While the Bodhisatta was practising austerities for six years he fasted so severely that his flesh wasted away, and his former athletic physique was transformed to that of a living skeleton. It was after this period of severe austerity that he gave up fasting and extreme austerities, taking enough food to regain his health and strength, before he sat under the Bodhi tree for the final struggle against Māra.
The Bodhisatta Gotama had to undergo these austerities due to having insulted the Buddha Kassapa in an earlier birth as the Brahmin Jotipāla, when he had disparaged the Buddha as a shaven-headed recluse. Not all Bodhisattas have to undertake austere practices in the final existence.
The deity known as Māra, Namuci, or Pāpima (the evil one) approached the Buddha on several occasions during his life, and finally in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta to request the Buddha to pass away. The Buddha then replied that his final demise would occur in three months from that time, which declaration caused a great earthquake.
There are five kinds of Māra, but here Māra devaputta, the evil deity, is clearly meant. In his reply to Māra, the Bodhisatta names the ten defilements which are the armies of Māra. If “Māra” meant the mental defilements in every context, then prior to his Enlightenment (as here) the Bodhisatta might perhaps have entertained doubts, sensual thoughts, or discontent, but the Bodhisatta had cultivated the perfections for 91 aeons to reach the eve of his final liberation. Certainly, after his full awakening to Buddhahood, he could not have had any mental defilements, so we should conclude that Māra refers to an actual deity whenever he appears to the Blessed One in a vain attempt to obstruct him.
“I was engaged in striving on the banks of the river Nerañjara,
Deep in concentration, exerting strenuously to gain freedom from bondage.
“Then Namuci ¹ approached and spoke to me with words [seeming] compassionate:
‘You are so thin and discoloured, you are close to death.’
“‘A thousand parts belong to death, only one part of you is alive.
Live, friend, life is better than death, live and make merits.’
“‘You could live the holy-life, performing fire sacrifices.
You would make great merit, what is the use of striving?’
“‘The path of striving is difficult, painful, and hard to master.’
Speaking these verses, Māra stood in the Buddha’s presence.
“Then the Buddha said to Māra, who had spoken these words:
‘Evil one, the kinsman of heedlessness, why have you come here?’
“I have no need of even the slightest merit.
Speak about merit to those who have need of it.
“I possess confidence, energy, and wisdom,
Thus I am resolute too, why do you ask me to live?
“Even the rivers and streams dry up when the wind blows,
So why shouldn’t my blood dry up in this struggle?
“Let the blood dry up, let the bile and phlegm dry up.
As my flesh wastes away, my mind gets more purified.
Mindfulness and wisdom increase, concentration becomes firm.
“Dwelling thus, experiencing extreme pain,
My mind does not incline to sensuality. Behold the purity of being!
“Sensuality is your first army, your second is discontent.
Your third is hunger and thirst, your fourth is called craving.
“Your fifth is sloth and torpor, the sixth is called cowardice.
The seventh is doubt, and the eighth is stubbornness and disrespect.
“Gain, reputation, and honour, and fame gained by wrong means,
One praises oneself and disparages others.
“These, Namuci, are your [ten] armies, the fighting forces of darkness.
One who is not valiant will not defeat them, and having defeated them gain bliss.
“I wear this crest of muñja grass,² life is disgusting to me,
Death in battle is better for me, than to live on defeated.
“Submerged herein some recluses and priests are unseen.
They do not know the path that the well-disciplined ones follow.
“Having seen his armies all around with Māra mounted on his elephant,
I go forward into battle, may I not be dislodged from my seat.
“The world with its deities cannot overcome your army,
But I will destroy it with wisdom, like an unbaked pot with a rock.
“Having mastered my thoughts, and with mindfulness firmly established,
I will wander from country to country, training many disciples.
“Heedful and resolute, they will practise my teaching,
Contrary to your wish, they will go where they will not grieve.”
“For seven years ³ I have followed the Blessed One step by step,
I did not get any chance to access the fully awakened and mindful one.
“Like a stone with the appearance of fat circled around by a crow,
[Thinking] perhaps I will find something tender here, something to eat.
“Not getting anything to eat, the crow departed.
Like the crow pecking at a rock, we depart from Gotama.”
“He was so upset that he dropped the lute that he was carrying.
The evil spirit departed from there at once.”
1. A name for Māra, which the Commentary glosses as “Na muñcati,” one who does not free others.
2. A warrior wears this crest in battle to show that he is ready to die rather than be captured.
3. Why seven and not six? My opinion is that Māra tried to prevent the Bodhisatta from leaving the palace. One year would cover the period of his wife’s pregnancy, which would surely give rise to conflicts regarding his responsibilities to his wife and son-to-be. It was on hearing the news of his son’s birth that the Bodhisatta declared, “A fetter (Rāhula) has arisen.” Hence, King Suddhodana had his grandson named as “Rāhula.” After considering that his son, like everyone else, was not yet free from aging and death, the Bodhisatta decided that his first duty was to seek some means to escape from the endless cycle of birth and death. Instead of being a fetter, the birth of his son was the final push that he needed to set out on his noble quest for Enlightenment, so he left at once, before any feelings of attachment for his son could develop.