Surprisingly, the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism might be less than we imagine. Anyone, of course, can find differences if they choose to not engage with the depth of either Buddhism or Hinduism where the differences are less apparent. This is not to say there are not differences—there are. Perhaps one significant difference is that Buddhists do not believe in a creator god and all that such a god implies.
“He who has eyes can see the sickening sight, Why does not God set his creatures right? If his wide power no limit can restrain, Why is his hand so rarely spread to bless? Why are his creatures all condemned to pain? Why does he not to all give happiness? Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail? Why triumphs falsehood—truth and justice fail? I count your God one among the unjust , who made a world in which to shelter wrong” (Bhuridatta Jataka).
It is primarily with the notion the Self or Atman that there appears to be a broad ugly ditch between Buddhism and Hinduism. But is there such a huge divide? Much of the difference depends more or less on what Buddhist texts are read and how they are interpreted. What, for example, do we make of this passage from the respected Lankavatara Sutra of the Mahayana canon?
"The doctrine of the Self [atman] shines brilliantly; it is like the rising of the apocalyptic fire [lit., the fire of the end of the world, yug-anta-agni], burning up the forest of Self-lessness, wiping away the faults of the heretics" (X: 359, vv. 762-771).
I can’t imagine a Hindu disagreeing with the above passage or many passages from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra like this one: “All beings possess a Buddha Nature: this is what the atman is.” On the other hand, Buddhists, I would argue, tend to make assumptions about their own religion that are questionable, such as the role of the Self in which canonical evidence against it is not so black & white.
What is beyond dispute, which is evident from the old Buddhist canon (i.e., the Pali Nikayas and the Agamas) is that the Buddha is very concerned that we not identify with what is not-the-self which in Sanskrit is anatman and in Pali, anattâ. The key notion here is that by identifying with what is not-the-self which are the psychophysical Five Aggregates or skandhas, we undergo needless suffering since these aggregates are synonymous with suffering. On this score, Hinduism may not have any disagreement.
The Self as being positive in the Pali canon and the Agamas, is certainly implicit and present when, regarding the Five Aggregates that make up our human body, the Buddha says of each aggregate, “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self (attâ).” In considering this, I think most Hindus would be in agreement with the Buddha on the grounds that the absolute or Self is affirmed by the via negativa or neti, neti. To be sure, Hindus recognize that what is finite and transitory cannot be the Atman, or the same, cannot be my self.
I hasten to add, that on the general notion of karma and rebirth both Buddhist and Hindu are in accord as they are in accord with the ideas of suffering and non-harming.
The most significant difference between Buddhism and Hinduism is with the notion of a creator god as earlier mentioned. But I have to be cautious about this because in Hinduism there is nothing quite like the God of Abraham who creates the world in so many days who, I should add, creates both good and evil. Citing from Hajime Nakamura’s book, A Comparative History of Ideas, Hindu thinkers also formulated a non-theistic universal principle which they called Sat (i.e., being). It amounted to an impersonal absolute upon which existence depended. In light of this, both Buddhism and Hinduism acknowledge an impersonal transcendent principle, or the same, ultimate reality.