Analyze the major similarities and differences in the spread of Christianity and Buddhism between 1000 BCE and 600 CE. 

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Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Christianity and Buddhism are each characterized by a central figure whose biography became mythologized into a spiritual quest, personal realization, and cultural movement. In the case of Christianity, Jesus experienced a unique (miraculous) birth, and subsequently as a child showed unique powers and gifts. In the case of Buddhism, Siddhartha was driven at a young age to explore the world outside the gates of his palace; and to make sense of the suffering, anguish, and pain he observed among all human beings. These two faiths share as their origin story the personal spiritual journey of the founding figure.

In addition, both of these traditions came out of a desire to reform the perceived corruption of the tradition into which the central figure was born. Jesus is depicted in the Christian scriptures as a Jewish reformer. Similarly, Siddhartha is depicted in early Buddhist sutras as a devout Brahman who sought to reform the Vedic Hindu tradition.

From 1000 BCE through the beginning of the 1st century CE, many small religious groups had splintered off from Brahmanical Hinduism. Most of the splinter groups were ascetic traveling communities, led by either a yogic guru or sramana (traditional spiritual teacher).The largest splinter community during this period was the Jain community. Ideas such as moksha (release from suffering), nirvana, and karma were common amongst these traditions and the historical Buddha, who studied with many ascetic communities, would have been familiar with these theological concepts. All of these traditions had as their focus point the Vedic Brahmanical tradition, and all were involved in critiquing and attempting to reform this tradition.

One central controversy was the use of animal sacrifice in Vedic ritual.  The historical Buddha claimed that the original Vedas had been altered by corrupt Brahmanical priests who added animal sacrifice to the Vedas later. Therefore the Buddha did not acknowledge animal sacrifice within the Vedas because he believed it to be an inauthentic corruption.  This is one example of the reformist tendency of early Buddhism, in which the Buddha and his followers did not see themselves as founding a different religion. Rather, they saw themselves as engaged in the corrective action of restoring Brahmanical ritual to pure uncorrupted Vedic standards.

Similarly, Christianity grew out of a revisionist strain within Judaism, personified by the figure of Jesus. Early Christians considered themselves to be reviving true Judaic law, and reclaiming Judaism from corrupt political and religious figures who were using the tradition to their own benefit.

Some differences between the two traditions include: the instructions that disciples were given upon the death of the central figure, and the community that formed in the early centuries of the religious movement. In general, the unification of Buddhist communal practices occurred much earlier than the dogma and practices of Christianity. For example, the First Council of the 500 Arhats (buddha’s closest and most highly realized spiritual disciples) occurred just days after the Buddha’s death in 543 BCE. On the other hand, the first Council of Nicaea (which sought to resolve many theological questions such as the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, and the Resurrection) occurred 300 years after the death of Jesus. These organizational differences continue to have implications for both religious traditions today. At the same time, the strong similarities between the figures of Buddha and Christ continue to stand out to scholars and practitioners alike.