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Saturday 12 November 2011


In their systematic presentations of religious philosophy, the Indian
Buddhists consistently defended the position that belief in an eternal
creator god who superintends his creation and looks after the
concerns of his creatures is a distraction from the central task of the
religious life. This was clearly the position taken in the early P~i
literature and in the Therav~da philosophy based on that literature,
but even in the later Mah~y~na writings such as the Lotus Sfitra and
the Lafik~vat~ra Sfitra, in which buddhahood is portrayed not as a
feature of the isolated career of Siddh~rtha Gautama but rather as a
constant feature of the entire cosmos at all times, great care is taken
to try to distinguish the concept of the cosmic Buddha-nature in the
forms of Dharmak~ya or Tath~gatagarbha from the concept of a
creator god. The Buddhists were, for whatever reasons, eager to avoid
falling into a theistic position. The motivation behind the present
paper has been to discover what those reasons were.
Section 1 will outline how the issue of God's existence is treated in
the early Buddhist literature, especially in the Suttapitaka, where
systematic Buddhist philosophy begins. Section 2 will review the
treatment of the question of divine creation as an issue in the
systematic philosophy of such thinkers as Vasubandhu (400--480),
Dharmakirti (600--660), ~mtaraksita (725--788) and Kamala~na
(740--795). And section 3 will show how the arguments for atheism
are isomorphic with the arguments for a variety of other positions to
which the Buddhist philosophers were committed.
In the Nik~ya literature, the question of the existence of God is
treated primarily from either an epistemological point of view or a
Journal of lndian Philosophy 16 (1988) 5--28.
© 1988 by Kluwer Academic Publishers.
moral point of view. As a problem of epistemology, the question of
God's existence amounts to a discussion of whether or not a religious
seeker can be certain that there is a greatest good and that therefore
his efforts to realize a greatest good will not be a pointless struggle
towards an unrealistic goal. And as a problem in morality, the
question amounts to a discussion of whether man himself is ultimately
responsible for all the displeasure that he feels or whether there exists
a superior being who inflicts displeasure upon man whether he
deserves it or not.
An instance of the epistemological treatment of the question of the
highest good occurs in the Tevijja Sutta, the thirteenth sutta of the
Digha Nikfiya. In this sutta there is an account of a dispute between
two young brahmins, Vfise.t.tha and Bhfiradv~ja, over the issue of which
religious practices lead most directly to union with Brahmfi. Brahmfi is
typically treated in the Nikfiya literature as an object of brahmanical
devotion who is believed by his devotees to be the master over whom
no other being has mastery (abhibhfi anabhibhfito), who sees everything
(afifiad-atthu-daso), the mighty one (vasavattO, who is lord,
maker, designer, chief, creator, master and father of all beings that
have been and of all beings that shall be (issaro kattfi nimfittfi settho
safijitfi vasi pitfi bhfitabhavyfinam). ~ Moreover, companionship with
Brahmfi (Brahma-sahavyatfi) is believed to be the state of salvation,
and so whatever set of practices leads most directly to companionship
with Brahmfi may be considered the most direct path to salvation
(afijasfiyano niyyfiniko). 2 But the brahmin students Vftset.tha and
Bhfiradv~ja have heard from their respective teachers differing
accounts on which practices lead to the goal that they both desire.
And so they decide to approach Gotama the Buddha to see whether
he can decide which party is right in this very important dispute.
On being told the nature of the dispute between Vfiset.tha and
Bhfiradvfija, Gotama Buddha begins by asking the disputants a few
questions of his own, and the answers to the questions show that the
young brahmins believe that there are many alternative paths that lead
to Brahrnfi, but the dispute is really over which path is most direct. On
learning this much, Gotama Buddha then pursues the supposition that
there are paths that lead men to meet Brahmfi face to face. What, asks
the Buddha, entitles us to believe that anyone meets Brahmfi face to
face? Prompted by Gotama's questions, the young brahmins concede
that no living brahmin teacher claims ever to have seen Brahmfi face
to face, nor has any living brahmin teacher's teacher, nor has any
teacher in the lineage of teachers for the past seven generations.
Moreover, not even the Rsis, the ancient seers who made the Vedas
available to man and whose words the brahmin priests learn and
chant and transmit down through the generations, claim to have seen
Brahmfi face to face. What we have then, is the astonishing state of
affairs in which the followers of the brahmanical religious tradition are
striving towards a goal for the existence of which no one has any
evidence. Their religious goal, says the Buddha, is laughable (hassaka),
vain (rittaka) and empty (tucchaka)?
It is not only fellowship with God that is dismissed in this way.
Very nearly the same treatment is given to a Jaina disciple and his
teacher in the Cfi!a-Sakuladfiyi-sutta and the Vekhanassa-sutta
respectively, suttas seventy-nine and eighty in the Majjhima Nikfiya.
Here the Jainas are depicted as seeking after a "highest lustre," a
lustre superior to which and more excellent than which there is
nothing. On hearing of this unsurpassed lustre, the Buddha's response
is exactly the same as his reaction to the idea of comradeship with the
mighty lord and creator of all beings: he challenges the devotees to
point to that to which they are devoted. When they cannot do so,
Gotama spins out an analogy to illustrate to the devotees the nature of
their search. They are, he says, like a young man who goes about
saying "I love and cherish the loveliest woman in the land," but who
cannot say whether she is of high birth or low, of pale complexion or
dark, a city-dweller or a villager, and does not even know what her
name is. In short, the poor fool does not know, directly or indirectly,
the identity of the woman with whom he claims to be in love. We are
entitled to wonder, then, whether he is really in love at all.
The Buddha's reaction to those who seek to meet the creator or
who seek the unsurpassed lustre is not to deny that such things exist.
Rather, it is to take the epistemologically cautious stand that even
though the loveliest woman in the world may exist, one might very
well see the person who uniquely answers to the description of the
world's loveliest woman and yet not realize that she is the person who
answers to that description. Furthermore, it is not clear how one could
ever be certain that a given woman were the loveliest in the world,
unless he could see every woman in the world and know that he had
seen every woman. Similarly, it is not clear how a religious seeker
could be sure that he had correctly identified the greatest lustre or the
master over whom no other being has mastery. And, as we see in the
Brahmajgda Sutta in the Digha Nikhya, the case can be made that
people often misinterpret religious experiences and draw false conclusions
from them, which should make one suspicious of even the very
claims of direct experience of such things as unsurpassed masters.
Until his identification of the supreme being is specific and certain, the
religious seeker may be said to be pursuing such an ill-defined and
nebulous goal that it becomes difficult to determine whether a given
set of practices leads toward or away from the desired goal. In
contrast, the goal of nirvana towards which Gotama's disciples strive is
sufficiently definite -- the elimination of selfish desire and hostility --
that a disciple can have a very clear idea of whether he has or has not
reached it and whether he is or is not making progress toward it. It is
a goal to be realized in this life, not in some future existence, says
Gotama, and he makes no promises to anyone other than that
can be achieved by anyone who strives diligently to attain it. The
definiteness of the goal of Buddhist striving is what makes that goal
more worthy of pursuit than the goals of the BrS.hmanas and the
Jainas -- this seems to be the message so tirelessly repeated in the
Nikhyas. And so the Buddha Gotama is portrayed not as an atheist
who claims to be able to prove God's nonexistence, but rather as a
skeptic with respect to other teachers' claims to be able to lead their
disciples to the highest good.
The above described reactions of the Buddha to the claims of other
religious teachers are simply instances of his well-known aversion
to speculative views concerning matters that are beyond man's ken.
Speculation about such matters as whether the universe is beginningless
or had a definite point at which it came into being was regarded
as a distraction from pursuits closer at hand, and time spent thinking
about such things was regarded as wasted time that could more
profitably be spent on gradually ridding oneself of those counterproductive
attitudes and beliefs that, when acted upon, bring further
distress rather than the desired relief from the inconveniences of the
human condition. That the attitude of the Buddha as portrayed in the
Nikfiyas is more anti-speculative than specifically atheistic is illustrated
by a refrain that is frequently repeated in the Brahmajfila Sutta. Here
Gotama the Buddha differentiates himself from other teachers on the
grounds that he, unlike them, does not propound doctrines concerning
the nature of the self after death. Furthermore, unlike other teachers,
the Buddha realizes that "these dogmatic tenets thus taken up and thus
embraced will lead to such and such consequences and will lead to
such and such a destiny."4 What the reader of this sutta is left to
conclude is that if the consequences of embracing certain tenets about
the existence of the self were healthy, then Gotama would certainly
recommend that his followers embrace them; but, since he in fact
repeatedly warns people to avoid embracing certain tenets, there must
be something about them that he regards as unhealthy or counterproductive.
Some insight into why it is that Gotama regarded the belief in God
as unhealthy, as an obstacle to spiritual progress, can be gained by
looking at the Devadaha-sutta, the one hundred first discourse in the
Majjhima Nikfiya) Here we find an enumeration of the types of
reasons that people often give for why they experience pleasure and
pain. Among the five reasons, one is that pleasure and pain are
created by God (issara). This view is not refuted in the sutta in
question, which is a polemical dialogue against the Jainas. All that is
said is that if God creates pleasure and pain, then the Jainas are made
by an evil creator who inflicts much suffering on them through their
programme of austerities; the Buddha, on the other hand, feels only
pleasant feelings in his dispassionate state, and so, if pleasure be
created by God, then the Buddha's creator must be a kind one. The
other theories, incidentally, as to why men experience pleasure and
pain are that such experiences are (1) the result of actions done in the
past, (2) the result of fate, (3) innate to certain species of beings, and
(4) the outcome of efforts undertaken in the present life. A Buddhist
monk, says this sutta, realizes that the source of all displeasure is selfcentred
craving (ta.nhfi), while the source of pleasure is nonattachment
and dispassion. And so, while the reader is left to conclude that it is
attachment rather than God, actions in past lives, fate, type of birth or
efforts in this life that is responsible for our experiences of sorrow, no
systematic argument is given in an attempt to disprove the existence of
Nor do we encounter actual arguments against the existence of
a creator god in later Therav~da works such as Buddhaghosa's
Visuddhimagga. Here it is explained that the Buddha's teaching that
craving is the root cause of all distress is offered as a corrective to
such false theories as that the world with all its woes is the creation of
a god (issara), or that it is an evolution of primordial matter (padhfma)
as in the S~rhkhya system of philosophy, or that it is a product of time
or fate or that it is an accidental by-product of material elements. 6 But
how and why these theories are false is not explained.
Like Buddhaghosa, the dogmatist Vasubandhu refers to alternative
accounts of how the world and its attendant suffering began, and he
too refers to the views that it began through divine creation, through
an evolution of primordial matter, or on account of time, fate or pure
chance. Unlike Buddhaghosa, however, Vasubandhu supplies arguments
designed to show why these various theories are inadequate.
Concerning the theory of divine creation of the world, Vasubandhu
focuses his attention on three issues. First, he explores the question
of how a single, undivided God, existing at all times, can create a
complex universe the parts of which arise in temporal sequence.
Second, he examines God's psychological motivation in creating the
world. And third, he looks into the relationship between God as
principal creator and auxiliary causal factors that go into making
up the world. Vasubandhu treats these issues in about one page of
Sanskrit prose. Later Buddhist philosophers wrote more extensively on
each of these three issues than did Vasubandhu, but for the most part
they did not explore other issues beyond these three. Let us look at
the issues one by one, seeing first how Vasubandhu treated each one
and then how later philosophers expanded on his treatment.
The position that Vasubandhu and most other Buddhist scholastics
accepted is that the world is caused by a virtually infinite number of
causes, namely, the intentional actions of the countless sentient beings
who have lived through all beginningless time. The belief that there is
a single entity responsible for the rich diversity of experiences is
fundamentally wrong-headed. "The world," says Vasubandhu, "does
not have a single cause. Although they generate their own actions
in birth after birth, the poor wretches of unripened wisdom, who
experience the consequences of their own actions, wrongly contrive
a supreme God." 7 And so it should be noted at the outset that
Vasubandhu's arguments are designed to demonstrate the untenability
of any theory whereby the world's diversity is traced to a single
source. In particular, Vasubandhu points out that all his arguments for
the necessary plurality of causes does as much damage to the
Sfiriakhya theory of primordial matter (pradhfina, or prakrti) as to the
theory of divine creation. 8
Given that understanding of Vasubandhu's own position, let us see
how he criticized the positions that were contradictory to it. He begins
by saying:
If the world had a single cause, whether that single cause be God or something else,
the entire universe would have to arise all at once. But what we observe is that beings
occur one after another. Now that fact could be a function of God's intending for
each individual thing that it arise at a given time and disappear later. But in that case,
since there are numerous intentions, it would turn out that the cause of the world is
manifold. Moreover, that plurality of intentions would be simultaneous, for the reason
that God, which is their source, putatively has no internal divisions?
As will be discussed more fully below in section 3, this argument, or
various modifications of it, was one to which Buddhist academics
repeatedly resorted, not only in their arguments against theism but
also in their arguments against any hypothetical entity that was
supposed to retain its singularity while possessing a plurality of parts
or characteristics. By the time of Vasubandhu a real thing (dravyasat
vastu) is defined as any ultimate simple, that is, anything that cannot
be reduced either physically or conceptually into smaller components.
~° Consistent with that understanding of what it means for
something to be a real thing, Vasubandhu argues that if it is claimed
that God is real and therefore simple, then it cannot consistently be
said that he also have a plurality of separate intentions, one for each
object in the universe. But if God's uniformity is taken seriously, then
he must have only one intention that is applicable to everything at
once. And if that single intention is "Let it be," then everything must
be at once. A simple God can create, it would seem, only a perfectly
static universe. But the universe that we experience is not static.
Vasubandhu anticipates one objection to the above line of reasoning:
"Now one might argue that even if God's intentions occur all at
once, the [created] universe need not do so, since it is created in
accordance with divine will." 11 God's mind could have exactly the
same set of intentions at each moment in history, and in that case it
could not be said that he undergoes change. His unchanging set of
intentions could be: "Let A be at t a, B at tb, C at tc •. • X at tx." Each
event in history could then occur in the sequence that we observe and
still the sequence could occur according to a constant set of volitions.
Vasubandhu rejects this possibility, saying: "That is not so, because
there is nothing that distinguishes those [intentions at one time] from
[those that occur[ later." 12 The point appears to be that if God's set of
volitions is constantly in the form "Let all the events of history occur
in a prescribed order," the problem still remains that in order for the
intentions to be realized by being translated into action, some change
must occur in something; some potentiality must be converted into an
actuality. That change that must occur cannot occur in God himself,
for he is changeless. It must, then, occur outside God. But if that
which converts God's intentions into actions is something outside
God, then we should say that it, rather than God, is the creator of the
This question of how potentiality becomes actuality is taken
up somewhat more fully in Dharmakirti's arguments adduced to
demonstrate the nonexistence of God. The first observation that
Dharmaldrti makes is that a permanent, unchanging entity such as
God would have to have exactly the same nature before the creation
of the world as after; there would be no difference whatsoever
between God as creator and God as a being that is not yet a creator. 13
To be a cause of something is to undergo some change, as when a
seed and the earth in which it is planted undergo changes in nature as
they evolve into a shoot. 14 But if God suffers no changes in nature,
then he surely cannot be regarded as the cause of anything. 15 Even if
there is no apparent change in nature within the cause itself, there
must be some change in at least the cause's circumstances. For
example, it must move from one place to another, or it must come
into contact with an object with which it was not previously in contact.
A weapon, for example, can be recognized as the cause of a wound in
the body only if the body is not wounded before contact with the
weapon, then contacts the weapon, and immediately upon such
contact develops a wound. But if God is supposed to be omnipresent
and therefore always in contact with everything, it cannot then be the
case that God comes into contact with a thing with which he was not
previously in contact, and so it is impossible that a change in some
object be due solely to that object's change in relationship with God. 16
Central to Dharmakirti's argument is the claim that no action is
possible without change, and so no unchanging thing can perform the
action of creating the universe. In this connection he anticipates a
possible counterexample that might be cited to disprove this central
claim. A sense object such as a patch of colour apparently undergoes
no change at all when it is perceived, and yet it is acknowledged as a
cause of sight, as can be shown by pointing out that sight occurs when
a patch of colour is present and fails to occur when no visible object
is present. Is it not possible, therefore, that God can be an unchanging
cause of the universe in the same way that a patch of colour is an
unchanging cause of vision? 17 Dharmakirti replies to this hypothetical
counterargument by stating the principle that nothing can become an
actuality without first being a potential. A visible object could never
actually be seen unless it had the potential to be seen, and so a sense
object must have an intrinsic potential to be sensed, and this potential
must be in some way triggered into actuality. Similarly, if God is a
creator of the universe, it must be admitted that he has a potential to
create that exists prior to his actually creating anything. But if this is
so, we must ask how that potential becomes realized. A visible object's
potential to be seen, for example, is triggered into actuality by factors
extrinsic to the visible object itself; there must be such factors as light,
a sentient being with a functioning eye and an attentive mind and so
forth, or else the potentially visible object cannot actually be seen. But
is there a similar set of factors extrinsic to God that are required to
trigger his potential to create? If so, then God is at least not a
sufficient condition for creation of the universe -- whether or not he is
a necessary condition is a separate question, to which we shall return
in section 2.3 below. But if there are no factors extrinsic to God that
are required to trigger his potential to create, then the conversion of
God's potentiality into actuality must be seen as an action that he
himself performs. But if God performs an action, then he must
undergo change and thus cannot be permanent.
Dharmakirti could also have pointed out in this context that serious
problems result from saying that a thing has an intrinsic potential
to act. For following the parallel to an argument made in another
context, we can see that if we claim that a certain object has an
intrinsic potential to act, then we are forced to conclude that the
object realizes that potential in every moment of its existence. ~8 For
otherwise we have no means of explaining why that which is a mere
potential at one moment becomes an actuality in the next. Just as an
object that has an intrinsic potential to perish must perish in every
moment of its existence (and must, therefore, exist for only one
moment), so also God, if he has a wholly intrinsic potential to create,
must create in every moment of his existence. But this means that
there is never a time when God exists and the created universe does
not. If God is beginningless, then so is the universe. And if the
universe is beginningless, there is no creation after all and therefore
no need to answer the question of who brought the creation about.
Post-Dharmakirtian Buddhist academics, such as gS.ntaraksita
and Kamalasl'ila, provided a natural corollary to Vasubandhu and
Dharmakirti's conclusions that a changeless being cannot perform the
action of creation. Not only can a changeless being not create the
world of sequential events, says g~ntaraksita, but he cannot even know
about the world of change. Even if there were a simple, beginningless
and endless being endowed with the faculty of intelligence, such a
being could not know the events of the transitory world, for if such a
being knew each event separately as it occurred, then he would have a
plurality of cognitive acts and would lose his unity. But if he knew all
events at once, then he would not know the essential characteristic of
events, which is that they occur in sequence. Knowing all events in
history at once would be like hearing every note in a melody played at
once rather than in sequence. Just as the essence of a melody lies in
the sequentiality of the notes rather than in the mere presence of the
notes, the essence of history lies in the sequentiality of events. And so,
concluded ~hntaraksita, if God is indeed simple and eternally changeless,
he cannot participate in or know about history, and so those
of us who are caught in history can derive no benefit from God's
existence at all.
As can be seen from the above discussions, Vasubandhu's claim
that a complex world cannot have a simple and thus eternal cause was
a very powerful and rich claim indeed, which thinkers were still
exploring and expanding upon for several centuries.
A second question that Vasubandhu raises about the theory of divine
creation focuses on the issue of why a self-sufficient and supposedly
perfect being would either need or wish to create anything at all.
Vasubandhu asks:
For what purpose would God expend so much effort in creating the world? Perhaps
for pleasure? Well, if God cannot make an effort without pleasure, then he has no
control over that, and thus he has no control over anything else either! ~9
Even more alarming than the possibility that God's creation of the
universe was a mere indulgence in hedonism is the possibility that it
was an act of cruelty, as evidenced by God's apparent willingness to
allow his creatures to err and to suffer for their errors:
And if God allows his creatures to be afflicted in hells by many guardians and takes
pleasure in that, then we should prostrate ourselves before such a God as that! For
the verse composed about him is very apt that goes:
Because he torments, because he is severe,
because he is cruel and full of might,
because he devours flesh, blood and marrow
they call him the Dreadful (Rudra). 2°
In contrast to the argument concerning the impossibility of the
creator's unity, which became the principal Buddhist argument against
the existence of God, this issue of the creator's motivations was
not stressed by Dharmakirti, ~fintaraksita or Kamala~l-la. In his
Nyfiyamafijari, however, the Hindu theistic philosopher Jayanta Bhatta
devotes a section to arguments adduced by atheists before providing
his own arguments in favour of God's existence. Among the arguments
that Jayanta cites against God's existence is a version of Vasubandhu's
question concerning motivations:
Did the Lord of creation undertake the creation of the universe just as it is after he
had pondered upon a purpose? If the undertaking were purposeless, then he would be
like a madman, in that his actions would not be preceded by reflection. 21
But, Jayanta reports his atheist opponent as saying, God is putatively
endowed with every possible joy and is free of passionate desire, and
so it is difficult to see what he would think he had to gain by creating
a universe without which he is already quite content. The standard
answer that the theist gives to this question is that God created the
world out of compassion. But, says Jayanta's adversary, for whom are
we to believe that God has compassion? Compassion is a response to
beings who are in pain. But surely there can have been no beings in
pain before the creation of the universe; indeed, it was precisely
because of the creation that previously contented souls began to feel
pain and anguish. Moreover, since God is supposedly omnipotent, he
might have created a universe in which sentient beings felt only joy
and happiness instead of this sorry world in which what little pleasure
there is is fleeting and serves only to taunt us in our misery. Perhaps
we can conclude only that the creation was a joke (kri.da) that God
played to amuse himself. But, Jayanta has the atheist say, if the
creation was a joke, it is one the humour of which is too subtle for the
sentient beings to appreciate: "Neither is the Magnanimous One's joke
appropriate, which causes dread in all his creatures, nor is this great
effort to play it." 22
As effective as this investigation into divine psychology might be in
casting doubt upon the purity of the creator's motivation in making
the world such as ours, this line of attack was not as commonly used
by Buddhist academics as the more fundamentally persuasive arguments
based on metaphysical considerations such as the problem of
God's unity and permanence. There is no need, then, for us to dwell
any longer upon the teleological issue.
We have already seen how Vasubandhu, who was followed in this by
Dharmakirti, argued that God cannot be regarded as a sufficient
condition of creation, that is, as a wholly self-sufficient creator with an
innate self-actualizing potential to enact the creation of the world. But
the possibility still remains open that God might be one of several
necessary conditions in the origin of the universe. Historically, in
fact, this view of creation, whereby God is a sentient, noncorporeal
agent whose volition puts coeternal atoms into motion to make up
macroscopic corporeal forms and puts eternal souls into these created
physical bodies, is the one adopted by most Indian theists, who
generally condemned the theory of crefitio ex nihil6 as absurd. In
dealing with the possibility that God requires factors outside himself in
order to create the universe, Vasubandhu first considers the possibility
that the creator's dependence upon other things is due to his being
himself an effect of other causes. If anyone were to hold such a view,
then he would have to answer what it was that caused the creator's
causes and so on ad infinitum. In fact, says Vasubandhu, this theory
amounts to admitting that the universe is beginningless, which is the
view accepted by Buddhists; but if one accepts that the universe is
beginningless, there is of course no need to posit a creator at all. 23
The possibility that God's dependence upon other things is in the
nature of his being the effect of those other things is not to be taken
very seriously, since no one actually advocates such a view, and
Vasubandhu's refutation of it must be seen as a result of a good
philosopher's penchant for thoroughness. Far more serious, however,
is the claim that the world made up of insentient matter requires some
conscious force to put it into motion. The principal argument of the
theistic philosophers in India, in fact, was that since all complex
products require sentient makers and since the universe is a complex
product, the universe must have a sentient maker.
The above argument was one that the Buddhist academics tended
not to reject; the medieval Indian Buddhists, in other words, did not
advocate a position anything like the view accepted by most modern
thinkers to the effect that the universe is for the most part uninhabited
and that sentient life is a development that has come about relatively
recently in the history of an inconceivably vast expanse of lifeless
matter. On the contrary, Buddhist mythology and systematic philosophy
generally endorsed the view that the vast universe is everywhere
populated by sentient beings and that the shape the universe takes
is an accommodation to the force of the constant fruition of the
multitudes of deeds performed by those sentient beings throughout the
history of a beginningless universe. The medieval Buddhist view, in
other words, is no more attuned to modern scientific views than is the
theistic view of creation that the Buddhist academics sought to refute.
What in particular Vasubandhu rejected in the theistic theory that the
universe is sustained and influenced by noncorporeal sentience was
the alleged unity of that sentience. If the material universe obeys the
dictates of only one sentient force, namely God, then human beings
and other sentient beings must be ultimately powerless, and their role
in making all the manufactured items of ordinary life must ultimately
be denied. As Vasubandhu puts the matter:
He who accepts that there is but one cause of the universe must deny the obvious
human effort in other matters. And he who fancies God as a creator along with
[other] causal factors would merely be proclaiming his devotion, for we do not
observe the operation of anything other than [the other[ causal factors when
something arises from them. z4
Dharmakirti did not develop this argument in his discussion of the
theory of divine creation, but gfintaraksita expanded Vasubandhu's
argument considerably. First, ~ntaraksita recapitulates the theist's
claim as follows: "Others regard God as the cause of all things that are
produced. No insentient being, they say, produces its effects by itself. ''z5
But, he argues later, granting that an insentient universe cannot put
itself into motion does not force us to conclude that there is but one
sentient being who motivates insentient nature. On the contrary, in
everything that we observe in the world around us we see that a
multiplicity of effects is preceded by a multiplicity of creators. It takes
many ants to make an anthill, and many men to construct a city and
all the things in it; potters make pots, weavers make cloth, carpenters
build houses and so forth, but we never observe that behind all these
many manufacturers of things there is but a single sentient being at
work with a single will. z6 If there were but a single purposive will
driving all apparently independent sentient beings, there would be no
conflicts among beings, but this is hardly what we in fact observe. And
so, concludes g~ntaraksita, "We have no dispute with what is claimed
in general, namely, that ]products] are preceded by something
intelligent, for diversity is born of deliberate action. In the argument
for ]products'] being preceded by a single, eternal intelligence, the
conclusion is frivolous and [the evidence is] inconclusive, because it is
observed that palaces and so forth are built by many people. ''2v
Closely related to the general issue of whether God is one factor
among many in building and sustaining the universe is the contention
held by some theists that God's function is an essentially administrative
one in that he keeps an account of all the deeds of his creatures
and dispenses retribution in accordance with merit. The crucial
question to be asked in this connection, say the Buddhists, is whether
or not God actually tampers in any way with anyone's stock of merit
and demerit. If not, then it must be admitted that God is essentially
doing nothing more than being aware of the natural process of the
ripening of past deeds that would presumably take place whether or
not he were conscious of it. God would then be much like us, a
powerless bystander witnessing a series of virtually inevitable events.
Positing such a god has no explanatory value, and paying respects
to such an impotent figure would provide little comfort to the
worshipper. And so, if God's administrative talents are to command
our respect, it would appear to be more promising to assume that
God can and does play a decisive role in the maturation of the seeds
of past deeds into present realities. And to say that God plays a
decisive role amounts to saying that he accomplishes something that
the natural fruition process itself would not accomplish. But what can
God accomplish that could not be accomplished by a natural process
of individual karmic seeds maturing into new realities? The most likely
answer to this question is that God must somehow be able to alter the
karmic configurations of sentient beings, to give beings rewards and
punishments that they do not rightly deserve on the basis of the moral
momentum of their own actions. But if God has this power to give
those beings under his care gratuitous benefits, then we are entitled to
ask why he does not consistently exercise this power so that all beings
might always be happy. That he does not do so would appear to
indicate either God's insensitivity to our pain or his cruel willingness
to see us undergo suffering that he could easily prevent. And so, the
Buddhists conclude, whether God is unable to help us, unwilling to
help us or unaware that we need help, he is of little value to man. We
are better off conducting our affairs on our own powers and acting as
if there is no divine power to help us in the task at hand, which is to
transform our characters in such a way that we do only meritorious
actions that naturally ripen into happy experiences in the present and
Of the issues concerning the existence of God that have been outlined
above, the one that received the greatest attention from the Indian
Buddhist academic tradition was that of the possibility of God's unity,
simplicity and permanence. 28 In fact, this principal argument for the
nonexistence of God may be seen as a special application of a form of
argument that occurs repeatedly in Buddhist metaphysical treatises, it
being but another instance of the general Buddhist preoccupation with
the problem of unity in diversity. Generally speaking, the Buddhist
philosophers denied the existence of anything that was supposed to
retain its unity while occurring in or being related to a plurality of
things, as this verse from the Lafikftvat~ra Sfitra acknowledges:
Personal identity, continuum, groups, causal conditions, atoms, primordial matter, and
God the creator are regarded as mere ideas. 29
Why each of these items is regarded as a purely conceptual fiction is
that each is construed as a unity that is composed of a plurality of
components. To give an exhaustive account of all occurrences of the
Buddhist treatment of the one-many problem would be to tell nearly
the whole story of Indian Buddhist philosophy, which is a bit like a
symphony played on a one-stringed violin. Rather than attempting that
monumental task here, let me simply outline four issues that at first
glance might seem unrelated but which all turn out to be versions of
the fundamental Buddhist claim that no whole exists over and above
the existence of individual parts. Following this, I shall indicate briefly
how this same fundamental claim was behind the Buddhist rejection of
real universals and real relations.
Among the first Buddhist philosophical writings to become familiar to
a relatively wide audience within the English-reading world was the
celebrated Questions of King Milinda. In this text the monk Nfigasena
is depicted as explaining to King Milinda that the personal identity
that most people naively believe they possess is in fact no more than a
mere designation, a convenient fiction. To demonstrate this principle,
Nfigasena argues that the person is, like a chariot, really analyzable
into discrete components, any one of which may be altered or
replaced or deleted without impairing the supposed integrity of the
collection of those parts. 3° Just as a chariot's wheel can be replaced
without altering the chariot's "identity" -- that is, without making it a
different chariot -- a person's body can undergo changes, and some
habits can be replaced by others, and knowledge can be gained or
lost, and all these changes can occur without changing the person's
"identity." But when we inquire into where this so-called identity
resides, we find that it cannot reside in its totality in any one component
part, nor can it reside in the set of parts taken as a whole. For
if, let us say, the entire identity of the chariot were to reside in, for
example, the left wheel, then the chassis and the axle and the right
wheel would not be parts Of the chariot at all, for the chariot would be
just the left wheel. And if the left wheel should break and be replaced,
we should have to say that the entire chariot was broken and replaced
by an entirely different chariot. On the other hand, if we assume that
the identity of the chariot resides in the collection of parts taken as
a whole, then, since the whole changes any time any part changes,
to replace any part would be to change the identity of the whole;
to replace a single screw in the chariot would be to create a wholly
different chariot. But it goes against our intuitions of the chariot's
identity to say either that the chassis is not part of the chariot or that
the change of a tiny part creates an entirely different chariot. This
intuition of identity, then, is no more than an intuition. It resides
purely in the mind of the beholder and has no counterpart in the
world outside the mind. What we take to be a person is in fact devoid
of personal identity. Further arguments along this line are developed
in Vasubandhu (pp. 461--479) and throughout the Buddhist academic
In Uddyotakara's Nyfiyav~rttika under Nyfiya-sfitra 2.1.31--33
there is a discussion concerning whether or not it is justifiable to infer,
when one sees the part of a tree that one is facing, that the tree has a
backside as well. Uddyotakara represents the Buddhists as being
unable to regard such an inference as justifiable. In order to use an
observation of A to serve as a sign of B, say the Buddhists, one must
have seen A and B together at some point and one must never have
seen A without B. But it is impossible to see the face and back of a
three-dimensional object simultaneously, and so one can never legitimately
conclude that there is a backside to a tree or any other large
object that one is facing. The Naiyfiyika is spared from having to hold
such a patently silly view, thinks Uddyotakara, because he believes it
possible to see not only the parts of the tree but the tree itself as a
whole object. To see the front of a tree is to see a tree, and to see a
tree is to know immediately that it must have a backside as well, since
having sides facing all directions is part of what it is to be a tree. But
the Buddhists, says Uddyotakara, continue to dispute this Naiyfiyika
claim by availing themselves of the following line of argument. We
cannot say that the tree-as-a-whole resides entirely in any one part,
such as a single leaf, for if that part were destroyed we should then
have to say that the whole tree was destroyed. On the other hand, we
cannot say that the tree-as-a-whole exists only partially in the single
leaf, since that would entail admitting that the tree-as-a-whole is
partite, which runs counter to our intuition that a whole is a unit
rather than a mere assemblage of smaller units. And so, say the
Buddhists, the tree-as-a-unit resides only in our mind and is not
something that can be seen or in any way sensed as a datum of the
world external to awareness.
In Pramfin.asamuccayav.rtti under kfirikfi 5.50, Diflnfiga argues that
proper names (yadrcchfi~abda), usually regarded as words that apply
only to given individuals, are in fact a type of class noun, since what
we ordinarily think of as individuals are in fact complex objects. And
so, just as the word "cow" applies to a plurality of objects that the
intellect gathers together and treats as a unit called a class, a proper
name like "Devadatta" applies to a plurality of traits that the intellect
collects and treats as a unit called a person. But persons and classes
are both convenient fictions for the supposed unity of which there is
no justification in the facts of the world external to consciousness.
In the examples given so far, objects that are usually regarded
naively as units have turned out on closer reflection to be complexes
that because of their complexity in fact lack unity. Atoms, on the other
hand, are defined as absolute simples in that they are divisions of
matter than which nothing could be smaller. But the only unity than
which nothing could be smaller must be without any dimension at all
and so must not be a unit of matter at all, since unlike all other matter
the atom cannot occupy space and be resistent to other units of matter
occupying the same space. The same arguments are applied in some
Buddhist works to the smallest possible unit of time, the moment
Individuality, then, is merely an idea (cittam~ttra), say the Buddhist
academics, for reason shows that things that are given in experience
as existing, such phenomena as persons and chariots, have no real
individuality, while things that theoretically have true individuality,
such things as atoms and moments, cannot really exist.
At Pramfinasamuccaya 5.1--4, Difinfiga argues that the intellect's act
of gathering a plurality of individuals together under a single concept
is done without any basis in a real unity binding the objects together
in the world external to consciousness. There are, in other words, no
real universals that retain their unity while residing in a plurality of
individuals. At Pramfinasamuccaya 5.17 Difinfiga argues that if there
were such a thing as a universal like cowness, then either it would
have to reside in its entirety in a single individual cow or it would
have to reside partially in each individual cow. In the former case
there would then be only one cow, which is not what we in fact
observe. In the latter case the universal cowhood would have internal
divisions and so would not be a unity, which runs counter to the usual
definition of a universal. Therefore universals do not reside in objects
in any way at all, says Difmfiga; rather, they are superimposed by the
mind upon the objects of experience.
Using an argument that is parallel to the argument against the
existence of real universals, Difinfiga concludes that there are also no
relations in the real world. For a relation is supposed to be a unity
that binds a plurality of relata together. But if the relation is a real
object in the world, then it must reside either wholly in a single
relatum or partially in each, neither of which consequences is possible.
Similarly, resemblance cannot be a real feature of objects in the world,
for resemblance is a kind of relation. Resemblance, like any other
relation and like universals, is something that the intellect superimposes
upon the objects of experience rather than something that
is a discovered feature of objects that they have outside our experience
of them.
The doctrine that there is no permanent creator who superintends
creation and takes care of his creatures accords quite well with each
of the principles known as the four noble truths of Buddhism. The
first truth, that distress is universal, is traditionally expounded in terms
of the impermanence of all features of experience and in terms of the
absence of genuine unity or personal identity in the multitude of
physical and mental factors that constitute what we experience as a
single person. As we saw above, the principal Buddhist arguments
against the existence of God focus on the impossibility of permanence
and unity in the causal structure of the universe. The second noble
truth, that distress is the outcome of one's own unrealistic aspirations,
is traditionally seen as ruling out the erroneous view that distress is
something inflicted upon creatures by a cosmic superintendent or by
other circumstances completely beyond their control. The third noble
truth, that distress can be eliminated by divesting oneself of all
unrealistic aspirations, rules out the view that sentient beings, as
powerless victims of a divine will, have no alternative to a life of
constant frustration. And the fourth noble truth, that the best means
of removing unrealistic desires is to follow a methodical course of
self-discipline, counters the view that the road to happiness lies in
obedience to divine will or in trying to manipulate the sentiments of a
cosmic intelligence through prayer or ritual.
Atheism, then, is a doctrine of fundamental importance within
Buddhist religious philosophy rather than a mere accretion acquired
through historical accident. As such it was a doctrine for which the
Buddhist apologists during the academic period were strongly
motivated to find good arguments. Although a variety of arguments
were used, the most frequently used and the most powerful was a
special application of the general Buddhist commitment to the
principle that there can be no real unity binding together any plurality
of things and that all notions of unity in plurality are therefore
superimposed gratuitously upon experience by the experiencing mind.
From this same principle the Buddhist scholastics in India also derived
their commitment to nominalism or conceptualism in the realm of
linguistic philosophy and to the theory of radical momentariness in the
realm of metaphysics.
J Davids and Carpenter (1890), p. 18.
2 Davids and Carpenter (1890), p. 235.
3 Davids and Carpenter (1890), p. 240.
4 "Tayidam, bhikkave, Tathfigato pajfinfiti: 'Ime ditthit.thfin~ eva .m-gahitfi evampar~
ma.t.thfi eva .m-gatikfi bhavissanti eva .m-abhisamparfiyfi ti.'" Davids and Carpenter
(1890), p. 30.
5 Chalmers (1898), pp. 214--228.
"samudayafi~nam issarapadh~mak~lasabh~vfid~i loko pavattati ti akfirane
kfiranfibhim~napavattath hetumhi vippatipattith." (Knowledge of the origin [of distress]
puts an end to misconception with respect to causes, which concerns the belief that
something is a cause when it is not, such as that the world arises owing to God,
primordial matter, time or the inherent properties [of the material elements].)
Buddhaghosa, p. 1156.
7 "tasmfin na lokasyaikarh k~ranam asti. sv~ay evais~n tasy~uh tasyfifia jfitau
janayanti, akrtabuddhayas tu var~k~h svaih svafia vip~kaphalarh c~nubhavanta igvaram
apararh mithy~ parikalpayanti." Vasubandhu, p. 102, under Abhidharmako~a 2.64.
"evarh pradhfine'pi yath~yogarh vficyam." Vasubandhu, p. 102.
9 "yadi hy ekam eva kfiranam i~varah syfid anyad v~ yugapat sarvena jagata
bhavitavyaria syfit, drgyate ca bh~v~nfiria kramasarhbhavah, sa tarhi cchandavag~d
~varasya sy~d ayam idfinim utpadyathm nirudhyat~m ayam pasr~d iti. cchandabhed~t
tarhi siddham anekarh k~ranafia sy~t. sa cfipi cchandabhedo yugapat syfit taddhetor
i~varasy~bhinnatv~t." Vasubandhu, pp. 101-- 102.
1o yatra bhinne na tadbuddhir anyfipohe dhiyfi ca tat/
ghatfirthavat sa~hvrtisat paramfirthasad anyathfi//AK 6.4//
Vasubandhu, p. 334.
i1 "yaugapadye'pi~varacchandfin~trh jagato na yaugapadyam, yathficchandam
utpfidanfid iti cet." Vasubandhu, p. 102.
12 "na. tesSzh pa~c~d vi~esfibhfiv,~t." Vasubandhu, p. 102.
~3 yathfi tat kfiranam vastu tathaiva tad akfiranam/
yadfi tat k,~ranafia kena matarh nestam ak~ranam//PV 1.23//
(That thing [which like God is permanent] is exactly the same way when it is not a
cause as when it is a cause. When it is a cause, by what is it so recognized? Why is it
not believed [to remain] a noncause?) Dharmakirti, p. 16.
14 svabhfivaparinfimena hetur afikurajanmani/
bhfimyfidis tasya sarhskfire tadvi~esasya dar~anfit//PV 1.27//
(Soil and so forth, owing to a transformation Qf nature, is a cause of a seedling's
arising, since the seedling's attributes [such as growth[ are observed in the soil's
constitution.) Dharmakirti, p. 17.
~5 svabhfivabhedena vin~ vyfipfiro'pi na yujyate/
nityasy~vyatirekatvfit sfimarthyafa ca duranvayam//PV 1.25//
(No activity is possible without a change in nature. Since a permanent thing is
unchanging, its capacity to act is hard to believe.) Dharmakirti, p. 17.
~6 ~astrausadhfibhisafiabandhfic caitrasya vranarohane/
asathbaddhasya kiria sth~noh kfiranatvarh na kalpyate//PV 1.24//
(Owing to his contact with a weapon or with medicines, Caitra gets wounded or
healed. But a permanent thing that is disassociated [from activity[ is not considered to
be a cause.) Dharmakirti, pp. 16--17.
J7 yathfi vi~esena vinfi visayendriyasarhhati.h/
buddher hetus tathedaria cet ...//PV 1.28//
(But could this [creation of the world by God] be similar to a sense-faculty's
contacting a sense-object, which without changing [serves as] a cause of awareness?)
Dharmakirti, p. 17.
18 Jayanta Bhatta (pp. 453 f.) reports a Buddhist argument for momentariness based
on the principle that if a thing has an intrinsic, self-realizing potential, then that
potential must be constantly actualized, for otherwise there is no accounting for how
the potential becomes actualized just when it does and no sooner or later.
~9 "ka~ ca tfivad i~varasyeyatfi sargaprayhsenfirthah, yadi pritis tfifia tarhi
n~ntarenop~yarh ~aktah karttum iti na tasyfim i~varal~, syfit tathaiva cfinyasmin."
Vasubandhu, p. 102.
20 "yadi ce~varah narakfidisu prajfirh bahubhi~ cetibhir upasrstarh srstvfi tena priyate
namo'stu tasmai tfidr~fiye~var~ya, sugita~ cfiyarh tam firabhya ~loko bhavati.
yan nirdahati yat tl-ksno yad ugro yat pratfipavfin/
m~rhsa~onitamajjfido yat tato rudra ucyate//
Vasubandhu, p. 102.
2~ "kirh kimapi prayojanam anusadadhfiya jagatsarge pravarttate prajfipatir evam eva
vfi. nisprayojanfiyfirh pravrttfiv apreksfipfirvakfiritvfid unmattatulyo'sau bhavet." Jayanta
Bhat.ta, p. 192.
22 na ca kridfipi ni.h~esajanatfitaflkakfiri.~/
fiyfisabahulfi ceyarh kartum yukUl mahfitmanah//
Jayanta Bhat.ta, p. 192.
23 "kfiranfintarabhedfipeksane vfi ne~vara eva k~ranafil syfit, tesfim api ca kramotpattau
kfiranfintarabhedfipeksanfid anavasth~prasafiga.h syfid ity anantarabhedfiyfi.h kfiranapararhparfiyfi
an~ditvfibhyupagamfid ayam i~varakfiran~ldhimuktah gfikyapfirviyam eva
nyfiymh nfitiv.rttah syfit." (On the other hand, if God is dependent on a variety of
other causal factors to create the world, then he is not in fact the cause of the world.
And if other causal factors arise one after another, then there would be an infinite
regress, since each would require a variety of anterior causes. And so he who believes
that God is the creator does not really reject the Buddhist position, since he too
believes that the sequence of causal conditions, in which one comes immediately after
the other, is beginningless.) Vasubandhu, p. 102.
24 "ekath khalv api jagatah kfiranarh parigrhnatfinyes~m arth~nfith pratyaksah
purusakfiro nihnutah syfit, sahfipi ca kfiranaih kfirakam i~varalh kalpayatfi kevalo
bhaktibfidah syfit, kfiranebhyo'nyasya tadutpattan vyfipfirfidar~an~t." Vasubandhu, p.
25 sarvotpattimatfim i~am anye heturh pracaksate/
nficetanath svakfiryfini kila prfirabhate svayam//TS 46//
~fintaraksita p. 51.
26 kintu nityaikasarvajfianityabuddhisamfi~rayah./
s~dhyavaikalyato'vy~pter na siddhirh upagacchati//TS 72//
tathfi hi saudhasopfinagopur~t.tfilakfidayah/
anekfinityavijfi~napfirvakatvena ni~citfih//TS 73//
(But [the world's] dependence upon that which is eternal, one, and of unchanging,
omniscient mind is a conclusion that does not admit of proof. Because [the property
that the theist cites as evidence for that conclusion, namely, the fact that the world is
a complex product] is not pervaded [by the property of depending upon that which is
eternal, etc.], for the property that is in need of proof does not extend [to all created
things]. For example, such things as houses, staircases, gateways and towers are known
to be preceded by many beings with changing mental states.) ~fintaraksita p. 63.
27 buddhimatpfirvakatvarh ca sfim~nyena yad isyate/
tatra naiva vivfido no vai~varfipyarh hi karmajam//TS 80//
nityaikabuddhipfirvatvas~dhane sfidhya~finyatfi/
vyabhicfira~ ca saudhfider bahubhih kara.neksanfit//TS 81//
gfintaraksita, p. 65.
28 Another issue that came to be frequently discussed by the academics after
Difinfiga's time was that of God as a revealer of truths to which mankind would
without revelation have no access. As this issue has been treated in Hayes (1984), I
have not discussed it any further in the present writing.
29 pudgalah safiltatih skandhfil.l, pratyayfi anavas tathfi/
pradhfinam i~varah kartfi cittamfitrafn vikalpyate//
Vaidya, p. 34.
30 This discussion occurs in gfistri, pp. 19--20.
Buddhaghosa. Visuddhimagga. Edited with Dhammapfila's Paramatthamafijfisfi.t~fi by
Dr. Rewatadhamma. Vol. 2. Pfili Granthamfilfi, 3. Vfirfinasi: Vfirfi.naseyasarhskrtavi~
vavidyfilaya, 1969.
Chalmers, Robert (1898). Editor. The Majjhima-Nikfiya. Vol. 2. London: Pali Text
Society, 1951 (reprint).
Davids, T. W. Rhys and J. Estlin Carpenter (1890). Editors. The Digha Nikfiya. Vol.
1. London: Pali Text Society, 1967 (reprint).
Dharmakirti. Pramfinavfirttikam. Edited with Manorathanandin's Vrtti by Svfimi
Dvfirikfidfisa gfist'ri. Bauddha Bharati, 3. Vfirfinasi: Bauddhabhfirati, 1968.
Difinfiga. The Pramfi.nasamuccayavrtti of Dignfiga. Chapter Five: Anyhpoha-pan-ksfi.
Tibetan text edited with Jinendrabuddhi's commentary by Masaaki Hattori.
Memoirs of the Faculty of Letters, 21. Ky6to: Kyoto University, 1982.
Hayes, Richard P. (1984). "The question of doctrinalism in the Buddhist epistemologists."
Journal of the American Academy of Religion 52: 645--670.
Jayanta Bhatta. The Nyfiyamafijari. Edited by Gafigfidhara ~fistri Tailafiga.
Vizianagram Sanskrit Series, 10. Benares: E. J. Lazarus & Co., 1895.
Sfintaraksita. Tattvasa~graha.h. Edited with Kamalas~a's Pafijikfi by Svfirni Dvfirikhdfisa
gfistril Vol. 1. Bauddha Bharati, 1. Vfirfinasi: Bauddhabh~rati, 1968.
gfistrf, Svfimi Dvfirikfidfisa (1979). Editor. Milindapafihapfili. Bauddha Bharati, 13.
Vfirfinasi: Bauddhabhfirati.
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edition by Aruna Haldar. Tibetan Sanskrit Works Series, 8. Patna: K. P. Jayaswal
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