BSQ Tracts on Buddhism No. 10

The Buddhist Attitude to God

by Dr V. A. Gunasekara

First Published: February 1993
Second Edition: April 1997

  1. Introduction
  2. Buddhism as a Non-Theistic religion
  3. The Notion of God
  4. The Buddhist View of God
  5. The God-Concept and Buddhism
  6. The Persistence of the God-Idea

1. Introduction

The standpoint adopted here is primarily that of Theravāda Buddhism. But most of what is said will be applicable to most other Buddhist traditions. The Theravāda tradition, also called the Southern school of Buddhism, is based on texts maintained in the Pali language which are the oldest of the existing Canons of Buddhism and reputed to be the closest to the teaching of the Buddha himself.

There is no place for God in the Mahayana traditions of Buddhism as well, and indeed some of the early Indian Mahayana philosophers have denounced god-worship in terms which are even stronger than those expressed in the Theravada literature. Some later Mahayana schools which flourished outside India ascribed some degree of divinity to a transcendent Buddha, considering living Buddhas to a be a manifestation of this ādhi-buddha. But even here it cannot be said that the Buddha was converted into a Divinity comparable to the God of the monotheistic religions.

2. Buddhism as a Non-Theistic Religion

Buddhism is unique amongst the religions of the world because it does not have any place for God in its soteriology. Indeed most Asian religions (with the possible exception of some extremely devotional forms of Hinduism) are essentially non-theistic, in that God does not occupy the central place that is accorded to him in monotheistic religious traditions. But Buddhism goes beyond most of these other religions in that it is positively anti-theistic because the very notion of God conflicts with some principles which are fundamental to the Buddhist view of the world and the role of humans in it (see section 5 below).

However Buddhism is not atheistic in the sense that modern secularism, rationalism, humanism, etc. could be regarded to be atheistic (although it has much in common with them). Buddhism is not concerned primarily with refuting the notion of God (as some atheistic writers have done). It is principally concerned with developing a method of escape from the worldly ills. This involves undertaking a method of mental discipline and a code of conduct which is sufficient to satisfy the most demanding of spiritual requirements. Indeed only very little of the Buddha's voluminous discourses deal directly with the question of God. He was more interested in expounding a way to personal salvation, and to improve the weal of mankind both in this world and in the worlds to come. It is this task that informs most of the discourses of the Buddha which later came to be compiled into the various Canons of Buddhism.

The Buddha did not take an ambiguous or agnostic position on the question of God as he is sometimes represented as having taken by theistically inclined writers. The Buddha has stated his position on God in clear and unequivocal terms.

3. The Notion of God

It is first of all necessary to establish what is meant by the term "God". This term is used to designate a Supreme Being endowed with the qualities of omnipotence and omniscience, who is the creator of the universe with all its contents, and the chief law-giver for humans. God is generally considered as being concerned with the welfare of his human creatures, and the ultimate salvation of those who follow his dictates. God is therefore a person of some kind, and the question whether such an entity exists or not is fundamental to all theistic systems.

In contrast to this notion of a personal God some modern theologians have interpreted the term "God" as representing some kind of abstract principle of good (or "ground of being"). This view was first developed in the ancient Indian Upanishads where God is equated with an abstract principle (Brahman). The ancient Indian philosophers could entertain such a view because they also had a theory of karma which really does away with the need for a personal God. Buddhists too have a theory of karma, which is different from that of the Hindus, and which even more unequivocally dispenses with the need for a Deity. The use of the term "God' to denote an abstract reality by monotheistic theologians who have no theory of karma is difficult to justify; one suspects that this is merely a device to explain away the contradictions that arise from the notion of a personal God. In fact the actual practice of theistic religion proceeds as if God is a real person of some kind or other.

Just as Buddhism rejects the notion of a Supreme God it also rejects the notion of an abstract God-principle operating in the universe. The notion of Brahman (in the neuter) is not discussed at all in the Buddhist texts, and even in India it may well be a post-Buddhist development resulting from the attempt to reconcile the belief in God(s) with the powerful critique of the Buddha. It is therefore the attitude of Buddhism to the notion of a supreme personal God animating the Universe that we must consider.

Buddhism speaks of the existence of category of beings called devas. This term is generally translated as "gods" (with a simple `g' and in the plural). The term deva literally means a shining or radiant being, and describes their physical appearance rather than their supernatural powers (as the translation "gods" seems to imply). To prevent confusion with the notion of a supreme personal God we shall refer to these beings of Buddhist cosmology as devas. Many other religions also postulate the existence of non-human beings who are referred to as `gods' or `angels' if they are considered to be in a better position than humans (with respect to their material conditions of existence). Buddhist cosmology recognises 32 planes of existence some of the higher planes being either states of meditative abstraction or actual domains for the devas. Generally we have direct experience of only two of these 32 planes (those of humans and animals). Planes of existence below these two realms are also said to exist and are characterised by greater degrees of suffering and discomfort. The actual physical location of these planes need not concern us here because the dimensions of the Buddhist universe are even greater than those envisaged by modern astronomy and will contain enough places to accommodate all these planes of existence.

We can easily dispose of the devas in the context of the Buddhist attitude to God because the devas are essentially irrelevant to the human situation. Beings are born in the deva-worlds because of particular karmic factors they have accumulated, and after these karmic factors are exhausted they could revert to any of the other planes of existence depending on their unexpended karma. The devas are not particularly endowed with special powers to influence others, and far from saving anyone else they themselves are not "saved". Salvation in Buddhism comes only from full enlightenment, which could be best accomplished from the human plane of existence.

The Vedic and Brahmanical religion of the Buddha's day postulated a large number of gods, many of them personifications of natural forces. However Brahmanical theology had advanced to the point that one of these gods was considered to be superior to all others, and was even considered to be the creator-god (Ishvara). This supreme god could then be considered as the equivalent to the single God of the monotheistic religions which emerged in the Middle East.

Different names have been given to the supreme god in the Brahmanical and later Hindu literature, but in Buddhist texts the supreme god is referred to as Mahā-Brahmā (or simply Brahmā) who was the chief of a class of gods called the Brahmās. Brahmā of the Buddhist texts may be considered to be the equivalent of the God of the three monotheistic religions that was to emerge in the middle east. The first of these was Judaism which promoted one its gods Yahweh as the one God sometime about the 6th century BCE. Next Christianity adopted the same god under the name of Jehovah who is represented as the "Father" of Jesus. Finally Islam adopted the name of Allah for their only God. To get the Buddha's views on God we must therefore consider his views on Brahmā.

One popular misconception of Buddhism must be dismissed at this point. This is view that the Buddha is some kind of God figure. In the Theravada tradition the Buddha is regarded as a supremely enlightened human teacher who has come to his last birth in samsāra (the Buddhist cycle of existence). Even Mahayana traditions which tend to think in terms of transcendental Buddhas do not directly make a claim for Buddha as God. Thus the Buddha cannot be considered as playing a God-like role in Buddhism. 

4. The Buddhist View of God

In the Buddhist texts Mahā Brahmā is represented as claiming the following attributes for himself:
"I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Supreme One, the Mighty, the All-seeing, the Ruler, the Lord of all, the Maker, the Creator, the Chief of all appointing to each his place, the Ancient of days, the Father of all that is and will be." (Dîgha Nikāya, II, 263).
The Buddha dismisses all these claims of Mahā Brahmā as being due to his own delusions brought about by ignorance. He argues that Mahā-Brahmā is simply another deva, perhaps with greater karmic force than the other gods, but nonetheless a deva and therefore unenlightened and subject to the samsāric process as determined by his karma. In such suttas as the Brahmajāla sutta and the Aggañña Sutta the Buddha refutes the claims of Maha Brahmā and shows him to be subject to karmic law (i.e. cosmic law). Even though long-lived Mahā Brahmā will be eliminated in each cycle of inevitable world dissolution and re-evolution. In the Khevadda Sutta Mahā Brahmā is forced to admit to an inquiring monk that he is unable to answer a question that is posed to him, and advises the monk to consult the Buddha. This clearly shows the Brahmā acknowledges the superiority of the Buddha.

The Buddhist view is that gods may lead more comfortable lives and be addicted to all the sense pleasures, but in terms of wisdom might be inferior to humans. They are even represented as coming to receive instruction from monks and even lay persons. Later on with the Hindu revival and proliferation of God-cults the Buddhists were increasingly vocal against the pretensions of God and his retinue of lesser gods. Nāgarjunā the Indian Buddhist philosopher of the 2nd century CE expressed a commonly shared Buddhist view when he wrote:

The gods are all eternal scoundrels
Incapable of dissolving the suffering of impermanence.
Those who serve them and venerate them
May even in this world sink into a sea of sorrow.
We know the gods are false and have no concrete being;
Therefore the wise man believes them not
The fate of the world depends on causes and conditions
Therefore the wise man many not rely on gods.
Mahāpajāpāramitāshâstra [Lamotte trans. I, p.141]
In the West a number of "arguments" have been adduced to prove or disprove the existence of God. Some of these were anticipated by the Buddha. One of the most popular is the "first cause" argument according to which everything must have a cause, and God is considered the first cause of the Universe. The Buddhist theory of causation says that every thing must have preconditions for its existence, and this law must also extend to "God" should such an entity exist. But while the "first cause" claims that God creates everything, it exempts God from the ambit of this law. However if exemptions are made with respect to God such exemptions could be made with respect to other things also hereby contradicting the principle of the first cause.

But the argument which the Buddha most frequently uses is what is now called the "argument from evil" which in the Buddhist sense could be stated as the argument from dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness). This states that the empirical fact of the existence of dukkha cannot be reconciled with the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient being who is also all good. The following verses from the Bhūridatta Jataka bring this out clearly:

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why does he order such misfortune
And not create concord? 
sace hi so issaro sabbaloke
Brahmā bahūbhūtapati pajānaṃ
kiṃ sabbaloke vidah alakkhiṃ
kiṃ sabbalokaṃ na sukhiṃ akāsi
If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why prevail deceit, lies and ignorance 
And he such inequity and injustice create? 
sace hi so issaro sabbaloke
Brahmā bahūbhūtapati pajānaṃ
māyāmusāvajjamadena c'api 
lokaṃ adhammena kimatthakāsi
If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord 
Then an evil master is he, (O Aritta) 
Knowing what's right did let wrong prevail!
sace hi so issaro sabbaloke
Brahmā bahūbhūtapati pajānaṃ
adhammiyo bhūtapat Ariṭṭtha
dhamme sat yo vidahi adhammaṃ 
Translated by the Author
The Buddha argues that the three most commonly given attributes of God, viz. omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence towards humanity cannot all be mutually compatible with the existential fact of dukkha.

From the Buddhist standpoint the classic theistic statement that "God created man in his (i.e God's) image" has actually to be reversed. It is man who has created God in his (i.e. man's) image! And as man's own image changes so does that of his God. Thus in the present time with the rise of feminism there is an attempt to change the gender of God from a man to a woman (or perhaps even to a neuter). To liberate himself mankind has to shed his delusions, and one of these is the existence of God

5. The God-Concept and Buddhist Principles

Quite apart from explicit statements refuting the God-idea there is a fundamental incompatibility between the notion of God and basic Buddhist principles. We have already mentioned that God cannot be reconciled with the Buddhist notion of causality which is contained in the theory of "dependent origination" which is one of the discoveries of the Buddha during his enlightenment. Certainly nothing like this theory has been propounded prior to the Buddha.

A fundamental Buddhist belief is that all phenomena without exemption (including all animate beings) have three essential characteristics. These are dukkha (explained above), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (insubstantiality, "no-soul"). The attributes of God are not consistent with these universal marks of existence. Thus God must be free from dukkha; he must be eternal (and hence not subject to anicca); finally he must have a distinct unchanging identity (and therefore lack the characteristic of anatta).

Another concomitant of the God-idea that is fundamentally incompatible with Buddhism is the belief that God acts as the final judge and could determine if individuals go to heaven or hell. According to Buddhism the destination of individuals is determined by the karmic law which cannot be interfered by any external process. Only individuals can effect their karmic destinies; even a Buddha cannot "pardon" or otherwise interfere with the karmic process. In Buddhism there is simply no place for a God even if one were to exist.

There is also no place for the notion of vicarious salvation, or atonement for human sins by a "suffering" God. The Buddha affirms that "by oneself is kamma done and by oneself is kamma undone". According to Buddhism no one (and this includes gods or God) can save another. This is a cardinal principle of the Buddha which cannot be reconciled with the declared attributes and actions of God.

The Buddhist path to salvation is based on deeds (including mental culture through "meditation") not prayer. God appears to Buddhists to be a vain being expecting all others to pray to him and worship him. Indeed such prayer seems to be the most decisive factor in a person's salvation, not necessarily any good or bad deeds by him. But as mentioned above in Buddhism it is volitional action with determines the karma of an individual.

There is no doubt some similarities in the moral codes of Buddhism and some theistic religions. Things like compassion are inculcated in all religions. But in Buddhism this does not arise from a heavenly dictate and there is no limitation in the exercise of these virtues as occurs in some theistic religion. 

6. The Persistence of the God-Idea

The Buddha's refutation of the God-concept was formulated some 2500 years ago, perhaps at the very time that the idea of a single supreme God was mooted in India and in the Middle East. With the rise of modern science, and the discovery of natural causes for phenomena which were formerly ascribed to the action of God, some philosophers have restated the basic fallacies of the God-hypothesis using modern science and logic (and not the Buddha's dhamma) as their point of departure. Yet many people in the world formally subscribe to the notion of God. What is the Buddhist explanation for this phenomenon?

There are many causes for the persistence of the God-idea. Some of these are induced by social and other factors. These include the institutionalisation of theistic religion, the use of vast economic resources to propagate it including the mass media, and the legal right given to parents to impose their religions on their children. There is also the attractiveness of vicarious salvation, or salvation through prayer or forgiveness which permits the committing of many moral crimes for which the doer does not "pay". We shall not consider these here. From the Buddhist point of view the root causes are ignorance and fear, with fear itself ultimately the product of ignorance. Atheistic materialism has failed to dislodge the God-idea not because of any deficiency of its arguments when compared to those put forward by the theists, but because it too has not been able to eliminate ignorance.

The ignorance (avijjā) that is meant here cannot be eliminated by formal education and the propagation of scientific knowledge. After all some leading scientists are themselves completely deluded by theistic suppositions. The progress of science has resulted only in a minor diminution in the power of theistic religion, and in any case theologians have become adept at "reinterpreting" dogma while the general followers continue to do what they have always done.

The Buddha himself grasped the overpervading nature of ignorance because of his titanic struggle to liberate himself. He even initially displayed some reluctance to propagate his knowledge because of the formidable nature of the task. Nonetheless he proclaimed his knowledge out of compassion for the world because he felt that at least a few "with little dust in their eyes" would be able to benefit fully from his ideas. From the Buddhist point of view the persistence of theism, with all its evil consequences seen in history, is a necessary consequence of the persistence of ignorance.

While intellectual and scientific knowledge is not the sole (or even essential) constituent of wisdom (paññā) it could in the modern world with high levels of educational attainment be a good basis for it. But what is really required is the cultivation of the mind (bhāvanā, samādhi). This is usually referred to as "meditation" even though this term is quite inadequate to convey the full implications of what is meant. Many modern-day "meditation teachers" do not give instruction in Buddhist mental culture, and even some of those who claim to do so may take a literal view of a few classic Buddhist texts on the subject. The Buddhist path requires a correct balance between three components: wisdom, morality and mental culture. Progress in all these three areas must be made simultaneously, and exclusive concentration on any one these, especially "meditation" of a highly stylised form, is not the balanced path. The Buddha has asked all his disciples to go to the Dhamma as their guide rather than to specific teachers. The Buddha's final instruction to his followers was to "work out your own salvation with diligence" with the Buddha's teaching (the dhamma) as the only guide.

The path of the Buddha cannot be followed if a person is deluded by the notion of God. This is why a correct understanding of all the ramifications of the God-idea is essential for anyone seeking to progress along the Buddhist path to total liberation.