Many supernatural creatures populate Buddhist literature, but among these Mara is unique. He is one of the earliest non-human beings to appear in Buddhist scriptures. He is a demon, sometimes called the Lord of Death, who plays a role in many stories of the Buddha and his monks.
Mara is best known for his part in the historical Buddha’s enlightenment. This story came to be mythologized as a great battle with Mara, whose name means “destruction” and who represents the passions that snare and delude us.
The Buddha’s Enlightenment
There are several versions of this story; some fairly straightforward, some elaborate, some phantasmagorical. Here is a plain version:
As the about-to-be Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, sat in meditation, Mara brought his most beautiful daughters to seduce Siddhartha. Siddhartha, however, remained in meditation. Then Mara sent vast armies of monsters to attack him. Yet Siddhartha sat still and untouched.
Mara claimed that the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him and not to the mortal Siddhartha. Mara’s monstrous soldiers cried out together, “I am his witness!” Mara challenged Siddhartha, who will speak for you?
Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself spoke: “I bear you witness!” Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.
The Origins of Mara
Mara may have had more than one precedent in pre-Buddhist mythology. For example, it’s possible he was based in part on some now-forgotten character from popular folklore.
Zen teacher Lynn Jnana Sipe points out in “Reflections on Mara” that the notion of a mythological being responsible for evil and death is found in Vedic Brahmanic mythological traditions and also in non-Brahmanic traditions, such as that of the Jains. In other words, every religion in India seems to have had a character like Mara in its myths.
Mara also appears to have been based on a drought demon of Vedic mythology named Namuci. The Rev. Jnana Sipe writes,
“While Namuci initially appears in the Pali Canon as himself, he came to be transformed in early Buddhist texts to be the same as Mara, the god of death. In Buddhist demonology the figure of Namuci, with its associations of death-dealing hostility, as a result of drought, was taken up and used in order to build up the symbol of Mara; this is what the Evil One is like–he is Namuci, threatening the welfare of mankind. Mara threatens not by withholding the seasonal rains but by withholding or obscuring the knowledge of truth.”
Who Is Mara to You?
As in most Buddhist teachings, the point of Mara is not to “believe in” Mara but to understand what Mara represents in your own practice and experience of life. Jnana Sipe said,
“Mara’s army is just as real to us today as it was to the Buddha. Mara stands for those patterns of behavior that long for the security of clinging to something real and permanent rather than facing the question posed by being a transient and contingent creature. ‘It makes no difference what you grasp’, said Buddha, ‘when someone grasps, Mara stands beside him.’ The tempestuous longings and fears that assail us, as well as the views and opinions that confine us, are sufficient evidence of this. Whether we talk of succumbing to irresistible urges and addictions or being paralyzed by neurotic obsessions, both are psychological ways of articulating our current cohabitation with the devil.”