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read long in almost any Buddhist book without meeting with gods. The Lalitavistara introduces us to Buddha before his incarnation. “The scene is laid in heaven. Surrounded and adored by those that are adored, the future Buddha announces that the time has come for him to assume a mortal body, and recalls to the assembled gods the precepts of the law. When in the bosom of his mother Mâyâ Devi he receives the homage of Brahma, of Çakra the master of the gods, of the four kings of the inferior gods, of the four goddesses, and of a multitude of deities. When he enters into the world the divine child is received by Indra the king of the gods, and Brahma the lord of creatures. When arrived at manhood, and hesitating to break the bonds which attached him to the world, it is the god Hridéra—the god of modesty—who encourages him and reminds him that the hour of his mission has come. Before he can become Buddha he has to be tempted by Mara, the god of the love of sin and of death, and to struggle against the hosts of hell commanded by their chief.” And so on, and so on. Everywhere gods, even in what M. Saint-Hilaire himself regards as one of the most ancient and authentic records of primitive Buddhism. But all these legends, he says, are “extravagances.” Well, there is no doubt about that, but they are extravagances of religious belief. And the very absurdity and
naïveté of them testifies to the energy of the belief. In spite of its absurdities, and by its very absurdities even, the Buddhistic legend testifies that Buddhists believe in gods. But an atheism which includes a belief in gods is an atheism of a very strange kind, or rather a system which everywhere avows the existence and action of gods is not usually, and can only very improperly be, called atheism.
But, it will be said, Brahma, Indra, and all the other deities recognised in Buddhism, will disappear with the universe itself. They are not regarded as truly gods, because they are not regarded as eternal. They have come out of nothingness and will go back to nothingness. Now observe that if we are to reason in this way, if we are to call every system atheistic which implies atheism, we must come to the conclusion that there is no religion in the world except where a consistent theism prevails; that all forms of polytheism and of pantheism are simply varieties of atheism. For polytheism and pantheism are both essentially self-contradictory, and must logically pass over either into atheism or theism. There is no consistent, independent, middle term between these two. What is not the one, ought, logically considered, to be the other.
All the Greek gods and goddesses were believed by their worshippers to have been born, or, at least, to have had an origin; there was admitted to have been a time when they were not, and it was felt that there might be a time when they would not be. Whence had they come? Their worshippers did not clearly put and resolutely face the question, but the question existed, and it could only be answered in an atheistic or in a theistic manner. If they came out of nothing, or were the products of chance, or the effects of eternal matter and its inherent powers, then what underlay this polytheism was atheism. If, on the other hand, these gods were the creatures of a self-existent, eternal Mind, what underlay the polytheism was theism. But if theism had been clearly apprehended it would have been seen at once that there was no evidence for the polytheism at all; that it was a system of fictions and fancies which dishonoured the one all-sufficient God. And what is true in this respect of Greek polytheism is true of all polytheism. In so far as it falls short of theism it involves atheism. It is not, however, on this account to be called atheism. It is to be described as what it is, not as what it involves.
Then, all pantheism involves atheism. An impersonal reason, an impersonal God, is not, if you insist on self-consistency, on logical definiteness and thoroughness, a reason, a god at all. A reason which is unconscious and which belongs to no one subject, a God who has no existence in himself, who has no proper self, is not logically distinguishable from what is not reason, from what is not God. But in describing a system we have no right to represent it as being what we hold it ought logically to have been. Pantheism may, like polytheism, be logically bound either to rise to theism or to sink to atheism, but it is, for all that, neither theism nor atheism.
Hence I maintain that although Buddhism should be logically resolvable into atheism, although its fundamental principles should be shown logically to involve atheism, Buddhists are not to be described as atheists. Even millions of men may stultify themselves and accept a creed the fundamental principles of which involve monstrous consequences which few, if any, of its adherents deduce from them. It is clear and certain that the adherents of Buddhism are, as a rule, not atheists in any sense which shows that the human heart can dispense with belief in Divine agency. Their Buddhism does not prevent their believing in many gods, and this at once puts them on a level with polytheists. Besides, Buddha is regarded by them as a god. When Saint-Hilaire denies that they have deified Buddha, he maintains a position which is contradicted by every Buddhist writing and by every Buddhist believer in the world, unless he means that they have not invested him with all the attributes of the true God, which is what no one, of course, ever thought of asserting that they had done. It is incontestable, indeed, that they suppose Buddha to have been once, or rather to have been often, a man, and even to have been a rat, a frog, a crow, a hare, and many other creatures; but it is as incontestable that they suppose him not only to have been four times Mahu-Brahma, the supreme god of the Hindus, but in becoming Buddha, to have raised himself higher than the highest gods, and to have attained omnipotence, omniscience, and other divine attributes. We cannot say that they do not believe him to have been a god because they believe him to have been born, while we admit that the Greeks believed Jupiter to have been a god, although they also believed him to have been born; we cannot say that they did not believe him to have been a god, because they believe him to have gone into Nirvana, even granting Nirvana to be non-existence, while we admit that the ancient Germans believed Odin to be a god, although they also believed that he would be devoured by the wolf Fenris.