On Ash Wednesday, February 18th, roughly 1.2 Billion across the globe will be ushering-in the season of Lent. One of the passages from scripture that always begins this solemn season, is the one in which Jesus is tempted by Satan for 40 days in the Desert. This is a highly symbolic event, since Lent itself lasts 40 days; and so, during this stretch of time, one is asked to do assorted penances and make new resolutions, ones that are in tune with self-denying one’s carnal appetites, in favor of a highly spiritual-makeover. In a very real way, one is also seeking refuge from the forces of evil in the world, ones that are always afoot attempting to wreak havoc on a soul that is trying to better itself. There are parallels in both Christianity and Buddhism that personify these dark forces, the Fathers of Evil if you will. Hence we have Satan, and Māra. Back in 1975, James W. Boyd, published a well-informed book, Satan and Māra: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil. Unfortunately his work is long out of print, but I was recently fortunate enough to find a copy. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, we shall be exploring in depth these interesting parallels between Satan and Māra. It’s by no small chance that Siddhartha Gautama experienced similar inclinations from Māra that Jesus did from Satan throughout his Dark night of the Soul in the desert.
For example, in the New Testament gospels Satan tempted Jesus to work miracles, to fly from the roof of the temple, or to seek to be the “prince of the world,” all of which were actions appropriate to popular messianic expectations but not to Jesus’ own understanding of his mission. Satan is referred to by St. Paul as “the tempter” who entices men from (their faith). Among the Greek Fathers, Origen also views Satan’s temptations as a means of putting the followers of Jesus to the test.
Likewise, the Buddhist Pali texts record episodes in which Mara urges Gotama to become a universal king and establish a great empire of peace—certainly an acceptable social goal, but not the goal of one on the direct Path to freedom (nirvana) and Enlightenment (bodhi). The Sanskrit literature also relates how Māra encourages man’s inclinations toward worldly and “religious” values which lead away from the Path of the Buddha. The Mahāvastu, e.g., quotes Māra as saying to the Buddha (a query applicable to the followers of the Buddha as well): “What wilt thou gain by this striving? Go and live at home….. and) when thou diest thou wilt rejoice in heaven and wilt beget great merit.” (Boyd)
Boyd also points out here, however, is that there are notable differences from the two experiences:
The specific manner in which this type of conflict with traditional religious and social values was described, however, differs between the two traditions. Though Christians characteristically spoke of being tempted (peirazō) by Satan, whereas the Buddhist referred to man’s “inclinations” toward values and desires of this world (kāmesu namati) promoted by Māra. The term “temptation” (peirazō) means, principally, “being put to the test,” meeting an external challenge. When used in connection with Satan, “temptation” also connotes “enticement to sin.” The Christian experienced a “testing” of his total orientation to life, an enticement away from his faith. The Buddhist term “inclination” (namati), on the other hand, as it is developed in the literature, emphasizes one’s own inclinations-e-essentially misdirected natural instincts on the part of man-which remove him from the Buddhist perspective and lead him into the pursuit of alien values. (Boyd)
Along with Boyd’s work, we will also be utilizing Robert Warren Clark’s excellent Dissertation, Māra: Psychopathology and Evil in the Buddhism of India and Tibet. His masterful work offers keen-insight into the multi-varied characteristics of Māra, for instance:
Mara (Tibetan: bDud), the archetypal demon of Buddhism, is known by various epithets such as Kamadeva (‘Dod Lha dGa’-rab dBang-phyug) and samsara guru (‘Khor-ba’i bLama). The term Samsara guru is descriptive of Mara’s function. The samsara is the endless process of birth and death which Buddhist tradition characterizes as evil. It is evil because it entails inescapable and interminable misery (dukkha). The term guru indicates a teacher or guide who facilitates the involvement of others in processes which lead to, or encompass, a particular state of existence. Mara is the guru who facilitates the involvement of living beings in the samsara. His counterpart in Buddhist tradition is the Buddha. The Buddha may be called the nirvana guru as he facilitates the attainment of nirvana, which is the transcendence of the samsara.
Mara is a multifarious deity in Buddhist mythology, and a complex matrix of meaning in Buddhist psychology and doctrine. He is the sublime lord of deities identified with the ultimate estate of power and enjoyment in the world, but as the epitome of evil for those who would transcend the world. As the lord of the highest heaven of the phenomenal world, the Paranirmitavasavartin, his access to and enjoyment of worldly pleasures is inconceivable and without peer. His evil nature emerges in relation to those who rejects these worldly pleasures and seek transcendence of the samsara—the world of birth and death which is Mara’s own kingdom. (Clark)
All in all, it will prove to be a most interesting series.
See you soon!
Once when I was talking to my wife and mentioned Mara, she seemed embarassed by the word, so I asked her what is the matter. She told me that “mara” is a vulgarism for “vagina” in Japanese (so, like the C-word in English). I wonder if the two words are connected. A wild guess: the celibate monks who were tempted by the feminine, started using the demonic word as an euphemism for the female sexual organ (also: Japan was a very patriarchal society).
Interesting thought; although “Māra” had been around a lot longer before it reached the shores of Japan.
Yes, no doubt it predates its emergence in Japan. I just thought maybe it influenced that Japanese term. Sanskrit’s influence on Japanese language is much bigger than I once thought. So Japan was already influenced by Indo-European civilization before they met with “the West” (ie. UK/USA/Netherlands/Portugal, etc.) – What totally blew my mind was discovering that hiragana/katakana (the phonetic alphabet Japanese uses) was actually based on the siddham script for Sanskrit! Kukai created it. So the Japanese writing system is a mix of some derived Indian script and Chinese letters.
Also, etymologically for our purposes, we shall see that the term is closer to Pali and Sanskrit words indicating “death”. Hence the one causing death itself. Perhaps the Japanese had an interesting spin on the term–the vagina that brings both life AND death (samsara) into being.
I have always thought Mara to be closer, in an ontological sense, to the Gnostic Demiurge. That which fashions and maintains the illusion of the samsaric universe whilst being both part and product of the illusion it continually produces.