|The former prince, now the ascetic Siddhartha, battles "Mara's tenfold army"|
He is the Buddhist counterpart to the Western devil in the form of a seductive Christian Lucifer angel, Roman Cupid, Ancient Greek Eros, or the Principle of Destruction [Sigmund Freud's Thanatos, the Ancient Greek "personification of Death"].
The legends concerning Māra are, in Buddhist texts, very involved and defy any attempts at unraveling them into a real person versus strictly a metaphor.
Mara, indeed, became a metaphorical means of talking about various aggregates, defilements, and other Buddhist concepts. But it seems safe to say that Mara, while metaphorical, is also real.
In the sutras and commentaries, mention is made of five "Māras":
- Aggregates: Khandha Māra
- Defilements: Kilesa Māra
- Formations: Abhisankhāra Māra
- Death: Maccu Māra
- Archangel: Devaputta Māra.
So Māra is defined at CNid. (No. 506) as karma and the formations (kammābhisankhāravasena), rebirth in general (patisandhiko), the aggregates (khandha-māro), the elements (dhātu-māro), and the spheres (āyatana-māro).
And again: Māro Māro ti bhante vuccati katamo nu kho bhante Māro ti? Rūpam kho, Rādha, Māro, vedanāmāro, saññāmāro, sankhāramāro viññānam Māro (S.iii.195):
Translation: "Mara, Mara, it is said, venerable sir, who/what is Mara? Form, Rādha, is Mara, as is feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness." [This is a list of what the Buddha called the "Five Aggregates of Clinging"]. See also S.iii.198; S.iii.74; S.iv.202; S.iv.85; S.iv.91; Netti, p. 40; S.iii.189; SNA.ii.506).
What are we to conclude?
|As Siddhartha was striving for enlightenment, Mara was causing him to doubt and lust.|
The commonest use of the word Māra was evidently in the sense of Death. From this it was extended to mean "the world under the sway of death" (also called Māradheyya, e.g., A.iv.228) and the beings trapped therein.
Then the defilements (kilesas) also came to be called Māra, in that they are the instruments of Death, the causes enabling Death to hold sway over the worlds of the Three Spheres of Samsara (Sensual, Fine Material, and Immaterial).
- [NOTE: While many religious systems, most notably Christianity and Hinduism, consider the heavenly worlds of the Fine Material and Immaterial Spheres as beyond Death, beyond the grasp of Mara Devaputra (who resides in the highest Sensual Sphere heaven), Buddhism regards all of samsara (with the exception of the Pure Abodes of those working out their final liberation) as being subject to death and decay and thus within the realm of Mara/Death.]
|Cupid is a Roman god, in Ancient Greece called Eros|
This Mara considers himself the head of the Sensual Sphere (Kāmāvacara) who thinks that any attempt to curb the enjoyment of sensual pleasures is a direct challenge to himself and his authority.
- [The human plane is a world in the Sensual Sphere, so this god/deva considers us his sport, as coming under his sway, as his slaves, his subjects, his hapless victims, which many of us are apparently. Cupid is a bad guy, but many of us think of him as essential to our happiness and pray for his blessing on Valetine's Day.]
|Kamadeva (Cupid) turned to ashes by Shiva|
- Those who can restrain the mind [heart] and check its propensities can escape the snares of Māra (Dhp. Yamaka, Verse 7).
- One who delights in objects cognized by the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind has come under Māra's sway (S.iv.91).
- One who has attachment is entangled by Māra (S.iii.73).
- Māra will overthrow one who is unrestrained in one's senses, immoderate in one's food, idle and weak (Dhp. Yamaka, Verse 8).
- By attaining the Noble Eightfold Path one can be free from Māra (Dhp. vs. 40).
- The Samyutta (i. 135) records a conversation between Māra and Vajirā. She is an arhat, one who has attained full enlightenment, so she tells Māra: "There is no 'being' (satta) here who can come under your control; there is no 'being' but a mere heap of formations (sankhāras, suddhasankhārarapuñja).
- [That is to say, as someone who is enlightened, she has realized anatta, the ultimate truth that all things, including the Five Aggregates beings cling to as "self," are actually impersonal. She is therefore no longer trapped, clinging to an identity, fooled by phenomenal existence as anything to be clung to as permanent or able to satisfy the desires the impersonal process generates. So she is free, and Mara can never again entangle her. And she tells him so, which is very depressing for Mara (Cupid, the devil, the God of Sensuality) to hear, as it means he has lost.]
|Mara's War against the ascetic Siddhartha under the bodhi tree before enlightenment|
These accounts describe how Māra Devaputta sees the Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) seated firmly resolved to become a buddha. So he summons all his forces and advances against him. These forces are armies that extend a distance of 12 yojanas (~84 miles) to the front of the Bodhisatta, 12 to the back, and 9 each to the right and left.
Māra himself, thousand-armed, rides on his elephant, named Girimekhala, 150 leagues in height. His followers [like Lucifer's "fallen angels"] assume various fearsome shapes and are armed with dreadful weapons.
At Māra's approach, all the various angels (devas), reptilians/great creatures (nāgas), and others, who were gathered round the Bodhisatta singing his praises and paying him homage, disappear in headlong flight.
The Bodhisatta is left alone, and he calls to his assistance the ten perfections, which he had practiced to the utmost.
Each division is a face off by the Buddha using one perfection (pāramī), and the division is put to flight, warded off, chased away.
|Mara is the whole of worldly existence, the endless cycling in samsara dogged by death.|
Undaunted, Māra challenged the Buddha to show that the seat on which he sat was his by right. Māra's followers all shouted their evidence that the seat was Māra's. The Buddha, having no other witness, asked the Earth to bear testimony on his behalf, and the Earth roared in response.
Māra and his followers fled, utterly routed. And the devas and others gathered around the Buddha to celebrate his victory. The sun set on Māra's defeat. This, in brief, is the account of the Buddha's conquest of Māra, greatly elaborated in later chronicles and illustrated in countless Buddhist shrines and temples with all the wealth of riotous color and fanciful imagery that gifted artists could command.
That this account of the Buddha's struggle with Māra is all literally true, only the most naive believe, even today. The Buddhist point of view has been well expressed by Rhys Davids (article on the Buddha in the Encyclopedia Britannica). It might be better to understand by "the attack of Māra's forces" that all of the Buddha's
"old temptations came back upon him with renewed force. For years he had looked at all earthly good through the medium of a philosophy which had taught him that it, without exception, carried within itself the seeds of bitterness and was altogether worthless and impermanent; but now, to his wavering faith, the sweet delights of home and love, the charms of wealth and power, began to show themselves in a different light and glow again with attractive colors. He doubted and agonized in his doubt, but as the sun set, the religious side of his nature had won the victory and seems to have come out even purified from the struggle."
The living traditions of Buddhist countries supply an adequate answer, without the aid of rationalists. The epic nature of the subject gives ample scope for the elaboration so dear to hearts in Pāli language texts.
- the first consists of the Lusts;
- the second is Aversion;
- the third Hunger and Thirst;
- the fourth Craving;
- the fifth Sloth and Indolence;
- the sixth Cowardice;
- the seventh Doubt;
- the eighth Hypocrisy and Foolishness;
- the ninth Gains, Fame, Honor, and Glory falsely obtained;
- the tenth is Lauding oneself and Contemning others.
But the quest was in vain and, "like a crow attacking a rock," he left the Buddha in disgust and despair. "The lute of Māra, who was so overcome with grief, slipped from his arm. Then, in dejection, the yakkha (ogre) disappeared." This lute, according to the Commentary (SNA.ii.394), was picked up by Sakka (king among devas of two deva-worlds) and given to Pañcasikha.
|Mara's three alluring "daughters" -- Craving, Discontentment, Passion|
And "Māra" came to be represented as assuming various disguises in order to carry out his nefarious plans. So the books mention various occasions when Māra appears before the Buddha and his disciples, male and female, to lure them away from their spiritual path.
- doubts as to his liberation
- feelings of fear and dread
- appearing before him in the shape of an elephant
- a cobra
- in various guises, beautiful and ugly
- making the rocks of Vulture's Peak fall with a crash
- making him wonder whether he should ever sleep
- suggesting that, as human life is long, there is no need for haste in living the life of an ascetic
- dulling the intelligence of his hearers (e.g., at Ekasalā; cf. Nigrodha and his fellow paribbājakas, D.iii.58).
Again, when the Buddha went for alms in Pañcasālā, Mara entered the Brahmin caste householders so that they would not give any offerings of food, as was their custom, and the Buddha had to return with an empty bowl.
Māra approached the Buddha on his return and tried to persuade him to try once more. This was, according to the Commentary, a ruse so that he might inspire the Brahmins to insult and injury in addition to neglect.
But the Buddha saw through the ruse and refused, saying that he would live that day on meditative joy (pīti), like the Abhassara gods (devas). This incident is related at length in SA.i.140f. and DhA.iii.257f. The Commentaries (e.g., Sp.i.178f.) state that the difficulty experienced by the Buddha and the monastics in obtaining food at Verañja was also due to the machinations of Māra.
On another occasion, he tempted the Buddha with the fascination of exercising power that he might rescue those suffering from the cruelty of rulers. Once, at the Sākyian [Scythian] village of Sīlavatī, he approaches monastics bent on study in the shape of a very old and holy Brahmin priest and asks them not to abandon the things of this life in order to run after matters involving time.
In the same village, he tries to frighten Samiddhi from his meditations. Samiddhi seeks the Buddha's help and goes back to win full enlightenment. Compare this to the story of Nandiya Thera. The great commentator Buddhaghosa says (DA.iii.864) that when Sūrambattha, after listening to one of the Buddha's sutras, returns home, Māra visits him there in the guise of the Buddha and tells him that what the Buddha had taught him earlier was false.
Sūrambattha, although surprised, could not be shaken in his confidence because he was already a stream enterer, someone at the first stage of enlightenment, which leads to perfect confidence in what the Buddha taught about enlightenment.
Māra influences Godhika to commit suicide and tries to frighten the monk Rāhula, the Buddha's son, in the guise of a huge elephant (DhA.iv.69f ).
In the account of Godhika's suicide (S.i.122), there is a curious statement that, after Godhika died, Māra went about looking for Godhika's consciousness (patisandhicitta) to see where he was reborn. And the Buddha pointed Mara out to the monks nearby describing him as "going about like a cloud of smoke."
Later, Māra comes to the Buddha like a little child (khuddadārakavannī, SA.i.145) holding a vilva lyre of golden color, and he questions the Buddha about Godhika. (This probably refers to some dispute that arose among the monastics regarding Godhika's rebirth destiny).
|Mara assaulted the Buddha and Buddhist nuns.|
To the same category of temptations belongs a story found in late Commentaries (J.i.63) when Prince Siddhartha was leaving his palace on his journey of renunciation. Māra, here called Vasavattī (after the name of the heaven he lives in as a deva), appears before him and promises him the Sakyian kingdom [the vast Scythian territory in Central Asia, where the Buddha was likely born and grew up] and the whole world within seven days if he will but turn back.
- [NOTE: It was the Buddha's karma and predicted destiny at birth to become a chakravartin, a "world monarch," if he remained in the world rather than renouncing.]
Can it be that here we have the word "Māra" used in the sense of physical death (maccu-māra), and that the occasions referred to were those on which the Buddha felt the desire to pass away into the bliss of nirvana, to pass away utterly at the end of rebirth, to "lay down the burden"?
Perhaps they were moments of physical fatigue, when he lay at death's door, for we know (see Gotama for the history of the Buddha) that the six years he spent engaged in severe austerities harmed his health and that he suffered constantly from muscular cramps, digestive disorders, and headaches.
It is true that in the Mahā Saccaka Sutra (M.i.240ff.), which contains an account of the events leading up to Siddhartha's great enlightenment, there is no mention whatsoever of any temptation by Mara, nor is there any mention of the bodhi tree. But to argue from this that such events did not form part of the original story might be to draw unwarranted inferences from an argumentum e silentio.
At Beluvagāma, shortly before the Buddha finally decided to pass into final nirvana, we are told (D.ii.99; cp. Dvy. 203) that "there fell upon him a dire sickness, and sharp pains came upon him even unto death."
But the Buddha conquered these by a strong effort of will because he felt it would not be right for him to pass into final nirvana without addressing his followers and taking leave of the Monastic Order.
Compare this with Māra's temptation of the Buddha at Maddakucchi, when he laid suffering from severe pain after the wounding of his foot by a shard of rock that splinters off a boulder hurled at him by Devadatta. It may have been the physical weariness, referred to above, which at first made the Buddha reluctant to take upon himself the great exertions which the propagation of this Dharma would involve (e.g., Vin.i.4f) to make the path of liberation known in the human world.
We know of other fully enlightened beings (arhats) who actually committed suicide in order to escape being worried by physical ills, for example, Godhika, Vakkali, and Channa. When their suicide was reported to the Buddha, he declared them free from all blame.
- [NOTE: Could they have sufficient aversion, a defilement they've overcome, to kill themselves, or would Mara or someone else need to motivate them?]
|The "Demons" (yakkhas, ogres) of Mara (palm leaf manuscript. Nalanda, Bihar, India)|
|Mara as a yakkha or preta (Jacob de Backer)|
Already in "The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha" (Anguttara Nikāya) Māra is described (aggo ādhipateyyānam iddhiyā yasasā jalam) as the head of those enjoying bliss in the Sensual Sphere (Kāmāvacara) worlds and as a dāmarika devaputta (as mentioned earlier at A.ii.17).
Even after the Buddha's final passing into nirvana, Māra was regarded as wishing to obstruct good works. So at the enshrinement of the Buddha's relics in the Great Stupa (Mahā Thūpa), the monk Indagutta Thera by supernatural power causes a parasol of copper to cover the universe in order that it might ward off the attentions of Māra (Mhv.xxxi.85).
Is it, then, possible that some of the conversations the Buddha is reported to have had with Māra, for example in the second part of the Padhāna Sutra, were originally ascribed to a real person designated as Māra Devaputta and later confused with an allegorical Māra?
This suggestion gains strength from a remark found in the Māratajjaniya Sutra (M.i.333; cp. D.iii.79) uttered by the great chief disciple Maha Moggallāna that he, too, had once long long ago in a previous rebirth been a māra named Māra Dūsī (MN 50). Kālā (or Kali) was his sister's name, and the Māra of the present age (Namuci) was her son and his very own nephew.
|There have been many maras (devils).|
According to the sutra, Māra Devaputta was evidently regarded as a deva being of great power in a high Sensual Sphere heaven called Vasavatti, with a strong bent for mischief, especially directed toward holy men. This suggestion is worthy of further investigation. See also Mārakāyikā deva.
His usual standing epithet is "the Evil One" (pāpimā), but other words are also used, such as anatthakāma, ahitakāma, and ayogakkhemakāma (e.g., M.i.118).
In the Mahā Samaya Sutra, Namuci is mentioned among the Titans (asuras) as being present in the assembly (D.ii.259). Elsewhere in the same sutra (p. 261f.) it is said that when all of the devas and others had assembled to hear the Buddha teach, Mara came with his "swarthy host" [fellow dark ones] and attempted to blind the assembly with thoughts of lust and so on.
But the Buddha, seeing him, warned his followers against him, and Māra departed unsuccessful. At the end of the sutra, four lines are traditionally ascribed to Māra. They express admiration for the Buddha and his followers. In this sutra Māra is described as mahāsena ("having a large army").
|Mara in Gandhara Buddhist art|
Who else might Mara be?