Various synthetic Hindu-Buddhist teachings have existed through history. In Southeast Asia, the Shaivist and Buddhist traditions overlapped significantly particularly in Indonesia and Cambodia. The most advanced syncretism eventually appeared in Java, as a universal religion regarding both Shiva and Buddha as incarnations of the same being.

Especially in Central and East Java, the two religions did not only coexist peacefully, but also merged. Over the centuries, the meeting and unifying of the teachings of both religions progressively occurred until merging into a unique syncretic religion called Shiva-Buddha.

By observing both Indonesian Buddhist and Shaivist scriptures, appears an evolution of philosophical thought where these two religions eventually merged into the highly sophisticated Shiva-Buddha religion. The Kakawin Sutasoma and the Kakawin Arjunawijaya express very clearly that Shiva and Buddha are one, with no ambiguities.

“It is mentioned that two of His embodiments are the glorious Buddha and Shiva, which are said to be split in two, thus the Buddha Truth and the Truth of Shiva are one, there is no ambiguous truth’’. – Kakawin Sutasoma

Other Javanese texts such as the Sanghyang Kamahāyānikan, Tantu Panggelaran, Kunjarakar, Nāgarakertāgama, Korawāśrama, Bubukcah, etc. discuss the various stages of the formation of the Siva-Buddha religion.

The inscriptions of Kelurak (906 A.D.) also record the merging of the two religions. Numerous temple reliefs also reflect the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of the two religions in day to day life.

A merging through Tantrayana

The syncretism of Shaivism and Buddhism in Indonesia is evident from the merging of groups of gods of both religions, and also from the similarities in matters of upasana and ethics as seen in religious rituals, and especially through the teachings of Tantra, to finally produce a new religion – Śivabuddha, or Shiva-buddhagama.

The merging of Śivaism and Buddhism occurred through the medium of Tantrayana, or Tantric teachings. Tantrayana is one of the dominant factors that paved way to the syncretism between Shaivism and Buddhism in Indonesia, due to the similarities between Buddhist and Shaivist Tantric systems in theology, philosophy and practice, which on the Buddhist side is represented by Tantrayana.

The Buddhist schools generally did not accept the authority of the Vedas and rejected a number of key Vedic principles. This distinction did not apply in the Tantric tradition of Java, which is based on the agamas, much more than on the Vedas.

The Esoteric Buddhist tradition uses mantras, visualizations and deities, much like the Hindu tradition. Theravada Buddhism generally rejects devotional worship and the use of deities. But Vajrayana Buddhism, with its mantras, deities and yogic teachings, is somehow just as close to Shaivite Hinduism as it is to Theravada Buddhism.

A number of gods and goddesses, like Ganesha, Tara and Sarasvati, appear in both Esoteric Buddhism and Shaivist Hinduism.

Śāsana (Sanskrit: शासन) is a term frequently used by both Buddhists and Shaivites to refer to their religion. Thus today we speak of the Shiva-Buddha sāsana.

Three phases in the Shiva-Buddha evolution

The evolution of the Shiva-Buddha cult in Indonesia may be divided into three phases:

  • 1- the evolution which took place before the Majapahit kingdom
  • 2- the evolution that took place during the era of the Majapahit kingdom
  • 3- the evolution subsequent to the Majapahit era, especially in Bali, where both Shiva and the Buddha nature are worshiped in the Padmasana.

It was during the Majapahit era that the union of the two religions reached the peak of its development. Despite Majapahit being a Hindu kingdom, it gave birth to many Buddhist literary works, among which the Sutasoma and the Bubukcah

The mixing of the two cults was widely accepted in society in general, as well as in intellectual level in royal circles. Such unions are subsequently reflected in literary works, in iconography as well as in the religious architecture. The kings of Majapahit were also said to be followers of both religions.

Previous to Majapahit, the existence of differences between Śivaism and Buddhism are still recorded, whereas after the Majapahit era, and especially after the development of the Śiva-Buddha cult in Bali, the two religions merged to a great extent in philosophical, religions and ethical terms.

A uniquely Indonesian teaching

The fusion of Tantric Shaivism with Tantric Buddhism gave birth to a syncretism that is intrinsically Indonesian. Such a harmonious union of the Tantric teachings of Shiva-Buddha, or Shiva-buddhagama is only found in Indonesia, no more found anywhere else.

In the Kakawin Sutasoma, it is recommended that people contemplate “Shiva-Buddha-Tattwa, the nature of Shiva-Buddha”.

“Rwāneka dhātu winuwus Buddha Wiswa” (“It is said that Buddha and Shiva are two different substances”).
“Bhinnêki rakwa ring apan got parwanocene” (“They are indeed different, but how can they be recognized?”).
“Mangka ng Jinatwa kalawan Sivatattwa is single” (‘Because the truth of Jina / Buddha and Shiva is single ‘).
“Bhinneka Tunggal ika tanhana dharma mangrwa” (“Divide it up, but that too. There is no confusion in truth”).

A fragment of these words, ‘Unity in Diversity’, was then made the motto of unity by the Indonesian state.

The combination of Hinduism (Shaivism) and Buddhism has existed since the days of the Old Mataram Kingdom, namely during the reign of Rakai Kayuwangi, the king who succeeded in uniting the two religions.

Then for a while, the kings of Medang, Kahuripan and Kediri embraced Vaishnava Hinduism and the Shiva-Buddha religion took a backstage. It was only during the late Singasari Kingdom when the reign of Sri Kartanegara reverberated Shiva-Buddha re-emerged until the time of the Kingdom of Majapahit.

During the Sanjaya dynasty, the official religion was a mix of Shaivism and Tantric Buddhism.

Popular religion however was always a superposition of Javanese Shaivism with Javanese mysticism (Kejawen).

When Rakai Pikatan of the Sanjaya dynasty married Pramodhawardhani of the Sailendra dynasty, it marked the symbolic religious and political marriage of Shiva-Buddha, as manifested through the Bhumisambhara (Borobudur) and Paramabrahman (Prambanan) temples.

This syncretic spiritual tradition continues to evolve today in Bali and some places in Java, where Shiva-Buddha is revered in the Padmasana as a symbol of the presence of the Eternal Dharma. In Bali, the village of Karangasem is considered an epicenter of the Shiva-Buddha tradition.

The Shiva-Buddha principles also express themselves on the mundane level through the Tri Hita Karana philosophy of maintaining harmony and peace on earth.

Unity of Buddhism and Shaivism

• Both are meditation traditions devised to help us transcend karma and rebirth and realize the truth of consciousness.

• They see the suffering and impermanence inherent in all birth—animal, human or Godly—and seek to alleviate it through developing a higher awareness.

• Both emphasize the need to dissolve the ego, the sense of me and mine, and return to the original reality that is not limited by the separate self.

• Both traditions emphasize enlightenment or inner illumination to be realized through meditation.

Both systems recognize dharma, the principle of truth or natural law, as the basic law of the universe we must come to understand.

• Buddhism defines itself as Buddha Dharma or the dharma of the enlightened ones, which is seen as a tradition transcending time or place. Yoga defines itself as part of the Hindu tradition called Sanatana Dharma, the universal or eternal dharma, which is not defined according to any particular teacher or tradition.

• Both systems share the same basic ethical values, like nonviolence, truthfulness, nonattachment and nonstealing. The vows that Buddhist monks take and those that monks and sadhus take in the yoga tradition are the same, as are those of the Jains.

Ultimately the goal is the same, that of self realisation and liberation of bondage of the physical expression, called Nirvana in Buddhism and Moksha in Hinduism.

Buddhism and Hinduism were never mutually exclusive. There is little contradiction, and it is easy to consider oneself a believer of both if one wants to be. Shaivism and Tantric Buddhism are almost inseparable at the core. Shavite (Hindu) Tantrism fused with Vajrayana – esoteric Buddhist – Tantrism.

Buddhism is indeed an offshoot of Hinduism which rejected the rituals and deities, because Siddhartha began his journey at a time when there was a growing backlash against Brahmanism (what later has developed into modern Hinduism).

Prajnaparamita of Java

Prajnaparamita is the Javanese Hindu-Buddhist Mother Goddess. Her name means “the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom”. Prajnaparamita is the personification of Tara, also known as the “Great Mother” in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

The cult of Tara (or Prajnaparamita) was prevalent in Java and was enshrined in the Kalasan temple. Tara and Prajnaparamita are both referred to as mothers of all Buddhas, since Buddhas are born from wisdom.

The world-famous statue of Prajnaparamita of Java is probably the most famous depiction of the goddess of transcendental wisdom, and is considered the masterpiece of Hindu-Buddhist art in Indonesia.

Prajnaparamita of Java on a saput poleng background – Image source: Didi Trowulanesia