Buddhist monks preserve the words and beliefs of Gautama Buddha.
Buddhist monks preserve the words and beliefs of Gautama Buddha.

Gautama Buddha, the originator of Buddhism, drew many traditions from the Vedic religion of his time, sometimes called ancient Hinduism or Brahmanism. Yet his innovative "Middle Path" for ending suffering was fundamentally an explicit rejection of many elements of Brahmanism. By using an existing vocabulary his co-patriots could understand, the Buddha drew thousands away from their entrenched comprehension of the world and towards an entirely different way of behaving and believing. Most of what we know of the Buddha's beliefs on Brahmanism is derived from the Pali Canon, a written record of his teachings compiled in 29 B.C..

On the Vedas and Authority

The Vedas are the founding texts of the ancient Vedic religion and its later offshoots. They predate Gautama Buddha by 500 to 1,000 years. While Brahmans held to the Vedas exclusively and dogmatically, the Pali Canon records the Buddha as all but dismissing the Vedas as mere hearsay. Additionally, instead of taking authority at face value, the Buddha believed in seeking the truth personally, independently and rationally.

On Brahman and Atman

Brahman or "soul of the world" (not to be confused with Brahma, the creator, or brahmin, a member of the priestly class) is the unchanging and eternal essence of everything in the universe. The entire goal of Brahmanism was to unite the individual soul -- Atman -- with Brahman, thus achieving spiritual liberation from samsara, the cycle of rebirth and suffering.

While Gautama Buddha agreed that liberation from samsara -- nirvana -- was a supremely worthy pursuit, the Pali Canon shows he did not believe in the unchanging. Therefore, he did not believe in Brahman or Atman. He taught that nirvana could only be achieved when you fully realize the many implications of the proposition that Brahman and Atman do not exist. Furthermore, he emphasized that nirvana could be attained in this lifetime, not just after physical death as Brahmanism held.

On Ritual, Sacrifice and Asceticism

Brahmanism placed much emphasis on ritual bathing, animal sacrifice, and severe self-abnegation as ways to achieve spiritual liberation. Gautama Buddha and his Middle Path diverged on all three points.

He believed that morality in thought and deed were the proper ways to become purified, not ritual bathing. Animal sacrifice was contrary to the principle of harming no living being, and that it is better to sacrifice the (non-existent) self and practice generosity. Self-abnegation, which the Buddha practiced for six years before attaining nirvana, merely weakens the mind and body. He recommended the Middle Path of neither excess nor asceticism as the optimal route to liberation.

On Caste, Race, Gender and Determinism

Brahmanism is not just a religion, but a social and economic system that separates people into different classes and designates their roles accordingly. Caste, race and gender are considered eternal and unchanging. Only a select group of individuals can ever hope to achieve liberation from samsara, because in Brahmanistic belief their high status was earned in a past life. Women and the underclasses are disenfranchised because of wrongs committed in past lives, and there is little hope for advancement.

Gautama Buddha emphatically and unequivocally disagreed with this system. He believed that unchanging identities does not exist, and therefore anyone may achieve nirvana. One's fate is not determined by past lives but through perseverance and moral rectitude in the current one. He welcomed all people into his following as equals. This revolutionary policy attracted brahmins and outcasts alike from all corners of northern India and beyond. It threatened the very foundations of Brahmanism.