Generally regarded as the personification of Death, the Evil One, the Tempter. Sometimes known as the Dark One (Kaṇha). Snp.355 MN.i.377 DN.ii.262 Thag.1189
The legends concerning Māra are, in the books, very involved and defy any attempts at unravelling them.
Māra is frequently used in a symbolic sense to refer to the whole of the worldly existence, the five khandhas, or the realm of rebirth, as opposed to Nibbāna. SN.iii.195 SN.iii.198 SN.iii.74 SN.iv.202 SN.iv.85 SN.iii.1951 SN.iii.1953
In view of the many studies of Māra by various scholars, already existing, it might be worth while here, too, to attempt a theory of Māra in Buddhism, based chiefly on the above data. The commonest use of the word was evidently in the sense of Death. From this it was extended to mean “the world under the sway of death” AN.iv.228 and the beings therein. Thence, the kilesas also came to be called Māra in that they were instruments of Death, the causes enabling Death to hold sway over the world. All Temptations brought about by the kilesas were likewise regarded as the work of Death. There was also evidently a legend of a devaputta of the Vasavatti world, called Māra, who considered himself the head of the Kāmāvacara world and who recognized any attempt to curb the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, as a direct challenge to himself and to his authority. As time went on these different conceptions of the word became confused one with the other, but this confusion is not always difficult to unravel.
Various statements are found in the Pitakas connected with Māra, which have, obviously, reference to Death, the kilesas, and the world over which Death and the kilesas hold sway. SN.iv.91 SN.iii.73 Dhp.8 Dhp.40 SN.i.135
The legend of Māra attacking the Buddha to prevent his Awakening had its origin in the Padhāna Sutta. Snp.494–517 There Māra is represented as visiting Gotama on the banks of the Nerañjara, where he is practicing austerities and tempting him to abandon his striving and devote himself to good works. Gotama refers to Māra’s army as being tenfold. The divisions are as follows: the first consists of the Lusts; the second is Aversion; the third Hunger and Thirst; the fourth Craving; the fifth Sloth and Indolence; the sixth Cowardice; the seventh Doubt; the eighth Hypocrisy and Stupidity; Gains, Fame, Honour and Glory falsely obtained form the ninth; and the tenth is the Lauding of oneself and the Contemning of others. “Seeing this army on all sides,” says the Buddha, “I go forth to meet Māra with his equipage. He shall not make me yield ground. That army of thine, which the world of devas and men conquers not, even that, with my wisdom, will I smite, as an unbaked earthen bowl with a stone.” Here we have practically all the elements found in the later elaborated versions.
The second part of the Padhāna Sutta Snp.446f. SN.i.122 is obviously concerned with later events in the life of Gotama. After Māra had retired discomfited, he followed the Buddha for seven years, watching for any transgression on his part. But the quest was in vain, and, “like a crow attacking a rock,” he left Gotama in disgust. “The lute of Māra, who was so overcome with grief, slipped from his arm. Then, in dejection, the Yakkha disappeared thence.”
The Saṃyutta Nikāya SN.i.124f. AN.v.46 also contains a sutta in which three daughters of Māra are represented as tempting the Buddha after his Enlightenment. Their names are Taṇhā, Arati and Ragā, and they are evidently personifications of three of the ten forces in Māra’s army, as given in the Padhāna Sutta. They assume numerous forms of varying age and charm, full of blandishment, but their attempt is vain, and they are obliged to admit defeat.
Once Māra came to be regarded as the Spirit of Evil all temptations of lust, fear, greed, etc., were regarded as his activities, and Māra was represented as assuming various disguises in order to carry out his nefarious plans. Thus the books mention various occasions on which Māra appeared before the Buddha himself and his disciples, men and women, to lure them away from their chosen path.
Soon after the Buddha’s first vassa, Māra approached him and asked him not to teach the monks regarding the highest emancipation, he himself being yet bound by Māra’s fetters. But the Buddha replied that he was free of all fetters, human and divine. Vin.i.22 On another occasion Māra entered into the body of Vetambarī and made him utter heretical doctrines. SN.i.67 In the Brahmanimantanika Sutta. MN.i.326 Māra is spoken of as entering the hearts even of the inhabitants of the Brahma world. The Māra Saṃyutta SN.i.103ff. contains several instances of Māra’s temptations of the Buddha by assailing him with doubts as to his emancipation, feelings of fear and dread, appearing before him in the shape of an elephant, a cobra, in various guises beautiful and ugly, making the rocks of Gijjhakūṭa fall with a crash; by making him wonder whether he should ever sleep; by suggesting that, as human life was long, there was no need for haste in living the good life; by dulling the intelligence of his hearers. DN.iii.58 In the account of Godhika’s suicide SN.i.122 there is a curious statement that, after Godhika died, Māra went about looking for his consciousness, and the Buddha pointed him out to the monks, “going about like a cloud of smoke.”
The books mention many occasions on which Māra assumed various forms under which to tempt bhikkhunīs, often in lonely spots—e.g., Āḷavikā, Kisāgotamī, Somā, Vijayā, Uppalavantnā, Cālā, Upacālā, Sisūpacālā, Selā, Vajirā and Khemā.
Mention is made, especially in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, of several occasions on which Māra approached the Buddha, requesting him to die; the first of these occasions was under the Ajapala Banyan tree at Uruvelā, soon after the Enlightenment, but the Buddha refused to die until the sāsana was firmly established.
With the accounts of Māra, as the personification of Evil, came to be mixed legends of an actual devaputta, named Māra, also called Vasavatti, because he was an inhabitant of the Paranimmitā Vasavatti deva world. In the Aṅguttara Nikāya, Māra is described as the head of those enjoying bliss in the Kāmāvacara worlds. AN.ii.17 In the Māratajjanīya Sutta MN.i.333 DN.iii.79 Moggallāna says that he too had once been a Māra, Dūsī by name; Kālā was his sister’s name, and the Māra of the present age was his nephew. In the sutta, Dūsī is spoken of as having been responsible for many acts of mischief, similar to those ascribed to the Māra of Gotama’s day. According to the sutta, Māradevaputta was evidently regarded as a being of great power, with a strong bent for mischief, especially directed against holy men.