Was Buddha An Atheist?
By Sant Sevi Ji Paramahans Maharaj
In modern times some scholars have interpreted the Buddha’s silence on the issue of the existence of God as atheistic. In their opinion, Buddha refused to answer any questions regarding the existence of the Divine Reality and the Soul (Atman or Jivatman), and therefore they have concluded that Buddha was an atheist.
Some scholars have interpreted the word ’lord’ in this verse as if it literally means ’lordship’. However, even a cursory examination of the words in Pali, the original language of these texts, yields the true meaning.
It is understood to be illusory and not real, to be ever changing, and dependent upon a higher reality In the Chandogya Upanishad, Brhidarnyaka Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad, and Prashna Upanishad it is repeatedly stated that the nature of the world is transitory, destructible, and not real.
The Upanishads also explain that:
"The soul (atman), which is beyond name and form, is brimming with joy and tranquility. In its Turiyatita form (the fifth state -- a state of cosmic consciousness; a state of unity with the source), atman is beyond good and evil" (Teja bindu Upanishad).
Lord Buddha says:
"A mendicant is one who has no attachment to the world of name and form. He is one who does not grieve for what is not real (asat, the ever changing reality). This is the true mendicant. (Dhammapada, Bhikkhuvaggo)."
One person may say the true form of God is Nameless (transcending any human definition), a second person may say the true form of God is Soundless (nihshabda; beyond sound), and yet a third may keep silence in regard to the nature of the Divine.
If you say that the Divine Reality is nameless and then proceed to describe Him, are you not contradicting yourself! How can you describe something which is nameless? In thinking about this example, one might well conclude that the third person, who was silent when describing God, was actually closer to the nameless description of God.
A prime example of this is found in the famous discourse between Sage Vashishta and Shri Ram in the Yoga Vashistha. Shri Rama had queried Guru Vasistha about the nature of Atman and Brahman (the Supreme Reality).
With joined palms Ram asked his teacher Vasistha: "Reverend Sir! Are you displeased with me and therefore not answering my question, since you always assist me in understanding?" Guru Vasistha replied: "My dear son! I am not displeased with you.
I have been answering the question which you have posed. The answer to your question is only given in silence, since the Divine is ineffable, unmanifest, and beyond the senses. How could I describe the nature of the reality which transcends the senses through these very sense organs (speech)?"
The point here is that if we were to call the Buddha an atheist when he is silent on the question of the nature of the Divine, as some people have, then logically we must also call Guru Vasistha an atheist when he is silent in answer to the same question.
Some scholars have discounted the Buddha’s teachings, claiming that he is promulgating a belief in "emptiness" or "nothingness." These scholars have concluded that the Buddha, does not believe in a Higher Reality (God).
According to their reasoning, it would follow that those who teach about "emptiness" or "nothingness" (shunya) [the transcendent form of Ultimate Reality is also referred to as shunya] cannot be theistic.
Gorakh Nath Ji says:
Sant Kabir Sahab says:
"Meditation on the Formless (shunya) is enjoyed by all knowers of Truth." Guru Nanak Dev Ji says:"In the thought-less state of Samadhi (sunna, emptiness), neither maya (illusion) nor the web of mind exist. Only the gracious God exists."
Saint Charan Das says:
This emptiness is also known as ether (akasha) or void (avakasha). In the Ramcharitamanasa, Goswami Tulsi Das Ji invokes Lord Shiva: "I invoke the name of Shiva--Lord Shiva, who dwells in the space of infinite knowledge (akasha)"
Maharishi Mehi says:
akasham, parakasham, Mahakasham, Suryakasham and Parmakasham. The infinite light permeates all of these akasham, but the Parmakasham is ineffable and is brimming with infinite bliss. It is the essential element."
When one considers all these descriptions of Shunya (emptiness or void), the question arises whether the composers of the Upanishads and the saints were atheists. The unequivocal response is, of course, that they are not atheists.
How then could one logically consider the Buddha to be an atheist? The Buddha regularly speaks of both nirvana and Shunya in almost identical terminology, and yet he is accused of atheism solely on the basis of his silence on this question about the nature of God.
Sant Sevi Ji Maharaj
Sant Sevi Ji Paramahans Maharaj