By Jayaram V
Monks, that sphere should be realized where the
eye (vision) stops and the perception (mental noting) of form fades.
That sphere is to be realized where the ear stops and the perception
of sound fades... where the nose stops and the perception of aroma
fades... where the tongue stops and the perception of flavor fades...
where the body stops and the perception of tactile sensation fades...
where the intellect stops and the perception of idea/phenomenon
fades: That sphere should be realized. — Samyutta Nikaya XXXV.116
Buddhism and belief in God
Buddhism believes in the existence of
neither God nor soul in a theistic sense.
It is basically a religion of the mind, which advocates
present moment awareness, inner purity, ethical conduct, freedom
from the problem of change, impermanence and suffering and reliance
upon one's own experience as the sole teacher, rather than an
external authority, on the Eightfold path.
Unlike other major religions of the world, Buddhism is not centered
around the concept of God or an universal supreme being, who is
responsible for the creation and dissolution of the world and the
existence of sentinel beings.
Buddhism does not even support the existence of an eternal and
unchanging soul. According to Buddhism the whole existence is in
a state of flux and there is nothing that is either permanent or
The Buddhist scriptures, however do confirm the existence of
devas or celestial beings, bodhisattvas or pure beings, both heavens
and hells and other planes of existence.
But none of these are permanent entities. They all are subject
to change and evolution. It is said that the Buddha either maintained
silence or discouraged questions when he was asked to confirm the
existence of a Supreme Being.
Buddha's views on God
The Buddha did so with a purpose. He wanted his followers to remain focused upon
Nirvana without distractions. Therefore, he did his best to keep
them focused upon that single and virtuous goal, without getting
distracted by theological speculation or intellectual
disputation, which was the common preoccupation for many
scholars and religious teachers of his time.
However, this does not mean that he favored the notion of God as
the ruler and creator of the worlds and beings. The Buddha did
not believe in hidden causes but apparent causes that made sense
to the mind and the intellect. Karma was a hidden process, but
its effects could be felt and experienced by one and all. Hence
no supernatural testimony was required to establish its
universality or working.
Once in a while, he expressed his opinions about creation and
the role of God. When Ananthapindika, a wealthy young man met the Buddha at the
bamboo groove at Rajagriha, the Buddha made a few statements about
the existence of God and the real cause behind the creation of beings
in this world. These views are summarized as below:
1. If God is indeed the creator of all living things, then all
things here should submit to His power unquestioningly. Like
the vessels produced by a potter, they should remain without any
individuality of their own. If that is so, how can there be an opportunity
for any one to practice virtue?
2. If this world is indeed created by God, then there should
be no sorrow or calamity or evil in this world, for all deeds, both
pure and impure, must come from Him.
3. If it is not so, then there must be some other cause besides
God which is behind Him, in which case He would not be self-existent.
4. It is not convincing that the Absolute has created us, because
that which is absolute cannot be a cause. All things here arise
from different causes. Then can we can say that the Absolute is
the cause of all things alike? If the Absolute is pervading them,
then certainly It is not their creator.
5. If we consider the Self as the maker, why did it not make
things pleasant? Why and how should it create so much sorrow and
suffering for itself?
6. It is neither God nor the self nor some causeless chance which
creates us. It is our deeds which produce both good and bad
results according to the law of causation.
7. We should therefore "abandon the heresy of worshipping
God and of praying to him. We should stops all speculation and vain
talk about such matters and practice good so that good may result
from our good deeds.
The Buddha did not encourage speculation on the existence of
Isvara, (God) among his disciples. He wanted them to confine themselves
to what was within their field of awareness, that is, to understand
the causes of suffering and work for its mitigation.
He preached that initially each being was a product of ignorance
and illusion and subject to suffering, karma and transmigration.
He therefore urged his disciples to contemplate upon the Four Noble
Truths, practice the Eightfold path, lead a virtuous life by performing
good deeds and works towards their final liberation from all becoming
It is difficult to categorize Buddhism as an atheistic, theistic
or agnostic tradition. There is enough justification to place Buddhism
in any or all these categories. As explained in the concluding
part of this article, Buddhism has elements of both theistic and
atheistic traditions of ancient India, but none of them provide
us with a comforting ground to categorize it in either of them
Although founded by the Buddha,
Buddhism, like Hinduism, is a complex religion, which underwent
profound changes after his death, resulting in the
formation of many sects
and sub-sects, some of which made a radical departure from the original
teachings of the Buddha to the point of standing in their own light
as independent religions.
Were he alive, the Buddha would be surprised to hear about many traditions that rely upon his name
to promote their teachings but show marked disregard for his
original teachings, doctrinal matters and stand points. What
binds them to Buddhism and keeps them in its fold is their
adherence to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
While scholar may keep arguing about the essential nature of
Buddhism, it is the firm opinion of this writer that based upon
the teachings of the Buddha, it is difficult to place Buddhism on
the same footing as Hinduism or Christianity and consider it a theistic
The Buddha ascribed no role to God in creation, in human suffering
or in the liberation of beings. For the Buddha the world was a
godless world in which both good and evil were produced by the
actions of individual beings. While many beings had no choice,
human beings and those above them had a unique opportunity to
exercise their discerning intellect (buddhi) and chose right living to
escape from the law of karma and the cycle of births and deaths.
Therefore, to awaken their minds to the idea of righteous
living and virtuous actions, he taught the world the Four Noble
Truths and the Eightfold Path, ascribing no role to God in
either of them and putting the entire burden of resolving
individual suffering upon the individuals themselves.
In drawing His conclusions and formulating Dharma and the Code
of Conduct (Vinaya) for the monks, he assiduously avoided all manners of speculation
about the supernatural to the extent possible, keeping his focus firmly fixed upon the
causes as well as solutions to the problems of human existence within
the realm of the mind and its abilities, and without alluding to
anything beyond that.
If he believed in transcendence or eternal realities, he kept
them out of the purview
of his discussion and deliberation, even when he was pressed for
a clear answer, considering that it was a major distraction
for his followers in their quest for Nirvana and for himself, in
his attempts to show them the right way.
Belief in Gods, Bodhisattvas and Primordial Buddhas
While Buddhism does not believe in the existence of an all pervading
eternal God who is the cause of the causes, it does believe in the
existence of Noble beings or gods of heaven. The Buddhist texts
mention the names of several gods, whose names are similar in many
cases to the names of their counterparts in Hinduism.
while the deities of Hinduism are eternal, those of Buddhism are
not. They live for longer duration of time, but like all beings,
they are prone to decay and subject to the cycle of births and deaths.
Some of the gods whose names appear frequently in the Buddhist Canon
are Brahma, Indra, Aapo (Varuna), Vayo (Vayu), Tejo (Agni),
Surya, Pajapati (Prajapati), Soma, Yasa, Venhu (Vishnu), Mahadeva
(Siva), Vijja (Saraswati), Usha, Pathavi (Prithvi) Sri (Lakshmi)
Kuvera (Kubera), and Garuda.
The texts also refer to the existence of
celestial beings such as yakkhas (Yakshas), gandhabbas (Gandharvas),
Nāgas, and demons such as Bali and his sons, Veroca etc. Brahma
figures frequently in Pali Canon, which refers to not one but several
Brahmans inhabiting different planes. Like other gods, Brahma in
all these worlds is subject to change and decay.
Apart from them, Mahyana Buddhism refers to the Bodhisattvas or compassionate
beings and primordial Buddhas who inhabit the higher heaven and
act as the guardians of the world.
The Bodhisattvas are truth beings,
who are fully qualified for Nirvana. However, out of compassion
they decide to postpone their liberation and work for alleviating
the suffering of the sentient beings upon earth.
Buddhas are personalized embodiments of different aspects of Buddha
Nature, possessing dharmakayas (bodies of truth), such as Samantabhadra,
Vajradhara, Vairochana, and Adi-Buddha, among others.
The gods of Buddhism have greater powers than humans, but unlike
the gods of Hinduism, they do not enjoy absolute powers. They have
the ability to impact our lives, but they cannot change or alter
the course of life upon earth beyond a point.
Besides, since the
gods are not liberated beings, their actions have consequences and
like humans, they are also subject to the laws of karma. Therefore,
if gods indulge in wrong actions, it will lead to their downfall.
The same is not true in case of primordial Buddhas. They are not
subject to decay and they possess immense supernatural powers.
Life in heaven is not a class privilege. The gods are not created
by a supreme Being. They reach the world of gods through self-effort
and good karma. Ordinary human beings, through their good effort
can be reborn in the worlds of gods.
Although it is not encouraged,
Buddhism does not rule out the possibility of humans taking birth
in the world of gods and gods, having lost their virtue and due
to bad karma, taking birth in our world. Since life in heaven is
equal conducive to suffering, Buddhists aim for liberation rather
than rebirth in the heavens.
Devotion in Buddhism
The origin of Buddhism is rooted in the ascetic and monastic
traditions of ancient India. The Buddha did not advise the monks
to indulge in ritual worship or venerate him or other beings with
However, a few centuries after his death, a schism in
Buddhism led to the formation of Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which
made a radical departure from the traditional teachings of the Theravada
or Hinayana Buddhism and projected ritual worship of venerable Buddha
in his highest and purest aspect as worthy of worship and devotion.
The Mahayana tradition supports the worship of Buddha to
practice love and compassion and receive enlightenment. The purpose
of worship in Buddhism seems to be to enable the worshippers to form
a clear concept of the ideal of Buddhahood and understand the Buddha
nature rather than seeking his grace or intervention in their personal
lives for the alleviation of their suffering.
Buddhism is primarily a monastic and ascetic religion, with some
aspects of theism, borrowed mostly from Hinduism and some
of atheism similar to Jainism. Buddhism adapted the theistic practices
of Hinduism mostly in the context of its own teachings and for the
ultimate purpose of facilitating nirvana through individual effort
rather than divine intervention.
While in Hinduism, followers may
strive for the four chief aims, namely Dharma, Artha (wealth), Kama
(pleasure) and Moksha (liberation), in Buddhism followers aim for
only two, namely Dharma (Dhamma) and Moksa (or Nirvana).
India, the atheists like the Lokayatas, on the other hand, ignored
these two and aimed for Artha and Kama. For them, life was a
unique opportunity to strive for happiness and death was the
Nirvana, the end of all. They found no justification to suffer
here and now in the hope of a better life in the next birth or
Thus, even in this regard,
Buddhism retains its distinct character as a spiritual religion
that can be categorized neither as a theistic tradition like Hinduism
nor as an atheistic tradition like that of the Carvakas or the Lokayatas.
It is a tradition uniquely human, intellectual, practical and
rooted in verifiable, perceptual experience.
Suggested Further Reading