Generally regarded as the personification of Death, the Evil One, the Tempter (the Buddhist counterpart of the Devil or Principle of Destruction). The legends concerning Māra are, in the books, very involved and defy any attempts at unravelling them. In the latest accounts, mention is made of five kinds of Māra:–
… as shown in the following quotations: “pañcannaṃ pi Mārānaṃ vijayato jiṇo;”¹ “sabbāmittehi khandha-
Elsewhere, however, Māra is spoken of as one, three, or four. Where Māra is one, the reference is generally either to the defilements (kilesā) or to Death. Thus: “Mārenā”ti kilesamāreṇa;”⁴ “Mārassa visaye ti kilesamārassa visaye;”⁵ “jetvāna maccuno senaṃ vimokkhena anāvaran”ti lokattayābhibyāpanato diyaddhasahassādi vibhāgato ca vipulattā aññehi avārituṃ patisedhetuṃ asakkuneyyattā ca maccuno, Mārassa, senaṃ vimokkhena ariyamaggena jetvā;”⁶ “Mārāsenā ti ettha satte anatthe niyojento māretīti Māro;”⁷ “nihato Māro bodhimūle ti vihato samucchinno kilesamāro bodhirukkhamūle;”⁸ “vasaṃ Mārassa gacchatīti kilesamārassa ca sattamārassa (?) ca vasaṃ gacchi;”⁹ “tato sukhumataraṃ Mārabandhanan”ti kilesabandhanaṃ pan’ etaṃ tato sukhumataraṃ;”¹⁰ “Māro māro ti maranaṃ pucchati, māradhammo ti maranadhammo.”¹¹
It is evidently with this same significance that the term Māra, in the older books, is applied to the whole of worldly existence, the five aggregates (khandha), or the realm of rebirth, as opposed to nibbāna. Thus Māra is defined in the Cūḷanidessa.¹² as “kammābhisaṅkhāravasena paṭisandhiko khandhamāro dhātumāro āyatanamāro.” And again: “Māro Māro ti bhante vuccati katamo nu kho bhante Māro ti? Rūpaṃ kho, Rādha, Māro, vedanāmāro, saññāmāro, saṅkhāramāro viññāṇaṃ Māro;”¹³ “yo kho Rādha Māro tatra chando pahātabbo. Ko ca Rādha Māro? Rūpaṃ kho Rādha Māro . . . pe . . . vedanāmāro. Tatra kho Rādha chando pahātabbo;”¹⁴ “sa upādiyamāno kho bhikkhu baddho Mārassa, anupadiyamāno mutto pāpimāto;”¹⁵ “evaṃ sukhumaṃ kho bhikkhave, Vepacittibandhanaṃ; tato sukhumataraṃ mārabandhanaṃ; maññamāno kho bhikkhave baddho Mārassa, amaññamāno mutto pāpimato;”¹⁶ “labhati Māro otāraṃ, labhati Māro ārammanaṃ;”¹⁷ “santi bhikkhave cakkhuviññeyyarūpā ... pe . . . tañ ce bhikkhu abhinandati . . . pe . . . ayaṃ vuccati bhikkhave bhikkhu āvāsagato Mārassa, Mārassa vasaṃ, gato;”¹⁸ “dhunātha maccuno senaṃ nalāgāraṃ va kuñjaro ti paññindriyassa padathānaṃ;”¹⁹ “rūpe kho Rādha sati Māro vā assa māretā vā yo vā pana mīyati. Tasmātiha tvaṃ, Rādha, rūpaṃ māroti passa, māretāti passa, mīyatīti passa, ... ye naṃ evaṃ passanti te sammā passanti;”²⁰ “Mārasamyogan ti tebhūmakavattaṃ.”²¹
The Commentaries also speak of three Māras: “bodhipallaṅke tinnaṃ Mārānaṃ matthakaṃ bhinditvā;”²² “aparājitasanghan ti ajj’ eva tayo Māre madditvā vijitasangānam matthakaṃ madditvā anuttaraṃ sammāsambodhiṃ abhisambuddho.”²³ In some cases the three Māras are specified: “yathayidaṃ bhikkhave mārabalan ti yathā idaṃ devaputtamāra maccumāra kilesamārānaṃ balaṃ appasahaṃ durabhisambhavaṃ;”²⁴ “maccuhāyino ti maranamaccu kilesamccu devaputtamaccu hāyino, tividhampi taṃ maccuṃ hitvā gāmino ti vuttaṃ hoti;”²⁵ “na lacchati Māro otāraṃ, Māro ti devaputtmāro pi maccumāro pi kilesamāro pi;”²⁶ but elsewhere five are mentioned, e.g., “ariyamaggakkhane kilesamāro abhisaṅkhāramāro, devaputtamāro ca carimaka cittakkhaṇe khandhamāro maccumāro ti pañcavidhamāro abhibhūto parājito.”²⁷
Very occasionally four Māras are mentioned: “catunnaṃ Mārānaṃ matthakaṃ madditvā anuttaraṃ sammāsambodhiṃ abhisamabuddho;”²⁸ “indakhīlopamo catubbidhamāraparavādiganehi akampiyatthena;”²⁹ “Mārasenaṃ sasenaṃ abhibhuyyāti kilesasenāya anantasenāya ca sasenaṃ anavasitthaṃ, catubbidhampi māraṃ abhibhavitvā devaputtamārassā pi hi gunamārane sahāyabhāvūpagamanato kilesā senā ti vuccanti.”³⁰ The last quotation seems to indicate that the four Māras are the five kinds of Māra less Devaputta Māra.
A few particulars are available about Devaputta Māra: “Māro ti Vasavattibhūmiyaṃ aññataro dāmarikadevaputto. So hi taṃ thānaṃ atikkamitukāmaṃ janaṃ yaṃ na sakkoti taṃ māreti, yaṃ na sakkoti tassa pi maranaṃ icchati, tenā Māro ti vuccati;”³¹ “Māro yeva pana sattasankhātāya pajāya adhipatibhāvena idha Pajāpatīti adhippeto. So hi kuhiṃ vasatīti? Paranimmittavasavattidevaloke. Tatra hi Vasavattirājā rajjaṃ kāreti. Māro ekasmiṃ padese attano parisāya issariyaṃ pavattento rajjapaccante dāmarikarājapittto viya vasatī ti vadanti;”³² “so hi Māro opapātiko kāmāvacarissaro, kadāci brahmapārisajjānampi kāye adhimuccituṃ samattho.”³³
In view of the many studies of Māra by various scholars, already existing, it might be worth while here, too, to attempt a theory of Māra in Buddhism, based chiefly on the above data. 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”³⁴ and the beings therein. Thence, the defilements (kilesā) also came to be called Māra in that they were instruments of Death, the causes enabling Death to hold sway over the world. All Temptations brought about by the defilements were likewise regarded as the work of Death. There was also evidently a legend of a devaputta of the Vasavatti world, called Māra, who considered himself the head of the kāmāvacara world and who recognised 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.
Various statements are found in the Tipiṭaka connected with Māra, which have, obviously, reference to Death, the defilements, and the world over which Death and the defilements hold sway. Thus: “Those who can restrain the mind and check its propensities can escape the snares of Māra.”³⁵ “He who delights in objects cognisant to the eye, etc., has gone under Māra’s sway.”³⁶ “He who has attachment is entangled by Māra.”³⁷ “Māra will overthrow him who is unrestrained in his senses, immoderate in his food, idle and weak.”³⁸ “By attaining the Noble Eightfold Path one can be free from Māra.”³⁹ The Saṃyuttanikāya ⁴⁰ records a conversation between Māra and Vajirā. She has attained Arahantship, and tells Māra: “There is no being (satta) here who can come under your control; there is no being but a mere heap of mental formations (suddhasaṅkhārarapuñja).”
The later books, especially the Nidānakathā of the Jātaka Commentary ⁴¹ and the Buddhavaṃsa Commentary,⁴² contain a very lively and detailed description of the temptation of the Buddha by Māra, as the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree immediately before his Enlightenment. These accounts describe how Māra, the devaputta, seeing the Bodhisatta seated, with the firm resolve, of becoming a Buddha, summoned all his forces and advanced against him. These forces extended to a distance of twelve leagues to the front of the Bodhisatta, twelve to the back, and nine each to the right and to the left. Māra himself, thousand armed, rode on his elephant, Girimekhalā, one hundred and fifty leagues in height. His followers assumed various fearsome shapes and were armed with dreadful weapons. At Māra’s approach, all the various Devā, Nāgā and others, who were gathered round the Bodhisatta singing his praises and paying him homage, disappeared in headlong flight. The Bodhisatta was left alone, and he called to his assistance the ten perfections (pārami), which he had fulfilled.
Māra’s army is described as being tenfold, and each division of the army is described, in very late accounts (especially in Singhalese books), with great wealth of detail. Each division was faced by the Buddha with one perfection (pāramī) and was put to flight. Māra’s last weapon was the Cakkāvudha. However, when he hurled it at the Buddha it stood over him like a canopy of flowers. Still 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 in utter rout, and the Devā and others gathered round the Buddha to celebrate his victory. The sun set on the defeat of Māra. This, in brief, is the account of the Buddha’s conquest of Māra, greatly elaborated in later chronicler, and illustrated in countless Buddhist shrines and temples with all the wealth of riotous colour and fanciful imagery that gifted artists could command.
That this account of the Buddha’s struggle with Māra is literally true, none but the most ignorant of the Buddhists believe, even at the present day. The Buddhist point of view has been well expressed by Rhys Davids.⁴³ We are to understand by the attack of Māra’s forces, that all 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 colours. 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.” There is no need to ask, as does Thomas, with apparently great suspicion ⁴⁴ whether we can assume that the elaborators of the Māra story were recording “a subjective experience under the form of an objective reality,” and did they know or think that this was the real psychological experience that the Buddha went through? The living traditions of the Buddhist countries supply the adequate answer, without the aid of the rationalists. The epic nature of the subject gave ample scope for the elaboration so dear to the hearts of the Pāḷi rhapsodists.
The similar story among Jains, as recorded in their commentarial works — e.g., in the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra ⁴⁵ — bears no close parallelism to the Buddhist account, but only a faint resemblance.
There is no doubt that the Māra legend had its origin in the Padhāna Sutta (q.v.) There, Māra is represented as visiting Gotama on the banks of the Nerañjarā, where he is practicing austerities and tempting him to abandon his striving and devote himself to good works. Gotama refers to Māra’s army as being tenfold. The divisions are as follows: 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 Stupidity; Gains, Fame, Honour and Glory falsely obtained form the ninth; and the tenth is the Lauding of oneself and the Contemning of others. “Seeing this army on all sides,” says the Buddha, “I go forth to meet Māra with his equipage (savāhanaṃ). He shall not make me yield ground. That army of thine, which the world of devas and men conquers not, even that, with my wisdom, will I smite, as an unbaked earthen bowl with a stone.” Here we have practically all the elements found in the later elaborated versions.
The second part of the Padhāna Sutta ⁴⁶ is obviously concerned with later events in the life of Gotama, and this the Commentary ⁴⁷ definitely tells us. After Māra had retired discomfited, he followed the Buddha for seven years, watching for any transgression on his part. However, the quest was in vain, and, “like a crow attacking a rock,” he left Gotama in disgust. “The lute of Māra, who was so overcome with grief, slipped from his arm. Then, in dejection, the yakkha disappeared thence.” This lute, according to the Commentary,⁴⁸ was picked up by Sakka and given to Pañcasikha. Of this part of the sutta, more anon.
The Saṃyuttanikāya ⁴⁹ also contains a sutta (Dhītaro Sutta) in which three daughters of Māra are represented as tempting the Buddha after his Enlightenment. Their names are Craving (Taṇhā), Discontent (Arati), and Lust (Ragā), and they are evidently personifications of three of the ten forces in Māra’s army, as given in the Padhāna Sutta. They assume numerous forms of varying age and charm, full of blandishment, but their attempt is vain, and they are obliged to admit defeat.
Once Māra came to be regarded as the Spirit of Evil all temptations of lust, fear, greed, etc., were regarded as his activities, and Māra was represented as assuming various disguises in order to carry out his nefarious plans. Thus the books mention various occasions on which Māra appeared before the Buddha himself and his disciples, men and women, to lure them away from their chosen path.
Soon after the Buddha’s first Rainy Season (vassa), Māra approached him and asked him not to teach the monks regarding the highest emancipation, he himself being yet bound by Māra’s fetters. However, the Buddha replied that he was free of all fetters, human and divine.⁵⁰ On another occasion Māra entered into the body of Vegabbhari and made him utter heretical doctrines.⁵¹ In the Brahmanimantanika Sutta ⁵² Māra is spoken of as entering the hearts even of the inhabitants of the Brahma world. The Māra Saṃyutta ⁵³ contains several instances of Māra’s temptations of the Buddha by assailing him with doubts as to his emancipation, 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 Gijjhakūṭa fall with a crash; by making him wonder whether he should ever sleep; by suggesting that, as human life was long, there was no need for haste in living the good life; by dulling the intelligence of his hearers.⁵⁴ Once, when the Buddha was teaching to the monks, Māra came in the guise of a bullock and broke their bowls, which were standing in the air to dry; on another occasion he made a great din so that the minds of the listening monks were distracted. Again, when the Buddha went for alms to Pañcasālā, he entered into the brahmin householders and the Buddha had to return with empty bowl. Māra approached the Buddha on his return and tried to persuade him to try once more; this was, says the Commentary, a ruse, that he might inspire insult and injury in addition to neglect. However, the Buddha refused, saying that he would live that day on joy (pīti), like the Ābhassarā gods.⁵⁵
Again, as the Buddha was teaching the monks on nibbāna, Māra came in the form of a peasant and interrupted the discourse to ask if anyone had seen his oxen. His desire was to make the cares of the present life break in on the calm and supramundane atmosphere of the discourse on nibbāna. 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 Sakyan village of Sīlavatī, he approached the monks who were bent on study, in the shape of a very old and holy brahmin, and asked them not to abandon the things of this life, in order to run after matters involving time. In the same village, he tried to frighten Samiddhi away from his meditations. Samiddhi sought the Buddha’s help and went back and won Arahantship.⁵⁶ Māra influenced Godhika to commit suicide and tried to frighten Rāhula in the guise of a huge elephant.⁵⁷ In the account of Godhika’s suicide ⁵⁸ there is a curious statement that, after Godhika died, Māra went about looking for his (Godhika’s) consciousness (paṭisandhicitta), and the Buddha pointed him out to the monks, “going about like a cloud of smoke.” Later, Māra came to the Buddha, like a little child (khuddadārakavaṇṇī),⁵⁹ holding a vilva lyre of golden colour, and he questioned the Buddha about Godhika.⁶⁰
The books mention many occasions on which Māra assumed various forms under which to tempt bhikkhuṇīs, often in lonely spots — e.g., Kisāgotamī, Somā, Vijayā, Uppalavaṇṇā, Cālā, Upacālā, Sīsūpacālā, Selā Āḷavikā, Vajirā, and Khemā. To the same category of temptations belongs a story found in late Commentaries:⁶¹ when Gotama was leaving his palace on his journey of Renunciation, Māra, here called Vasavattī, appeared before him and promised him the kingdom and the whole world within seven days if he would but turn back. Māra’s temptations were not confined to monks and nuns; he tempted also lay men and women and tried to lure them from the path of goodness, e.g., in the story of Dhaniya and his wife.⁶²
Mention is made, especially in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, of several occasions on which Māra approached the Buddha, requesting him to die; the first of these occasions was under the Ajapāla Banyan tree at Uruvelā, soon after the Enlightenment, but the Buddha refused to die until the religion (sāsana) was firmly established. Can it be that here we have the word Māra used in the sense of physical death (Maccumāra), and that the occasions referred to were those on which the Buddha felt the desire to die, to pass away utterly, to “lay down the burden?” Perhaps they were moments of physical fatigue, when he lay at death’s door, for we know (see Gotama Buddha) that the six years he spent in austerities made inroads on his health and that he suffered constantly from muscular cramp, digestive disorders and headache.⁶³ At Beḷuvagāma, shortly before he finally decided to die, we are told ⁶⁴ that “there fell upon him a dire sickness, and sharp pains came upon him even unto death.” However, the Buddha conquered the disease by a strong effort of his will because he felt it would not be right for him to die without addressing his followers and taking leave of the Order. Compare with this Māra’s temptation of the Buddha at Maddakucchi (q.v.), when he lay suffering from severe pain after the wounding of his foot by a splinter. It may have been the physical weariness, above referred to, which at first made the Buddha reluctant to take upon himself the great exertions that the propagation of his Dhamma would involve.⁶⁵ We know of other Arahants who actually committed suicide in order to escape being worried by physical ills — e.g., Godhika, Vakkali, Channa. When their suicide was reported to the Buddha, he declared them free from all blame.
Can it be, further, that with the accounts of Māra, as the personification of Evil, came to be mixed legends of an actual devaputta, named Māra, also called Vasavatti, because he was an inhabitant of the Paranimmitavasavattī deva world? Already in the Aṅguttaranikāya, Māra is described (aggo ādhipateyyānaṃ iddhiyā yasasā jalaṃ) as the head of those enjoying bliss in the sensual (kāmāvacara) realms and as a dāmarika devaputta (as mentioned earlier).⁶⁶ Even after the Buddha’s death Māra was regarded as wishing to obstruct good works. Thus, at the enshrinement of the Buddha’s relics in the Mahā Thūpa, Indagutta Thera (by supernatural power) made a parasol of copper to cover the universe, in order that it might ward off the attentions of Māra.⁶⁷
Can it be that ancient legends represented him as looking on with disfavour at the activities of the Buddha? Buddhaghosa says ⁶⁸ that Māradevaputta, having dogged the Buddha’s footsteps for seven years, and having found no fault in him, came to him and worshipped him. Is it, then, possible that some of the conversations, which the Buddha is reported to have had with Māra — e.g., in the second part of the Padhāna Sutta (see above) — were originally ascribed to a real personage, designated as Māradevaputta, and later confused with the allegorical Māra? This suggestion gains strength from a remark found in the Māratajjanīya Sutta ⁶⁹ uttered by Mahā-
Māra bears many names in Pāḷi Literature, chief of them being Kaṇha, Adhipati, Antaka, Namuci and Pamattabandhu.⁷⁰ His usual standing epithet is Pāpimā, but other words are also used, such as anatthakāma, ahitakāma, and ayogakkhemakāma.⁷¹
Māra is called Namuci because none can escape him: “Namucī ti Māro; so hi attano visayā nikkhamitukāme devamanusse na muñcati antarāyaṃ tesaṃ karoti tasma Namucī ti vuccati.”⁷² In the Mahāsamaya Sutta, Namuci is mentioned among the Asurā as being present in the assembly.⁷³
The Commentary explains ⁷⁴ that Namuci refers to Māradevaputta and accounts for his presence among the Asurā by the fact that he was temperamentally their companion (te pi acchandikā abhabbā, ayampi tādiso yeva, tasmā dhātuso samsandamāno āgato). Buddhaghosa says ⁷⁵ that Māra is so called because he destroys all those who seek to evade him: “attano visayaṃ atikkamituṃ patipanne satte māreti ti Māro;” he is called Vasavatti ⁷⁶ because he rules all: “Māro nāma vasavattī sabesaṃ upari vasaṃ vattati.”
Kālī (Kālā) is the mother of Māra of the present age.⁷⁷
⁴⁹ S.i.124 f; given also at Lal. 490 (378); cp. A.v.46; see also DhA.iii.195 f.
⁵¹ S.i.67; cp. DhA.iv.141, where Māra asks the Buddha about the further shore.
⁵⁵ The incident is related at length in SA.i.140 f. and DhA.iii.257 f; the Commentaries (e.g., Sp.i.178 f ) state that the difficulty experienced by the Buddha and his monks in obtaining food at Verañjā (q.v.) was also due to the machinations of Māra.
⁵⁶ Cp. the story of Nandiya Thera. Buddhaghosa says (DA.iii.864) that when Sūrambattha, after listening to a discourse of the Buddha, had returned home, Māra visited him there in the guise of the Buddha and told him that what he (the Buddha) had taught him earlier was false. Sūrambattha, though surprised, could not be shaken in his faith, being a Stream-
⁶⁰ This probably refers to some dispute which arose among the monks regarding Godhika’s destiny.
⁶³ It is true that in the Mahāsaccaka Sutta (M.i.240 ﬀ.), which contains an account of the events leading up to the Enlightenment, there is no mention whatsoever of any temptation by Māra, nor is there any mention of the Bodhi tree. However, to argue from this, that such events did not form part of the original story, might be to draw unwarranted inferences from an argumentum ex silentio.
⁷⁰ MNid.ii.489; for their explanation see MNidA.328; another name of Māra was Pajāpati, MA.i.28.
⁷³ D.ii.259; elsewhere in the same sutta (p.261 f ) it is said that when all the devas and others had assembled to hear the Buddha teach, Māra came with his “swarthy host” and attempted to blind the assembly with thoughts of lust, etc. However, the Buddha, seeing him, warned his followers against him and Māra had to depart unsuccessful. At the end of the sutta, four lines are traditionally ascribed to Māra. They express admiration of the Buddha and his followers. In this sutta Māra is described as having a large army (mahāsena).
References in the notes are to the Pāḷi texts of the PTS. In the translations, these are usually printed in the headers near the spine, or in square brackets in the body of the text, thus it would be ii 259 in the spine or  in the text. References to the Commentaries are usually suffixed with A for Aṭṭhakathā (DA, MA, SNA, etc.) but references to the Jātaka Commentary are given as J, not JA, which would normally be used, as that is reserved for the Journal Asiatic.