My brief encounter with Taoist Deities in China left me amazed at the similarities with key Hindu concepts
By Rutvij Holay, 17
”From It became One, from One became Two, from Two became Three, from Three became all things in the Universe.” Replace It with Brahman, Siva, Vishnu, or whichever God you believe to be the representation of the Supreme depending on your sampradaya, and you find yourself telling one of the Hindu stories of creation. Replace It with Tao, however, and you find yourself reciting the 42nd verse of the Tao Te Ching, one of the foundational books of the Taoist faith of China.
The similarities do not stop with this one verse. From philosophy to methods of worship to ethics and everything else, there are profound similarities between Hinduism and Taoism, many of which I was blessed to see during a one-day layover in Hong Kong, and in my studies of Chinese culture afterwards. I have found that these similarities are so prevalent that one could claim that Taoism and Hinduism are, in many ways, Indian and Chinese variations of the same faith.
My Revealing Visit to China
The first time I noticed these similarities was in 2019 when I entered a small village in Hong Kong. It was the quaint fishing town of Tai O, from which most of the younger generation had moved out. China is often painted as a second West, incredibly modernized and focused on industrial development; yet, even before we stepped into the village, there was a small red stone murti in a modest shrine just outside.
There isn’t much I can say about it—it was nameless, handless, legless, and merely had a face, with a red hat put on it alongside two stones. What did stand out, however, were the oranges placed alongside it and the red glasses of liquid placed in front of it.
Out of respect for the Deity and not knowing the customs, I did not go closer to it; yet it was clear that He was some sort of Gramadevata for the villagers, given offerings and called upon to protect the village. My curiosity piqued, I took His blessings, so that I could understand the culture of the people in the village better, and how exactly it related to Hindu dharma, if at all. With us were a Hindu couple from Vishakhapatnam whom we had met on the flight going back to their home after visiting their son in California. The resemblance was also clear to them, and they joined me in taking the blessings of the Devata.
Heading into the heart of the village, we came across the 500-year-old Kwan Tai Old Temple. The temple honored Kwan Tai, a general during the Han Dynasty known for his loyalty and righteousness. Much like Hindu mandirs, however, it also contained murtis of other Devatas, such as Tudigong, the God of the Ground and the Soil.
The temple featured a method of divination, something also found in some Hindu temples, though not in this form. Devotees could ask a question, usually regarding marriages and business, and rub two tiles together, throwing them into the air. If both land on the “yes” side, then the answer to the question is yes. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of the method, I did ask the Devatas whether the Chinese Tao and Vedic Brahman are the same. The answer from the tiles was “Yes.”
Similarities in the Two Faiths
After a delicious meal at a local Buddhist monastery, we were on a flight heading home to Los Angeles, where I used the last few days of summer to begin getting an overview of the Taoist beliefs and texts, which until then had been reduced to the popular yin and yang symbol in my mind. I also worked on my Chinese for the next three years, to allow me to better understand the Chinese scriptures and texts. Given the similarities I found between the traditions, it was well worth the effort.
To start with, both religions are inherently pantheistic. Just as Hindus believe that everything in the world is the manifestation of a nameless, formless concept known as Brahman, Taoists hold that everything in the world is the manifestation of a nameless, formless concept known as Tao.
In fact, the Tao Te Ching even goes into philosophy regarding the Atma when it mentions how “the Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao,” which is similar to the Bhagavad Gita’s “The Atma is eternal and constant, and does not die when the body dies.” In this way, it seems that Tao is a far broader term than Brahman, in that it encompasses more concepts.
One common Hindu concept is the idea of Rita, the natural order that governs the universe. Known in Taoism as Tian Tao, “Way of Heaven,” it works “so that all things are brought to perfection by it.” When discussing how men ought to interact with the Way, Taoist texts give the examples of the legendary emperors that all kings aspire to be like—Huangsi, Yao and Shun—who “did nothing, but tried to imitate that Way of Heaven,” much like our Puranas and Itihasas give examples of people like Rama and Harishchandra who always stuck to the dharmic path, and whom many Indian leaders aspire to be like.
The Zhuangzi, a foundational text of Taoism, describes the man who is able to understand the Tao and live in accordance with it: “His whole mind is fixed, and he rules over the world. The spirits of his dead do not come to scare him; he is not worn out by their souls. His words proceeding from his vacancy and stillness, yet reach to heaven and Earth, and show a communication with all things: this is what is called the Joy of Heaven.”
In Hinduism, when one experiences the Divine and aims to merge with that state completely in some way, depending on the sampradaya, they are aiming to not merely understand and live in accordance with dharma, karma and rita, but to transcend these three completely by merging themselves with a higher power, rather than being trapped in the cycle of life and death that is governed by these three concepts.
There are such clear similarities between Taoist and Hindu methods of thought that, language aside, the difference between a Vaishnav and Quanzhen (a sect of Taoism) is no more than the difference between a Vaishnav and a Shaivite.
Given that the two nations have always had contact over their 5,000 year history, it is possible that Taoism is a school from India that made its way to China, but more likely it formed independently.
A few years back, I was discussing with a Native American the similarities between their faiths and Hinduism. When I argued a common origin, he gave me the example of a pond: an Indian may have seen it, and a Native American may have seen it awhile later. Both use the pond for bathing, drinking water, and the like, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Indian led the Native American to it or vice-versa.
It may be the same with Taoism and Hinduism. The Chinese sages and Indian rishis both, through their own contemplation, were revealed the secrets of a divine power, termed by the Chinese as the Tao and the Indians as Brahman, Siva, Vishnu or another name. Both, however, understood that the entity was truly without name, form, or identity, and sought to teach the knowledge they had gained through their meditation to their disciples, both completely unaware that, based on the same divine power, their neighbors were also developing their own system of faith.
Thus it is clear that the realization our rishis came to was not a realization that can only be found under the Hindu banner. Others, whether independently or under Indian influence, came to the same conclusions, and both our traditions, the Chinese Taoist sects and the Indian Hindu sects, are part of the wider Dharmic tapestry that recognizes that all living beings, from the tiniest ant to the human, are manifestations of the Divine itself.
About the Author
Rutvij Holay, 17, of Irvine, California, is an executive committee member of Americans for Equality PAC and a Hindu political activist. He is presently working with his school district and a textbook maker to change how Hinduism is depicted in education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.