The Buddhist Religion and the Abrahamic Religions
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The Buddhist religion and the Abrahamic religions have one main thing in common: like almost all explanatory teachings, they developed at times of “great unrest, social upheaval and spiritual hunger” (Grubin, 2010). This is quite obvious, because at such times people’s demand increases for a conceptual system that would answer their most basic questions. Those questions still occupy the minds of our contemporaries, too: what the purpose of human life is, how does one cope with illness and death, what happens to us after we leave this world and so on.
The primary and the most fundamental difference between Buddhism and Abrahamic religions is the concept of afterlife, or, to be specific, the concept of what happens to a person after his death. In Christianity, as well as in Islam and Judaism, there are concepts of eternal heaven and eternal hell where people go, depending on their deeds and actions during lifetime. There is also a notion of purgatory where souls spend time waiting to be sent to either place they deserve to be. This means that Abrahamic religions see human life as a one-time experience that is never bound to repeat and is followed by eternal presence in one of the realms. In Buddhism, people believe in the phenomenon of reincarnation, or multiple rebirth in different bodies, which can be any form of life: from a godly creature to a small animal.
Therefore, the purpose of human life is also different in the two types of religions. Buddhism belongs to Dharmic religions (along with Hinduism and Dao), and the highest mission one has is to “find a way out of the incarnation cycle and thus out of suffering” (Grubin, 2010). According to Buddhist faith, being incarcerated inside a body of flesh imposes lots of limitations to the soul and subjects it to constant suffering, or, as Grubin (2010) puts it, “dissatisfaction” or “discontent”. Consequently, when the soul has achieved perfection as is developed and “aware” enough, it is able to transcend the limitations of the body. This is the main aim of all our lives in all embodiments. In Abrahamic religions, particularly, in Christianity, the purpose of human existence is to gain salvation of one’s soul, otherwise the soul goes to hell. In fact, Abrahamic religions represent human existence as a linear, non-repetitive process, whereas Buddhism sees it as a cyclic one. Buddhists perceive the world as something that experiences constant transience: everything is in movement, everything and everyone changes and remains interlinked and intertwined.
Salvation is also sometimes called “grace” in Abrahamic religions, these two words being synonymic. According to Grubin (2010), “in Christianity, grace comes from the Divine; in Buddhism, it comes from the mortal”. If we put it this way, Buddhism seems to impose more responsibility for the events of one’s life upon the person himself.
One can spot quite an interesting and also a very significant difference between Buddhism and Islam. The former is an “imaginative, image-making” religion, according to Eck (1996, p.10), which concentrates on the concept of darsan as a form that deities take to be visible and communicate with the devotees; meanwhile, the latter forbids depicting God and the prophets at all. However, in Buddhism (and Hinduism, too) the usage of imagery is not aimed at creating simply idols to bow to, but it has the purpose of providing that “sensuous worship” that the non-Abrahamic religions are so characteristic with (Eck, 1996, p.13). In Christianity, the matter of whether or not use iconographic portraits provoked fierce debates which resulted in establishing the tradition of two-dimensional, non-realistic images of saints and godly creatures fashioned in such a way so as to avoid the “sin of idolatry”(Eck, 1996, p.15).
Monotheism and polytheism are the two pillars which the Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religious traditions rest upon, respectively. Eck (1996) considers this to be a characteristic of the consciousness mechanism, a consciousness mode that shapes how the followers of different religions perceive the world. The expression “God is one” is understood differently by representatives of Buddhism, Hindu or Jainism and those of Abrahamic religions. By the former, Oneness of God lies in the diversity of multiple avatars that constitute a unified world in its harmony and interdependence. The latter, the Abrahamic people, see the Oneness as the existence of one Supreme power that is set to control and rule over the world as we know it.
Eck (1996) also emphasizes one more crucial difference between the Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are believed to be the “religions of Word”, or, in other words, religions that build their conceptual and theoretical basis on the Books that contain the postulates of faith (e.g. the Holy Bible for Christianity, Quran for Muslims and Torah for the Hebrew). Unlike these, Buddhism and other non-Abrahamic religions are the “religions of darsan”, or image-based cultures.
The reason why the history of Buddhism never witnessed crusades lies in the very core of this religion. Buddha, reportedly, never wanted his disciples and audience to accept his teaching thoughtlessly, out of devotion only; rather, he would like their faith to be a result of debate, experiment and spiritual search taken willingly (Grubin, 2010). Buddhism never took up the “ends justify the means” position, believing that each word, each thought and deed influences the world around us more than we can imagine, remaining “taped” within the Universe. A good and noble aim cannot serve as an excuse for violence and sinful behavior. That’s why under the aegis of Buddhism blood wasn’t shed in events like crusades and inquisition, as, for example, happened with Christianity.