One cause among many

Could God be one causal factor among others?

We have already seen how Vasubandhu, who was followed in this by Dharmakīrti, argued that God cannot be regarded as a sufficient condition of creation, that is, as a wholly self-sufficient creator with an innate self-actualizing potential to enact the creation of the world. But the possibility still remains open that God might be one of several necessary conditions in the origin of the universe. Historically, in fact, this view of creation, whereby God is a sentient, non-corporeal agent whose volition puts co-eternal atoms into motion to make up macroscopic corporeal forms and puts eternal souls into these created physical bodies, is the one adopted by most Indian theists, who generally condemned the theory of creation from nothing as absurd.

In dealing with the possibility that God requires factors outside himself in order to create the universe, Vasubandhu first considers the possibility that the creator’s dependence upon other things is due to his being himself an effect of other causes. If anyone were to hold such a view, then he would have to answer what it is that caused the creator’s causes and so on ad infīnītum. In fact, says Vasubandhu, this theory amounts to admitting that the universe is beginningless, which is the view accepted by Buddhists; but if one accepts that the universe is beginningless, there is of course no need for a creator at all.

The possibility that God’s dependence upon other things is in the nature of his being the effect of those other things is not to be taken very seriously, since no one actually advocates such a view, and Vasubandhu’s refutation of it must be seen as a result of a good philosopher’s penchant for thoroughness. Far more serious, however, is the claim that the world made up of insentient matter requires some conscious force to put it into motion. The principal argument of the theistic philosophers in India, in fact, was that since all complex products require sentient makers and since the universe is a complex product, the universe must have a sentient maker.

The above argument was one that the Buddhist academics tended not to reject; the medieval Indian Buddhists, in other words, did not advocate a position anything like the view accepted by most modern thinkers to the effect that the universe is for the most part uninhabited and that sentient life is a development that has come about relatively recently in the history of an inconceivably vast expanse of lifeless matter. On the contrary, Buddhist mythology and systematic philosophy generally endorsed the view that the vast universe is everywhere populated by sentient beings and that the shape the universe takes is an accommodation to the force of the constant fruition of the multitudes of deeds performed by those sentient beings throughout the history of a beginningless universe. The classical Buddhist view, in other words, is no more attuned to modern scientific views than is the theistic view of creation that the Buddhist academics sought to refute. What in particular Vasubandhu rejected in the theistic theory that the universe is sustained and influenced by non-corporeal sentience was the alleged unity of that sentience. If the material universe obeys the dictates of only one sentient force, namely God, then human beings and other sentient beings must be ultimately powerless, and their role in making all the manufactured items of ordinary life must ultimately be denied. As Vasubandhu puts the matter:

He who accepts that there is but one cause of the universe must deny the obvious human effort in other matters. And he who fancies God as a creator along with [other] causal factors would merely be proclaiming his devotion, for we do not observe the operation of anything other than the other causal factors when something arises from them.

Śāntarākṣita expanded Vasubandhu’s argument. First Śāntarakṣita recapitulates the theist’s claim as follows: “Others regard God the cause of all things that are produced. No insentient being, they say, produces its effect by itself.” But, he argues later, granting that an insentient universe cannot put itself into motion does not force us to conclude that there is but one sentient being who motivates insentient nature. On the contrary, in everything that we observe in the world around us we see that a multiplicity of effects is preceded by a multiplicity of creators. It takes many ants to make an anthill, and many men to construct a city and all the things in it; potters make pots, weavers make cloth, carpenters build houses and so forth, but we never observe that behind these many manufacturers of things there is but a single sentient being at work with a single will. If there were but a single purposive will driving all apparently independent sentient beings, there would be no conflicts among beings, but lack of conflict is hardly what we in fact observe. And so, concludes Śāntarakṣita:

We have no dispute with what is claimed in general, namely, that products are preceded by something intelligent, for diversity is born of deliberate action. In the argument for [products’] being preceded by a single, eternal intelligence, the conclusion is frivolous and [the evidence] inconclusive, because it is observed that palaces and so forth are built by many people.1

Closely related to the general issue of whether God is one factor among many in building and sustaining the universe is the contention held by some theists that God’s function is an essentially administrative one in that he keeps an account of all the deeds of his creatures and dispenses retribution in accordance with merit. The crucial question to be asked in this connection, say the Buddhists, is whether or not God actually tampers in any way with anyone’s stock of merit and demerit. If not, then it must be admitted that God is essentially doing nothing more than being aware of the natural process of the ripening of past deeds that would presumably take place whether or not he were conscious of it. God would then be much like us, a powerless bystander witnessing a series of virtually inevitable events. Positing such a god has no explanatory value, and paying respects to such an impotent figure would provide little comfort to the worshiper. And so, if God’s administrative talents are to command our respect, it would appear to be more promising to assume that God can and does play a decisive role in the maturation of the seeds of past deeds into present realities. And to say that God plays a decisive role amounts to saying that he accomplishes something that the natural fruition process itself would not accomplish. But what can God accomplish that could not be accomplished by a natural process of individual karmic seeds maturing into new realities? The most likely answer to this question is that God must somehow be able to alter the karmic configurations of sentient beings, to give beings rewards and punishments that they do not rightly deserve on the basis of the moral momentum of their own actions. But if God has this power to give those beings under his care gratuitous benefits, then we are entitled to ask why he does not consistently exercise this power so that all beings might always be happy. That he does not do so would appear to indicate either God’s insensitivity to our pain or his cruel willingness to see us undergo suffering that he could easily prevent. And so, the Buddhists conclude, whether God is unable to help us, unwilling to help us or unaware that we need help, he is of little value to humanity. We are better off conducting our affairs on our own powers and acting as if there is no divine power to help us in the task at hand, which is to transform our characters in such a way that we do only meritorious actions that naturally ripen into happy experiences in the present and future.

Questions for discussion


  1. Tattvasaṅgraha 80-81. The translation is mine. A translation of the entire text was made by Ganganatha Jha (Śāntarakṣita, 1986). ↩︎

Work cited

  • Śāntarakṣita. 1986. The Tattvasaṅgraha of Śāntarakṣita: with the Commentary of Kamalaśīla. Translated by Ganganatha Jha. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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