The Meaning of Life: Who Does Buddhism and Hinduism Say We Are?

As we follow the trail to the meaning of life, let us stop on the way and look at a few other religions. What are their answers to the question: Who are we? We’ll start with Buddhism and Hinduism.

In the worldview of pantheistic monism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and New Age give similar answers to the question. Under their philosophy we are all “one” with the universe. “All is One” is their motto. In their view everything in the cosmos is intertwined; there are no independent parts. In fact the universe itself is god. And because we are all one with the universe, then we ourselves are gods.

And because we are all one, the physical world is nothing but illusion. Some things are more “real” than others. Matter and vegetable life are low on the totem pole of reality. Humanity is highest. But some people are higher than others, because they’re closer to “enlightenment”. Pain and suffering are also considered an illusion.

But along with this belief comes the law of karma—reincarnation. reincarnation-3According to them, we are on an endless cycle of birth and rebirth. In the next life we will come back in a higher or lower state based on how well we lived or how close to “enlightenment” we came in this life.

What is the goal of Hinduism? It’s to liberate oneself from a physical, personal existence through meditation techniques. Yes, that’s right. To meditate through one means or another with the goal of becoming one with the “Impersonal All”. So the object is to lose one’s personal identity and cease to exist as a person and become absorbed in the “True Reality”, where, it is promised, awaits peace, fulfillment, and bliss.

Under this system, what is the One? It’s an impersonal force. It is the sum of everything in the universe, including the souls of all human beings. So human beings are, in essence, impersonal. Yet the goal is to merge with the One. In Buddhism, the goal is personal annihilation. At the end of the cycle of reincarnation, when the Buddhist reaches the highest level of enlightenment, he merges with the One, “like a drop of water merging into the ocean.” He simply goes poof! and ceases to exist.

Another thing to know is that all knowledge and truth are an illusion. Knowledge and truth require a duality. As do good and evil. But since All is One, there cannot be a knower and a thing to be known, a truth and a falsehood, a good thing and an evil thing. Hence, all knowledge and truth are illusions. As are lies. As are good and evil. (Of course, this must also apply to the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism themselves. Their “knowledge” and “truths” then become nothing but illusion and their teaching becomes self-contradictory. One then might ask, “Why should I follow your teachings and your ‘truths’ if they, too, are nothing but illusion?”)

We could go on, but that gives us a snapshot of the Hindu, Buddhist, and New Age philosophy. So how would they answer the question: Who are we? I will attempt to summarize:

  1. Because we are all part of the Impersonal One, our personalities, who we are, is unimportant. As individuals, we simply don’t matter. Our lives have no value and are essentially meaningless. Practitioners would now say that to the One we have infinite value, yet that still denies the uniqueness and worth of individuals.
  2. The love and hate, truth and lies, good and evil that we personally experience is not real. It’s only an illusion. (Shoot yourself in the leg with a .44 magnum and then make that declaration!) So the experiences of our lives are essentially illusions and nothing around us is really real. We are living in a world of self-delusion and lies. (Of course, since there is no such duality as real versus unreal, truth versus lies, we’re a bit stumped here.)
  3. We are hapless beings hopelessly caught in an endless cycle of rebirth. We may never get off. Our goal is personal enlightenment, and this may well mean ignoring everyone around us to get there. Since morality then becomes an illusion, how we treat others is unimportant. Been a bad girl or boy? Haven’t advanced toward enlightenment? Well then, prepare to come back next time as a toad or an ant. (How does a toad advance from there?)

So that’s how these three worldviews might answer the question: Who are we? Next time we’ll look at how Islam might answer the question.