Buddhism rose in India 2,500 years ago. It played a key role in spreading monastic ideas across the subcontinent. Before Buddhism, the focus on a religious life was the yagna ritual in which gods were invoked for material gains. Great value was placed on social obligations such as marriage and children. Introspective ideas were restricted to intellectual communities. Buddha changed the rules of the game, and discussed ideas of desire and suffering with the common folk, inviting them to join the community (sangha) of monks and live in monasteries (viharas) where one could get wisdom (bodhi) that would grant peace and freedom. This became highly popular. The old ways were being abandoned.
In response, Vedic Hinduism reframed itself to become Puranic Hinduism, which brought hermit wisdom into the householder’s life. While Buddhist scholars focused on the negation of life, hence zero (shunya), Hindu storytellers spoke of affirmation of life, hence infinity (ananta). Life was full of joy and pleasure. The wise were not those who renounced the world; the wise were those who participated in the world, without getting attached to it. Stories of such wise men were retold in epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. In temples, rituals celebrated the marriage of gods and goddesses. Beauty and pleasure found displays on temple walls. People spoke of the wise god, Vishnu, who preserves the social order and does not destroy it as monks do.
The wise were those who participated in the world, without getting attached to it.
In Puranic lore, composed around 1,500 years ago, while Brahma creates social order, he and his children (for example, Indra) are not at peace with the world. Shiva renounces the social order, becomes a hermit, and is at peace. Shakti marries Shiva and gets him to participate in social life, but he remains a reluctant participant, unable to appreciate social norms. Vishnu is a fruitful member of the society, taking various mortal forms (avatar)—at times priest (Vaman), at times king (Ram), at times cowherd (Krishna)—living life fully, wisely, as he is enlightened in the ways of the Veda.
Clearly, for more than a thousand years, Buddhism and Hinduism were rivals. But they influenced each other’s philosophies and mythologies. Adi Shankaracharya was accused of being Prachanna Bauddha, masking Buddhist ideas in Vedic lore, for example; and Buddhist concept of heaven and hell reveals a strong Puranic influence.
The value placed on the household by Hindus, led to the old Theravada Buddhism transforming into Mahayana Buddhism, where a greater value was placed on Bodhisattva, who is more compassionate and understanding of human material desires than the enlightened Buddha. The importance given to hermits by Buddhists led to Vedic Hinduism—which valued pitr-rin (debt to ancestors that was repaid with marriage, children and family life)—to give greater importance to gurus who embraced celibacy and renunciation, such as Shankara and Ramanuja, and created monasteries (mathas) much like Buddhist viharas. Buddhists told stories of how the Adi Buddha manifests himself as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for the benefit of humanity, an idea that mirrored the popular concept of avatar found amongst Puranic Hindus. Thus, for a long time, Hinduism and Buddhist mingled and merged.