Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Good God!

I remember reading that when a British press baron decided to install computerized printing machines that needed no workers to operate them, he immediately found himself at odds with the unions. The battle went on for some time but eventually the baron prevailed and the most the unions were able to get was an agreement that one worker would be employed to stand besides each machine. This way at least a few workers would retain their jobs. This story reminds me of God. Originally he/she/them/it was dreamed up to explain how things worked. Now science has done that and God isn’t needed any more. But some people still have God standing besides the machine, not because he does anything but just because psychologically they can’t bare to give him the sack.
The Buddha took God out of the picture for two reasons. He understood that things could be more plausibly explained by natural causation and because he saw that the God-idea is full of moral, logical and evidential problems. Despite this, there are still intelligent and otherwise well-informed people who will tell you that the Buddha gave some place to God in his philosophy. There are several verses in the Bhuridatta Jataka which deal with some of the moral objections of the God-idea and which pretty much settle the argument that the Buddha believed in a benevolent, all-powerful deity (Ja.VI,208). This is Cowell and Rouse’s translation of these verses which, because of its feistiness often get reproduced.

He who has eyes can see the sickening sight;
Why does not Brahma set his creatures right?
If his wide powers no limits can restrain,
Why is his hand so rarely spread to bless?
Why are his creatures all condemned to pain?
Why does he not to all give happiness?
Why do fraud, lies and ignorance prevail?
Why triumphs falsehood – truth and justice fail?
I count you Brahma one th’ unjust among,
Who made a world in which to shelter wrong.

This translation certainly captures the spirit of the original but it is not a translation or even a loose rendering. Here is a translation of these verses done with help by my friend Ven. Anandajoti

Why does God not straighten out the world?
If he really is the Controller, the Highest, Lord of All Beings,
Why is the whole world in such a mess?
Why did he not make the world happy?
If he really is the Controller, the Highest, Lord of All Beings,
Why is there so much deceit, lies, pride and unrighteousness?
If he really is the Controller, the Highest, Lord of All Beings,
Then he must be unrighteous and cruel,
Because it was he who made everything.

Incidentally, the Buddha was by no means the only great teacher who taught a God-free spirituality in 5th century BCE India. Jainism and most of the heterodox sects did too. Jainism in particular took to theism like a terrier to a rat. In his Mahapurana, Jinadasa (9th century) wrote these verses about the idea of a benevolent creator God. The lines about God’s play refer to the Vedantic concept of divine lila.

Some foolish men declare that the Creator made the world.
But this doctrine is ill-advised and should be rejected.
If God created the world, where was he before creation?
If you say at that time he was transcendent and needed no support,
Where is he now?
No one being has the skill to make the world –
Who can believe that an immaterial God could make a material world?
How could God have made everything without any raw material?
If you say that he made all this first,
Then you are faced with the problem of endless regression.
If you say that this raw material arose naturally,
You are faced with yet another problem.
For if it arose naturally then the world might have arisen naturally too.
If you say God created purely by an act of will
And without raw material, then everything must be just will,
And who would believe such nonsense?
If God is perfect and complete, as you claim,
Then where did the will to create come from?
If on the other hand he is not perfect,
He could no more create the universe than a potter could.
If you say God created without purpose,
Simply because it is his nature to do so,
Then his creation is pointless.
If his creation was a ‘play’ then it was the game of a foolish brat,
Resulting in trouble.
If he created out of love for beings,
Why did he not make creation happy and free from troubles?

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