Friday, September 9, 2011

Mara: Buddhism's Super Devil, Cupid, Lucifer

Ananda W.P. Guruge (U. West, UNESCO, Sri Lankan ambassador) Wisdom Quarterly
Mara Devaputra, or the Super Devil, is more dangerous than the other maras.

The Buddha's Encounters with Mara the Tempter
Their Representation in Literature and Art
The Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (Prof. G.P. Malalasekera) introduces Mara (a Buddhist "super devil" as:
  • "the personification of Death"
  • "the Evil One"
  • "the Tempter"
  • "(the Buddhist counterpart of the Devil or Principle of Destruction)."
It continues: "The legends concerning Mara are, in the books, very involved and defy any attempts at unraveling them."[1]

Analyzing a series of allusions to Mara in the commentarial literature, Prof. Malalasekera further elaborates on his definition with the following observations:

  1. "In the latest accounts, mention is made of five maras -- Khandha-mara, Kilesa-mara, Abhisankhara-mara, Maccu-mara, and Devaputta-mara. Elsewhere Mara is spoken of as one, three, or four."[2]
  2. "The term Mara, in the older books, is applied to the whole of the worldly existence, the Five Aggregates, or the realm of rebirth, as opposed to nirvana."[3]
  3. Commentaries speaking of three maras specify them as Devaputta-mara, Maccu-mara, and Kilesa-mara. When four maras are referred to, they appear to be the five maras mentioned above minus Mara Devaputta.

Prof. Malalasekera proceeds to attempt "a theory of Mara in Buddhism," which he formulates in the following manner:

"The commonest use of the word was evidently in the sense of Death. From this it was extended to mean 'the world under the sway of death' (also called Mara-dheyya, e.g. AN IV 228) and the beings therein.

"Thence, the kilesas (defilements) also came to be called Mara in that they were instruments of Death, the causes enabling Death to hold sway over the world. All temptations brought about by the kilesas were likewise regarded as the work of Death.

"There was also evidently a legend of a devaputta [a "son of the gods," one born among the celestial devas] of the Vasavatti world called Mara, who considered himself the head of the Kamavacara-world [the sense sphere] and who recognized any attempt to curb the enjoyment of sensual pleasures as a direct challenge to himself and to his authority.

"As time went on these different conceptions of the word became confused one with the other, but this confusion is not always difficult to unravel."[4]

What follows from this statement, even though Malalasekera does not elucidate, is that the term Mara, when it occurs in Buddhist literature, could signify any one of the following four:

  1. An anthropomorphic deity ruling over a heaven in the sense sphere, namely, Paranimmita-Vasavatti. He is meant when Mara is called the king of the sensual realm. In this position, he is as important and prestigious as Sakka (King of the Devas) and Maha Brahma (the "Great Supremo") in whose company he is often mentioned in the canonical literature. This Mara, or Mara-devaputta, is not only a very powerful deity but is also bent on making life difficult for spiritual persons.
  2. The Canon also speaks of (a) maras in the plural as a class of potent deities (e.g., SN 56.11) and (b) of previous -- hence, logically future -- maras (e.g., MN 50). According to Tibetan texts, the ascetic Siddhartha could have, with the instructions given by Arada Kalama, become a Sakra, a brahma, or a mara [all of which are best understood as posts held rather than individual historical figures].[5]
  3. A personification of Death is called also the Lord of Death, the exterminator, the great king (maha raja), and the inescapable (Namuci). The preoccupation of the Buddhist quest for deliverance is consistently stressed as escaping the phenomenon of death, which presupposes rebirth. The entire range of existence falls within the realm of Mara on account of the ineluctable presence of death. (Compare with Schopenhauer's concept of "Morture."[6]) All states of existence, including the six [near-Earth] heavenly worlds of the sense sphere, are said to return to the power of Mara, which means into the power of death.[7]
  4. Mara can also be seen allegorically, with almost immediate personification, of the power of temptation, the tendency towards evil, moral conflict, and the influence of such factors as indolence, negligence, and niggardliness. Similar to Satan in Judeo-Christian and Islamic thinking and Ahriman in Avestan [Zoroastrian] thought, though in no way identical, this Mara is described as Papima (i.e., "the Evil One," or simply "the Evil")[8], "Kinsman of Dalliance" (Pamattabandhu), Calumnious or Malicious (Pisuna), and "the Black" (Kanha). Grimm calls this Mara "the prince and bestower of all worldly lust" and distinguishes him from Lucifer of the Bible on the ground that this personification "always remains apparent."[9]

In this work, where the Buddha's encounters with Mara are analyzed as they are presented in literature and art, the main concern will be with Mara as a personification of temptation (No. 4 above). But I will also briefly examine how the other concepts are sometimes subsumed under this and how the literary description or the artistic representation of Mara is conditioned by the merger of three separate concepts as well as by the general body of Indian mythology.

It has to be noted that Mara is another name for the Indian "God of Love" [Cupid], known also as "Lust" (Kama) or "Deva of Lust" (Kama-deva), "Of Five Arrows" (Pa├▒cabana), "Tormentor of Minds" (Manmatha), Bodiless (Ananga), "Flower-Weaponed" (Kusuma-yudha), and "Dragon-Flagged" (Makara-dhvaja). More