Bhagavad Gita and ‘Salvation’, Moskha Nirvana and Atman According to Hinduism and Buddhism, The Mahayana and Theravada Tradition

Leonard Goenaga

Religion Analysis

March 11 2007

Essay 1

In the Bhagavad Gita we are presented with the story of Krishna (the Avatar of Vishnu), who is also the charioteer of a prince named Arjuna. The Gita is set in the brink of a war that’s about to break out between Arjuna and various relatives and friends. Arjuna suddenly becomes depressed with the thought of murdering those he cares about, and as he begins renouncing the violent actions he seeks Krishna’s advice. Krishna then begins sharing his divine knowledge with Arjuna, and tells him three paths (Yoga’s) that lead to ‘salvation’. This salvation is in the form of the realization of Brahman, or the realization of the ultimate impersonal divine essence of the universe. Upon attaining this truth, one achieves Moksha, which is freedom from rebirth or reincarnation. Krishna offers three paths (Yoga’s) that Arjuna can take in order to achieve oneness with the Ultimate Truth and Moksha (salvation; freedom from Samsara).

Upon being freed from the cycle of rebirth, Krishna teaches that one is united with this Brahman, and that salvation comes in the form of becoming one with this Ultimate Impersonal Essence. The three paths he teaches are selfless action (Karma Yoga), self-transcending knowledge (Jnana Yoga), and devotion (Bhakti Yoga).  We will evaluate these three throughout the essay, as well as discuss which of these three Krishna saw as most important. As we discuss these different paths, we will search for how they help one achieve realization of Brahman.

The first path we will discuss is that of action (Karma Yoga). This is presented early to help address Arjuna’s problem with fighting the war, and his role as a warrior. Throughout the Gita, Krishna makes it clear that Arjuna is merely killing a body that houses a soul (Atman), and that he cannot hurt the soul inside the body. Krisha tells Arjuna to “be intent on action, not on the fruits of actions; avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction[1]. He teaches Arjuna to act without worrying on gain or loss, and to act without attachment.  He teaches that “a man of inner strength whose senses experience objects without attraction and hatred, in self control, finds serenity”[2] Arjuna can gain ‘salvation’ through acting without expectations or worries, and that this leads to a purified mind and the serenity of Moksha.  By acting without the distraction of sense pleasures, gain, and expectation, Krishna tells Arjuna that “one finds the pure calm of infinity”[3], and this infinity is the ultimate truth of Brahman; which leads to salvation.

Besides the path of action (which fits Arjuna most as a warrior), Krishna teaches the path of knowledge (Jnana Yoga). This knowledge comes in the form of being able to discern what is truth, what is eternal, and what isn’t. As I mentioned earlier about the mortality of the bodies, this path focuses on being able to discern what is eternal (the Atman, or soul, in the soldiers) and what is not (the soldiers physical bodies). This leads a person to realize the one True Self (Brahman) is everywhere, and realizing this is true knowledge. “When ignorance is destroyed by knowledge of the self, then, like the sun, knowledge illumines ultimate reality”[4], and this ultimate reality is that Brahman is everywhere; even in the Self. Destroying ignorance is attained when one realizes that they are one with this Ultimate Reality, and this knowledge leads someone to attain salvation by realizing Brahman. Krishna states that “Knowing me as the enjoyer of sacrifices and penances…he finds peace”[5], which means that through the knowledge of the transcendent-self and Krishna, one finds peace (salvation).

The third path is that of devotion (Bhakti Yoga). This path comes in the form of a complete loving devotion to Krishna. Here, Krishna explains that salvation and moksha are achieved through complete devotion to Him: “Keep me in your mind and devotion, sacrifice to me, bow to me, discipline your self toward me, and you will reach me!”[6]. In this path, Krishna teaches that salvation is as easy as “relinquishing all sacred duties to me [Krishna], make me your only refuge…” and by doing this Krishna says “…I shall free you from all evils.”[7] Salvation, and one-ness with Krishna, can be attained merely by devoting yourself completely to Him. By doing this, Krishna will free Arjuna from all evils, and Arjuna will “attain the eternal place that is peace”[8].

Throughout the Gita, Krishna teaches that these three paths lead to what we would call ‘salvation’; however Krishna makes it very clear that one is more important than the others. The Gita itself acts as a Bhakti text, and the main idea behind it’s story of Krishna and Arjuna’s conversation is that salvation can be achieved by devoting yourself to Krishna. Arjuna comes to this realization at the very end, where he tells Krishna “…My delusion is destroyed, and by your grace I have regained memory; I stand here, my doubt dispelled, ready to act on your words”[9]. With Arjuna using this path to salvation, and it being suggested by Krishna, we come to the conclusion of it being the most important and significant path in attaining ‘salvation’.

Essay 2

( Dear Professor, please check that this essay was not stolen/plagiarized from I, Leonard O Goenaga, wrote it). In Hinduism and Buddhism, we find the two religions presenting two various solutions to a common problem. This common problem is that of Samsara, which is the ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Both Hinduism and Buddhism are attempts at eliminating this problem; yet present two completely different methods. Hinduism aims at achieving a transcendent state called Moksha; which is defined as a “release from the cycle of rebirth impelled by the law of karma[10], and which results with ultimate peace and knowledge of Atman (self) and Brahman (transcendent reality, God). However, Buddhism aims at achieving a transcendent state called Nirvana; which is defined as a state “in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and Samsara”[11]. The two religions offer different solutions to ending the cycle of Samsara, and conflict in not only how you achieve it, but also what achieving it leads to and what role the self (atman) plays in the end of Samsara. Throughout the essay we will focus on the two religion’s methods of ending Samsara, the role the self (atman) plays in Moksha and Nirvana, and where the two religions agree and argue.

The first major difference of the two religions that must be pointed out is the role of Brahman. Buddhism takes an atheistic approach, which leads to an inner struggle for liberation, while Hinduism holds the belief in a transcendent Godhead reality known as Brahman. In Hinduism, Brahman is defined as an eternal, genderless, infinite Being, who is the Absolute reality. The role of Brahman is important in understanding Moksha because the paths leading to the liberation of Samsara occur when an individual’s soul (Atman) realizes it’s a source of this Super Soul called Brahman. In Hinduism, this realization and Moksha can be done through various paths (Yoga’s).  Various paths are given, and different Hindu philosophical schools put emphasis on different paths. One path in particular is that of Bhakti Yoga, or complete loving devotion to God. We find this form of Yoga in the message of Krishna in the The Bhagavad Gita, where he tells Arjuna to “Keep me in your mind and devotion, sacrifice to me, bow to me, discipline your self toward me and you will reach me!”[12]. By the yoga of devotion, one can achieve Moksha and have their self ‘reach’ the Ultimate Self (Brahman). Other Yoga’s that can lead to this realization of Atman (soul/self) and Brahman, and thus lead to Moksha, come in the form of selfless work (Karma Yoga), Knowledge (Jnana Yoga), and meditation (Raja Yoga).

In Buddhism, we do without this Brahman and the Yoga’s. As we saw with the case of Bhakti Yoga, the Godhead (Krishna in our example) is needed to devote oneself to and achieve Moksha. However Buddha states that we waste our time trying to understand Gods, and that it is useless. Buddhism takes a non-theistic approach to achieving Moksh;, which in Buddhism is known as Nirvana. Buddha taught that liberation was achieved through enlightenment, which is done through the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are “1. Dukkha (suffering), 2. Samudaya (the arising or origin of dukkha), 3. Nirodha (the cessation of dukkha), 4. Magga (the way leading to the cessation of dukkha).”[13]. The Four Noble Truths lead to the cessation of ‘suffering’, and this is done through what the Buddha taught as the Noble Eightfold Path. In Hinduism we find Moksha through the path of Yoga’s, while in Buddhism we find Nirvana and liberation through the Four Noble truths which lead to the cessation of suffering; which is the done through the Eightfold path (right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration).

In Hinduism, Moksha is the liberation of the Atman in Samsara, and in Buddhism Nirvana is the extinguishing of this Atman. This issue of the self is a sharp contrast between the two religions. Hinduism teaches that one must realize that the self (Atman) is part of the Super Soul known as Brahman (which is done through Yoga’s), while Buddha taught that “the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and mine…and other defilements, impurities, and problems”[14]. This ‘self illusion’ prevents that person from reaching enlightenment through the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Buddhism literally teaches that the self (Atman) is the cause of all the suffering (dukkha) one experiences.

Buddha’s experience of the failure of the Yoga’s and Hinduism lead to his teachings. We find the two religions agreeing in there being this ongoing state of samsara, yet providing completely different solutions to it. On one side, Hinduism states that we have a self/soul (Atman), and that ‘salvation’ is attained through the Yoga’s, which lead to the realization of the Atman and the Brahman. On the other side, Theravada Buddhism states that we have no self or soul (no-self), and that we must eliminate this illusion of Atman (self) through the Four Noble Truths (cessation of Dukkha), which is done with the Eightfold Path.  In the end, we are left with two interesting and conflicting takes on an even more interesting problem.

Essay 3

If Buddha were to wake up in his grave, and stroll the earth, would he be pleased with the direction modern day Buddhism has taken? Currently there are two major schools of Buddhism. The first is the school of Theravada, also known as the ‘Way of the Elders”. The second major school we will be discussing is Mahayana, also known as the “Great Vehicle”. Some may view these two schools and mistake them for being like two denominations in Christianity, but upon analysis we find that they’re completely different. Upon comparing and contrasting the two, we will come to a conclusion on which Buddhism Buddha would most likely agree with.

First we will discuss the older of the two: Theravada. This school is of Buddhism is focused on the liberation from suffering (Dukkha), through the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. The school is non-theistic, meaning that it holds no belief in a God. It also holds no belief in a soul (Atman), and is materialistic in nature. It’s more of an effort of meditations, experience, and self-control in hopes of achieving enlightenment and Nirvana (a state where you achieve freedom from Samsara through extinguishing the ‘self illusion’). It teaches the quickest way to enlightenment as being an enlightened disciple of a Buddha (or an Arhat). In this school, an individual achieves enlightenment through firm focus and meditation on the Pali Canon (collection of Buddha’s writings), as well as following the Four Noble Truths and leading oneself to realize Nirvana through extinguishing the ‘self’. Theravada has clearly defined roles for lay-persons and Monks, and is focused on adhering to the teaching of the Buddha as shown in Buddhist Canon. Theravada focuses on a suppression of desire, and an individual route towards enlightenment.

The second major school of Buddhism is Mahayana. This religion seems extremely different than Theravada in many of its beliefs. For starters, Mahayana isn’t non-theistic, but actually makes Buddha into a God-Man being. In addition to Buddha’s God-man status, individuals known as Bodhisattvas are seen as savior like demi-Gods, with savior-like merit giving powers. The role of a Bodhisattva is extremely important in Mahayana. Bodhisattva’s are individuals who have dedicated themselves to aiding all sentient beings in achieving Buddhahood. They also take this savior-like role in that they transfer their good merits (Karma) to others, and believe this transfer of merit will help the person achieve a better reincarnation and a better chance at Buddhahood. They basically make a pledge to stay here on earth until they aid every last individual in attaining enlightenment. In addition, Mahayana is more of praise and worship oriented school with more of a focus on salvation than liberation.

The major differences between Mahayana and Theravada is that Mahayana believes that everyone will become a Buddha, the element of compassion through transferring merit, the element of salvation instead of liberation, the inclusion of a Buddha-God-Man, Demi Gods, and celestial realms, and that there is a Buddha Nature (A Buddha-Like soul in every individual). It is the celestial, divine, Buddha Nature, and salvation themes that give rise to a conflict between Buddha’s teachings and that of the Mahayana school. Buddha was rather obvious in telling us to ignore these divine and celestial themes in hopes of achieving personal enlightenment, and taught that the achievement of ‘salvation’ was an internal struggle, and could not be attained by another person’s actions (Bodhisattva’s). For these reasons, I believe Buddha himself would disagree in calling Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhism.

Works Cited and Footnotes Below

[1] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 2 verse 47

[2] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 2 verse 64

[3] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 2 verse 72

[4] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 5 verse 16

[5] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 5 verse 29

[6] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 9 verse 34

[7] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 18 verse 66

[8] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 18 verse 62

[9] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 18 verse 73.

[10], Moksha

[11], Nirvana

[12] Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, Chapter 9 verse 34

[13] What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, Chapter II, Pg 16

[14] What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, Chapter VI, Pg 51


One thought on “Bhagavad Gita and ‘Salvation’, Moskha Nirvana and Atman According to Hinduism and Buddhism, The Mahayana and Theravada Tradition

  1. Hare Krsna,

    I came across your eassy while browsing the web. You mention “Upon being freed from the cycle of rebirth, Krishna teaches that one is united with this Brahman”.

    But in 2.12 Krishna clearly mentioned that we all exist individually so how then you came to the consclusion that Krishna is saying bout merging into the Brahman.


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