Dharma Paths

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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.


Main article: Hinduism

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

Main article: Buddhism and Jainism
Main article: Nibbana

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 No Important Reincarnation Nirvana Union with God
Modern Hindu movements (TM, SRF, etc) Pantheism No Yes Prayer & meditation No Yes Yes 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)

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)

See also