The early Buddhist and Upanishadic views had been recognized as two different religions in ancient India. In this paper, I am going to particularly talk about the views of Upanishads and Buddhist in the ideas of samsara, karma and moksha/nirvana. The early Buddhist and Upanishadic views are tightly connected to one another and both are interrelated to the ancient Indian philosophy.
Upanishads, being part of the Vedas, the main ideas of it not only involved the Brahmanist notion but also a broader Indian philosophy. Buddhism, being the World’s fourth largest religion, some of its doctrines was derived from and was built based on the ideas of Upanishads. We can know that both early Buddhist and Upanishadic views played a vital role in the development of the Hinduism and Buddhism. During the creation of the Buddhism, it drawn some concepts of Upanishads, hence there are some similarities in both of their views. First of all, the ideas of karma and samsara, which are the basic ideas for both views. In the view of Upanishads, they suggested that all sentient beings should live lives according to the law of karma, “as it does, so it becomes; by doing good it becomes good, and by doing evil it becomes evil, it becomes pure by pure acts and bad by bad acts.”1 which means that people with good deeds will get the rewards while people with bad deeds will be punished, as human behaviors have great impact for further conditions , so what we have done will cause a corresponding results, no matter it is good or not.
But it mentioned that only the rewards and punishment will not be able to fulfill this life, it will only be fulfilled in samsara, which is an eternal cycle of birth and death. According to the law of karma, all living beings will constantly undergo the process of repeated rebirths and exist in different forms in each rebirth, it might be animals or humans or even kind of god. The nature of this life is determined by the actions accumulated from the past life, so what you have done in this life will totally affect you next future life.
In the view of Buddhism, as it suggested in the twelve precondition, a doctrine of Buddhism, which the idea of samsara was included, it proposed that all sentient beings live lives in which suffering (karma and samsara) is an inevitable element in life. According to the law of karma, the process of rebirth is determined from good or bad deeds, which mean we have to suffer from endless impermanence like birth, illness and death. However, for the good deeds and bad deeds, both of them have different standards, for Upanishads, whether it is good or not, is depended on fulfilling one’s obligation or not, but in Buddhism, it is depended on pursuing the equality of all people.
Despite that, there are some recognized standards which were accepted by both of them, like honesty and generosity are good deeds while killing and stealing are considered as bad deeds. Furthermore, in the prospect of Upanishads, desire is the root of samsara, they proposed that the source of rebirth is desire. We cannot get close to the desired objects unless we take actions to pursue it. However, what we have done will affect our next life, so the accumulated actions will create a situation that we are not free even at death. Also, people should not be involved in selfish action only, they should think of others and serve for them as well, the most important thing is to be faith to God and self. If people are doing action with no desire but according to their own dharma, then this will not cause samsara, they are considered as renouncing to the world, but they will still use a correct way to complete the action.
For Buddhism, the cause of suffering is desire, for any desired objects, the desire can be gain or lose as things are changing due to the inherent impermanent nature, this desire like pleasure , happiness and any other materialistic things can never be truly satisfied, people will want it for long lasting and want more and more. Besides that, they will go for bad deeds like cheating and hurting others in order to get what they want, these actions are all the causes of the suffering. In addition, ignorance is another cause of suffering, people with limited knowledge and understanding of this World will choose to ignore the truths and the facts, they will end up with selfishness and their whole life will ending up for only craving for the things that they want, which is their own desires. Moreover, both of them have a highest goal, which is achieving moksha, which means liberation from the eternal cycle of rebirth. In the view of Upanishads, moksha is considered as the final goal of life, as all actions including Vedic rituals of conducts has its inevitable consequence to the process of rebirth, the Vedic rituals are devalued while the salvation from the cycles of rebirth is valued. For Buddhism, no matter how good the samsara is, it cannot be totally released from suffering, they think that the only way is nirvana, which mean people should stop craving and pursuing their own desires, instead they should get out of them, it is considered as the individual awakening on how the reality is, the only way to get out of suffering is becoming Arhat, or even Buddha, or else, they can never achieve nirvana. Nirvana is the highest goal in Theravada Buddhism , it is the liberation from illness, death,etc, they achieved nirvana by practicing self discipline. Last but not the least, for one point, which is the path, Buddhism is differed fundamentally from Upanishads.
For the view of Upanishads, the path to salvation is renunciation and knowledge, they think that in order to attain moksha, the only way is to attain Brahman, which is to renounce to the World. “Brahman is known when It is realized in every state of mind, for by such Knowledge one attains Immortality. By Atman one obtains strength, by Knowledge, Immortality.”2 From this quote, we can know that only those people with knowledge will not crave for materialistic and independent things and will not take actions to seek after them, hence they can get out of samsara to attain moksha. For Buddhism, they advocated anatman, which is the idea of no self, the Buddha contented that the only right path to guide people to release from suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path is mainly divided into three basic divisions3, the first is moral values, which included right speech, right action and right likelihood, the second is meditation which means right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration, and the last is insight and wisdom, which includes right view and right thought. That is also the middle way between rigorous asceticism and self indulgence in material pleasures.
Before the creation of the Buddhism, Upanishads mainly involved the idea of Brahmanism and played a vital position in the Indian religion. However, after the idea of Buddhism was being released, the ideology of Indian religion was enriched and had multi-development in different realm. Although some of the doctrines of Buddhism were derived from Upanishads, it also introduced various new thoughts. In a nutshell, Buddhism and Upanishads, being two main religions in ancient India, although both of their views in some points are quite similar, they both bought significant changes, had essential and great influence and also provided the many fundamental ideas and basic theories in Hinduism.
1Brihadarabyaka Upanishads-4.4.52Reference: Kena Upanishad-SwamiSharvananda-2011-pg213The noble Eightfold path-1994-pg40