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The God-Idea

Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda

The reality or validity of belief in God is based on man's understanding capacity and the maturity of the mind.

I. The Development of the God-idea

To trace the origin and development of the God-idea, one must go back to the time when civilisation was still in its infancy and science was still unknown. Primitive people, out of fear and admiration towards the natural phenomena, had believed in different spirits and gods. They used their spirits and gods to form religions of their own. According to their respective circumstances and understanding capacity, different people founded different gods and different faiths.

In the beginning of the God-idea, people worshipped many gods -- gods of trees, streams, lightning, storm, winds, the sun, and all other terrestrial phenomena. These gods were related to each and every act of nature. Then gradually man began to transfer to these gods, sex and form as well as the physical and mental characteristics of human beings. Human attributes were given to the gods: love, hate, jealousy, fear, pride, envy and other emotions found among human beings. From all these gods, there slowly grew a realisation that the phenomena of the Universe were not many but were One. This understanding gave rise to the monotheistic God of recent ages.

In the process of developing, the God-idea went through a variety of changing social and intellectual climates. It was regarded by different men in different ways. Some idealised God as the King of heaven and earth; they had a conception of God as a person. Others thought of God as an abstract principle. Some raised the ideal of Supreme deity to the highest heaven, while others brought it down to the lowest depths of the earth. Some pictured God in a paradise while others made an idol and worshipped it. Some went so far as to say that there is no salvation without God -- no matter how much good you do, you will not receive the fruits of your actions unless you act out of a faith in God. The Theists said, 'Yes' and went on to affirm that God really did exist. The Atheists said, 'No' and went on to affirm that God did not really exist at all. The Sceptics or Agnostics said, 'We do not or we cannot know.' The positivists said that the God-idea is a meaningless problem since the idea of the term 'God' is not clear. Thus there grew a variety of ideas and beliefs and names for the God-idea: pantheism, idolatry, belief in a formless God, belief in many gods and goddesses, etc.

Even the monotheistic God of recent times has gone through a variety of changes as it passed through different nations and people. The Hindu God is quite different from the Christian God. The Christian God is again different from other Gods of other faiths. Thus numerous religions came into existence; each one differed greatly from the other and each one said that 'God is One.'

II. The God-idea and Creation

As each religion came into existence and developed around the God-idea, the religion developed its own particular explanation of creation. Thus as the God-idea evolved within different religious systems, this idea became associated with various myths. People used the God-idea as a vehicle for their explanations of the existence of man and the nature of the life.

Today, intelligent men who have carefully reviewed all the available facts, have come to the conclusion that, like the God-idea, the creation myths must be regarded as an evolution of the human imagination which began by the misunderstanding of the phenomena of nature. These misunderstandings were rooted in the fear and ignorance of primitive man. Even today, man still retains his primitive interpretations of creation. In the light of recent, scientific thinking, the theological definition of God is vague and hence has no place in the recent, creation theories or myths.

If man is created by an external source, then he must belong to that source and not to himself. Buddhists believe that man does belong to himself and that he is responsible for everything he does. Thus Buddhists have no reason to believe that man came into existence in the human form through any external sources. They believe that man is here today because of his own actions. He is neither punished nor rewarded by anyone but himself according to his own good and bad actions. In the process of evolution, the human being came into existence. However, there are no Buddha-words to support the belief that the world was created by anybody. The scientific discovery of gradual development of the world-system conforms with the Buddha's teachings.

III. Human Weakness and the God-Religions

Both he God-idea and its associated creation myths have been protected and defended by the God-religions which need these ideas to justify their existence and usefulness to human society. All the God-religions claim to have received their respective scriptures as Revelation; in other words, they all profess to come directly from the one God. Each claims that their religion stands for Universal Peace and Universal Brotherhood and other such high ideals.

However great the ideals of the religions might be, the history of the world shows that the religions up to the present day have also helped in spreading superstitions. Some have stood against science and the advancement of knowledge, leading to quarrels, ill-feelings, murders, and wars. In this respect, the God-religions have failed in their attempt to enlighten mankind. For example, in certain countries when people pray for mercy, their hands are stained with blood of the morbid sacrifices of innocent animals and, sometimes, even fellow human beings. These poor and helpless creatures are slaughtered at the desecrated altars of imaginary and imperceptible gods. It has taken a long time for people to understand the futility of such cruel practices in the name of religion. When will they realise that the path of real purification is by love and understanding?

Another weakness of the God-religions is that they offer no salvation without God. Thus a man might conceivably have climbed to the highest pinnacle of virtue, and he might have led a righteous way of life, and he might even have climbed to the highest level of holiness. Yet he is to be condemned to eternal hell just because he did not believe in the existence of God. On the other hand, a man might have sinned deeply and yet, having made a late repentance, he can be forgiven and therefore 'saved' for God's sake. From the Buddhist point of view, there is no justification in this kind of doctrine.

Despite the weaknesses of the God-religions, it is not deemed advisable to preach a Godless doctrine since the belief in God has also done a tremendous service to mankind especially in times of places when where the God concept was desirable. This belief in God has helped mankind to control his animal nature. And so much help has been granted to others in the name of God. At the same time, man feels insecure without the belief in God. He finds protection and inspiration when that belief is in his mind. The reality or validity of such a belief is based on man's understanding capacity and spiritual maturity.

The basic cause for the failure of religion is when the people are made to look upon their religion as an object of mere worship. This means that the religion of essential living is given over to dead functions and ceremonials. When a religion allows these conditions to exist, the religion has ceased to be of value but becomes an actual hindrance.

However, it is not the religion, but the people who profess the religion and who create the demand for a blind faith in their religion. This blind faith in turn creates party-feelings and other forms of partisanship within and among religions. Thus religions, in spite of their high ideals, have failed to enlighten mankind.

Religion should concern our practical life. It is to be used as a guide to regulate our conduct in the world. Religion tells us what to do and what to know. If we do not do or know accordingly, religion is no good and no use to us in our daily life.

On the other hand, if the follower's of various religions are going to fight and to condemn other beliefs and practices -- specially to prove or disprove the existence of God -- and if they are going to spread anger and hatred towards other religions because of the different religious views, then they are creating enormous disharmony amongst the various religious communities. Whatever religious differences we have, it is our duty to practise tolerance, patience and understanding. It is our duty to respect the other man's religious belief even if we cannot accommodate it; tolerance is necessary for the sake of harmonious and peaceful living.

IV.Belief in Deities

Buddhists do not deny the existence of various gods or deities who are more fortunate than human beings as far as sensual pleasures are concerned. They also possess certain powers which human beings usually lack. However the powers of these deities are limited because they are also transitory beings. They exist in happy abodes and enjoy their life for a longer period than do human beings. When they have exhausted all the good kamma, they have gathered during previous births, these deities pass away and are reborn somewhere else according to their good and bad kammas. According to the Buddha, human beings have more chances to accure merits to be born in a better condition and the gods have less chances in this respect.

Buddhists do not attribute any specific importance to such gods. They do not regard the deities as a support to the ethical development or as a support to the attainment of salvation or Nibbana. Whether they are great or small, both human beings and deities are perishable and subject to rebirth.

It is a common belief amongst the Buddhist public that such deities can be influenced to grant their favours by transferring merits to them whenever meritorious deeds are performed. This belief is based on the Buddha's injunction to the deities to protect those human beings who lead a religious way of life; this is the reason why Buddhists transfer the merits to such deities or remember them whenever they do some meritorious deeds. However, worshipping and offering in the name of such deities are not that important, although some Buddhist customs center around such activities. When people are in great difficulties, naturally they turn to the deities to express their grievances in a place of worship. By doing this, they get some relief and consolation; in their heart, they feel much better. However, to an intellectual who has strong will power, sound education and understanding, such beliefs and actions need not be resorted to. There is definitely no such teaching in Buddhism to the effect Buddhists can attain Nibbana by praying to any deity. Buddhists believe that purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one from outside can purify another. This method proved successful in attaining Buddhahood and hence Nibbana without the least help from an external source. Therefore, Buddhists can practise their religion with or without the deities.

Taken from "What Buddhists Believe"
Written by Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda
Published by Buddhist Missionary Society