Is Buddhism Atheistic?
by Acharya S/D.M. Murdock
The following article is excerpted from:
Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled
Many of the numerous lives of Buddha were spent as divine beings; yet, like so many religions that do
not subscribe to the typical theology of other cultures, it is claimed of Buddhism that it is "atheistic." This
contention was also laid upon early Christianity because that faith likewise did not acknowledge the reigning
deities. As Church father Justin Martyr writes in his First Apology:
"CHAPTER VI—CHARGE OF ATHEISM REFUTED.
"Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this
sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and
the other virtues, who is free from all impurity."
The Buddhist situation is quite similar to that of Christianity. In
reality, every religion, sect and cult believes it has the "right god," and each could be deemed "atheistic"
by another's standard. In the case of Buddhism, the Brahmans deemed Buddha an "atheist," because he supposedly
did not believe in the Hindu devas; yet, as we have seen, Buddha was himself considered a deva. Elucidating
this debate, the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
"In the Buddhist conception of Nirvana no account was taken of the all-god Brahma. And as
prayers and offerings to the traditional gods were held to be of no avail for the attainment of this negative
state of bliss, Buddha, with greater consistency than was shown in pantheistic Brahminism, rejected both the
Vedas and the Vedic rites. It was this attitude which stamped Buddhism as a heresy. For this reason, too,
Buddha has been set down by some as an atheist. Buddha, however, was not an atheist in the sense that he denied
the existence of the gods. To him the gods were living realities. In his alleged sayings, as in the Buddhist
scriptures generally, the gods are often mentioned, and always with respect."
As concerns CE's remark about Buddha's "alleged sayings," the skepticism is not misplaced,
except that one could as easily say the same in reference to Jesus. Indeed, it is clear that the aphorisms
attributed to Jesus, like those of Buddha, are wisdom sayings or platitudes that had been floating around the world
for centuries and millennia before being attributed to these mythical, spiritual figureheads.
Regarding Buddhism's purported "atheism," Dr. Inman comments:
"It is asserted that Siddartha did not believe in a god, and that his Nirvana was nothing
more than absolute annihilation.
"To my own mind, the assertion that Sakya did not believe in God is wholly unsupported. Nay,
his whole scheme is built upon the belief that there are powers above us which are capable of punishing mankind
for their sins. It is true that these "gods" were not called Elohim, nor Jah, nor Jahveh, or Jehovah, nor
Adonai, or Ehieh (I am), nor Baalim, nor Ashtoreth—yet, for "the son of Suddhodana" (another name for Sakya
Muni, for he has almost as many, if not more than the western god), there was a supreme being called Brahma, or
some other name representing the same idea as we entertain of the Omnipotent."
In reality, in its highest understanding Buddhism portrays the entire cosmos as divine.
Concerning Buddhism's concept of the divine, Simpson states:
"The Faith began with the belief in a celestial, self-existent Being termed Adi
Buddha or Iswara. Rest was the habitual statement of his existence. 'Formless as a cypher or a
mathematical point and separate from all things, he is infinite in form, pervading all and one with all.'"
This last sentence concerning "Adi Buddha" being separate yet pervasive
sounds paradoxical, which is the case with Buddhism, as well as all religious systems that conceive of God as
"omnipresent" yet wholly other. While Buddhism in general does not preach the notion of a giant,
anthropomorphic male deity somewhere "out there," separate and apart from creation, the concepts of deity and
divinity abound. In reality, in addition to the idea of Adi Buddha, Buddhism is full of wild, fabulous tales
with divine beings of all sorts, especially Tibetan Buddhism, for example. Yet, like so many ancient
religions, Buddhism was a polytheistic, pantheistic monotheism or monism. This polytheistic monotheism of
Buddhism was described by the Abbe Huc, a Catholic priest who traveled to the East and was startled to
discover the many important correspondences between Buddhism and Christianity:
"With the respect to polytheism, Missionary Huc says, 'that although their religion embraces
many inferior deities, who fill the same offices that angels do under the Christian system, yet,'—adds M.
Huc—'monotheism is the real character of Budhism;' and he confirms the statement by the testimony of a
Among these "inferior deities" are the devas. Although Buddha himself was said to have been a
"deva" many times, it is paradoxically claimed that no deva can become a Buddha, and that the latter must incarnate
as a man, not as a woman, a sexist notion that includes avoiding "all sins that would cause him to be born a
woman." The fact that Buddha was depicted as having been a deva, in several "lives" and before taking birth as
Siddhartha, nevertheless makes him a divine being, or godman. Indeed, Buddhist inscriptions address not only the
celestial "self-existent Being" but also the "Supreme Being," as exemplified by the following inscription, found in
Bengal at Budhagaya...:
"Reverence be unto thee, in the form of Buddha: reverence be unto the Lord of the earth:
reverence be unto thee, an incarnation of the Deity, and the Eternal One: reverence be unto thee, O God! in the
form of the God of Mercy: the dispeller of pain and trouble; the Lord of all things; the Deity who overcomest
the sins of the Kali Yug; the guardian of the universe; the emblem of mercy toward those who
serve thee—O'M! the possessor of all things in vital form. Thou art Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesa; thou are Lord
of the universe; Reverence be unto the bestower of salvation I adore thee, who art celebrated by a thousand
names, and under various forms, in the shape of Buddha, the God of Mercy.—Be propitious, O Most High God!"
Here, then, is a primary source that demonstrates a few important things:
One is that Buddha himself is a god—the God, in fact. Another important point is that he is
identified as Brahma and Vishnu, and the third is the similarity between his nature and that of Jesus.
As seen from this inscription, Buddha is "Lord of the earth," "an incarnation of the Deity," "O
God!" the "God of mercy," "Lord of all things," "Lord of the universe" and "Most High God." Along with these divine
epithets, Buddha is called "God of Gods," as well as "the great Physician," "Healer," "Savior," "Blessed One,"
"Savior of the World" and "God among gods."
The following is from a fuller translation of the Budhagaya inscription, by Charles Wilkins:
"In the midst of a wild and dreadful forest, flourishing with trees of sweet-scented
flowers, and abounding in fruits and roots resided Booddha the Author of Happiness This Deity
Haree, who is the Lord Hareesa, the possessor of all, appeared in this ocean of natural beings at
the close of the Devapara, and beginning of the Kalee Yoog: he who is omnipresent and
everlastingly to be contemplated, the Supreme Being the Eternal one, the Divinity worthy to be adored by the
most praise-worthy of mankind appeared here with a portion of his divine nature.
"Once upon a time the illustrious Amara, renowned amongst men, coming here,
discovered the place of the Supreme Being, Booddha, in the great forest. The wise Amara
endeavoured to render the God Bouddha propitious by superior service..."
The inscription goes on, with Amara having dreams and visions in which a voice speaks to him.
Referring to "the Supreme Spirit Bouddha," the "Supreme Being, the incarnation of a portion of
Veeshnoo," it continues with the same portion related by Moor, above, regarding the "Most High God," etc.
This Most High God is also called the "purifier of the sins of mankind," "Bouddha, purifier of the sinful"
It is quite clear from this inscription that not only is Buddhism not atheistic, but the Supreme Being, the Eternal
One, is called Buddha. He is also, like Jesus, the "bestower of salvation."
Moreover, another Christian scholar, Major Mahony, maintains that the Singhalese claim that,
"before his appearance as a man," Buddha was a god and "the supreme of all the gods." Also, in the second century,
Christian authority Clement of Alexandria related the worship by Indians of the "God Boutta."
(Stromata, I.) Defining the Ceylonese word "Vehar," the writer Relandus stated:
"Vehar signifies a temple of their principal God Buddou, who, as Clemens Alexandrinus has
long ago observed, was worshipped as a God by the Hindoos."
With all the divine beings, including the umpteen Buddhas themselves, and
the Supreme Being even called Buddha, it is evident that Buddhism is not "atheistic." In addition, Doane
confirms that "son of God" is likewise an appropriate title for Buddha:
"The sectarians of Buddha taught that he (who was the Son of God (Brahma) and
the Holy Virgin Maya) is to be the judge of the dead."
Hence, in reality, deeming Buddha as God, a god, a godman, or son of God is accurate and
Buddhism and Christianity
In actuality, like Krishna, Buddha is not a "real person" but a composite of gods and people. His exploits are fabulous,
while his sayings, of course, are from humans. Moreover, as is also the case with Krishna, some of the
information regarding "the Buddha," including important correspondences to the Christian myth, is not found in
mainstream books and likely constituted mysteries. Indeed, although the story has changed over the centuries and
millennia, it has not escaped the notice of a number of researchers and scholars that numerous elements of
Buddhism closely resemble the Christian myth and ideology. In the Buddha story, in fact, one can see many
aspects strikingly similar to the Jesus tale, although, like that of Krishna, the Buddha myth is more elegant
To begin with, Buddha's mother, Mahamaya, was fecundated by the "Holy Spirit,"
while a "heavenly messenger" informed Maya that she would bear "a son of the highest kings." This Buddha would
leave behind his royal life to become an ascetic, Maya was told, and serve as a "sacrifice" for humanity, to
whom he would provide joy and immortality. Buddha's birth occurred when the "Flower-star" appeared in the
east, and was attended by a "host of angelic messengers," who announced the "good news" that a glorious savior
of all nations had been born. The holy babe was attended by "princes and wise Brahmans," or "rishis," one of
whom prophesied that Buddha's mission would be to "save and enlighten the world."
According to the Abhinish-Kramana Sutra, the king of Maghada desired to know whether or
not there were any inhabitants of his kingdom who would threaten his reign. In this quest, two agents embarked, one
of whom discovered Buddha and reported him to the king, also advising the monarch to annihilate Buddha's tribe.
Obviously, Buddha escapes this fate, and, at one point eluding his parent for a day, goes on to
wow his wise elders with his sagacious discourses and marvelous understanding. As an adult setting out on his
mission, Buddha encounters "the Brahman Rudraka, a mighty preacher," who becomes the sage's disciple. A number of
Rudraka's own disciples decide to follow Buddha, but become disenchanted when they see he does not observe the
fasts. Concerning Buddha's first followers, Titcomb relates:
"These disciples were previously followers of Rudraka. Before Buddha appoints a larger
number of apostles, he selects five favorite disciples, one of whom is afterward styled the Pillar of the
Faith; another, the Bosom Friend of Buddha. Among the followers of Buddha there is a Judas, Devadatta, who tries to destroy his master, and meets with a disgraceful death."
Hence, as Buddha was said to have had five favorite disciples who left
their former teacher to follow him, so was Jesus, whose initial five left John the Baptist. Buddha is also
depicted as speaking with "two buddhas who had preceded him," a motif reminiscent of Jesus conversing with
Moses and Elijah.
In addition, while Buddha fasts and prays in solitude in the desert, he is tempted by the Prince
of Darkness, Mara, whose overtures of wealth and glory the sage resists. This story, of course, parallels that of
Jesus being tempted by Satan. Concerning the temptation motif, Christian apologist Weigall acknowledges that "there
is a pagan legend which relates how the young Jupiter was led by Pan to the top of a mountain, from which he could
see the countries of the world."
Subsequent to the temptation, Buddha takes a purifying bath in the river Neranjara, upon which
"the devas open the gates of Heaven, and cover him with a shower of fragrant flowers," comparable to Jesus's
baptism in the Jordan, with the appearance of a heavenly dove and voice announcing him to be son of God.
In order to be convinced of Buddha's true nature, the crowd "required
a sign," another motif found within Christianity. Like Jesus, Buddha is portrayed as walking on water, in his
case the Ganges, while one of his disciples also is able to walk on water at his instruction. "At his
appearance the sick were healed, the deaf cured, and the blind had their sight restored." The miracle of the
fishes and loaves, paralleling that of Jesus, is apparently recounted in the Mayana-Sutra. While
riding a horse, Buddha's path is covered with flowers tossed by the devas or angels, like Jesus with the
donkey and palms.
Moreover, Buddha takes a vow of poverty and wanders homeless, with no rest for his weary head.
His disciples too are advised to "travel without money, trusting to the aid of Providence," as well as to renounce
the world and its riches. They too are able to perform miracles, including exorcising evil spirits and speaking in
tongues. The resemblances do not stop there, as one of the disciples' miracles is also found in the Old
"Arresting the course of the sun, as Joshua was said to have done, was a common thing among
the disciples of Buddha."
At one point, some of Buddha's disciples are imprisoned by "an unjust emperor," but are
miraculously released by "an angel, or spirit." The story of the offensive eye being plucked out and thrown away by
a disciple is also related in Buddhist lore.
Like Jesus, Buddha exhorts his disciples to "hide their good deeds, and confess their sins
before the world." Furthermore, Buddha is portrayed as administering baptism for the remission of "sin." As Bunsen
"In a Chinese life of Buddha we read that 'living at Vaisali, Buddha delivered the baptism
which rescues from life and death, and confers salvation.'"
Buddha's teachings embraced the brotherhood of men, the giving of charity to all, including
adversaries, and "pity or love for one's neighbor."
The biblical story of the Samaritan woman is likewise found in Buddhism: One of Buddha's chief
disciples, Ananda, encounters a low-caste woman near a well and requests some water from her. The woman informs
Ananda of her offensive low caste, such that she should not approach him. Nevertheless, Ananda responds that he is
not interested in her caste, only in the water, after which the woman becomes a follower of Buddha. As Evans
"This gentle reply [of Ananda] completely won the maiden's heart, and Buddha coming by,
converted her dawning affection into zeal for the general good through the practice of his system of unselfish
In addition, in The Fountainhead of Religion, Indian writer
Ganga Prasad states, "The parables of the New Testament also bear a marked resemblance to those of Buddha."
Not only the anecdotes, miracles, sayings and parables but also many of Buddha's epithets correlate to those
of Christ. For example, some of Buddha's numerous titles include the following:
"He was called the Lion of the Tribe of Sakya, the King of Righteousness, the Great
Physician, the God among Gods, the Only Begotten, the Word, the All-wise, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the
Intercessor, the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Anointed, the Christ, the
Messiah, the Saviour of the World, the Way of Life and Immortality."
Furthermore, when he was about to pass on, Buddha informed his disciples that even if the world
were to "be swallowed up" and the heavens "fall to earth," etc., "the words of Buddha are true." He also instructed
his followers to disperse upon his death and spread his doctrines, establishing schools, monasteries and temples,
and performing charity, so that they may attain to "Nigban," or "heaven."
Concerning Buddha's death, Titcomb states:
"It is said that towards the end of his life Buddha was transfigured on Mount Pandava, in
Ceylon. Suddenly a flame of light descended upon him, and encircled the crown of his head with a circle of
light. His body became 'glorious as a bright, golden image,' and shone as the brightness of the Sun and
"At the death of Buddha, the earth trembled, the rocks were split and phantoms and spirits
appeared. He descended into hell and preached to the spirits of the damned.
"When Buddha was buried, the coverings of his body unrolled themselves, the lid of his
coffin was opened by supernatural powers, and he ascended bodily to the celestial regions."
The resemblances to the Christ myth include the transfiguration, the earthquake upon death, the
descent into hell and the ascension. For the most part, the preceding synopsis of Buddha's life and death reflects
the mainstream, orthodox tale. One notable exception is the assertion that Buddha is portrayed as "ascending
bodily" after his death, a claim that is not without merit, as will be seen. In any case, those who know the gospel
story and the canonical Acts of the Apostles in depth, as well as the apocryphal Christian texts and legends
recounted over the centuries, will recognize numerous elements in the Buddha tale that correspond to the Christ
myth. In Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, Doane goes into even greater detail as to these
many resemblances. Regarding such correspondences between Buddhism and Christianity, Prasad remarks:
"It is not a little strange that the remarkable resemblance, which we have noticed between
Buddhism and Christianity extends even to the lives of their founders. Gautama Buddha, as well as Jesus Christ,
is said to have been miraculously born. The birth of each was attended with marvellous omens, and was presided
over by a star
"Both Gautama and Jesus are said to have twelve disciples each."
The assertion that Gautama had 12 disciples is, of course, not found in mainstream accounts.
Could it be, however, that this Indian scholar has more knowledge about the subject than the Western pundits
and apologists? We have already noted that the motif of the five disciples is found in the Buddha myth, and, as we
shall see, the common astrotheological motif of the 12 would likewise be entirely appropriate and expected, and may
have constituted esoteric knowledge and mysteries based on Buddha's true nature.
The profuse correspondences between Buddhism and Christianity were noticed numerous times over
the centuries by Jesuits and other Catholic missionaries who traveled to the East, including the clergy of the
Portuguese, who invaded India in the 15th century. As Christian lawyer O'Brien relates in The Round
Towers of Ireland:
"...the conformity between the Christian and the Budhist religion was so great, that the
Christians, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope with Vasco da Gama, performed their devotions in an Indian
temple, on the shores of Hindostan! Nay, 'in many parts of the Peninsula,' says Asiatic Researches, 'Christians
are called, and considered as followers of Buddha, and their divine legislator, whom they confound with the
apostle of India, is declared to be a form of Buddha, both by the followers of Brahma and those of Siva'."
Regarding these conformities, Prasad says:
"Dr. Fergusson, who is perhaps the highest authority on the
subject of Indian Architecture, makes the following remarks about the Buddhist cave temple of Karli, the
date of which he fixes at 78 B.C.: 'The building resembles, to a great extent, a Christian Church in its
arrangement, consisting of a nave and side aisles, terminating in an apse or semidome, round which the
aisle is carried.'
"'But the architectural similarity,' says Mr. Dutt, 'sinks into insignificance in comparison
with the resemblance in rituals between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Church.' A Roman Catholic missionary,
Abbe Huc, was much struck by what he saw in Tibet."
The missionary Huc's travels in Tibet yielded acknowledgment of the following aspects of Tibetan
Buddhism, which correlate closely to Catholic ritual and hierarchy:
"...confessions, tonsure, relic worship, the use of flowers, lights and images before
shrines and altars, the signs of the Cross, the trinity in Unity, the worship of the queen of heaven, the use
of religious books in a tongue unknown to the bulk of the worshippers, the aureole or nimbus, the crown of
saints and Buddhas, wings to angels, penance, flagellations, the flabellum or fan, popes, cardinals, bishops,
abbots, presbyters, deacons, the various architectural details of the Christian temple."
In its article on "Buddhism," the Catholic Encyclopedia outlines some of these correspondences
between the Tibetan and Catholic religions, yet maintains that Catholicism was first and that the Buddhist
correlations are "accretions" likely copied from the Christian faith:
"Catholic missionaries to Tibet in the early part of the last century were
struck by the outward resemblances to Catholic liturgy and discipline that were presented by Lamaism—its
infallible head, grades of clergy corresponding to bishop and priest, the cross, mitre, dalmatic, cope,
censer, holy water, etc. At once voices were raised proclaiming the Lamaistic origin of Catholic rites and
practices. Unfortunately for this shallow theory, the Catholic Church was shown to have possessed these
features in common with the Christian Oriental churches long before Lamaism was in existence. The wide
propagation of Nestorianism over Central and Eastern Asia as early as A.D. 635 offers a natural
explanation for such resemblances as are accretions on Indian Buddhism."
The charge that Hinduism, Buddhism and other "Pagan" religions copied Christianity proves that
there are indeed significant similarities between them, so much so that the most learned apologists and defenders
of the faith were compelled to acknowledge and find a reason for them. Naturally, since Christianity is depicted as
"divine revelation" entirely new to the times, the Catholic hierarchy could not admit that the more ancient
religion could have influenced the new Christian faith. So began the tradition of claiming Christian influence on
Indian and Tibetan religion. While the argument may be applicable to Tibetan Buddhism, although it seems unlikely,
the fact will remain that most if not all of the ritualistic correspondences outlined above existed somewhere in
some form prior to the Christian era, which means that they are not "divine revelation" to Christians.
In response to Christian claims of Buddhism copying Christianity, in The Ruins of
Empires, Volney created a fictional conversation between a Christian and a Tibetan Buddhist in which the
"'Prove to us,' said the Lama, 'that you are not Samaneans [Buddhists/Hindus] degenerated,
and that the man you make the author of your sect is not Fot [Buddha] himself disguised. Prove to us by
historical facts that he even existed at the epoch you pretend; for, it being destitute of authentic testimony,
we absolutely deny it; and we maintain that your very gospels are only the books of some Mithraics of Persia,
and the Essenians of Syria, who were a branch of reformed Samaneans.'"
At this point, Volney notes:
"That is to say, from the pious romances formed out of the sacred legends of the mysteries
of Mithra, Ceres, Isis, etc., from whence are equally derived the books of the Hindoos and the Bonzes. Our
missionaries have long remarked a striking resemblance between those books and the gospels. M. Wilkins
expressly mentions it in a note in the Bhagvat Geeta. All agree that Krisna, Fot [Buddha], and Jesus have the
same characteristic features: but religious prejudice has stood in the way of drawing from this circumstance
the proper and natural inference. To time and reason must it be left to display the truth."
It is indeed time to throw away religious prejudice and display the truth. In this case, the
truth is that Buddhism's traditions are very old, and there is no evidence of any magical Christian making his way,
in the case of Tibet, to the "top of the world" and, overthrowing the religious hierarchy of the entire country,
being able to implement the Christian myth and ritual, leaving no direct trace of either himself or the event.
Moreover, the Catholic Encyclopedia continues its outline of similarities between Christianity
and Buddhism in general, again attempting to debunk the contention that the latter was influenced by the former.
The striking similarities between Buddhism and Christianity include the orders of monks and nuns; various sayings;
and most of all, says CE, "the legendary life of Buddha, which in its complete form is the outcome of many
centuries of accretion" and which contains "many parallelisms, some more, some less striking, to the Gospel stories
Having said that, CE attempts to disparage those who would "take for
granted" that these parallelisms are pre-Christian. These "few third-rate scholars," says CE, "have vainly
tried to show that Christian monasticism is of Buddhist origin, and that Buddhist thought and legend have been
freely incorporated into the Gospels." CE then accuses these various scholars of grossly exaggerating or
fabricating these resemblances, even though a number of those who have outlined these correspondences have
been Jesuits and Catholics who studied Buddhism firsthand. As we have seen, the resemblances are hardly
"grossly exaggerated" or fictitious; yet, CE avers that, when "all these exaggerations, fictions, and
anachronisms are eliminated, the points of resemblance that remain are, with perhaps one exception, such as
may be explained on the ground of independent origin." "Independent origin," yet copied by Buddhism
Concerning this debate, Bunsen, a Christian, comments:
"The remarkable parallels in the most ancient records of the lives of Gautama Buddha and of
Jesus Christ require explanation. They cannot all be attributed to chance or to importation from the West.
"We now possess an uninterrupted chain of Buddhist writings in China, 'from at least 100
B.C. to A.D. 600,' according to Professor Beal.
Dr. Inman also remarks upon the numerous correlations between Buddhism and Christianity, and
concurs that the Buddhist tale came first:
"It will doubtless have occurred to anyone reading the preceding pages, if he be but
familiar with the New Testament, that either the Christian histories called Gospels have been largely
influenced by Buddhist's legends, or that the story of Siddartha has been moulded upon that of Jesus. The
subject is one which demands and deserves the greatest attention, for if our religion be traceable to Buddhism,
as the later Jewish faith is to the doctrines of Babylonians, Medes, and Persians, we must modify materially
our notions of 'inspiration' and 'revelation.' Into this inquiry St. Hilaire goes as far as documentary
evidence allows him, and Hardy in Legends and Theories of the Buddhists also enters upon it in an almost
impartial manner. From their conclusions there can be no reasonable doubt that the story of the life of Sakya
Muni certainly existed in writing ninety years before the birth of Jesus; consequently, if the one life seems
to be a copy of the other, the gospel writers must be regarded as the plagiarists."
Of course, non-Christian scholars, such as Indians themselves, also contend that the Indian
religions, with various of their "Christian" motifs and rituals, long preceded the Christian era. Such scholars
possess common sense and rationality on their side, since Buddha and Buddhism antedated Christianity by centuries,
if not millennia.
For more information, see Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled.