There are a number of versions of the following story in circulation:
One day in the early morning Gautama Buddha was sitting in a garden quietly with his disciples. A man arrived silently and stood in the shadows, that man was a great devotee of Lord Rama. He had built many temples across the country, he had devoted many years in the service of Lord Rama. He would always chant Rama’s name and contemplate on Rama’s greatness. He was old and close to his last years. Even after many years of dedicated spiritual effort he was not realized.
He wanted to know for sure if there is a God or not? When he heard about the realized one (Buddha) , he came to get his doubt cleared. When he felt nobody would notice him talking to Siddartha, the Buddha. He asked Gautama “O enlightened one, Please tell me the truth! and truth only. Is there a god?”.
Buddha, from his intuition knew that man to be a great devotee of Lord Rama, he looked at that man with seriousness and said “No, My friend. There is no god”.
Buddha’s disciples that were gathered there were very relieved and joyous to finally know the truth that there was no god. They all started muttering between them, sharing what the Buddha had just told. Whenever a disciple had asked that question to Buddha he would become silent. So they never knew.
His words spread through the whole town, the whole town was celebrating the day on which the truth of NO GOD was revealed by the enlightened. They were finally free of the ideas of hell, heaven and of somebody sitting up to judge one’s actions.
It was getting late in the evening, and once again the disciples came back and sat around the Buddha.
There was a materialist who had been an atheist all his life, he had convinced 1000s of people that there was no god, he used to go to the priests and scholars and defeat them in the argument about god.
He too was getting old and little suspicion arose in him, “what if there is god? isn’t it waste of my life to spread the “NO GOD” message if there is god?” he thought. He was eaten by this doubt, he finally decided to know the truth and sought the enlightened one.
He slowly came up to where Buddha was sitting, and asked him “They say you are enlightened, Please tell me if there is GOD?”.
Buddha knowing that man to be an atheist said with firm voice as if he is in firm conviction “Yes, there is God”. Buddha’s disciples once again were back to confusion.
Moral of the story: Belief that there is God or belief that there is no God are both equally useless, one has to realize the truth in himself with diligent self-effort. Enlightened one had told each of them what they had to know in order for them to get stronger on their spiritual quest.
This particular version is from here
There is a rather different version by Osho (aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) which I think may be the earliest one. It can be found here.
Another version can be found here.
This is a story that (I presume) Osho made up — something he was prone to doing. It’s not from the Buddhist scriptures.
The Buddha did use different language and different spiritual models depending on his audience. So when talking to monks he would talk in terms of the spiritual goal being nibbana, or liberation from the rounds of rebirth. When talking with householders he was more likely to talk in terms of being reborn in heaven and avoiding hell.
What were his views on God, or gods, we should say, since he lived and taught in a polytheistic society?
First, the Buddha’s teaching is incompatible with an eternal, omnipotent God, and he thought such a belief to be spiritually harmful, since it diminishes our sense of personal responsibility. He did often talk as if gods such as Brahma existed, and described conversations with them. In these stories Brahma frequently comes off as a buffoon, and I think we can safely take such stories to be satirical in intent.
In one such story (in the Brahmajala Sutta) he pokes fun at Brahma as having deluded himself into thinking that he was the creator of everything. In another sutta he described Baka Brahma as “immersed in ignorance” for believing himself and his heaven as being permanent and said that the Brahma and his entire retinue were under the sway of Mara (roughly the Buddhist equivalent of the devil).
Toward the end of the Kevaddha Sutta the Buddha recounts an episode in which Brahma confessed to being afraid of the other gods’ reaction if they discovered that he couldn’t answer questions put to him by one of the Buddha’s disciples — questions that the Buddha was able to answer.
Sometimes gods played positive roles in early Buddhist texts. Most famously, when the Buddha was newly awakened and unsure whether it would be possible for him to teach his realization to others, Brahma Sahampati appeared and encouraged him to work for the benefit of suffering beings. In this I suspect we’re hearing the words of the Buddha’s own compassionate nature communicating to him. Another time Brahma Sahampati gave the Buddha advice on lifestyle:
Let the wilderness serve for your seat and bed!
Go about set free from the ties that bind.
But if, perchance, you don’t find there your bliss, then
Live in a group — but watch over yourself:
Mindful, proceeding for alms from house to house,
Mindful, with guarded faculties — and wise.
Sometimes gods came to the Buddha as disciples, and heard teachings from him. Sometimes they gave teachings to monks.
There are always going to be some people who will be annoyed by me saying this but my sense is that the Buddha did not believe in gods, and that his stories involving them were either satirical or poetic. This particular story, however, was not one he told.