Buddhism And Yoga Compared: An Exploration Of Two Powerful Paths To Liberation

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Yoga and Buddhism are two sister traditions with a focus on enlightenment and liberation, both with compassion and freedom from suffering at their core.

With similar teachings, the two traditions can be easily conflated and confused with one another. We see statues of the Buddha in yoga studios and yoga gear with depictions of the spiritual teacher on too, yet, how similar are these two paths?

We’re going to get into a full exploration of the relationship between Buddhism and yoga, so here’s what we’re going to cover:

  • Hinduism and Buddhism Relationship
  • Buddhism and Yoga Differences
  • Buddhism and Yoga Similarities
yogi doing high lunge

The relationship between hinduism and buddhism

A quick note on the term ‘Hinduism’

The now religious identity that we call Hinduism is a term that has only been used since the colonization of India. Prior to this period, there were many different philosophies, traditions, and denominations in India with wide-ranging views.

When Britain began colonizing India, they used the term ‘Hindu’ as an exclusive label to describe any customs and practices indigenously South Asian but not Islamic.

Before colonialism ‘South Asians had philosophy… after which they had religion‘, this is because it is argued religion is generally a creation by, and aftermath of, British colonialism. Essentially, religion is a Western construct imposed on other countries.

Therefore, when we are comparing Hinduism and Buddhism, please be aware that within Hinduism there is a diverse spectrum of teachings and philosophies which are not necessarily believed by all Hindus.

The brief analysis in this section may seem to simplify a group that is certainly not homogenous!

This heterogeneity is seen in the multiplicity of Hindu sects from Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism, to Smartism, Ganapatya, and Saura.

Hindu statues

A comparison with this in mind

When I say that Buddhism is a part of Hinduism, certain people criticize me. But if I were to say that Hinduism and Buddhism are totally different, it would not be in conformity with truth

Dalai Lama

Although yoga is not a religious practice, we must not ignore the fact that many view it as a spiritual discipline that is rooted in Hindu and Vedic philosophy. Many believe the history of yoga can be found in texts like the Vedas.

(Though, there has been research by scholar-practitioners James Mallinson and Mark Singleton that states yoga is not necessarily a Hindu practice, but actually has roots in the Sramana Movement that existed alongside the Vedic religion.

If this interests you, I would recommend reading their book Roots of Yoga).

So let’s first examine the relationship between the two religions, both of which originated in India.

The diversity of both religions stems from their long-standing, continual development over the course of around 3000 years.

Whilst Buddhism has its roots in the Sramana tradition (non-Vedic and formed after, amongst other things, rejecting the authority of Brahmins and increasing social and economic unrest in India), Hinduism developed out of Vedism.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism have been influenced by each other’s philosophies, and many think it’s likely that Buddhism developed as a reaction to the dominance of the caste system and the formal rituals that existed within Hinduism.

(Though this could also be a conflation/reflection of the sramanas).

In particular, Gautama Buddha condemned the animal sacrifice rituals that took place within some Hindu traditions, mentioned in scriptures such as the Yajurveda. Though, this ritual started to decline after texts such as the Bhagavad Gita condemned the practice.

They both share similar terminology and concepts, which we’ll take a look at now, and some Hindus even believe that Buddha is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu (one of the three most important gods in Hinduism).

buddhist monks in monastery

Terms and ideas they share:

1. Karma

The law of cause and effect.

In ancient scriptures of Vedic thought, karma was predominantly about ritual and sacrificial action.

However, it later began to broaden into the ethical domain, namely through Sages such as Yajnavalkya expounding karma as the idea of destiny being linked to knowledge and action: ‘a man turns into something good by good action and into something bad by bad action’.

This became the moral aspect of karma that dominates both Hinduism and Buddhism alike.

2. Dharma

A key concept used in both religions.

Often referred to in Buddhism as ‘a path of righteousness’, Dharma is ‘cosmic law and order‘. It’s one of the three most important ideas, alongside Buddha and Sangha, known as the three jewels of Buddhism.

It’s often used to encompass all of the teachings that were illuminated by the Buddha. Dharma is the doctrine, covering universal truths that are applicable to everyone.

In Hinduism, Dharma is what gives our life meaning. It’s the foundation to our lives and helps us to understand and therefore perform our duties in this lifetime, sustaining the order of the world.

someone sat meditating in the hills

3. Samsara

The continuous cycle of life, death and rebirth. Samsara is the concept of reincarnation and is beginningless and endless.

In Hinduism, when there is a self-realization that the individual soul (Atman) is the same as the universal soul (Brahman), there is a release from the cycle of samsara.

In Buddhism, however, the end of samsara comes from the ‘blowing out’ of attachments and desires and fully understanding the doctrine of the impermanent non-self (anatta).

4.. Moksha

Freedom from samsara.

Also called mukti, it means freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth – the attainment of enlightenment.

Some argue that the Hindu idea of moksha is similar, or even the same as, the Buddhist concept of Nirvana (an end of suffering where one is released from the cycle of death and rebirth, having been freed from attachment, ignorance, and desires).

This is because they both refer to liberation from all karmic bondage.

Although, Moksha in Hinduism is tied into the idea that we have a soul, something that Buddhists don’t believe (more on this later), and therefore refers to liberation through dissolution into and unification with the Absolute, ultimate reality (Brahman).

Nirvana, on the other hand, is an individual freedom from reincarnation.

statues of the buddha

Similarities between yoga and Buddhism

Diving deeper into the history of yoga, as mentioned above, the Sramana movement is thought to have given rise to both yoga (source: Roots of Yoga) and Buddhism, so this is probably why they have a lot in common!

In fact, 7 out of the 8 aspects of Buddha’s Eight-Fold Path can actually be found in the Sramana Movement, of which Buddha was once a follower.

Before we compare the similarities between Buddhism and yoga, it’s worth noting that the concept of ‘yoga’ did not mean the same to the Buddha, around 2500 years ago, as it does for us today.

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, formalized the practice of yoga into the 8-limbed path that many of us recognize today as yoga.

At the time of the Buddha (Patanjali was around a few hundred years after the Buddha), there was less of a focus on the yogic practice of asana that we see today and more focus on meditation – especially in the Sramana tradition.

Therefore, Buddha certainly engaged in practices that we see as part of the classical understanding of yoga practice in the tradition of Patanjali, though he may not have necessarily practiced asana.

Because of this, the teachings that the Buddha expounded, and those that are still practiced amongst many Buddhists today, have many crossovers with yogic practice and philosophy. There is even a school of Buddhism dedicated to yoga, called Yogachara.

young monk sat meditating

1. Meditation

In modern times, it seems that Buddhism is most well known for its specific meditation practices like Zen and Vipassana, whilst yoga is mostly known in the west for its asana.

However, dhyana (meditation) is a huge part of yoga (it’s actually the seventh limb) and was considered the primary vehicle for self-realization for centuries, though it may not seem like that now.

Meditation is what yoga was originally defined as, a practice to calm the ‘fluctuations of the mind! It’s done through pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). Instead of seeing yoga and meditation as two separate entities, we should view them as one and the same.

They both emphasize the importance of introspection, which plays a key role in dissolving the ego and stripping away the sense of ‘I-am-ness’ in order to unravel the roots of suffering.

Ultimately, they are both meditation traditions that give us the practices and wisdom to be free from samsara and realize the truth of consciousness.

2. Samadhi

Similarly to the systemization of yoga by Patanjali, Buddha codified his teaching in the Four Noble Truths and an eightfold path. The last stages of Patanjali’s eightfold yoga system, dhyana and samadhi, are the same in the Buddhist eightfold path.

In both traditions, it starts with the practice of dharana (concentration).

Samadhi in Buddhism, like in yoga, is a state of consciousness in which one is absorbed in unity with the highest reality. Samadhi is where all sense of ‘self’ or ‘I-am-ness’ disappears and is usually reached through a consistent practice of silent, seated meditation.

meditation mudra

3. Mudra

Both use mudras, symbolic hand gestures. In Buddhism, the fingers symbolize the five levels of consciousness needed to attain Buddhahood (enlightenment), whilst in yoga the fingers are representative of the five elements.

4. Mantra

Some Buddhism and yoga practitioners both use mantras, sacred utterances, in order to reach a higher level of consciousness and aid concentration of the mind to attain liberation.

Yoga mantras might include Om Shanti Shanti Shanti, the Maha Mantra, Lokah Samastha, Om Namah Shivaaya, or the Gayatri Mantra.

Whilst Buddhist mantras could be Om Mani Padme Hum, the Shakyamuni Mantra, or the Amitabha Mantra.

5. Ethical observance

Both have a code of conduct to keep their followers’ ethics and morality in line. In yoga, we have the five yamas and niyamas, whilst Buddhists have the five precepts.

These are:

  • Refrain from killing
  • Refrain from stealing
  • Refrain from sexual misconduct
  • Refrain from idle speech, lies and rumors
  • Refrain from intoxicants

You can probably see how the majority of these have direct correlations to ahimsa, asteya, brahmacharya, and satya.

monk sat meditating in a town

differences between yoga and buddhism

1. Soul or no soul?

One of the main perspectives that differentiate these two traditions is that Buddhists generally reject the idea of an Atman which, in yoga, is considered to be the infinite, eternal true self.

Realization of this Atman is what drives the practice of yoga, to gain deep self-realization (Atma Jnana) and hence find relief from the suffering that is separation from our own true nature.

However, the idea that the soul is eternal is exactly why Buddhists reject the concept. They tend to stay away from metaphysical concepts, like an eternal soul, as they believe it’s another misconception to believe we have a ‘self’.

Everything is impermanent and subject to change (anicca), and the self is no exception to this rule.

2. The Creator

Ishvara-Pranidhana, the fifth Niyama, is the idea of surrendering to the ‘Supreme Being’ or, in other words, God (not necessarily the bearded man in the sky that some of us might think about from a Westernized perspective).

Our yoga practice, whether bhakti, jnana, karma, raja, hatha, or anything in between, is a devotion and offering to the divine power of the universe.

Buddhists, on the other hand, do not believe in a creator, God, or any other kind of deity.

3. Maya

Maya (illusion) is also a term that is unique to Hinduism & yoga. Maya is a concept that explains how there are things that we think are real but they are not, this is primarily in reference to separation and limitations.

These divisions are an illusion that prevents us from knowing our true nature – one with the divine.

More on this

If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism and yoga, take a look at this article which talks about how Buddha was a yogi, or this article that dives into the Buddhist roots of Hatha Yoga!

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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