Between Buddhism and Hinduism

posted by Sumon Ray

Om! Om! Om! I repeated my “Oms” three times and meditated before I set out on my journey to the treasured temples of Angkor. The number three seems to be appear many times throughout my life, so I shall visit three of Angkor’s most visited temples to unveil what truly makes Cambodia what it is. At the same time, I will hopefully have an idea of what direction my life is headed spiritually and maybe more than that. Interestingly, my guide told me that I would see the shrines of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, and the Buddha.

The three temples that made my adventures in Cambodia more than about tuck tucks and tea were Phnom Bakheng, Angkor Wat, and Angkor Thom. I always heard of stories about the Angkor Empire and how it was part of the Vedic civilization. Ironically, the Angkor Empire went through its own spiritual tug and pull of being Hindu and Buddhist as I have throughout my life. I was born a Hindu, but Buddhist traditions have always caught an interest of mine. Some aspects of Hinduism such as the caste system turned me toward the direction of Buddhism. Before I start putting the blame on Hinduism, I have to realize that the caste system could just be a creation of Hindu extremists who somehow lost the true meaning of Hinduism where no traces of the caste system should have existed.

Anyways, I prepared myself to venture to the temples and hope to find some answer within the temples that have gone through this ongoing war between what parts of Hinduism and Buddhism are worth adopting in one’s life.

From the minute I stepped into the property of Phnom Bakheng, I could tell my spiritual journey began. I followed the mahout balancing elephant and the Khmer music in the background to the small hill we had to climb to arrive at the mountain temple of Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Bakheng is the oldest of the temples that I will talk about and it was built in the lat 9th century dedicated to the Hindu God, Lord Shiva. As soon as I saw a glimpse of the temple, I knew I had to make it to the top to discover where my journey would take me from here. Some of the monks at the top of the temple had covered their bald heads with their robes making me think that I had to unveil something about the past to understand the present.

As I made my way to the beginning of the narrow steps of the mountain temple, I was distracted by a herd of people gathered around what seemed like a little house. The little house happened to be a shrine to where Buddha left his footprints. I bowed to Buddha’s footprints and took it as a blessing for me to climb to a place I have never thought I would have the chance to. I somehow made it to the top of the temple and there waiting was a statue of Lord Shiva.

Lord Shiva is the God of destruction and transformation. I walked to the statue and I could hear drums beating in some distant location as I kneeled to pray to the phallic symbol that made so much sense to me in some form or another. Lord Shiva’s statue reminded me of all the destruction in my life and about the recent car accident I had because I had a flat tire and my brakes failed. Oh, how a chill went down my back and this was in a way telling me to transform myself into a stronger being for the road that is ahead.

Next, I made my way to Angkor Wat, which was the most visited of the temples. Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century and its beauty could be scene in every part of the property. As I entered the property of Angkor Wat, a veil of the past draped the whole complex. The many levels represented the different castes of the caste system and something made me turn away. But I had to face my anger and walked through the depths of judgmental history. What caught my eye was the grand statue of Lord Vishnu dressed up as Buddha. Now that is true presentation of balancing both Hinduism and Buddhism.

The statue symbolized my own struggle to balance both religions. The statue itseld attempts to balance its façade with its Buddhist apparel and Hindu garlands on the numerous hands. Angkor Wat portrayed Shiva, Vishnu, and Buddha in all aspects of the temple. Additionally, the Hindu mythologies of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were set in stones around the temple. At one point of the temple, my guide showed where the temple remained incomplete. When I saw the traces of incompleteness of the temple, I was wondering if I could find completeness in my own spiritual journey. Angkor Wat is decorated in religion whether it is Buddhist or Hindu and I felt overwhelmed by the pendulum going back between both religions. The reflection of Angkor Wat in the body of water in front of it reminded me that religion would always be there if I needed to come back to it. I left the complex assured that I had somewhere to come back to if I was lost in my forthcoming excursion to Angkor Thom.

Angkor Thom is my favorite of all the temples. Thom in Khmer means huge and this temple sure was thom. Angkor Thom was built in the late 12th century and seems to be a temple of the people. The art tells stories of the many people who lived in Angkor. The temple survives and breathes through the simple tales of the people. What seems ordinary is what holds the temple together. While going through the temple I feel more in touch with it. I felt as though I was meeting my loved one and shying away from them. I became the “touch me not” or “shy princess” plants that can be found in the Angkor complex.

The “touch me not” plants are small and shy away or crawl into the ground when it is touched. In the narrow and closed spaces of Angkor Thom, I felt like a blushing bride getting used to making the home of my loved one feel like my own. Finally, I had found Cambodia and myself through the people. The people are what make Angkor and Cambodia in all a place where anyone can find who they are. I found that if the temple and people can overcome the balancing of two religions so can I. Angkor Thom taught me that I can understand who I am through understanding the people around me. So far, I am quite thom compared to the Cambodians around me.


1 comment so far

  1. Arrivu on

    Hi Sumon Ray,

    My name is Arrivu from Malaysia, born as a Hindu and still am a Hindu. I came across this while I was searching on spiritual journey at Angkor Wat. I’m glad I found this post. Normally, Hindus around the world would be making some sort pilgrimage to India, but I’m going to go Cambodia.

    From time to time I could see in your writings that you are very frustrated with the caste system in Hinduism. I don’t believe in caste system. In fact it was only created after thousands of years of Hinduism. I would be glad to guide you to get rid of this anger, frustration or even hatred related to caste.

    I’m really hoping to hear from you.
    Take care.


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