After Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, became enlightened at the age of 35, he began traveling throughout India and Nepal teaching the steps that he took to reach a state of pure Nirvana. It is said that while lecturing both loyal disciples and unacquainted seekers, the Buddha made a point to focus his students in the present moment. Buddhist theology points to the fact that the Buddha himself wasn’t interested in discussing theories about a God and even went as far as to dismiss the idea completely. In the religion of Hinduism, however, scholars tell us that not only did the Buddha believe in a God, but that he was actually an avatar of Vishnu, one of the most important deities in the religion. By examining a number of the Buddha’s teachings, as well as his role in both religions, we can find evidence that may help us answer the question ‘Did the Buddha believe in God?’
The Buddha’s godless teachings:
Buddhist scholars and seekers point out a number of important facts that show why they believe that the Buddha held agnostic, if not atheistic, beliefs. It is certain that he wasn’t interested in discussing the idea of a God, as he believed that it had no particular purpose for reaching the sought-after state of enlightenment. It is said that when the Buddha went from town to town preaching the Noble Eightfold Path, he would remain silent when questions about a higher power arose.
By only briefly examining the religion, it becomes clear to see how the Buddha purposefully constructed his teachings in a way that makes each individual the master of their own destiny. The Buddha did this because he believed that God’s idea was based on fear and reliance. He aimed to show seekers that only through handwork, persistence, and determination could one free themselves from the cycle of suffering that all humans are bound to. Through his own experience, he was able to lay out a set of personal guidelines that one could follow to reach the transcendent state of liberation in this lifetime. Undoubtedly, he hoped to show people that God wouldn’t be the one to set them free. He famously said,
No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
Practitioners of Buddhism also point to the fact that the Buddha’s teachings were based on scientific reasoning rather than blind faith and hope. Since there was no scientifically verifiable way to prove that there was or wasn’t a God, the Buddha chose to dismiss the idea together, rather focusing on more psychological-based logic. There is no denying the fact that through inner exploration, the Buddha was able to uncover a number of ‘scientific discoveries’ long before modern-day science came to the same conclusions.
Today, Buddhists around the world continue to pray to the Buddha for guidance but maintain that he wasn’t anything other than a fully realized human being. Many claims that the Buddha didn’t believe in a God, but others point to the fact that the Buddha’s true beliefs about a higher power were never revealed.
Some will tell you that Buddhists are atheists, but a better term to describe them would probably be non-theistic because the religion isn’t based upon the idea of a supreme being. It is not uncommon, however, to find Buddhists who do believe in a God, as holding this belief doesn’t go against the Buddha’s teachings in any way.
From a Buddhist perspective, all that we do know is that the Buddha’s teachings pay little attention to the idea of a higher power and more closely resemble a philosophical way of living rather than a religion. In Hinduism, however, different explanations are offered to explain the Buddha’s agnostic teaching methods.
The Buddha in Hinduism:
In the religion of Hinduism, the Buddha is similarly revered as an important spiritual figure. While it is widely known that the Buddha wasn’t interested in discussing the idea of a higher power and candidly rejected the notion that he himself was a divine being, Hindu theology tells us that he acted this way in hopes of showing seekers that it wasn’t possible to reach the state of enlightenment solely through prayer and devotion to the gods.
During the age of the Buddha, the primary religion of the time was Brahmanism, which later morphed into Hinduism, and it is easy to see how the Buddha’s teachings were influenced by Hindu counterparts. For example, the Noble-8 Fold Path is made up of eight steps that fall under three major divisions (Wisdom, Moral Discipline, and Concentration) which are similar to three of the paths that Hindus take to reach enlightenment (Jnana Yoga: the path of wisdom, Karma Yoga: the path of selfless action, and Raja Yoga: the path of Meditation). The 4th spiritual path in Hinduism, Bhakti Yoga, is focused on devotion and worship, which obviously didn’t have a place in the Buddha’s teachings. Furthermore, the ideas of karma, reincarnation, ignorance, and the ego are firmly rooted in both religions.
In Hinduism, there are over 300 million Gods who are worshiped depending on a variety of factors, including the circumstances the worshipers find themselves in. Hindus may pray to one god in hopes of attracting wealth, but to a different god in hopes of bringing rain to lands that have been severely hit by a drought. In the times of the Buddha, it is believed that the greater population relied heavily on a vast array of deities to help them in a variety of ways. Hindu sages and seers have told us that the Buddha taught agnostically in hopes of shifting society’s focus to a more personal and internal spiritual practice. The great Hindu Swami and mystic Paramahansa Yogananda, for example, told us:
Buddha was no atheist. His teachings, however, like those of every great master, had to offer correction to the misconception of his day. The people at that time were prone to let God do the work for them, spiritually speaking. Buddha therefore stressed the importance of man’s own effort in the spiritual search.”
Now that we have explored these somewhat contradicting viewpoints of the Buddha, we can now look at more closely at the all-important question: ‘Did the Buddha believe in God?’
Did the Buddha Believe in God?:
While the Buddha did not openly admit to believing in a supreme being and rarely discussed the topic, some of his teachings readily contradict the scientific perspective that he taught. In particular, the Buddha’s teachings on reincarnation offer no scientific evidence (or personal experience) and are firmly rooted in spiritual mysticism.
Similar to his beliefs about a God, the Buddha denounced the notion of there being a soul in the human body and taught of Anatta or ‘no soul.’ He told us that instead of a soul reincarnating after death, it was a stream of thoughts, feelings, and mental energy that was based upon an individual’s karma. This form of reincarnation, nonetheless, has no basis in science or personal experience.
The Buddha wasn’t interested in discussing the God concept because there was no way to verify his or her existence, but at the same time was teaching about an individual’s mental energy transmuting from one body to the next.
Today, whenever highly ranked lamas pass away in the Buddhist tradition, it is believed that they leave important clues to help a search party find their reincarnation. While the point can be made that this doesn’t imply that there is or isn’t a soul, one must question how the primarily scientific and personal teachings of the Buddha include lessons about this sort of karmic transmigration.
While we will never know for sure, the Buddha’s beliefs about the cycle of rebirth make it difficult to think that he did not have some sort of inclination towards believing in a God. By choosing not to discuss God, but talk about reincarnation, the idea that the Buddha taught agnostically in hopes of decreasing society’s reliance on the gods is strengthened. By telling seekers that their karma would have some sort of effect after they died, while also reiterating that God wouldn’t save them, the Buddha was able to masterfully show citizens that they needed to take initiative for their own spiritual growth and development.