Similarities and Contrasts of the Evil Ones


As an overview of this series, James W. Boyd in the concluding chapter of his work, Satan and Māra: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil, provides in  classical fashion the similar and dissimilar characteristics encompassing the existential-composition of the two arch-emissaries of evil. His main emphasis concerns mythological motifs that “disclose a basic similarity as well as the difference between them.” Boyd begins by highlighting a “numinal sense of mysterium and tremendum” that both have in common:

The tremendum aspect of the experience is mythologically expressed in the great power and influence Satan and Mara have over man and the world. Satan is the ruler of demons and the ruler of this world (kosmos), which includes the “world rulers” (kosmokratores) of this darkness,” the “elemental-spirits of the universe” (stoicheia tou kosmou) and the world as mankind—the sum of the totality of human possibilities and relationships. The extent and authority (exousia) of Satan’s reign is vast, hence he is appropriately called the “god of this age” whose power (dynamis) inspires all evil “rule, authority, and power” in the heavenly places as well as on earth, from the beginning of this present evil age (aiōn) to its end.

The Buddhist Mara, likewise, holds man in his power (balaṃ) and commands a fearful host of demons. Mara is the lord of the world of desire (kāmaloka) which is comprised of six classes of devas as well as “the world below with its recluses and brahmins, its princes and people…. “His realm, as death’s realm (maccudheyya), however, extends beyond the Kāmaloka to the Rūpa and Arūpa worlds.” The whole substrata of rebirth and death, in other words, are within Mara’s domain. The Pali texts say of Mara’s army that they can hunt and seek “in every sphere of life;” simply to “drift along life’s stream” is to be subject to Mara. And not only is the entire “triple world” assailed by ‘Mara, the Evil One,’  but a succession of devas filling the Mara position continues this domain throughout the cyclic process of samsara. Thus the Buddha has said: “I consider no power, brethren, so hard to subdue as the power of Māra”.

These aspects of the Satan and Mara mythologies express the feeling of encountering a power that precedes, outlives and extends far beyond the reach of an individual’s life; a despotic and infectious power of such magnitude that an acute sense of impotence or even captivity to this power is experienced. This is a sense of tremendum. (Boyd, pg.150)

Boyd now turns to the sense of the mysterium and paints a parallel of the basic-nature and abodes of the evil ones…

A numinal sense of mysterium is conveyed in the portraits of the nature and abode of Satan and Māra. Satan is called the “prince of the power of the air,” the ruler of “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” This reference by St. Paul to “heavenly places” suggests that he shared the common Jewish opinion of the lower atmosphere being the dwelling place of fallen angels. Irenaeus also refers to the Devil as “one among those angels who are placed over the spirit of the air.” In addition to this heavenly abode, Satan is also conceived as a “spiritual” reality which is unlike man’s form and mode of existence. Unlike man, Satan cannot be perceived by the physical senses, and he is capable of deeds which are beyond man’s capabilities, e.g., possession.

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 Kāmaloka; he is the chief of the Paranirmitavaśavartin 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. (Boyd, pgs. 151)

Horrendum and Fascinans

By way of contrast, Boyd continues with the Ottonian sense of the numinous, entering into the horrendum in regards to Satan…

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John Harvey, New York: Oxford University Press, 1958, pp. 106·107, n. 2, suggests that in regard to Satan the mysterium tremendum might be intensified to mysterium horrendum. In the experience of evil there “is a horror that is in some sort numinous, and we might designate the object of it as negatively numinous.”

…and with Māras flavor of a fearful and fascinating mystery, Fascinans

“Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (fearful and fascinating mystery): “Mysterium”: Wholly Other, experienced with blank wonder, stupor “tremendum”: awefulness, terror, demonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, “wrath” of God overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its power creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence energy, urgency, will, vitality “fascinans”: potent charm, attractiveness in spite of fear, terror, etc.

Next let us look at the basic difference in the experience of evil in the two traditions, as conveyed by their respective mythologies. Whereas a dominant characteristic of the Christian mythology could be referred to as a sense of horrendum, the Buddhist experience may more accurately be characterized by fascinans. This difference is conveyed by the way in which the two mythologies characterize the chief figures and their realms. Satan’s abode is in the lower atmosphere, the “dark” regions where the clouds gather and where sin, error and death reign. Satan is a fallen angel, who, according to some texts, transgressed and became an apostate, hence was cast out of heaven down to earth.” Though he is chief of the fallen angels and prince of this world, what is emphasized is the lowliness of his hierarchical status in contrast to what he had been previously. Thus Satan’s domain and power are identified with the “powers of darkness” that reign over this present evil age.

Māra, 0n the other hand, is described as reigning with great power, majesty, influence and splendour. His abode is formed from seven jewels due to previous good merits,” is covered with a canopy of jewels and crowded by throngs of Apsarases,” and stands in the midst of the mansions of the highest class of devas.” Rather than being linked with the asura-host, with whom there is the association of a fall from former glory, Mara is associated with the devas who are “virtuous, mighty, long-lived, beautiful, and enjoying great well-being.”

The dissimilarities are apparent. The metaphorical colouring conveyed by the terms which describe Satan and his realm, as well as the fallen status of Satan himself, suggest that in the final analysis the character of the early Christian experience of evil was “dark” and negative. It was a confrontation with an opposing power which perverts what is initially good and is hostile to man’s welfare, namely, a sense of horrendum. Although there is initially a sense of fascinans in the Christian experience of the realization that its tendency is toward a violation of the inherent well-being of man. Since man’s present existence is inherently good, evil is experienced as that which is externally adverse to such a condition. The term Satan itself means “adversary.” As an adversary Satan is the source of “evil” (ponēros; ho ponēros-the Evil One), a term which means in the physical sense, “sick, painful, spoiled,” or in “poor condition,” and in the ethical sense, “base, vicious, degenerate.” In other words, evil, for the Christian, means essentially a degenerating, spoiling opposition to what is inherently or originally a good and desirable condition of human existence. Evil is a condition of personal desolation or ruin brought about by what is experienced as an actively opposing power hostile to a good and full life. Satan’s powers of death and destruction, “the loss of all that gives worth to existence,” epitomize evil.

The early Buddhist mythology, on the other hand, though it reflects a sense of meeting an equally pervasive and despotic power which makes what is not really desirable seem desirable, characterizes that power not as essentially dark and negative but rather as splendid and attractive. Mara has the majesty and splendour of a deva who is long-lived and often associated with kāma, the expression of love and enjoyment of life in this world. Māra is not the hostile power which brings ruin and end to life; rather he promotes life in samsara and those pleasures that lead to its continuance. The early Buddhist experience of pāpa (“evil”), in the context of the Māra mythology, is basically one of being attracted to the pleasures and ideals of this world. Although there is initially a sense of adversity in conflicts the Buddhist had with contemporary religionists (e.g., the reviling abuse of Brahmins), finally even this kind of experience of pāpa betrays a sense of fascinans because the effect is perceived to be adherence to traditional religious practices which the Buddhist judged as merely another facet of the enticing realm of samsara. Because man’s present existence is inherently imperfect, experiences of pāpa are characterized by the inherent, seemingly attractive conditions of samsaric existence. The Māra mythology shows that the experience of “evil” in early Buddhism is more adequately characterized by the mood of fascinans, than by that of horrendum. (Boyd, pgs. 154-156)

Although Satan and Māra have certain contrasts in their makeup and modalities of origins, it goes without saying that their “intent” in conjunction with their maleficent actions in the arena of sentient affairs is undoubtedly similar. Sentient experience can also testify that their influence is not merely metaphorical, but as this series has portrayed, illustratively undeniable.

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5 Responses to Similarities and Contrasts of the Evil Ones

  1. Sokuzan says:

    Thank you for this publishing this material.
    Very valuable.


    Sokukoji Buddhist
    Temple Monastery

  2. Sokuzan says:


    I have ordered Boyd’s book on Amazon, but I cannot find the work you quote from by Clark, other than an online file I can’t get access to. Is it published somewhere that I can purchase it?

    Thank you,


    • Vajragoni says:


      Evidently is was available at the time I utilized the resource. I will email you the PDF that I have to the email you provided.

      Kind regards,


  3. Sokuzan says:


    Thank you, that would be excellent.


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