That great Tibetologist David Snellgrove astutely explains the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism in his book Buddhist Himalayan:“Hinduism is perhaps like that characteristic Indian tree, the banyan, which drops roots from its branches and goes on growing where it can. Even when the first roots die, it is still the same tree that goes on growing.
If Hinduism is like the banyan, Buddhism is represented by the pipul. It has scattered its seeds abroad in different countries and these have taken root in different soils. The seed has been self-abnegation, of which the philosophical counterpart is universal non-substantiality, and the trunk has been a sound monastic order.”
This simile is actually very deep and since we have only fathomed one-third of it, we will leave it at that and come to more bite-sized things.
First, let’s start with the similarities of Buddhism and Hinduism. Both believe in reincarnation, karma and enlightenment. Also while most people these days consider these concepts to be Buddhist, all of these concepts come from Hinduism. On the flip side of things, at least in Nepal, Hinduism has actually inherited a lot of Buddhist structures and deities as their own. Also, the way these religions spread shows the inherent tolerant nature ingrained in both. Unlike the Abrahamic religions which actively tried to decimate local faiths during their expansion, both Hinduism and Buddhism incorporated local beliefs into their larger philosophical framework. Hence, animistic (or paganistic, if you fancy that word) elements were absorbed rather than destroyed. As such, a lot of such elements still dot the cultural landscape of Nepal.
That much for stuffs that will never come in handy during your travel. Now let’s get real. The way you differentiate a Hindu shrine from a Buddhist one is that while Hindu temples are based either on the Pagoda or the Shikhara style, Buddhist shrines are based on the stupa.
Interestingly, a lot of Hindu shrines also figure erotic carvings while Buddhist ones are big on scary figures. This becomes still more interesting when you consider that here in Nepal, Hindu societies are much more sexually closed than Buddhist ones. Hindu society sure has come a long way from composing the Kamasutra to treating sex as taboo.
Also, while the mascots of Hinduism are the pot smoking Babajis, the mascots of Buddhism are monks with shaved heads. Okay Babajis aren’t the only mascots, there are Pujaris and Pundits too, but they are the coolest. The common denominator for all these people is perhaps the curious custom of putting a tika which is unique to Hinduism. Tika is basically some sort of color smeared on the forehead. They come in various shapes and sizes and signify the sect a Hindu devotee belongs too.
Taking this theme of the Hinduism as the cool religion further, consider some of the Hindu gods. Indra, the god of rain, who basically runs a gentlemen’s club in heaven filled with buxom fair skinned apsaras (heavenly dancers). He is also in a constant state of intoxication, thanks to the Somras. The apsara dance of South-East asia is based on the dance Indra would have up in his palace:
The apsara dance of South-East asia is based on the dance Indra would have up in his palace:
Next up we have Shiva, the destroyer, who is also always high, but his choice of poison is Marijuana (Cannabis sativa) and Datura (Datura stramonium).
Also interesting is the casanova god Krishna who is said to have had one true love, eight queens and 16,100 girlfriends. One of the things he was fond of doing was hiding the clothes of his girlfriends when they were taking a bath in a pond.
Sure, not all Hindu gods are so indulgent, but the fact that a religion idolizes gods of such character perhaps says something about the coolness or otherwise of a religion. On the Buddhist side of things we have Lord Buddha in his meditative posture; Manjushree with his sword that cuts through ignorance; Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion; and Vajrapani, the fearsome figure that epitomizes the Buddha’s power. Yes, in front of the colorful Hindu gods, the Buddhist ones looks like one sorry and serious bunch.
Before you come to the conclusion that Hinduism is the way to go, consider that Hindu gods ask for animal sacrifice and some of the sacrifices happen in such scale that they attract a lot of media attention. While it isn’t much different from the Turkey massacre that occur at Thanksgiving, consider this that no such violent rituals exist under Buddhism. However, just like other religions, Buddhism has had its share of violent elements characterized most recently in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Also consider the fact that Hinduism has codified the caste system, the single most unjust way to classify human beings that not only hinders the mobility of men but also the progress of a civilization. And finally we have the weird system of untouchability in which select groups of people are not allowed to touch the food and water of other people and are also generally not allowed to enter the house. People who are thus discriminated could be people of low caste, menstruating women or even someone who has had death in her family recently.
Despite the similarities and differences, Hinduism and Buddhism are so intertwined in Nepal that sometimes it is hard to separate the two. For example, Hindu shrines shrug shoulders with Buddhist stupas and pilgrims of both religion pay homage at the same site. Indeed just like the banyan and peepal tree that are always found together at resting places (called chautari) throughout Nepal, these two religions have lived in harmony for a long period of time here.