Theodicy

Theodicy and divine motivation

In previous units we have talked about some of the metaphysical issues that Buddhist philosophers discussed in connection with the doctrines of divine creation of which they were aware. At least one Buddhist philosopher also raised the question of God’s character. Vasubandhu was curious about what kind of being it would have taken to create the world of suffering that all of us have been familiar with.

Among the questions that Vasubandhu raised about the theory of divine creation was the issue of why a self-sufficient and supposedly perfect being would either need or wish to create anything at all. Vasubandhu asks:

For what purposes would God expend so much effort in creating the world? Perhaps for pleasure? Well, if God cannot make an effort without pleasure, then he has no control over that, and thus he has no control over anything else either!

Even more alarming than the possibility that God’s creation of the universe was a mere indulgence in hedonism is the possibility that it was an act of cruelty, as evidenced by God’s apparent willingness to allow his creatures to err and suffer for their errors. Vasubandhu says:

And if God allows his creatures to be afflicted in hells by many guardians and takes pleasure in that, then we should prostrate ourselves before such a God as that! For the verse composed about him is very apt that goes:

Because he torments, because he is severe, because he is cruel and full of might,
because he devours flesh, blood and marrow they call him the Dreadful [Rudra].

Interestingly enough, few Buddhist philosophers whose works are extant and who had discussions of God’s existence developed this theme in Vasubandhu’s writing. We do know, however, that some Buddhist authors wrote on this matter of God’s character, since their words are quoted by the Hindu theologian Jayanta Bhatṭṭa. Jayanta quotes the words of an unnamed Buddhist author as follows:

Did the Lord of creation undertake the creation of the universe just as it is after he had pondered upon a purpose? If the undertaking were purposeless, then he would be like a madman, in that his actions would not be preceded by reflection.

But, Jayanta reports his atheist as saying, God is putatively endowed with every possible joy and is free of passionate desire, and so it is difficult to see what he would think he had to gain by creating a universe without which he is already quite content. The standard answer that the theist gives to this question is that God created the world out of compassion. But, says Jayanta’s adversary, for whom are we to believe that God has compassion? Compassion is a response to beings who are in pain. But surely there can have been no beings in pain before the creation of the universe; indeed, it was precisely because of the creation that previously contented souls began to feel pain and anguish. Moreover, since God is supposedly omnipotent, he might have created a universe in which sentient beings felt only joy and happiness instead of this sorry world in which what little pleasure there is is fleeting and serves only to taunt us in our misery. Perhaps we can conclude only that the creation was a joke (krīḍā) that God played to amuse himself. But, Jayanta has the atheist say, if the creation was a joke, it is one the humor of which is too subtle for the sentient beings to appreciate:

Neither is the Magnanimous One’s joke appropriate, which causes dread in all his creatures, nor is this great effort to play it.

The arguments that Jayanta reports are reminiscent or arguments we find in the writings of David Hume and J.L. Mackie.1 Mackie argues that if there is suffering in the world, then at least one of the following claims must be false:

  1. God is omniscient. (There is nothing that God does not know.)
  2. God is omnipotent. (There is nothing that God cannot do.)
  3. God is compassionate. (God is responsive to the needs of those who suffer.)

The argument goes that if God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he must not care about the suffering in the world. On the other hand, if God is omniscient and compassionate, then perhaps he simply lacks the power to end suffering. Or, if God is omnipotent and compassionate, perhaps he does not even know about the suffering in the world.

The extent to which these considerations on theodicy apply the the way the Buddha is portrayed in Buddhist texts is discussed next.


  1. See in particular David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Richard H. Popkin, Second ed., (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998). See also J.L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Philosophical Problems: An Annotated Anthology, ed. Lawrence BonJour and Ann Baker, (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005). ↩︎

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