I am just starting to study the history of Hinduism and Buddhism. This question is strictly about the objective outer trappings of the religions, not their spiritual teachings. Popular literature on the subject generally tells us that Buddha was a Hindu reformer, but I can't discern strong differences between the essence of Hinduism vs. Buddhism. This leads me to suspect that it was a sociopolitical split just as much as scriptural. Just as it is enlightening to study Jesus in the context of Roman-occupied Israel, I am curious about the historical Buddha.

One source, Haywood's Atlas of Past Times, briefly refers to Buddhism as a reaction against the Brahmin class. I note that Buddha was from the Khattiya caste, which is regarded as second to the Brahmins. I also note that Buddhism has done away with the entire caste system. Hmmm ...

Is there evidence that Buddha was something of a caste revolutionary? Was there a power struggle going on between Brahmins and Khattiyas in the 5th century BC? Buddhism was adopted by Emperor Ashoka; did he have political incentives for making the conversion?

  • 1
    Good question. I agree it would be good to see a historical treatment of this topic. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 19:47
  • I don't recall Buddhism as having various Gods but of a "way" and...this is pure conjecture on my part..."one way." Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 20:03
  • @user14394 Both Hinduism and Buddhism address the topic of the devas (often translated in Western literature as "gods"), and there are many schools of thought concerning them. "God" in general could mean a superhuman entity, an entity worthy of worship, the Supreme Entity, or all/any of the above. Depending on which definition you are using, a Buddhist or a Hindu may agree or disagree as to whether a deva or any other entity described in either tradition could be described as "god". Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 20:18
  • 1
    @Drux No disrespect to the Swami intended, and I haven't read the book myself so I can't speak to its quality, but Prabhavananda was not an academic historian, and the OP is specifically looking for a historical treatment rather than a religious one. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 21:21
  • 1
    @called2voyage Hence mine was a comment and not an answer ...
    – Drux
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 21:36

4 Answers 4


600 B.C. was roughly the beginning of the Mahajanapadas (Great States). It saw the beginning of not only small kingdoms, but also major urban centers. The era is marked by the transition from Painted Greyware to Northern Black Polished Ware. NBPW was a luxury item used by the new urban elites. Parallel with the growth of cities was a major increase in long distance and foreign commerce. All of these things led to a new economic and political situation which the Brahmans could not maintain control. Ideologically, Brahmanism failed to capture the minds of the new Urban class. It had come to include dozens of archaic gods. To become a Brahman, one had to memorize the entire Vedas. These grew in size, and the memorization become more and more tiresome.

In the 6th century B.C., Amidst these social and political upheavals, the Sramanas appeared in Maghada, and neighboring Videha. These were philosophical movements professing a simpler doctrine of aestheticism and liberation. The adherents of these ideologies were naked mendicant-yogis who lived in the woods. Alain Danielou, who lived and studied in India, said that these Yogis were preservers of an indigenous Harrapan tradition which had moved underground when the Aryans arrived. Indeed, one of the meditations of the Shivaites was to feign madness, by which they would avoid persecution and be left alone. Many of them were darker skinned Dravidian types. Their wisdom attracted the ears of the new urban class.

The revolution was very much commercial. The adherents to Buddhism, a Sramana movement, were Brahmans who were successful merchants. Hinduism wasn't accommodating to the needs of merchants. After all, merchants were the second lowest of the four classes. It didn't guarantee their safety, or the unimpeded movement of goods. Their ability to do business was at the whim the local Brahman priests. Buddhism, with its universal clause of non violence, allowed for the unhindered flow of commerce, which translated to wealth. Kingdoms had a vested interest the flow of commerce. Politically, Buddhism had another caveat. The burgeoning amount of hindu gods had the effect of chaos and disarray. The simple, unified message of dharma helped create political uniformity. This was definitely the motive for Ashoka's conversion. He incorporated these political and economic elements into his ideology of "peaceful conquest".

Hinduism was ultimately adaptable to less archaic governments and economies. It just so happened that Buddhism filled a particular niche when it opened up. By the present era, Vishnavism and Shivaism were created, which also served as a counterweight to Brahmanism. Vishnavism, for instance was popular with foreign merchants in the ports, who probably would have earlier been Buddhist. Buddhism appeared more like Hinduism after the creation of Mahayana Buddhism.

Alternately, I recommend reading Tornada's blog about the point of view of the authors of the Mahabharata. It explains how they viewed the expansion of Maghada from a Hindu perspective, decrying the violations of sacred Kshatriya-kings rights. It's shows how the two world views clashed, and ultimately Buddhism prevailed.

  • Thanks for the very helpful response and suggested reading. I had already finished my first draft of that chapter a year before your input, LOL, but I'm working on the 2nd draft this year. I will be seeking readers (experts as well as lay-readers) for feedback on specific sections this year. I'd like to invite your participation; please contact me directly through my website if interested. Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 23:43

The main limitation of Hinduism was that it was a "local" religion, to the Indian subcontinent. The term Hindu derives from "Sindu," a part of India. Over the two hundred years or so after 500 BCE, it was formed by a "fusion" of various Indian traditions. It may be considered the Indian version of China's Confucianism, oriented toward ethics, rituals, and astrology, where the role of deities was implied, rather than explicit.

Bhuddism was a "takeoff" on the antecedents of Hindu religion that did not develop contemporaneously into the Hindu mainstream, even though it shared important concepts such as "Dharma" with Hinduism. Bhudda preached "Four Noble Truths" about 1) a cycle of 2) suffering 3) death, and 4) rebirth. An important solution to life's problems was reincarnation, and steadily improving reincarnations could lead to Nirvana, or perfection. Put another way, one's current life was only one of a series of "iterations" (in modern technical language), and doing one's best in the current life would lead to a better future incarnation. This was a philosophy that had "universal" appeal (that is, in many parts of Asia, outside of India).That may be why a Japanese emperor adopted it. Even so, Bhuddism stood the caste system on its head by promising people that good behavior in the current life could lead to birth in a higher caste in the next reincarnation, while one's current low caste was because of misbehavior in a previous life.

  • ...Sindh, a river in India.
    – John Dee
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 22:21
  • 3
    Hinduism did spread quite widely throughout Southeast Asia despite of being a local religion though. Granted that it got superseded by Buddhism or Islam in most such parts (notable exception includes Bali)
    – michel-slm
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 3:02
  • "Universal" appeal - That would make Buddhism catholic I believe? Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 3:45
  • "Universal" to Southeast Asia. That's why I put it in scare quotes. Not "catholic" in the western sense.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 4:44
  • @Tom Au: you are suggesting that there is a caste system in Buddhism.. which is patently untrue. Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 16:46

The Caste System is philosophically/politically/culturally unacceptable to the Chinese based east asian civilizations.

So when the Chinese imported Hinduism / Buddhism from India, all the stuff (The caste system, most of the hindu gods, and virtually all the myths) that didn't appeal to their sensibility were left behind.

My understanding is, only the philosophical concepts were taken.

And the political impact is hard to overstate.

even for the ruling class, the caste system is a double edge sword. While it made the populous much easier to control, it also disenfranchised 80% of the people. What do the people of the bottom 2 castes and the untouchable care about the fate of the ruling class? It isn't their country. This I think is why India has historically been a surprisingly easy subcontinent to conquer.

And the Caste System's rejection of social mobility also created a culture of illiteracy and apathy among the lower classes that persists to this day, keeping India down as a country.


Lord Buddha was a Kshatriya- though if he had wanted to be a Brahmin he could easily have received into the priesthood of one or other of the leading lineages. However, in that case, he'd have been expected to get married and have sons. He preferred the life of the Shraman- renouncer- who has gone beyond caste and family.

This did not mean Buddhism abolished Caste or Untouchability- it helped spread it as far as Japan where there are untouchables but no Brahmins whereas in Bali there are Brahmins and Kshatriyas etc. but no untouchables

Judaism came to South India a few centuries before Christ while Christianity and Islam appeared almost immediately after their inception. They all have Caste and mistreat untouchables. Arundhati Roy and Sujatha Gidla are famous Christian authors who have exposed this. The Chief Rabbis of Israel did tell the Indian Jews to get rid of Caste in the Nineteen Thirties- at about the time Hinduism was reforming itself in this regard. However, it was only in Europe where Indians of an untouchable case- the Doms or Romanis- were subjected to genocide by Hitler.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.