Gautama Buddha is viewed as an avatar of the Lord Vishnu in Vaishnavism. Buddhist teachings do not rely on the Vedas, are atheist and deny the reality of the self or Atman. Hindu philosophers classified Buddhism as Nastika or heterodoxy within the scheme of Hinduism.
Buddha as an Avatar of Vishnu
In 8th-century royal circles, the Buddha started to be replaced by Hindu gods in Pujas. Before the eighth century, the Buddha was accorded the position of universal deity and ceremonies by which a king attained to imperial status were elaborate ceremonies entailing gifts to Buddhist monks and the installation of a symbolic Buddha in a stupa. This pattern changed in the eighth century. The Buddha was replaced as the supreme, imperial deity by one of the Hindu gods (except under the Palas of eastern India, the Buddha’s homeland). Previously the Buddha had been accorded imperial-style worship (puja). Now as one of the Hindu gods replaced the Buddha at the imperial centre and pinnacle of the Cosmo-political system, the image or symbol of the Hindu god comes to be housed in a monumental temple and given increasingly elaborate imperial-style puja worship.
This also was the same period of time the Buddha was made into an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Some sources say that it was Sugata Buddha also called Adi-Buddha who was the avatar of Lord Vishnu. In the Dasavatara stotra section of his Gita Govinda, the influential Vaishnava poet Jayadeva (13th century) includes the Buddha amongst the ten principal avatars of Vishnu and writes a prayer regarding him as follows:
“O Keshava! O Lord of the universe! O Lord Hari, who have assumed the form of Buddha! All glories to You! O Buddha of compassionate heart, you decry the slaughtering of poor animals performed according to the rules of Vedic sacrifice”.
This viewpoint of the Buddha as the avatar who primarily promoted ahimsa remains a popular belief among a number of modern Vaishnavism organizations, including the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Buddha as an Inspirational Figure
Other prominent modern proponents of Hinduism, such as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Swami Vivekananda, consider the Buddha as an example of the same universal truth that underlies religions:
Vivekananda: “May he who is the Brahman of the Hindus, the Ahura Mazda of Zoroastrians, the Buddha of Buddhists, the Jehovah of the Jews, the Father in Heavens of Christians, gives strength to you to carry out your noble ideas!”
Radhakrishnan: “If a Hindu chants the Vedas on the banks of the Ganges… if the Japanese worship the image of Buddha, if the European is convinced of Christ’s mediatorship, if the Arab reads the Quran in the mosque… It is their deepest apprehension of God and God’s fullest revelation to them.
A number of revolutionary figures in modern Hinduism, including Mahatma Gandhi, have been inspired by the life and teachings of the Buddha and many of his attempted reforms. Steven Collins sees such Hindu claims regarding Buddhism as part of an effort – itself a reaction to Christian proselytizing efforts in India – to show that “all religions are one”, and that Hinduism is uniquely valuable because it alone recognizes this fact.
Interpretations, Opinions & Reactions
According to Wendy Doniger, the Buddha avatar which occurs in different versions in various Puranas may represent an attempt by orthodox Brahminism to slander the Buddhists by identifying them with the demons. Helmuth von Glasenapp attributed these developments to a Hindu desire to absorb Buddhism in a peaceful manner, both to win Buddhists to Vaishnavism and also to account for the fact that such a significant heresy could exist in India.
The times ascribed to one “Buddha” figure are contradictory and some put him in approximately 500 CE, with a lifetime of 64 years, describe him as having killed some persons, as following the Vedic religion, and having a father named Jina, which suggest that this particular figure might be a different person from Siddhārta Gautama.
Kumārila Bhaṭṭa disregarded the connection of Buddha with Hinduism, he regarded Buddha as the one who “transgressed dharma laid down for Kshatriyas and he took himself to the profession of a religious teacher, one who ‘deceives himself’ and acts contrary to the Vedas”.
B.R. Ambedkar, denied that Buddha was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Among the 22 vows he gave to the Dalit Buddhist movement, the 5th vow is “I do not and shall not believe that Lord Buddha was the incarnation of Vishnu. I believe this to be sheer madness and false propaganda.”
In 1999, at the Maha Bodhi Society in Sarnath, Jayendra Saraswathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham and S. N. Goenka, after having a mutual discussion, gave a joint communique agreeing on the following three points:
- “Due to whatever reason some literature was written in India in the past in which the Buddha was declared to be a re-incarnation of Vishnu and other various things were written about him, this was very unpleasant to the neighboring countries. In order to foster friendlier ties between Hindus and Buddhists we decide that whatever has happened in the past should be forgotten and such belief should not be propagated.
- A misconception has spread in the neighboring countries that the Hindu society of India is organizing such conferences to prove its dominance over the followers of the Buddha. To forever remove this misconception we declare that both Vedic and Samana are ancient traditions of India (Lord Vishnu belongs to the Vedic tradition and Buddha belongs to the Samana tradition). Any attempt by one tradition to show it higher than the other will only generate hatred and ill will between the two. Hence such a thing should not be done in future and both traditions should be accorded equal respect and esteem.
- Anybody can attain high position in the society by doing good deeds. One becomes a low person in society if one does evil deeds. Hence anybody by doing good deeds and removing the defilement’s such as passion, anger, arrogance, ignorance, greed, jealousy and ego can attain a high position in society and enjoy peace and happiness.
We agree on all the three things mentioned above and wish that all the people of India from all the traditions should have cordial relations and the neighboring countries should also have friendly relations with India.”