Reasons for the Deification of the Buddha

by Subhito, The Buddhist Channel, 26 Feb 2024

Bangkok, Thailand -- The historical Buddha did not allow worship in human form after his passing. Yet, 400 to 500 years later, Buddha-rupas (Buddha statues) began appearing in Gandhara and Mathura, kickstarting his public deification, spreading as far as China and Japan.

Seated Buddha, Gandhara, Pakistan, Kushan dynasty, 100s-200s AD

The reasons behind this deification are diverse, touching upon historical, psychological, and doctrinal aspects. Let's delve deeper.

As Buddhism evolved, so did the needs and fears of the community. Some could not accept the Buddha's death and absence, and lacking a strong foundation in Buddhist meditation, began to project ideas and stories of "living" Buddhas and various deified beings. This process was not the reason for the Buddha's idealization and deification but rather the means through which it occurred.

Psychologically, as the Buddhist community expanded, the direct influence of the Buddha waned. When the Buddhist community was smaller and centred around the living Buddha, members were constantly reminded and motivated to practise the Dharma. As the community grew and the direct influence of the Buddha's presence waned, the creation and worship of new Buddhist deities and holy beings served as a reminder of the path to self-awakening, keeping practitioners motivated.

Buddha in Tushita heaven (Tibetan thanka)

In early pre-Mahayana tradition like Sarvāstivāda, the Buddha's life story was transformed, depicting a perfect, immutable, almighty, and all-knowing being. Mahāyāna Buddhism took this further, portraying the Buddha as transcending even gods, reflecting the apex of imaginative spirituality. The result of this apotheosization was the complete deification of the Buddha.

Propogation strategy was another reason for the Buddha's deification. Buddhism's decline in India was partly due to its assimilation of Hindu practices, making reabsorption into Hinduism easier. Deifying the Buddha served as an evangelical strategy for merchants outside of India, especially those from China, who found the idea of a god-like Buddha more relatable than nirvana.

Buddha descending from heaven (Thai mural art)

The concept of the superhuman Buddha ties into the doctrine of rebirth. The teaching of rebirth imbues the Buddha's existence with a sense of continuity and transcendence. By suggesting that the Buddha's presence in the world is not limited to a single lifetime but is part of an ongoing cycle of existence, it elevates his status beyond that of an ordinary human being. This idea of continuous existence across multiple lifetimes, and his accumulation of merit in past lives creates a framework for viewing the Buddha as a timeless and eternal figure, thereby facilitating his deification.

To gain support of powerful figures like Emperor Asoka, Buddhists of that era introduced the "universal monarch" (cakka,vatti) ideology, aligning it with the Buddha's role as a world renouncer. This emphasis on greatness and savior status contributed to his deification.

These reasons, a complex interplay of historical, psychological, and doctrinal factors - collectively contribute to the complex process of the Buddha's deification, reflecting the evolving needs, beliefs, and strategies of the Buddhist community over time.
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