By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Bhadant Anand Kausalyayan (d. 1988), an Indian Buddhist bhikkhu, wrote extensively on issues related to religion. In this letter to his disciple/friend Yogendra (below), which appears in his book Bhikkhu Ke Patra, he elaborates on the Buddhist understanding of the concept of God. Calicut, January 1936
I am staying at a Vihar in Calicut on my way to Ceylon. There is a gentleman at the Vihar who is teaching a Ceylonese Bhikkhu an English primer. And, as he teaches, I keep hearing him repeat [from a lesson in the book]:
1. God made all of us.
2. God gives all of us happiness.
3. God saves us from evil.
4. If you want to see God, you must pray. He lives in heaven.
A teacher, who believes in God, is teaching the above-mentioned English sentences to a Bhikkhu, and [as I hear him repeat these lines], I think, ‘In what sense […] is this young Bhikkhu taking these sentences?’
You might ask, ‘Did the Buddha not accept God? Is there not even the smallest space for God in Buddhism?’
Let me cite an incident that took place some five or six years ago, which will clarify this question. At that time, I was in Ceylon and was teaching some Buddhist boys a Sanskrit text—[which contained] […] praises of God. The boys began asking, ‘What is God?’ I was really perplexed. They asked, ‘[Is God] Brahma?’ I said, ‘No, he [Brahma] has four heads.’ They asked, ‘Then, [is he] Vishnu?’ I said, ‘No. Vishnu rests on the snake Shesh Nag.’ Then, they asked, ‘[Is he] Shiva?’ I said, ‘No. Shiva wears a garland of snakes round his neck.’ ‘Then, what is God?’ they asked. I had no idea as to what to reply. I wanted to somehow or the other give them an idea of what God is [thought to] be—that He is [thought of] as having no hands and yet does everything; possessing no feet he still goes everywhere; with no eyes, he still sees everything; bereft of ears, he hears everything.
The boys were serious. They did not trouble me, but I could see the surprise and laughter that lined their faces as they thought, ‘What sort of God is this?’ And I could not efface those lines from their faces!
I think [no other] word is used in so many different senses as the word “God’. So, I will advise you that whenever there is talk of God, don’t get entangled in confusion about this term. You first ask your friends [who talk about God] in which sense they are using the term ‘God’. That will help you […]
Leave aside those people who conceive of God as being such a powerful entity as to make it better that one doesn’t converse about such a god at all. The number of such people is decreasing by the day. [Still], today, most people like to think about God. Most people think of God as the creator of the universe. They don’t care at all to ask that [if] God made the cosmos, when did He do so? And, how did he do so? Did he make it sitting or standing? If you ask them, they will at once reply, ‘If God didn’t make [the universe], then who did?’
A friend of mine was once crossing the border between Germany and France. It so happened that at that very moment he lost his passport. The ticket conductor asked all the passengers except for him for their passports. And so, from that day onwards, he started believing in God! He said that if God had not saved him then I should tell him who had. Now, I had two problems to deal with: either I had to accept that God had saved him or else I had to tell him who had actually saved him.
If you see, this is precisely the condition of many people throughout the world. They will say, ‘Either you accept that God made the universe or else tell us who did.’ If you tell them that we cannot believe that God made the universe but nor can we tell them who did, because we are [in this sense] agnostic, or if you tell them that you do not believe that the universe was created, they will not understand you.
So, is it that Buddhists are agnostics when it comes to the question of the creation of the universe? Yes and no. Yes [we are agnostics] if by ‘knowledge of the creation of the universe’ you mean that [it was created] on a particular day, at a certain time, and in a specific place when it [supposedly] came into being from out of nothing. Buddhism does not accept any such time or place. The Lord Buddha told his Bhikkhus that the world is without beginning, and that one cannot find its beginning.
But Buddhists are not agnostics if by ‘creation of the universe’ are meant the arising of the sorrowful experience of this impermanent, misery-ridden world. In this regard, Buddhism tells us how this misery arises and how it can be overcome. This is what is called ‘dependent origination’ in Buddhism […]
Some people think that Buddhism is silent with regard to God. That is why, they think, they have the right to call themselves disciples of Lord Buddha and, at the same time, to keep a safe corner for their dear God in their hearts. But to think in this way is a mistake. Lord Buddha has taught us the Four Noble Truths—the truth of suffering, the truth of the causes of suffering, the truth of the removal of suffering and the truth of the noble path that leads to the end of suffering, and these Truths are so clear and elaborate that after accepting them there is no space at all for accepting any sort of God, in any of the many forms in which he is imagined.
The biggest support for [belief in] God is [what is said to be] divine revelation, the possibility of certain texts being divinely written. If there is no concept of such ‘revelation’ the other arguments offered [in defence of] the concept of God become extremely weak. And if there is no God, then of course there is no ‘revelation’ […]
You write that a long time ago you abandoned [faith in] the concept of revelation. If this is true, then it seems to me that your God is also in danger for He can do little to save Himself.
Besides [the notion of] ‘revelation’, generally speaking, two other arguments are adduced in defence of the concept of God. One of these is: There must be a cause for ever act, and that God is the final cause. The final cause of the universe is God.
There are two flaws in this argument. The first is that if there has to be a cause for every act or thing, then why not for [what is considered to be] the final cause? To make it more clear, if everything has a creator, then God, too, must have a creator. But if you ask someone who made God, he will think that you are making fun of him […]
As you know, for a long time now I have stopped discussing about whether or not ghosts and God exist or not. How can one convince fear-ridden hearts that both ghosts as well as Gods are the creation of human beings? If you have interest in the subject, then read Rahul ji’s (Rahul Sankrityayan’s) introduction to the Hindi translation of the Majjhima Nikaya [‘Collection of Middle Length Discourses’, attributed to the Lord Buddha and some of his disciples], where you will find food for thought.
Another argument that is advanced in defence of God is the fact that everything in the cosmos is so well ordered. It is said that there must certainly be someone who has arranged this order. Some Great Intelligence must be behind everything in the world that is moving according to such perfect order—so it is argued—and that Great Intelligence is God.
There’s a card game that children play. If the cards are looked at in one way they all appear red. But, if looked at in another way, they all seem black. [Similarly], I think that if we insist on deliberately wanting to see only justice in the world we will [go to the extent of] labeling injustice as justice! And if one saves oneself from falling into the pit of self-delusion we will see only injustice throughout the world! […]
Yoginder Sikand is a regular columnist for New Age Islam