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Mara: Buddhist Gods Explained in Simple Terms

Mara, often regarded as a demon in Buddhist literature, plays a unique role in many stories surrounding the Buddha and his monks. As the personification of evil, Mara is associated with death, rebirth, and desire. This enigmatic figure holds a significant position in Buddhist cosmology, as it represents the forces that challenge and test the enlightenment of spiritual beings.

From time to time, Mara has appeared as a tempter in the life of the bodhisattva Gautama, whose pursuit of enlightenment eventually led him to become the Buddha. In these instances, Mara assumed various disguises to deceive and distract Gautama from the path of enlightenment. As the “Lord of the Senses,” Mara’s influence over the senses and desires of humans positions this figure as a powerful yet elusive presence in Buddhist teachings.

An understanding of Mara’s role in Buddhist mythology provides crucial insight into the struggles and obstacles faced by spiritual practitioners as they seek enlightenment. By recognizing and confronting the power of Mara, individuals can overcome their own desires and attachments, leading them ever closer to awakening.

Origin of Mara

Mythological History

Mara, commonly known as the “Lord of the Senses,” played a vital role in various Buddhist stories, including the life of Siddhartha Gautama, who later became the Buddha. In Hindu mythology, Mara is equivalent to Kama, the god of desire. This equivalence has been accepted into Buddhism and is further supported in texts like the Kalachakra, where the Buddha figure has Kama under his right foot, symbolizing the conquering of all four maras.

Mara in Early Buddhist Texts

Mara’s early appearances can be traced back to the Buddhist scriptures, particularly in the Pali Canon. Here, Mara is depicted as a demon, sometimes referred to as the Lord of Death, who often attempted to provoke and challenge the Buddha and his monks. The word “Mara” finds its etymology in the Sanskrit verbal root “mṛ,” with meanings such as “maker of death,” “causing death,” or “killing.” Mara has earned notoriety for trying to tempt the Buddha while he was seated under the Bodhi tree, seeking enlightenment. Despite these attempts, the Buddha prevailed and reached enlightenment, effectively conquering Mara and his influences.

Roles and Depictions

Personification of Evil

Mara is the personification of evil in Buddhism and is often referred to as a demon1. He’s a powerful divinity within the form realm (rupadhatu) and is dedicated to preventing beings from attaining liberation from the cyclic existence (samsara)1. As a symbol of death, rebirth, and desire, Mara acts as an antagonist to enlightenment2.

Tempter of Buddha

Among the many stories of the Buddha and his monks, Mara plays a significant role as the tempter. When Gautama, the bodhisattva, seated himself under the Bo tree to await Enlightenment, Mara assumed multiple forms to try and distract the Buddha. He first appeared as a messenger, delivering fake news about the usurpation of the Śākya throne by a rival, Devadatta3. Later, Mara created a great storm of rain, rocks, and other elements in an attempt to deter Buddha from his path3.

Symbols and Iconography

The iconic scene of The Buddha triumphing over Mara represents Buddha’s victory over the forces of temptation and ignorance. This stone depiction, dated between 900-1000 CE, exemplifies Mara’s defeat as the historical Buddha achieves enlightenment4. Additionally, Mara’s depiction as the “Lord of the Senses” reflects his ability to manipulate sensory experiences to tempt beings away from their spiritual journeys3.

Mara’s Realm

The Demon Army

Mara, a central figure in Buddhism, is often depicted as the embodiment of temptation, evil, and maliciousness. In his battles against the Buddha and his followers, Mara is aided by his demon army. These fearsome beings help Mara in his continuous effort to obstruct the path to enlightenment for all sentient beings.

Description of Mara’s Abode

Mara’s abode is situated in Kāmadhātu, the Desire Realm, which is part of Buddhist cosmography. This area is teeming with different creatures such as animals, humans, and demigods. Mara’s influence is apparent throughout Kāmadhātu, as he aims to corrupt its inhabitants by engaging them in diverse desires and inciting fear within them.

Cultural Influence

Representation in Art

In Buddhist art, Mara is often depicted as a fierce, malevolent figure. His appearance varies across different cultures and traditions but generally features multiple arms, weapons, and a dark, menacing expression. Artists also portray Mara on his elephant, accompanied by his demonic army, attempting to distract or defeat the Buddha.

Mara in Literature

Mara appears in many Buddhist texts, where he serves as a symbol of temptation, illusion, and ignorance. His most famous encounter with the Buddha is during the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment, where Mara tries to disrupt the Buddha’s meditation. In literature, Mara often appears in the forms of his female children or as a manifestation of the Buddha’s own doubts, symbolizing the internal struggle for spiritual growth.

Worship and Rituals

Protective Practices

Mara, the demon in Buddhist culture, represents unwholesome emotions and temptations. Protective practices are aimed at overcoming these negative emotions. Meditation is a common practice, as it helps Buddhists cultivate mindfulness and awareness. In addition, reciting mantras and visualizing deities are also effective methods for protection from Mara’s influence.

Festivals and Observances

Although Mara is not a primary focus of worship in Buddhism, certain festivals and observances might touch upon overcoming Mara’s negative forces. The Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is one example, as it commemorates the day when the Buddha defeated Mara and achieved enlightenment. The celebration involves meditation, teachings, and expressions of gratitude towards the Buddha for his victory over Mara and his teachings on overcoming the demon.

In conclusion, the worship and rituals surrounding Mara in Buddhism are centered around protective practices and key observances. These rituals remind Buddhists of the importance of overcoming negative forces to achieve enlightenment and follow the path the Buddha laid out.

Mara in Different Buddhist Traditions

Theravada Perspectives

Mara is a prominent figure in Theravada Buddhism. Often referred to as a demon, Mara’s primary goal is to prevent beings from attaining liberation from the cycle of existence (samsara). Mara’s presence in Buddhist literature dates back to some of the earliest scriptures, where he is sometimes called the Lord of Death.

Mahayana Interpretations

In the Mahayana tradition, Mara continues to play a significant role in preventing beings from achieving enlightenment. Here, Mara is conceived in four metaphorical forms:

  • Kleśa-māra: Mara as the embodiment of all unskillful emotions, such as greed, hate, and delusion.
  • Mṛtyu-māra: Mara as death.
  • Skandha-māra: Mara as a metaphor for the entirety of conditioned existence.

These various interpretations serve to emphasize the diverse challenges that one must overcome on the path to enlightenment.

Vajrayana Views

Mara’s role in the Vajrayana tradition shares similarities with both Theravada and Mahayana traditions. One significant difference, however, lies within the Kalachakra Tantra. In this context, Mara is identified with Kama, the Hindu god of desire. The Kalachakra Buddha figure is depicted with Kama under his right foot, representing all four Maras.

In summary, Mara’s role and interpretations may differ across Buddhist traditions, but the underlying theme of Mara acting as an obstacle to enlightenment remains consistent throughout.

Comparative Mythology

Mara and Hinduism

Mara, the demonic entity in Buddhism, has connections to Hindu mythology as well. In Hinduism, Mara is equivalent to Kama, the god of desire. According to Hindu mythology, Kama is one of the sons of Krishna and Rukmini and has a wife named Rati.

Similarities to Other Religions

Interestingly, Mara shares similarities with other religious figures, such as the Christian concept of the Devil. Both are known to be forces that hinder people’s spiritual progress by tempting them with desire and instilling fear. Additionally, both figures are seen as agents of corruption that affect not only humans but also other beings.

In summary, comparative mythology provides valuable insights into the understanding of Mara in Buddhism. By exploring its connections to figures from other religious traditions, it becomes clear that the concept of Mara plays a vital role in explaining the universal struggle against negative forces and spiritual obstacles.

Psychological Interpretation

Mara, in Buddhism, is a complex figure that represents various negative aspects of the human psyche. It can be seen as an external demonic force or as an internal psychological process. This dual nature of Mara offers unique insights into how Buddhist practitioners can understand and work with their emotions, desires, and attachments.

Mara is often depicted as a tempter and obstacle to spiritual practice. As a psychological metaphor, it embodies the very processes of doubt and temptation that hinder one’s quest for enlightenment. By recognizing these internal struggles, Buddhists can better strive to tame and overcome them. Techniques such as meditation on bodhicitta, which helps examine the nature of emotion, can serve as an effective remedy to pacify the influence of Mara.

Here are specific ways to counteract Mara:

  • Meditation: To develop mindfulness and awareness, helping one to recognize Mara’s influences.
  • Recognizing impermanence: It is essential to acknowledge that all emotional states and situations are temporary and ever-changing.
  • Cultivating detachment: By learning to let go of attachments and cravings, one can begin to break free from Mara’s grasp.

In essence, the psychological interpretation of Mara provides an opportunity for Buddhist practitioners to confront and overcome negative forces within themselves. By embracing these teachings, one can achieve personal growth and progress towards the ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment.

Modern Relevance

In today’s world, Mara, also known as the “Evil One,” holds spiritual and metaphorical significance for Buddhists. For many, Mara represents the embodiment of unskillful emotions and the challenges people face on their spiritual path. Although not universally taken literally, different forms of Mara continue to be associated with various aspects of life.

Traditionally, Buddhism identifies four or five forms of Mara. These include:

  1. Kleśa-māra – Mara as the embodiment of unskillful emotions like greed, hate, and delusion.
  2. Mṛtyu-māra – Mara as death.
  3. Skandha-māra – Mara as a metaphor for the entirety of conditioned existence.
  4. Devaputta Mara – An actual god who controls a portion of the paranimmita-vasavatti heaven.

These forms are seen as different aspects of the challenges that individuals may face during their spiritual journey. In a broader context, Mara can be interpreted as analogous to the concept of Satan in Christianity, but without the same level of literalness attached to the figure.

Modern-day Buddhists incorporate the understanding of Mara into their practice through mindfulness and meditation. By developing a well-trained mind, practitioners can better overcome unskillful emotions and habits that Mara represents. Through such practices, they seek to achieve enlightenment and develop a deeper understanding of themselves and the world.

In summary, the relevance of Mara in the modern Buddhist context lies in its metaphorical representation of the obstacles and challenges one faces in their spiritual journey. By understanding and acknowledging these challenges, Buddhists can progress along their path toward enlightenment and self-realization.


  1. Māra – Encyclopedia of Buddhism 2

  2. Mara (demon) – Wikipedia

  3. Māra | Buddhist Demonology, Evil Spirits, Temptation 2 3

  4. The Buddha triumphing over Mara (article) | Khan Academy