Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam in Western Culture

Table of Content

Historical Background

Hinduism or the Vedic culture is the oldest of the religions of the contemporary times and originated with a race of the Aryans who had come to the Indian subcontinent at a period estimated to be at least two thousand years B.C. even though it started as a philosophy propounded by the Aryan thinkers, it later became associated with Gods, Goddesses, rituals and worship and hence, became a religion (Reed 124).

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     Buddhism on the other hand originated much later in the Indian subcontinent at a time when the Hindu prince Siddhartha avoided material leaving and rejected the  Hindu scriptures ,rituals teachings and other aspects of the Hindu religion concerning creation and the self. He however, embraced certain aspect of the Hindu religion especially those propounding the belief that existence is controlled by the law of Karma and that existence proceeds through many lives. His followers referred to him as the enlightened one (Buddha).

Early influence

     Initially, the Arians who founded the Hinduism religion orally communicated their scriptures from generations to generations while taking care not to merge them with other beliefs and practices that were prominent at the time. However, when such interactions became an inevitable course, the Aryan seers resorted to the recording of their scriptures to help affirm their beliefs and practices (Reed 127). This ensured that despite subsequent intermingling, the pristine form of their beliefs would not be lost. Sanskrit being the spoken language at the time, it was used in recording the Hinduism scriptures. (Bailey et al 133). Early influence entailed struggle, not only between the Aryans and the Dravidians, but between the different clans of the Aryans who fought for supremacy positions in order to be the icons in charge of the spread of Hinduism religion.

     Buddhism, on the other hand, taught its basic pattern, which was commonly known as the Theravada and which was founded on scriptures written in Pali, in the sixth century. Buddhism spread through out a greater part of India and Southeast Asia in the early period before gaining influence in other countries like Japan, Korea, China, Laos, Thailand, Ceylon, Tibet and Burma.

Buddhism and the early Western Civilization

Even though Buddhism is occasionally depicted by many authors as an Eastern religion that is gaining popularity in the Western world, there is evidence suggesting that  the influence of Buddhism in the West is a historical phenomenon that dates back to the period of Alexander the great and the Greeks in India (Bailey et al 133). After the death of Alexander the Great, Ashoka, who was the Indian king converted to Buddhism in light of the bloody battle that he witnessed, and played a key role in spreading the religion of Buddhism throughout his empire and into the Diaspora. Buddhist missionaries were dispatched into the Border areas of Greece like Bactria and Gandhara which were later esteemed for their exquisite Buddhist’s art work (Jong  45).

    However, from this ancient period up to the eighteenth century Jesuits missionaries remained the only westerners in great contact with Buddhism. Later on, the presence of British in India and Sri Lanka entailed far reaching ramifications, as they accounted for the first meaningful exposure of westerners to Buddhism. Another notable impact on the west was fostered by the Theosophical Society headed by Madame Blavasky, a charismatic Russian immigrant, and Colonel Olcot, who was a veteran of the American Civil War. Not only did they play a critical role in influencing the western minds into embracing Buddhism, but they were also instrumental in reviving the religion in Sri Lanka. (Williams and Christopher 124)

Linguistic and Literary Influence

      Since the 1870s, there has been an increasing interest in both Hinduism and Buddhism within the academic arena in the western countries, especially in Europe. Philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche and Helena Blavatsky have for instance been involved in writing about Buddhism and Hinduism for almost a century (Jong 47). In addition, western scholars have also been involved in writing a number of scholarly articles on both Hinduism and Buddhism.  For instance, one publication that seeks to present the religion of Buddhism from the perspective of Buddhists is The Path of the Buddha, which was edited by Peter W. Morgan and other Buddhists scholars. Hinduism and the Indian Culture have been covered by the Western scholars in such publications as is The Religion of the Hindus, which was edited by Kenneth W. Morgan, The Art and Architecture of India, by Professor Benjamin Rowland of Harvard University and, Hinduism and Buddhism, a three –volume work which was published by Charles Eliot in 1921 (Thomas 115).

     Moreover Pioneer translators belonging to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal together with the linguist Sir William Jones heralded the foundations of Oriental studies and ushered in a great impact on the western consciousness on Asian Classics, particularly, Buddhism. These influences were felt by notable western societies and individuals, such as the American poets and writers who included Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Their works helped to further integrate the Asian culture into the western culture (Thomas 116).

  Other classic works written by westerners on Buddhism include the works of Alexander David-Neel, a French mystic, traveler and author, who authored a number of books based on her frequent travels in Tibet and her practice of Tibetan Buddhism. One of her publications that are still read widely is the Magic and Mystery in Tibet, which was published in 1932. Another notable literary work was the publication of the Buddhist Bible by Dwight Goddard in 1932. It was an anthology of Buddhist scriptures with complete translations of Mahayana texts (Williams and Christopher 133).

Growth in post-world war era

The climate of most western states, especially Britain, became favorable to the growth of Buddhism after the First World War.  Leaders like Christmas Humphrey, a London barrister, founded the Buddhist Lodge in 1924. It was later in 1943 renamed the Buddhist Society (Jong 53). In addition, D. T. Suzuki was reputed in England in the 1930’s for is exemplary essays in Zen Buddhism series. Another prominent personality in this period was Alan Watts, who had been influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s poem Kim. He corresponded with Christmas Humphreys and later became the editor of the Lodge’s journal, Buddhism in England. Wats later moved to America where he spread his influence and that of Buddhism with such best selling books as the Meaning of Happiness (1939) and the Way of Zen (1957).

  This period also saw the emergence of a dedicated English soldier, Dennis Lingwood, who as a young soldier, opted to go AWOL in India where as a Sangharakshita; he founded the Friends of Western Buddhist Order (Williams and Christopher 132)

   The period spanning the 1950’s onwards saw the influence of Buddhism spread to western art and culture, and impacting significantly in the fields of Psychology and psychotherapy. American poetry and music was inspired by Buddhism during this duration. Reputed poets and writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac all learned under D.T. Suzuki and their works were to a greater extent, influenced by Buddhism. Ginsberg later became an ardent follower of the Tibetan lamas Chogyma Trungpa Rinpoche and Gelek Rinpoche. Kerouac, on the other hand, wrote the bestselling Dharma Bums, which was a fictionalized chronicle of experiments in Buddhism.

Islam in the contemporary times

The Islamic religion has gained a much wider influence and following in comparison to both Hinduism and Buddhism following in the western countries.  In Europe for instance, the Muslim population is diverse with different histories and background. The Muslim-majority regions in Europe currently are Kosovo, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Albania, Kazakhstan, and the Volga region.  In addition, the Russian regions located in Northern Caucasus and the Sandzak regions of Novi Pazar are also Muslim-majority regions. Moreover, unlike Hinduism and Buddhism religions, whose followers mainly originate in India; Muslim immigrants in Europe are drawn from different countries. France, Spain and Italy have a large number of Muslims from North Africa. The Netherlands and Belgium has most their Muslims drawn from Turkey and Morocco, while Muslim immigrants in the United Kingdom come from Bangladesh and Pakistan and a few from India. This diverse regional representation of Islam is the sole reason for its wider influence on the modern western culture when compared to both Hinduism and Buddhism (Williams and Christopher 134).

Works Cited

Bailey, Lee, Emily Taitz and Randall L Nadeau. Introduction to the World’s Major Religions. London: Greenwood, 2005.

Jong, Jan. A Brief History of Buddhist Studies in Europe and America. New York:

 Sri Satguru Publications, 1987.

Reed, Armstrong. Hinduism in Europe and America. New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914.

By Thomas, Wendell. Hinduism Invades America. Washington DC:

 Kessinger Publishing, 2003.

Williams, Duncan and Christopher Queen. American Buddhism: methods and findings in recent scholarship. New York: Routledge, 1999.


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