God’s motivations

What might motivate God to create a world?

As can be seen from the above discussions, Vasubandhu’s claim that a complex world cannot have a simple and thus eternal cause was a very powerful and rich claim indeed, which thinkers were still exploring and expanding upon for several centuries.

A second question that Vasubandhu raises about the theory of divine creation focuses on 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!1

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.

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.”

In contrast to the argument concerning the impossibility of the creator’s unity, which became the principal Buddhist argument against the existence of God, this issue of the creator’s motivations was not stressed by Dharmakīrti, Śāntarakṣita or Kamalaśīla. In his Nyāyamañjarī, however, the Hindu theistic philosopher Jayanta Bhaṭṭa devotes a section to arguments adduced by atheists before providing his own arguments in favor of God’s existence. Among the arguments that Jayanta cites against God’s existence is a version of Vasubandhu’s question concerning motivations:

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.2

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 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.

Could God be one causal factor among others?


  1. These translations of Vasubandhu, directly from the Sanskrit, are mine. An English translation of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośam has been made by Leo M. Pruden, who translated the text from Louis de La Vallée Poussin’s French translation of a Chinese translation of the original Sanskrit. (Vasubandhu, 1988) ↩︎
  2. The translation is mine. An English translation of the entire text has been made by V.N. Jha (Jayanta, 1995) ↩︎

Works cited

  • Jayanta, Bhaṭṭa. 1995. Nyāyamañjarị of Jayantabhaṭṭa. Translated by V.N. Jha. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications.
  • Vasubandhu. 1988. Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam. Translated by Leo M. Pruden from La Vallée Poussin’s 1923 French translation. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.

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