There are two major influential religions in Asia that are spreading quickly all over the world. They are Hinduism and Buddhism. There is a misconception that surrounds these two words, moksha and nirvana, they are not the same even though the two concepts may appear similar. In the following essay I will distinguish the different understandings and interpretations of these two concepts and then I will compare and contrast the differences and the similarities. The concept of moksha in Hinduism and the concept of nirvana in Buddhism are the central focus of these two religions. Both of these concepts have their different ways of achieving their goal and they have differences. I will write two different interpretations of moksha in Hinduism and the approaches of two philosophical schools that emerged to teach the approach of how moksa can be attained. I will do the same for nirvana in Buddhism, going into details of different understanding of this concept and I will conclude with analyzing the similarities and contrasts of these concepts which are followed in the same street, just are located in opposing sidewalks.
Moksa itself in Sanskrit language means release and its meaning is to be liberated from the cycles of sansara, reincarnation, and the pains and the suffering of karma by achieving immortality through eternal truth. Different Hindu philosophies schools emerged in India, each with the interpreting their own understanding of moksha. One of these philosophic schools was Vedanta which was divided in different sub schools with each of their own interpretations of moksha. One of those is Shankar’s Advaita Vedanta School where they perceive that moksha can be acquired only when the human soul realizes that it is one being with the Brahman. According to them, a person can only achieve moksha when he realizes the truth in himself that his soul is part of Brahman and Brahman is part of his soul, or atman as they name it, and once this dualistic approach has been acknowledged then the person has achieved his true form, he has been enlighten and has broken free from the cycle of reincarnation, sansara. The only way a person can do this is by self effort. On the other hand, Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta School promoted another approach to achieve moksha. They followed another direction which is worshipping the god Vishnu. Their theistic approach taught people that by recognizing the soul, matter, and God, anyone can obtain moksha by an easier way which connects people on a personal level with the Supreme Being.
Nirvana in Buddhism is understood as the end of suffering. There is not a clear definition of nirvana as it can be understood in many different ways but it is the highest spiritual achievement which dissolves pains, anger, greed, desire and all forms that create suffering. In Buddhism three major central schools emerged to teach the way of enlightenment, and those were Vajrayana, Mahayana, and Theravada but I will focus on the last two doctrines. Theravada doctrine emphasises on the understanding of nirvana can be reached when the person realises the true nature of reality and has an awakening of itself. These people are called arahants. This can be achieved through many lifetime spiritual persuasions of enlightenment where the person has broken off from the cycles of rebirth, and has became a Buddha, a bodhi which has the same meaning as nirvana, the enlighten. Mahayana doctrine on the other hand has developed another understanding of nirvana. They believe that Buddha is not just a human figure but a supreme being that we cannot even perceive of its greatness and helps us achieve nirvana. This means that we are still subject to delusion even though nirvana has been attained, instead bodhi has a higher rank in spiritual achievement and once bodhi has been attained, a person can become Buddha.
In Hinduism the concept of reincarnation refers to an eternal element that travels from one life to another. This element takes different forms and shapes of different living things among its eternal life. This is the soul, or the atman as it is called in Hinduism. In contrast, Buddhism has the concept of rebirth which is the continuation of the state of mind in a different human being but not its soul since its explanation is that a lot spiritual events had to happen to create the second life form and yet not a different person due to the causality relation. Thus we can see the difference clearly of Nirvana where there is the realization accomplishment of the discontinuance of individuality and Moksha is the fulfillment acquisition of the truth of the affinity of your soul, atman, and Brahman. In both cases, individuality is lost but in different understanding and interpretations.
Both religions have a lot of terminology and even names of deities in common, but in almost every single case, the meaning is actually different – both believe in reincarnation/rebirth, but the interpretation is very different; both believe in karma, but the interpretation is slightly different; both believe in samsara (the cycle of rebirth and suffering) and liberation from samsara (moksha/nirvana), but the interpretation is widely different, especially about liberation; both have yoga, tantra, dharma, mantra, and so on, but often mean totally different things with the words; the significance of gods or deities is grossly different – in Hinduism several of them are important objects of veneration, even seen as emanations of the supreme God (Brahman), whereas they are never objects of veneration or prayer in Buddhism, only seen as deluded sentient beings who will eventually die and be reborn in a new body just like you and me. They strive for an inner peace, and finally to reach heaven through either moksha or nirvana.