Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the three most well-known Eastern religious traditions, share many historical roots and themes, just as Judaism, Christianity and Islam do in the West. This article provides a brief overview of the relationship between these three influential traditions.
Hinduism is often called the world's oldest religion, because it is built upon the religion of the Vedic civilization of ancient India, of approximately 2000- 500 BCE. The Vedas are a collection of Sanskrit texts from this period, the oldest sections dating from 1500 - 1000 BCE. Later commentaries on these texts, along with the epic tales the Ramayana and Mahabarata, both written in the 4th or 5th century BCE and depicting the Hindu pantheon, form the foundation for Hinduism.
Hinduism isn't one tradition, but really a way of referring to a diverse set of philosophical and religious beliefs that share these common historical roots, but have developed in different ways. The most well-known contemporary branch of Hinduism is probably yoga, which developed as a set of physical and meditation practices for achieving nirvana, or liberation, and was founded upon the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali believed to have been written between 150 and 100 BCE. Most Hindu traditions share some common beliefs, such as a belief in karma, reincarnation, and liberation.
According to Buddhist sutras, Buddha was born into an Indian royal family that probably practiced Brahminical Hinduism in the 5th or 6th century BCE. In the traditional story of Buddha's life, he leaves home to study spiritually with several teachers, most of whom were teaching within various Hindu sects. After his enlightenment, in his own teaching Buddha broke from Hinduism in several key ways, most notably by preaching against the caste system, declaring that anyone could achieve liberation through practice, and by disavowing the idea of a permanent self.
Since the Buddha lived and taught in India, Buddhism initially was solely based there. Within India, over time it mixed with existing practice traditions such as kundalini yoga and Tantra, forming new practice lineages. Meanwhile, traveling monks and traders carrying written texts gradually spread Buddhism to neighboring domains, where it mixed with other native traditions, creating yet more new Buddhist traditions. For example, in Tibet, it mixed with the native Bon religion, while in China it mixed with Taoism.
Taoism is historically linked to Lao Tzu, a legendary figure believed to have lived in China in the 6th century BCE, although some believe he lived later, or that his legend is actually a combination of several historical figures. In any case, he is credited with penning the Tao Te Ching, one of the most popular and widely translated texts in the world (by many accounts, rivaled only by the Bible in terms of translations.)
Although like Hinduism and Buddhism, the term Taoism has evolved to encompass many diverse traditions, some philosophical and some more religious in nature, all Taoist traditions do share certain common beliefs. The first is a belief in a balance of 'yin' (receiving, intuitive) and 'yang' (active, creative) energies in mind and body, and the second is the core tenet of wu wei or 'action through inaction'. When Buddhism traveled to China, the merging of Taoism and Buddhism led to the development of Chan Buddhism, which then made its way to Japan and developed into Zen Buddhism.
Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism have continued to evolve as they have encountered new cultures. In the West today, the influence of Hindu teachings is seen most notably in the popularity of yoga. Taoist principles are at the heart of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes acupuncture, now widely practiced in the West. And of course Buddhist teachers of many different lineages have traveled to the West, forming new practice centers and traditions.
For a thorough but concise history of Buddhism that provides more details on how new lineages developed as it spread through the world and mixed with other traditions, try: