Amitabha, A Story of Buddhist Theology, by Paul Carus, , at sacred-texts.com
Buddhism had gained ascendency in India without exterminating the more ancient creeds, and there were many devoutly religious people who had only a vague notion of the contrast in which it stood to other forms of faith.
The spiritual atmosphere in which Charaka had grown up consisted of a mixture of all the thoughts, influences, and opinions then entertained in India; but while the northern gods that had been worshiped by the ancestors of the invaders in their former homes had faded from the mental vision of the present generation, the ancient deities of India had not gained full recognition. Vishnu, Shiva, and Indra appeared to them as the patrons of conquered races and were therefore deemed of inferior power. Among the better educated Hindu people philosophical ideas were spreading and
[paragraph continues] Brahma was revered as the Supreme Being, the Great, the Omnipotent, the Omnipresent, as the All-Consciousness and All-Perfection, the Creator, the Fashioner, the Ruler of the Universe, and the All-Father of all beings. With this God-idea of an all-embracing personal deity Charaka had become familiar almost from childhood and he was greatly astonished not to hear a word about God, the Lord, or Brahma, in his religious instructions.
Buddha was spoken of as the teacher of gods and men; he was worshiped with a reverence which was peculiar to him; but the belief in the ancient gods was not disturbed. Their existence was neither denied nor affirmed.
So long as he was unacquainted with his new surroundings, Charaka did not dare to ask questions, but when he began to know his kind-hearted elder Subhûti and some others of the monks, he grew more assured, and one day while several brothers were seated at the portico of the assembly hall, he ventured to inquire as to the doctrine concerning God.
Life is taken seriously in a Buddhist monastery
and the tone of conversation is always religious and considerate. Nevertheless there were never missing among the brethren men of a lighter temper, who saw the humor of things, who could smile and, smiling, point out the comical features of life so as to make their fellow brethren smile too, for real laughter was seldom, or never, heard in the precincts of the cloister. We find frequent traces of this humor in the wall paintings as well as the legends of saints, part of which are preserved even to-day. Now when Charaka spoke of God, one of the brethren, Kevaddha by name, a healthy looking man of medium size and of radiant face, drew near and asked, "What do you mean,—Indra, the thunderer, the soma-intoxicated braggart-hero and ruler of the second heaven, whom the people call Sakra or Vâsava—or do you mean Shiva, the powerful and terrible One, decked with a necklace of skulls, the god full of awe and majesty? Perhaps you mean Vishnu, in any of his avatars, as a fish or a wild boar or a white horse?"
Charaka shook his head, and Kevaddha continued: "May be you mean Krishna, the avatar
of love, he who danced with all the shepherdesses at once, finding an appropriate incarnation in their favorite swains, while each girl imagined that she alone held the god in her arms?"
"My question refers to no one of the gods," replied the novice, "but to God," and the emphasis with which he marked the difference showed that he felt not like joking on a problem which was of grave importance to him.
"Ah, I see!" exclaimed Kevaddha. His lip curled with sarcasm and there was a twinkle of triumph in his eye, for the topic under discussion reminded him of a. contest which he had had with a Brahman priest in which his antagonist had been completely worsted by his superior skill in pointing out the weak side of the proposition and holding it up to ridicule. "Ah, I see!" he exclaimed, "you do not mean any one of the several gods, but god in general. You are like the man who sent his servant to market to buy fruit and when the latter returned with bananas, mangoes, grapes, and an assortment of other fruit, he upbraided him, saying: 'I do not want bananas, nor mangoes,
nor grapes, nor pears, nor prunes, nor apples, nor pomegranates, I want fruit! Fruit I want—fruit pure and undefiled, not a particular fruit, but fruit in general!'"
Said Charaka: "Are you a wrangler, famous in the art of dialectics and you know not the difference between God and the gods? I love God but I hate the gods!"
"Is it possible," cried Kevaddha with a sarcastic chuckle, "you hate the gods and you love God? Can you hate all the single men, monks and laymen, traders, warriors, kings, noblemen, Brahmans, Kshatryas, and Shudras, and love man in general? How is it that you can hate the gods and love God? Does not the general include the particular?"
"Be so good, reverend sir," answered the novice, who began to chafe under the attacks of the brisk monk, "to understand what I mean. The world in which we live is a world of order, and we know that there are laws to which we must submit. When I speak of God I mean him who made us, the Omnipotent Creator of the Universe, the Father of all Beings,
the Standard of all Perfection, the Eternal Law of Life."
"Well, well," replied Kevaddha, who though boisterous was at the bottom of his heart good-natured. "I do not mean to offend. I try to drive a truth home to you in the guise of fun. The truth is serious, though my mode of expression may be humorous. I understand now that you are devoted to the great All-God, Brahma, as the Brahmans call him, the Lord, Creator and Ruler of the Universe. But did you ever consider two things, first that such an All-God conceived as a being that has name and form is the product of our own imagination as much as are all other deities of the people; and secondly, if Brahma were as real as you are and I am, he would be of no avail? Every one must find the path of salvation himself, and Brahma's wisdom is not your wisdom. Nor can Brahma who resides in the Brahma heaven teach you anything."
Charaka did not conceal his dissatisfaction with Kevaddha's notion of God and said: "The mere idea that there is a God gives me strength. He may be directly unapproachable
or may surround us as the air or as the ether which penetrates our bodies. He may be different from what we surmise him to be; but he must exist as the cause of all that is good, and wise, and true, and beautiful. How shall I, in my endeavors to seek the truth, succeed if there be no eternal standard of truth?"
"Yes, I know," replied Kevaddha with undisguised condescension; "It will help a youth who pursues an ideal to think of it as a being, as a god, as the great god, as the greatest god of all. Children need toys and the immature need gods. Your case reminds me of a story which was told me when I in my younger years went out not unlike you in search of truth."
"Tell us the story!" exclaimed one of the younger brethren, and Kevaddha said: "If I were sure not to hurt the feelings of our young friend, the novice, I should be glad to tell the story. But seeing that he is a worshiper of Brahma, I had better let the matter drop!"
Charaka answered: "I am not a worshiper of Brahma, unless you understand by Brahma the First Cause of the All, the ultimate reason of existence, the Supreme Being, the Perceiver
of all things, the Controller, the Lord, the Maker, the Fashioner, the Chief, the Victor, the Ruler, the Father of all beings who ever have been and are to be! If your story be instructive I am anxious to hear it myself, even though it should criticise my belief."
All further discussion ceased when Kevaddha showed his readiness to tell the story.