Gurudev, Buddhists say they do not believe in God. Even Lord Buddha said that we must not worship idols. Now He too was an enlightened being, so what did he mean by that?
Lord Buddha never talked about God. He never really entertained any discussion on God. What He said was – the first thing is to realize that there is misery. People keep denying there is misery, many don’t even recognize it. Many a time if you talk to a sick person, he will say “I’m perfectly healthy and fine”. The more egoistic the person, the greater is the denial.
Many times people are very miserable from within, but they wear a mask of cheerfulness or even act confident and dominating on the outside. They will keep pretending as if everything is fine, yet you can see the misery drip from their faces. Every part of their body reflects anger, bitterness, hatred and misery. This is what Lord Buddha has said – that there is misery. Recognize it, and then there are remedies for it. If someone says being miserable is my nature, then nobody can do anything about it, not even God Himself. So misery is not our nature, it comes because of samskaras (past life impressions) or karma. And this can be removed by other samskaras. One remedy for this is Pratyahara (one of the eight limbs of Yoga which means to exercise control or restraint over the senses and withdraw them inwards). Another remedy to this is meditation. So through meditation, pranayama, and Satsang we can be liberated from the miseries. It is then that we come to realize that our nature is happiness, bliss. Just as light dispels darkness, our Atma-shakti (the powerful soul as consciousness within) removes misery. On the path of Sadhana, all negativity and distortions such as fear, anger etc. fall away. The goal of Sadhana is get immersed in that indescribable bliss which is part of our very nature.
Lord Buddha said the same things that are said in the Upanishads. There is a verse:
Na karmana na prajaya dhanena tyagenaike amrta tvamanasuh |
Parena nakam nihitam guhayam vibhrajate yadyatayo visanti ||
(- Sanyasa Sukta, Maha Narayano Upanishad, 4.12)
It means: Neither through one’s actions (Karma), nor by begetting noble progeny (referred to by ‘Praja’ in the verse above), nor through wealth (Dhana) can one attain the Supreme Lord. Only through sacrifice and renunciation (Tyaga) can one attain immortality (Amruta). This is what Lord Buddha has said as well. If you read the Upanishads carefully and then read that Lord Buddha has said, you will find they are the same. There is no difference at all.
That is why Shri Adi Shankaracharya is often called Prachanna Baudha (a hidden or unproclaimed Buddha, meaning an enlightened one), because whatever he said seemed to be so similar to what is mentioned in Buddhism. So there is no difference between the Sanatana Dharma (another name for Hinduism) and Buddhism. The principles are nearly the same. I won’t say that they are exactly the same, but they are very close indeed. Buddhism advocates Shoonyavaad (the realization that “everything is nothing”; Shunya meaning Zero or nothing in Sanskrit), while Vedanta advocates Poornavaad (the central belief that “Everything is One and whole”). In Buddhism the first important step is the realization of misery, while in Vedanta they say that there is no misery. They say – ‘Wake up and see! You are full of joy (the Self as bliss)’.
So in Buddhism when misery disappears, joy is seen and in Vedanta when joy (of the Self) is realized, misery disappears automatically. So going from bottom to top and top to bottom, these are two different approaches. But the goal is the same. Even in Vedanta, it is not said that one should necessarily worship idols. It is said that worshipping the Atma-deva (referring to the Self as the Divine deity housed within the temple of the physical body) is the highest form of worship. But to begin with, one needs an environment, an atmosphere for reaching that stage of worship. This is why there is Puja. Ultimately at one point you see everything as the expansion of yourself, everything appears as a manifestation of that one Self. When one realizes that there is no difference between the world and the Self (Brahman) - which is present everywhere, in the trees, in the idols, in the earth, in water, in the blue sky; then one can worship anything and anywhere (meaning: to reach a stage where one sees everything as the manifestation of the one divine Self).
Even in the Rudra Puja, there is a rule that ‘Na Rudram Rudram Archayeti’’ which means until you become Lord Shiva yourself (realize your own true divine nature), you cannot worship the Lord. So you should first become God and then worship Him. It means to be firmly established in the Self. So it is said to worship God after becoming God, being established in your Self. Puja is just a play, it is a leela (a game), a way of expressing this deep feeling of worship.