Differences in Perspective: Nirvana in Buddhism and Nirvana in Hinduism

By Adam J. Pearson

Emile Graham asked me if it was corect that “Buddhism aims at no-self, whereas Hinduism aims for union with the Self.”

I answered that this characterization is close, but not quite exact.   Hinduism aims for Self-realization (realization of Atman); there is no need to seek “union” with the Self from the Hindu perspective because we are already That. It’s simply a matter of waking up to this fact. When we realize we are the ultimate reality, that this is our true nature, we are released from the bonds of karma and suffering. This is nirvana from the Hindu perspective. The path ones take to realize one’s true nature in Hinduism is called yoga and it has many branches, such as the three main ones described by the Bhagavad Gita: bhakti yoga (the path of devotion), jnana yoga (the path of direct knowledge and realization), and karma yoga (the path of action without attachment to results).

Buddhism does not “aim” for an-Atman (no-self). Indeed, from the Buddhist perspective the absence of a separate, permanent self is a characteristic of all things as they already are. This is why anatman (no-self) along with anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) is one of the Three Marks of Existence in Buddhism. What Buddhists aim for is the cessation (nirvana) of suffering. How? By overcoming the Three Poisons (clinging/craving, aversion, delusion), which are its causes. The path one takes to overcome suffering in Buddhism is called the Middle Path and is elaborated into the eight spokes of the Eightfold Path.

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