The Myth and Truth of Mara

In the ancient Buddhist literature there are many references to the demon, Mara. In some respects Mara resembles the Satan of Christian tradition. For example just as Satan tempted Christ, Mara tempted Siddhartha Gautama. It was only after resisting Mara’s temptation that Siddhartha Gautama was able to attain enlightenment and become the Buddha.

Just as I have demonstrated in previous blogs that Christian mythology was derived from precursor pagan traditions, the Buddhist mythology was also informed by precursor Vedic, Brahmin and Jain belief systems. It would seem that most of the ancient Indian religions had a Mara-like character.

One commentator on the Buddhist traditions maintains that Mara threatens “by withholding or obscuring the truth.” But often Mara is portrayed as the tempter. This obviously provides the counterbalance to the Buddhist precept that suffering is created by attachment and attachment is powered by desire.

Most of the Buddhist commentaries I have read don’t point to a belief in a real character but emphasise Mara is a symbol for our all too human tendency to give in to our desires driven by the ego and our human tendency to be seduced by physical temptation.

Another commentator on Buddhism declared, “Mara stands for those patterns of behaviour that long for the security of clinging to something real and permanent rather than facing the question posed by being a transient and contingent creature.”

The Buddha is purported to have said, “It makes no difference what you grasp, when someone grasps, Mara stands behind him.”

Mara appears in many Buddhist parables. Let me relate one to you.

Mara was travelling in the country with a few of his attendants. They came upon a monk walking along a path through the forest. Unseen by the monk they observed his passing. The man engaged in walking meditation as he went. His face was serene and radiant. All of a sudden he stopped and his face lit up with a huge smile.

An attendant looked at Mara and whispered, “What is he doing?”

“It seems he has discovered a piece of the truth.”

His attendant looked at the demon and frowned. “What are you going to do about it? You are the god of deception – surely you can’t allow him to access the truth.”

Mara laughed. “I am not going to do anything!”

“But doesn’t it bother you that this monk now has access to some of the truth.”

“Not at all! He will act like most humans do. When they find a little truth it is not long before they have made a belief out of it. That will cause all sorts of mischief which will entertain me no end!”

Perhaps it was Mara who inspired Alexander Pope to write, “A little learning is a dangerous thing!”