1. DEVIATION FROM THE VISION OF THE FOUNDER
Many religions in the world have deviated in some way or another from the vision of their founder. Buddhism is certainly no exception. Buddhism itself began as an offshoot of Hinduism. Today, certain sects of Buddhism have wandered so far beyond the original teachings of their founder, Siddhartha Gautama, that in many ways they go completely against the grain of the Buddhist dogmas of the fifth century BC. The unusual thing is that many of the changes that have occurred within Buddhism do not take Buddhism further away from the Hindu doctrines that Siddhartha tried so hard to escape. Instead, recent trends in Buddhism seem to be taking them right back to the place of their origin - Hinduism.
2. A QUESTIONABLE TREND
One of these questionable trends is the Buddhist doctrine on the existence and nature of gods, and how they relate to salvation. It is this principle that we will focus on in this paper. First, we will look at what the Hindu believes about the existence of gods. Then we will see what Siddhartha taught about gods, and finally we will try to understand what the modern Buddhist thinks and what has led Buddhism to its current doctrine on the existence of gods.
3. GODS IN HINDUISM
Hinduism is one of the most polytheistic religions on earth. No one knows for sure exactly how many gods Hindus recognize, but no one doubts that there are many millions. Aside from Karma, the Hindu belief in multiple gods is the doctrine most foundational to Hinduism. Polytheism is a necessary element of Hinduism's plan of salvation.
To the Hindu there are only two processes of salvation, each of which include the involvement of a god. The first process is the called monkey-hold. In this process of salvation, "the devotee is to cling to the deity and goes with the deity wherever he goes." "The deity does not mind the devotee clinging on to him, but the deity itself does not make any effort to save the devotee." [Other Religions, M. S. Thirumalai, p. 86]. The second process is called cat-hold. In this process "the deity carries the devotee with no effort at all on his part." [Other Religions, M. S. Thirumalai, p. 86].
In either form of salvation the Hindu must claim allegiance to a god.
4. GODS ACCORDING TO SIDDHARTHA GAUTAMA
Siddhartha Gautama was "born at Kapilavastu, a city and kingdom at the foot of the mountains of Nepal around 566 BC." [Other Religions, M. S. Thirumalai, p. 101]. Nepal was and still is a country dominated by Hinduism. Siddhartha was raised as a Hindu. When he reached a certain age he was exposed to the pain and suffering that the common person experienced under Hinduism. The realization of suffering eventually drove him to rebel against the religion of his youth and become the founder of the religion we now know as Buddhism.
One of Siddhartha's major complaints against Hinduism was their belief in gods. Siddhartha opposed this doctrine by stating clearly in his teachings that gods do not exist and cannot help man to achieve salvation. He believed strongly that man must seek out his own salvation.
5. THE NEED FOR OUTSIDE HELP FELT BY THE FOLLOWERS,
AND GODS ACCORDING TO TODAY'S BUDDHISTS
Buddha may have taught strongly against the doctrine of salvation through the help of gods, but it was not enough to keep his followers from eventually re-embracing the very polytheistic beliefs that he had sought to escape.
Within Buddhism there are many different schools of thought. The division that the Dhali Lama ascribes to is called Mahayana. This division is the one that most readily embraces polytheism. Mahayana Buddhism recognizes more than 550 Buddhas. These Buddhas, for all practical purposes, show very little difference from the gods of Hinduism. They are prayed to and worshiped in a manner similar to the adoration that is given to the Hindu gods. Buddhists hang up pictures of Buddhas in their homes and stores in the same way that Hindus hang pictures of their gods. Even the artistic style of these pictures is similar to Hinduism.
6. SALVATION IN MAHAYANA BUDDHISM
Siddhartha Gautama taught that man must find salvation on his own. However, the primary method for a Mahayana to achieve salvation is through prayer to the Buddhas. This fact was very evident to me during my time in Nepal. One can hardly find an area in Nepal that is not draped in Buddhist prayer flags. Buddhist scriptures are written on these flags and it is believed that every time the flag flaps in the wind it sends up a prayer. This concept can also be seen in prayer wheels, which contain scriptures and are spun to send up prayers. Buddhists will even attach huge prayer wheels to a water wheel, which will cause the prayer wheel to spin perpetually, thereby sending up continual prayers. It is also common to see Buddhists prostrating themselves in ritual prayer to one of the Buddhas.
Based on these facts, one must come to the conclusion that polytheism is alive and well in modern Buddhism. But what is it that has driven Buddhist to return to a belief in divine beings? I'm sure that many answers could be given. However, I believe that it is because every man, in his heart of hearts, understands the truth that there is a God. I believe that every man feels the deep desire to worship something greater than himself. This desire is part of our God given human nature. While the Mahayanas remain far removed from a true knowledge of the one great divine God, there is still something in each and every one of them as individuals that continually draws them closer to a knowledge of the truth. It is up to us, as missionaries, to guide them toward the Truth.
Thirumalai, M. S. Other Religions. Experimental
Textbook. Minneapolis: Bethany College of Missions, 2001.