Was Gautam Buddha an atheist? As Buddha attained enlightenment he must have experienced what other masters experienced, yet he never spoke about God. Because of this some people even say that he was an atheist. On this question, Sri Sri Ravishankar Guruji of Art of living giving his views…
Well, in Buddha’s time there were many concepts of God. Many people had read all the Upanishad.
You should remember all of Buddha’s followers were high intellectuals in contrast to the followers of Jesus; they were all fishermen; simpletons. But Buddha’s followers were well read high intellectuals, so they all knew about God; they knew about Brahman, they knew about Atma, they knew about everything. And when you start talking and discussing, it will only remain on that level.
Again, since there were so many schools of thought, if he would approve of any one school of thought then the other schools of thought will say, ‘No that is not that way,’ and then they would all go away from him. So Buddha was very clever, he said, ‘Let me not talk about all these different schools of thought. People will all come and really enjoy and find the truth for themselves’, because they were all stuck there as they all studied in big universities. There were big universities at that time, thousands of people were studying, and they studied all the different schools of thought, scriptures, medicine and everything. India was at its peak at that time.
So Buddha said, ‘I am not going to get into this argument. I just want to give them a simple technique.’ Like what we do. We don’t talk about a belief system, religion or anything. We simply say, ‘Just do Sudarshan Kriya’, and everybody does it – Muslims, Jewish people, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, everyone does it and they find the true experience of being hallow and empty. So that is why Buddha said, ‘No, I am not going to speak about God.’ That was the right thing to do at that time.
Whereas Jesus was different, in his time there was only one school of thought there, in the village where he was teaching, and they all believed in God. Judaism was the only school of thought and they all depended on only that one book. So he spoke on the same lines of God, and then he introduced them to the knowledge without negating it.
Do you see what I am saying?
Moreover, his followers were very simple people. They did not even have that deep study of different scriptures. So it was easy, they all were charmed by the simple message of God is Love, and they followed.
Lord Buddha did exactly what he had to do and it was absolutely fine. That is why later on also, when Adi Shankara and other saints came, they found that there really is no difference between what Buddha said and what the Upanishads say. So India never became a Buddhist country because what Buddha said was already present.
Buddha never started a religion by himself; he lived as a Hindu monk. He became a Hindu monk and died also as a Hindu monk only. But afterwards Buddhism became a separated religion. He was just a reformer of the Hindu Sanatana, the ancient way of life. It was not even called a religion but just a way of life. He was part of the ancient way of life, and then it became a religion afterwards when it left India.
The influence of Lord Buddha was so much afterwards that people started forgetting all the Upanishads and everything, then Adi Shankara from the tradition, he came and he re-established Yoga and Vedanta. Adi Shankara said only thing, it is just one flip over and that is all that happened. Buddha said everything is emptiness. ‘I went deep in meditation and I searched but I could not find any Soul or any Self.’ This was his last sentence.
Adi Shankara said it in a different way, referring to Self as an object or as a substance. So Adi Shankara turned it around and he said, ‘Who could not find the Self, that is the Self, and this Self is all bliss, it is space.’
And then he just brought this whole knowledge, this philosophy back. Till this point, everything else said in Buddhism is the same – I am not the body, I am not the mind, I am not this, I am not this – and then when you go to the center core, Buddha said, ‘There is nothing’, and Adi Shankara said, ‘There is everything. This is the spirit, this is consciousness, and the consciousness is in one place, and every place.’
So in short, just like Jesus, Adi Shankara also lived only for 32 years and in those 32 years, he traveled the length and breadth of what is India today, several times.
In those days there were no vehicles, no cell phones, nothing. So it is said, any direction Adi Shankara would walk there would be victory there, there would be celebration, because 500 years after Buddha, people became very pessimistic. It is said that people were not taking interest in anything in life. They said, ‘Life is anyways sorrow, life is misery, so we don’t have to do anything.’
So, the military was not there, the Kings were all discouraged, the celebration aspect simply vanished. People were only talking about Anitya – Everything is impermanent so just become hallow and empty. This was the only slogan that was being said throughout. But Adi Shankara said, ‘Come on, it is impermanent, but there is something permanent as well, so let everyone celebrate, sing, dance.’
Then he started Bhaja Govindam, and then music, dance, culture and all these things were re-introduced by Adi Shankara.