Known as « Prince of Darkness », « Tempter », « Lord of Death » or « Devil », Mara weaves his way through Buddhist scriptures , creating chaos and bad karma. This god is determined to hinder enlightenment, and thanks to his unlimited influence on the lives and hearts of people, he is very successful in achieving his goal.
If you are a fan of dark figures, buddhist culture or allegories of death, welcome to skull world! As you may have noticed, today we want to find out together what this figure from Buddhist culture is all about, who she is and what we can learn from her. 👹
Let’s get started right away!
Who is the demon Mara?
Mara is a demonic god haunting Kāmadhātu, the « realm of desire » in Buddhist cosmography. He seeks to corrupt the inhabitants of Kāmadhātu, including animals, humans, and demigods, by tempting them with desire and instilling fear in them.
Numerous supernatural beings populate Buddhist literature, but among them Mara is unique. He is one of the first non-human beings to appear in Buddhist scriptures. He is a demon, sometimes referred to as the Lord of Death, who figures in many stories of the Buddha and his monks.
Mara is best known for his role in the Buddha’s historical enlightenmentknown. This story has been mythologized as a great struggle with Mara, whose name means « destruction » and which represents the passions that trap and deceive us.
Mara’s physical description
The early followers of Buddhism believed that Mara had both a metaphorical and a literal existence, giving her a physical form in Kāmadhātu. Ancient drawings show Mara as a greasy-bodied creature with blue-green skin and red color when angry. Like most wrathful gods of Indian culture, he typically has three eyes and may have six arms. A crown of human skulls surrounds his head, and he is often seen riding an elephant or in the company of snakes. 🐍
Most contemporary Buddhists hold that Mara has only a metaphorical existence. Although he does not take physical form, he is still real and must be fought.
Get the demon Mara look too by wearing this « « »skull crown braceletéé !
The powers of Mara
Mara’s greatest power is his influence over the other denizens of the Realm of Desire. Not only can he summon other demons whenever he wants, but he can also turn men and women into tools. With cunning lies and cunning truths, he manages to fill hearts with greed, lust, anger, jealousy, confusion, fear and depression. 😵
Mara can also dress up by assuming the shape of other people. She can appear as someone you hate, love, fear, or trust, thus twisting your mind with false messages delivered by friend or foe… All of Mara’s weirdness is meant to inspire the people of Kāmadhātu , bad karmaaccumulate so that they cannot break their karmic cycle and escape the realm of desire where they exist under the shadow of its influence.
Mara’s daughters, each representing an unwanted emotion, are his most powerful allies. He uses these beautiful girls as weapons to sow negative feelings in the people of Kāmadhātu and make them accumulate bad karma. 🔮
Different texts ascribe different numbers of daughters to the prince of darkness. Most commonly he has three daughters: tanhā (envy), arati (dislike, dissatisfaction) and raga (attachment, desire, greed, passion).
In other texts he has ten daughters, sometimes referred to as the ten cardinal sins. It refers to:
- Sakkaya-ditthi (pride, vanity)
- Vicikiccha (skepticism, doubt)
- Silabbata Paramasa (devotion to bad rituals)
- Kama-raga (sensuality, desire)
- Patigha (evil will)
- Rupa-raga (attachment to the realm of form)
- Arupa-raga (attachment to the formless realm)
- Mana (Supremacy)
- Uddhacca (restlessness, riot)
- Avija (ignorance)
He uses them according to the person he needs to manipulate, and therefore according to the qualities of each person.
Origin of the Buddhist demon
Neither the concept of Mara nor its name is a Buddhist invention. Before Buddhism, Hindu texts from the Vedic period contained a god of the same name, representing both sex and death. Also in earlier Hindu texts there are numerous yakshas, nature spirits that resemble Mara in their powers, habits and goals. 🙏
It is clear from the early Buddhist texts that Mara has played a role in the Buddhist tradition since its inception. Some of the earliest writings, written about a century after Buddha’s death, show that Buddha himself told his disciples about Mara.
Mara is an important figure in Buddhist scripture, with two sections of scripture, the Mara-Samyutta and the Bhikkhuni-Samyutta, devoted to recording his exploits. Almost every Buddhist is familiar with the most infamous « tempter » attack he launched on Siddhartha Guatama when the sage was on the verge of attaining enlightenment. The famous story goes as follows:
Sensing that Siddhartha would soon break the shackles of the realm of desire and attain pure, unlimited knowledge that could be used to help other people attain enlightenment, Mara set out to disrupt Siddhartha’s meditation. He found the future Buddha sitting under the Bhodi tree, starving but filled with a glorious inner peace. 🙏
Of course that wouldn’t have been enough. The tempter immediately began to fill Siddhartha’s ears with insinuations of the great empire he could establish to glorify and improve mankind. Siddhartha recognized that these suggestions were empty and ignored them. Afterwards, Mara rebuked Buddha for abandoning the duties of his religion , social class, and even his position as father and husband. Buddha ignored these remarks as well.
When Mara saw that his own tricks were no match for Siddhartha’s inner concentration, he decided to turn to his allies. He summoned an army of terrible demons who fired a volley of arrows at the dormant Siddhartha. However, the man didn’t bat an eyelid as the arrows flew toward him, and just before they struck, the arrows turned into flowers and spread around him. 🌸 Buddha then reached out to the earth to ask for help, and a flood swept away the demonic horde.
The bad guy was at his wits end now. He called upon his own daughters, Tanhā, Arati, and Raga, to help him loosen Siddhartha’s grip on enlightenment. The daughters danced in front of Siddhartha and persuaded him with all their sensual charms to return to the realm of desire. However, Siddhartha remained unimpressed.
Mara sent her daughters away and gave Siddhartha one last stab, this time resorting to her own genius of corruption and temptation. He mocked Siddhartha and told him that his attempts to attain enlightenment were all in vain as there was no one there to witness the consummation. In response, Siddhartha placed a hand on the earth and proclaimed that the earth itself would be his witness. The earth shook in response and the prince of darkness flew away in anger, knowing he had been defeated.
Explanation of the Mara myth
While there may never have been an angry six-armed demon riding an elephant through the peaceful Indian lands leaving behind bad karma, that doesn’t mean Mara doesn’t exist.
Many modern Buddhists have understood that Mara is a psychological phenomenon. Mara is a conglomerate of all the distractions that Buddhists need to overcome in order to build up good karma and attain enlightenment. When you try to get into a meditative state, it can seem like you’re fighting a swarm of demons or a demonic god the whole way. 👊
Mara has also been used as a metaphor for samsarainterpreted, the cycle of death and rebirth that Buddhists try to escape. Mara is considered the god of desire and sensuality, as well as the god of death. He creates and destroys life over and over again, creating samsara. If the Buddha has defeated Mara and is asking his disciples to defy Mara, he may actually be asking them to escape samsara.
Deeply rooted cultural customs may have prompted the early Buddhists to make Mara appear in physical form, as it was easier for them to rationalize Mara’s power as the power of a creeping god than a psychological phenomenon. The construction of gods was more familiar to them than that of the human psyche.
Triumphant Buddha of Mara
The Buddha sought answers to the problems of suffering and the constant cycle of birth, death and rebirth that he observed all around him. He rejected the path of total self-denial (asceticism), and also rejected the comforts and indulgences of his former life as a prince. He decided to sit under the Bodhi tree and meditate on these questions until the answer to these problems became clear to him. His revelation has been referred to as the Four Noble Truths, a summary of the cause of human suffering and the possibility and path to enlightenment for all beings.
During his meditations, the Buddha was attacked by the demon Maratempted. Mara sent him his armies, various temptations, and finally a challenge that the Buddha had to accept in order to defend his claim to enlightenment. The Buddha touched the earth and called the earth to witness his achievement. 🌍 This « touching the earth » is considered a meaningful gesture (mudra). This iconography of the Buddha has become very popular throughout Asia.
The Mara can also be understood not only as a character in a story, but also as a representation of the inner temptations, particularly and primarily the ego, that impede the path to enlightenment. Therefore, overcoming the Mara is tantamount to overcoming oneself.
Is Mara the Buddhist Satan?
While there are obvious parallels between Mara and the devil or satan of monotheistic religions, there are also many significant differences. 😈
Although both figures are associated with evil, it is important to understand that Buddhists understand « evil » differently than most other religions understand it. Also, compared to Satan, Mara is a relatively minor figure in Buddhist mythology. Satan is the lord of hell. Mara is the only lord of the highest deva heaven in the world of desire of the Triloka, who has an allegorical representation of reality adapted to Hinduism.
Another Culture, Another Country: Discovering the Story of the Japanese God of Death: Shinigami .