Surveying the scope of literature that underscores the period known as Early Buddhism yields a complex and convoluted landscape with regards to Early Buddhism’s attitudes toward other religious faiths and the notion of God and gods.
Like any religion or ideology, Buddhism established clear fences to mark its ideological territory and although these fences weren’t reinforced with the violent zeal that marred the history of the Abrahamic religions, it still relied upon intellectual polemics and strict rules governing the Sangha to ensure that its territory would remain clearly defined and protected from perceived defilement.
This essay will examine just a few of the fences that defined and protected Early Buddhist ideology, as well as discuss the open gates that cautiously invited the flow of ideas and beliefs from Early Buddhism’s surrounding religious landscape.
Early Buddhism, God and gods
Regarding the notion of an absolute creator deity (issara-nimmāna-vāda),  the texts of Early Buddhism paint a picture of Buddha that gives rise to the justified assertion that he was an avid atheist, at least in this regard. Buddha railed against the belief in an eternal and absolute creator God, employing derogatory analogies, similes and metaphors to highlight the “hearsay”, “ridiculous”, “illogical”, “foolish”, and “blind” nature of the faith in such a deity. 
Following his analogy of the ‘string of blind men’ proffered to illustrate the fact that not even the earliest brahmans and rishis had ever claimed to have seen or directly experienced Brahma, Buddha said:
“The talk, then, of these brahmans versed in the three Vedas turns out to be ridiculous, mere words, a vain and empty thing!” 
Another problem with the concept of an absolute deity is that such a deity is unfathomable, and thus, to waste time trying to fathom the unfathomable would be an obstacle that would undermine the believer’s peace of mind, which would hinder them from the attainment of nibbana.  Needless to say, if one were to devote the time required to solve an unsolvable riddle, one would not only drive themselves insane, but they would be obstructed in their quest to attain the enlightenment occasioned by the thoughtful and time-consuming contemplation of both nature and the human condition; thus, the believer who squandered their time in such a manner would be prevented from escaping the dukkha (suffering) of the samsara (cycle of birth and re-birth).
Buddha’s strongest criticism of the belief in an absolute deity was that it obstructs the believer’s path to enlightenment, not merely by undermining the believer’s peace of mind and wasting their valuable time, but by perpetuating the harmful illusion of the permanent-self, because it betokens the belief that the personal ego/soul not only exists, but that it exists forever.  The belief in an eternal soul was, and remains, antithetical to the aim underscoring Buddha’s ‘Four Noble Truths’, i.e., it perpetuates dukkha by fostering the delusional clinging to, and craving for, that which is in fact impermanent. The Anguttara Nikaya enunciates the illusion of permanence in the following words: “Alas, we who, in fact, are impermanent, believed that we were permanent! We who, in fact, are evanescent, believed that we were ever lasting! We who, in fact, are non-eternal, believed that we were eternal! But, truly, we are impermanent, evanescent, non-eternal, engrossed in personality!” 
Buddha’s belief in both impermanence and the non-existence of the soul were two of the sturdy fences formally erected in the Pali Canon.  The Hindu belief in the soul and the eternal and absolute nature of Brahma, as well as the eternal nature of the universe, stood in direct opposition to these core Buddhist doctrines, and were subsequently the target of early Buddhist polemics.  Following his less-than-convincing rebuttals of the eternal nature of Brahma and the eternal and semi-eternal natures of the world, in which Buddha postulated that, following the passing of an aeon the world passes away and the first one reborn into the “World of Radiance” becomes lonely and wishes for others to be reborn into this heavenly abode, and when another comes, the first believes he has brought the other into existence, and the other, being second, believes that the first has brought him into existence,  thus establishing the erroneous belief in both the permanence and pre-eminence of Brahma, Buddha asserted:
‘Now of these, brethren, the Tathdgata  knows that these speculations thus arrived at, thus insisted on, will have such and such a result, such and such an effect on the future condition of those who trust in them. That does he know, and he knows also other things far beyond (far better than those speculations) ; and having that knowledge, he is not puffed up, and thus untarnished he has, in his own heart, realised the way of escape from them, has understood, as they really are, the rising up and passing away of sensations, their sweet taste, their danger, how they cannot be relied on, and not grasping after any (of those things men are eager for) he, the Tathdgata, is quite set free. ‘These, brethren, are those other things, profound, difficult to realise, hard to understand, tranquillising, sweet, not to be grasped by mere logic, subtle, comprehensible only by the wise, which the Tathagata, having himself realised and seen face to face, hath set forth; and it is concerning these that they who would rightly praise the Tathagata in accordance with the truth, should speak.’ 
Further, to express his emphatic rejection of the eternal and semi-eternal conceptions of the universe, Buddha exclaimed:
“Those recluses and Brahmans who maintain either the first, or the second, or the third conclusion, are wrong.” 
According to a rule of the Sangha, once Buddha had ruled something to be an obstruction, as he did with the notion of an absolute, eternal creator deity, it was forbidden for a monk to argue that such was not actually an obstruction. The rule reads as follows:
‘Should any bhikkhu say the following: “As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, those acts the Blessed One says are obstructive, when engaged in are not genuine obstructions,” the bhikkhus are to admonish him thus: “Do not say that, venerable sir. Do not misrepresent the Blessed One, for it is not good to misrepresent the Blessed One. The Blessed One would not say anything like that. In many ways, friend, the Blessed One has described obstructive acts, and when engaged in they are genuine obstructions.”’ 
In this way, Early Buddhism was somewhat exclusivist, although not to the same extent as the exclusivist monotheistic religions, which branded non-members with derogatory epithets such as “non-believer”, “heretic” and “infidel”; but in terms of forbidding Buddhists from adopting certain ideas and beliefs that were deemed incompatible with the core doctrines (fences) of Buddhism.
Despite Early Buddhism’s polemical stance against an eternal and absolute creator deity, it didn’t roundly reject belief in gods and the supernatural. To the contrary, gods and supernatural realms and creators abound in the Pali Canon.  From the elation of the devas upon Buddha’s birth,  their crying out upon his initial turning of the wheel of dhamma, to the numerous cameos made by numerous gods borrowed from the Hindu pantheon, Early Buddhism, at least with regards to minor (impermanent) deities, was somewhat theistic, and in this regard, Early Buddhism was just as irrational as any other religion. 
Again, as long as the attributes of a religion’s god didn’t trespass upon the somewhat exclusivist principles of the core doctrines of Early Buddhism, belief in them wasn’t viewed as an obstacle. In fact, belief in non-obstructing deities, as long as such belief didn’t involve a clinging to personality, was even seen as a means by which a believer might foster and bolster the noble attributes venerated by Buddha and Early Buddhism. Thus, although many Buddhists seek to highlight the rational qualities of Buddha, the evidence clearly indicates that he was just as credulous and gullible as the founders of the purely theistic religions.
Early Buddhism and Other Religions
Early Buddhism’s attitude toward other religions might best be summed up by Jayatilleke (2006, p. 2), who described it as one of “critical tolerance”. As discussed above, it was openly critical of religious concepts that clashed with its core doctrines and principles, yet its general tolerance appears to have been the result of Buddha’s approach to religion in general.
Buddha, for his time, being a Sramana, didn’t generally promote the mindless acceptance of religious doctrines and dogmas by way of blind faith and unthinking acceptance, but by way of careful examination, thoughtful contemplation and logical reasoning. This doubting approach to religion was a double-edged sword, for it fostered both open-minded tolerance and fierce polemics against the Brahmanical religion, which taught blind subservience to ancient traditions, doctrines and dogmas.  Buddha’s critical approach to the careful consideration of religious doctrines is probably best illustrated by the following statement recorded in the Anguttara Nikaya:
“O Kālāmas, you have a right to doubt or feel uncertain, for you have raised a doubt in a situation in which you ought to suspend your judgment. Come now, Kālāmas, do not accept anything on the grounds of revelation, tradition or report or because it is a product of mere reasoning or because it is true from a standpoint or because of a superficial assessment of the facts or because it conforms with one’s preconceived notions or because it is authoritative or because of the prestige of your teacher…” 
Drawing upon the scholarship of Norman (1985) and Chappell (1999), Meister (2010, p. 327), in his discussion on Buddha’s attitude toward non-Buddhist enlightenment, says:
‘Furthermore, the Pali scriptures record Buddha as saying that he does not deny that some non-Buddhist sages achieved enlightenment (Norman 1985, 172-173). Moreover, although Buddhist texts contain warnings against associating with and consulting non-Buddhists, they also give occasional examples of Buddhist practitioners who are said to have learned from non-Buddhist teachers (Chappell 1999, 5-6).’
There was one non-Buddhist teacher, however, whose teachings the early Buddhists avoided like the plague, and this was the Ajivika teacher, Makkhali Gosala. Makkhali taught a strict doctrine of predestination, which propagated the idea that freewill was essentially a myth,  thereby freeing believers from the responsibility to personally strive to become enlightened, good, and to own their own quest toward truth, happiness, and ultimately, nibbana. Makkhali’s teachings were so at odds with the Buddha’s that they provoked an ad-hominem attack from Buddha, who described Makkhali as a “fisherman casting his net at the mouth of a river for the destruction of many fish.” 
Once again, it wasn’t Makkhali’s religion, per se, that inspired Buddha’s fierce reaction, but its propagation of the principle of predestination, which trod upon the toes of Buddha’s most cherished doctrines enshrined within his Four Noble Truths; doctrines that would be meaningless absent the assumption of freewill.
Despite the few overt polemics contained within the texts of Early Buddhism, the general tolerance it expressed toward other religions influenced King Ashoka in the third century BCE to write:
‘The king honours both the ascetics and lay followers of all religions and he gives them gifts. But the King does not value gifts and honours as much as he values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions…Therefore contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others….’ 
In contrast to the tolerant attitude of this Buddhist king, the fifth century Christian Emperor, Theodosius the Great, who was inspired by a dogmatically exclusivist religion, declared:
‘We shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity. We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom we adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which We shall assume in accordance with the divine judgment.’ 
Unlike the purely exclusivist Abrahamic religions, which rejected, and continue to reject, all competing religions, Early Buddhism’s polemical stance against a number of its surrounding competitors shouldn’t be interpreted as an outright rejection of all religions that were not Buddhism. Instead, Early Buddhism was only critical of religious doctrines and beliefs that clashed with its core principles and presuppositions. In this way, it established clear fences to mark and protect its ideological territory.
The Buddha was a sceptical atheist with regards to the belief in a deity that infringed upon his belief in both the non-existence of the soul and impermanence, but was a believing polytheist when it came to impermanent and minor deities from the Hindu pantheon who could be refigured within the ideology of Early Buddhism. His refutation of the eternal and absolute Brahma was framed within his unfounded belief in the cycle of samsara, viewing the Brahma as simply the first to be reborn into the heavenly abode after the passing of an aeon. In this way, Buddha’s rejection of the Hindu Brahma was an indication of the fences Buddha erected to define his ideological territory; that is to say, Buddha redefined and reinterpreted Brahma in purely Buddhist terms, and in so redefining, established a boundary that clearly distinguished it from its parent religion, Hinduism.
Finally, Early Buddhism’s relatively rational approach to religion in general, which is purported to have been derived from the teachings of the Buddha himself, lent itself to a comparatively tolerant approach toward other religions. It didn’t condemn other religions outright, but critically evaluated the claims they made, and if the claims were deemed sound and virtuous, and if they encouraged liberation in Buddhist terms, then the religion’s adherents were deemed capable of achieving enlightenment, even though they weren’t Buddhists.
- Nyanaponika Thera, ‘Buddhism and the God-Idea: Selected Texts’, Wheel Publication No. 47, 2008, p. 2.
- “Hearsay”: Majjhima Nikāya No. 76: Sandaka Sutta, cited in: Ibid. p. 8; “Ridiculous”: Dīgha Nikāya No. 13: Tevijjā Sutta, cited in: F. Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the Buddhists, (Trans. T.W. Rys Davids), Oxford, 1881, p. 306; “Illogical”: Vijnaptimātratā Siddhi Śāstra, cited in: Nyanaponika Thera, ‘Buddhism and the God-Idea: Selected Texts’, Wheel Publication No. 47, 2008, p. 12; “Foolish”: Dīgha Nikāya No. 13: Tevijjā Sutta, cited in Ibid., p. 8; “Blind”: Ibid.
- Dīgha Nikāya No. 13: Tevijjā Sutta, cited in: F. Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the Buddhists, (Trans. T.W. Rys Davids), Oxford, 1881, p. 306
- Cula Malunkyaputta Sutta no, 63 of M, cited in: Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, New York, 1959, p. 13; Simsapavana Sutta (S 56.31), cited at: http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/5.8-Cula-Malunkyaputta-S-m63-piya.pdf, accessed 27 July 2015.
- Nyanaponika Thera, ‘Buddhism and the God-Idea: Selected Texts’, Wheel Publication No. 47, p. 2; Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, New York, 1959, p.
- Auguttara Nikāya, Book of the Fours, No. 33, cited in: Ibid. p. 11.
- Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, New York, 1959, 17-19, 23-25.
- Oliver Freiberger, Negative Campaigning: Polemics against Brahmins in a Buddhist Sutta, Religions of South Asia 3.1, 2009, pp. 61-76; Majjhima Nikāya No. 76: Sandaka Sutta, cited in: Ibid. p. 8; Dīgha Nikāya No. 13: Tevijjā Sutta, cited in: Buddhist Suttas, (Trans. T.W. Rys Davids), The Sacred Books of the Buddhists, 50 Vols, Oxford, 1881, p. 306; Vijnaptimātratā Siddhi Śāstra, cited in: Nyanaponika Thera, ‘Buddhism and the God-Idea: Selected Texts’, Wheel Publication No. 47, 2008, p. 12; Dīgha Nikāya No. 13: Tevijjā Sutta, cited in Ibid., p. 8.
- Ibid. p. 5.
- Tathagata was the title Buddha gave to himself when referring to himself in the third person, and it has been taken to have numerous meanings (He/Truth who/which has arrived/departed, etc..): Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, New York, 1959, p. 146; Robert Chalmers, Journal of the Asiatic Society, 1898, pp. 103-115, cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tath%C4%81gata#cite_note-Chalmers-1, accessed 27 July 2015.
- Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the Buddhists, (Trans. T.W. Rys Davids), Oxford, 1881, p. 35.
- Ibid. p. 36.
- David N. Snyder, The Complete Book of Buddha’s Lists – Explained, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2006, p. 518.
- Maha-samaya Sutta (trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu), 1997, cited at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.20.0.than.html, accessed 17 July 2015.
- Anon, A Sketch of the Buddha’s Life: Readings from the Pali Canon, 2005, cited at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/buddha.html, accessed 17 July 2015.
- Maha-samaya Sutta (trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu), 1997, cited at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.20.0.than.html, accessed 17 July 2015;
- Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgita, Delhi, 1971, 99.
- Aṅguttara Nikāya, I. 189, cited in: N. Jayatilleke, The Buddhist Attitude to Other Religions, The Wheel Publication No. 216, 1966, p. 9.
- Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, New Delhi, 2008, 302.
- Buddha Net, Dharma Data: Tolerance, http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/dharmadata/fdd50.htm, accessed 20 July 2015; Alternative translations (Prinsep & Wilson) of Edict XII see: Alexander Cunningham & Eugene Hultzsch, Inscriptions of Asoka, 2015, p. 124.
- N. Hillgarth, The Conversion of Western Europe, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1969, p. 46.
Early Buddhist Texts
- Majjhima Nikāya
- Sandaka Sutta
- Dīgha Nikāya
- Tevijjā Sutta
- Vijnaptimātratā Siddhi Śāstra
- Cula Malunkyaputta Sutta
- Simsapavana Sutta
- Auguttara Nikāya
- Maha-samaya Sutta
Books & Journals
Chalmers, Robert, Journal of the Asiatic Society, 1898.
Cunningham, Alexander & Hultzsch, Eugene, Inscriptions of Asoka, Facsimile Publisher, 2015.
Freiberger, Oliver, Negative Campaigning: Polemics against Brahmins in a Buddhist Sutta, Religions of South Asia 3.1, 2009.
Hillgarth, J.N., The Conversion of Western Europe, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1969.
Jayatilleke, The Buddhist Attitude to Other Religions, The Wheel Publication No. 216, 1966.
Muller, F. Max , The Sacred Books of the Buddhists, (Trans. T.W. Rys Davids), Oxford, 1881.
Rahula, Walpola, What the Buddha Taught, New York, 1959.
Singh, Upinder, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, New Delhi, 2008.
Snyder, David N, The Complete Book of Buddha’s Lists – Explained, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2006.
Thera, Nyanaponika, ‘Buddhism and the God-Idea: Selected Texts’, Wheel Publication No. 47, 2008.
Upadhyaya, Kashi Nath, Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgita, Delhi, 1971.
Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.20.0.than.html
Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/buddha.html
Buddhanet: Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/dharmadata/fdd50.htm