What is common to the Dhammapada and Bhagavad Gita

  • By Shelton A. Gunaratne
  • April 20 2021
  • This week, by chance, I experienced the joy of reading the two jewels of Buddhism and Hinduism—the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita respectively.

Until I read these two ‘jewels,’ I had no idea that Hinduism and Buddhism were so close to each other in terms of the pathway one should follow to reach our ultimate goal--Nibbana (the supreme bliss of non-existence in the case of Buddhists) or Moksha (liberation from cyclic existence for union with the everlasting Atman of the Supreme Brahman in the case of Hindus).


I am now convinced of the urgent need to stop adding fire to the burning embers of ethno-religious ill feelings among the majority Buddhist-Sinhalese and the minority Hindu-Tamils in Sri Lanka, the country of my birth.


A. The Dhammapada

Bhikkhu Bodhi identifies the Dhammapada (Verses of the Dhamma) as “the most succinct expression of the Buddha’s teachings found in the Pali canon and the chief spiritual testament of early Buddhism.  It contains 423 verses arranged in 26 chapters.


The Dhammapada promotes the virtues of following Buddha’s Middle Path through four levels of teaching:


First, it teaches human beings how to live in peace and harmony with their environment, to fulfil their duties toward family and society, to control their sensual desires; and, thus, to observe the five basic Buddhist precepts. Examples from the Buddharakkhita (1996) translation:


D 23: 332. In this world, good it is to serve one's mother, good it is to serve one's father, good it is to serve the monks, and good it is to serve the holy men.


D 23: 333. Good is virtue until life's end, good is faith that is steadfast, good is the acquisition of wisdom, and good is the avoidance of evil.

By developing and mastering his mind with diligence and delight, a human being could live in harmony and in peace with himself and his fellow men:


D 17: 223. Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.  

The Dhammapada asserts that everyone loves and respects the man of virtue; and the scent of virtue (generosity, patience, honesty, compassion, etc.) is sweeter than the scent of all flowers and perfumes:


D 6:55. Of all the fragrances - sandal, tagara, blue lotus and jasmine - the fragrance of virtue is the sweetest.


D 6: 56. Faint is the fragrance of tagara and sandal, but excellent is the fragrance of the virtuous, wafting even amongst the gods.


Second, it focuses on morality and the law of kamma, which denotes that man’s action does not disappear into nothingness but will ripe in consequences: good deed -good effect, bad deed- bad effect; like a body and its shadow:


D 9: 119. It may be well with the evildoer as long as the evil ripens not. But when it does ripen, then the evildoer sees (the painful results of) his evil deeds.


D 9: 120. It may be ill with the doer of good as long as the good ripens not. But when it does ripen, then the doer of good sees (the pleasant results of) his good deeds.


Third, the Dhammapada emphasizes the theoretical framework based on the Four Noble Truths: the existence of Dukkha, the cause of Dukkha, the cessation of Dukkha, and the path leading to the cessation of Dukkha.  Life is full of suffering (Dukkha) due to craving (Tanha) which causes man to sink deeply in samsara, very difficult to release it.


D 16: 214. From attachment springs grief, from attachment springs fear. For one who is wholly free from attachment there is no grief, whence then fear?

D 16: 215. From lust springs grief, from lust springs fear. For one who is wholly free from craving there is no grief; whence then fear?

D 16: 216. From craving springs grief, from craving springs fear. For one who is wholly free from craving there is no grief; whence then fear?


Verses in Chapter 20 exhort people to practice the Noble Eightfold Path if they wish to destroy craving and release from suffering.


Fourth, it commends those who have reached the final goal of practicing to Nibbana, the state of the supreme bliss of non-existence attained through the four stages or fruits of saints: the stream-entry (sotapatti), the once-returner (sakadagami), the non-returner (anagami), and the arhant, the perfect one. The Dhammapada describes the arhant as the Ultimate Person or the Excellent Person.

Thus, we can conclude that the main purpose of the Dhammapada is to guide people along the path of correct living by practicing its ethical and moral keystones to eliminate suffering and attain the eternal peace of mind. Mindful journalists stand to benefit by consulting it whenever they need guidance.


B. The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita (the Song of the Bhagavan), the 18-chapter 700-verse Sanskrit epic, is the most sacred and popular religious scripture of Hinduism, apart from the Vedas and the Upanishads. Constituting part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita is the story of Arjuna, a great Pandava warrior who was suddenly overcome by sorrow in mid-battlefield and stood confused about his duty.  Lord Krishna, who served as his charioteer in the battlefield, teaches him, out of extreme compassion and love, the paths of right action, right knowledge and right devotion—very similar to the terms that Buddha used to explain the wisdom (panna) dimension of the magga.


The battle in question actually symbolizes the battle between the two yin-yang forces inside everyone: good and evil, Jekyll and Hyde, heaven and hell, etc. The Bhagavad Gita presents a synthesis of the Brahmanical concept of Dharma, theistic bhakti, the yogic ideals of liberation through jnana and Samkhya philosophy.


The Bhagavad Gita teaches us how to live, fulfilling our duties without attachment but with a stability of mind accepting God as the savior and doer. It asserts that we live in a world of illusion to which we bind ourselves because of our ignorance and egoism—the forces that engender our desires and our actions. Ignorance of our true nature and true purpose of life is the reason for our entanglement in the cycle of birth-death and rebirth.


The Bhagavad Gita goes on to assert that salvation is not possible for those who want to escape from life and activity. More qualified for salvation are those who wish to participate in society, unafraid of the burdens of life, and live a life of sacrifice fully surrendering to God. Those who are prepared to go through the battles of life—through self-discipline, stability of mind, detachment, surrendering to God with full devotion, wisdom, right discrimination and knowledge—are qualified to attain moksha (liberation) and union with the Supreme.  I quote the Bhagavad Gita from the Bhaktivedanta Swami (1971) translation:


BG 2: 61. One who restrains his senses (indriyani), keeping them under full control, and fixes his consciousness (prajna) upon Me, is known as a man of steady intelligence.

BG 2: 64. But a person free from all attachment (raga) and aversion (dvesa) and able to control his senses through regulative principles of freedom can obtain the complete mercy of the Lord.

BG 2: 69. What is night for all beings (bhutani) is the time of awakening for the self-controlled; and the time of awakening for all beings is night for the introspective sage.

BG 2: 71. A person who has given up all desires for sense gratification (kaman), who lives free from desires (nihsprhah), who has given up all sense of proprietorship (nirmamah) and is devoid of false ego (nirahakara) - he alone can attain real peace.


C. Comparison

The preceding extracts from the Bhagavad Gita (BG) and the Dhammapada (D) show their clear agreement that craving (trsna/tanha), sensual desires (kaman), and attachment (mamatah/ upadana) are the main causes that veils a person in ignorance (avijja) and prolong his/her state of suffering (dukkha) entrapped in the endless process  of cyclic existence (samsara).


The Dhammapada illustrates this point with the analogy that the suffering of those who give in to craving grow like grass after the rains:


D 24: 334. The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life (tasting the fruit of his kamma).

D 24: 335. Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.


To eliminate dangers of craving, desires, attachment, etc., a person must concentrate his mind on meditation to sever attachments to the physical world established through wealth and fame, family life, success, etc., because desire or attachment break into the mind that has not been practicing meditation like the rain breaks into the roof of a dilapidated house):


D 1: 13. Just as rain breaks through an ill-thatched house, so passion penetrates an undeveloped mind.

D 1: 14. Just as rain does not break through a well-thatched house, so passion never penetrates a well-developed mind.


The Bhagavad Gita says almost the same thing - that desire is the source of attachment to the world and the great impediment to spiritual freedom.  When one renounces his/her desires and acts without craving, possessiveness, or individuality, he /she will find peace forever:

BG 18: 51-53. Being purified by his intelligence and controlling the mind with determination, giving up the objects of sense gratification, being freed from attachment and hatred, one who lives in a secluded place, who eats little, who controls his body, mind and power of speech, who is always in trance and who is detached, free from false ego, false strength, false pride, lust, anger, and acceptance of material things, free from false proprietorship, and peaceful -- such a person is certainly elevated to the position of self-realization.


The Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita also agree that if we attach too much on everything, we will go through repeated re-becoming (punabbhava) or reincarnation depending on our volitional actions (sankhara).


However, if we were to renounce craving, Buddhists believe that we could attain Nibbana in our current life cycle. In comparison, Hindus believe that the desire to know Brahman is not a bad desire but the process of the cessation of desire.   The Hindus believe that Atman (soul) lies above the ego (self) with Brahman at the top.  To reach this highest stage of mind, a person must realize that Atman is truly Brahman. This is called self-realization. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that every being in the universe is part of the Self, who was never born and will never die:


BG 2: 30. Bharata, this embodied self or soul (ayam) in the body of everyone is eternally unkillable (avadhyah). Therefore, you must not grieve for any beings at all.

BG 10: 20. I am the Self (Atma), Gudakesha, situated in the hearts of all creatures, just as I am the beginning (adhi), the middle (madhyam), and the end (antha) of creatures.

BG 5: 21. He whose self is unaffected by outside contact finds his happiness (sukham) in the self-united through yogic discipline with Brahman, he reaches inextinguishable happiness.


The preceding extracts from BG point out a fundamental difference between Buddhism and Hinduism. Buddha denied the existence of a self or soul (atman). Buddhists think that belief in the Self is also a delusion and leads to suffering.  Selfish ideas appear in man’s mind because of his conception of Self and craving for existence. The Buddha taught that what we conceive as something eternal within us is merely a combination of the Five Aggregates, which are constantly in flux through every moment of life. 


We find the Buddha’s analysis about the Self in the Dhammapada:


D 20: 277. "All conditioned things are impermanent" — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

D 20: 278. "All conditioned things are unsatisfactory" — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

D 20: 279. "All things are not-self" — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.


Buddha demonstrated the non-existence of a higher self through the dynamics of his Dependent Origination or Paticca Samuppada Model, which emphasizes that all phenomena in this universe are relative and do not arise independently.


D. Conclusion

Educators and journalists can help bring about social change in religiously divided societies by focusing on similarities shared by religions.  As this essay has shown, despite the fundamental difference in their belief in self or soul, both Buddhism and Hinduism focus on one destination: that is the way to Nibbana, to Self-Realization, to Enlightenment, to the cessation of suffering, free from Samsara.   To quote the Dhammapada:


D 26: 414. He who, having traversed this miry, perilous and delusive round of existence, has crossed over and reached the other shore; who is meditative, calm, free from doubt, and, clinging to nothing, has attained to Nibbana — him do I call a holy man.


We could legitimately look at both the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita as spiritual works that emphasize the same teachings on the practice of meditation and the cultivation of various ways of thinking, speaking and acting.


Educators and journalists should make their students/audience more familiar with the similarities between Yoga and Buddhism thereby further strengthening their intellectual knowledge about what the teachings are built upon. Such an epistemological understanding of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and teaching could create the necessary knowledge base that both Buddhists and Hindus could apply to their day-to-day interactions, observations and perceptions. This approach requires de-emphasizing the ontological differences between Buddhism and Hinduism, e.g., re-becoming versus rebirth/reincarnation; no self versus self/soul; Nibbana versus Moksha, etc.



1.Bhaktivedanta Swami, A. C. (Tr.). (1971). Bhaktivedanta VedaBase: Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. Accessed on May 19, 2014 http://vedabase.net/bg/en2

2. Buddharakkhita, Acharya (Tr.). (1996). The Dhammapada:  The Buddha’s Path of Wisdom. Accessioinsight.org. Accessed on May 8, 2014. 

Author is a professor of mass communication emeritus. A former Sri Lankan journalist, he lives in the United States.


This article was first published in Sri Lanka Guardian in 2014 and here eSamskriti has obtained permission from the Editor of SLG to share for the benefit of humanity.


Also read

1. Why did Buddhism Vanish from India

2. Characteristics of Indian Philosophy  

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