The general perception in India is that both Rama and Buddha are avatars of Lord Vishnu who came down with certain tasks to perform. But honestly saying, this perception is the Hindu perception that originated from Puranas.
There is another perception of Rama, which is of Buddhists, originated from Buddha’s talks. So how did Buddha look upon as Rama and what Rama means to a Buddhist?
The Jātaka, are huge volumes of Buddhist scriptures which records Buddha’s talks about his past lives. In the tale no. 461 of The Jātaka, Buddha made a surprising claim and said: “I myself was Rama-panḍita.”
The word panḍita should be read as “the wise”.
In fact, a tale no. 461 of The Jātaka, records Buddha narrating the popular story of Rāmāyaṇa and at last, claiming that he was Rāmā in his previous birth. Although there are few differences in the Buddhist Rāmāyaṇa [narrated by Buddha] and Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa.
Moreover, a Buddhist scripture — The Lankavatara Sutra, chapter 12, records that Buddha was recognised by many Indians as also Rāmā along with other Hindu gods.
Obviously, Buddhists don’t believe Rāmā to be God but at the same time, it should be understood that Buddhists don’t believe even Buddha to be God. It is so because Buddhist doctrine disbelieves in the existence of any external God.
But reading Buddhist scriptures makes it absolutely clear that Rāmā is definitely an honourable personality for Buddhists. And He is so honourable that even Buddha associated himself with Rāmā.
I wish a very happy Diwali to all the believers of Rāmā.
[Note: Wherever in this article, I used the term “ Buddhists”, it is meant to denote “traditional Buddhists” not “Neo-Buddhists”.]