The Buddhist Myth of Ignorant Gods

One of the most important assumptions underpinning the Buddhist project, which moreover shaped Buddhism’s historical interaction with other religions and the cultures into which it migrated, is the belief that the gods are ignorant beings still trapped in saṃsāra, while the Buddha and other Buddhist figures (arhats, pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas) are wise and liberated from saṃsāra. 

Buddhism is historically unique as a revealed religion in that it does not deny the existence of non-Buddhist deities, nor does it demonize them. This stands in contrast to Christian thought, in which the gods of polytheists are at best  intellectual errors, or at worst spawns of Satan intent on leading away souls from God’s salvation into Hell. Buddhist traditions throughout history have believed that gods do exist, and they might even be helpful at times, but they are not a means to liberation from saṃsāra. This is why cults to local gods have normally been retained in Buddhist cultures. However, these same Buddhist traditions also tend to consciously reduce the status of local pantheons.

This reason behind this is traced back to the myth of the genesis of Buddhadharma. As the ancient account of Śākyamuni tells us, the young prince decided to abandon his family to pursue a spiritual quest, realizing that worldly pleasures are fleeting, and that liberation from saṃsāra was the only reasonable goal to pursue in life. After studying under some teachers and experimenting with their teachings, he eventually figured out the full truth, unlike his past teachers, and became a fully-awakened buddha, i.e., an awoken one under what would become known as the Bodhi Tree. He was initially hesitant to teach his Dharma to the world, but Brahmā requested that he teach, and it was only then that the Buddha commenced his teaching career (see here).

There is, however, an issue with this myth: Brahmā is supposed to live millions upon millions of human years as a semi-omniscient god, high above even Mt. Meru, being able to look down and survey the world below at will. Why was a thirty-five year-old man able to attain full wisdom only after a few years, whereas Brahmā despite his immeasurably long life was never able to figure things out on his own? From a modern scholarly perspective, the introduction of Brahmā into the story of Śākyamuni’s awakening probably just reflects the attempt of early Buddhist bards to position their religion above those contemporaries who believed Brahmā to be the supreme god. This myth, however, points to the Buddhist assumption that the gods are ignorant or at the very least incapable of figuring things out on their own despite their status and lifespan, and that the buddhas know better.

This is really important to bear in mind because this belief undermines the legitimacy of sacrifices performed to gods. The criticism of the efficacy of these sacrifices is one of the classical “selling points” of Buddhism: make your offerings instead to arhats and the sangha, since the merit is better. 

This also positions human sages, including those in the flesh and blood, above divine beings. A living arhat is considered a suitable refuge, whereas Brahmā is not. Even today, a Buddhist adept considered by his (or rarely her) devotees to be an arhat or advanced bodhisattva is indirectly also believed to be superior in wisdom to Brahmā. Brahmā is a largely ignorant saṃsāric god, while the living arhat, or tulku in the Tibetan context, is a wise being who has truly transcended saṃsāra.

Swayambunath Stūpa (Kathmandu)
There are some traditional Buddhist explanations for the ignorance of the gods. One of the most common is that their realms are so pleasant that they have no need to think of suffering and the need for wisdom before their mortality starts to show, by which time it is too late to do anything. Even if exposed to the Dharma, they have no interest in it. This is why being reborn as a deva is almost as bad as being reborn as an animal: the former has no interest in Dharma, which is almost equivalent to being an animal unable to comprehend language. The gods might also hold false views and never relinquish them over the course of their long lifespans.

However, Sakka or Indra was one of the few devas who decided to learn something from the Buddha (see 
Sakkapañha-sutta). This is remarkable because he is also supposed to be the king of the gods. The Buddha’s eminence is only elevated when he is served by this divine king. This again highlights my main point here: even the gods are better off serving the Buddhist cause, which indirectly constitutes a subtle suggestion that you ought to follow their example too.

I’ve argued in the past that Buddhism ought to be considered under the umbrella of polytheism, since it clearly possesses a large pantheon. However, unlike most polytheist traditions (such as Hellenistic polytheism or Shintō), natural disasters and human tragedies in Buddhism are usually blamed on karma, rather than any conscious divine force. 

In Buddhist thought, there might indeed be some unseen being affecting you for better or worse, but ultimately you are supposed to consider hardship the fruit of past negative karma. In polytheist traditions, however, people are expected to offer sacrifices to specific gods as a way of averting catastrophes. You find elements of such polytheist practices in a lot of Buddhist traditions throughout history, although it isn’t necessarily a part of “orthodox” thought. The navagraha or nine planets in late literature are considered destructive demons (an originally Iranian concept!) that must be placated through recitation of dhāraṇīs and rituals, but more philosophical Buddhist works never address such matters, or how to determine when it is your past karma or a demonic force that’s bothering you.

Another point worth considering is that polytheist traditions almost always think of humans as beneath the gods. There might be a select number of demigods on Earth, but they’re exceptional and probably already gone (Hercules comes to mind). You can perhaps gain a glimpse of divine workings and intentions through mystic visions or divination, but ultimately you as a human can never fully know or comprehend the gods. 

In contrast, in Mahāyāna Buddhism, you are expressly promised that you can achieve the same state as the Buddha if you practice accordingly, just as Śākyamuni did over the course of many lifetimes (and if you reach this goal, you will be above all mundane gods). Even before your attainment of buddhahood, you will become an advanced bodhisattva that stands above Brahmā and Indra. Again, this underlying belief legitimizes even modern worship of eminent monks and Tibetan tulkus who are believed by their devotees to be such advanced beings in flesh and blood form.

I would venture to suggest here that part of the reason why Buddhism has been so successful in the West might actually be because of the belief that humanity can and ought to be superior to the gods. This is perhaps related to the widespread belief that humanity can and ought to gain superiority over nature (in ancient terms, this would have been conceived of as humanity gaining superiority over the gods). 

In the post-Christian world of the modern secularized West, God is long dead. Any tradition of Buddhism can be adopted and sanitized of gods, since these gods are arguably unimportant to the project of bodhi or awakening. A modern Buddhist is justified in completely dismissing practices of venerating gods and focusing exclusively on Buddhist doctrine and meditation, which is something scripture would only support.

I think this isn’t even limited to the West. Modern times have seen a shift in Chinese Buddhist attitudes toward their traditional gods. As a prime example, Humanistic Buddhism in Taiwan consciously purged their versions of Chinese Buddhism of what they refer to as heterodox (Chn. waidao 外道) elements, which includes both traditionally Buddhist and non-Buddhist gods. Although I have not seen any literature expressly denying the existence of said gods, their decisions when it comes to architectural planning reveal a sort of “Protestant” approach to physical icons. Dharma Drum Mountain 法鼓山 and Foguang Shan 佛光山, for instance, generally seem to avoid decorating their temples with statues of anything but buddhas, bodhisattvas, arhats and eminent Chinese Buddhist figures (such as Bodhidharma), whereas Longshan-si 龍山寺 in downtown Taipei, a much more traditional Chinese temple, brings together Buddhist and Daoist figures in one location that is furthermore decorated with dragons and other creatures.

Dharma Drum Mountain (Left) and Longshan-si (Right)

Things are somewhat different in Esoteric or Vajrayāna traditions, in which there is more of a positive appreciation of mundane gods, who generally have their place in major maṇḍalas. Mundane gods might also be "tamed" or otherwise subjugated and pressed into service for the benefit of Buddhism. This is why we see Vināyaka/Gaṇapati (Gaṇeśa) in the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala 胎藏界曼荼羅 in the outer court among other mundane deities (highlighted in yellow below). Vināyaka in at least one major Japanese esoteric manual is said to have been manipulated into becoming a Dharma Protector by Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. Avalokiteśvara manifested in a female form and said he could embrace her only if he would abide by Buddhist teachings and offer his protection. The underlying value behind this story is that it is permissible to manipulate the gods if it is to benefit Buddhism.

Vināyaka/Gaṇapati (Gaṇeśa) in the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala

Wrapping things up, Buddhism tends to favor revealed wisdom from wise human (Buddhist-affiliated) sources or, in the case of Mahāyāna, bodhisattvas and buddhas, while largely dismissing wisdom that might be gained from mundane gods. This approach to gods shapes the way Buddhist traditions interact with their host cultures: not denying the existence of the local gods, but at the same time relegating them to a lower status, even beneath flesh and blood Buddhist sages. This helps to explain the prevalence in Buddhist cultures for constant worship of high monks and other eminent practitioners. Even after they have died, their cremated remains continue to be venerated as a means of generating merit, yet hundreds-of-millions of years-old Brahmā is ignored because he’s ignorant and not noble in the Buddhist sense, so you get more merit out of worshiping the physical remains of a dead eminent monk than Brahmā.

In other words, Buddhism has basically always placed a community of humans (almost entirely male) above their gods. This important point probably explains in part why in the post-Christian West, so many people are attracted to Buddhism: you are promised that you can achieve the same degree of wisdom as the Buddha without having to submit to any divine authorities (some even erase the gods from their religion and identify as Atheist Buddhists). 

Just as modern humanity attempts to conquer nature, so too does it seek to conquer the idea of divinity itself. Buddhism can be utilized to this end.

“Pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism”

Recently a colleague asked me to read his intriguing paper that I anticipate will be well-received when it is published, but one issue I had was the use of the term “pre-Mahāyāna”. A few weeks later, a MA student asked me to read over his thesis, in which he frequently used the term “Mainstream Buddhism”.

These terms are basically employed to avoid using word “Hīnayāna”, which was originally a pejorative expression used in Indian Mahāyāna to refer to their opponents who, contrary to the superior bodhisattva path, merely sought arhatship. I feel, however, that “pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism” are inadequate.

Here I would like to present my thoughts on the matter. This issue is actually relevant to East Asian Buddhism, too, and I'll address this point at the end.

The term “pre-Mahāyāna” is problematic since this assumes the relevant literature we presently possess, that apparently postdates Mahāyāna literature, was, in fact, produced before the emergence of any Mahāyāna movement or its texts.

However, this is not necessarily the case, since the extant “Hīnayāna” canons date to the Common Era, around which time, if not earlier, Mahāyāna literature already existed. Let me quote some relevant remarks from Gregory Schopen:

We know too that the earliest source we have in an Indian language other than Pāḷi – and this, according to Norman, is a translation – appears to be the Gāndhārī Dharmapada, the manuscript of which may date to the second century C.E. Of our Sanskrit sources, almost all from Central Asia, probably none is earlier than the fifth century, and the Gilgit Manuscripts, which appear to contain fragments of an Ekottarāgama, are still later. Our Chinese sources do not really begin until the second half of the second century, and it is, in fact, probably not until we arrive at the translations of the Madhyamāgama and the Ekōttarāgama by Dharmanandin in the last quarter of the fourth century that we have the first datable sources which allow us to know – however imperfectly – the actual doctrinal content of at least some of the major divisions of the nikāya/āgama literature. It is from this period, then, from the end of the fourth century, that some of the doctrinal content of the Hīnayāna canonical literature can finally be definitely dated and actually verified. Not before.1

Mahāyāna literature was introduced into China alongside texts that would be later classified as “Hīnayāna”. This occurred even before the Chinese translation of the Āgamas. On the basis of the available evidence, it doesn't seem to me that you could say that “Hīnayāna” texts in their extant forms must predate the Mahāyāna. It seems fairer to suggest that both of these types of Buddhist literature in their earliest extant forms stem more or less from the same period. On that point, it is erroneous to suggest that the “Hīnayāna” constitutes a “pre-Mahāyāna” form of Buddhism.

I would agree that the content of “Hīnayāna” probably reflects early Buddhism better than anything in Mahāyāna literature, but the fact remains that the extant body of literature is not actually “pre-Mahāyāna”.

Some might suggest that modern Theravāda constitutes an example of “pre-Mahāyāna Buddhism” that is still active in the present day. According to the proponents of modern Theravāda, of course, their tradition is a true transmission of what apparently existed from the Buddha’s own lifetime twenty-five centuries ago, but this is an emic, not etic, view.

Southeast Asian Theravāda is not so ancient. Theravāda in Sri Lanka claims to be able to trace itself back to the time of Aśoka, and although you can find evidence to support the claim that Aśoka, in fact, transmitted some form of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, was that Buddhism really what would later designate itself as “Theravāda”?

Who defines "Buddhism"?
Again, the living tradition claims an unbroken lineage back to this early century, but then so do Mahāyānists (the latter also claims to have accounts from the time of the Buddha too). Why favor the claims of one Buddhist school over another? Theravāda’s history seems more realistic based on what we know at present, but religious orders don’t necessarily preserve reliable histories (the varying views about Devadatta among early Buddhist schools reflects this issue). Based on the extant literature mentioned above, Theravāda as a coherent lineage might not be much older than what we identify as early Mahāyāna.

With respect to “Mainstream Buddhism”, again I think we need to ask, “According to who? And when?” Buddhism had a long history in India. Sarvāstivāda might have been more mainstream than Mahāyāna for the first five to six centuries of the Common Era, but in the seventh century we see monks such as Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664) and Yijing 義淨 (635–713) reporting on and also studying Mahāyāna subjects at the great monastery of Nālanda, around which time the fledgling project of Buddhist Tantra was underway. For the next five to six centuries, Mahāyāna-related traditions were clearly in the mainstream. Again, the idea of a “Mainstream Buddhism” as an alternative to “Hīnayāna” is problematic.

Are there any good solutions to the problem at hand? I'd like to suggest simply referring to texts as much as possible by their sectarian affiliations, at least where possible. Grouping Sarvāstivāda and Mahāsāṃghika, for example, together under a single umbrella term such as “Śrāvakayāna” is problematic, since these two Buddhist lineages seem to have considered themselves mutually separate. They did not together constitute any sort of monolithic entity. Their views of who and what the Buddha was also differed considerably.

As Joseph Walser has discussed in Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture, there is also evidence to suggest that Mahāsāṃghika, or some members of it, as well as some Dharmaguptakas, accepted or experimented with Mahāyāna ideas.2 On a related point, the bhikṣu ordination lineages in India were all based on explicitly non-Mahāyāna vinaya texts, and Mahāyāna monks, even elsewhere in Asia such as Tibet and China, still ordained via orthodox vinaya conventions (whether they actually followed the primary vinaya codes or not is a separate issue). In light of these points, an identification of a “Mainstream Buddhism” that ignores all the considerable overlap between Mahāyāna and everything else is based on a weak foundation.

Finally, with respect to East Asian Buddhism, I think that the labels Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna are suitable for the simple fact that this distinction was, and still is, observed by East Asian Buddhists. I used to think “Śrāvakayāna” might be more sensitive and proper when referring to non-Mahāyāna texts, but if you read Chinese Buddhism, the common and almost universal term employed is “small vehicle” 小乘, i.e., Hīnayāna.

This distinction was by no means merely scholastic: it directed authors and whole lineages away from texts considered Hīnayāna toward an entirely Mahāyāna-centered focus.

The predictable result was most things considered Hīnayāna seldom becoming influential in East Asia, which even includes the vinaya. Although there is indeed an enormous amount of vinaya literature translated into Chinese, with numerous relevant commentaries written by native East Asian monks, I am of the impression that the vinaya never actually strongly defined Buddhism anywhere in East Asia. It arguably still does not, despite the vinaya revivalism in post-WWII Chinese Buddhism (at least in Taiwan) and frequent calls for monastic discipline.

To sum up, I think the terms “Pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism” shouldn't be used. They are clearly problematic from both emic and etic perspectives. What do you think?

1 Gregory Schopen, “Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism The Layman/Monk Distinction and the Doctrines of the Transference of Merit,” in Indian Monastic Buddhism Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaelogical Evidence (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2010), 25.

2 Joseph Walser, Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 50–52.