Modern Hindu and Buddhist traditions share a common origin in the Indian religions of the 5th century BCE, thus it is unsurprising to note that there are many similarities between them. Both religions acknowledge a cycle of life, death, and rebirth, known as samsara (“continuous flow”), which is characterised by dukkha (“suffering”), and which can only be ended by the rejection of all illusions and false beliefs, thereby attaining moksha (“release”) in Hinduism, or nirvana (literally “blowing out”) in Buddhism. Even these two concepts are similar, the former referring to the individual attaining oneness with Brahman – the Hindu concept of the Absolute, a single God which is all existences and possibilities – the latter referring to the obtention of a state of complete emptiness, a passivity which allows one to merely exist with all things. Both moksha and nirvana promise an end to karma (“deed” or “result”), the law of cause and effect which rewards good actions with good results and bad actions with bad results, dictates one’s lot in a next life, and the nullification of which leads to transcendence of samsara. However, even with so much convergence, there are still many differences between Hinduism and Buddhism when it comes to karma and samsara.
In Hinduism, the concept of atman refers to the eternal and unchanging soul, a true self which is incarnated in a physical body until the death of that body, and is then reincarnated in a new body, and so on, ad infinitum, until moksha is attained. Atman is the individual soul which persists through all of an individual’s lives and afterlife, and which holds the karma generated by all of the lives lived in the physical world. Upon the death of the physical body, the atman leaves, according to some traditions to visit heavens or hells and establish its karmic debt before coming into flesh once more, according to other traditions to be immediately pulled into a new body fit for the karma and soul of the individual in question. In Hinduism, the method of releasing oneself from the cycle of samsara is to recognise this atman, the true self, thus dispelling all illusion: for example. in the Dvaita Vedanta (“dualistic Vedanta”) school of Hindu philosophy, attaining moksha results in the atman recognising itself as part of an even greater being, known as paramatman, an aspect of Brahman. Ultimately, an individual can only attain moksha once all of their karma has been experienced, and they have no more desire to be reborn.
Conversely, Buddhism openly rejects the concept of atman, as the idea of a perfect, unchanging and individual entity goes against the Buddhist concept of anicca, “impermanence”, by which it is understood that all things are in constant motion, and that nothing is static. Buddhists use the term atman to refer to the propensity of consciousness to consider itself separate from all other things, rather then the actuality of separateness. To combat this supposed delusion of conscious beings, Buddhists consider the concept of anatta (“not-self”), which states that the entire idea of there being an individual subjective experience – an “I”, or a “me” – is an illusion. Buddhists do not believe in the reincarnation of a being, as they do not believe that being (atman) to exist – rather, they consider consciousness to detach itself from the dead and, due to a desire to continue existing and experiencing the material realm (as in Hinduism), be reborn in a new body, without retaining any individual identity (thus differing from Hinduism), though potentially retaining some aspects of the past existence.
This concept of anatta has certainly had an influence on later Hindu philosophies. In Advaita Vedanta (“non-dualistic Vedanta”), moksha is attained through the recognition of the true self, as in Dvaita Vedanta. However, the true self is then further recognised as being no different from Brahman itself. It is understood that the concept of individuality is illusory, and that all things are Brahman. The state of moksha is described as being one with Brahman, as opposed to the Dvaita concept of being with Brahman, separately, as a part of paramatman. Advaita Vedanta, like Buddhism, makes no distinction between self and reality once release from samsara has been achieved. However, unlike Buddhism, the concept of atman is welcomed, and is seen as being an intrinsic part of the nature of Brahman, rather than a delusion created by a devolved consciousness.
Despite subtle differences in the mechanics of rebirth or reincarnation, many of the beliefs associated with karma and samsara are the same between Hinduism and Buddhism. Both Hinduism and Buddhism recognise karma as being an intrinsic aspect of cause and effect, and as affecting numerous things such as events in one’s own life, events in future lives, and even the very life to which one is reincarnated or reborn. Both religions recognise that one who had been a human may be reborn as an animal, or perhaps even as a spirit, in some forms of Buddhism, or Deva or Devi (God or Goddess) in some forms of Hinduism. Some Theistic Hindu philosophies associate karma with their God or Gods, and even believe that the placation of a Deity may rid oneself of bad karma earned either in one’s own life or earned in a past life.
In Hinduism, karma is broken down into three subcategories: Prarabdha (“commenced”) karma, being the results of past actions which have accumulated and are to be experienced during the life of an individual; Kriyamana (“being created”) karma, which is the karma being generated by the actions of an individual during his lifetime, being either good or bad karma in reflection of the morality or immorality of the actions in question; Sanchita (“accumulated”) karma, which is the total karma built up over all past lives and the life being lived, and which must be entirely dispelled through successive physical existences before an individual can attain moksha. All actions create some amount of karma; however, it is stressed in the Bhagavad Gita that actions undertaken by a detached individual, that is, one who is not concerned by the results of his actions, but acts as he must at the time according to Dharma (“duty”), will lead an individual to perfection, whereas actions undertaken with attachment lead to delusion. Perhaps it is implied that action without attachment will lead to such a general loss of Sanchita karma that an individual’s actions will only yield immediate karma, instantly dispelled, even if this process takes a number of lives to fulfill. One’s karma directly influences one’s reincarnation, to the extent that it is sometimes believed that one is born into a particular varna (“caste”) according directly to one’s karma, and the aptitude of one’s soul towards the actions required of an individual of that varna.
Buddhism takes a slightly different, though generally similar view of karma. In Buddhism, karma can mean either “action” or “result”, and is broken down into only two categories: Kusala (“wholesome”) karma, being the results of good actions, and Akusala (“unwholesome”) karma, being the results of bad actions. However, whereas Hinduism focuses on the actions (and all actions) themselves, Buddhism tends to focus more on those actions which were intended by the actor, and, furthermore, on the intention itself. While Hinduism attaches karma to individuals, Buddhism attaches karma to reality – all actions have results, as per cause and effect, and karma is simply a manifestation of this law of cause and effect. It is not a spiritual or transcendent force, as it can be in Hinduism. The fundamental concept of reaping what one has sewn, however, is still within Buddhism, and as it is not a separate, eternal individual who suffers or enjoys the fruits of his or her actions, it is known to be consciousness itself, as a grand, overarching entity (of a kind), which both suffers and causes suffering. It could be construed, thence, that nirvana must be a state of unconsciousness, for consciousness itself is dukkha, according to Buddha.
Buddhism and Hinduism represent two possible evolutions from relatively similar origins. Buddhism focuses fervently on the concepts of anatta, anicca, and dukkha, stating that all existence is suffering, that atman is an illusion, and that there is nothing permanent in existence. Hinduism, on the other hand, while accepting the concept of samsara and suffering in the physical world, sees the true self as being a permanent and unchanging entity, and either a part of or synonymous with Brahman, “all-that-is”.
 “Samsara is the endless cycle of birth and rebirth to which each soul is subject until it obtains liberation (mukti or moksha) in brahman.” – Weightman, Simon, (1996) “Hinduism” from Hinnels, John R. A New Handbook of Living Religions chapter 5, Blackwell Publishing
 “The escape is nibbana (Sanskrit nirvana), for the Buddhist the supreme bliss and the final liberation.” – Cousins, L.S., (1996) “Buddhism” from Hinnels, John R. A New Handbook of Living Religions chapter 5, Blackwell Publishing
 “The individual who reaches this final goal experiences great joy and happiness. All doubts and burdens are gone. His mind is free from prejudice and complication. He has a firm knowledge of freedom and liberation.” – ibid.
 “There never was a time when I was not, or you, or these rulers of men. Nor will there ever be a time when we shall cease to be, all of us hereafter.” – Krishna, Bhagavad Gita, 2.12
 “As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” – ibid. 2.22
 “Anicca: Everything is limited to a certain duration and, consequently, liable to disappear. ” – Monk Dhamma Sami, (2001) “Three Characteristics”, en.dhammadana.org/dhamma/3_characteristics.htm, Translated 2001 by Thierry Lambrou.
 “According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, illwill, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems.” – Walpola Rahula, (1974) What the Buddha Taught p. 37, New York: Grove Press
 “Thus the terms ‘thirst’, ‘volition’, ‘mental volition’ and ‘karma’ all denote the same thing : they devote the desire, the will to be, to exist.” – ibid. p. 22
 “The first step in the direction of true knowledge is to give up all activities (karma) that are the driving force of the universe…” – Olivelle, Patrick, (2003) “The Renouncer Tradition” from Gavin Flood, The Blackwell companion to Hinduism pp.271-287, Oxford: Blaclwell Publishing Ltd.
 “Therefore, without attachment, always do whatever action has to be done; for it is through acting without attachment that a man attains the highest.” – Krishna, Bhagavad Gita, 3.19
 “It is the only volitional actions- such as attention, will, determination, confidence, concentration, wisdom, energy, desire, repugnance or hate, ignorance, conceit, idea of self, etc.- that can produce karmic effects.” – Walpola Rahula, ob. id. p. 16
 “Whatever is impermanent is dukkha. This is the true meaning of the Buddha’s words: ‘In brief the five Aggregates of Attachment are dukkha.’” – ibid.
Cousins, L.S., (1996) “Buddhism” from Hinnels, John R. A New Handbook of Living Religions chapter 5, Blackwell Publishing
Dhama Sami, Dhammadana (http://en.dhammadana.org), translation by Thierry Lambrou (2001), accessed 26/02/11
Johnson, W.J., (2008) The Bhagavad Gita, Oxford University Press
Olivelle, Patrick, (2003) “The Renouncer Tradition” from Gavin Flood, The Blackwell companion to Hinduism pp.271-287, Oxford: Blaclwell Publishing Ltd.
Walpola Rahula, (1974) What the Buddha Taught, New York: Grove Press
Weightman, Simon, (1996) “Hinduism” from Hinnels, John R. A New Handbook of Living Religions chapter 5, Blackwell Publishing