Etymology of the Evil Ones


Evil is wide and prevalent in our Saha-World. Unlike the Truth, it assumes an endless array of faces and embeds itself unmercifully in all the assorted-affairs of sentient beings. The dominant Western and Eastern terms for these faces of evil are Satan and Māra. The term “Satan” is derived from a Hebrew term meaning, the adversary. The popular term “Devil” is derived from the Greek, diabolos. Both of these terms are found in the New Testament and later on in the writings of the Church Fathers. Throughout the Millennium he’s also referred to as the “Dark-One”, the “Black-One” and the “wicked-one”; the term, the evil-one appears in a popular translation of the “Our Father” prayer—deliver us from the Evil One. Traditionally, Satan was originally the premier Angel of Light (son of the morning) in Heaven, named Lucifer; through his own conceited vanity, he tried to usurp the very throne of the Most High. John Milton’s Epic poem, “Paradise Lost”, describes this most evil of all adversaries:


The infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from heav’n, with all his host
Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equaled the Most High,
If he opposed; and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God
Raised impious war in heav’n and battle proud
With vain attempt.


Still prideful as ever, Satan exclaimed, “Better to Reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven!”


He also exclaimed, “Myself Am Hell”. Quite another apropos appellation.

The term, Māra, is derived from the Pali maccu and the Sanskrit mrtyu, signifying death. More specifically, Māra etymologically means the one who causes death. The epithet “Anatka” is also used in reference to Māra, meaning ‘making an end.’ The Evil One (Pāpima) is an epithet most commonly applied to his nefarious name. In fact, the term always explicitly refers to Māra. In the Majjhima Nikāya, Moggallāna calls out to Māra, “You, Evil One, are Māra.” (MN, I, 332; ML I, 396)

These qualitative differences between man and the chief figure of evil are also characteristic of Mara the Evil One. Mara is a deva (god) of the highest class of devas in the Kama/aka; he is the chief of the Paranirmitavasavartin devas who occupy the highest heavens in the world of desire.” His abode is far above Mt. Meru, the center of the Buddhist universe. As a deva, Mara has a mind-made body which, unlike that of a human being is not “born of a father and mother,” and is superior to the human form which is nothing but ” ….. a heap of boiled rice and sour milk, ….. subject to rubbing, massaging, sleep, dissolution, disintegration and destruction.” In contrast, Mara’s body is self-luminous, long-lived, does not cast a shadow, and like Satan, is capable of deeds far beyond the powers of man.

In addition to its symbolical use as the title of a cosmological deva, māra came to be used as a concept associated with representative aspects of the whole of samsara. The root meaning of the term māra is “death” (mārayati: that which kills). Death in the Buddhist context refers not simply to the termination of an individual life, but also to continual death after rebirth. With this conceptual meaning, māra became identified with three terms, skandha, klesa, maranana, the first two of which point to aspects of samsara, and the third of which the Buddhist considers a general characteristic of the whole of samsara. Skandhas are the personality aggregates epitomizing the conditions of existence. The skandhamāra identified all phenomenal existence with death (mara). [Māra as Lord of the Skandhas—inclusion mine]. The term klesa refers to the karmic defilements of man’s ignorant desire for the world. The klesa-māra identified all karmic defilements with death (māra) as they are causative factors in the continuation of the death-birth cycle. To express more fully the meaning of the term māra, as it is here being used, a third use of māra was formulated, viz., the maranamāra (or mrtyumāra). Marana, meaning “death itself,” is both the essential meaning of the concept māra and the essential character of all conditions and defilements of samsara. The whole of samsara is characterized by maranamāra. (Boyd)

The Buddha refers to Māra as “Pamattabandhu” (SN, I, 123) during an exchange in which Māra demands of the Buddha: “Why do you have so few friends amongst the common folk; is there to be no-one who can be called your friend?!” (Boyd)

He’s also referred to as Māra kali cakram—essentially meaning Māra’s sphere of influence; also as Kanha, meaning the Dark One.

As our intro indicated Māra is also known as the ‘samsara guru’ since he is the one who influences all the affairs of samsara—in essence he is its ‘Dark Lord’.

While there are striking parallels between Satan and Māra, it also needs to be conveyed how their essential-nature and intent to cause injury in mind and spirit differs. One way to break this down is in the following analogies:

There is a wonderful made-for TV movie from 1973 entitled: Frankenstein, the True Story. It provides a great twist on the many and diverse Frankenstein stories throughout the past 200 years. The Creature isn’t “horrible to behold” in the beginning, in fact he’s quite handsome and a charmer. But all too soon his true face goes through a metamorphism (do to the true-chemistry behind his reanimated flesh) and his sadistic-revenge towards his creator (Dr. Victor Frankenstein) is made manifest—perhaps the most striking being when he rips-the-head-off of Victor’s beautiful female creation.


In like fashion, Satan was once a beautiful “creation” (as Lucifer) of the Most High; yet when his rabid ambition threw him down into the nether-world of the damned, his own countenance went through a metamorphosis and his true evil intent becomes manifested in grotesque-fashion—much like the Picture of Dorian Gray slowly deteriorates after each evil and vile action committed by Dorian:


In essence, then, Satan is a created-creature fallen from grace who would like nothing more than everyone else suffering his own perverted fate.

Māra, on the other hand, is a symbol of wretched death personified. He is an evil deva, who, when circumventing the affairs of sentient beings, many times transforms himself into a doppelganger-like Buddha—tricking unwary souls into believing a false-dharma that would forever keep them in samsaric-bondage. He resembles in this vein a “Loki-like” god—the trickster.


Hence, Māra’s main mission is to pervert the Truth of the Buddhadharma. Indeed, sentient beings can invoke Milton and exclaim, “Myself Am Māra!” He is embedded in one’s skandhic-make-up and relentlessly changes his skandhic-image into an endless-sea of Māra-created images. In light of this, one is conceived in sin and born into skandhic-corruption. There is no escape from Māra’s Dark Dominion apart from the Savific-Light of the Unborn, as revealed in the Buddhadharma. The Four Noble Truths are a manifesto for erasing the suffering endured in Māra’s Kingdom.

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One Response to Etymology of the Evil Ones

  1. Mahasidhra says:

    ” The popular term “Devil” is derived from the Greek, diabolos. ”

    The etymology of “diabolos” is also interesting: from dia- “across, through” + ballein “to throw”. We know “ballein” from another word: symbol.

    Syn- and dia- are kind of opposite, and “ballein” (throw) is the same.

    So “syn-bol” is the opposite of “dia-bol” (devil).

    Symbol: the sense evolution in Greek is from “throwing things together” to “contrasting” to “comparing” to “token used in comparisons to determine if something is genuine.” Hence, “outward sign” of something.

    The symbolic connotes order, “throwing things together” as in connection. While the opposite, the diabolic, connotes separation, discrimination, “throwing things apart”, ie. taking them apart… we can connect this a bit with the Chán teaching (the Chán school often points finger to conceptual discrimination as the greatest evil preventing transcendence of samsara).

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