Many supernatural creatures populate Buddhist literature, but among these Mara is unique. He is one of the earliest non-human beings to appear in Buddhist scriptures. He is a demon, sometimes called the Lord of Death, who plays a role in many stories of the Buddha and his monks.
Mara is best known for his part in the historical Buddha's enlightenment. This story came to be mythologized as a great battle with Mara, whose name means "destruction" and who represents the passions that snare and delude us.
The Buddha's Enlightenment
There are several versions of this story; some fairly straightforward, some elaborate, some phantasmagorical. Here is a plain version:
As the about-to-be Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, sat in meditation, Mara brought his most beautiful daughters to seduce Siddhartha. Siddhartha,however, remained in meditation. Then Mara sent vast armies of monsters to attack him. Yet Siddhartha sat still and untouched.
Mara claimed that the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him and not to the mortal Siddhartha. Mara's monstrous soldiers cried out together, "I am his witness!" Mara challenged Siddhartha, who will speak for you?
Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself spoke: "I bear you witness!" Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.
The Origins of Mara
Mara may have had more than one precedent in pre-Buddhist mythology. For example, it's possible he was based in part on some now-forgotten character from popular folklore.
Zen teacher Lynn Jnana Sipe points out in "Reflections on Mara" that the notion of a mythological being responsible for evil and death is found in Vedic Brahmanic mythological traditions and also in non-Brahamanic traditions, such as that of the Jains. In other words, every religion in India seems to have had a character like Mara in its myths.
Mara also appears to have been based on a drought demon of Vedic mythology named Namuci. The Rev. Jnana Sipe writes,
"While Namuci initially appears in the Pali Canon as himself, he came to be transformed in early Buddhist texts to be the same as Mara, the god of death. In Buddhist demonology the figure of Namuci, with its associations of death-dealing hostility, as a result of drought, was taken up and used in order to build up the symbol of Mara; this is what the Evil One is like--he is Namuci, threatening the welfare of mankind. Mara threatens not by withholding the seasonal rains but by withholding or obscuring the knowledge of truth."
Mara in the Early Texts
Ananda W.P. Guruge writes in "The Buddha's Encounters with Mara the Tempter" that trying to put together a coherent narrative of Mara is close to impossible.
"In his Dictionary of Paali Proper Names Professor G.P. Malalasekera introduces Maara as 'the personification of Death, the Evil One, the Tempter (the Buddhist counterpart of the Devil or Principle of Destruction).' He continues: 'The legends concerning Maara are, in the books, very involved and defy any attempts at unraveling them.'"
Guruge writes that Mara plays several different roles in the early texts, and sometimes seems to be several different characters. Sometimes he is the embodiment of death; sometimes he represents unskillful emotions or conditioned existence or temptation. Sometimes he is the son of a god.
Is Mara the Buddhist Satan?
Although there are some obvious parallels between Mara and the Devil or Satan of monotheistic religions, there are also many significant differences.
Although both characters are associated with evil, it's important to understand that Buddhists understand "evil" differently from how it is understood in most other religions. Please see "Buddhism and Evil" for more explanation.
Also, Mara is a relatively minor figure in Buddhist mythology compared to Satan. Satan is the lord of Hell. Mara is the lord only of the sixth heaven of the "desire realm" of the Triloka, which is an allegorical representation of reality adapted from Hinduism.
On the other hand, Jnana Sipe writes,
"First, what is Mara's domain? Where does he operate? At one point the Buddha indicated that each of the five skandhas, or the five aggregates, as well as the mind, mental states and mental consciousness are all declared to be Mara. Mara symbolizes the entire existence of unenlightened humanity. In other words, Mara's realm is the whole of samsaric existence. Mara saturates every nook and cranny of life. Only in Nirvana is his influence unknown. Second, how does Mara operate? Herein lays the key to Mara's influence over all unenlightened beings. The Pali Canon gives initial answers, not as alternatives, but as varying terms. First, Mara behaves like one of the demons of [then] popular thought. He uses deceptions, disguises, and threats, he possesses people, and he uses all kinds of horrible phenomena to terrify or cause confusion. Mara's most effective weapon is sustaining a climate of fear, whether the fear be of drought or famine or cancer or terrorism. Identifying with a desire or fear tightens the knot that binds one to it, and, thereby, the sway it can have over one."
The Power of Myth
Joseph Campbell's retelling of the Buddha's enlightenment story is different from any I've heard elsewhere, but I like it anyway. In Campbell's version, Mara appeared as three different characters. The first was Kama, or Lust, and he brought with him his three daughters, named Desire, Fulfillment, and Regret.
When Kama and his daughters failed to distract Siddhartha, Kama became Mara, Lord of Death, and he brought an army of demons. And when the army of demons failed to harm Siddhartha (they turned into flowers in his presence) Mara became Dharma, meaning (in Campbell's context) "duty."
Young man, Dharma said, the events of the world require your attention. And at this point Siddhartha touched the earth, and the earth said, "This is my beloved son who has, through innumerable lifetimes, so given of himself, there is no body here." An interesting retelling, I think.