Dharmic religions or Dharma Paths are those that fit into the Dharma (Pali: Dhamma) category of religions and include those that originated on the Indian subcontinent. Taoism is included here since although it is of Chinese origin, it was heavily influenced by Dharmic religions and shares many common themes found in Dharmic Paths. Perhaps as many as hundreds of millions of people, especially in China follow a blend of Buddhism and Taoism (and Confucianism).
Unlike the Abrahamic religions which have a long history of intolerance toward each other, the Dharmic religions have mostly lived in peace with each other. This may be due to the fact that the Dharmic religions are mostly polytheistic and sometimes atheistic. Some historians have suggested that religions with the idea of only one god makes all others, even those who believe in god, to be inferior, since it is not the “correct” god, making the monotheistic trend toward intolerance of other religions. Other possibilities could be the Dharmic religions’ emphasis on ahimsa (nonviolence). Another or additional possibility is that the Dharmic religions do not believe that followers of other religions are barred from heavenly realms. Buddhism and the other Dharmic paths insist that anyone leading a good, moral life can have favorable rebirth in heaven or elsewhere. The ultimate goal is nirvana (Pali: nibbana) in all of the Dharmic religions.
Contrary to popular belief, Hinduism is not the precursor to all of the Dharmic religions. At the time that Jainism and Buddhism were developing, there was no Hindu religion; there was its precursor known as Brahmanism. Brahmanism included the caste system and its primary practice was animal sacrifices. It was not until the Yoga sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita that it evolved into the Hinduism we have of today and both the Yoga sutras and Bhagavad-Gita were composed well after the flourishing of Jainism and Buddhism. The famous term Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana) was not a Hindu term until the Bhagavada Gita and other later Hindu works, which were composed after the Buddhist Tipitaka. Scholars agree that it was first a Jain and Buddhist term long before Hinduism incorporated it (Fowler, 2012). The Yoga Sutras also came after the Tipitaka and the 8 limbed description found there is no doubt influenced from the Buddhist 8 fold path. Additionally, the Hindu importance put on ahimsa (nonviolence) also came later after Jainism and Buddhism were well established religions on the subcontinent. Therefore, it can be argued that Hinduism actually borrowed many of its ideas from Jainism and Buddhism, not the other way around.
Buddhism and Jainism
Buddhism has been called the most diversified religion; not in a derogatory way, just to say that it comes in so many varieties that one form might look completely different from another form. And one sect might actually have more in common with a sect from another religion than it does with another sect from its own religion. This is true across all the Dharmic religions. And sometimes within one sect alone there is a wide range of interpretation. One example, is in the Theravada school of Buddhism where there are some who hold what might be called a Classical view which honors the Abhidhamma and Commentaries on a par with the the Suttas (discourses of the Buddha). This Classical view typically holds that Nirvana is the extinguishment of all craving, of all defilements, of the aggregates, of the person. They state that there is no more existence of the person who attains Nirvana, but that it is not annihilation since there was no being or soul at the time of the perceived existence of the aggregates (personality, form, etc.). Some modern interpretations, including from the Thai forest tradition hold that the mind/heart (citta) does not perish, just the aggregates and describe Nirvana in a more pantheistic way. Others still take it even further, for example the famous Ajahn Mun, who stated that the Buddha even talked to him during his deep meditation experiences, suggesting that the Buddha is at some place in a Buddha-land or Buddha-field. A sizable number of Thai Theravada Buddhists believe that Ajahn Mun and his Dhamma successor, Ajahn Boowa, were fully enlightened arahants.
Some of the Buddhist interpretations from one sect or sub-sect fit more with Jainism or other Dharmic paths than they do with members from their own religion. There is overlap of these sorts among all the Dharmic religions, when we look closer at the actual practices and philosophies of individual adherents. This becomes even more apparent when looking at the history of each of the Dharmic religions; for example in early Buddhist history there were as many as 18 or more early schools which no longer exist now, some of which even held the belief in a permanent self or soul, the same as what is found in other Dharmic religions.
|Dharma Path/sect||Theology||Creation myth||Ascetic teachers||Primary practice||Hereditary divisions||Women can attain moksha (enlightenment)||Women can be universal gurus*||Ahimsa (nonviolence)||After life||Ultimate goal||Nature of Nirvana|
|Hinduism||Monotheism/ Polytheism||Yes||Yes||Prayer & meditation||Yes, caste||Yes||N/A**||Important||Reincarnation||Nirvana||Union with God|
|Modern Hindu movements (TM, SRF, etc)||Pantheism||No||Yes||Prayer & meditation||No||Yes||N/A**||Very important||Reincarnation||Nirvana||Union with God|
|Digambara Jainism||Atheism||No||Yes||Meditation||No||No||No||1st precept||Reincarnation||Nirvana||Pantheistic, end of karma|
|Svetambara Jainism||Atheism||No||Yes||Meditation||No||Yes||Yes||1st precept||Reincarnation||Nirvana||Pantheistic, end of karma|
|Theravada Buddhism||Atheism||No||Yes||Meditation||No||Yes||No||1st precept||Rebirth||Nirvana||End of defilements, karma|
|Mahayana Buddhism||Atheism/ Polytheism||No||Yes||Prayer & meditation||No||Yes||No||1st precept||Rebirth||Nirvana||Bodhisattva in a Buddha-land|
|Taoism||Polytheism||No||Yes||Prayer & meditation||No||Yes||No||Important||Reincarnation||Good health, favorable rebirth||Immortality in some form|
|Sikhism||Pantheism||No||Yes||Prayer & meditation||No||Yes||No||Important||Reincarnation||Nirvana||Union with God|
- Universal guru = A samma-sam-buddha or similar figure who teaches the masses after the teachings have died out. (see: Buddha)
- Hinduism has no historically known founder, nor re-discoverer of the truth in the way the Buddha's teachings get revived after periodic cycles. Women are allowed to be priests, but not for some ritual functions. Hinduism comes in many forms, some with a Supreme God that is half-male, half-female, some where the Supreme God is impersonal, genderless and some atheistic forms.
The above chart shows the many examples of related concepts. The primary practice in many Dharmic religions includes the Shramana path of renunciation and meditation. The mind is tamed through various meditation techniques and sometimes asceticism. In addition to these similarities, there are many shared deities including:
- Ganesha, a widely worshipped Hindu deity; statues of which can also be found in Buddhist and Jain temples, along with other Hindu deities, as representations of the impermanent gods (devas).
- Kwan Yin, a popular Mahayana bodhisattva; also found in some Theravada Buddhist temples.
- Buddha, also worshipped and venerated by Hindus, believing him to be an incarnation of Vishnu.
- Mahavira, founder (most recent universal teacher) of Jainism, also venerated by Hindus.
The Buddha referred to the teachings as a raft. It gets you to the other shore (enlightenment). Once there on the other shore, there is no need to carry it around with you. In that Sutta the Buddha remarks:
"I have shown to you the Teaching's similitude to a raft: as having the purpose of crossing over, not the purpose of being clung to" (Majjhima Nikaya 22)
Anyone can go to heaven, even if meditation has not been practiced:
"Another person has practiced the making of merit by giving as well as by moral discipline to a high degree; but he has not undertaken the making of merit by meditation. With the breakup of the body, after death, he will be reborn among humans in a favorable condition. Or he will be reborn in the company of the devas of the Four Great Kings." (Anguttara Nikaya 4.241-243)
Buddhism teaches that the ultimate goal of Nirvana could potentially be attained by the practice of other religions, as long as it included the requisite teachings on the abandoning of defilements. In a discussion on whether other religions have access to the final goal, the Buddha's attendant Ananda said:
"Those who teach a Dhamma for the abandoning of passion, for the abandoning of aversion, for the abandoning of delusion; their Dhamma is well-taught. Those who have practiced for the abandoning of passion, for the abandoning of aversion, for the abandoning of delusion; they have practiced well in this world. Those whose passion... aversion... delusion is abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising: they, in this world, are well-gone."
The householder responds:
"How amazing, sir. How astounding, that there is neither extolling of one's own Dhamma nor deprecation of another's, but just the teaching of the Dhamma in its proper sphere, speaking to the point without mentioning oneself." (Anguttara Nikaya 3.72)
This is not to say that all religions are true in some New Agey way, but rather the path led by other contemplative religions which have the abandoning of defilements could lead them to new insights and assuming Buddhism is true, those following those other religions could gain new insights which would lead them to the Four Noble Truths.
The Nature of Nirvana (Nibbana) in Dharma Paths
The nature or definition of Nirvana in all of the Dharma Paths are very similar, sometimes with only slight differences and sometimes as noted above, the overlapping and borrowing of ideas and concepts from one to another.
As discussed above, Buddhism has a wide range of positions on the nature of Nirvana.
"There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated. If there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born, become, made, fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unfabricated, emancipation from the born, become, made, fabricated is discerned." (Udana 8.3)
"Just as the river Ganges inclines toward the sea, flows towards the sea, and merges with the sea, so too Master Gotama's assembly with its homeless ones and its householders inclines toward Nibbana, and merges with Nibbana." (Majjhima Nikaya 73.14)
To say "it is" is to grasp for permanence. To say "it is not" is to adopt the view of nihilism. Therefore a wise person does not say "exists" or "does not exist." (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 15.10)
The Uttaradhyana Sutra provides an account of Gautama (a Jain, not Gotama-Buddha) explaining the meaning of nirvāṇa to Kesi, a disciple of Parshva:
"There is a safe place in view of all, but difficult of approach, where there is no old age nor death, no pain nor disease. It is what is called nirvāṇa, or freedom from pain, or perfection, which is in view of all; it is the safe, happy, and quiet place which the great sages reach. That is the eternal place, in view of all, but difficult of approach. Those sages who reach it are free from sorrows, they have put an end to the stream of existence." (Uttaradhyana Sutra 81-4)
Brahma nirvana (nirvana in Brahman) is the state of release or liberation; the union with the divine ground of existence (Brahman) and the experience of blissful egolessness. The term brahmanirvana is used 5 times in the Bhagavad Gita.
Lao Tzu (also spelled Laozi) is credited as the founder of Taoism and author of Tao Te Ching. In it he is famous for the quotes:
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name."
"The unnameable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things."
"Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source."
Sikhism advocates the belief in one panentheistic God (Ek Onkar) who is omnipresent and has infinite qualities, whose name is true (Satnam), who is beyond the time (Akaal), who has no image (Murat), who is beyond from birth and death circulation (Ajunee), who is self-existent (Sai Bhang) and with the grace of word guru (eternal light) we can meet him (Gurprasaad). Sikhs do not have a gender for God, nor do they believe God takes a human form. According to the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, the supreme purpose of human life is to reconnect with Akal (The Timeless One), however, egotism is the biggest barrier in doing this.
Dharma Paths Venn diagram
A Venn diagram illustrating the commonalities and differences between the Dharma Paths.
- The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained. David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006.
- Brahminism, Buddhism and Hinduism, L.M.Joshi, 1970.
- Fowler, Jeaneane D. (2012), The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students, Sussex Academic Press
- The domain name http://www.DharmaPaths.org redirects to this page