Dharma Data: God, gods

Buddhism could be described as a non-theistic religion in that it considers belief in an omniscient, omnipotent creator God to be both untenable and unnecessary. The Buddha himself and many later Buddhist thinkers used a variety of arguments, many of them similar to those used in Western philosophy, to highlight the problems with the God idea. God’s supposed omniscience implies man’s predetermination which makes the idea of trying to do good and to avoid evil meaningless. The existence of an omnipotent loving God is negated by the terrible suffering that is found in the world. The supposed miracles, divine interventions and visions that are used to prove God’s existence could just as easily be given some other explanation. Each religion affirms the existence of its God while denying the existence of all alternative Gods. If we accept one religion’s argument for the existence of its God then we should accept the other religious arguments also, as they are all basically the same. And if we do this we would have to believe in many Gods.

If on the other hand, we accept one religious argument against the existence of alternative Gods then we should accept the other religious arguments as they too are basically the same. And if we did this we would have to believe that there were no Gods etc. etc. But far more important than these logical arguments is the fact that the origins of the universe, the moral order and man’s destiny and salvation can be satisfactorily explained without the need to introduce the idea of a supreme being that is responsible for them all.

Buddhism does however accept the existence of a heaven, one of the six realms of existence, in which dwell many lesser gods. As these are neither omnipotent or omniscient or even particularly good or wise, they may be able to help humans obtain material benefits but they cannot help in the quest for Nirvana. Only in the Tantrayana tradition are gods seen as being spiritually superior to humans.

Nyanaponika, Buddhism and the God Idea. Kandy, 1981;
H. Von Glasenapp, Buddhism - A Non Theistic Religion. London 19 ;
M.M.J. Marasinghe, Gods in Early Buddhism. Colombo, 1974.