Rebirth of a Buddhist classic
Professor of Pali and Buddhist Studies
University of Colombo
Gods in Buddhism Origin, Function and Development by Professor M.M.J. Marasinghe, Published by Sarasavi Publishers, Nugegoda
When it was first published in 1974, Gods in Early Buddhism marked an important event in the Buddhist academic world. The fact that the book has reappeared, exactly after 35 years, with a slightly modified title, from a leading publishing house in Colombo, suggests that time has not taken away the timeliness of the work. In fact in this post-Gangodawila Soma period, the relevance of academic writing on the origin, function and development of gods in Buddhism seems even more striking and the need for inquiring into origin and function of gods seems even more strongly felt.
The initial book, which was published by Kelaniya University (then Kelaniya Campus), was an outgrowth of author’s PhD dissertation submitted to Birmingham University, UK. The author, then a young and energetic lecturer at Kelaniya University, subsequently became the Professor and Head of Department of Buddhist Studies of that university. He ended his long academic career at Kelaniya as its Vice Chancellor for two consecutive terms, from 1987 to 1993, a period not too fondly remembered by those vice Chancellors who managed to survive. Professor Marasinghe was one such who not only survived but did well during this period when life particularly for university administrators was ‘nasty and brutish’ and for a few, unfortunately even ‘short’. The secret of Professor Marasinghe’s success was, perhaps with a little bit of luck, that he was a brave decision-maker who had courage to stand by his decisions.
1960’s and 70’ marked a coming of age of modern Buddhist studies in Sri Lanka when many senior professors of the field today were just completing their higher studies particularly in UK (the trend to go to USA for higher Buddhist studies started a little later.) and returning to the country. It is during this time such big names in Sri Lanka Buddhist studies as Oliver Abenayake, Ven. Kakkapalliye Anuruddha, Chandra Wickramagamage, Chandima Wijebandara, G. Panabokke, Tilak Kariyawasm entered the field with their freshly acquired knowledge and experience. Thanks to the excellent guidance provided to them by their teachers like K.N. Jayatilleke, W.S. Karunaratne. Jotiya Dhirasekera (presently, Ven. Dhammavihari), and Y. Karunadasa and their own teachers of the calibre of G.P. Malalasekera, O.H. De A. Wijesekera and N.A. Jayawickrama. Writing a forward to the original publication of this book Professor Ninian Smart, under whose guidance Prof. Marasinghe conducted his research, says that this book was "an instance of the high standard of Buddhist scholarship which characterize modern Sri Lanka". He must have been referring to the generation of Buddhist scholars of which Professor Marasinghe was a representative member.
Sri Lanka is known in the Buddhist academic world for preserving the Pali canon of the Theravada tradition. In the more recent past, it was even instrumental in propagating the word of the Buddha to the West through Pali Text Society of Rhys Davids. Once, however, the West got it, the Buddhist scholarship started developing in association with Western universities and Institutes in those regions and Sri Lanka seemed to eclipse from its historically held position. It is true to say that by 70’s thanks to the several generations of Buddhist scholars who had mastered the art of playing ‘the western game’ according to their rules but at times even better than how they did, Sri Lanka was regaining its endangered prestige. Professor Marasinghe belonged in this formative group.
The key message of Gods in Buddhism is that although gods appear frequently in the Buddhist texts and traditions, they are really inferior to human beings, the prime example of superior humanity being the Buddha himself. The new edition of the book has a cover page illustrating a god visiting the Buddha and paying homage to him. The illustration captures the basic message of the book. Inside the book, there is a sketch (between pp. 230-1) describing how Sakka, the king of gods, saluted the human beings ‘who lead religious lives and nourish their wives and children according to the Dhamma’. The Buddha’s position on the nature of gods can well be described as naturalist and humanist though I do mean to attribute all the characteristics of contemporary naturalism and humanism to the Buddha. In underscoring this early Buddhist position Professor Marasinghe articulates himself as a naturalist and humanist within the limits of the Buddhist thought.
Chapter 6, conclusion, has been newly added to the book. Almost at the end of this chapter the author summarises his main conclusion in the following words:
Thus, the gods, according to Buddhism are just another type or category of beings whose existence has no relevance or importance to man and either to his worldly welfare or to his spiritual welfare. They are neither to be prayed to nor sought after and do not possess the ability to respond to man’s request, command or prayer (p181).
This is the earliest canonical position pure and simple. (The latter half of the book examines the canonical evidence of gods and substantiates this position.). Since the new edition has taken away "early" which was to specify Buddhism in the original title of the book one would expect the new volume to have something on gods in ‘later’ Buddhism. The conclusion referred to above, however, indicates nothing of that sort.
We know that the Buddhist concept of gods and the people’s practices associated with this genre of beings have come a long way from this early Buddhist position. The Mahaparinibbana-sutta records a conversation between the Buddha and his attendant Ananda Thera in which the former reveals to the latter how, in the newly built fort-city of Pataliputra gods of differing ‘ranks’ were occupying houses built for officials of corresponding ranks. The Buddha further remarks: ‘this is as if the two groups, gods and men, have entered into a pact!
The episode is concluded with the statement: a man blessed by gods prospers always (devatanukampito poso-sada bhadrani passati). The Mahaparinibbana-sutta carries clear evidence of being completed after the parinirvana of the Buddha, although we do not know exactly how later. Nevertheless, one cannot easily dismiss Mahaparinibbana evidence. Talking about more intense practice of the Path, reflection on gods (devata-anussati) is listed in the texts among the various reflections leading to serenity of mind. Buddhaghosa elaborates on these practices in the Visuddhimagga. The evidence of this sort flies in the face of Professor Marasinghe’s ‘tough’ conclusion. He should have retained ‘early’ in his title!
Having said this, I must still say that Professor Marasinghe’s position is true to the real essence of Buddhism. One does not need God or gods in order to attain nirvana. Even reflection on gods which is one among forty such topics, a hard-core god-allergic practitioner can drop without much effect. On the other hand, even though you can forget about gods following Professor Marasinghe, you cannot stop spreading your metta to them lest they might disturb your meditation-if we are to believe the Commentary on the origin of the Karaniya-metta-sutta (Discourse on Loving Kindness)!
Contemporary Buddhism of ours shows that the belief in gods and associated practices have come a long way from what they might have been at their earliest phase. Even in this ‘god-infested’ contemporary Buddhist world I see something fascinating in the transaction between gods and human beings - people offer a ‘pandura’ to gods and ask for some favours from them (though personally I have not so far had a need to do so). This pandura used to be just a coin some decades back. Along with inflation and changing social trends now the value of the pandura too has increased considerably. But still not as bad as the pandura you have to offer to some visible gods you are forced to encounter in your daily life to get their services! One could easily argue that there is nothing wrong in getting done something for a fee even when your service-provider on other side of the table happens to be a god! No Buddhist in Theravada tradition ever goes to the Buddha with pandura asking for favours. At least you can say that even the most ordinary Buddhist has kept both the Buddha and gods at their due places and never confused their roles- a consolation to people like Professor Marasinghe!
It is heartening to see that Professor Marasinghe has continued to be the same unbending non-theist who wrote his thesis almost four decades back. That is the reason why his new conclusion does not have anything different to say from what he wrote in early 70’s. At the age of 80 Professor Marasinghe is still kicking! Age does not seem to have mellowed down the theoretical position of this otherwise mellow and amiable man. I wish him long life and good health for many more years to come.