point where their own adherents would scarcely know them.


Hinduism is the religion of India. It seems to have originated about four thousand years ago in the valley of the Indus River (from which it got its name). It has never done well on foreign soil. Today there are some 300 million Hindus in India, but only about 15 million outside it — and most of the latter are in neighboring lands, such as Pakistan, Ceylon, and Burma, which have been heavily influenced by Indian culture.

There is no central figure in Hinduism who occupies a place comparable to that of Jesus Christ in Christianity or Gautama Buddha in Buddhism. Nor does Hinduism claim to have received any special revelation from God. The scriptures of Hinduism are a vast, unorganized collection of writings that represent the speculations of thousands of different sages at many different periods of history. The oldest of these writings, the Vedas (a Sanskrit word meaning divine knowledge), date from about 100 B.C., and perhaps earlier. The Upanishads, which are philosophical treatises, and the two great epic poems, Mahabharata and Ramayana, came along some centuries later. The Mahabharata is best known for one of its subdivisions, the Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Blessed One), which tells how the god Vishnu appeared on a battlefield to give philosophical instruction to a warrior named Arjuna, who was wondering why he should go forth to kill or be killed. Those who have gotten the impression from the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi that nonviolence is a cardinal principle of Hinduism will find this poem quite startling, since the burden of Vishnu’s advice is to get in there and fight.

Beware of people who try to prove any statement about Hinduism by quoting from these scriptures. Tolerance of many different points of view is one of the most characteristic traits of Hinduism, and when sages disagreed, as they often did, the Hindus simply included both opinions in the sacred writings. This makes generalizations about them more than usually precarious.

Another reason why it is rash to reach sweeping conclusions about Hinduism after reading’ a few excerpts from the Vedas and a blank-verse English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, is that a great gulf exists between the philosophical Hinduism that we encounter in these scriptures, and the popular Hinduism that is actually practiced in the villages of India. The latter always has been, and still is, a polytheistic religion that rises little, if at all, above the level of primitive idol-worship.

With these caveats, let us proceed gingerly to a description of the Hindu world-view as it has been expounded by most of the sages.

Its basic tenet is the oneness of all things. There is only one ultimate reality — Brahman. Brahman is pure, unchanging, eternal, impersonal spirit. From Brahman emanates maya — a term which encompasses the whole created universe, and which also has connotations of illusion and deception. Maya has only that kind of reality which objects in a dream have for the person who is dreaming. The visible world is actually insubstantial and transitory, and man’s separate existence is an illusion. The only worthwhile objective that a man can pursue is to escape from the illusion of existence and be swallowed up in the Oneness of Brahman, as a river returns to the sea.

The Concept of Reincarnation

But escape is not easy. It cannot be achieved merely by committing suicide. For the world of maya is governed by an iron law of retribution, known as karma. This law decrees that every man must "eat the fruit of his deeds," no matter how many lifetimes it may require. The doctrine of karma is closely related to the Hindu concept of reincarnation. Individual bits of life begin very low in the scale, as insects. They progress upward, more or less automatically, through various incarnations in animal form, until they attain the threshold of self-awareness which we call humanity. From this point onward, a person’s future life depends irrevocably on how he behaves in his present life. If he is guilty of serious misdeeds, or neglects his spiritual progress, he will be reborn in a lower station. He may even backslide all the way to animalhood. On the other hand, if he lives a correct life and works steadily at the renunciation of worldly desires, he will be reincarnated in a higher status. And ultimately, he can break away entirely from the "wheel of existence" and lose his individual identity in reunion with the All-One.

This doctrine provides Hinduism with a ready explanation for all inequality and human suffering. And it enables devout upper-class Hindus to shrug off the misery of the Indian masses. Of all the differences between Christianity and Hinduism, this is perhaps the most profound. Whereas Christ reached out in compassion to the poor and hungry, and proclaimed them especially blessed in the eyes of God, Hinduism teaches that they are merely getting their just desserts.

The unquestioning acceptance of this viewpoint by nearly all Indians is one of the greatest obstacles that Christian missionaries have encountered. Steeped in a culture which takes karma for granted, Indians are scandalized, to a degree no Westerner can begin to appreciate, when Christians candidly admit that Christ died in agony on a cross. But a more recent historical event has caused some second thoughts about karma. Mahatma Gandhi was universally revered as a holy man and even the most devout Hindu found it hard to regard his brutal slaying by an assassin as the just fruit of past misdeeds.

The Caste System

The social expression of the doctrine of karma is India’s caste system, which has proved stubbornly resistant to change. At the top of the heap are members of the highest or priestly caste, the Brahmans, who are considered to be well on their way toward the goal of final escape from life. There are three other major castes — warriors, artisans, and laborers — and some three thousand subcastes. Finally, there are about 50 million Indians, the so-called "untouchables," who are literally the "out-castes" of Indian society, not being members of any of the recognized stratifications.

The caste into which a Hindu is born determines to a large degree what kind of work he will do, how much education he will get, what kind of home he will live in, and how far he can expect to go in life. It even affects his love life, since marriage across caste lines is prohibited by a taboo vastly stronger than United States laws against interracial marriages.

Hindu beliefs about karma and reincarnation also are reflected — more attractively to Western observers — in the great consideration that Indians show to animals. Since every man was once an animal, and every animal will someday be a man, the Hindu finds it inexcusable that a man should ever willfully mistreat an animal. Cows rank highest in Hindu esteem, and one of the Vedas warns that anyone who kills a cow will be punished for as many years as there are hairs on the cow’s body.

Two other major differences between Hinduism and Christianity deserve notice.

One of them might be summarized by saying that Christianity affirms life, whereas Hinduism denies it. The great promise of Christianity is "life eternal." The great goal of Hinduism is to escape from the "wheel of existence." Christianity holds out the hope of survival of the individual personality after death. Hinduism looks forward to the final loss of the "illusion" of personal identity.

These radically different views of man’s destiny are closely related to an equally basic disagreement about the nature of ultimate reality. Christians look upon personality — that is, the state of self-conscious, purposeful being — as the highest thing they have encountered in the universe. It is therefore natural for them to think of God as having the attributes of personhood, and to speak of him in personal pronouns. But it is axiomatic among Hindus that the impersonal is higher than the personal. Brahman, to a Hindu sage, is always "It" or "That" — never "He."

This does not mean that Hinduism has no personal gods. It has literally millions of them. All are regarded as emanating from Brahman. Although some of them have exceedingly long life spans — running into billions of years — they are not considered to be eternal, self-sufficient spirits. Some are thought to be benignly disposed toward human creatures; others are felt to be malevolent. The latter are of particular concern to village Hinduism.

At the head of the Hindu pantheon are Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. Popular piety tends to ignore Brahma, and most Hindus belong either to the sect of Vishnu or to that of Shiva. There also is a substantial cult for Shiva’s wife, Shakti, who is the goddess in charge of epidemics, earthquakes, and floods.

Hindu religious practice, like Hindu doctrine, runs the gamut from the very primitive to the highly sophisticated. The primitive versions, which predominate in the villages, include rituals of propitiation and sacrifice before figures of the gods and goddesses. At the sophisticated end of the scale we find the high developed system of mysticism and ascetic discipline known as yoga.

There are several different varieties of yoga.1 In general, the objective is to bring the mind and body under such a high degree of control that the practitioner (called a yogi) can escape from the distractions of sense perception and achieve a state of complete union with the all-pervading Reality, Brahman. Yogis who have undergone long years of intensive self-discipline can do things that seem incredible to the rest of us — such as lying on beds of nails, walking on hot coals, and holding their breath for an hour.

Except as a subject for dilettante discussion, Hinduism has never achieved more than a toe hold in the United States. But there are two organized groups dedicated to the furtherance of Hindu religious beliefs. One is The Theosophical Society of America. Founded in 1891, it maintains a national headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois, and has several thousand members. The other is The Vedanta Society, which was organized in 1893 by a Hindu missionary to America, Swami Abhedananda. It has a headquarters in New York and branches in ten other cities, with a total membership of perhaps two thousand.


Buddhism is sometimes called "Hindu Protestantism." It originated in India 2500 years ago as a protest or reform movement within Hinduism.

Its founder was an enormously wealthy Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who was born about 560 B.C. in a northern province about one hundred miles from Benares. Legend says that Gautama had three palaces and forty thousand dancing girls to keep him amused. But he learned early in life that luxury did not lead to happiness. When he was about twenty-nine years old, he abandoned his sumptuous life as a prince and went into the forest, dressed in rags, to seek enlightenment in the solitary life of a Hindu ascetic.

No one ever practiced mortification of the flesh with greater dedication than Gautama. He fasted (eating one bean a day) until his spine could be seen through his shrunken stomach. But he found no answers to his questions about life, and concluded that extreme asceticism was no better than luxury as a pathway to happiness.

After six years of futile searching, Gautama seated himself one evening beneath the shade of a fig tree near the village of Gaya in northeast India. He vowed that he would sit right there until he saw the light.

According to Buddhist scriptures, he remained in meditation for forty-nine days. He emerged from this experience as the Buddha, or the "Enlightened One." For the next forty-five years, he walked from one Indian village to another, sharing his new insights with all who would listen, and founding an order of monks to practice his precepts and pass on his message. He died at the age of eighty after eating some poisoned mushrooms that had gotten into a dish by accident.

The earliest Buddhist scriptures record Buddha’s teachings, usually in the form of dialogues between the Master and his disciples. In these records, we encounter a gracious and compassionate man of great personal charm. Buddha was always serene, courteous, and genuinely concerned for others. His wisdom was liberally seasoned with wit. It is small wonder that he acquired a large following during his lifetime, or that he continues to exert a strong attraction on thoughtful people from the West as well as the East.

Buddha did not invent a brand-new religion, any more than did Martin Luther. Just as Protestantism maintained many of the central concepts of Catholic Christianity, Buddhism retained the fundamental Hindu doctrines of karma and reincarnation. What Buddha tried to do (and the parallel with Luther is again striking) was to purge Hinduism of the polytheistic idol-worship, the superstitious rituals, and the oppressive caste system that had overlaid and obscured the original insights of the ancient Hindu sages.

The "Four Noble Truths"

At the heart of Buddha’s teaching were the "Four Noble Truths," which he expounded in his first sermon and kept reiterating throughout his life. He asserted that:

(1) Human existence is universally characterized by suffering.

(2) The basic cause of suffering is tanha (a word that is often translated as "desire," but which actually connotes selfish craving, the tendency in every person to seek his own private happiness).

(3) Release from suffering can be achieved by the elimination of selfish craving.

(4) Craving cannot be eliminated by rigorous asceticism (as the Hindu yogis thought). The secret lies in following a middle way between asceticism and self-indulgence. This middle way Buddha called the "Eightfold Path."

The Eightfold Path consists of right knowledge, right aspiration, right speech, right behavior, right occupation, right effort, right thinking, and right absorption.

Under each of these eight broad headings, Buddha laid down rigorous rules of personal conduct for his disciples to follow. They were forbidden to lie, steal, or harm any living creature, including animals and insects. (Buddhist monks to this day strain their drinking water, lest they inadvertently swallow and destroy some minute creature.) They were allowed to eat only what they could beg, and then just enough to keep the body alive and functioning. Alcoholic beverages and sex relations were strictly forbidden. Most of their time was to be spent in philosophical discourse on the Four Noble Truths, and in private meditation.

Buddha said that this monastic way of life, if earnestly practiced, would lead eventually to Nirvana. Exactly what he meant by this much-abused term is hard to determine from his authenticated sayings. At times he seems to think of Nirvana as a final extinction of human individuality, comparable to the blowing out of a flame. Other Buddhist scriptures depict Nirvana as a blissful state, which would seem to imply the survival of some self-conscious identity to be aware of bliss.

It is even harder to determine what Buddha believed about God. Reacting against the lush growth of metaphysical speculation in the Hinduism of his day, Buddha was extremely reluctant to talk about such things as the origins of the universe, or the nature of ultimate reality. In one of his sermons, he does refer to "an Unborn One, not become, not made, uncompounded." This passage is often quoted to show that Buddha did believe in God. But if he did, he certainly had no place in his philosophy for a God who enters into personal relationships with human creatures and who is concerned with their fate. The Eightfold Path is a plan for self-salvation, in which man is entirely on his own.

Two Distinct Kinds of Buddhism

After Buddha’s death, his followers split into two schools, which have drifted so far apart over the centuries as to become virtually two different religions. They are known, respectively, as Hinayana ("Little Raft") and Mahayana ("Big Raft") Buddhism. Hinayana Buddhism is found today primarily in Ceylon, Burma, Viet-Nam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Mahayana Buddhism prevails in Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia, and Tibet.

Of the two versions, Hinayana is unquestionably much closer to the Buddha’s original teachings. It is an austere religion, for all practical purposes atheistic, and its requirements for renunciation of the world are so severe that it can be fully practiced only in a monastic environment. In Hinayana countries, men who take their Buddhism seriously shave their heads, put on saffron robes, divest themselves of all property except a staff and a begging bowl, and go forth to live as monks. The ideal of Hinayana is the solitary holy man who has attained enlightenment for himself. That’s why it is called the "little raft" religion: its emphasis is on each man getting himself across the river of life to the safe harbor of Nirvana.

Mahayana Buddhists pay less attention to the teachings and more to the living example of Buddha. They point out that he did not cross over into Nirvana after he

achieved enlightenment for himself, but returned to share his discovery with other men, so that they might join him on a "big raft."

Whereas Hinayana exalts wisdom and self-control, the great virtues for Mahayana are compassion and self-giving.

The most striking difference between the two versions of Buddha, however, is in their attitude toward Buddha himself. Hinayana is faithful to Buddha’s own description of himself as an ordinary mortal who achieved enlightenment. Mahayana looks upon Buddha as a god who lived for a time on earth and who now looks down in pity upon human beings from a heavenly paradise. The influence of Christianity upon Mahayana Buddhism is clearly apparent.

Not only have Mahayana Buddhists taken over such Christian concepts as faith, forgiveness, grace, and salvation (always substituting Buddha for Christ), but they have even adopted such terms as saint, bishop, reverend, and catechism. Indeed, one Christian missionary solemnly reports having heard a class of Buddhist children singing, "Buddha loves me, this I know. . ."

The Real Zen

Zen Buddhism, which has enjoyed a vogue in certain Western circles in recent years, is a special case. It developed in China in the sixth century A.D., and by the twelfth century had reached Japan, where it has some 9 billion adherents today. The heart of Zen is the conviction that real truth can never be expressed or understood in verbal formulas, but can only be directly experienced through a flash of intuition called satori. To drive home the lesson that rationality and language are barriers rather than pathways to enlightenment, Zen masters require their students to spend endless hours working on koans, which are nonsense problems to which there are no rational solutions. True Zen is an austere, monastic religion, which has much in common with some varieties of Christian mysticism. It can be practiced in earnest only by men who are prepared to renounce the world and spend many years in intense meditation. The beatnik poets who try to mix a little Zen jargon with their beer, or the slightly cleaner "intellectuals" who use drugs like mescalin to achieve a cheap synthetic imitation of a Zen trance are insulting rather than embracing this old and respectable branch of Buddhism.

Buddhism has no hierarchy, no central organization, and no statistical offices. Guesses as to the number of Buddhists in the world today range from 150 million to 500 million. Although Buddhism, like Christianity, has been a missionary religion since its inception, it has remained concentrated in Asia. Ironically, it has very few adherents today in the land of its birth, India. Hinduism absorbed some of Buddha’s teachings, and added Buddha himself to the extensive list of Hindu gods. Within a few centuries, the parent-religion had simply swallowed up its "Protestant offshoot" in India, and Buddhism developed as a separate faith only in other countries.

Like Islam and Hinduism, Buddhism has experienced a considerable renascence in recent years as a result of the wave of nationalism sweeping the nonwhite nations. In some Asian countries, adherence to the "native" religion, as opposed to the "white man’s export," Christianity, is regarded as a mark of patriotism and anticolonial fervor.

Buddhism has perhaps three hundred thousand adherents in the United States. Most of them are Americans of Japanese descent, and more than half of them live in Hawaii, where Buddhists constitute the largest single religious group. According to the American Buddhist Association, which has its headquarters in Chicago, there also are more than fifty organized Buddhist congregations in mainland United States cities. ‘The vast majority of America’s Buddhists belong to the Mahayana school.



1. You’ll find a detailed description of the various types of yoga in Huston Smith’s admirable book The Religions of Man (Harper & Row Publishers, New York).