The Buddha denied the existence of any permanent substratum to the universe, whether a soul or a God, even (and especially) a panentheistic God comparable to the Indian notion of Nirguna Brahman (God without attributes).
Despite his assertion that God belief and deity worship are distractions that can and should be done away with, the Buddha was not particularly concerned with refuting the existence of so-called gods, such as Brahma, Indra, Sakra, or major and minor devas. Just as with the undeclared or unanswered questions set aside by the Buddha, inquiries concerning whether or not God exists do not address the problem of suffering. God is irrelevant to the path and teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha did not have to actively deny the concept of God to deprive it of significance. Except he still did so by challenging the commonly held notion of God as omniscient, benevolent, omnipotent creator, characteristics which he demonstrated are not in actuality held by those beings who purport to hold them (e.g., manifestations of Saguna Brahman, God with attributes, including the popular Brahma).
Brahma, the creator deity of ancient Indian religion, reportedly visited the Buddha after his enlightenment to encourage him to teach. This anecdote exemplifies upaya, a frequent teaching strategy of the Buddha, otherwise known as skillful means. If the masses respected Brahma and Brahma supported the Buddha’s doctrine, the Buddha must be worthy of their ear. Many religions will say that their God would not support the heretical teachings of others, so followers are deterred from exploring another tradition. If, however, the self-proclaimed all-knowing Brahma did not object to the Buddha’s teachings, his alleged creations could explore the path of the Buddha without worry or concern of retribution.
Yet in accepting Brahma’s existence for pedagogical purposes, the Buddha dismisses Brahma’s existence for epistemic reasons. While speaking with the iniquirer Vasettha, the Buddha explains:
“Vasettha, just as with a line of blind men clinging to each others backs, the man at the front sees nothing, the men in the middle see nothing and the man at the end sees nothing, so the words of the Three Vedas Brahmins can be compared to a line of blind men. That is, the first group of speakers didn’t see Brahma, the next group of speakers didn’t see Brahma and the last group of speakers didn’t see Brahma. Thus, their words turn out to be ridiculous, low, vain and good-for-nothing.”
Tevijja Sutta (DN 13)
The Buddha explains that neither the Brahmins (holy men), none of their teachers, nor the authors of the Vedas (scriptures of ancient Brahmanism) had ever seen Brahma (God) face to face, nor known for themselves His qualities. The Buddha compares those who claim to know Brahma to men who, blinded by wishful thinking, build staircases to a mansion they have never seen but which they imagine is perched high amongst the clouds. Likewise, they are compared to men blinded by attachment, who without ever seeing a woman rumored to be the most beautiful in the land, vow to marry her. How can one proclaim allegiance to and faith in something one has never known for oneself?
For those claiming to know Brahma, the Buddha responds by claiming to know Brahma too. Except this Brahma, mistaken for a God, is really. In several encounters with Brahma, the Buddha demonstrates the fallibility of this supposed God, casting immense doubt on its claims to divinity.
For a brief overview:
In the Brahmanimantanika Sutta (MN 49) the Buddha refutes that God is eternal
In the Mulapariyaya Sutta (MN 1) the Buddha refutes that God is the creator
In the Tittha Sutta (AN 3.61) the Buddha refutes God’s benevolence
In the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1) the Buddha refutes God’s omnipotence, position as the first cause, and role as creator
In the Kevatta Sutta (DN 11) the Buddha refutes God’s omniscience
On one occasion, Brahma descends from the heavens to assert his power before a monk, who refers Brahma to the Buddha:
A second time, the Great Brahma said to the monk, ‘I, monk, am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Sovereign Lord, the Maker, Creator, Chief, Appointer and Ruler, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be.’
“A third time, the monk said to the Great Brahma, ‘Friend, I didn’t ask you if you were Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Sovereign Lord, the Maker, Creator, Chief, Appointer and Ruler, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be. I asked you where these four great elements — the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, and the wind property — cease without remainder.’
“Then the Great Brahma, taking the monk by the arm and leading him off to one side, said to him, ‘These gods of the retinue of Brahma believe, “There is nothing that the Great Brahma does not know. There is nothing that the Great Brahma does not see. There is nothing of which the Great Brahma is unaware. There is nothing that the Great Brahma has not realized.” That is why I did not say in their presence that I, too, don’t know where the four great elements… cease without remainder. So you have acted wrongly, acted incorrectly, in bypassing the Blessed One in search of an answer to this question elsewhere. Go right back to the Blessed One and, on arrival, ask him this question. However he answers it, you should take it to heart.’
Kevatta Sutta (DN 11)
If Brahma were indeed God, then this exchange and others like it appearing throughout the Nikayas and Agamas would be case in point. Understandably, an immediate objection to the Buddha’s refutation of God is that he spoke with God himself, as did many of his disciples. Whether or not he actually spoke with God, the fact that the Buddha makes a fool of God should be proof enough that God has no place in his teachings or the path of liberation. Further, who is to say that Brahma is indeed God? Though commonly mistaken for God, Brahma is merely another deluded, high-ranking being, according to the Buddha.
In the Buddha’s words:
“Again, monks, I [the Buddha] approached those ascetic and brahmins and said to them: ‘Is it true, as they say, that you venerable ones teach and hold the view that whatever a person experiences…all that is caused by God’s creation?’ When they affirmed it, I said to them: ‘If that is so, venerable sirs, then it is due to God’s creation that people kill, steal …[and otherwise act badly]. But those who have recourse to God’s creation as the decisive factor will lack the impulse and the effort doing this or not doing that. Since for them, really and truly, no (motive) obtains that this or that ought to be done or not be done….”‘
Tittha Sutta (AN 3.61)
Several additional, complementary remarks by the Buddha are as follows in the realm of ethics:
“If the pleasure and pain that beings feel are caused the creative act of a Supreme God [Issara-nimmana-hetu], then the Niganthas [Jains] surely must have been created by an evil Supreme God.” (MN II 222)
This rhetoric goes to show that creationist causality is morally faulty. God (Issara here) most certainly cannot be benevolent, as a benevolent God would not allow beings to suffer.
In the Tittha Sutta, the Buddha speaks thus, refuting the supposed benevolence of God
“Having approached the priests & contemplatives who hold that… ‘Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation,’ I said to them: ‘Is it true that you hold that… “Whatever a person experiences… is all caused by a supreme being’s act of creation?”‘ Thus asked by me, they admitted, ‘Yes.’ Then I said to them, ‘Then in that case, a person is a killer of living beings because of a supreme being’s act of creation. A person is a thief… unchaste… a liar… a divisive speaker… a harsh speaker… an idle chatterer… greedy… malicious… a holder of wrong views because of a supreme being’s act of creation.’ When one falls back on creation by a supreme being as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], ‘This should be done. This shouldn’t be done.’ When one can’t pin down as a truth or reality what should & shouldn’t be done, one dwells bewildered & unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative. This was my second righteous refutation of those priests & contemplatives who hold to such teachings, such views.” (AN 3.61)
Elsewhere the Buddha states: “The universe is without a refuge, without a Supreme God.” (MN II 68). Given that there is no supremely benevolent creator, there is no use in seeking refuge in God.
The Jatakas contain the same sentiment in poetic form:
“He whose eyes can see the sickening sight,
why does not God set his creatures right?
If his wide power no limits can restrain,
why is his hand so rarely spread to bless?
Why are his creatures all condemned to pain?
Why does he not to all give happiness?
Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail?
Why triumphs falsehood, – truth and justice fail?
I count your God unjust in making a world in which to shelter wrong.” (J VI.208)
“If God designs the life of the entire world — the glory and the misery, the good and the evil acts, man is but an instrument of his will and God alone is responsible.” (J V.238)
Thus, the moral uprightness of a supposed God is shattered, or at the very least brought under intense scrutiny. The Buddha’s rhetoric here serves to demolish the faulty notion of a benevolent force in the universe, a Supreme God, a Great God, Maha Brahma.
Most clarifying, the Buddha states that though Maha Brahma (i.e., the so-called Great God) may exist, it is not as it believes itself to be (i.e., a Great God).
‘As far as the suns and moons extend their courses and the regions of the sky shine in splendour, there is a thousandfold world system, in each single one of these there are a thousand suns, moons, Meru Mountains, four times a thousand continents and oceans, a thousand heavens of all stages of the realm of sense pleasure, a thousand Brahma worlds. As far as a thousandfold world system reaches in other words, the universe], the Great God is the highest being. But even the Great God is subject to coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be.’ (AN 10.29)
The question of causality is another blow to the notion of God in the Buddha’s framework. Things exist only in relation to other things. All things originate from something else. Even if a God were to exist, it would only exist due to other causes and conditions. This would therefore not constitute a substratum.
Thus, should there be a God, he is neither omniscient, nor eternal, nor the creator of all things, nor benevolent, nor omnipotent. What does that leave? A deluded being, just like the rest of us. Thus there can be no true God, only beings who imagine themselves to be such.