Comparing Eastern and Western Religions

Eastern Religions: Hinduism (Advaita Vedanta) and Buddhism

Western ("Abrahamic") Religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam


On What There Is

Eastern Religions

Western Religions

Monism (one kind of reality) Dualism (two kinds of reality, material and non-material)
All sentient beings have value (since they might be reincarnated souls); but their "otherness" is nevertheless illusory. Sharp distinctions are made between humans and the rest of the natural world (things, animals); between humans and other spirits (angels).


On Divine Nature (the nature of God)

Eastern Religions

Western Religions

The Divine is immanent in creation (not separate). There are no words for the Divine. The Divine is transcendent, essentially different from creation. "Father" imagery common.


On Creation and Change

Eastern Religions

Western Religions

"Beginning" and "end" of the universe pose "questions that do not edify." Eschatological outlook (God created the universe and will end it someday).
Change is considered an integral part of creation, and does not indicate inferior or degraded being. As in Plato, change is associated with degradation and disintegration, especially of the body. Perfect things (e.g., God) are changeless ("immutable").
Karma — the universal law of cause and effect — imposes forensic continuity: i.e., people get what they deserve as part of the very nature of reality. Every birth is the result of previous karma. The human world is emphatically not the arena in which we play out our moral destiny: we get rewarded or punished for our earthly misdeeds only after we are dead, in another realm of being.


On Human Nature

Eastern Religions

Western Religions

The individual is not really real; the separateness of humans from creation and from one another is an illusion to be overcome. The individual remains the same individual through eternity. The ontological separateness of the individual from others and from creation is real and permanent.
Human nature is essentially ignorant. We become better by becoming more enlightened. Human nature is essentially sinful. We become better by willing control of our sinful impulses.
The human body is an illusion and is morally a distraction, but is not inherently bad. The human body is seen as a major source of temptation, sin, change, decay. There is intense ambivalence toward the body.
Eastern religions feature well-developed traditions of bodily practices to attain enlightenment (e.g., yoga, breathing techniques, tai ch'i, tantra). Asceticism (punishment and bodily deprivation) is unusual in Eastern religions. Because of the dualist separation of soul from body and systematic suspicion of body, few spiritual practices involve the body, aside from e.g., fasting and dietary rules. Instead, the believer is often urged to chastise and discipline the body through ascetic practice.
The good life consists of following dharma (personal duty which is believed to be one with universal order and harmony). The good life consists of obeying the laws of God and reason (the "natural law").
Hinduism is radically non-egalitarian: you are born into a certain caste and must adhere to the rules of your sex and caste. Buddhism is egalitarian for men, but women are considered inferior. The Western tradition is moderately egalitarian for men. Women and children generally have lower status.


On Enlightenment

Eastern Religions

Western Religions

The source of enlightenment and liberation is within the individual. In Western religions, prophets, Popes, mullahs, etc. convey God's word to ordinary people. Some forms of Protestantism, however, (e.g., Quakerism) emphasize looking within.
Many paths to enlightenment exist. Much spiritual practice is aimed at quieting the mind to allow enlightenment to happen. Spiritual practice is often aimed at developing and maintaining personal relationship with God.


On Life and Death

Eastern Religions

Western Religions

Reincarnation (transmigration of souls through many lifetimes) is a central belief. Because you know you'll be coming back, and the law of karma will automatically reward the good and punish the evil in the next incarnation, there is not a lot of philosophical worry about injustice and victimization (it's always temporary and never fatal). "You only go around once." The problem of evil is thus HUGE in Western philosophy of religion. Also, sin is a much more serious matter, since you get only one chance at life. Heaven is for humans only, so the Western view is "speciesist". Animals don't get saved, nor do their interests matter much, whereas for non-Western religions, every sentient being eventually gets released.
The goal of the afterlife is release from ignorance, and ultimately, loss of self and merger with the Divine. The goal of the afterlife is release from the body; the self remains the same self through eternity.
Afterlife traditions vary: moksa (liberation from the cycle of reincarnation); nirvana (blowing out the flame of desire), or the compassionate bodhisattva ideal. Virtuous Mohammed, Jesus, and saints as role models.

Author: Sandy LaFave


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