Malleable Māra: Buddhism’s "Evil One" in Conversation and Contestation with Vedic Religion, Brahmanism, and Hinduism

This dissertation deals with the Buddhist mythic figure “Māra,” who represents the realm of rebirth and death that Buddh

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Malleable Māra: Buddhism’s "Evil One" in Conversation and Contestation with Vedic Religion, Brahmanism, and Hinduism

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Malleable Mara: Buddhism‟s “Evil One” in Conversation and Contestation with Vedic Religion, Brahmanism, and Hinduism



for the degree


Field of Religious Studies by Michael David Nichols


June 2010

UMI Number: 3402231

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Malleable Māra: Buddhism‟s “Evil One” in Conversation and Contestation with Vedic religion, Brahmanism, and Hinduism Michael David Nichols This dissertation deals with the Buddhist mythic figure “Māra,” who represents the realm of rebirth and death that Buddhists aspire to overcome. Previous scholarship on Māra has focused on the philosophical and psychological valences of the figure. While concentrating on important aspects of the symbol, these past approaches also neglected the literary context of the figure and did not pursue its potential connection to other religious traditions in India. In this project I read the Buddhist myths of Māra from a literary perspective, investigating the degree to which the figure and its symbolism were connected to other Indian mythic traditions, particularly those of Hindu Brahmins. In so doing, I reveal the extent to which Buddhist myths of Māra appropriated preceding and contemporary Hindu mythic figures and tropes, demonstrating that the symbol is a prime example of Buddhist connection to the Indian Brahmanical milieu. In addition, this work shows that even as Buddhist authors appropriated Brahmanical myths through Māra, they often used the symbol to invert, satirize, and critique Brahmin ritual and social values. This demonstrates a previously unexplored social dimension to the Buddhist mythology of Māra.

4 Acknowledgments Without the help of a number of people, this dissertation would have been impossible to complete. I want to express my thanks to Liz Wilson and Julie Gifford at Miami University, who guided my master‟s thesis on Māra. Blake Wentworth, my exceptional Sanskrit instructor, inculcated not only an understanding of that language but also a love of its literature. Thank you to Brian Black, Laurie Patton, Nirmala Salgado, Sarah Jacoby, and Stuart Sarbacker, who read parts of the dissertation in progress and offered helpful criticisms and encouragements. Sarah McFarland-Taylor and Mary Weismantel offered extremely helpful critiques of this work from the perspectives of Religious Studies and Anthropology, respectively. Above all in this regard, I appreciate the insights and critiques of my dissertation committee of Robert Launay, Brook Ziporyn, Wendy Doniger, and my adviser and dissertation committee chair, George Bond. Thank you to my mother and father, who have always supported and encouraged me in every way imaginable. Finally, I owe my eternal gratitude and appreciation to my wife, Jeanette, whose hard work and unflagging support enabled me to achieve this goal. Thank you also to our boys, Alexander and Luka, who always helped me keep everything in perspective and reminded me why the hard work was worth it.

5 List of Abbreviations AN AV BC DhP DN LV MB MV MN NK RV ŚB SN

Anguttara Nikāya Atharva Veda Buddhacarita Dhammapada Dīgha Nikāya Lalitavistara Mahābhārata Mahāvastu Majjhima Nikāya Nidānakathā Rig Veda Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa Saṃyutta Nikāya

6 Dedication For my wife and children, who make it all worthwhile.

7 Table of Contents Chapter: 1. Introduction………………………………………………………...………….…….8

2. Mistaking Māra: The Buddhist “Evil One” and the Study of Evil and Narrative in the History of Religions….………………………………...…….26

3. The Two Faces of Deva: the Māra/Brahmā Tandem………………….……..….….62

4. Deva Buddha, Demonic Māra; Demonic Buddha, Deva Māra………….…..…….103

5. Māra, Dealer of Death through Desire: the Buddhist Mortification of Kāma.…....153

6. Dialogues with Death: Māra, Yama, and Coming to Terms with Mortality…..…..215

7. Conclusion………………………………………………………………….…..….265 Bibliography……………………………………………………………………..…...275


Chapter 1: Introduction

9 I. Who is “Māra?” According to Buddhist mythology, not all beings were overjoyed when Siddhattha Gotama neared the status of Buddhahood. In fact, as Gotama sat at the foot of the Bodhi tree, one being supposedly intervened. Named “Māra,” this god of death and desire marshaled all the extraordinary powers at his disposal to halt the ascetic‟s progress. He called upon his daughters and his quiver of desire-inducing arrows to instill lust in the meditating sage, but these stratagems accomplished nothing. The angry god churned the oceans and sky, then summoned an army of fearsome, misshapen goblins and monsters, each brandishing gruesome weaponry. Yet, despite the frightfulness and terror of this display, it too met with failure. As a last resort, Māra challenged Gotama‟s worthiness to sit under the Bodhi tree and attain awakening: how could the ascetic, a mere human being, possibly possess the merit to resist the challenge of a god? But, in a motion immortalized in iconography throughout all Buddhist traditions, Gotama reached one hand down to the earth (executing the bhūmisparśamudra, or “earth-touching gesture”), which bore witness to his superior merit over Māra. Defeated, Māra retired, but in other Buddhist narratives set after Gotama‟s awakening, the god continues to stalk the Buddha as well as his disciples. For sheer tension, drama, and spectacle, the events of the Māravijaya (literally, “conquest of Māra”) narratives, summarized in the preceding from several sources, are difficult to match in Buddhist literature. Chronicled in several texts, particularly tales of the Buddha‟s life such as Buddhacarita, Lalitavistara, and Nidānakathā, the story crosses sectarian lines, appearing in the canons of almost all Indian schools, from Hīnayāna to early Mahāyāna works.1 The story has


I use the term “Hīnayāna” only as an umbrella term for the non-Mahāyāna schools in Indian Buddhism. I do not intend the term in its pejorative sense whatsoever.

10 inspired large amounts of material culture and artwork, from murals in modern Śrī Lankan and Thai monasteries to ancient reliefs on famous stūpas, such as Sāñcī and Bhārhut in India. Indeed, given its appearance in literature across Buddhist sectarian lines and material culture from the north, central, and southern areas of India, one could easily argue that Māra is a “pan-Indian” Buddhist deity. At the least, due to its widespread appearance in ancient texts and art, as well as persistence into modern times, it is obvious that the confrontation of the Buddha and Māra at Bodh-Gayā has long occupied a prominent position in the imagination of Buddhist traditions. Yet, as central as the narrative of the Māravijaya is and has been, the mythology of Māra extends even further into Buddhist textual and practical traditions, appearing throughout the Theravāda Pāli Canon and numerous Mahāyāna sūtras. To give just a few select examples, the entire Mārasaṃyutta and Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya are devoted to Māra, he figures prominently in story of the Buddha‟s last days in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, and the early Mahāyāna text Aṣṭasahāsrikāprajñāpāramitā contains numerous mentions. Ethnographically, John Strong, Donald Swearer, and Stanley Tambiah have all recorded references to Māra in Southeast Asian rituals and texts. 2 It is thus fair to say that while the Māravijaya narrative is perhaps the most famous mythic cycle involving Māra, the symbol has textual and ritual breadth and depth beyond those narratives. In fact, in the narrative chronology of the tradition, the Bodh-Gayā confrontation spells the beginning rather than the end of Māra‟s contest with the Buddha and his followers. Given the prominence of this figure and its extensive occurrence, it is only natural for scholars to wonder as to the nature of the symbol of Māra and what might account for its


For example, see Strong‟s The Legend and Cult of Upagupta, Swearer‟s The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, and Tambiah‟s Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in Northeast Thailand.

11 importance. We can begin in a very basic way to answer those questions by summarizing the cosmological, philosophical, and psychological roles the figure plays in the tradition. Buddhist texts ascribe an expansive quality to Māra and his domain, both on a macro and microcosmic level. Though Pāli and Sanskrit texts provide many epithets for the figure, 3 the primary name “Māra” comes from the root mṛ, “die,” which being in a causative sense, can be glossed as “causer of death,” or more bluntly, “killer.” At the same time, he is also, as Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita describes him, “Kāmadeva,” (“god of desire”) and “kāmapracārādhipati,” (“supreme lord of the movements of desire”).4 As god of both death and desire, Māra is lord of an entire realm called, variously, Kāmaloka, Kāmadhātu, or Kāmavācara. All who are subject to birth and death are thus subject to Māra‟s influence and control. A passage from the Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya describes Māra‟s station in that very way: “the thirtythree [gods of the old Vedic pantheon], the underworld, the tusitā gods, the gods who foster creation, and those who are Vasavattin gods, are all bound by the bonds of desire and they go again under the control of Māra.”5 Conceived in this way, Māra is a devātideva, a god reigning above other gods, let alone more minor beings, such as humans and animals. This characterization, in view of the tripartite division of Buddhist cosmology, places Māra in the higher heavenly worlds of the Kāmaloka, which lies below the Rūpaloka and Arūpaloka, 3

Buddhaghoṣa, in Sāratthappakāsinī, his commentary on Saṃyutta Nikāya, provides a useful summary of these epithets. Among the most frequent are “Antaka” (“Endmaker”), “Kaṇha” (“Dark One”), “Adhipati” (“Overlord”), “Namuci” (literally “Non-releaser,” but also the name of a Vedic demon), and “Pamattabandhu” (“Relative of the Careless”) (169). In the course of the dissertation I shall have occasion to interrogate several of these epithets, which are helpful in revealing the literary and cultural context of the Māra symbol. 4 BC 13.2. Johnston renders “kāmapracārādhipati” as “lord of the activities of the passions” (188), but I believe either “wandering” or “movement” is a better interpretation of pracāra, as it further connotes the ever-changing, even fleeting, nature Buddhist texts ascribe to desire and passion. Unless otherwise specified, all translations from Sanskrit, Pāli, Prakrit, and German in this dissertation are my own. 5 SN I 133: tāvatiṃsā ca yāmāca tusitā cāpi devatā | nimmānaratino devā ye devā vasavattino | kāmabandhanabaddhā te enti māravasaṃ puna ||

12 respectively. Given the reference in the Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta, however, and the broader description of Māra as lord both of desire (kāma) and death (mṛtyu), even the devas of those higher realms exist under Māra‟s control, as they are all still subject to death and rebirth. The symbol of Māra is thus coextensive, on a macrocosmic level, with the Buddhist conception of saṃsāra, the everturning process of death and rebirth, and the god‟s sphere of influence and control extends from one end of existence to the other. Though an eminently cosmic figure holding dominion over all beings, Māra‟s presence also penetrates to the most inner reaches of existence, claiming control over the processes of the senses and cognition. In another confrontation with Gotama (after he has become the Buddha), Māra claims possession of the five senses and the mind, along with their processes and objects.6 In the Majjhima Nikāya‟s Āneñjasappāya Sutta, the Buddhist author seemingly grants this claim, describing both senses and perceptions as under the “sway of Māra” (māradheyyam),7 the “province of Māra” (mārass‟ esa visayo), “Māra‟s bait” (mārass‟ esa nivāpo), and “Māra‟s pasture” (mārass‟ esa gocaro).8 Another Majjhima Nikāya text (the Cūlagopālaka Sutta) associates Māra‟s realm with all that is shot through by the three poisons: passion, hate, and delusion (rāgadosamohānaṃ).9 Additionally, when bhikkhus ask the Buddha to explain the exact nature of Māra, he frequently explains that wherever there are formal, sensual, or mental formations, there is Māra.10


SN I 115-116. In Sāratthappakāsinī Buddhaghoṣa glosses “māradheyya” as “tebhūmaka-vaṭṭaṃ” – the abodes or levels of rebirth and transmigration. See pgs. 178 and 186. 8 MN I 262. 9 MN I 226. 10 For example, see SN III 73-76, 189, and IV 38-39. 7

13 Taking this into account with the cosmic status of the deity, Buddhist traditions bestow a sphere of power and control onto Māra along a continuum ranging from the macro- to microcosmic. Indeed, as summarized by the first century non-canonical text Netti Pakaraṇa, all that obscures cognition, burdens the mind with wrong views, or makes one “hemmed in by saṃsāra” is Māra.11 Conversely, and as the Buddha usually points out when he explains the nature of Māra to the bhikkhus, where there are no formal, sensual, or mental formations, and when the three poisons are rooted out, there is no Māra. This is also frequently expressed in the texts by way of allegory, as in the aforementioned Cūlagopālaka Sutta, which casts Māra‟s realm as the shore of a river, Māra‟s forces as the stream with its current, and the Buddha‟s teaching as the ford to the far shore.12 Māra‟s control, in some cases, is correspondingly described as binding or holding beings to the realm and processes of birth and death, like a net or a snare, and those who follow the Buddha‟s teaching will escape from Māra‟s control.13 The point of contention, therefore, between Māra, the Buddha (or Gotama in the case of the Māravijaya narratives), and Buddhist disciples is that the dharma (Pāli, dhamma),14 or Buddhist teaching, constitutes a way to escape saṃsāra and Māra‟s control, expansive and total though it may seem. Nirvāṇa (Pāli, nibbāna) represents a state outside of the Kāma-, Rūpa, and Arūpalokas and extends beyond sensory and cognitive perceptions. As supreme lord of desire and death, as the appellation Kāmādhipati literally connotes, Māra is thus attempting to prevent Gotama from escaping his control when he assails the ascetic‟s meditation at Bodh-Gayā. 11

Netti Pakaraṇa, 85: so hi nivuto saṃsārābhimukho hoti. MN I 225-227. 13 For just a few of many possible examples, see DhP 4.14, 13.8-9 for Māra‟s “net” (jāla) and 20.2,4 and 24.17 for how successful practitioners “cut Māra‟s bonds” (cchecchati mārabhandanaṃ). 14 In this dissertation I will primarily cite terms in Sanskrit, such “dharma” and “nirvāna” since they have become more well known in those forms than in the Pāli equivalents. For such recognizable terms I shall also eschew italicization for greater readability. 12

14 Indeed, further drawing on the sense of Māra as a lord or ruling being, we could even consider his intentions to halt the spread of the dharma as an attempt to quell a rebellion in his realm. Given the preceding discussion, we can delineate two basic applications or forms of the Māra symbol in Buddhist scriptures. First, Māra is used in a metaphorical sense to describe aspects of saṃsāra, both physically and psychologically, often as a means of advancing aspects of the Buddha‟s teaching and ideals of practice. In the Pāli Nikāyas, for example, it is said that the successful bhikkhu achieves mindfulness outside the access of Māra (i.e., sensual and mental faculties), using the symbol as a means to demarcate the dharma from saṃsāra and measure a bhikkhu‟s progress.15 Later Buddhist scholasticism in both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna traditions develop the formula of “Four Māras,” namely skandhamāra (Māra representing the aggregates that form our bodies, minds, and sense of “self”), kleśamāra (Māra of “defilements”), devaputramāra (Māra as a celestial being and god), and mṛtyumāra (Māra as the process of death).16 This division of the figure is thoroughly in keeping with the tendency of scholastics and commentators to divide figures and concepts into finer and finer elements in order to elaborate their meaning. In his analysis, James Boyd describes the Four Māras formula as “an effort to make explicit the inherent versatility and also ambivalence of the meaning of the Māra


For some examples, see SN IV 185-186; V 147-149; and MN I 155-160. As Alex Wayman has shown, the Mahāyāna commentator Asaṅga‟s work in the Śrāvakabhūmi is one of the most prominent and influential espousals of this formula. See “Studies in Yama and Māra,” Indo-Iranian Journal, pgs. 112-119. Theravādin commentator Buddhaghoṣa is another key promoter of the concept in his Visuddhimagga, yet he adds a fifth, the abhisankhāramāra (“Māra of karma formations”), VII 211. Earlier commentaries already begin to show elements of the formula. For example, in the commentary to the DhP, Māra‟s power and realm of control are often explained as coextensive with the kleśas (Pāli, kilesa). For instance, see The Dhammapada: A New English Translation with the Pali Text, pgs. 123 and 170. The reference to Four Māras is also found in Mahāvastu, though in a slightly different sense, as the Buddha declares, in succession, that he defeated Māra as kleśamāra, devaputramāra, mṛtyumāra, and skandhamāra (III 281). Given the composite nature of the MV and its long chronological development (formed over several centuries), it is difficult to determine whether this literary instance of the Four Māras is a cause or an effect of the commentarial tradition.


15 symbol…”17 The skandha and kleśa divisions of the formula effectively locate Māra in the individual‟s internal psychological constituencies while the mṛtyu class deals with the figure as a metaphor for the impersonal process of degeneration and decay of all organisms onto death. These three components of the formula thus tend to abstract or even diffuse the symbol. The fourth class (devaputramāra), however, is of a different sort altogether and speaks to a distinct set of encounters with Māra described in the Buddhist scriptures. In these cases, Māra is undeniably a powerful external force rather than an internal process. These instances often show the other components of the Four Māras formula as the attributes or weapons at the command of the god Māra. For instance, the Saṃyutta Nikāya describes Māra as a hunter, waiting and lurking to gain power over a bhikkhu through his sense faculties or the inculcation of pride, honor, and achievement.18 Additionally, Buddhaghoṣa, in his commentary on the Saṃyutta Nikāya, glosses “Māra” as “Māra-visūkāni,” literally “Māra the distorter,” in the sense that he attempts to twist and pervert correct views about the nature of life, death, and the factors of existence.19 In these cases, Māra is clearly seen as an external entity who exploits aspects of saṃsāric existence and the internal faculties of beings to his own ends. To this we can add the Mārasaṃyutta, Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta, Brahmanimantanika Sutta, Māratajjanīya Sutta, and the entire Māravijaya mythic cycle as obvious examples of Māra as an external, antagonistic being bent on obstructing and subverting the Buddha‟s teaching. In those texts, as well as others, Māra engages in dialogue and debate (as well as combat – at least on his 17

Satan and Māra: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil, pg. 133. I should point out that Boyd and I disagree on the origin of the Four Māras formula. While he does not see it as the result of the commentarial tradition, with the exception of the MV passage mentioned in the foregoing note, the formula is only found in commentarial texts or later Mahāyāna writers synthesizing earlier traditions. This suggests to me a certain retroactive quality to the construction. 18 SN II 226-227; IV 178. 19 Sāratthappakāsinī, pg. 186.

16 part) with the Buddha or his followers, suggesting that in those texts at least, the figure was understood as one among an assortment of beings one could encounter. Indeed, in a recurring formula in Buddhist texts, Māra is included in lists of important cosmological figures, often to make a point about the power of the Buddha. For example, in an encounter with a yakkha who threatens to seize him, the Buddha replies that he does not see anyone “in the world with its devas, Māra, Brahmā, ascetics, and Brahmins” who could accomplish that feat.20 The Pāli text Milindapañha, which contains the supposed dialogue between the King Milinda and the bhikkhu Nāgasena on points of Buddhist doctrine, contains an alternate version of this cosmic formula. In response to the king‟s query about the number of Buddhas at a time, the monk explains to the king that there is only one Buddha per world system, just as there is only one “mighty and unique” Sakka (Buddhist name for Indra), Great Brahmā, and Māra.21 The frequency with which one encounters these cosmological lists and their variants in Buddhist texts quickly establishes Māra as a fixture in Buddhist cosmology, alongside Vedic and Hindu gods such as Indra and Brahmā and also contributes to the sense that the primary understanding of the figure, at least in early texts, was as a celestial figure who prowls saṃsāra. A final, and tremendously ironic, aspect of the Buddhist portrayal of Māra must be noted before an introduction to the figure is complete. Though the celestial Māra is considered unitary and singular, though diverse in representing all the forces of saṃsāra, he22 is plural over time. Despite his power over the realm of rebirth and death, like all other beings, Māra himself is 20

See SN I 207: sadevake loke samārake sabrahmake sassamaṇa-brāhmaṇiyā. This is just one example of the almost ubiquitous formula. Though some translators render Māra and Brahmā in the plural in these phrases, possibly to correlate with “devas,” there is no grammatical reason to do so. In fact, Rhys-Davids, in his Pāli-English Dictionary, only provides the singular “with Māra” for samārake (pg. 686). 21 The Milindapañha, pg. 239: sakko mahanto so eko yeva; māro mahanto so eka yeva; mahābrahmā mahanto so eko yeva. 22 Several Buddhist texts, particularly in the Pāli sources, emphasize that Māra is always male. I will discuss the significance of this fact in more depth in chapter five.

17 subject to these same forces (though Buddhist texts frequently portray him as woefully ignorant of this fact23) and will die and be reborn into another state while another being will assume the role of Māra. II. The Goal and Outline of the Dissertation Based on the foregoing descriptions, we can see that the celestial Māra, who embodies the forces of saṃsāra and guards its boundaries against escape, is the most prevalent representation of the figure in early Indian Buddhism. In this dissertation I am concerned with precisely this aspect of the symbol, when the god appears as a character interacting with the Buddha and other figures in Indian Buddhist literature. The existence of such a character in Buddhist scripture is an opportunity not only for studying the literary qualities of Buddhist texts, but also how those writings conceived of the social dimensions and interactions of the tradition with its Indian religious contemporaries and competitors. I thus propose the alignment of two theses that, to this point in Buddhist Studies, have not been considered in tandem. First, as I will discuss further in laying out my methodology in chapter two, scholars have long argued that Indian Buddhist traditions originated and existed in an atmosphere of sectarian appropriation and tension. Though numerous movements could be considered in this regard – and I will deal with some (especially Jainas) in the course of the dissertation – Brahmanical traditions, from Vedic to later Hindu expressions, were the paramount adversaries and conversation partners for Indian Buddhists. The second thesis, which figures more broadly in Religious Studies, deals with the role of symbols of evil in the social imagination of religious communities. In Religion and Its Monsters, a work surveying notions of the “monstrous” in Biblical texts and American popular


The Māratajjanīya Sutta of the MN is an excellent example of these facts. I discuss that text in detail in chapter three.

18 culture and cinema, Timothy Beal observes that “we can learn something about a religious tradition by getting to know its monsters…” 24 On the same theme, but focused specifically on Medieval European thought, David Williams argues that “as the monster deforms to „show forth‟ the reality of Form, so too it disorders to reveal the full nature of Order itself.” 25 In other words, by investigating the ways in which a tradition represents the “monstrous” or “evil,” the inverted and perverted aspects of the cosmos and society, we gain an understanding of what a tradition holds most dear and sacred. Even more specifically, in a study of the origins of the famous Christian symbol of evil, Satan, Elaine Pagels notes that reading the narratives of such beings helps us gain an understanding of how a tradition casts the nature of their opponents and ensuing conflicts with those rivals.26 My own thesis in this dissertation lies at the conjunction of the two ideas laid out above. As a symbol of what is considered obstructionist or even “evil” from the Buddhist point of view – which is a topic I shall deal with in detail in chapter two – the figure of Māra provides a unique opportunity for investigating how Buddhists might have conceptualized their human opponents, among whom Brahmins loomed largest. Though significant differences obviously exist, in time and place, between the Buddhist conception of Māra and American popular cinema, Medieval European thought, and the Christian figure of Satan, I believe the general principle that symbols of evil play a role in religious social imagination holds true for Buddhist literature. Therefore, in this dissertation I will explore the manner in which Indian Buddhist narratives of the god Māra constitute a comment on other Indian traditions, particularly the Vedic, Brahmanical, and Hindu traditions. To an extent, just in this introduction, we have already seen a key example: the 24

Pg. 4. Deformed Discourse: the Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature, pg. 81. 26 The Origin of Satan, pg. xviii. 25

19 recurrent Buddhist cosmological formula listing Māra alongside the Hindu gods Brahmā and (somewhat less often) Indra. The sheer fact that the author(s) of these texts saw fit repeatedly to place Māra in the company of these Hindu figures implies some sort of relationship, which has up to this point been unexamined by scholars. This dissertation delves into those largely unexplored relationships. To carry out this project, my primary sources from the Buddhist tradition will be the Pāli Canon as well as certain Sanskrit Buddhist texts, such as the various narratives of the Buddha‟s life. I will compare the appearances and narratives of Māra in that literature to a wide swath of Brahmanical and Hindu writings, including (but not limited to) the Rig and Atharva Vedas, Brāhmaṇas27 such as the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, the epic Mahābhārata, works of ornate poetry such as Kumārasaṃbhava, and Purāṇic literature, such as the Śiva Purāṇa. In this way, I look at clearly pre-Buddhist sources, works that are contemporaneous to the composition of Buddhist texts, and those that are potentially influenced by Buddhist thought. By surveying and comparing such a scope of literature from both traditions, I will highlight the conversation that occurred between these communities through the narrative figures, shedding light on the ways in which Buddhist authors borrowed from other Indian literatures and, by recasting and recreating the forms they borrowed, contributed to the creation of a distinct Buddhist identity and ideology. By reading Buddhist texts as literature, I partly follow Ralph Flores, who has argued that this kind of hermeneutic helps illuminate “how


Since this term can refer to either the priestly varṇa (Pāli, “vaṇṇa”) or the group of texts, in order to allay confusion I have chosen to retain the diacritical marks when discussing the latter. Hopefully this will provide enough distinction to benefit the reader.

20 Buddhist ideology and rhetoric are at work in shaping responses in listeners and readers.” 28 The literary figure of Māra, we will see, is an integral part of that process. Some scholars, I should note, might object that an emphasis on the potential connection between the literary nature of Māra and early Buddhist social dynamics misreads the original intention of the narratives. One of the elders of Buddhist studies, T. W. Rhys-Davids, interpreted Māra as an allegorical expression of the psychological impediments Gotama, as well as other Buddhists, faced on the path to insight.29 More recently Rupert Gethin has contended that Māra, and all Buddhist cosmology along with the evil god, represents a “mythic counterpart to the more abstract formulation” of Buddhist philosophical concepts such as dependent origination. 30 This leads to the conclusion, as Gethin champions, that even when Buddhist texts seem to treat Māra as an indisputably external being, he is in fact (echoing Rhys-Davids) only an allegory for internal mental processes.31 While a great deal of Buddhist discourse bears on psychology and philosophy, there has been a tendency to dwell entirely on those aspects of Buddhist texts, which, intentionally or not, forecloses on their literary relationships to other, related textual discourses, such as we find in Hindu traditions.32 An overemphasis on the psychological and philosophical import of these texts also seems to internalize and atomize them to a certain extent, extracting them from the social world and debates of which they were undoubtedly a part. One of the goals of this dissertation is to re-focuse scholarly attention on the literary nature of the figure 28

Buddhist Scriptures as Literature, pg. 3. For example, see his Buddhism: Its History and Literature, pgs. 104-105. 30 “Cosmology and Meditation: From the Aggañña Sutta to the Mahāyāna,” pg. 188. 31 Ibid., pg. 190. 32 There are some signs that a literary approach to Buddhist texts is beginning to gain momentum. For instance, Gregory Schopen, whose work has primarily focused on Buddhist material culture and archaeology, has argued that certain Buddhist Vinaya passages shows standard Indian literary tropes, demonstrating contact between Buddhist texts and larger Indian literary society, a fact which has not been “commonly recognized or brought to the fore” (203). See “The Learned Monk as Comic Figure: On Reading a Buddhist Vinaya as Indian Literature,” Journal of Indian Philosophy. 29

21 of Māra, which will serve to reconnect Indian Buddhism to the broader contexts of Indian literature, religion, and society. Due to this emphasis on philosophy and psychology, as well as other reasons I will discuss in chapter two, previous scholarship on the symbol of Māra has not adequately explored the questions of Māra‟s origin or its role in the Buddhist social imagination.33 This has not necessarily been for lack of attention on the issue of Māra‟s origin, as previous analysts of the figure have spent some time investigating Māra‟s connections to other Indian figures. Kāma and Yama, in particular, have received the most consideration, sometimes to the point that Māra has been entirely identified with one figure or the other. Bimala Law, for instance, sees Māra and Kāma as “in many respects the same” and Catherine Benton similarly casts Māra as simply a Buddhist reiteration of Kāma.34 N.N. Bhattacaryya, on the other hand, emphasizing Māra‟s linkage to death, sees the god as an adaptation of Yama.35 Ernst Windisch, in his very early investigation of the mythology, cites an even earlier figure, Mṛtyu, as a forerunner of Māra: “I would like to stress with still more emphasis the fact that the Buddhistic Māra Pāpimā (evil Māra) had an unmistakable predecessor in the Pāpmā Mṛtyu (Evil Death) of the Brāhmaṇas.”36 At the same time some scholars have cast Māra as almost entirely derivative, as the “Buddhist Kāma” or “Buddhist Yama,” others just as emphatically emphasize the figure as 33

Here I need to make some distinctions on the issue of origins. First, I use the term in an explanatory and not a genetic or reductive sense. Second, I am not concerned with whether the more psychological-metaphorical uses of Māra predate the literary or vice versa. Not only would such a question be nearly impossible to answer with any definitiveness due to the perennial problem of textual dating, it has been layered in the past with problematic issues of what constitutes “real Buddhism” – the literary or the philosophical. As these representations are by no means mutually exclusive (they coexist, in fact, throughout the Nikāyas), they are also probably coterminous. At any rate, in this study I am primarily concerned with the nature of the literary representations and their antecedents and contemporaries in Indian literature. 34 Law, “The Buddhist Conception of Māra” in Buddhistic Studies. Ed. Bimala Law, pg. 258; Catherine Benton, God of Desire: Kāmadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature, pg. 161. 35 Indian Demonology, pg. 67. 36 Māra und Buddha, pg. 195: “Ich möchte nur mit noch mehr nach druck die Thatsach hervorheben, dass der Buddhistische Māra Pāpimā in dem Pāpmā Mṛtyuḥ der Brāhmaṇa einen unverkennbaren vorganger hat.”

22 wholly unique to Buddhist traditions. Indeed, this tension in the scholarship sometimes even appears within the work of a single scholar, such as the aforementioned Windisch. Though he cites Pāpmā Mṛtyu as a predecessor, Windisch painstakingly seeks to maintain Māra as an exceptional figure, first as a proper name and then as a “peculiarly Buddhist” way of personifying “illness and death and all saṃsāra.”37 Trevor Ling states the case in an even stronger tone, arguing that “no conception equivalent to Māra is to be found elsewhere in Indian mythology.”38 In almost identical language, James Boyd agrees that, “in Indian mythology there is no equivalent conception of Māra.”39 In the face of these diametrically opposite scholarly currents, I argue that both sides are essentially correct. The fact that Māra has parallels with Kāma and Yama is indisputable, as is the fact that the figure coordinates the principles of desire and death in a manner unseen in other Indian mythologies and traditions. This is not a situation in which either side has a better answer to the question, “Did Māra originate as an innovation or appropriation?” Rather, this is a case in which the question is ill-put and needs to be rephrased and, therefore, investigated from a different angle. This study undertakes just such a new angle on the role Māra plays in Buddhist mythologies and traditions. I will argue in this dissertation that the two questions the previous scholarship has not answered – i.e., “How did Māra originate?” and “What are Māra‟s social and doctrinal functions?” – are actually intertwined. I will demonstrate how the figure of Māra is a narrative code for Buddhist interactions with Brahmanical narratives, cosmologies, and doctrines 37

Ibid., pg. 197: “als die Personification des Ubels und des Todes und des ganzen Saṃsāra eine dem Buddhismus eigenthumliche Gestalt geworden ist.” As a proper name, Windisch says this: “In der nichtbuddhistischen Sanskritliteratur ist Māra als Eigenname ein seltenes Wort” (187). 38 Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil, pg. 46. 39 Satan and Māra, pg. 76.

23 which permeated the Indian cultural milieu for centuries before the rise of renunciant groups. Through the figure of Māra, Buddhist writers critiqued the concepts and assertions of their religious and cultural rivals, inverting and subverting the prevailing cosmological and sociological categories. The Māra myth is thus both an innovation and an appropriation. When read in context and in conjunction with preceding and contemporary Brahmanical and (later) Hindu myths of figures such as Kāma, Yama, and others, it becomes clear that Māra is indeed a response to those figures, but in such a way that a Buddhist “spin” is evident. The nature of Māra‟s origin and his socio-doctrinal role are thus not separate questions: I argue that Māra arose as a Buddhist figure out of a need to forge a distinction from rival cultural groups as well as assert characteristically Buddhist interpretations of perennial Indian philosophical and cultural issues. To carry out this argument, I have divided the dissertation into the following chapters. Chapter two aims to accomplish several objectives. First, I critique the preceding scholarship in further detail, particularly the common appellation “Buddhist Satan” which many scholars have applied to Māra. Second, I discuss the way in which scholars ought to employ the term “evil” in relation to Indian materials. Third, I outline the theoretical scheme by which I view religious narratives, including a discussion and definition of the contested term “myth,” and the special utility of narrative for studying social contest and debate. Chapter three discusses Māra as a Buddhist critique, even satire, of Brahmanical creator deities, beginning with Prajāpati, but concentrating most extensively on the classical Hindu figure Brahmā, who appears frequently in the Pāli Canon. Chapter four investigates Māra‟s role in the Buddhist interpretation of the ascetic versus Brahmin divide, particularly through comparison to narratives in which Indra destroys

24 ascetics who threaten his position as king of the gods. I argue that Māra assumes Indra‟s position in the Buddhist version of the contest, and that this substitution represents a Buddhist reevaluation of the relationship between humans and gods as well as what constitutes proper religious practice. Chapter five deals with Māra‟s relation to the Hindu god Kāma and the notion of “desire” in general. In the first part of that chapter I compare narratives of the Buddha‟s confrontation with Māra to Kāma‟s confrontation with Śiva, found in many Hindu texts. In the second part of chapter five I focus special attention on the nymph-like apsarases,40 who bear comparison to the daughters of Māra and raise the question of the gendering of death and the ways in which Indian Buddhist literature used the character of Māra to demarcate gender roles. Chapter six analyzes the particularly Buddhist approach to the universal quandary of death by comparing Māra to the Brahmanical/Hindu figure of death, Yama. I will argue, in part, that the two figures exist in a dialectical relationship: narratives of Māra as a fearsome figure play off earlier Brahmanical depictions of Yama as regal and just, while later Purāṇic depictions of a fearsome Yama show the influence – and adaptation – of Buddhist ideas. The vitality and malleability of religious narrative is one of the themes of this study. Even as, or perhaps precisely because, mythic narratives such as Māra versus the Buddha at BodhGayā evoke a sense of dazzling wonder at their spectacular events, these stories shape the way individuals view the world and the societies in which they live. They have concrete social and political effects from ordering how a society conceives of its place in the universe to how a young boy undergoes monastic initiation. Myth is important, for the way it constructs a vision of society as well as its ability, to which I personally attest, to cause a graduate student to remark,


Though cumbersome, this English rendering of the plural for apsaras is somewhat less so than the true nominative plural of the Sanksrit word: apsarasaḥ.

25 “what a story. Perhaps there‟s a dissertation in there somewhere.” If I can combine scholarly rigor and complexity with a tinge of joy and wonder, I will have begun to do justice to both senses of myth.


Chapter 2: Mistaking Māra: The Buddhist “Evil One” and the Study of Evil and Narrative in the History of Religions

27 Introduction Perhaps due to the vast swath of material to which they have been applied, the terms “myth” and “evil” have each had a long, contested history in the field of Religious Studies. As such, it would be a mistake, or at least a demonstration of lack of disciplinary awareness, to embark on a project utilizing either concept without an explicit discussion of how one understands these terms. It is thus all the more important in the present work, which invokes both “myth” and “evil,” to offer my understanding of those terms relative to this project. Beyond that simple act of definition, however, part of what I will also argue in this chapter is that oversights and imprecision in prior works on Māra are owed to miscalculations in the understanding and usage of these terms, both ideologically and, in relation to Indian materials, historically and contextually. There are three primary issues which have colored preceding treatments of Māra: 1.) the privileging of philosophy over narrative, 2.) the transference of Western notions such as “sin” onto Indian concepts of evil, and 3.) the persistent comparison (even equation, at times) of Māra with the Christian figure of Satan. As I will demonstrate, these issues are largely interrelated, woven into the tapestry of a discourse which, though sometimes internally inconsistent, does not waver in locating mythology as an inferior form of religious expression by filtering its symbols through Western categories. In the following chapter, I will trace how these trends have affected scholarly perceptions of Māra to this day, finally outlining the method on which this dissertation is based. In short, I will argue that the best means of overcoming these past biases is to recontextualize narratives of Māra as a figure at the nexus of Buddhist and Brahmanical dialogical appropriation and contestation.


I. The Theoretical Issues of Past Scholarship Māra through the Lens of “Narrative Degeneracy” In 1895, Ernst Windisch published the first major work devoted to the Māra mythology, Māra und Buddha. In keeping with German philological approaches of the late 19 th century, Windisch‟s perspective owes a great deal to the work of Max Müller. Müller argued that gods, monsters, and other supernatural figures originally stem from a linguistic process in which words for natural forces are gradually personified as agents.41 A Müllerian interpretation sees narrative and mythic figures as derivative and a secondary process of linguistic misunderstanding. Clearly operating under these concepts, Windisch develops a chronology for the Māra mythology in which the figure originates in the Buddha‟s purely poetic description of how his teaching can help followers conquer death. In this way, the Buddha merely would have been using figures of speech current in his time.42 According to Windisch, Māra shifts from this originally purely metaphorical usage into a debate opponent (essentially a straw man) for the Buddha in texts like the Mārasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. The symbol at that point diverged from its original metaphorical meaning and intention, but Māra‟s appearances were still confined to “einfachen Geschichten” (“simple stories”) of primarily philosophical content.43 That situation changed over time, however, as these simple stories expand into the greatly detailed “grotesken kampf”


See Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, pgs. 179-180. For example, on this basis Müller argues that “Rudra” (which can mean, among other things, “howl,” or “roar”) was once merely an early Indian term for powerful wind storms and, over time, the word developed a life of its own and came to be seen as a god of storms (202). 42 Māra und Buddha,pg. 185: “Ich zweifle nicht daran, dass schon Buddha selbst von gesprochen hat, indem er dabei an geläufige Vorstellungen seiner Zeit anknüpfte.” 43 Ibid., pg. 204.

29 between Māra and the Buddha found in texts such as Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita, the Lalitavistara, and Nidānakathā.44 A fatal difficulty with this assessment lies in its assumption that narrative is necessarily a late development, and thus removed from a tradition‟s original intentions. Operating under that belief, Windisch orders Buddhist texts into a chronology of increasing narrative elaboration, resulting in a theory of the Māra mythology which locates its more detailed stories as the latest, the most removed from the founder‟s intention, and thus less original or authentic. This assumption becomes untenable when one takes into account that the elaborate nature of an Indian narrative does not necessarily translate into a later date. Indeed, Gregory Schopen has argued that versions of narratives and texts often interpreted as early due to a “simple” portrayal of events may have resulted from a process of “leveling” and borrowing between schools over time, meaning they are actually quite late.45 Simply because a text appears at a certain time does not mean the story it relates did not exist prior to that time. It is the case that Nikāya texts, such as the Mārasaṃyutta, may go back as far as the 3rd century B.C.E. and narratives of the Buddha‟s life recounting his battle with Māra, such as the Buddhacarita, are several centuries later. Material evidence, however, such as the stūpa at Sāñcī, illustrates this battle from a time roughly concurrent with or only slightly after the 3rd century B.C.E. date of the Nikāyas, suggesting the narrative was probably known for some time before it was committed to a text.46 The discrepancy between historical evidence and Windisch‟s position reveals the circularity of his argument: earlier accounts are simple, which we know because the simplest 44

Ibid. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, pg. 27. 46 See Peter Skilling, “Redaction, Recitation, and Writing: Transmission of the Buddha‟s Teaching in India in the Early Period,” in Buddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual, and Art, ed. Stephen Berkwitz, et al., pgs. 65 and 68. 45

30 accounts are the earliest. Even more telling is the relationship between the terms he uses to characterize his supposed textual progression: “ursprung,” “einfache,” and “groteske.” Connected to “ursprung,” and the idea that Māra was originally a metaphor imparted by a purely rational founder, is the tendency to read Buddhism as a preeminently philosophical tradition. By that view, narrative constitutes a digression which varies over time in severity (from “einfache” to “groteske”), but still deviates from an original tradition. Narrative is thus a less authentic form of religious expression in Windisch‟s view, and this presumption leads him to foreclose on the potential significance of Māra narratives. A later work dealing with Māra, Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil by Trevor Ling, though occasionally critical of Māra und Buddha, ultimately serves to restate and reinforce Windisch‟s conclusion, if not his approach. In that work, Ling deals with Māra narratives in the Pāli Canon and distances himself from Windisch‟s tendentious assumptions on textual chronology.47 Instead, he anchors his approach in a distinction between “animistic” and Buddhistic worldviews: the former is outward-looking, while the latter “pays primary attention to the inner disposition of the individual.”48 As further support of this determination, Ling states that when deciding what is or is not “essential Buddhist doctrine,” one ought to use the Abhidharma, the philosophical collections in the Pāli Canon.49 This is opposed to another section of the Canon, the Sutta Piṭaka, or story literature, which is “mixed with conventional truth to suit the mind of the average man.”50


Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil, pg. 49. Ibid., pg. 27-28. 49 Ibid., pg. 31. 50 Ibid. 48

31 Having laid these premises as his foundation, Ling concludes that the Māra symbol resulted from a conflation of a popular, animistic worldview and the philosophy of the Buddhist Abhidharma. He puts the point in this way: The symbol of Māra the Evil One, embodying at its most prominent features the ills of human existence and their hidden roots, bears a close resemblance to the general shape of early Buddhist doctrine. What differentiates it from these abstract expressions of doctrine are the grotesque features which link it with popular demonology. 51 As the emphasis I have inserted into the passage highlights, Ling characterizes the “popular demonology” in the same tone and language that Windisch bestowed upon narratives: “grotesque.” While he does not adopt Windisch‟s linear view of gradual degeneration of philosophy into mythology, instead postulating a concurrent marriage between the two, Ling maintains the same hierarchy, locating narrative expression among, in his words, the “strands of gross, popular demonology.” 52 Noting the absence of discussion of Māra in the Abhidharma, Ling explains this absence by claiming that, “[Māra] is a feature which may well be dispensed with at the more advanced stage of development represented by the Abhidharma.” 53 From this perspective, the symbol of Māra is but the handmaiden of philosophy, culled from an “animistic” worldview to serve as a vehicle for an abstract Buddhist Abhidharma. In many ways, Ling‟s approach seems largely indebted to Robert Redfield‟s concept of the “Great and Little Traditions,” which, respectively, consist of a reflective, philosophical few embroiled in a contest of tradition with the unreflective many. 54 Just as intervening scholarship undercut Windisch‟s Müllerian claims, we can draw upon recent works to problematize Ling‟s 51

Ibid., pg. 62. My emphasis. Ibid., pg. 77. 53 Ibid., pg. 73. 54 See for example, Peasant Society and Culture, pg. 72. 52

32 application of Redfield‟s thesis to this material. Robert DeCaroli, for instance, has argued on the basis of inscriptional and artistic evidence that nāgas, yakṣas (Pāli, yakkha), and other beings frequently characterized as “popular” figures, actually played a central role in the daily and ritual lives of Buddhist monks.55 Gail Hinich Sutherland, in Disguises of the Demon, makes a similar point, demonstrating how yakṣa narratives in Buddhism play an important role in the cosmological view of the tradition.56 In the face of these studies, it is hard to postulate the stark division between popular demonology and purely philosophical Indian Buddhism that Ling uses to build his case for Māra as a bridge between those realms. In the face of a purely philosophical Buddhism, mythology becomes an outsider or an interloper, a paradox the scholar must resolve, rather than a natural part of the tradition. Writing on this very point, and attributing the aforementioned outlook to an “evolutionary mindset,” DeCaroli comments that, “all evidence of contact between Buddhism and popular spirit religions of the time had to be explained in terms of conflict or reluctant concession to the masses.” 57 This, in some sense, is the impression one gets from both Windisch and Ling: both assert a hierarchical, evolutionary relationship between myth and philosophy, differing only in that one perceives a downward slide while the other sees potential for an upward slope. This discrimination between philosophy and myth in Buddhist Studies, to the detriment of the latter, is not limited to Windisch and Ling, especially regarding the Māra mythology. Alfred Foucher, writing not long after Ling, described the Lalitavistara account of Māra‟s confrontation with the Buddha as “drowning in extravagance.” 58 Leaving little doubt as to his


Haunting the Buddha, pg. 84. See especially pgs. 105-114. 57 Haunting the Buddha, pg. 7. 58 Life of the Buddha, pg. 105 56

33 view of the relative importance, after recounting the narrative, Foucher seemingly breathes a sigh of relief that he can, in his words, “put aside these fantasies and turn to reason.” 59 Before we relegate this perception to a bygone day of scholarship, it is clear that the impulse to dismiss mythology still creeps up, and in surprising places. For example, and again in relation to Māra, Peter Harvey writes in An Introduction to Buddhism that “this account [Māra confronting the Buddha], clearly portraying the final inner struggle of Gotama, gains dramatic color in the later texts.”60 Though less blatant than Ling‟s characterization, one can read Harvey‟s description as flowing from the same vein: narrative makes sense only as the expression of an interior experience or philosophical abstraction. Additionally, by assuming the “colorful” versions come about only as a later accretion, Harvey could be speaking for Windisch. The perceptions of Māra espoused by Windisch and Ling, though repudiated by much recent scholarship, are still alive and well. Māra through the lens of Christianity: the “Buddhist Satan” Another hallmark of the scholarship on Māra, which I will show is also ultimately related to the same assumptions and prejudices about narrative, is an almost ubiquitous comparison to the Christian figure of Satan. From a Western-centric point of view, this comparison seems to make sense: if Jesus and the Buddha are analogous founder/savior figures, their antagonists must line up as well. This certainly was Windisch‟s view: “Before his appearance as the preacher of a


Ibid., pg. 114. Peter Skilling observes that the earliest narratives of the Buddha‟s life which contain so-called “colorful” details tend to appear around the same time Buddhist texts were probably committed to writing (first century or so of the common era) and that the technology of writing allowed for the elaboration of detail. While an interesting point that potentially explains some aspects of the developing narrative, Skilling‟s point is contradicted somewhat by the existence of depictions of some of these “colorful” details (such as Māra‟s army or Māra‟s daughters) at monuments like Sāñcī, which predate the writing of texts. See “Redaction, Recitation, and Writing: Transmission of the Buddha‟s Teaching in the Early Period,” pg. 72. 60 An Introduction to Buddhism, pg. 21.

34 salvation doctrine, the Buddha was attacked or tempted by Māra, like Christ by the Devil.”61 Due to the widespread appearances of the comparison, however, it seems likely there are a variety of motivations. At times it seems almost a throwaway phrase meant to quickly, however inefficiently, render the foreign figure of Māra more familiar to a Western audience. In this category, we find scholars such as Edward Conze, who, in Buddhism: its Essence and Development, remarks briefly that “Māra corresponds to Satan.”62 Similarly, Hermann Oldenberg considered Māra a “Satanic personality.” 63 Finally, both Rupert Gethin and Peter Harvey gloss Māra as “Satan-like” in their introductory texts.64 These characterizations persist despite the existence of obvious and fundamental dissimilarities between the figures. For instance, in most Christian theologies, Satan is a fallen being who represents rebellion against a creator god, while Māra himself is a god who attained his divine position via the accumulation of merit in past lives. It is partly this kind of dissonance to which John Strong refers when he writes, “Māra is often thought of as a demonic figure, the Buddhist equivalent of Satan, but this is somewhat misleading.” 65 While agreeing with Strong, I would argue this persistent equivalence is actually greatly misleading and it is incumbent upon us not only to recognize it, but also seek out its source. As I have already suggested, I contend it is rooted in the aforementioned discourse privileging philosophy over narrative, a relationship which is borne out by a return to an investigation of the primary scholarly works on Māra.


Māra und Buddha, pg. 1: “Buddha wird vor seiner Auftreten als Verkünder einer erlösenden Lehre von Māra versucht oder angegriffen, wie Christus vom Diablos.” It is revealing that this statement not only appears on the first page of Windisch‟s work, but it is also the very first sentence. 62 Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, pg. 35. 63 The Doctrine of the Upaniṣads and the Early Buddhism, pg. 60. 64 Respectively, The Foundations of Buddhism, pg. 23 and An Introduction to Buddhism, pg. 19. 65 The Buddha: a Short Biography, pg. 70.

35 Besides Windisch and Ling, there is a third work which dwells intensively on the figure of Māra, Satan and Māra: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil by James Boyd. Boyd‟s work is situated in a different methodological approach than his predecessors. As the title suggests, Boyd‟s predominant concern is comparing the two mythological figures and to that end he employs a phenomenological approach intended to reveal the “experience of evil” common to both traditions.66 Though he resolves the textual appearances of Māra into various categories suggestive of an independently existing entity – titled “possession,” “obstruction,” and so forth – he concludes that “Māra‟s role is essentially one of encouraging man‟s [sic] own inclination toward sense desires rather than actively enticing him [sic] as an external agent.”67 This tendency to read the figure of Māra as representing an individual‟s internal processes and struggles is in conjunction with Boyd‟s predilection to interpret the category of “experience” as entirely internalized. While aspects of Boyd‟s study are impressively detailed and astute (for example, one could point to his thorough analysis of Māra‟s position in the Buddhist cosmology),68 his preoccupation with experience leads him to regard all occurrences of Māra as allegorical for mental or physical processes, despite their possible significance to a wider social or historical context. For example, in discussing Māra‟s role as an obstructer, Boyd quite plausibly suggests that stories in which Māra creates atmospheric or physical disturbances around bhikkhus might symbolize the potential obstacles to meditation any monk must


Satan and Māra, pg. 1. Ibid., pg. 83. On this score one could also cite Robert Warren Clark‟s unpublished dissertation, Māra and the Psychopathology of Evil in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, University of Virginia, 1994. Clark examines some Māra stories from a psychoanalytic point of view, interpreting the figure as the projection of an individual‟s neuroses. The majority of the incidents and texts discussed in the dissertation, however, deal with Tibetan demonic figures, and thus lie outside the scope of this project. 68 Ibid., pg. 111-113. 67

36 overcome.69 The difficulty occurs when Boyd applies the same frame to instances, such as in the Dīgha and Majjhima Nikāyas, in which Māra is said to possess celestial Brahmās or earthly Brahmins.70 According to Boyd, these stories were intended only to indicate how difficult a task a bhikkhu faces in eradicating the internal distractions Māra represents – even the gods and priests cannot do it!71 This could be a plausible reading, but Boyd unfortunately does not provide any external justification for his claim other than the presumption that all appearances of Māra can be traced back to the notion of internalized experience. He does not even entertain the possibility that stories, such as the aforementioned ones in the Dīgha and Majjhima Nikāyas, which explicitly mention persons and figures belonging to other social groups, might have a sociological rather than psychological resonance. The reasoning behind Boyd‟s eschewal of such seemingly obvious questions becomes more explicit in the later stages of his work, when he commences his comparison between Māra and Satan in earnest. The basis for that comparison is the famous experiential categories expounded by Rudolf Otto – the “numinous” and mysterium tremendum et fascinans.72 According to Boyd, both early Christians and Buddhists interpreted their mythologies in one of two ways: as an actual event, which he considers the behavior of the “non-reflective mind,” or as an experience pointing to a higher meaning, which is the interpretation of the “reflective mind.” 73 Though he highlights and acknowledges some differences between the two mythologies, Boyd comes to the conclusion that Satan and Māra play the same role in their respective traditions,


Ibid., pg. 92. For instance, see DN II 262 and MN I 334. 71 Ibid., pgs. 93-95. 72 Ibid., pg. 138. 73 Ibid., pg. 137. 70

37 namely as a metaphor for reflective mentalities and elevating and enriching the experiences of the non-reflective mentality.74 Once Boyd invokes Otto toward the end of his study, it is easy to see that thinker‟s fingerprints throughout the preceding text. A brief synopsis of Otto‟s theory will help us dust for those prints in Satan and Māra. Otto‟s concern in Das Heilige (the work which obviously led Boyd to his understanding of the mysterium tremendum and contrary mythological mentalities), is to identify and explain the sui generis core of religion. He finds that core in what he calls the numinous, by which he means “a uniquely numinous category of interpretation, value, and state of mind.”75 The experience of the numinous is characterized by “kreaturgefühl,” creature-feeling or consciousness, which is the feeling of a being “absorbed and disappeared in its own nothingness in opposition to that which is above all creatures.”76 It is to this feeling that Otto bestows the name mysterium tremendum, a feeling which contains awe as well as fear and is experienced as an outside force.77 Having gotten this far, we can already better appreciate aspects of Boyd‟s argument and why he poses certain questions and avoids others. Most prominent in this regard is his aforementioned predilection to interpret appearances of Māra as allegorical for mental states and their obstructions, eschewing the possibility that these instances could be devices for sociological commentary. Steeped in the framework of Otto‟s numinous, Boyd is bound to interpret events


Ibid., pg. 139. Das Heilige, pg. 7: “von einer eigentümlichen numionosen Deutungs- und Bewertungs kategorie und einer numinosen Gemüts-gestimmtheit…” 76 Ibid., pg. 10: “das Gefühl der Kreatur, die in ihrem eigenen Nichts versinkt und vergeht gegenüber dem, was über aller Kreatur ist.” 77 Ibid., pgs. 13-15. 75

38 with an obvious social reading as actually the objective manifestation of what, in reality, is really an internal experience. Otto‟s influence goes even deeper, though, also forming the apparent background for Boyd‟s reflective/non-reflective dichotomy, so fundamental to his comparison of Satan and Māra. Tracing the history of the numinous and mysterium tremendum and speaking particularly to his theory‟s application to the demonic, Otto contends that “the development of all religious history proceeds from this first breakthrough in the mind of primitive humanity.” 78 The conceptions of both gods and demons stem from the mysterium tremendum of the numinous, but not all conceptualizations are equal, as some are still stuck in the more crude or brutish (“rohen”) understanding characteristic of humanity‟s primitive forbears due to their inability to rationalize and moralize their experiences.79 Christianity, on the other hand, which has most thoroughly rationalized and moralized its experiences of the numinous, exemplifies the other end of the spectrum.80 In this context, Boyd‟s division of the appreciation of mythology into the reflective and non-reflective takes on new meaning. As the categories are derivative of Otto, they take on Otto‟s same hierarchy, but in an altered sense. Whereas Otto posits the superiority of Christian religious experience (rational and moral) over that of other traditions (relegated to the brutish or crude), Boyd retains the distinction but rearranges the hierarchy in terms of kinds of religious experience rather than kinds of religious tradition. In this way, the reflective mentality is that


Ibid., pg. 16: “Von ihm und seinem ersten Durchbruche in den Gemütern der Urmenscheit ist alle religionsgeschichtliche Entwicklung ausgegangen.” 79 Ibid., pgs. 163-165. 80 Ibid., pg. 94. This should come as no surprise to careful readers, for Otto begins his work with a reference to Christianity‟s “überlegenheit” (superiority) over other religions (2), as well as its possession of the numinous in unparalleled vigor and power, relative to other traditions (6).

39 which sees past the mythological symbol to its rational and moral utility, while the non-reflective mind is stuck in the more literal interpretation, which Otto might call “crude,” and still in need of “enlargement and enrichment of meaning.”81 Having recovered Otto‟s prints, we can thus recognize the Christian theological prism through which Boyd has filtered the Māra mythology. But while Boyd‟s consideration that both the Satan and Māra myths are non-reflective is a shift from Otto‟s Christo-centric scheme, this move is entirely in keeping with his predecessor in Māra scholarship, Trevor Ling. In the last chapter of his work, Ling also considers comparisons with Satan and, like Boyd, finds a central similarity. First of all, as he does with Māra, Ling asserts that the figure of Satan “is a mythological development emerging from a background of profuse popular demonology,” except among “Semitic” rather than South Asian peoples.82 He writes further that the demonology out of which Satan sprung is alike in character to that which produced Māra. Both are outward-looking rather than philosophical and “represented a rudimentary attempt to explain and deal with the hostile, horrific and mysterious experiences of life.”83 As such, Ling reiterates his stance that mythology is, at best, subordinate to or anticipatory of philosophy or ethics. The function of both Satan and Māra as symbols is “to facilitate a transition of viewpoint for those accustomed to thinking in demonic terms…the mythological figures are means to an end, rather than ends in themselves.”84 Finally, he offers what he obviously considers a dire warning to those who would consider otherwise. He writes that, to regard Satan [as other than a bridging symbol] is to have slipped back into primitive demonology, rather than to have 81

Boyd, Satan and Māra, pg. 139. Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil, pg. 81. 83 Ibid. 84 Ibid., pg. 90. 82

40 been pointed forward by the symbol to a realization of the universal, cosmic hostility which [humanity] encounters in [its] strivings after that which has been revealed to him. All this is equally true of Māra.85 Given the preceding, rather than suggest that the notion of Māra as “Satanic,” or even the “Buddhist Satan,” stems merely from the insensitive application of Christian categories (though undoubtedly it is partly that), I believe another discourse about the very definition and nature of religion is at work. Indeed, it is highly suggestive that in both Boyd and Ling there is a close connection between the comparison of Māra to Satan and the dismissal of myth as the manifestation of a primitive consciousness. What the link implies is not so much that Māra is the Buddhist version of the Devil, but that the figure is the Buddhist version of Christian superstition. In other words, the rhetoric is primarily directed toward delegitimating narrative and mythology, here understood as the primitive cacophony of the masses, in favor of the philosophy and ethics of a supposedly rational elite. The table in figure one will help to make these linkages between the theorists more apparent. Windisch




Original religion

Great Tradition




Little Tradition


Theoretical influence




Compares Māra to Satan




Fig. 1

This table demonstrates the close affiliation of a dichotomy between supposedly high and low, rational and non-rational religion and the tendency to compare Māra to Satan. A glaring 85


41 exception exists in the case of Windisch, however. As we have seen at the beginning of this section, Windisch begins his study with a direct comparison between Māra and Satan, as well as the Buddha and Jesus. Yet when he returns to the issue of a relation between Māra and Satan later in the book, his primary concern rests in whether or not the Buddhist mythology directly influenced the accounts of Satan and Jesus in the New Testament. On the basis of the etymological difference in the names “Māra” and “Satan,” Windisch discounts the possibility of diffusion.86 More revealing, however, is a further point in which Windisch specifically rejects the prospect that the narratives of Māra‟s confrontation with the Buddha at Bodh-Gayā could be connected to the temptations of Jesus by Satan in the Christian New Testament: “All these passages are connected to the grotesque form of Māra‟s attack on the Bodhisattva, which could not in any case be the source of the narratives of the gospels.” 87 The use of the word “grotesque” is once again significant, for it points to the fundamental reason behind Windisch‟s reluctance to concede any relation, diffusionary or otherwise, between the Māra and Satan mythologies. Maintaining consistency in his thinking, Windisch seems to realize that were he to admit to a similarity between the mythologies, he would be forced to label Christian narratives “grotesque” as well. Also responsible for this distinction between Boyd and Ling on the one hand and Windisch on the other is the difference in their evolutionary paradigms, mentioned briefly at an earlier point in this chapter. For the sake of making the point as clear as possible, the evolutionary schemes of all three theorists are detailed in table two below.


Māra und Buddha, pg. 218: “Die namen der Beiden sind ganz verschieden, auch ihrer etymologischen Bedeutung nach.” 87 Ibid., pg. 217: “Aber alle diese stellen schliessen sich an die groteske form von Māra‟s Angriff auf den Bodhisattva an, die auf keinen Fall die Quelle der Erzählungin den Evangelien sein könnte.”

42 Stages of Religious development:









Metaphorical Māra

Symbolic Māra/Satan

Symbolic Māra/Satan





Fig. 2

As this diagram illustrates, while all three see an evolutionary relationship between myth and philosophy, Windisch, as a proponent of Müller‟s notions of linguistic degeneration, sees a downward slide from pure philosophy to metaphorical mentions of Māra to the grotesque myths of the battle at Bodh-Gayā. He is not willing, however, to admit that Christianity, at least at the time of the writing of the New Testament, had sunk to the same level of “grotesque” expression. Ling and Boyd, on the other hand, argue that Māra and Satan both arise from a primitive, nonreflective mindset and are harnessed by a philosophical elite to serve as symbolic bridges to a greater truth. In their cases, the label “Buddhist Satan” is just as much a comment about Christianity as Buddhism. That is, working from the presupposition that philosophy constitutes higher or proper religious practice or understanding, the arguments of Boyd and Ling are also a statement about the narrative aspects of Christianity which do not “count” as much as the socalled “rational” elements. Here the “other,” in the form of the Buddhist symbol Māra, is encountered as a mirror image for the supposed vices and virtues of their own tradition, with an evolutionary paradigm coloring the reflection. The co-occurrence of a tendency to divide society into philosophical and animistic classes on the one hand and lumping Māra together with Satan is not limited to the arguments of Ling and Boyd. For example, in their respective anthropological studies of Śrī Lankan and Burmese Buddhism, Michael Ames and Melford Spiro both delineate the subjects of their studies

43 into Great and Little traditions. For his part, Ames strongly distinguishes between pursuits of laukika (the worldly, profane realm of animism and magic) and lokottora (the supramundane, sacred realm of monks and nirvāṇa). Māra, who according to Ames, “is to the Buddha as the Devil is to Christ” belongs to rituals associated with animism and demons.88 In argumentation reminiscent of Ling, Ames contends that laukika symbols and rituals, such as Māra, are “transitional devices that mediate between the profane world and sacred Buddhist concerns.”89 In this perspective, neither the “common people” nor mythic narratives qualify as being or having a sacred concern. Similarly, Melford Spiro begins his study of Burmese Buddhism with the observation that the culture is replete with “animistic beliefs and practices” which constitute a very different, and competing, religion alongside Buddhism.90 In this context, Māra belongs more to animistic concerns and should be regarded as “the Buddhist Satan.”91 Should one trace Spiro‟s premises to their logical conclusion, since 1.) animism constitutes a different religion than Buddhism, and 2.) Māra is animistic in character, it thereby follows that 3.) Māra is not really Buddhist at all, let alone “the Buddhist Satan.” The only way in which Spiro‟s statement makes sense is if it is intended to suggest that the Māra mythology is a vestigial structure or popular accretion onto “real” Buddhism, in the same way that Satan is parasitic on “rational” Christianity. For several decades now the field of anthropology has moved away from the stark social dichotomy of “Great” and “Little” traditions, as well as questioned the very stability of the concept of “animism.” Scholars such as Gananath Obeyesekere and Stanley Tambiah have long 88

“Magical Animism and Buddhism: A Structural Analysis of the Sinhalese Religious System,” The Journal of Asian Studies, pg. 24. 89 “Buddha and the Dancing Goblins: A Theory of Magic and Religion,” pg. 80. 90 Burmese Supernaturalism, pgs.3-5. 91 Ibid., pg. 46.

44 since demonstrated the shortcomings of such approaches.92 Yet, as we have seen, the designation of Māra as “Satan-like” persists, even into introductory texts such as those of Gethin and Harvey, seemingly without any awareness of the problematic history and genealogy of that comparison. Continuing this tendentious comparison, even in introductory contexts in which it might seem innocuous, perpetuates a covert discourse on what counts as authentic religious expression and, correspondingly, what does not. Even John Strong – who, if we recall, was a lone voice in labeling the Māra/Satan comparison “misleading” – in his otherwise outstanding book on the cult of Upagupta in Southeast Asia, raises the subject of Māra, only to direct readers to none other than Windisch, Ling, and Boyd for more information.93 While the scholarly discourse has begun to account for the conditions which produced the notion of the “Buddhist Satan,” the scholarly perspective on Māra lags behind. Defining “Evil” in an Indian Context Of similar concern and import to this study is the definition of the term “evil.” Given the history of theoretical and theological biases in past interpretations of the Māra mythology, the issue at stake is not mere semantics. We must tread carefully and deliberately in the use of terminology such as “evil,” which is ripe for similar abuse. Indeed, there is at least the tone of such thinking in the standard translation of Māra‟s frequent appellation “pāpimā”/“pāpmā” (Pāli/Sanskrit). Generally rendered, “the Evil One,” this translation implies that Māra is the embodiment of evil, a figure dualistically opposed to all that is good and true. 94 Grammatically, however, this represents a very strong reading of the respective texts. For example, in the first 92

For the former, see “The Great Tradition and the Little in the Perspective of Sinhalese Buddhism,” The Journal of Asian Studies, pgs. 139-153. For the latter, see Buddhism and the Spirit Cults of Northeast Thailand. 93 The Legend and Cult of Upagupta, pg. 95, n. 1 (315). 94 For just a few examples, see the translations of the Saṃyutta Nikāya by Bhikkhu Bodhi, pg. 195 and The Perfection of Wisdom Literature in Eight Thousand Lines by Edward Conze, pg. 166.

45 few verses of the Mārasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, Māra approaches the Buddha and is referred to as “Māro pāpimā.”95 In this verse, “Māro” and “pāpimā” (which is declined from “pāpimant”) both take the nominative case and “pāpimā” stands in an adjectival relationship to “Māro,” providing “evil Māra” as a more literal translation. As I suggested, “Māra, the Evil One” implies that Māra is the embodiment and repository of all things corrupt and malign, while “evil Māra” connotes that the figure possesses certain of these characteristics, but is not necessarily their instantiation. That “Māra, the Evil One” and “evil Māra” represent competing readings of the text raises the question as to which is more appropriate in terms of the nature of the Māra mythology, and also how the nature of “evil” is understood in Indian culture. These questions are certainly related, but the first will evolve more as the dissertation progresses. To allow that development to occur, we must deal first with the second matter, the notion of “evil” in Indian culture. Starting with the dictionary definitions of “pāpman” and “pāpimant,” both the Sanskrit and Pāli terms are derivative of the term “pāpa,” so rendered in both languages. For pāpa, M. Monier-Williams gives “bad, vicious, wicked, evil.”96 For the Pāli version, Rhys-Davids gives “evil, bad, wicked, sinful.”97 The primary discrepancy is the lack of the notion of “sin” in Monier-Williams‟ definition, though he does include that meaning for pāpman, so we can be justified in saying that “sin” could be a broader part of the understanding of pāpa.98 At first glance, based on these definitions, two principal issues arise. First, “evil” and “bad” operate at 95

SN I 103: atha kho māro pāpimā bhagavato cetasā ceto-parivitakkam aññāya yena bhagavā ten-upasaṅkami. Bhikkhu Bodhi renders the words “māro pāpimā,” as well as the later appearance of the same words in the accusative (“māram pāpimantam”) as “Māra, the Evil One,” in both cases. Conze, for his part, translates the Sanskrit “māro pāpmā” similarly into “Māra, the Evil One.” 96 Sanskrit-English Dictionary, pg. 618. 97 Pāli-English Dictionary, pg. 453. 98 Sanskrit-English Dictionary, pg. 619.

46 very different levels of meaning. Which is meant by “Māro pāpimā?” Second, “sin” is a loaded term unto itself. How should we understand and employ it in the Indian context, if at all? Taking up the second issue first, we find that in his bid to better fit Māra into comparison with the Christian understanding of Satan, Boyd claims that the Buddhist and Christian experience of Māra and Satan respectively “was an experience which was disruptive of the bond between him [sic] and what he [sic] considered sacred.”99 This, Boyd asserts, is the “sinful” nature of both figures. The theory underlying these claims belongs to that espoused by Paul Ricoeur in The Symbolism of Evil. According to Ricoeur, sin is a “violated relation” composed of “missing the mark, deviation, rebellion, straying from the path…”100 In language which resonates closely with Otto, Ricoeur goes on to say that in this state of sin, “the violated pact makes God the Wholly Other and man [sic] Nothing in the presence of the Lord. It is the moment of the „unhappy consciousness.‟”101 Proceeding from these premises, it is difficult to see how Māra or humans under Māra‟s sway could be considered “sinful.” The absence of a supreme power in Indian Buddhism makes it difficult to square the notion of “wholly otherness” with disobedience, either to the Buddha or the dharma. Māra, on the other hand, is a deva, but rather than considered disobedience, rupturing the bonds of Māra that keep one mired in saṃsāra is the goal of Buddhist practice and teaching. The Buddhist overturning, subordination, and complication of notions of deity thus makes Ricoeur‟s definition of “sin” a clumsy fit. Were we to extract one phrase from his explanation, “missing the mark,” we might come closer, especially if this were taken in the sense of “misguided” or “ignorant.” This could potentially apply to Buddhist notions of actions taken 99

Satan and Māra, pg. 163-164. The Symbolism of Evil, pg. 74. 101 Ibid., pg. 81. 100

47 without proper understanding of the three marks – non-self (anattā), impermanence (anicca), and pain (dukkha) – which characterize all phenomena, even Māra. If “sin” is taken in the sense of ignorance, those who have either no understanding of the dharma or have turned away from it, including Māra, could be considered “sinful.” That being the case, and in order to avoid misunderstandings of terminology, in such instances I think it is better to use “ignorant” rather than “sinful” when appropriate. On the first point, regarding the definition of “evil,” Martin Southwold argues that we should distinguish between “weak” and “strong” notions of evil to understand the meaning of pāpa in Buddhism. Southwold would render the weak sense of evil as synonymous with “bad” or “unpleasant,” while the strong sense connotes radical and excessive “evil,” on the scale of the actions of the Nazis during the holocaust, to use his example.102 Based on fieldwork in Śrī Lanka, Southwold asserts that Buddhist traditions do not possess a notion of evil in the strong, radical sense, leaving “bad” rather than “evil” the better translation for pāpa.103 Besides bringing us closer to an understanding of “evil” in a South Asian context, Southwold‟s sensible distinction supplies yet another reason for the inadequacy of the phrase “Buddhist Satan.” This free comparison glazes over the different levels and meanings of “evil,” obscuring the significance of the idea in both Christian and Buddhist contexts. The attention Southwold brings to multiple uses and senses of the notion of “evil” and the word pāpa are unfortunately lacking in the prior scholarship on Māra. Ling offers no position on how he understands “evil” or its relationship to pāpa and Māra. Windisch similarly eschews outright definition and slips fluidly between “bösen” (evil) and “übel” (ill or bad) to describe

102 103

“Buddhism and Evil,” in Anthropology of Evil, ed. David Parkin, pgs. 128-131. Ibid., pg. 137.

48 Māra. Boyd, unlike his predecessors, explicitly and cogently wrestles with the possibly different senses of evil and pāpa, settling on what Southwold would call a “weak” meaning. Based on the Western philosophical distinction between natural and moral evil, Boyd argues that Māra‟s coextension with saṃsāra renders him more a natural evil, thus he prefers to translate pāpa as “bad,” as in “bad weather.”104 To his further credit, Boyd also distinguishes between the senses in which Satan and Māra are “evil,” noting that “Māra is not the hostile power which brings ruin and end to life; rather he promotes life in saṃsāra and those pleasures that lead to its continuation.”105 Though more nuanced than his predecessors, a few difficulties still seem to attach to Boyd‟s position. Referring to Māra as “bad,” especially in the sense of “bad weather,” seems to trivialize a deity who holds the dual powers of lust and destruction under his sway. We can also question how well the distinction between “natural” and “moral” evils applies to the Indian context in which natural evil can have a moral component and one can be morally culpable for events and actions out of one‟s control.106 Additionally, Boyd himself does not ultimately adhere to his own understanding of Māra as “bad,” choosing instead to cast the figure in a more radical, evil sense as the persecutor of Buddhists in comparison to Satan‟s infliction of torment and martyrdom on Christians.107 Pāpa is thus contextualized for Boyd, but the context seems to be the necessity of comparison to a Western figure rather than any quality endemic to Indian culture.


Satan and Māra, pgs. 158-159. Ibid., pg. 155. 106 See Doniger (O‟Flaherty), Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, pgs. 6-7. 107 Satan and Māra, pg. 163. 105

49 In what sense, then, can or should we refer to Māra as “evil?” For the purposes of this dissertation, I will approach pāpa in Indian Buddhism simply as that which opposes or distorts the good. Māra fits this definition on two counts. In a Buddhist sense, the “good” is the teaching of the Buddha and the knowledge that teaching inculcates about the reality of existence. Buddhist narratives offer abundant instances in which Māra attempts to obstruct that teaching. In his commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya, Dhammapāla glosses one of the Pāli epithets for Māra, “Kaṇha” (“Dark One”), as meaning that the god is “possessed of the dark dharma,” in other words, the wrong teaching.108 In the same passage, Dhammapāla glosses “pāpimā” in relation to Māra as “ativiya pāpatāya,” meaning “excessively pāpa” (literally, “very much more pāpa”).109 Between the two glosses we gain the understanding that Māra is pāpa in the sense that he opposes and attempts to obstruct the dharma, even to an “excessive” degree. Buddhaghoṣa, commenting on the Saṃyutta Nikāya, further cements this portrayal, arguing that Māra is “pāpimā” in that he “incites” (niyojeti) others to pāpa and “himself is tied to pāpa.”110 From this commentarial perspective, we can appreciate that if the Buddha‟s teaching represents knowledge about the ephemeral nature of self and desire, Māra represents pāpa in his attempts to blockade and otherwise prevent the spread of that knowledge. He therefore represents ignorance, both by trying to cover up that knowledge, but also, as Buddhaghoṣa‟s explanation intimates, by being ignorant of the dharma himself (i.e., he is “himself tied to pāpa”). As was explained in the introduction, Buddhist texts speak of a succession of Māras, just as there has been a succession of Buddhas, a fact of which the current Māra is unaware. While Māra‟s “evil” nature as a god of death and desire has roots in earlier Indian mythology, in the ways described 108

Dīghāṭṭhakathāṭīka, II 193: kaṇhadhammasamannāgamato kaṇha. Ibid. 110 Sāratthappakāsinī, pg. 169: sayaṃ vā pāpe niyutto ti pāpimā. 109

50 above we can say he is evil in a characteristically Buddhist sense. One of the strengths of this approach, I believe, is that it places pāpa in close connection to the Buddhist understanding of life‟s endemic problem, dukkha. Meaning “suffering,” “dissatisfaction,” or most simply, “pain,” dukkha ranges from the existential to the mundane and constitutes the dilemma the Buddha‟s teaching aims to resolve. As the being who attempts to obscure the endemic quality of dukkha, Māra seeks to trap beings in an endless cycle of dukkha, bordering on the line between weak and strong notions of evil. Importantly, though, I do not believe either Māra or pāpa cross the line into the radical, excessive “evil” of Southwold‟s strong sense. Characterizing Māra as “the Evil One,” whether intentionally or not, imparts a sense of radical duality inappropriate to the nature of the figure: rather than an eternal force or abstract presence, Māra is in some ways a cog in the saṃsāric machinery he represents and defends. On the other hand, Māra in a weak sense (“the bad”) dilutes the scope and power Buddhist texts ascribe to the god, not to mention his insidious role in perpetuating the cycle of dukkha. This blending of strong and weak senses of evil, possibly unique to the Buddhist understanding of reality, argues for the retention of the term “evil,” but in a non-radical sense. Therefore, in this dissertation I will translate and understand Māro pāpmā/Māro pāpimā as “evil Māra,” in an adjectival sense, with a lower-case “e,” staying true to the figure‟s cosmological placement and character as well as its connection to saṃsāra and dukkha.

51 II. A New Approach Myth Matters Throughout this review of past literature and issues central to this project, we have seen how the scholarship on Māra is outmoded, relying largely on discredited or at least problematized theories. Descriptions of the nature of the figure and his mythology in current scholarship have yet to catch up. Here in the final section of this chapter, I will describe the methodology of this dissertation and propose the new approach in which I read the Māra mythology as embedded in a dialogue with Indian cultural and narrative motifs. This approach acts in a positive as well as a negative sense. First, I intend it as a corrective against the often tendentious comparisons, categories, and theoretical hierarchies imposed by previous studies. By reclaiming and restoring mythic narrative as a legitimate form of religious expression, rather than subordinate or inferior to philosophy, we can begin to see Māra‟s crucial role in Buddhist social delineation and identification. In this way, the subtitle of this section has a double meaning: “myth matters,” meaning “myth” as a subject of study and how I define it, but also that “myth” matters, asserting that these kinds of narratives might have had a concrete social impact. The task of this dissertation is to reveal how the Māra myth can be read as creating this kind of impact in Indian Buddhism. In terms of reading Indian literature and mythology as a tapestry of interconnected discourses, like the jumbled voices of a heated conversation, this study draws on a strong thread of scholarship. A.K. Ramanujan has written that Indian civilization, “if it can be described at all, has to be described in terms of…dynamic interrelations between different traditions and their

52 texts, ideologies, social arrangements and so forth.” 111 To capture how Indian myths encapsulate this tendency, Wendy Doniger uses the term “metamyth.” A metamyth, in her words, is “a text that reflects self-consciously on another myth…myths that play explicitly against earlier variants of the classic story.” 112 It would be incorrect, however, to read this argument as asserting that all Indian myths are derivative of a primordial, ur-myth. Rather, as Doniger argues elsewhere, “the myth that is reassembled from „the same‟ parts, even a variant that presents „the same‟ parts in „the same‟ order, may take on a new meaning and become a different myth within a single culture.”113 In the dialogue between or within traditions, mythic narratives cross-pollinate and interact, affect, deflect, and even infect one another. Unfortunately, as we have seen, to this point such an approach has not been taken to the Māra mythology. Read through the lens of comparative and theoretical biases, the narratives have lost the role they played for Buddhist communities in dialogue and competition with rival sects and traditions. Other scholars have carried out studies applied to different sectors of Buddhism more sensitive to these concerns. In the realm of philosophy, Joanna Jurewicz has argued that the Buddhist concept of pratītyasamutpāda was formulated partly as a polemic against Vedic cosmology and epistemology. 114 Similarly, dealing with Buddhist philosophical concepts, in Selfless Persons, Steven Collins points out that the central concept of anātman (Pāli, anattā) came about as a response to and critique of Brahmanical notions of self.115 What these scholars have done in the realm of philosophy, I intend to carry out for Buddhist narratives of 111

“Where Mirrors are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections,” History of Religions, pg. 191. Other People‟s Myths, pg. 101. 113 The Implied Spider, pg. 42. 114 “Playing with Fire: The Pratītyasamutpāda from the Perspective of Vedic Thought,” pgs. 77-103. 115 Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism. See especially where Collins argues that in the time of the rise of renunciant movements such as Buddhism, Brahmanical thought carried such “cultural prestige” that no discourse could be created which did not in some way incorporate or critique those paradigms (32). 112

53 Māra. Richard Gombrich has written that “to see the genesis of the Buddha‟s teaching as conditioned by the religious milieu in which it arose is to adopt a truly Buddhist viewpoint which I also believe to be good historiography.” 116 If we take Gombrich‟s statement and challenge seriously, we must realize that any understanding of the role of Māra in Buddhist narratives is incomplete without an accounting of the ways in which it drew upon preceding and contemporary Brahmanical myths and traditions. I aim to recover that meaning of the Māra mythology. Besides concepts in Religious Studies, such as the “metamyth,” the manner in which I read and interpret Buddhist and Hindu narratives in this dissertation is informed by related works in literary and semiotic theory that deal with how narratives interact with and redeploy preceding tropes. Harold Bloom, for instance, in assessing the manner in which Romantic poets played off one another‟s styles (such as Wordsworth in relation to his predecessor Shelley) or drew upon and remolded the classic cultural narratives of the Bible or Greek mythology, coined the term “transumption.” Bloom describes transumption as “instances of the interpretive and revisionary power of poetry perpetually battling its own belatedness.” 117 The concept is useful in the South Asian context for thinking about how Buddhist narrative – which, to invoke Etienne Lamotte, entered the cultural scene when already “India had a long history behind her” 118 – itself reworks and battles against its “belatedness” relative to Vedic and Brahmanical practices. Second, when comparing Buddhist and Hindu narratives, I also look for instances of what semiotician James Liszka has called “transvaluation,” which are instances in which language “revaluates the perceived, imagined, or conceived markedness and rank relations of a referent” in an opposing 116

How Buddhism Began, pg. 14. The Breaking of the Vessels, pg. 74. 118 History of Indian Buddhism, pg. 1. 117

54 system.119 The method that Liszka proposes to reveal these revaluations in contested uses of language and narrative, and which I employ implicitly to a large extent in this dissertation, is deceptively simple. According to Liszka‟s scheme, there are three levels of narration: agential (the characters involved and their portrayed relation to a hierarchy), actantial (the actions the characters perform), and narrative (the larger framework of the story, i.e. plot). By looking at the ways in which competing cultures (or groups within a culture) employ similar or nearly identical plots, yet diverge in the agential or actantial levels (that is, show the characters belonging to or acting differently in response to prevalent hierarchies) we can ascertain the degree to which narrative is being used to critique or defend dominant cultural systems. 120 For example, and specific to the content of this dissertation, we will see this concept of transvaluation acted out in Buddhist myths as Māra acts as a stand-in for the role of Brahmin gods or rituals, while the Buddha or his followers represent the ascetic or renunciant values Brahmin texts occasionally deride. By looking at the ways in which Buddhist narratives of Māra borrow the framework of Hindu stories, retain the rough character structure (the “agential level,” to use Liszka‟s term), yet attribute very different actions and relationships to the characters, I will argue that the mythology of Māra thus stands as a deliberate Buddhist critique on Brahmanical hierarchies. Having laid out my method in at least a cursory fashion, any project dealing with mythic narrative must entertain certain criticisms leveled by some in the academy in recent years, and dealing with those criticisms will outline further aspects of my approach. The critique of the study of myth usually falls into one of two grounds: the study of myth treats narrative as if it is 1.) static and unchanging or 2.) authorless and outside human agency. J.Z. Smith, for instance,

119 120

The Semiotic of Myth, pg. 71. Ibid., pgs. 121-129.

55 has taken the study of myth to task for decontextualizing and dehistoricizing its subjects and the societies concerned.121 On that same note, Bruce Lincoln has charged that “myth is often treated as an anonymous and collective product, in which questions of authorship are irrelevant.” 122 To a great degree, Smith and Lincoln seem to be aiming their fire at Levi-Strauss, Mircea Eliade, and those who have followed in those footsteps.123 Mounting a defense of either Levi-Strauss or Mircea Eliade is a subject outside the bounds of what I wish to argue, although I will say that perspectives which rule out either theorist or his body of work as having no usefulness for the future of the study of religion drastically overstate the case. I will, however, agree with critics like Smith and Lincoln to the extent that authorial position and intent is of great import and interest. In the present study, I prefer to think of “myth” almost in the sense of a verb, in that the term implies action and contest. Anthropologist Edmund Leach summarizes this way of understanding religious narratives very well, writing that myth “is a language of argument, not a chorus of harmony.”124 Myths may be made, but we would be wrong to think they ever stop being made, or being contested. In further defining “transvaluation,” Liszka has argued along these lines also, writing that myth “is a shape, or better, a value-shifter rather than a value producer.”125 Therefore, I understand “myth” as coextensive with “myth-making,” and


For example, see Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, pg. 66. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, pg. 149. 123 Lévi-Strauss, for instance, wrote that “Myths are anonymous…When a myth is repeated, the individual listeners are receiving a message that, properly speaking, is coming from nowhere,” (The Raw and the Cooked, 18.) Similarly, one of Eliade‟s most salient assertions was that the recitation of the myth takes the individual and community back to a primordial time of creation, in illo tempore, (The Myth of the Eternal Return, pg. 20; Patterns in Comparative Religion, pg. 429). 124 “Myth as Justification for Faction and Social Change,” in Studies in Mythology, ed. Robert Georges, pg. 198. 125 The Semiotic of Myth, pg. 202. 122

56 furthermore that the act of myth-making is inextricable from social and political debate and imagination.126 Taking up the points of the aforementioned critique individually, it should be apparent that in no way do I consider mythic narratives static, as if stuck in amber. Indeed, the notion of “metamyth” inherently connotes change and metamorphosis over time. The difficulty ensues with the tendency of many mythic narratives, including those we will consider of Māra, to portray themselves as timeless. The important point to remember is that such rhetoric is part and parcel of a metamythic social discourse. As Roland Barthes has written, the primary purpose of myth is to “transform history into nature.”127 In this sense, myth is “depoliticized speech,” a political discourse which pretends it is not political, in order to lend an air of eternality onto the contingent.128 The whole point of metamythic narratives, such as Buddhist myths of Māra, is to demonstrate, as Doniger further describes, that “things have not changed, when in fact, they have.”129 It is the task of this dissertation to lay bare the socio-political tensions and messages within the metamythic literature of Māra, understanding that narrative, as Bakhtin described it, is always “overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value…entangled, shot through with shared thoughts and points of view.”130 On this same point, we could also add Bloom‟s concept of “misprision,” the unavoidable act of criticism that every reader and author performs upon prior texts, creating a situation in which “there are no texts, but only relationships


Literary theorist Northrop Frye makes a similar point about myth, which he categorizes as an art, in opposition to the physical sciences: “Like art, and unlike sciences, [myth] deals, not with the world [humans] contemplate, but with the world [humans] create” (31). See Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. 127 Mythologies, pg. 129. 128 Ibid., pg. 143. 129 Other People‟s Myths, pg. 113. 130 The Dialogic Imagination, pg. 276.

57 between texts.”131 Elsewhere, Bakhtin‟s words are quite appropriate regarding the Māra mythology, and South Asian narratives in general: There are no „neutral‟ words and forms – words and forms that belong to „no one‟; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents…each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions.132 The second point, sensitivity to authorial intent and position, is equally important but unfortunately more difficult. Some philosophers of hermeneutics have suggested that recovering the intent of the author(s) and the reception of the audience is nearly impossible. Gadamer, for instance, cites the insoluble issue of the interpreter‟s own subject position, writing that, “reconstructing the question to which the text is presumed to be the answer itself takes place within a process of questioning through which we try to answer the question the text asks us.” 133 Calling this encounter between interpreter and text a “fusion of horizons,” Gadamer suggests that, since every act of translation bears the personality of the translator, there can be no definitive interpretation of authorial intent.134 The concept of “audience” is similarly fraught from this perspective, for since an author speaks to predecessors, contemporaries, and successors, speaking of a particular audience is an unjustified limitation of a potentially infinite set.135 To the degree that, interpreted most severely, Gadamer‟s points suggest the extreme difficulty or even impossibility of the interpretive enterprise, they deserve to be taken seriously


A Map of Misreading, pg. 3. Ibid., pg. 293. 133 Truth and Method, pg. 374. 134 Ibid., pg. 384. 135 Ibid., pg. 395. 132

58 by scholars of religious narrative. However, while quite sensibly pointing out that (as anyone who has worked to learn a foreign language knows) translation is always interpretation and, additionally, that interpretation across time and culture can be perilous, if we read Gadamer‟s hermeneutics closely enough, I do not believe his theory undermines a project like this dissertation. On the contrary, even while problematizing hermeneutical processes, Gadamer also argues that interpretation is far from impossible and is an experience that creates meaning across cultures.136 Indeed, Gadamer‟s “fusion of horizons” is an apt phrase for the dialogic nature of Indian literature in which a single text can represent an action, reaction, and counter-reaction to assorted movements and ideas. To the extent that multiple voices and viewpoints are embedded in one another throughout works of Buddhist and Hindu literature, there can be no such thing as a pristine text. However, to guard against the imposition of my own interpretations over the contents and contexts of the works I will investigate in this project, I will cite social and historical evidence wherever and whenever possible, including Buddhist commentarial works. The difficulty even in locating an author or a fixed date for a text in Indian literature raises another issue for this kind of study, which is another reason why the dialogic approach makes sense. The question of when and where Buddhist texts were written has long plagued Buddhist studies. Much of this energy has been expended toward determining when the very first texts may have been written, in India or elsewhere. Older scholarship, such as that of the “higher criticism,” interpreted textual accounts and passages common to Buddhist sects as representing the oldest layer. By this reasoning, accounts held in common by all schools were traced back to a


Ibid., pg. 402.

59 time before the first schism, around the fourth or even fifth century B.C.E.137 More recently, scholars, such as Gregory Schopen, have cast doubt on this assertion, arguing that the commonalities this technique reveals could just as easily reflect a process of textual conflation occurring at a later date. According to Schopen, the actual contents of textual corpuses, such as the Pāli Canon, traditionally taken to be the earliest writings, should not be taken as any earlier than the Śrī Lankan commentarial works of the fifth and sixth centuries of the common era.138 The extremity of both these positions is apparent, but together they serve to reflect the difficulty of knowing the exact dates of Buddhist texts, let alone their precise authorship. As is proven by the discovery of masses of hidden texts in what are now the modern regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are still a great deal of missing pieces left to this puzzle, to which we cannot even put a neat, tidy border. It is highly likely, as Richard Salomon argues, that Buddhist traditions were complex and varied from the beginning and that the process of textual composition was equally complex and probably gradual.139 Though it is sometimes impossible to know a precise date for Buddhist texts, there is good reason to believe the ones with which I shall be concerned (the Pāli Canon, Buddhacarita, and others) date back to a period between the third century B.C.E. and the third century C.E.140 Other evidence, such as the existence of a text like the Netti Pakaraṇa, which is a guide for commentators to write commentaries and is extant from the early part of the common era, suggests that there was at least the inchoate notion of a canon with interconnected texts from that


For example see the works of A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism, pg. 9; or Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy, pg. 31. 138 Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, pgs. 24-27. 139 “Recent Discoveries of Early Buddhist Manuscripts,” in Between the Empires: Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE, ed. Patrick Olivelle, pg. 374. 140 For example, see Gombrich, How Buddhism Began, pg. 12 and K.R. Norman, Pāli Literature, pgs. 5 and 31.

60 point in time or even earlier, if not a completely closed canon. 141 Even without the idea of a fixed, closed Pāli Canon, we can still employ Anne Blackburn‟s use of the notion of “textual community” to understand the early Buddhism with which this dissertation will be concerned. In her work on eighteenth century Lankan practices, Blackburn uses this term, to describe a group of individuals who think of themselves to at least some degree as a collective, who understand the world and their appropriate place within it in terms significantly influenced by their encounter with a shared set of written texts or oral teachings based on written texts…142 While Blackburn is talking about a very different context, specifically one in which writing and literacy are established and sociological data is far more readily available, there are reasons to postulate a “textual community” behind the early Pāli and Sanskirt Buddhist texts. For instance, besides the early presence of the Netti Pakaraṇa, there is the established tradition of the bhāṇika, or Pāli recitation groups, who memorized and recited parts of the incipient canon. Scholars such as K.R. Norman have documented the overlap of these recitation groups, which, while not overlooking the differences, still suggests an early sense of solidarity among Buddhist groups.143 At the same time, rather than looking at Buddhist texts as fixed works during the period of 300 BCE to 300 CE, it is better to see them as “process” texts, works in progress that, while having a certain cohesion and a definite community to which they were affiliated, were still undergoing the flux and change of active social and literary debate. This is in keeping with what we know of other Indian traditions, namely incipient “Hinduism,” during this period between the Mauryan and Gupta empires. That both Buddhist canons and the hallmarks of later Hindusim (such as bhakti theism and epic and Purāṇic literature) did not reach their apogee and 141

For an excellent discussion of the Netti Pakaraṇa, see George Bond, The Word of the Buddha, pgs. 34-99. Buddhist Learning and Textual Practices in 18th Century Lankan Monastic Culture, pg. 12. 143 See Pāli Literature, pgs. 8-9. 142

61 solvency until after this period lends credence to a dialogic approach to both materials and suggests that both underwent a dynamic series of changes and interactions during this formative period. Without further ado, I go on to demonstrate the profits of this dialogic, literary approach to the Māra mythology in the following chapters.


Chapter 3: The Two Faces of Deva: the Māra/Brahmā Tandem

63 Introduction Buddhist literature is replete with instances of the Awakened One encountering and debating various figures about the nature of his teachings. In some cases, a visitor makes elaborate obeisance, such as in the Brahmasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, where we are told that a certain Sahampati intricately arranges his robe, bows, and makes “reverential salutation with his hands” (añjali) and begs the Buddha to teach the dharma.144 These figures are portrayed as astute, eager students of the Buddha‟s teaching. On other occasions, however, the Buddha‟s interlocutors are not nearly as well regarded, even occasionally being described as developing extremely wrong views. Merely sensing such thoughts from a being named Baka leaves the Buddha so disturbed that he immediately transports to Baka‟s whereabouts to correct him. As opposed to Sahampati, Baka is portrayed as stubborn in his ignorance, yielding to the Buddha‟s arguments only after an impressive display of supernormal power. 145 From all we know of the Buddha, based on Buddhist traditions and other evidence, he was an itinerant samaṇa, encountering many different kinds and classes of people during his journeys. Therefore, there is nothing terribly remarkable in the fact that Buddhist literature should relate stories of those who greeted his ideas with enthusiasm as well as those who resisted. What makes the contrary nature of these two stories interesting is that both Sahampati and Baka are Brahmās, 146 figures of the Brahmanical creator god. How should we interpret this apparent contradiction, or at the very least, stark ambivalence? Obviously the very notion of a self-sustained progenitor of the universe is


SN I 139. SN I 142-144. 146 The plural for this term in its original Sanskrit (Brahman) would be “Brahmāṇaḥ,” but for the sake of intelligibility in English, I have taken some Anglicizing liberties. 145

64 anathema to numerous foundational aspects of Buddhism, such as dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda) and the authority of the Buddha. Some who have previously noted this disparity attribute it to the vigorous atmosphere of competition and debate between Buddhist and Brahmanical traditions, and how the former sought to incorporate the latter even as they pushed back on one another.147 In this scenario, the contrary depictions represent a two-pronged offensive by Buddhists. This perspective is undoubtedly correct, but in the following I seek to complicate exactly how this debate took place and the way it was calibrated mythologically and sociologically. Specifically, I will illuminate these dimensions by putting narratives of Brahmā into conversation with the mythology of Māra. Comparison with the Māra mythology provides new ways for interpreting the Buddhist duality of Brahmā. First, the duality of Brahmās in Buddhist narratives is an appropriation and reinvention of the figure – what we might call “Buddhification” – representing a broader critique of Brahmanical notions about creator deities going back to the Vedas and the figure Prajāpati. I believe this critique comes into stark relief through a comparison of the Prajāpati/Brahmā tradition to the Buddhist god Māra, who in a certain sense, takes on many aspects of the Brahmanical creator deity. Secondly, the interactions of Brahmā and Māra in Buddhist narratives – both when they appear in the same story as well as the structural and linguistic continuities between their separate appearances – shed a great deal of light on the Buddhist reaction to their Brahmanical competitors. When we look at the following Pāli narratives in this manner, we find positive portrayals of Brahmā coinciding with his subordinance to the Buddha, while negative characterizations associate the deva with Māra. These two faces of deva – Brahmā allied with Māra versus Brahmā opposed to Māra – represent a means to categorize Brahmins relative to their acceptance of the new roles Buddhist teachings 147

Greg Bailey, The Mythology of Brahmā, pg. 17.

65 prescribed for them. While those roles tend to be relative to a particular social category of Brahmin, they are always subordinate to the Buddha and his teaching, and the alternative to that subordination is considered alliance with Māra. In pursuing this line of thought, this chapter will also engage the question of audience, i.e. the imagined listeners or readers of the Pāli texts. It is fruitful to frame that issue by looking briefly at the concept of debate in the Pāli Canon. As noted by Joy Manné, more than half of the suttas in the Dīgha Nikāya consist of the Buddha debating an adversary, more often than not a Brahmin, in a style that adheres structurally to a formula extant from the Vedas. 148 The frequency of such texts suggests an atmosphere in which debate between Brahmins and Buddhists was commonplace, while the formula implies that the contests took place before an audience familiar with the rules of such engagements. Along these same lines, in his work on brahmodya (debate) in the Upaniṣads, Brian Black argues that the literary details of the debate point beyond mere expository pedagogy, but also “highlight the social and interactive character of debate.”149 Black applies this principle specifically to Buddhist works, arguing that Buddhists “used a literary account of debate to play out real-world rivalries with other sects.”150 In these cases of debate, the meaning and coherence of the text depends upon an audience familiar with the conventions of debate, the relative tenets of the schools involved, and the social atmosphere at the time. Additionally, as Manné argues elsewhere, among the many different forms and styles in which Pāli Canon texts come, the debate format serves as an “exercise in publicity” and an


“The Dīgha Nikāya Debates: Debating Practices at the Time of the Buddha,” Buddhist Studies Review, pg. 121. The Character of the Self in Ancient India, pg. 70. Black‟s argument in this book makes clear that the dialogic, brahmodya was not restricted to Buddhist-Brahmin discourse, as I have chosen to focus on in this paper, but also occurred quite vigorously between Brahmins. See especially pgs. 59-100. 150 Ibid., pg. 73. 149

66 “opportunity for propaganda” that will attract new converts.151 In this way, debate stories in the Nikāyas serve as a means to express the superiority of Buddhist teachings over those of Brahmins in a manner recognizable to both parties. I argue in this chapter that certain Pāli Canon narratives of Brahmā and Māra perform a similar dialogic function, yet through the medium of mythic beings. Just as the brahmodya texts in the Upaniṣads and Pāli Canon presuppose a certain understanding of Brahmanical philosophical schools and tenets, the criticisms of Brahmanical doctrine and ritual funneled through the figures of Brahmā and Māra suggest an audience familiar with those Brahmanical concepts. More fundamentally, the adoption of Brahmā into the Buddhist pantheon suggests an intention to speak to the followers of that deity, most pointedly his namesakes, the Brahmins. However, in an obvious point of literary and didactic contrast with brahmodya and debate texts, the suttas I will examine employ devas rather than human philosophers. As such, these Buddhist narratives are both harsher in their criticism, raising condemnation of Brahmanism to a cosmic level (as servants of Māra), but also gentler, as the critique is formed through the characterization of heavenly beings rather than a caustic diatribe. Debate through mythic narrative, therefore, provides a certain elasticity and equivocation not readily available in other textual forms. Indeed, just as any satire reproduces the form it satirizes, albeit as a caricature, the Brahmanism presented through the interplay of Brahmā and Māra preserves a certain dialogue between the traditions. By navigating this tension, the dynamic between Brahmā and Māra seeks to pull Brahmins into a certain social relationship with Buddhists even while it derides many of their beliefs and practices.


“Categories of Sutta in the Pāli Nikāyas,” Journal of the Pāli Text Society, pgs. 73-76.

67 Before dealing in detail with the narrative interactions of Brahmā and Māra, the pursuit of this argument proceeds first with some introductory matter about the evolution of the concept of the creator god in Brahmanical traditions, then secondly explicates the social situation at the time of the Buddha. This background is important for understanding the context of the narrative and social debates, its actors and agents, and the terms which they contested. Finally, a brief note on sources: I draw primarily on the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and epic literature of the Mahābhārata to draw out the lineage and nature of Prajāpati and Brahmā. For Buddhist references to Māra and Brahmā in this chapter, I primarily rely on the Pāli Canon, particularly the Dīgha, Majjhima, and Saṃyutta Nikāyas, though I do have recourse to Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita as well as Buddhaghoṣa‟s commentarial literature at various points. The Brahmanical Concepts of Creator God The history of the creator god concept goes back to Vedic traditions, specifically to the figure of Prajāpati (literally, “lord of beings”). Of the several ways the god is linked with the genesis of the universe, the most frequent is that he “emitted” all beings from his own body, including gods, titans (asuras), humans, etc.152 At other times, as in the last book of the Rig Veda, the universe sprouts from a giant golden egg, seemingly preexisting Prajāpati, but Brahmanical texts nevertheless in these instances still associate the god with the very beginning of existence and its life-forms.153 Besides emitting the universe from himself, Prajāpati is also the source of the orderly progression of the seasons, life and death, as well as time itself – all collectively called “the year.” 154 The practice of śrauta sacrifice also stems directly from


For example, see ŚB (“emitted” - sasṛje, from sṛj). For exemplary narratives of the golden egg, see RV 10.121.1 and ŚB; see also Jan Gonda, Prajāpati and the Year, pgs. 81-82. 154 ŚB;; Gonda, Prajāpati and the Year, pgs. 9-17. 153

68 Prajāpati‟s creative act, and in some cases Prajāpati is said to be the very first sacrificer, as well as the very first sacrifice offered.155 Such an equation confers cosmological importance upon this social institution and links the proper maintenance of existence itself with the sacrificial cult and its officiants.156 Logically enough, those who correctly perform the sacrifice are identified as following in Prajāpati‟s line and gaining great rewards, while failure is diametrically dire. 157 Gonda believes that this intersection of creator-sacrifice was ultimately responsible for the ascension of Prajāpati to the ranks of a high god in the Brahmanical literature. 158 For the purpose of this study as well, the conflation of the creator god with sacrificial practice will prove to be of great importance. In spite of that relationship, however, by the time of the epic and classical period, Prajāpati had largely disappeared as an autonomous figure. For the most part in the texts of that period one only finds “Prajāpati” as an epithet for other figures, echoing the prominence and high stature the name once enjoyed. Buddhist Pāli Canon texts from that period, and perhaps even slightly earlier, use the term as a proper name, but primarily in lists having to do with the layout of the cosmos.159 The position of creator by that time in Brahmanical tradition, and recognized as so in the contemporaneous Buddhist texts, is occupied by Brahmā. The precise point at which the deity arises is somewhat murky, though Bruce Sullivan believes the earliest references may occur in


ŚB; Taittirīya Saṃhita also describes how Prajāpati “emits” the sacrificial rites from himself. TS locates the origin of the great sacrificial fireplace with Prajāpati. 156 For further explorations of this point, see Gonda, Prajāpati and the Year, pg. 69 and Brian K. Smith, “Sacrifice and Being: Prajāpati‟s Cosmic Emission and its Consequences,” pg. 76. 157 ŚB, describe such rewards. On the other side, ŚB declares that the sun will not rise if the sacrificial ritual is not conducted properly. 158 Prajāpati‟s Rise to Higher Rank, pgs. 36-41. 159 For Pāli Canon references to Prajāpati (therein called “Pajāpati”), see MN I 140; SN I 219, III 90; DN I 244-245, III 205.

69 the late Vedas (particularly Atharva Veda) or early Upaniṣads (such as Bṛhadāraṇyaka).160 The issue of how the transition from Prajāpati to Brahmā occurred is equally fraught, although Bhattacharji believes it was due to the merger between Prajāpati and the aforementioned metaphysical principle of Brahman in the Upaṇiṣads. 161 One way to approach the latter question is to examine the aspects of Prajāpati‟s character and mythology that carry over to Brahmā, possibly extrapolating historical or social significance. On that tack, beyond the simple fact that the name “Prajāpati” becomes a frequent synonym for Brahmā in the Mahābhārata, he is exalted as a creator in some instances surpassing the older stories of Prajāpati. At one point, apparently referencing the golden egg which preexisted Prajāpati in some versions of creation, the wind god Vāyu proclaims to the warrior Arjuna that “there is no egg; there is only Brahmā.” 162 Elsewhere in the epic, he is referred to by epithets such as “svayambhu” (“self-born”) and “bhutapati” (“lord of beings”), all of which serve to reinforce his position as exalted creator.163 Indeed, throughout the early sections of the epic, the impression one is given of Brahmā thus corresponds very closely to the image of a powerful, self-sustaining deity one sees portrayed in Prajāpati of the Vedas and Brāhmaṇas. Yet, this portrayal begins to shift in the later sections of the Mahābhārata and becomes decidedly different in Purāṇic literature. In these texts, most likely due to the rise of the theistic gods Viṣṇu and Śiva, Brahmā‟s power is eclipsed and he is often portrayed as causing as much trouble as he solves, leading E.W. Hopkins to remark that in the later literature Brahmā “is ever engaged in


See “The Religious Authority of the Mahābhārata,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. The specific passages from those texts that Sullivan cites are Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaṇiṣad 4.4.4 and AV 161 The Indian Theogony, pg. 345. 162 MB 13.138.19: nāstyaṇḍam asti tu brahmā. 163 Ibid., 5.97.2 and 2.3.14, respectively.

70 preserving the world from his own folly.”164 For instance, in this period Brahmā is known for granting boons to demons, who proceed to gain dominion over the cosmos, leaving other gods to deal with the consequences. Two of the most prominent examples, namely Rāvaṇa and Tāraka, are subdued by multiforms of the newly ascendant gods, Viṣṇu and Śiva, respectively. 165 As another example, in a late episode in the Mahābhārata, Brahmā grows restless and angry with the overcrowding of the universe he has created and resolves to eradicate all beings with a withering fire. When Śiva intervenes to stay Brahmā‟s hand, again aggrandizing that god at the creator‟s expense, he instead brings into existence a dark figure of death to plague and destroy beings.166 The benevolent, powerful creator god thus becomes, simultaneously, the source of his creation‟s woe. Apart from these instances of the later development of the Brahmā figure in Hindu literature, my focus in this chapter rests on the ways in which his characterization in the earlier epic texts might have provided ripe material for Buddhist satire. To get a sense of why the figure may have been such an appealing target, we can trace the way in which Brahmā is closely aligned with Brahmanical values. To begin with, similar to what we saw in the figure of Prajāpati, Brahmā‟s creation of the world is linked to the sacrificial rite,167 and he is regarded as the preeminent sacrificer in the entire universe: “desirous of sacrifice, Lord Brahmā, grandfather of the entire world, could not see any equal to himself in sacrificial knowledge.”168 At other times, he is beseeched by gods and humans for assistance in arranging the sacrificial grounds and 164

See Epic Mythology, pg. 195. In the case of Rāvaṇa, Rāma, manifestation of Viṣṇu, destroys the demon, while it is Śiva‟s son Skanda who defeats Tāraka. The former, of course, occurs in the Rāmāyāṇa, as well as other places, while the latter is recounted at length in the Śiva and Skanda Purāṇas, as well as other works. 166 MB 12.248.12-250.41. 167 Ibid. 12.327.30. 168 Ibid. 12.121.15: brahmā yiyukṣurbhagavān sarva loka pitāmahaḥ | ṛtvijaṃ nātmanā tulyaṃ dadarśati hi naḥ śrutaṃ ||. 165

71 altar.169 Finally, in the same speech to Arjuna noted earlier, Vāyu deems Brahmā brāhmaṇaśreṣṭham, “the best of Brahmins.”170 This last passage provides a clue as to the shift which may have occurred from the figures of Prajāpati to Brahmā. While the latter maintains, and perhaps even intensifies, the connection between creation and sacrifice, it assumes the role of the figurehead for the Brahmin class in a way that Prajāpati, though regarded as a sacrificial priest, never does in the Vedic or Brāhmaṇa texts. Bailey and Sullivan note this aspect of Brahmā when they characterize the deity as the embodiment of pravṛtti (worldly pursuits) and ritualist values.171 Though we would do well to heed Gonda‟s warnings about regarding Brahmā as an artificial apotheosis of the Brahmin class, it is safe to say that the deity is a central representation of the values, interests, and appeal to authority of the priestly class. 172 This may speak to an increasing concern during and before the epic and classical periods with solidifying the role and authority of the Brahmin class, leading to the rise of Brahmā and the concordant fall of Prajāpati. That speculation aside, with Brahmā as a creator deity representing pravṛtti values, sacrificial ideology, and the Brahmin class, we can begin to appreciate the extent to which the deity and its narratives would provide fertile soil for Buddhists to plant seeds of contention. The Māra mythology sprouts from at least some of those seeds. Though on an admittedly broad level, we can point to aspects of Māra‟s character which suggest he constitutes an inversion of the Prajāpati/Brahmā creator figure. For one, as the amalgamation of the life-impulse of desire, on the one hand, and death on the other, Māra carries on the tradition of Prajāpati/Brahmā, who 169

MB 3.129.22, 13.65.17-20. MB 13.138.19. 171 Sullivan, “The Religious Authority of the Mahābhārata,” pg. 381; Bailey, The Mythology of Brahmā, pgs. xiv-xv and 77. 172 Gonda, “Prajāpati‟s Relations with Brahman, Bṛhaspati, and Brahmā,” pg. 11. 170

72 create the universe but also bring death into existence.173 Secondly, as personification of saṃsāra and the figurative holder of the bhavacakra (the “wheel of being or becoming”) Māra represents the ever-grinding wheel of time, just as Prajāpati represented the Year.174 Third, a staple of Māra‟s activities is to advance pravṛtti values, such as delighting in sons and possessions, pursuing austerity in the proper context, or laying hold of large quantities of material treasures. 175 Finally, in his commentary on the Majjhima Nikāya, Buddhaghoṣa makes the linkage explicit. Dealing with a passage listing cosmological figures, Buddhaghoṣa glosses “Pajāpati” by saying, “in this case, „Pajāpati‟ is to be understood as „Māra is Pajāpati.‟”176 Given Buddhaghoṣa‟s statement, we are justified in saying that the Buddhist tradition itself, at least by the time of the commentaries in the fifth century CE and most likely long before, conceived of Māra in the mold of Prajāpati/Brahmā. Indeed, given the other broad similarities noted above, it seems likely that this notion goes back a great deal further, to the very inception of the Māra figure, as the characteristics described above are essential to its nature at its earliest appearance. As a being bent on binding and trapping others in the dukkha-permeated realm of saṃsāra, Māra at this broad level is obviously a negative comment on the creator god tradition. The supreme irony, though, is that Buddhist traditions uniformly reject the notion of a


Prajāpati, though opposed to Mṛtyu in some texts, also serves as death in others, such as the Tāṇḍya Brāhmaṇa, 21.2.1, in which he begins to consume his own creation out of gnawing hunger. For Brahmā‟s part, there is the aforementioned episode in the Mahābhārata in which he brings death, in a feminine form (Nirṛti), into existence to assuage the suffering of the universe under the weight of propagating creatures. For further discussion of these points, see J. Bruce Long, “Death as Necessity and Gift in Hindu Mythology,” in Religious Encounters with Death, pgs. 73-96. 174 See also David Kalupahana, “The Buddhist Conception of Time and Temporality,” who notes that in the Buddhist tradition “Time assumes the position of Māra, the personification of death” (183). Raimundo Panikkar, “Toward a Typology of Time and Temporality in the Ancient Indian Tradition,” makes a similar observation about Brahmā: he is the author of time “and he is also the destroyer” (161). 175 Respectively, SN I 107-108, 103, 116-117. 176 Papañcasūdanī I 76: Pajāpati ti ettha pana māro pajāpati ti veditabbo.

73 creator deity, so this cannot simply be a case in which the creator god turns out to be evil. 177 Rather, Māra (who at any given time is just a being who will die and be reborn like others) is a “creator” god who is not really a creator at all, since there actually was no creation to begin with. The humor latent in this notion gives us some sense of what Gombrich means when he argues that Māra is primarily a satire to make light of figures like Prajāpati/Brahmā, as well as Mṛtyu. 178 While Gombrich is entirely correct, this still leaves the matter at the broad analogical level outlined above. I believe the Brahmā and Māra narratives in Buddhist texts work together in a much more intricate and revealing way, and to bring those intricacies to light it is necessary to delve deeper into the social situations and realities of Buddhist/Brahmin interaction. The Social Context and Complexity By the time of the Buddha, the term “Brahmin” had become a normative standard against which renunciant groups compared themselves. In fact, in Buddhist Pāli texts one often finds the dvandva compound samaṇa-brāhmaṇa referring to the relationship between these groups.179 Deciphering the dvandva yields a certain ambiguity, however, for it can be interpreted as the pairing of forever opposed categories (such as “night-day,” or “happiness-pain”), or, as Uma Chakravarti argues, we can resolve the compound as a unified pair representing “possessors of knowledge” in opposition to the rest of society, the ordinary people who did not possess esoteric understanding.180 That both readings are possible is itself informative as to the relationship which obtained between Buddhists and Brahmins. Indeed, it is clear that while the thrust of Buddhist discourse is


This is perhaps a difficulty for those who wish to make the comparison to the Christian Gnostic traditions. How Buddhism Began, pg. 80. 179 Bailey and Mabbett, The Sociology of Early Buddhism, pgs. 118-120. 180 The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism, pg. 45. 178

74 that Brahmanical cosmological, sociological, and ritual notions were flawed, there is never a statement that these concepts needed to be completely eradicated. On the contrary, we find instead the express desire to build upon Brahmanical ideas, even if those ideas were reinvisioned within a Buddhist framework to the point that they were hardly recognizable. In a process Bailey and Mabbett label “marketing,” as in the repackaging and reselling of a brand name, Buddhists sought to cast themselves as the new and improved Brahmins. 181 At the same time, it is important to realize that the Buddhist revision of “Brahmin” did not take place in the face of a monolithic, one-tone Brahmanism. Besides religious officiant, Brahmins at the time of the Buddha held multiple identities, often blending the religious, social, and economic spheres. Buddhist texts themselves recognize this plurality, frequently qualifying what kind of Brahmin it is they are talking about when such a personage comes on the scene. The terms most often encountered in the Pāli texts are “mahāsāla,” “gahapati,” “bhikkhako,” and “jaṭila.” The first two, meaning “one of great halls” and “lord of the house,” respectively, refer to the householding, economic sphere of society. Of the two, gahapati is more abundant in the texts and is the one with which we will primarily be concerned.182 The second pair of terms, meaning “mendicant” and “one with matted or braided hair,” respectively, can be understood as ascetics, though in context they are applied normally to Brahmin ascetics. While certainly other


The Sociology of Early Buddhism, pg. 153. Some debate has occurred over the degree to which this name could also refer to vaiśyas, particularly given the occasional social division of khattiya, brāhmaṇa, gahapati, and samaṇa found in Buddhist texts (MN II 199, SN II 246, AN I 33-35). In that revision of the vaṇṇa system, gahapati seems clearly to take the place of the vaiśya class, yet on other occasions, when referring to individuals, the term gahapati is only ever suffixed to brāhmaṇa, most likely describing a subclass of extremely wealthy Brahmins (N.K. Wagle, Society at the Time of the Buddha, pg. 152.) This leads Chakravarti to argue that the mere translation “householder” or “merchant” is insufficient (65-66). On the whole, then, the term applies to extremely wealthy Brahmins more than vaiśyas. This is the interpretation Tsuchida Ryūtāro gives in “Two Categories of Brahmin in the Early Buddhist Period” (58), and it is the one which I follow in this work.


75 ascetic groups populated India during this time, such as Jainas and Ājīvakās, these groups are generally referred to by other names, such as “nigaṇṭha” (“without ties”) for Jainas. These two groups, though they represented two different spheres of life, still operated along the axis of Vedic and pravṛtti ideologies, giving Buddhist communities ample reason to regard them with marked ambivalence. When we look at Buddhist texts to determine their perspective on the gahapati, for example, we find a mixed picture. On the one hand, these householders sometimes received special privileges from the sangha, such as personal visits from the Buddha or his closest disciples when the lords of these households were ailing. 183 As wealthy householders served to support the sangha with alms and donations, these special favors and attentions are hardly surprising. Yet, as Bailey and Mabbett note, this puts the sangha in something of a bind, for as an acquirer of materials and advocate of a worldly existence, the gahapati stands for values completely opposed to the wandering, homeless bhikkhu.184 Indeed, even as the gahapati receives special favors, his supposedly avaricious and acquisitive nature is roundly condemned and criticized at other times.185 Two stories in the Saṃyutta Nikāya help to illustrate the complicated relationship the sangha forged with the gahapatis and mahāsālas. First, we are told that a certain “very wealthy Brahmin” (brāhmaṇa-mahāsālo) fallen on hard times, as evidenced by his shoddy clothes, encounters the Buddha and tells the sad story of being evicted by his sons and their wives. The Buddha teaches the Brahmin some verses repudiating his sons, which he recites upon returning


See AN III 19; SN IV 152-153, 329. The Sociology of Early Buddhism, pg. 50. 185 For example, see MN III 167; DN II 245. See also Bailey and Mabbett, The Sociology of Early Buddhism, pgs. 110-115. 184

76 home, resulting in a warmer reception. The mahāsāla then provides a “teacher‟s fee” (ācāriyadhanam) to the Buddha and becomes a lay follower.186 Here the potential symbiosis between householders and the sangha is in full display. A mahāsāla down on his luck receives a teaching which reverses his downward trend and the Buddha receives a gift for his trouble. On the other hand, there is a hint of suspicion of the household life beneath this veneer of cooperation. The once wealthy Brahmin is portrayed as at the mercy of fickle progeny, casting a pall of instability on the household life. The mahāsāla seems to have come to something of that same conclusion, for at the end of the story he becomes a follower of the sangha. When read in light of the importance of male progeny in Brahmanism for carrying on the authority and vital functions of their fathers, the Brahmin in this case has been cut off from immortality. 187 Interestingly, the Buddha intervenes and the Brahmanical version of immortality (householding and sons) has been exchanged for the Buddhist (the sangha). While this story shows the beneficial interaction between the two groups, a second passage is more doubtful. Here the Buddha enters a Brahmin village for alms, but the Brahmin householders (here called brāhmaṇa-gahapatikā), under the control of Māra, refuse to bestow any gifts. Māra then mockingly offers to reverse his control and allow the Buddha to gain alms, if only he will make a second round. After rebuking Māra for this act, the Buddha responds as follows: “We who have nothing live happily, indeed. We will be like the radiant gods, who were eaters of joy.”188


SN I 175-177. See Black, The Character of the Self in Ancient India, pgs 141-142. 188 SN I 113-114: susukham vata jīvāma yesaṃ no nātthi kiñcanaṃ | pītibhakkhā bhavissāma devā ābhassarā yathā ti || 187

77 The Buddha‟s response seems in part an evocation of the satirical “creation” story of the Aggañña Sutta in the Dīgha Nikāya. In that sutta, when the universe “reboots,” as it were, the first beings are entirely self-luminous and sustain themselves entirely on pīti, which is joy or bliss. Over time, as they are further contaminated by desire, they develop a need for coarser, grosser material for subsistence, leading to coarser, grosser bodies and eventually the whole host of social ills which plague humanity. 189 Absent alms, the Buddha seems to say, the sangha (and the concluding verse is in the third person plural, meaning the Buddha is speaking on behalf of more than himself) will return to this earlier, more pristine state. The frame narrative for this creation story in the Aggañña Sutta also speaks critically of Brahmins: two ex-Brahmin householders and prospective monks comment on abuse they have suffered from Brahmins for renouncing this heritage.190 The Buddha then offers his competing account of origins to refute the Brahmanical claim that theirs is a superior vaṇṇa. Richard Gombrich, in fact, has ably demonstrated the satirical nature of the Aggañña Sutta, arguing that the text incorporates and reworks notions of Brahmanical creation found in the Rig Veda and Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.191 The ultimate goal of the story, then, as Gombrich plainly puts it, is “to deny the Brahmin view of the origin of society and to make fun of it.”192

In an aside, in the Milindapañha King Milinda asks the interesting question that, if Māra can so easily prevent the Buddha from attaining alms, does that not make the god of saṃsāra more powerful? After explaining that Māra has acted out of “envy” (issāpakato) toward the Buddha, the monk Nāgasena argues that Māra is successful only because he has “hidden himself” (nilīyitvā) like a thief (corā) in the kingdom of a powerful ruler (154-158). 189 Compare DN III 84: Saṃvaṭṭamāne loke yebhuyyena sattā ābhassara-saṃvaṭṭanikā honti. Te tattha honti manomayā pītibhakkhā sayampabhā antalikkhacarā subhaṭṭhāyino ciram dīghaṃ addhānaṃ tiṭṭhanti. (“When the universe contracts, beings are born in the Ābhassara realm. There they live, mind-made, eating joy, self-luminous, moving in the sky, glorious, and they remain that way for a long time.”) 190 DN III 80-81. 191 “The Buddha‟s Book of Genesis?” Indo-Iranian Journal, pgs. 166-167. 192 Ibid., pg. 163.

78 Noting this allusion to the Aggañña Sutta helps us see how truly ambivalent Buddhists might have been toward alms-gathering from Brahmin householders. The preferable means of subsistence is to eat pure joy, but this is no longer possible, as the Buddha‟s initial pass through the village makes clear. As this age represents degeneration from past purity, the need for food is non-negotiable, which puts even Buddhists at the mercy of Brahmin householders. It is also highly significant that Māra is the symbolic vehicle for explaining the householders‟ refusal to give alms. Portrayed as easily manipulated by Māra, the householders are thus aligned with the campaign to obstruct the dharma. But on a more specific social note, the refusal to give alms, which disrupts the symbiotic relationship noted in the first story, is linked to the power most subversive of the Buddha‟s teaching. Therefore, we get the impression that whenever Brahmins act outside the bounds prescribed by the Buddhist vision for how the social groups should cooperate, it is an act potentially attributable to Māra himself. This crucial alignment of narrative and social prescription will become even more evident later in this chapter. We can observe the same kind of complicated relationship between the Buddhist community and the other broad category of Brahmins, the jaṭila. At first these two groups would seemingly have more in common than bhikkhus and householders due to a shared ascetic ethic. That being the case, there were still good reasons for Buddhists to regard the jaṭila with suspicion. Despite the fact that, as Patrick Olivelle points out, the jaṭila were preeminent in attempts to push against the boundaries of Brahmanism from the inside, partly by eschewing the householder life, they were still not beggars like the bhikkhus.193 Rather, the jaṭila occupied fixed āśrams, went through the stages of life according to varṇāśramadharma, and participated 193

Patrick Olivelle, Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads, pg. 36.

79 in the śrauta sacrifices, perhaps even to a greater extent than the gahapatis, dressing in animal skins and using implements such as the udumbara staff.194 Though the jaṭila occupies a very different station than the older Vedic priests, he still draws upon and identifies with that lineage. This alone would predispose some conflict with Buddhist traditions. Tsuchida, however, has argued that jaṭilas on the whole receive less criticism in Buddhist texts than gahapatis.195 While this may be true, if one reads the texts closely enough, the same kind of complicated ambivalence we have just observed regarding Brahmin householders also obtains with regard to jaṭilas. In one such text, a “mendicant Brahmin” (bhikkhako brāhmaṇo) approaches the Buddha and asks, “Honorable Gotama, I am a mendicant, and you, sir, are also a mendicant. How then are we not of the same condition?”196 Immediately this passage cuts to the heart of the potential conflict between Buddhists and Brahmin ascetics that, frankly, Tsuchida misses by simply focusing on the quantity of negative references: the two groups are potentially too similar. In this passage, the Brahmin is pushing on the lines dividing the two interpretations of asceticism, attempting to blur the distinction and perhaps subsume Buddhist ideas under the Brahmanical umbrella. To preserve the distinction, the text shows the Buddha immediately push back, redrawing the line in interesting ways. He says, “just because one begs (bhikkhavo) to another, through this one is not a beggar (bhikkhako). Having taken up domestic practice, one is not a beggar (bhikkhu).”197 I have chosen to render “bhikkhu” here as “beggar” to maintain continuity with the rest of the passage: one does not become a beggar or mendicant simply by begging, but also by renouncing all domestic practice, including the āśram and śrauta sacrifice. 194

Tsuchida, “Two Categories of Brahmin in the Early Buddhist Period,” pg. 83. Ibid., pgs. 86-91. 196 SN I 182. 197 Ibid.: na tena bhikkhako hoti yāvatā bhikkhavo pare | visaṃ dhammam samādāya bhikkhu hoti na tāvatā || 195

80 On those points, according to this passage, one can still find a clear demarcation between Buddhist and Brahmin ascetics. With the way this verse plays with language, however, one could translate “bhikkhu” either as “beggar,” in keeping with the prior terms, or as “monk,” since what the author(s) are plainly doing is preserving Buddhist asceticism and monasticism as distinct from Brahmanical practice. In response to his interlocutor, the Buddha offers one further verse: “The one who, having excluded merit and evil, is a brahmacarin and he proceeds in the world with understanding and is called a bhikkhu.”198 Now the Buddha has entirely turned the tables, claiming Brahmanical ground as his own: the true brahmacarin, traditionally the dedicated celibate student of the Vedas, is actually the bhikkhu, for the Buddhist monk is the one who “proceeds in the world with understanding.” Here I have left bhikkhu untranslated to convey this transference of office: the Buddhist monk is the true heir to the Vedic tradition, because he understands it better. Buddhist literature is replete with examples of the redefinition of “Brahmin” to mean “the Buddha” or an adherent to the dharma. For example, the Brāhmaṇa Vaggo of the Dhammapada is entirely dedicated to making claims such as, “one is not a Brahmin by matted locks or family or birth. The one who is truthful and pure and follows the dharma is a Brahmin.”199 A later text, the Milindapañha, argues that a true Brahmin is one who has achieved release, awakening, and, interestingly for our purposes, “defeated Māra‟s army” (mārasenaṃ vidhamitvā).200 Proper comprehension of reality, which is the cornerstone of the Buddha‟s dharma, is thus held above the performance of ritual as another way to define Buddhist practice 198

Ibid.: yo dha puññān ca pāpañ ca bāhitvā brahmacariyaṃ | saṅkhāya loke carati sa ve bhikkhūti vuccatīti || 199 26.11: na jaṭāhi na gottena na jaccā hoti brāhmaṇo | yamhi saccaṃ ca dhammo ca so sucī so ca brāhmaṇo|| 200 Pg. 226.

81 over and against Brahmanical. In this case, at the conclusion of the encounter, we find that the Buddha‟s argument must have been convincing: the bhikkhako Brahmin becomes a lay follower. In many ways, the preceding story can be seen as the ideal scenario from the Buddhist perspective, in that the Brahmin posed his question, the Buddha answered, and the Brahmin gave in to superior reasoning. In other instances, the outcome is not so favorable, as when a group of bhikkhus are approached by a Brahmin ascetic with a great deal of knotted, matted hair, wearing an antelope hide, and carrying a staff of udumbara wood.201 Each of these details immediately lends the story a realistic feel and locates the Brahmin firmly in the Vedic tradition. Getting the bhikkhus‟ attention, he questions why such young men would have left home, for now is the time to enjoy the pleasures due to that age.202 Unconvinced, the bhikkhus instead consult the Buddha, who reveals that their questioner was actually Māra, disguised in the form of an ascetic Brahmin. The argument with which the bhikkhus are confronted is one we would expect such Brahmins to make against Buddhists, namely that they have undertaken their asceticism and renunciation out of sync with the correct stages of life. The most significant aspect of the story aside from that is, obviously, the affiliation of a combative Brahmin ascetic with Māra. Unlike the prior case, this is not a Brahmin who converts, or even can convert, for he is really Māra in disguise. It is not too great an extrapolation to see the text as suggesting that Buddhists should treat the recalcitrant Brahmin ascetics who refuse to acknowledge the superiority of Buddhist ideas about asceticism as part of Māra‟s forces. As with the earlier pair of stories, the symbol of Māra is part of a strategy of social prescription by which Buddhists can make sense of the ambivalent relations experienced with

201 202

SN I 117: mahantena jaṭaṇḍuvena ajinakkhipa-nivattho…udumbara-daṇḍaṃ. Ibid.: bhuñjatu bhonto mānusake kāme.

82 different groups of Brahmins. Those gahapatis and jaṭilas who play their proper roles will subordinate themselves to the Buddha, and either offer alms or acknowledge that the dharma is the true culmination of Brahmanism. If they do not, they are clearly under the influence of Māra, or themselves representatives of that god. Once we place Buddhist narratives of Brahmā in this framework, it becomes apparent that they operate together as a way to prescribe social roles for Brahmins. Next I turn to the portrayals of Brahmā in the Pāli Canon and the part they play in advancing these social divisions, hierarchies, and prescriptions. Pāli Canon Narratives of Brahmā and Māra Before proceeding, we should discuss one fact about Brahmā peculiar to the Buddhist conception, namely that, as is apparent from the introduction to this chapter, the tradition holds to the existence of multiple Brahmās. In Buddhism, “Brahmā” refers to a particular class of gods who dwell in the rūpaloka. Like Māra, these gods live for a period of time and are then reborn, yet unlike the god of saṃsāra, there are multiple such deities at once, and Buddhist literature often gives them proper names and biographies to distinguish between them. For instance, in the Brahmasaṃyutta of Saṃyutta Nikāya we learn of the Brahmā Tudu, who was once a Buddhist monk.203 Other Brahmās are regular fixtures in the Buddha‟s life, such as Brahmā Sahampati who we are told initially asked the Buddha to teach the dharma and then delivered a kind of eulogy upon the Awakened One‟s passage into parinirvāṇa. The Mahāpadāna Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, which portrays its tale of the life of the previous Buddha Vipassī as a paradigm for the lives of all Buddhas, gives this role to a “certain Mahābrahmā,” closely linking the Buddha and the teaching of the dharma to the concept of Brahmā.


SN I 149.

83 However, simply by virtue of expanding the category of “Brahmā” from a single deity to an entire class, thereby multiplying the number of personalities involved, the Buddhist literary tradition already signals an intent to redefine that concept. I believe we can read the respective portrayals of these individual Buddhist Brahmās as specific episodes in that effort. Some Buddhist narratives of Brahmās highlight the deva to make the point that the Buddha is praised even by devas, to advance a particular Buddhist teaching, to invite or urge the Buddha to teach, or a combination of some or all three. The aforementioned incident in which Brahmā Sahampati appears at the passing of the Buddha is just such an example. In the Dīgha Nikāya‟s version of the Buddha‟s death, appearing in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, after the Buddha passes, Brahmā Sahampati appears and says, “All beings in the world, all bodies must break up. Even the teacher without equal in the world, the mighty lord and perfect Buddha has passed away.” 204 The moment of the Buddha‟s passing is obviously a keen moment for emphasizing the universal nature of anicca, in that even the renowned teacher himself cannot last forever. Using Brahmā – the creator and an image of permanence in the Brahmanical tradition – to reinforce this point, however, is a supremely ironic move that appropriates the deva for Buddhist purposes and subordinates him to the dharma. This same Brahmā Sahampati also shows up in another story to make pronounced obeisance to the Buddha. Noted at the beginning of this chapter, Brahmā Sahampati goes to the Buddha and bows, offering añjali, the joining together of the hands in salutation.205 This gesture is noteworthy in combination with an immediately following episode that tells of a former


DN II 157: sabbe „va nikkhipissanti bhūtā loke samussayaṃ yathā etādiso satthā loke appaṭipuggalo tathāgato balapatto sambuddho parinibbuto. 205 SN I 139.

84 Brahmin, now an arahant and appropriately named Brahmadeva, who is about to seek alms from his mother. We are told she has been making constant oblations and offerings to Brahmā (Brahmuno āhutiṃ niccaṃ paggaṇhāsi).206 Before Brahmadeva arrives, Brahmā Sahampati visits the arahant‟s mother and criticizes her ritual practice. “Lady Brahmin,” he chides, “This is not the food of Brahmā. So why recite mantras not knowing the path to Brahmā?”207 The verb “jappasi,” which I have translated here as “recite mantras” can also mean “mumble or mutter,” making the rendering “why mumble not knowing the path to Brahmā?” The ambiguity is itself significant, seemingly equating mantras to mumblings or verbal gropings in the dark, in search of connection to an absent deva. Brahmā Sahampati then goes on to tell the mother that her son, Brahmadeva, has “surpassed the devas” (atidevapatto), “deserves offerings from humans and devas” (narāṇaṃ devānaṃ ca dakkhiṇeyyo), and therefore she must “let him eat the most excellent alms that are the offering” (so tyāhutiṃ bhuñjatu aggapiṇḍaṃ).208 In line with the corrective that chanting of mantras is akin to mumbling, these remarks position alms-giving as the true sacrifice, suggesting that giving the offering to a bhikkhu rather than a deva is in fact the proper way to perform the ritual. The name of the bhikkhu, Brahmadeva, is obviously not accidental in this regard: he is the real Brahmā god, whereas Brahmā Sahampati himself acknowledges that he has been surpassed. The interplay of the gesture of añjali in the previous story with the verb paggaṇhāsi serves to further underscore this point. Paggaṇhāsi is the verb in the passage in which Brahmā Sahampati has told the Brahmin mother she should not offer (paggaṇhāsi) to Brahmā. Besides “offer,” the


SN I 141. Ibid.: netādiso brāhmaṇi brahmabhakkho | kiṃ jappasi brahmapatham ajānantī || 208 Ibid. 207

85 verb can also mean “stretch forth or hold out one‟s hands.” In the earlier passage, as well as others in the Nikāyas, this Brahmā stretches out his hands to the Buddha and now instructs the Brahmin mother, who has been holding them out to a deva (wrongly, from the Buddhist point of view) to follow suit. That it is the deva himself who redirects this sign of obeisance speaks to the degree of “Buddhification” Brahmā has undergone in these narratives. That process of appropriation, and its significance in terms of social prescription, is in even sharper relief when we consider narratives in which Brahmā gods and Māra come into contact with one another. Such a confrontation occurs in Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita. In that elaborate poem, just as Gotama is on the brink of achieving awakening, Māra senses his preeminence over saṃsāra is in jeopardy and resolves to intervene. First he employs his desireinducing arrows, and when this fails, summons an army of monsters to destroy the meditating sage.209 After the army is also woefully ineffective at breaking Gotama‟s concentration, let alone killing him, a “certain being of excellence, invisible form standing in the sky” calls upon Māra to halt his attack.210 This being declares that since the world is carried away by many wrong paths (bahūbhiḥ kumargaiḥ), he should refrain from assaulting the one searching for the right path (sanmārgam anvicchanti).211 Compared to the “great darkness” (mahandhakāre), the prospective Buddha is a “lamp of knowledge” (jñāpradīpaḥ) and that light must not be extinguished.212 Instead, by carrying on with this futile attack, he charges that Māra has been excessively proud


BC 13.13-18. Ibid., 56: bhūtaṃ tataḥ kiṃcid adṛśyarūpaṃ viśiṣṭabhūtaṃ gaganastham eva. 211 Ibid., 62. 212 Ibid., 63. 210

86 of his power during a time when his station is actually starting to slip or totter away. 213 In response to this repudiation, a dejected Māra slinks away, his army dispersing. 214 We have good reason to believe that the unnamed “certain being” who plays an important role in driving off Māra actually refers to a Brahmā. The most important evidence for that position is the similarity between this being‟s speech and texts in the Nikāyas that speak of a Brahmā exhorting the Buddha to share his knowledge and teach the dharma for the good of the world. In the Saṃyutta Nikāya, for example, the Buddha briefly experiences doubts about continuing to profess the dharma, due to the widespread delusion of beings. 215 This wavering in resolve is enough to cause Brahmā Sahampati to cry out, “Oh! The world will be destroyed, the world will perish completely!”216 Immediately he goes to see the Buddha and is successful in beseeching the Awakened One to continue professing the dharma. The previously mentioned Mahāpadāna Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya puts such exhortations on the part of Brahmās in a longer temporal perspective, telling of the past Buddha Vipassī‟s decision to teach at the urging of a Brahmā again because otherwise, the world would perish and perish utterly. 217 That text, instead of referring to a “certain being,” instead refers to a “certain great Brahmā” (aññtaro Mahābrahmā).218 The similar language on the part of the Nikāya Brahmās and the “certain being” of the Buddhacarita – who similarly despairs of the survival of the world if the Buddha does not teach – leads me to the conclusion that the latter refers to Brahmā.


Ibid., 69: bhūnmahimnā tava Māra mānaḥ (“Māra, [you are] arrogant, proud of your power”), cale pade vismayamabhyupaiṣi (“at a time when your station wavers.”) 214 Ibid., 70-71. 215 SN I 136: rāgadosaparatehi: “afflicted by hate and lust,” is the literal translation. 216 Ibid. 137: nassati vata bho loko vinassati vata bho loko. 217 DN II 37-40. 218 Ibid., II 43.

87 That being the case, two points emerge. First, the motif of Brahmā pleading for the presence of the dharma in the world shows the supposed creator‟s actual helplessness in being able to better the lives of beings or sustain existence. That task requires the Buddha, showing who the true prime mover (after a fashion) really is. At the same time, it shows that the deva does have a place in the scheme of things, being instrumental to the Buddha‟s decision to teach. Dhivan Jones has also noted the significance of Brahmā asking the Buddha to teach and argues, sensibly in my opinion, that “the reason Brahmā asks the Buddha to teach…is that his merely asking suggests the superiority of the dharma to Brahmanism, since it shows this Brahmā to be a convert to Buddhism.”219 Along with Jones, I would also argue that whatever role Buddhist texts give to a particular Brahmā, they make no mistake that it is unambiguously below the Buddha. As we see in the Buddhacarita, though, this is a point that Māra does not appreciate. This is the second of the two points that I believe emerge from the analysis so far: from the Buddhist perspective, a good deva should know his/her place. Māra is therefore the epitome of the bad deva who, believing in his superiority to the Buddha, reviles and attacks him. In the stories described so far, in which Brahmā advances the Buddha‟s teaching (often at the expense of Brahmanism) and acknowledges the Awakened One‟s superiority, he epitomizes the model deva. Subordinate Brahmās, like Sahampati, and Māra would then be structural opposites, working in Buddhist narratives to advance the tradition‟s reconceptualization of the role and place of gods. 220


“Why Did Brahmā Ask the Buddha to Teach?” Buddhist Studies Review, pg. 98. On this point, it is an interesting aside to note that Greg Bailey has argued that parts of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyāṇa in which Brahmā asks Vyāsa and Vālmīki to recite the respective epics, and use the meter that they employ, is a Hindu appropriation of the trope of Brahmā asking the Buddha to teach, but turning it toward Brahmanical narratives. See The Mythology of Brahmā, pgs. 175-181. 220 This is the main theme of chapter four of this dissertation.

88 Negative representations of Brahmās in Buddhist texts show the reverse situation, specifically, the arrogant and obstructionist nature of Brahmanical devas. These representations, as we shall see, correspond almost diametrically with the positive portrayals already covered. For instance, though it is a later text from a different tradition, the Mahāvastu contains an episode in which a Mahābrahmā appears to Gotama when he is still at his palace and attempts to dissuade him from leaving his princely life. In his promises of worldly riches and earthly dominion in exchange for forsaking renunciation, this Mahābrahmā acts in the same manner attributed to Māra in other Buddhist texts and creates a clear contrast with the Sahampati who begs Gotama not only to achieve awakening, but to spread the dharma.221 This contrast in the Buddhist portrayal of Brahmās, however, represents a statement not just about the nature of gods, but the nature of society. Given Brahmā‟s status as the titular Brahmanical deity, it is certainly not accidental that the behavior of the positively portrayed Brahmās reflects the attention Buddhists believed they were due from Brahmins. Thus the degree to which they recognize that alms-giving is the corrected form of sacrifice and the Buddha is their learned superior, they are emulating such great Brahmās as Sahampati. When they fall short of this goal, they are akin to Māra. Both sides are evident in the Māratajjanīya Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya. In this sutta Māra assails one of the Buddha‟s most prominent disciples, Moggallāna, by entering into his gut, giving him a stomachache. Moggallāna recognizes Māra‟s presence immediately, much faster than any of the Buddha‟s other disciples. Soon we are told this because in a past life he was a Māra, named Dūsī.222 Māra Dūsī, like the current Māra, pursued and attempted to frustrate that

221 222

MV II 158. MN I 332

89 era‟s Buddha (named Kakusandha). Similar to a Saṃyutta Nikāya text we have already examined, Māra Dūsī exerts his influence over a group of Brahmin householders (brāhmaṇagahapati anvāvisati) first to ridicule the bhikkhus as belonging to a lower vaṇṇa and mistaken in their practices. Specifically, the gahapatis call the bhikkhus “dark offspring of Brahmā‟s feet” (kiṇhā bandhupādāpaccā) and ones who, though they boast they meditate, actually meditate wrongly (apajjhāyanti).223 The second insult seems plain enough in implying that, unlike Brahmanical practice, Buddhist meditation leads nowhere, which is something of a mirror image of the charges Buddhist passages make about Brahmanical ritual. The first phrase, however, requires further exegesis. Though “bandhu” can also mean “kinsmen” – this is how Bhikkhus Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi render it in their translation224 – “bandhupādāpaccā” more specifically, when used by a Brahmin, could be rendered, “offspring from our kinsman‟s feet,” taking into account the belief that Brahmā is the ancestor of all Brahmins. 225 The first insult thus clearly references Brahmin arguments reaching back to the Vedic myth of Puruṣa‟s sacrifice to assert that Buddhists and other renunciants are inveterately of lower social standing than Brahmins. (Indeed, these are the kind of arguments to which the satirical Aggañña Sutta, briefly considered earlier, is a response.) The charge was apparently fairly prevalent, for one finds oblique responses to it in other Buddhist texts, such as the Thera- and Therīgāthā, in which various monks and nuns express that, “previously I was a kinsman of Brahmā (brahmabandhu) but now [that is, after becoming a Buddhist] I am a true Brahmin.”226 In the case of the


Ibid. 334. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, pg. 433. 225 T.W. Rhys-Davids understands the passage this way in the Pāli-English Dictionary, pg. 482. 226 The line is repeated almost word for word in several places in the text. See Theragāthā, 29 and 82, and Therīgāthā, 147, 151, and 155. 224

90 Māratajjanīya Sutta, the Buddhist narrative clearly links this Brahmanical discourse, including its portrayal of Brahmā, to the obstructive and deceptive machinations of Māra. Buddha Kakusandha advises his followers to respond to these criticisms with equanimity, and recommends the same course when Māra switches tactics to have the Brahmins honor and praise the bhikkhus.227 Māra‟s attempts to arouse first anger and then pride in the bhikkhus, allowing him to gain influence over them, are thus thwarted. The climax of the flashback occurs when Māra Dūsī causes a boy to hurl a rock at an attendant of the Buddha‟s, at which point, Moggallāna explains, that particular Māra was reborn in hell and then later, reborn as Moggallāna.228 The remainder of the sutta is given over to description of the hells and further upbraiding of Māra for his audacity in persecuting one of the Buddha‟s followers. One passage in that later part of the text bears special attention. Moggallāna recounts speaking to Sakka (Indra), who relates the following words of Brahmā: “I see the radiance operating outside the Brahmā world. Thus how could I think, „I am eternal,” or „I am permanent?‟”229 While the gahapatis under Māra‟s power draw on the figure of Brahmā in an attempt to put Buddhists in their place (lower than Brahmins, of course), the real Brahmā (according to Buddhists) speaks out at the end to dispute the Brahamanical notion of himself as a permanent, eternal creator. The point of intersection for both portrayals, and one of the vertices along which we can make the most fruitful contrast, is the figure of Māra. The bad behavior and (according to Buddhists) fallacious arguments of the Brahmins are symptoms of Māra, while Brahmā‟s words at the end are a rebuke to Māra, emphasizing that nothing is permanent, even


MN I 335-336. Ibid. 336-337. 229 Ibid. 338: passāmi vītivattantaṃ brahmaloke pabhassaraṃ | so ‘ham ajja kathaṃ vajjaṃ ahaṃ nicco ‘mhi sassato || 228

91 devas like themselves. The undercurrent of these twin streams is that the Buddhist version of Brahmā models the correct, more obsequious behavior Brahmins could and should take on through proper understanding. Anything less results in delusion at the hands of Māra. This is precisely the situation other Buddhist narratives either imply or expressly state is at work in descriptions of other Brahmās. In contrast to the preceding unequivocal denouncements of permanence and eternality, this second category of Brahmā narratives consistently portray certain Brahmās as advocates of such beliefs. With the help of the Buddha, the Brahmā involved is disabused of these notions, but the process generally involves a display of logical force or supernatural powers. At play in these Pāli stories, as in the proceeding category, are specific references to different Brahmin social groups, as well as the power of Māra, either hovering in the background or standing directly alongside Brahmā. A typical example occurs in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. One passage in that collection tells of a certain Brahmā (we are not given the name) who develops the view that he is permanent, everlasting, and his realm is impenetrable to ascetics. The Buddha and four of his closest disciples quickly puncture this misconception by appearing in the Brahmā‟s realm: each of the disciples occupies a quarter of space while the Buddha, significantly, appears directly above the Brahmā, giving a spatial demonstration of his superiority in addition to the display of supernormal power. Having surrounded the Brahmā, Moggallāna asks if he has cause now to revisit his previously stated views. Given what has transpired, the Brahmā remarks, “I no longer hold that view which I previously held. I see the radiance operating outside the Brahmā world. Thus how could I think, „I am eternal,‟ or „I am permanent?‟” 230


SN I 144-146: na me mārisa sā diṭṭhi yā me diṭṭhi pure ahu | passāmi vītivattantam brahmaloke pabhassaraṃ |

92 A few similarities to the Māratajjanīya Sutta are worthy of note. First, Brahmā‟s language in the preceding passage is identical to what is found in the Māratajjanīya Sutta. However, rather than a freely-offered rebuke to Māra, the admission this time is elicited by a humbling exhibition of the Buddha‟s superiority. Additionally, it is significant that Moggallāna, the one who pressed Māra on impermanence, is the cross-examiner in this case as well. When we compare Māra in the Māratajjanīya Sutta to the Brahmā in this Saṃyutta Nikāya text, it becomes apparent that this representation of the deva parallels Māra. This parallel and connection to Māra is at work in most of the stories about Brahmās in the Nikāyas, though sometimes it is rather subtle and emerges only by comparison with other texts. By looking closely at the portrayal of these Brahmās and the language used, we can uncover these correlations with Māra and, noting the Brahmin social groups mentioned, determine its social intent. Two Dīgha Nikāya texts in particular, which both cast the primacy of Brahmā gods as illusory – and even delusional – help us locate this context. In the Brahmajāla Sutta, for instance, the Buddha tells a story of the beginning of a cosmic cycle. Though similar in this way to the Aggañña Sutta, which primarily dealt with political and social organization, this text focuses on deflating the notion of a permanent creator god. According to the Buddha, after some time the universe contracts and then expands again, and luminous beings are reborn in a Brahmā world. Eventually, one expires and is reborn in an empty Brahmā palace. Lonely and wishing for company, other beings are coincidentally reborn in the same palace. The first being believes he is responsible and declares, “I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, supreme lord, unsurpassed, lord of all, almighty maker, creator, assigner of stations, mother and father of all

svāhaṃ ajja kathaṃ vajjaṃ ahaṃ nicco „mhi sassato ti ||

93 beings who are and will be. These beings were created by me.” 231 Noticing the self-proclaimed Brahmā was indeed in the palace first, the subsequent beings assent to his declaration, repeating the same list of epithets. Eventually one of the beings is reborn in the human world, taking up the path of an ascetic.232 Through his meditative effort and mental concentration (ceto samādhiṃ), he achieves awareness of his past life in the Brahmā palace and remembers the being who claimed to be the Great Brahmā. His practice is not attuned enough to remember beyond that point, however, and rather than putting the memory of the past life in the proper context, he instead draws the wrong conclusion: a Great Brahmā exists who is “permanent, fixed, eternal, and unchanging, and he remains that way forever.” 233 Besides showing belief in a permanent creator god to be the result of a multilayered and ancient (not to mention colossal) misunderstanding, this story is also a polemic against ascetics who engage in practices that are Buddhist-like but not entirely under Buddhist rubric. This seems directed at the Brahmin ascetic who, we have noted, is like the Buddhist bhikkhu but maintains allegiance to Vedic tradition, causing friction on both counts. Here we see the outcome of nearBuddhist practice still rooted in the Vedas: he comes close to unmasking the true nature of Brahmā, but instead buys into the faux deva‟s illusory claims and, what is even more egregious, begins to promulgate them. The thrust of the story is that in order to untangle all these wrong views one must forswear Brahmanical methods and outlooks in favor of Buddhist. The Dīgha Nikāya‟s Kevaddha Sutta makes a similar point about Brahmā while directing itself against the Brahmin gahapatis. The start of the text is the gahapati Kevaddha coming to


DN I 18: aham asmi brahmā mahābrahmā abhibhū anabhibhūto aññadatthudaso vasavattī issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sañjitā vasī pitā bhūta bhavyānaṃ. Mayā ime sattā nimmitā. 232 Ibid.: itthattaṃ āgato samāno agārasmā anagāriyaṃ pabbajati. 233 Ibid.: so nicco dhuvo sassato avipariṇāmadhammo sassatisamaṃ tath‟ eva ṭhassati.

94 speak to the Buddha. For this audience, the Awakened One tells a story about a bhikkhu who, curious to know where “elements cease without remainder,” consults first the thirty-three gods, then the Yāma gods, before finally arriving at the realm of Brahmā.234 When the bhikkhu asks this Great Brahmā his question, the latter responds only with a recitation of his titles, identical to what we saw in the Brahmjāla Sutta: “Bhikkhu, I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, supreme lord, the unsurpassed lord of all, almighty maker and creator, assigner of stations, mother and father of all beings who are and will be.”235 Twice more the bhikkhu repeats his question only to receive the same non sequitur for an answer. Finally, the Brahmā takes the monk aside (ekamantaṃ apanetvā) in order to save his retinue, as well as himself undoubtedly, the experience of publicly admitting he does not know the answer.236 Though to this point the text is a rather pointed condemnation of Brahmā for trying to mask his ignorance with, of all things, declarations of his supremacy, he next lauds the Buddha. The bhikkhu, he says in no uncertain terms, has acted badly (dukkatam), even offensively (aparaddham) by asking others for the answer to his question instead of going to the Buddha. 237 He further tells the bhikkhu to find the Buddha without delay and “accept the answer just as the Blessed One explains it.” 238 Criticism is thus quickly reflected onto the bhikkhu: why would he expect an answer other than bluster from someone besides the Buddha? Keeping the frame of the story in mind, namely the Buddha‟s instruction of a gahapati, it is apparent that the critique can be traced back a further step, as a kind of preemptive recrimination stating that Brahmin householders are as mistaken as the


DN I 211-220. Ibid. 221: aham asmi bhikkhu brahmā mahābrahmā abhibhū anabhibhūto aññadatthudaso vasavattī issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sañjitā vasī pitā bhūtabhavyānan ti. 236 Ibid. 221-222. 237 Ibid. 222. 238 Ibid.: yathā ca te bhagavā vyākaroti tathā naṃ dhāreyāsīti. 235

95 bhikkhu in the story if they seek answers to their questions from a deva with fancy names but no real knowledge. The real locus of authority, the sutta posits, is the Buddha or his followers. As a pair, the Brahmajāla and Kevaddha Suttas are instructive about the arguments Buddhist authors directed toward the different Brahmin social groups. Based on the evidence in the Brahmajāla Sutta, they targeted Brahmin ascetics for having practices which fell just short of Buddhist understanding, with enormous misperceptions of the actual state of reality to show for it. The Kevaddha Sutta reveals a rhetoric of gahapati dependence on the sangha, apparently as an attempt to display the Brahmin as the source of all instruction. In both cases, the argument is made by revealing Brahmā‟s claims to permanence and eternality to be baseless. Crucial to the intricacy of this Buddhist discourse, however, is an understanding of how these claims of permanence and eternality are ultimately grounded in the figure of Māra. Attempts to cover up the reality of anicca are a calling card of Māra in the Nikāyas, as demonstrated by his response to the Buddha‟s declaration that human life is short: “Human beings have long lives; a good person does not revile it. One should go on, content like a sleeping baby, for death has not arrived.”239 Similarly, Māra contends later on that “the days and nights do not fly by, life does not stop, human lives roll on like a chariot hub.” 240 Interestingly, given the conception of saṃsāra as a wheel continually spinning on and on, taking beings with it through endless rebirths, the image of life as a chariot wheel is actually quite consonant with Buddhist teaching. Rather than point this out, though, in both cases the Buddha is content to state


SN I 108: dīgham āyu manussānaṃ na naṃ hīle suporiso | careyya khīramatto va natthi maccussa āgamo ti || “Khīramatto” literally means “intoxicated with milk,” which I have rendered as “sleeping baby” because the sense seems to be one immune to cares or worries. 240 Ibid. 109: nāccayanti ahorattā jīvitaṃ n‟ uparujjhati | āyu anupariyāti maccānaṃ nemi va ratha kubbaranti. ||

96 the opposite of what Māra has just asserted, specifically, in the first case, “The life of humans is short. A good person should revile it. One should go about with head on fire, for death has come.”241 In the Buddhacarita, as Māra intervenes against Gotama‟s enlightenment quest, he identifies himself entirely with the old Brahmanical order, telling the sage, “Get up, Kṣatriya, one who is afraid of death. Abandon the dharma of release and follow your own dharma. Strive to obtain the world through arrows and sacrifices, and from the location of this world, obtain that of Vāsava.”242 These dialogues between the Buddha and Māra firmly align the latter with pravṛtti concerns and ideologies. When placed alongside encounters between a deluded Brahmā and the Buddha in Buddhist texts, we begin to see the profound rhetorical similarities between the devas. A prime example occurs when an “evil or pernicious theory” (pāpakaṃ diṭṭigataṃ) develops in Brahmā Baka‟s mind: “This is permanent, this is stable. This is eternal, this is self-sufficient, this has an unchanging nature. Here one does not age, one does not die, one does not move on, one does not arise again. There is no other escape better than this.”243 Immediately we should notice that these are the same kind of views Māra was espousing: life is long, stable, and happy, while death is remote and not a matter of concern. As in other stories when a Brahmā develops such views, the Buddha senses Brahmā Baka‟s mindset and becomes disturbed, saying, literally, “Oh!


Ibid. 108: appam āyu manussānaṃ hīleyya naṃ suporiso | careyyādittasīso va / natthi maccussa nāgamo ti || (Literally, “…death has not not come.”) 242 13. 9: uttiṣṭha bhoḥ kṣatriya mṛtyubhīta cara svadharmaṃ tyaja mokṣadharmam | bāṇaiśca yajñaiśca vinīya lokaṃ lokātpadaṃ prāpnuhi vāsavasya || It is also possible, though this chapter is not the context in which to develop the idea, that this sentiment on the part of Māra may be borrowed from the Bhagavad-gītā, as Kṛṣṇa attempts to rally Arjuna to fight at Kurukṣetra. I will look into this possibility further in chapter four, when I deal with the figure of Indra and Buddhist uses of Māra to rework notions of the kṣatriya class. 243 SN I 142: idaṃ hi mārisa niccaṃ idaṃ dhuvaṃ / idaṃ sassataṃ idaṃ kevalaṃ idam acavanadhammaṃ / idaṃ hi na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na uppajjati / it ca panaññam uttariṃ nissaraṇaṃ natthīti.

97 Brahmā Baka has become ignorant!”244 He appears in Brahmā‟s realm and the corrective he offers to Brahmā Baka‟s views is strikingly similar to his retorts to Māra: “Baka, though you think life is long, in fact life here is short, not long.” 245 The Buddha goes on to prove he knows the Brahmā‟s past and the span of his life which, though quite long, will inevitably come to an end. Just as Moggallāna deflates Māra‟s perception of eternality in the Māratajjanīya Sutta by revealing he is not the first and only Māra, the Buddha knocks Baka from his pedestal by demonstrating he is not the first and only Brahmā. Both those narratives make clear that any bhikkhu outranks even the highest deva in term of viññā (discernment or understanding) whether it is Māra or Brahmā. Indeed, these narratives also imply that in many important ways, a Brahmā who does not understand his place in the new Buddhist cosmic hierarchy is similar to Māra, making the same problematic arguments, and thus necessitating the same kind of response. The Majjhima Nikāya variant of the Baka Brahmā story makes explicit the connection between Māra‟s deluding influence and the misperceptions and self-aggrandizing of Brahmā by placing the two devas together. In the Brahmanimantanika Sutta, Brahmā Baka espouses the same view about the permanence and eternality of existence, in identical language as the Saṃyutta Nikāya version.246 The Buddha is similarly distressed and transports to the Brahmā world to disabuse Baka, but in this version, Māra appears in the Brahmā world as well, exerting his power over a member of the Brahmā assembly. Under Māra‟s control, the assembly member warns the Buddha, “Bhikkhu, do not insult him, for this is Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the


Ibid.: avijjāgato vata bho bako brahmā. Ibid. 143: appaṃ hi etaṃ na hi dīgham āyu | yaṃ tvaṃ baka maññasi dīgham āyu || 246 MN I 326: idaṃ niccaṃ idaṃ dhuvaṃ idaṃ sassataṃ idaṃ kevalaṃ idaṃ acavanadhammaṃ, etc. 245

98 supreme lord, the unsurpassed lord of all, almighty maker and creator, assigner of stations, mother and father of all beings who are and will be.”247 We should notice immediately that this is the same list of epithets and adjectives Brahmā uses to describe himself in the Brahmajāla and Kevaddha Suttas, yet here they are the speech of Māra. Bailey has argued that these epithets, particularly abhibhū (“supreme lord”) and anabhibhūto (“unsurpassed lord”) might suggest that Buddhists considered Brahmā to have overcome Māra.248 In contrast to Bailey, the fact that in the Brahmanimantanika Sutta it is Māra himself who utters these words suggests a different interpretation. It seems more plausible from my perspective that such language was meant to parody Brahmanical descriptions of Brahmā, undercutting the concept and legitimacy of that creator god. For instance, the Pāli Canon‟s repeated epithets of Brahmā in the suttas we have discussed match closely to Brahmanical descriptions and exaltations of Brahmā, such as “the great lord of the three worlds,” and “lord of all that moves and is still.”249 It seems more likely, therefore, that the narratives represent a Buddhist maneuver to appropriate Brahmanical language and place it in such a context, namely the speech of Māra, which completely voids its authority. The creator god and his supposed supremacy, the narrative tells us, is actually a work of Māra. 250 After Māra influences the assembly member to list these attributes of Brahmā, along with a list of devas and ascetics who have preceded the Buddha throughout time, an unbowed


Ibid. 326-327: bhikkhu bhikkhu metam āsado metam āsado eso hi bhikkhu brahmā mahābrahmā abhibhū anabhibhūto aññadatthudaso vasavattī issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sañjitā bhūtabhavyānaṃ. 248 The Mythology of Brahmā, pg. 14. 249 MB 13.65.18-19: bhagavaṃstvaṃ prabhurbhūmeḥ sarvasya tridivasya ca; and tvaṃ hi sarvasya jagataḥ sthāvarasya carasya ca 250 In the Theragāthā, on the other hand, we do have an exhortation to “become Brahmā, unsurpassed destroyer of Māra‟s army” (brahmabhūto atitulo mārasenappamaddano) (79). In this case, however, while the verse indicates Brahmā defeated Māra, it also suggests the listener/reader become Brahmā, achieving or surpassing the status of deva, which is a different notion entirely.

99 Awakened One merely responds, “I know you, evil one. Do not think, „he does not know me,‟ for you are evil Māra.‟”251 Two related points proceed from this passage. First, the Buddha‟s words are directed as much at Brahmā as Māra, for by immediately recognizing the machinations of Māra and labeling them as such, he has performed a feat for which Brahmā Baka apparently does not have the proper comprehension. Namely, the Buddha demonstrates the necessary understanding to see through appearances and deceptive phenomena. Second, this sutta is yet another example in the theme we have seen of viññā as the means by which Buddhists ought to relate to devas. Given the lineage of the creator deity and its apprehension in Brahmanism, discussed earlier in this chapter, this standpoint differs starkly from the Brahmanical tradition‟s means of interacting with such devas: ritual, primarily sacrificial. Buddhist texts certainly redefine Brahmanical ritual and imbue sacrifice with a different sense, and I would suggest these Pāli narratives participate in that project. Meanwhile, the Buddha‟s recognition causes Māra to retreat temporarily and the conversation moves to a dialogue between Brahmā Baka and his visitor. The deva repeats his assertions of permanence and eternality, adding a veiled threat that there is no escape beyond and that the Buddha will only become exhausted and remain in Brahmā‟s dominion for him to destroy.252 If earlier we had seen Māra echo Brahmā‟s speech, here Brahmā echoes Māra‟s words, for other Buddhist texts have Māra speaking in just these terms, naming the seemingly expansive borders of his control and warning the Buddha not to test them. For example, in the Mārasaṃyutta, he boasts, “the eye is mine…the ear is mine…the nose is mine…the tongue is


MN I 327: janāmi kho tāhaṃ pāpima mā tvaṃ maññittho na maṃ jānātīti māro tvam asi pāpima. Ibid., 328: na c‟ ev‟ aññaṃ uttariṃ nissaraṇaṃ dakkhissasi yāvad eva ca pana kilamathassa vighātassa bhāgī bhavissasi. 252

100 mine…the body is mine…the mind is mine…where can you go to escape from me?” 253 At each point, such as cited above, the Buddha cedes control of the dominion named by Māra as his province, but posits a further area over which Māra cannot exert control, which the Buddha and his arahants inhabit. As we would expect at this point, the Buddha replies to Brahmā Baka in the Brahmanimantanika Sutta just as he counters Māra elsewhere. He acknowledges the extent of the deva‟s control, his tremendous power (mahiddiko), high station (mahānubhāvo), and great authority (mahesakkho).254 However, there are realms which the Brahmā neither knows nor sees, that he cannot appreciate devas as devas, Pajāpati as Pajāpati, nor Brahmā as Brahmā, meaning he cannot see them for what they are. The Buddha knows all these things, can perceive devas as the impermanent and fluctuating beings they actually are, and thus surpasses Brahmā Baka in discernment.255 To demonstrate that his realm exceeds Brahmā‟s, the Buddha disappears from Baka‟s sight, while the Brahmā cannot do so. At that, Baka Brahmā and his assembly assent to the Buddha‟s superiority.256 While the Buddha‟s speech in this narrative seems directed at a deva, in line with the other narratives we have analyzed, there is also a more earthly object for his discourse, namely Brahmā‟s namesakes, the Brahmins. Indeed, as it consists of a challenge, a refutation, and an admission of defeat on the part of the Buddha‟s opponent, the story‟s structure is similar to what Manné outlined as the features of a debate sutta.257 In this way, the Buddha‟s contest with Baka seems clearly parallel to his engagements with human Brahmins. By extension, other aspects of 253

SN I 115. Other example abound, such as SN I 106, 111, 112; MN I 151-160. MN I 328-329. 255 Ibid. 329. 256 Ibid. 330. 257 “Categories of Sutta in the Pāli Nikāyas,” pg. 45. 254

101 the Buddha‟s encounter with Baka in the Brahmanimantanika Sutta resonate with how Buddhist traditions contend one should deal with Brahmanical deities. For example, another sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya, the Mūlapariya Sutta, contains a speech in which the Buddha argues that the average (puthujjano), ignorant (assutavā, literally “unheard or untaught”) person perceives Pajāpati as Pajāpati, devas as devas, and Brahmā as Brahmā because he does not fully understand (apariññātam).258 Buddhaghoṣa‟s commentary on this passage is particularly helpful for making this connection. As I have already noted earlier, he glosses “Pajāpati” as another term for Māra. The untaught person, then, also does not recognize the works of Māra. But it also seems that Māra, too, does not understand Māra, for while he believes he is permanent (nicco) and stable (dhuvo), like Prajāpati and Brahmā and all other beings, he will ultimately perish (vinassissati), powerless (avaso) and weak (abalo).259 When we place the two suttas together, simple deduction elicits the conclusion that by espousing views of eternality, Brahmā Baka only possesses the understanding of an average person. By extension, Brahmins who insist that an eternal, permanent creator god exists and outranks the Buddha fundamentally misunderstand reality. Additionally, as many texts demonstrate implicitly through rhetorical and linguistic parallels, and the Brahmanimantanika Sutta shows explicitly, this Brahmanical fallacy is attributable to Māra who, by advancing the idea that phenomena last forever, seeks to keep beings trapped in saṃsāra. That Brahmins do not realize their delusion at the hands of Māra only further demonstrates their delusion. However, at an even greater level of complexity, as Buddhaghoṣa‟s commentary attests, Māra is also akin to Brahmā and Prajāpati, being himself a deluded deva and pseudo-creator.

258 259

MN I 2. Papañcasūdanī Majjhimanikāyaṭṭhakathā, I 33.

102 Conclusion At the end I would like to summarize some of the salient points I have put forth in the preceding. First, I have argued that the Māra/Brahmā tandem in the Pāli Canon is a reinvention of the Brahmanical Prajāpati/Brahmā creator god tradition. The principle concerns of that reinvention were to shift the method of interaction with such gods from sacrifice to viññā and elevate the Buddha, his followers, and the key principles of the tradition, such as anicca, above these devas. Second, I have also stressed the social connection. Two kinds of Brahmins tend to appear in Pāli Buddhist texts, namely wealthy householders and ascetics, and the Buddhist tradition treated both with ambivalence. The Māra/Brahmā tandem represents a narrative method by which Buddhists could acknowledge this diversity and prescribe different social roles to the various groups in accordance with their relation to the dharma, which represented the new social order. Portrayals of Brahmā as subservient to the Buddha and espousing Buddhist views serve also as role models for human Brahmins to follow, and place the god in opposition to Māra. Conversely, the episodes in which Brahmā asserts cosmic superiority or eternal status show him to have the same misconceptions as Māra, or (as in the case of the Brahmanimantanika Sutta) actually to be laboring unknowingly under the power of Māra. Overall, the Māra/Brahmā tandem operates at both these levels, helping us make sense of the initially disorienting disparity of treatments Brahmā gods receive in the Pāli Canon. As a satire on creator gods and a response to a diverse social situation, Māra and Brahmā are two sides of a coin, and two faces of deva.


Chapter 4: Deva Buddha, Demonic Māra; Demonic Buddha, Deva Māra

104 I. Introduction Rubin’s Vase, Śleṣa, and Māravijaya Anthologies of optical illusions will frequently include the so-called “Rubin‟s vase” (depicted in figure one). Seen from one perspective, the design is plainly a vase. Apprehended by the eye (and brain) slightly differently, however, the image resolves into two faces in profile, “face to face,” as it were. While both readings of the image are possible, it is difficult (if not impossible) to process them simultaneously. One can see either the vase or the faces, but it is very hard to see both at the same time, and attempting to do so can be disorienting.

Figure One: “Rubin‟s vase.”

105 Indian literature possesses something of the same phenomenon in an advanced technical flourish employed frequently by writers of mahākāvya (ornate poetry). Called “śleṣa,” it is a double-entendre pun which can operate throughout whole stanzas. The śleṣa is a deliberately ambiguous construction requiring – and even more to the point, inviting – multiple readings to understand the work.260 The result can often be two contradictory readings of the same line, as in this verse from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa: rajanyeṣā ghorarūpā ghorasattvaniṣevitā | pratiyāta vrajaṃ nehi stheyam strībhiḥ sumadhyamāḥ ||261 The line is spoken by Kṛṣṇa after he has called the gopīs to come dally with him and, read one way, it says, “This night is terrible, inhabited by terrible creatures. Go back to Vraja, thin-waisted ones. Women should not remain here.” However, if in the first line the long vowels “ā” at the respective ends of “rajanyeṣā” and “rūpā” are interpreted as privative “a‟s” before both instances of “ghora,” and if in the second line the “na” is taken with “pratiyāta,” the line reads: “This night is pleasant [literally “unterrible”], inhabited by friendly [“unterrible”] creatures. Don‟t go back to Vraja, thin waisted ones. Women should remain here.” This mixed message is entirely in keeping with Kṛṣṇa‟s mischievous character in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, as well as that particular scene in which he toys with the affections of his gopī admirers. The instance of śleṣa serves to emphasize the god‟s playfulness and embody his contradictory nature (god/human, lover/leaver) in the very words of the text. Like the Rubin‟s vase discussed above, the content of the object (be it an image or a text) has not changed. Both readings are present and


Siegfried Lienhardt, History of Indian Literature: A History of Classical Poetry, pgs. 222-224. Māgha, among others, as evidenced in the Śiṣupālavadha, was a master of this literary trick (see Louis Renou, Indian Literature, pg. 24). 261 Bhāgavata Purāṇa 10.29.19. My thanks to Blake Wentworth for drawing my attention to this instance of śleṣa.

106 while it is difficult to maintain both simultaneously, to a large extent both readings coexist, erupting from the image or page depending on the observer‟s perception and interpretation. Both perform an operation that logical argument cannot achieve: the communication of two contradictory messages simultaneously. In the spirit of Rubin‟s vase and śleṣa, in this chapter I argue that Buddhist narratives of Gotama‟s battle with Māra at Bodh-Gayā (which I have referred to in this dissertation as “Māravijaya” – “the victory over Māra”) possess an ambiguous, double-entendre quality, containing at least two possible readings of the relationship and relative cosmic identities of the adversaries. On the one hand, in keeping with one of the ordering themes of Indian mythology since the Vedas, namely the notion of eternal conflict between gods and demons, 262 the Māravijaya narratives cast the Buddha-to-be as a deva-like figure who conquers a correspondingly asura-resembling Māra. On the other hand, comparison to Brahmanical texts also shows Māra, by attempting to arrest the practice of a powerful ascetic, is acting in a characteristically deva-like manner, whereas the Buddha-to-be, by disrupting the cosmic order, is in fact behaving like a demon. As I will show, both interpretations are firmly grounded in the symbolism and content of the mythology and its texts. The coexistence of both meanings, of the deva-Buddha versus the demonic Māra alongside the deva-Māra versus the demonic Buddha, creates a play of opposites and tension of contradiction no philosophical treatise could manage. Though seemingly dissonant, the two valences work together to articulate a Buddhist statement on social and cosmic hierarchies opposed to and distinct from the Brahmanical vision. The figurative nexus for this revision and renegotiation is found in the Brahmanical deity Indra. The connections between Indra and Māra are just as complex, and ultimately 262

Wendy Doniger (O‟Flaherty), The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, pg. 58.

107 demonstrative of ideology, as those the previous chapter advanced regarding Māra and Brahmā. Since Indra is the primary foe of the asuras as well as the ascetics who threaten the gods, the figure of the thunder god stands in natural tension with both valences of the Māravijaya mythic cycle. The two traditions of narratives are, to invoke Bakhtin, dialogically linked, embedded in one another, for “the word is shaped in dialogic interaction with an alien word that is already in the object.”263 The comparison between the evolving mythology of Indra and the valences of the Māravijaya narratives will show that the Buddha-to-be‟s battle with Māra is a vicarious battle with Brahmanism, of whom Māra is the surrogate. In the one sense, by acting the part of an Indra defeating the Māra-asura, Buddhist authors expressed what they believed could be retained, although revised, from the Brahmanical worldview. Through the other valence, of a demonic Buddha besting an Indra-Māra, these authors showed the extent to which Brahmanical views and norms needed to be overthrown. The Changing Character of Indra Given the centrality of Indra to these narratives and the comparisons I will make, the evolution of his mythic character is important and will be summarized briefly here. As one of the most popular Vedic deities, the thunder god stood in that tradition, and for some time afterward, as the archetype of the Kṣatriya varṇa.264 In that capacity, many of the hymns addressed to Indra appeal for the materials and goods which result from conquest in battle, such as wealth, and also those things which are more generally connected to virility, such as cattle, sons, and a long


The Dialogic Imagination, pg. 280. Dumézil, The Destiny of the Warrior, pg. 90. Though I am aware of the shortcomings of Dumézil‟s work recently brought to light by some (such as Bruce Lincoln in Theorizing Myth, pgs. 121-137) there are still applicable and useful aspects to his research. 264

108 life.265 His most important triumph, in the Rig Veda and every tradition thereafter, is his victory over the serpent Vṛtra, which results in his frequent appellation “Vṛtrahan,” the “slayer of Vṛtra.”266 The battle between the thunder god and the serpent comes complete with lightning, thunder, rains of hail, and tremors in the earth and skies.267 Indra eventually smashes Vṛtra utterly, breaking the serpent‟s head and jaw, then splits open his body to unleash the dawn, sky, sun, and waters, all previously pent up in the monstrous snake.268 W. Norman Brown characterizes the battle as a confrontation between sat (being) and asat (non-being), cthonic darkness and celestial light.269 Vṛtra, whose name appropriately stems from the root vṛ (conceal, encompass, restrain), according to this interpretation personifies a principle of dark inertia that must be overcome in order to bring about the creation of the world.270 Indra, therefore, according to this interpretation, makes the world safe for civilization. But as others, like Laurie Patton, have pointed out, there is a curious resemblance between the dark, intransigence of Vṛtra, who holds back the waters of fertility and life, and the human enemies (dāsas, mlecchas, or amanuṣyas) discussed in the Vedas, who have dark-colored skin, worship the wrong gods, and therefore must be relieved of their cities and wealth by Indra. 271 Indra, therefore, from this perspective, makes the world safe for Aryans and Brahmins. Whether one ascribes to an allegorical interpretation like Brown, leans to the sociological end like Patton, or tends to combine the two (as I do), the picture that emerges of Indra is of a potent, formidable warrior deity in a predominant cultural position. Symbolizing the warrior 265

Jan Gonda, Indra Hymns in the Rig Veda, pgs. 48-50. For an exemplary such hymn, see RV 2.19. A.A. MacDonnell counts no less than seventy usages of that term in the Rig Veda alone, Vedic Mythology, pg. 60. 267 The battle is described in numerous places throughout the Rig Veda. For examples of these specific phenomena, see RV 1.32.13; 1.80.11-13; and 6.17.9. 268 RV 1.32.1-10; 4.17.3; 10.152.3. 269 W. Norman Brown, “Theories of Creation in the Rig Veda,” pg. 24. 270 W. Norman Brown, “The Creation Myth of the Rig Veda,” pgs. 88-94. 271 Bringing the Gods to Mind, pg. 119. 266

109 class and the conquest of primordial disorder (whether elemental or human), the Vedic Indra is a central figure. Yet by the later tradition, certainly the time of the classical epics, Indra‟s position at the apex of the cosmic pantheon has faltered quite dramatically. His character has declined to where his narratives highlight sexual transgressions (i.e., seducing Ahalyā, the wife of the sage Gautama) and even his great triumph over Vṛtra is tainted by the sin of Brahminicide.272 Rather than bringing the universe into being and heralding the beginning of Vedic culture, in the epic versions of the myth (which I will discuss in more detail later) after defeating Vṛtra, Indra must instead renounce his throne and sulk off to perform penance. By this time the thunder god has even been replaced as the archetypal Kṣatriya by his son Arjuna. Indeed, one could even see Indra‟s parentage of the great epic warrior as a means of passing the torch.273 Though still nominally “king of the gods” in the epics and purāṇas, in that literature Indra has become, in the words of Doniger (O‟Flaherty), “a clown king, a blustering figurehead mocked by the now dominant priests…”274 As Doniger‟s comment suggests, the shift in Indra‟s representation is perhaps owed to a shift in power from the Kṣatriya to Brahmin class. Along these same lines, if we take into account another social shift, namely the rise of Buddhist traditions and their literature, we find yet a third stage in the characterization of Indra. In Buddhist Pāli sources the name “Indra” primarily occurs in formulaic lists of the gods.275 More frequent are stories about the god renamed as “Sakka” (“mighty”) who, along with the name change, transforms from a virile warrior to the paragon of strength ruled by restraint. In one text, for example, after a captured


Dumézil, pg. 70; See also Maurice Winternitz, History of Indian Literature, pg. 393. Dumézil, pg. 90; Alf Hiltebeitel, The Ritual of Battle, pgs. 261-262. 274 The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, pg. 146. 275 For instance, see DN I 244, II 261, and MN I 140. 273

110 asura has repeatedly insulted and berated the god, Sakka merely replies dryly that he is content not to trade barbs with a fool.276 In an even more revealing incident, after losing a battle with the asuras, we are told a retreating Sakka notices his path will endanger a nest of birds and thus, rather than endanger the helpless creatures, turns to surrender. As it turns out, Sakka actually wins the day through this sudden maneuver, for the asuras become bewildered by his about-face and decide to retreat.277 It does not take much analysis to conclude that the Buddhist presentation is not the same Indra as the Vedic god whose wrath makes the earth quake,278 nor whose heroism (vīryam) and “manly power” (paumsiyaṃ) are directly linked to the ability to crush, kill, and destroy enemies.279 Indeed, a representative exhortation to the deity in the Rig Veda reads, “Strive forward! Dare! Your thunderbolt is not restrained. Indra, your power is manliness. Kill Vṛtra and conquer the waters.”280 Whereas the Buddhist Sakka unintentionally wins battles through restraint and refuses to strike a blaspheming enemy, the Vedic Indra is celebrated for lacking restraint and considered “manly” (i.e., heroic) due to his proficiency in killing. If we take Indra as the paradigmatic deity of the Kṣatriya varṇa, the differing representations of the god between Vedic and Buddhist narratives constitute two poles of interpretation of the ideal nature of that class. In between stands the third understanding of Indra described in the synopsis above, which is the classical and Purāṇic characterization of the flawed yet still martially potent Indra who jealously guards his cosmic preeminence. To put it


SN I 222. SN I 224-225. 278 RV 4.17.2 279 RV 1.80.8, 10. 280 RV 1.80.3: prehi abhīhi dhṛṣnuhi na te vajro ni yaṃsate | indra nṛmṇaṃ hi te savo hano vṛtraṃ jayā apo || 277

111 succinctly, I believe the double-valence, śleṣa-nature of the Māravijaya narrative addresses both competing Brahmanical notions of Indra. On the one hand, the tame Buddhist Sakka and the valence of the myth in which a deva-like Gotama bloodlessly defeats an asura-like Māra is a Buddhist re-writing of the meaning of the Kṣatriya varṇa. On the other hand, the deva-Māra versus demon-Gotama valence is an inversion of the Hindu epic motif in which Indra attacks threatening ascetics and is subordinated to Brahmanical authority. Sources of the Māravijaya Myth Cycle Before proceeding further, some discussion of the major sources of the Māravijaya myth is required. The primary versions of the story are the Padhāna-sutta of the Suttanipāta and Nidānakathā in Pāli, the Mahāvastu and Lalitavistara in Buddhist Sanskrit, and Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita in Sanskrit. The oldest is most likely the Padhāna-sutta (third or second century BCE), followed by Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita (second century CE), while the Nidānakathā, Lalitavistara, and Mahāvastu have less certain dates, but are most likely extant from the third or fourth centuries CE. Though their precise dates are somewhat vague and certain linguistic properties locate them later than the other versions, there is reason to think that (besides the Padhāna-sutta) all the versions herald from the early centuries of the Common Era.281 (As a brief aside, the Mahāvastu deserves special mention as its likely span of composition (second century BCE to fourth century CE) and obvious structural reliance on the other versions suggest it is a patchwork of the other stories and therefore somewhat later than the others.) At any rate, the basic story (summarized from all versions, though some emphasize or neglect given aspects or locate them slightly differently) is that the sage Gotama, resolving to Buddhahood, took a seat under a tree at Bodh-Gayā, catching the attention of Māra. Threatened 281

Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature, pg. 189.

112 at the prospect of the sage‟s Buddhahood, Māra intervenes and, through appeals to sensual desire as well as martial force, attempts to arrest Gotama‟s attainment. He fails and Gotama becomes a Buddha. As mentioned, different versions cast aspects differently; for example, Buddhacarita portrays the temptation of desire as an arrow fired by Māra, while in Lalitavistara the god employs his seductive daughters. Some of these discrepancies in detail or order might be owed to sectarian issues: Nidānakathā serves as the introduction to the Jātaka collection and is considered authoritative by the Theravāda school, the Lalitavistara is a Mahāyāna work, the Mahāvastu has been connected to the Lokottaravādins, and Buddhacarita was composed in an area of Sarvāstivādin predominance, though Johnston speculated Aśvaghoṣa was a Bahuśrutika.282 The overall structural similarity of the story throughout its different instantiations is striking and suggests a basic narrative was considered legitimate by all sects, notwithstanding the minor variations. This overall consistency in the face of sectarian differences has led some scholars to refer to the Buddha‟s biography as “pan-Buddhist.”283 Some, like Winternitz and Ernst Windisch, thought the Padhāna-sutta was this earliest version due to its sparse treatment and lack of descriptive flourishes, such as the numerous verses of description of Māra‟s army one finds in Buddhacarita or Lalitavistara.284 It is not quite so easy to make this judgment, however, as some such as Lamotte have noted artistic depictions of these events in the Buddha‟s life exist as early as the second century BCE, probably before most of the literary descriptions.285 Additionally, the authors of the Buddhist story literature, like Aśvaghoṣa, as Strong explains, 282

Johnston, Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita, or Acts of the Buddha, pg. xxxv. Liz Wilson, Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature, pg. 192. 284 Johnston., pg. 97. 285 The History of Indian Buddhism, pg. 666. 283

113 “were not so much composers of original works as reworkers of old legends and oral traditions.”286 The Māravijaya narrative (what perhaps we could call the “Māravijaya myth cycle” as a whole), therefore, could conceivably go back to the earliest strata of Buddhist oral traditions even without a corresponding textual record, and thus reflect the concerns of that time, such as the need to form distinctions from and against Brahmanical competitors. At the same time I believe it is wise to bear in mind Patton‟s warning that a preoccupation with the precise origins of narratives can lead to the implication that those origins exhaust the meaning and application of those narratives.287 Those meanings almost certainly evolved and were debated from the first and second centuries BCE to the early common era, but the wide overlap in certain valences show that a concern with engaging and countering Brahmanical discourse was a prevailing theme. It is the symbolism of that theme, relevant to Indra and Māra, which I discuss in the following. II. Deva Buddha, the “New” Indra versus Asura Māra, the Resurgent Vṛtra As Lowell Bloss points out, the struggle between Māra and the Buddha is nothing less than a confrontation over world sovereignty and whether the current regime governing the phenomenal world will be retained or forever undermined.288 The texts themselves bear this out, as in the Lalitavistara, wherein Māra describes his position this way: “I am lord of desire over 286

The Legend of King Aśoka, pg. 32. Myth as Argument: the Bṛhaddevatā as Canonical Commentary, pg. 38. 288 “The Taming of Māra,” pg. 157. Nancy Falk makes a variant of this argument, but locates the Māravijaya stories in the broader theme of a king‟s conquest over the wilderness, and hence identifies Māra as an outgrowth of the yakṣa (Pāli, yakkha) figure. See “Wilderness and Kingship in Ancient South Asia,” pgs. 11-12. Others who have interpreted Māra as a species of yakṣa include Robert DeCaroli (see Haunting the Buddha, pg. 116) and Trevor Ling (see Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil, pgs. 44-46). Two difficulties stand in the way of this categorization. First, as we have seen, Buddhist texts confer a celestial status to Māra that is rarely (if ever) given to yakṣas. Second, a key part of Buddhist narratives involving the taming or defeat of a yakṣa is its incorporation into the sangha. This certainly does not occur with Māra following the Bodh-Gayā encounter. While Māra does convert in the Upagupta myth cycle, as John Strong demonstrates, this series of narratives involves a whole host of other themes and issues (see The Legend and Cult of Upagupta, pgs. 95-117). 287

114 the whole world, with its gods, hosts of dānavas, humans, and animals subject to me and under my control.”289 Earlier in the same text, as Gotama prepares to begin his final meditation at Bodh-Gayā his thoughts follow the same trajectory. After achieving awakening, he asserts, “I will be king of the three worlds, honored in heaven and on earth, lord who turned the wheel of the dharma, powerful possessor of the ten perfections.”290 In her analysis of feminine figures in Indian Buddhism, Miranda Shaw emphasizes the “world navel” aspect of Gotama‟s seat at BodhGayā and that it is specifically chosen to coincide with the aspect of Pṛthivī, the earth goddess, which confers royal sovereignty. 291 In the Milindapañha, which stands outside the Māravijaya cycle and, in general, serves as a text that comments on issues in earlier Buddhist narratives and doctrine, Nāgasena explains to Milinda that the Buddha can be considered a king since he “rules the world systems through dharma” (lokadhātuyā dhammena rajjaṃ kāreti), having achieved that reign partly though “bringing sorrow to Māra‟s army” (socayanto mārasenaṃ), that is, conquering Māra‟s forces.292 The scope of the battle then is on par with the classic struggle between the devas and asuras, with dominion over the worlds and all their beings hanging in the balance. The battle itself also has the characteristic “fireworks” of the deva/asura battles. In the Indra/Vṛtra story, while the thunder god launches the final salvo of wind and lightning, the monstrous serpent also employs thunder and lightning in an attempt to stave off the deva, along with wind, rain, and hail.293 In the Māravijaya myth cycle, Māra does the same. According to the


21.165: kāmeśvaro „smi vasitā iha sarvaloke devā sadānavagaṇā manujāśca tiryā | vyāptā mayā mama vaśena ca yānti sarve uttiṣṭha mahya viṣayastha vacaṃ kuruṣva || 290 21.116: bheṣyi ahaṃ hi rāju tribhave divi bhuvi mahito īśvaru dharmacakracaraṇo daśabalu balavān || 291 Miranda Shaw, Buddhist Goddesses of India, pgs. 20-22. 292 Pgs. 226-227. 293 RV 1.32.13; 1.80.12.

115 Lalitavistara, in addition to unleashing an army of pretas, piśācas, and yakṣas, the lord of desires summons winds, pouring rain, and a flurry of one hundred-thousand thunderbolts (vidyusahasraśatāni).294 The Nidānakathā breaks this part of the confrontation into nine stages, in which Māra successively invokes storms of wind, rain, rocks, sharp weapons, charcoal, embers, sand, mud, and darkness.295 The Buddhacarita sets the mood in this way: “Seeing the time of battle at dusk for Māra and the bull of the Śākyas, the sky disappeared, the earth trembled, and the directions resounded,” and the wind howled, the stars and moon disappeared, and the oceans shook.296 Of particular importance is Buddhacarita‟s description of the effect of the battle on the celestial sphere, that Māra‟s attack obscures the sky, stars, and, especially, the moon. In light of Māra‟s ability to pull off such a feat, it is interesting to note the well-known tradition of the asura Rāhu (“seizer”) who swallows these very same celestial bodies (usually the moon) during the eclipse (which can be another gloss of “Rāhu”). While the Buddhacarita leaves the connection circumstantial, the Lalitavistara makes it explicit: as the devas who initially supported Gotama flee at Māra‟s approach, they warn the sage, “in the great battle you will be ruined, under the sway of Māra, just as the moon was to the asura.”297 We could say that these references are entirely coincidental, meant only to aggrandize the conflict to a cosmic scale, but in keeping with Bakhtin‟s observation that language is never neutral,298 I think it would be a


21.19. The Jātaka, together with its commentary, ed. V. Fausbøll, vol.1, pg. 73. These additional methods of attack attributed to Māra give some sense of the kinds of variations in the story. 296 13.28-29: taṃ prekṣya mārasya ca pūrvarātre śākyarṣabhasyaiva ca yuddhakālam | na dyauścakāśe pṛthivī cakampe prajajvaluścaiva diśaḥ saśabdāḥ || viṣvagvavau vāyurudīrṇavegastārā na rejur na babhau śaśāṅkaḥ | tamaśca bhūyovitatāna rātriḥ sarve ca saṃcukṣubhire samudrāḥ || 297 21.174: adya prayāsyasi vināśu mahāraṇesmiṃ mārasya eṣyasi vaśaṃ asurasya venduḥ 298 The Dialogic Imagination, pg. 293. 295

116 mistake to dismiss the correspondence so casually. Bearing in mind that part of Māra‟s character in the Buddhist tradition is as a seizer of beings, one who binds them to rebirth in saṃsāra, the link to Rāhu puts a twist on the notion of the eclipse. Rather than an astronomical state, being eclipsed by Māra according to Buddhist traditions means enthrallment to delusion and desire. The celestial event for which Rāhu stood, in which light is obscured and darkness reigns, provides a magnificent metaphor for that condition and the passages in both texts of the Māravijaya make that metaphorical link, which consequently serves to cast Māra in a classically asura way, albeit with a twist. Equally rooting Māra in, as well as reenvisioning, asura mythology are frequent references to the demon Namuci. Throughout the Padhāna-sutta, Mahāvastu, and Lalitavistara Māra is often referred to as “Namuci” in such a way that the names seem nearly synonymous. 299 Like Rāhu and Vṛtra, “Namuci” etymologically carries a sense of restriction and imprisonment, meaning literally, “non-releaser.” The demon Namuci, again similar to Vṛtra, was also a restricter of the waters and an enemy of Indra. According to the Rig Veda the thunder god killed Namuci not with lightning, as with Vṛtra, but the curious implement of sea foam.300 At first we might ask why the author(s) of the narratives would not align Māra with Vṛtra, given the monster serpent‟s greater fame, but I would argue that Namuci, given the literal sense of the name, offers a more fertile opportunity for Buddhist exploitation: as the Buddha strives for the release (Pāli verbal root, “muc”) of beings, Māra is the “namuc,” the one who does not release. In his analysis,


See Padhāna-sutta 3.2.2, 3.2.15; LV 21.5, 42, 81, 172, 184, 200. Also compare MV II 10, 413; and BC 15.25. The latter is an instance in which Māra‟s daughters Rāga, Rati, and Ārati refer to themselves as namucerātmajā, “the daughters of Namuci.” Outside the Māravijaya narratives, in Theragāthā, a verse declares, “I live without defilements, having conquered Namuci‟s army,” obviously referencing Māra through the Vedic name (jitvā namucino senaṃ viharāmi anāsavo) (pg. 38). 300 RV 5.30.7-8.

117 Trevor Ling saw a similar parallel, that while Namuci (as a drought demon) was a threat to the physical well-being of humanity by withholding the rains, Māra threatened one‟s spiritual livelihood by withholding the truth about the impermanent and unsatisfactory nature of reality. 301 Indeed, this is how the Buddhist commentarial tradition has tended to interpret the reference to Māra as “Namuci,” for instance when Dhammapāla glosses Māra as “Namuci” since he does not release beings to cultivate the dharma.302 In this way, the Māravijaya narratives again appropriate an asura figure toward their representation of Māra, simultaneously recalibrating its meaning. The symbolism of waters and rain that we first encountered in the cataclysmic finale of the Indra/Vṛtra duel is brought up again by the Namuci/Māra parallel. In the Vedic stories of Indra‟s victory over Vṛtra, the waters gushing out of the snake go along with the sun, the stars, the cattle, and seem closely connected with the notions of vitality, wealth, and abundance, all of which are forces previously restrained.303 While at no point in the Māravijaya stories, or at any time thereafter, does Gotama slay Māra (which is a point I will discuss soon in greater detail), in some versions of the story water does make an appearance upon the sage‟s final victory. In the Buddhacarita, after Māra leaves the field and his army scatters, we are told in the second line of the last verse of the chapter that “the sky along with the moon reappeared, like the smile of a young woman, and a fragrant rain of flowers and water drops fell.”304 The brief description in


Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil, pg. 55. Ernst Windisch also notes the deva/asura dynamics invoked by the use of the name Namuci, but attributes the reference ultimately to a “regression” in Buddhist narratives to an earlier, more fanciful speech, Māra und Buddha, pg. 185. 302 Dīghāṭṭhakathāṭīka, II 193. 303 To cite just a few: RV 1.32.1-2; 1.85.9; 4.17.3. 304 13.72: yuvatiriva sahāsā dyauścakāśe sacandrā surabhi ca jalagarbhaṃ puṣpavarṣaṃ papāta. The kāvya touch of likening the rescued sky and moon to a young woman‟s smile unavoidably brings to mind the chivalric trope of the maiden rescued from the dragon, especially if we take Māra as an Asura like Vṛtra who was, after all, a giant serpent. Ultimately though I think this comparison also overlays extraneous cultural roles and threatens to read the story, as Coomarasway does, as “just another” Indo-European tale of the hero‟s conquest over a chthonic beast (see “Angel and Titan: An Essay in Vedic Ontology, Journal of the American Oriental Society, pgs. 373-419).

118 Saundarananda, another work by Aśvaghoṣa, also declares that upon Gotama‟s awakening rain fell from cloudless skies.305 In each case, the Vedic versus the Buddhist, what does the water symbolize? As I have mentioned, in the Vedic account the almost violent deluge seems connected to the genesis of the very substances of physical and cultural life: the sun, stars, cattle, etc. According to the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, “everything was in Vṛtra, including the three vedas,” 306 meaning the great snake stifled not only cosmogenesis, but also the sociogenesis of Vedic culture. By his warrior act of splitting open Vṛtra, Indra helps create the world and the Vedic people who will worship him, and that, I would argue, is central to the Vedic symbolism of the water release. As we might expect, the Buddhist symbolism is different, beginning already in the fact that water manifests not as a gushing, roaring flood, but a gentle rain, perhaps in correspondence to the Buddha‟s relatively quiescent triumph, especially when compared with Indra‟s bone-crushing conquest. These waters too signal a new creation, not of a world, but of the (re)emergence of the dharma into the world, which brings about a reappraisal of the world. Like Vṛtra, Māra had tried to hold these waters back and on the heels of his equally futile attempt also comes the founding of a new society, the sangha. Even in the face of such interesting comparisons, it is important to note that the release of water is absent from other versions of the Māravijaya confrontation.307 That the primary


3.9. 307 It is known, however, and also extremely popular, to this day in Southeast Asian Theravādin ritual celebrations of the Buddha‟s awakening, in which Gotama calls upon the earth to bear witness to his merit. She emerges from the ground as a goddess with hair sopping from the water Gotama has poured on her in past lives and, wringing out her locks, produces a flood that washes away Māra and his army. The scene can be found in literary form in the circa twelfth century Thai work, Paṭhamasambodhi. See Jacqueline Filliozat (ed.), Oxford: Pāli Text Society, 2003, 134135. In large part, the tradition goes back to the Nidānakathā, the version preferred by the Theravāda, in which 306

119 examples are found in Aśvaghoṣa‟s works is no accident, bearing in mind what we know of who Aśvaghoṣa was. By all accounts, the poet was thoroughly schooled in Brahmanical tradition, perhaps even coming from Brahmanical heritage.308 As such it is no surprise that his work is replete with allusions and direct references to Brahmanical customs, śāstras, and myths.309 With this background, it seems more than a little coincidental that the Buddha‟s victory over Māra, like Indra‟s over Vṛtra‟s, is attended by the release of waters. From my vantage, it seems likely that a clever poet used the device as an opportunity to claim that the Brahmanical release of waters has been superseded by the Buddha‟s waters of release. Should we widen our scope, however, and take the rain symbolism at its base signification (a cathartic release indicating triumph and the beginning of a new age), it becomes clear that the other versions have parallels to the Buddhacarita‟s water drops. In the Lalitavistara, for instance, the gods appear and heap praise upon the sage, saying, “Victory to you, hero of the world!” (jaya lokavīra) and drop flowers, pearls, and banners upon him.310 The Nidānakathā version, rather than describing water bursting from a dam, instead relates how the entire universe burst forth in fecundity when Gotama defeated Māra, as trees and flowers bloomed and sprouted leaves and fruit.311 Therefore, while water specifically may be lacking in these versions, they contain clear parallels of the idea of a constricted, restrained world exploding into freedom, in keeping with the Vedic standard.

Gotama calls upon the earth for witness, though no flood results (74). That being said, to me it still seems possible to draw a link back to the Rig Veda battle and its use of water symbolism. 308 Johnston, Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita, or Acts of the Buddha, pg. xv; A. Berriedale Keith, Classical Sanskrit Literature, pg. 25. 309 For example, see BC 5.79 for a reference to Agni‟s role in fire sacrifice and 5.30-40 for allusions to śāstra literature. 310 21.199-202. See also MV II 343-344, which has an almost identical description of a downpour of flowers, garlands, and celebration. 311 Pg. 76.

120 If, as I have worked to demonstrate, there is a correspondence forged in the Māravijaya cycle between Māra and the asura tradition, logically we would expect the narratives then to cast the Buddha as a new Indra, the hero who masters the monster and bests the beast. In fact, throughout the Buddhacarita we do find instances in which Gotama is likened to Indra as a mighty figure, as “one equal to Indra” (indrasamo).312 Additionally, and perhaps somewhat akin to Indra‟s pervasive epithet Vṛtrahan, the texts confer titles on the Buddha-to-be such as namuciṃhantum (“capable to kill Namuci”),313 mārabalahantā (“killer of Māra‟s forces”),314 jitārisiṃhā (“lion-like one whose enemy is defeated”),315 the one who “broke the host of Namuci,”316 and “vanquisher of Māra.”317 At one point in the Mahāvastu, a Mahābrahmā praises the Buddha for smashing Māra‟s troops and suggests he raise his banner like a conqueror.318 All carry obvious connotations of martial, warrior prowess and, if one did not read the narratives, would suggest that the Buddha crushed Māra and scattered him to the winds as Indra did to his asura foes. This is not what happens, however, and while the texts exalt in Gotama‟s victory over Māra and occasionally describe it in military metaphors, they also take the opportunity to point out clearly that the sage triumphs in a manner completely different from the usual warrior methods. As Ralph Flores observes, “it is Māra, then, and not the Buddha, who assumes the traditional role of epic warrior.”319 Playing out that role in the Lalitavistara and Mahāvastu, for


5.22. See also 2.25 and 7.43. LV 21.43. 314 Ibid., 21.80. 315 Ibid., 21.200. 316 MV II 414. 317 Ibid., 416. We could also include Pāli Nikāya texts, such as those in which Brahmā and Sakka both greet the Buddha as “vīra vijitasaṅgāma,” “hero whose enemies are conquered” (SN I 233-234). 318 Ibid., II 344. 319 Buddhist Scriptures as Literature: Sacred Rhetoric and the Uses of Theory, pg. 42. 313

121 example, Māra assembles his war counsel of numerous generals and sons to devise a strategy for attacking the sage. His counselors immediately divide into two camps, one in favor of the attack and the other opposed. The former extol Māra‟s impressive powers, the reach of the god‟s influence, and point out that Gotama “has neither allies nor an army,” both of which Māra has in large supply, and thus there is no need “to fear the sage” nor hesitate moving against him. 320 The opposing camp grants Māra‟s power, even that he can crush mountains and rules over both gods and humans, but argue this will not be enough against the bodhisattva. 321 Māra, of course, sides with the saber-rattlers in his retinue and sets out at the head of vast legions of misshapen, gruesome monsters carrying frightful weapons, summoning overpowering forces of nature, all against a solitary ascetic sheltered only by a tree.322 Yet despite the apparently lopsided nature of the confrontation, Māra soon finds his advantages in weapons and numbers amount to naught. The arrows, spears, rocks, javelins, and so forth of his hideous soldiers are either unable to reach the meditating bodhisattva or are transformed into sweet-smelling flowers.323 The rain, lightning, hail, embers, charcoal, and other destructive downfalls the god summons meet the same end, dissipating or halting before they reach their target.324 As a final humiliation and frustration of Māra‟s vaunted military might and


LV 21.42: senā na tasyāsti kutaḥ sahāyāḥ kasmād bhayaṃ te; MV II 428-438. LV 21.40-41. 322 Māra‟s army (mārasena) is described in frightful terms by most versions as a collection of creatures with misshapen features, amalgams of human and animal body parts, or varied combinations of different kinds of animals. See BC 13.18-27; LV 21.16; MV II 411-415; NK, pg. 72. Padhāna-sutta of Suttanipāta seems to treat Māra‟s army metaphorically: “First among your armies is „desire,‟ second is named „dislike,‟” and so on (3.2.12) although a few verses later that text describes the army arrayed in order to do battle (yuddhāya) (3.2.18). Given the Padhāna-sutta is likely the oldest textual version of the encounter, its possibly metaphorical treatment of the army has led some, such as Ernst Windisch, to consider its vivid description as a later accretion of popular tradition (Māra und Buddha, 304). On the other hand, we could just as easily argue that the Padhāna-sutta has treated preexisting vivid accounts in a metaphorical manner. To assume that such developments flow uniformly in one direction or the other is unwarranted. 323 BC 13.34-46; LV 21.175-185. 324 NK, pgs. 73-74. 321

122 godly prowess, according to the Mahāvastu, after the onslaught has run its ineffectual course, Gotama disperses the host and its leader with a mere cough. 325 The Buddha-to-be, therefore, practices a singular form of combat, one which is different in kind and vastly superior to the usual Kṣatriya methodology and mentality. While Māra is portrayed in the Lalitavistara as ignorant of his foe‟s new and different quality of “weaponry,” in the Buddhacarita he himself points out the distinction. When his ministers ask why the god seems so troubled, Māra replies, “the sage wears the armor of ascertainment, drawing the weapon of resolution and the arrow of knowledge. He sits, desiring to conquer my domain. Because of that, my mind is dejected.”326 Far from an isolated case, this technique of casting discernment, knowledge, and other aims of the Buddhist path as the Buddha‟s “weapons,” occurs numerous times in the texts, suggesting a concerted effort at redefinition. In the aforementioned debate between Māra‟s counselors, those in favor of an attack argue Gotama will be easy prey since he “has no spears, lances, clubs, swords, elephants, horses, chariots or soldiers.”327 In other words, he has none of the tools and devices of the warrior class, the Kṣatriyas, and should be defenseless against those who possess and use the traditional trappings of that position. The opposing camp of counselors is quick to point out, however, that the bodhisattva is equipped in even more formidable ways. Though lacking a sword of steel, Gotama carries the daḍvīryakhadgaḥ, (the “sword of steady heroism”) and the prajñadhanuḥ (“the bow of wisdom”). While he has no chain mail, the sage is kṣāntibalaiḥ kavacito (“armored with the power of mercy”), and even without an elephant or


MV II 418, 420. 13.4: asau munir niścaya varma bibhratsattvāyudhaṃ buddhiśaraṃ vikṛṣya | jigīṣurāste viṣayānmadīyāntasmādayaṃ me manaso viṣādaḥ || 327 LV 21.44: na śaktiśūla na gadā na khaṅgāḥ na hastino „śvā na rathā na pattiḥ 326

123 horse, he yet has trivimokṣavāhanasi (“the mount of threefold release”). Harnessing this equipment, the other counselors caution that “through the force of merit [Gotama] will conquer Māra‟s army.”328 In the Mahāvastu, in response to Māra‟s boasts of an army beyond anything the sage could muster, Gotama merely says that he abides in charity, morality, forebearance, and compassion.329 Earlier in the same text, we are also told that Gotama will destroy Māra‟s fetters and snares with his “weapon of wisdom” (prajñāśastraṃ).330 In the Nidānakathā, after all the devas have fled, the bodhisattva realizes his solitary state, but still confidently resolves in the face of Māra‟s onslaught that, “having struck with this very sword of the perfections, I will be able to destroy this army.” 331 Outside the Māravijaya, in the Pāli Theragāthā, a verse describes a monk looking toward the time when he will take up the “fiercely powerful sword made of wisdom” (paññāmayaṃ uggatejaṃ satthaṃ) and “break Māra with his army” (māraṃ sasenaṃ sahasā bhañjissaṃ).332 Perhaps the most stirring example, however, comes from the Padhāna-sutta. That text renders the bodhisattva‟s attitude just before the confrontation in this way: Having seen the army on all sides and Māra harnessed with his mount for the sake of battle, I go to meet it. They do not move me from this spot. The world with its gods cannot overcome your army, but I go against it with wisdom as one would go against an unbaked bowl with a stone.333 328

Ibid., 21.45: puṇyābalena sa hi jeṣyati mārasenām II 341. 330 Ibid., 307. 331 Pg. 72: pāramisatthen‟ eva paharitvā ayaṃ balakāyo mayā viddhaṃsetuṃ vaṭṭatīti. 332 Pg. 82. 333 3.2.18-19: samantā dhajiniṃ disvā yuttaṃ māraṃ savāhanaṃ yuddhāya paccuggacchāmi. Mā maṃ ṭhanā acāvayi. Yaṃ te taṃ nappahasahati senaṃ loko sadevako taṃ te paññāya gacchāmi āmaṃ pattaṃ va amhanā. I should note that “paññāya,” which I have translated as “with wisdom” is the form for this word in the dative as well as instrumental sense. Thus, we could also render it, “for [the sake of] wisdom,” which is also plausible since Gotama‟s meditation and confrontation with Māra is for the sake of obtaining a supremacy of wisdom. I translated the term in the instrumental however to give the sense of wisdom as the means of Gotama‟s victory, which seems to be the thrust of the passage. The Dhammapada has a closely related verse in which one is advised to recognize the body as a clay pot (kumbhūpāmaṃ kāyam imaṃ viditvā) and battle Māra with the weapon of wisdom 329

124 The picture implied by these two verses is vivid: a single, probably very lean mendicant standing against the terrible might of a powerful god commanding vast, armored legions of soldiers. Yet, in the face of these odds the sage is not only unbowed but supremely confident, standing as firmly as the stone whose hardness he invokes as an image for how he will break Māra‟s forces. The battle is indeed mismatched here, as it is in all the other versions, but in the bodhisattva‟s favor, not Māra‟s. Taken together, this rhetorical device, present in all variants of the cycle, much like we saw in chapter three regarding the notion of “Brahmin,” works to remodel what constitutes Kṣatriyahood. In place of swords, the myths argue a true warrior sharpens knowledge; rather than aiming arrows, a courageous person focuses on discernment. In light of the parallels, both explicit and implicit, in the stories between Māra and asuras like Namuci and Vṛtra, Gotama‟s victory would then be like Indra‟s. Indeed, like Indra, Gotama does triumph, but his means of victory and the arsenal he wields, the stories go out of their way to tell us, are decidedly unlike Indra‟s. By portraying the conquest as a particularly Buddhist triumph, in which judgment trumps javelins and not a drop of blood is spilled, the stories assert a new vision of warrior identity. That a debate was ongoing between renunciant traditions and Brahmanical authorities over the meaning of kṣatriyahood is corroborated by a Jaina text, the Uttaradhyayana sūtra, which contains strikingly similar passages. In one chapter of that work, king Nami of Mithilā renounces his ruler lifestyle to become a wanderer and Śakra (Indra; Pāli, “Sakka”) appears “in the form of a Brahmin” (māhaṇarūveṇa) to interrogate his reasoning. The disguised Śakra (paññāvudhena) (3.8). The commentary on the Dhammapada verse identifies the “weapon of wisdom” as vippassanā (pg. 128).

125 proceeds to instruct Nami that he must give up his foolish idea of renouncing and instead build forts, battlements, and conquer his enemies so that he will gacchasi khattiyā, literally “go to Kṣatriyahood,” or “have status as a Kṣatriya.” 334 Nami‟s replies resonant with what we have seen in the Māravijaya stories, as he retorts that one should instead “break the armor of karma with the arrow that is penance,”335 and “rather than one who conquers thousands of enemies, one who conquers the self achieves the highest conquest.”336 By putting Śakra in the form of a Brahmin, this story quite clearly aligns the archetypal Kṣatriya with Brahmanical concerns, suggesting that the assertion of typical Kṣatriya duties has just as much, if not more, to do with Brahmanical ideologies than anything else. A few verses in the Buddhacarita, in which Māra appeals to this ideology to undermine Gotama‟s activities, contain a number of parallels to the Jaina account. When the god approaches the meditating sage, he says, “Get up, honorable Kṣatriya, one who fears death. Practice your own duty and abandon the dharma of release. Tame the world with arrows and sacrifices…Proceed on the path taken by the kings of the past. For one of birth in a powerful line of sages and kings, to practice begging for alms is disgraceful.”337 In other words, it is unsavory for a man of Gotama‟s (at least according to the narratives) princely birth to take on a role outside the prescriptions of Brahmanical stratification. In the Mahāvastu version Māra provides the same alternative to the 334

See 9.18, 24, 28, 32 for this argument and the recurring refrain of gacchasi khattiyā. I should also take this opportunity to point out, as John Garrett Jones has, that there a few Pāli Jātakas in which Indra (Sakka) plays a similar role as in this Jaina narrative, testing the resolve of renunciants. See Tales and Teachings of the Buddha: the Jātakas in Relation to the Pāli Canon. 335 9.22: tavaṇārāyajutteṇaṃ bhittūṇaṃ kammakaṃcuya. 336 9.34: jo sahassaṃ saṃhassāṇaṃ saṃgāme dujjae jiṇe | egaṃ jiṇejja appāṇaṃ esa se paramo jo || 337 13.9-10: uttiṣṭha bhoḥ kṣatriya mṛtyubhīta cara svadharmaṃ tyaja mokṣadharmam | bāṇaiśca yajñaiśca vinīya lokaṃ lokātpadaṃ prāpnuhi vāsavasya || panthā hi niryātum ayaṃ yaśasyo yo vāhitaḥ pūrvatamair narendraiḥ | jātasya rājarṣikule viśāle bhaikṣākamaślāghyamidaṃ prapattum || Cowell‟s version retains some gaps where the manuscripts he used were corrupted. In his text “yajñaiśca” is left blank and I have filled in that word using Johnston‟s Sanskrit text.

126 ascetic, telling him to put aside his efforts and “rule the kingdom and make great sacrifices.” 338 One finds Māra expressing a similarly Brahmanical attitude in Padhāna Sutta, in which he advises the meditating Gotama to give up the arduous life of the renunciant ascetic and go back to the brahmacarin way of life and perform sacrifices to Agni as ways of making merit.339 Proper conduct for a man of Gotama‟s station, as held by Brahmanical authorities (who have Māra as their spokes-deva in these passages), is to fight and conduct sacrifice. Put yet another way, like other Kṣatriyas, he should endeavor to protect and propitiate the priestly class. That Gotama persists in his action constitutes a challenge to the Brahmanical system. I believe we must read the Māravijaya myth cycle‟s recurrent redefinition of the role and conduct of the warrior as a product of an atmosphere in which such social roles and identities were hotly contested. Consequently, it appears as a reinvention of the nature of Kṣatriya and a statement against prevalent Brahmanical conceptions. From this point of view, we can see that Māra plays a Brahmanical part in these Buddhist narratives, speaking the priestly talking points about social roles and wanting to fight the old fight with the old weapons for the same old reasons. In contrast, Gotama has found a new and better way, against which the lord of desire and death is helpless. The picture becomes even clearer when we place the Māravijaya stories in conversation with Pāli stories of the Buddhist Sakka, introduced earlier in this chapter. If we recall, Sakka is as tranquil as the Vedic Indra is stormy (in both senses), exhibiting the Buddhist virtue of equanimity. This irony is too obvious to be accidental on the part of the authors or lost on the audiences of these Pāli texts. Beyond that transformation of character, the texts go a step further

338 339

II 405: mahāyajñāni yajamāno rājyaṃ kārehi gautama. 3.2.4: carato ca te brahmacariyaṃ aggihuttañ ca jūhato pahūtaṃ cīyate puññaṃ kiṃ padhena kāhasi.

127 and make a case which has great bearing on the issues we have been examining in the Māravijaya narratives. Besides serving as a paragon of restraint, Sakka (like the “good Brahmās” of chapter three) loses no opportunity to show his subservience to the Buddha. One such incident has Sakka approaching the Buddha to ask, “Gotama, what is the one thing it is permissible to kill?” In the same spirit as the passages from the Māravijaya stories, the Buddha answers counterintuitively, in a manner that reshapes the question: “The noble ones praise the killing of anger.” 340 In other words, the god who is the archetype of the Kṣatriya class asks for instruction on how to carry out the characteristic duty of that class, and the Buddha obliges by reorienting the goals of that social group. Elsewhere, Sakka is himself approached for veneration, on which occasion he is quick to point out whom he believes truly deserves praise and adulation. When a king asks whom the god reveres, Sakka answers, All the Kṣatriyas on the earth, the four great kings, and the resplendent thirty humbly revere me. I revere those endowed with virtue, those in concentration for a long time, those completely venerably gone forth, those aimed at brahmacariya, those householders making merit, the lay followers possessing virtue.341 In an immediately following passage Sakka further expands on his response: In the world with its gods, Mātali, I revere the completely awakened one, the superior teacher. And I revere, Mātali, those who conquer ignorance, hate, and lust, the Arhats 340

SN I 237: kodhaṃ chetvā sukhaṃ seti | kodhaṃ chetvā na socati || kodhassa visamūlassa | madhuraggassa vāsava || vadham ariyā pasaṃsanti \ taṃ hi chetvā na socatīti || 341 SN I 234: maṃ namassanti tevijjā | sabbe bhummā ca khattiyā || cattāro ca mahārājā | tidasā ca yasassino || ahaṃ ca sīlasampanne | cirarattasamāhite || sammā pabbajite vande brahmacariya parāyane || ye gahaṭṭhā puññakarā | sīlavanto upāsakā ||

128 whose defilements are destroyed. 342 These passages demonstrate that the restrained Sakka of Buddhist literature is more than just a satirical or ironical device. In Discourse and the Construction of Society, Bruce Lincoln argues that one way to alter the sociopolitical dimensions of a body of narratives is to “advance novel lines of interpretation for the established myth or modify details in its narration and thereby change the nature of the sentiments (and the society) it evokes.” 343 In this way, the Buddhist transformation of Indra is part of a concerted effort to renegotiate the identity of the Kṣatriya varṇa: the real warrior conquers ignorance, kills anger, and, most importantly, acknowledges the Buddha as primary authority. On these points, the Pāli texts assert, we need only look to Sakka, who has learned his restrained ways from the Buddha. In the face of this fact, the text implies rhetorically, can human Kṣatriyas do any less? This is not to say that Brahmanical and later Hindu traditions did not renegotiate or interrogate the concept of “Kṣatriya.” Indeed, those traditions often did in the classical period, sometimes in language consonant with the Buddhist and Jaina perspectives. A striking example comes in the Bhagavad Gītā as Arjuna questions the morality of war and wavers in his warrior duty. In response, Kṛṣṇa instructs Arjuna to sever attachments to the results of his actions and, through devotion (bhakti) surrender to god. In the course of his teaching, Kṛṣṇa at one point tells Arjuna that the warrior must “know the self in the self sustaining beyond knowledge and, one of great arms, conquer the formidable enemy in the form of desire.”344 Similar to the Jaina and 342

SN I 235: so idha sammāsambuddho | asmiṃ loke sadevake || anomanāmaṃ satthāraṃ | taṃ namassāmi mātali || yesam rāgo ca doso ca | avijjā ca virājitā || khīṇāsavā arahanto | te namassāmi mātali || 343 Pg. 25. 344 Bhagavad-Gītā, 3.43: evaṃ buddheḥ paraṃ buddhvā saṃstabhyātmānamātmanā | jahi śatruṃ mahābāho kāmarupaṃ durāsadam ||

129 Buddhist rhetoric, these lines transfer the aggressive action of the warrior toward a more contemplative goal, here the suppression of desire, as a way for Arjuna to negotiate his role as Kṣatriya amidst a fratricidal situation he sees as terribly wrong. Indeed, one can read the entire Bhagavad-Gītā as an attempt to mediate the old Brahmanical codes with the challenges of renunciant ideals. Though while the language may be similar to Buddhist and Jaina sentiments, the outcome certainly is not, for Kṛṣṇa‟s solution – and I believe it is fair to say the Brahmanical and Hindu solution as well – that rests on devotion to a deity and an altered but intact Kṣatriya duty (Arjuna ends up fighting after all) is not in harmony with the outlook of either renunciant group. As we have seen, that Buddhist outlook has emphasized restraint, equanimity, wisdom, and discernment as its “weapons.” In the wielding of these powers, the Buddha is unsurpassed, despite the example of Sakka, whom the Pāli texts point out has learned all he knows from the Buddha. Most clearly though, the Māravijaya stories show Gotama at the moment of his greatest demonstration of the new Kṣatriya nature, conquering Māra. All in all, then, in this valence of the myth cycle, we have seen the Buddhist stories play off the classic Indra/Vṛtra battle by casting Māra in the role of the asura and the Buddha-to-be as the deva who conquers. Both roles, though, are significantly redefined: rather than obstructing waters and riches, Māra obstructs knowledge, and rather than crushing his adversary‟s skull, the bodhisattva smashes Māra‟s metaphorical grip on beings. Just as the Buddha‟s victory heralds a new vision of the world, embedded in the symbolism of the narrative is a reimagination of the Kṣatriya social class.

130 III. Demonic Buddha, Deva Māra Having examined one valence of the Māravijaya cycle, it is now time to flip the picture to determine what other images emerge and reread the śleṣa to detect the double meaning. While I have argued that the narratives of the Buddha-to-be versus Māra reveal a renegotiation of the Kṣatriya class according to Buddhist ideals, in this second part of the chapter I argue that the stories also simultaneously act to assail the Brahmin class‟s position of privilege. The former, as we saw, comes through an appropriation of structures and symbols of the Vedic Indra/Vṛtra story, while the latter comes through an inversion of a prominent epic and Purāṇic theme. That theme, just like the Vedic narratives, contains Indra in the starring role. As recounted in the earlier synopsis of the thunder-god‟s mythic evolution, Indra was a very different god by the classical period. Though still lauded for his ancient triumph over Vṛtra and the asuras, the king of the gods at this time was also seen as flawed, of lesser stature than ascending figures like Śiva or Viṣṇu, and continually paranoid of potential usurpers of his place in the cosmic hierarchy. In his study of the changing dynamic of the warrior concept in the Mahābhārata, for instance, Alf Hiltebeitel notes pronounced instances of Indra‟s insecurity, such as in the Śānti Parvan when a series of the god‟s former enemies inform him of how they were displaced, highlighting the precariousness of his position.345 A consistent aspect of the threat to Indra‟s position in the epics and, later, the Purāṇas (though I concentrate on the epics in this chapter)346 is the accrual of power by ascetics. By this 345

Ritual of Battle, pg. 159; for the MB passage, see 12.215-221. I do this for two reasons. First, the epics are more closely contemporaneous to the Māravijaya myths I am discussing. Second, as Danielle Feller has pointed out, the classical period of epic composition seems to be a time in which older narratives and figures (like Indra) were employed to bolster the prestige of the Brahmins: “We could almost claim that the myths which are mentioned in the [Rig Veda] in order to glorify the gods to whom the hymns are addressed, are used in the Epics in order to glorify the Brahmins.” (The Sanskrit Epics‟ Representation of Vedic Texts, pg. 297).


131 practice, the stories consistently relate, a human or demon can amass enough power to displace the gods, particularly Indra, and the thunder-god intervenes to prevent this occurrence. His intervention takes the same pattern in many cases. The first recourse is to attempt to sway the ascetic from his self-denial through temptation by heavenly nymphs, the apsarases.347 In some cases, such as Śaradvata, the ascetic is taken enough by the apsarases that he ejaculates, thereby forfeiting his accumulated power.348 Other times, however, for varying reasons, the apsaras seduction does not succeed and in those cases Indra escalates the confrontation, moving to dispatch the would-be usurper with his thunderbolt, as for example in the case of Triśiras (Viśvarūpa), which I will discuss in more detail below.349 Given our familiarity with the structure of the Māravijaya stories from the first part of the chapter, some resonances between the epic and Buddhist narratives should already be apparent. First, in both cases a god intervenes to attempt to prevent an ascetic from toppling his cosmic position of power and authority. Second, the means both gods employ are similar: the seductions of desire and then, when necessary, military might. Differences also obtain, however, for in the epic case the god is victorious and the world better for his victory, while in the Buddhist scenario, the human challenger emerges triumphant, which those stories likewise paint as a celebratory outcome. Clearly, given their similar structure and opposite endings, these myth cycles possess different conceptions of the relative relationship between the human and divine worlds. Stated simply at the outset, I interpret this inversion as a Buddhist polemic against the Brahmanical


At other times, however, he enlists the Hindu god of desire, Kāma, for this task. MB 1.120.5-12. I will delve more into the relation between the feminine, ascetic power, and symbolism of death and evil in chapter five. 349 MB 5.9.3-50; 12.329. 348

132 cosmological structure. Since, I believe, stories about classifications of gods are inevitably stories about the classification of human beings, I believe it is also a polemic against the Brahmanical social structure. Instead of Indra, a deva defending the divine and worldly order, the Buddhist stories contain Māra, a wicked god who will stop at nothing to keep humans in bondage. Brahmanical Classification To comprehend the complexities of these connections and the homology in Indian religious and social history between the divine and human worlds, some background is necessary about ideology of social stratification in India. Writing extensively on this topic, Brian K. Smith has argued that the stratification scheme in later Hinduism is a continuation of underlying principles of organization already present in the social, etiological, and cosmic categories of the Vedas.350 To give one clear example, the social grouping of varṇa has an antecedent in the Puruṣasukta Sūtra, which asserts that the Brahmin, Kṣatriya, Vaiśya, and Śudra classes arise due to “qualities inherent in them – supposed natural inclinations.”351 The authors of the myth – the Brahmins – neither coincidentally nor accidentally locate their group and its specialty of sacrificial ritual at the apex of society, fulfilling one of Smith‟s opening comments: “if classication is fundamental to thought, those who control the form classification takes…have a rather obvious advantage.”352 At the same time that these oldest texts take care to separate and divide human groups from one another, they also go to lengths to differentiate humans from deities. While the devas possessed a corresponding system of varṇa (complete with Brahmin gods like Agni and Kṣatriya 350

Classifying the Universe, pgs. 28-80. Ibid., pg. 29. 352 Ibid., pg. 4. 351

133 gods like Indra), and Brahmins could attain a kind of ritual divinity by speaking for the gods, Smith strongly points out that the two states were quite differently conceived. He writes, “in sacrificial Vedism, the gods remained the gods and men essentially remained men.” 353 Part of that insoluble, non-permeable distinction comes from the ritual precision gods possess but humans, incorrigibly and inveterately, lack.354 The devas get the long end of the stick from this discrepancy, possessing immortality and heavenly abodes, while humans endure mortality and perpetual dependence on the gods. We should keep in mind, however, that not all humans are in an equally disadvantageous state, as the varṇa system attests. What is more, if the distinction between human classes is mirrored in the heavenly world, this serves as an immense justification for the social ideology: to question or challenge Brahmanical supremacy is thus also to question and challenge the gods.355 As the ritual and social intermediaries and interpreters between human and deva, the status of the Brahmin in all cases is expressed as inviolate. It is important not to oversimplify complex historical and religious situations by suggesting these textual assertions forever and in all cases corresponded to the social reality from the time of the Vedas to the classical period. Indeed, the very fact that these Brahmin texts repeatedly and stridently declare their superior status is perhaps in itself good evidence that this status was insecure and questioned by a great many. It is incontrovertible, though, that the assertions outlined above served as the premises for a large portion of the social conversation in Indian culture. As such, they illustrate much of what Bourdieu argued about theories of class:


“Gods and Men in Vedic Ritual,” pg. 306. Ibid., pgs 294-295; see also Doniger (O‟Flaherty), Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, pg. 63. 355 Smith, Classifying the Universe, pgs. 88-90, 112. 354

134 “every established order tends to produce the naturalization of its own arbitrariness.” 356 Specifically regarding the role myth plays in such schemes, and with obvious relevance to varṇa and the relation between devas and humans, Bourdieu also pointed out that “the taxonomies of the mythico-ritual system at once divide and unify, legitimating unity in division, that is to say, hierarchy.”357 While such hierarchies, in Bourdieu‟s theory, attempt to insulate themselves from resistance and criticism by portraying their arbitrary position of power as natural and matter of fact (what he terms “doxa”), debate and contestation inevitably ensue. He writes, “the dominated classes have an interest in pushing back the limits of doxa and exposing the arbitrariness of the taken for granted; the dominant classes have an interest in defending the integrity of doxa or, short of this, establishing in its place the necessarily imperfect substitute, orthodoxy.”358 In reading the history of Indian religions over the large swath of time encompassing the Vedas to the era of the epics, we find precisely the dialectic advanced by Bourdieu. Even well before the classical era serious movements had arisen to mount vigorous challenges to the Vedic ideologies of the Brahmins. In a point which speaks to the tensions seen in the first part of this chapter, even within the Brahmanical tradition there were debates over social roles, as Brockington detects in the Mahābhārata: “Much of the didactic part of the Mahābhārata is concerned to lay down in the most emphatic terms the rights and privileges of the Brahmins…on the other hand, the narrative tends to stress Kṣatriya values and their distinction from other groups.”359


Outline of a Theory of Practice, pg. 164. Ibid, pg. 165. 358 Ibid., pg. 169. 359 The Sanskrit Epics, pg. 205. 357

135 As I have emphasized in the preceding chapters, however, some of the most pronounced pressure on the Brahmanical system came from challenges of ascetic, renunciant movements like Buddhism. As we have already seen so far, Buddhist narratives actively redesigned the notions of “Brahmin,” “sacrifice,” and “Kṣatriya” and apropos of our interests in this chapter, they also contested the rigid Brahmanical hierarchy of devas and humans. For example, in terms of its characterization of the Buddha, Buddhist texts frequently blur the lines between god and human. Gail Sutherland puts it this way: “the Buddha is preeminently human, yet through insight and asceticism he has developed the power and cosmic centrality of a god.” 360 As chapter three and the first part of this chapter have demonstrated, there are numerous examples of texts subordinating Brahmanical devas to the Buddha, flipping the preexisting hierarchy. Thus, if we (however advisedly) term the Buddha “deva-like” (or “deva-lite,” if preferable to those wishing to retain Buddhism‟s “godless” nature), he does not take on the role of just another deva, but a deva above all others. Indeed, there are instances in Buddhist texts referring to the Buddha as adhideva, literally “above the gods.” 361 Such a challenge to the Brahmanical classificatory scheme would not go unnoticed or unmet, however, as Sutherland also notes, telling us that such an inversion of the Vedic order, from the Brahmanical perspective, “confers upon [the Buddha] the status of a demon…” 362 Additionally, as Doniger (O‟Flaherty) reminds us in her thorough treatment on the subject, whereas in Brahmanical traditions “a priest might legitimately emulate the gods, an ascetic should not. An ambitious priest was like a god; an ambitious ascetic was like a demon.”363


Disguises of the Demon, pg. 115. K.R. Norman, Pāli Literature, pg. 47. 362 Disguises of the Demon, pg. 115. 363 The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, pg. 89. 361

136 Underlining this point, Brockington contends that throughout the Mahābhārata the use of tapas – literally “heat,” the fiery power and energy gained via austerity – is a means to coerce or challenge the gods.364 In keeping with my earlier principle, I believe we should not read stories about classifying (or reclassifying) gods as having to do merely with the heavenly realm. In fact, it is easy to read Brahmanical anxiety about ascetics usurping the position of the devas as anxiety about ascetic seizure of priestly preeminence. As the case of the Buddha illustrates, ascetics who can attain power equal to or greater than the gods have effectively circumvented the intermediary, ritual authority of the Brahmins stretching back to the Vedic tradition. Consequently, from the Brahmanical point of view, the degree to which the distinction between devas and humans is diminished is the same degree to which priestly authority is diminished. From this perspective a number of aspects of the recurrent epic narratives of Indra versus ascetics come into relief. With the foregoing in mind, I will go into more detail about one such story from the Śānti Parvan. Though the story occurs elsewhere in the Mahābhārata with variations, it will become clear in a moment why I have highlighted this version. In this story, Viśvarūpa (also called “Triśiras” due to his three heads), the son of Tvaṣṭṛ, has practiced such long and fearful asceticism that he is threatening to overthrow the gods, particularly Indra. 365 The thunder-god summons a group of apsarases to distract Viśvarūpa and in due course, the ascetic becomes agitated or rattled (kṣubhitaṃ) by their presence and attached (sakta) to them.366 But the nymphs have come only to tease, and incensed that they would leave him to return to the gods, 364

The Sanskrit Epic, pg. 239. This story may go back as far as the Rig Veda (4.18), as well as Brāhmaṇa texts such as Taittirīya Saṃhitā (2.5.1) and the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa (2.153-155). Technically, Tvaṣṭṛ and Viśvarūpa are both Brahmins, but, as Doniger (O‟Flaherty) explicates in The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (see pgs. 103-105), they have betrayed the gods by making secret deals with demons and Viśvarūpa‟s ascetic practice is explicitly stated (at least in the Mahābhārata) to threaten Indra‟s status. 366 MB, 12.329.21. 365

137 Viśvarūpa vows, “then this very day the gods along with Indra will be no more!” 367 Faced with a quickly escalating threat, the gods repair to Brahmā who instructs them to find a mahāyogī named Dadhīca and make a weapon from his bones.368 Dadhīca is himself performing austerities when the gods find him, but entirely unlike Viśvarūpa he is obedient to the devas and agrees to do whatever they request, not even balking when they ask him to surrender his body. From his bones, the gods fashion the vajra (“thunderbolt”), “made with the bones of a Brahmin.”369 Using that vajra, Indra decapitates Viśvarūpa, and thereupon Vṛtra emerges from the dead ascetic‟s body (briefly bringing to mind the Hollywood horror movie finale in which the monster is never quite dead, but can always return for one last gasp). Indra slays Vṛtra as well, but tainted by the stain of Brahminicide must do penance and temporarily abdicate his position.370 A number of interesting points emerge from this story in light of the socio-ideological situation. First, we see that a threat to the authority and unique position of the gods must be dealt with decisively and, if necessary, violently, using the weapon once reserved to destroy asuras, the thunderbolt. Second, in the contrast between Viśvarūpa and Dadhīca, the story very obviously lays out a distinction between orthodox and heterodox forms of asceticism. Dadhīca willingly serves the gods, giving up his body for their benefit, while Viśvarūpa disrupts the very order of the universe. The latter‟s chaotic nature is emphasized to the point that Vṛtra, the ancient Vedic symbol of darkness and chaos, bursts out upon the ascetic‟s death, as if the serpent had lain in wait there all along.371 As chapter three laid out, there were, in fact, ascetic Brahmins, but


Ibid., 12.329.22-23: atha tā viśvarupo „bravīd adyaiva sendrā devā na bhaviṣyantīti. Ibid., 12.329.24-25. 369 Ibid., 12.329.27: brahmāsthisaṃbhūtena. 370 Ibid., 12.329.28-30. 371 I should note that in another version Viśvarupa and Vṛtra are actually two separate creations of Tvaṣṭṛ, rather than the serpent literally emerging from the ascetic (Mahābhārata, 5.9.40) 368

138 these groups still rooted their practice and ideology in the Vedas and the authority of the devas. In this instance in the Mahābhārata, we seem to find an example of Bourdieu‟s theorem that dominant classes under stress will, in place of lost doxa, attempt to delineate between orthodox and heterodox beliefs and practices, in this instance, spelling out the proper place for asceticism in relation to Brahmins and devas. The Mahābhārata story also seems a good example of the kind of narrative structure which, by initially imperiling a kind of hierarchy, ultimately works to reinforce and strengthen its “natural” rightness.372 Third, in many ways the myth suggests Indra‟s subordination to the Brahmins, making it clear that the Kṣatriya must depend on priestly superiors. For one, as we saw, the instrument with which he is finally able to defeat Viśvarūpa is made from the very bones of a Brahmin, and without this device, he could not prevail. For another, following his victory, Indra is stained with Brahminicide, showing even a deva cannot escape retribution for harming a priest. In sum, I suggest that what we have in this story, and the others like it in which Indra must subdue a threat to his authority and cosmological preeminence, is a Brahmanical defense of hierarchal ideology in narrative form. Just as the rebellious Brahmin-ascetic Viśvarūpa represents a threat to the cosmic structure, ascetic movements unfettered from Brahmanical authority, like Buddhism, threaten the social structure imagined and preferred by Brahmins. Māra, the Jealous God The Brahmanical narrative response, however, generated a Buddhist narrative response, which I believe we find in the Māravijaya stories. An important question arises at this point about the difficulties of narrative chronology in India. With the lack of certainty of textual dating, the possibility exists that the Brahmanical Indra/ascetic narratives could be a response to 372

See James Liszka, The Semiotics of Myth, pgs. 150-155.

139 the Buddha/Māra stories rather than the reverse, which would certainly alter the dynamic I suggest. Indeed, in the fourth and fifth chapters of this dissertation we will look at examples of just this kind of Brahmanical response to Buddhist discourses and narratives of Māra. However, in this case, there is good reason to believe that the Brahmanical cycle is the older, even absent precise dating. Though it quite possibly predates the epics, we know the Indra/ascetic stories occur at least as early as the Mahābhārata. According to our best evidence, the composition of the Mahābhārata occurred from around four hundred BCE to four hundred CE, with a core text (since lost) upon which layers upon layers of additions were made.373 This period overlaps the composition of the Māravijaya stories we have been considering, but instances in the Māravijaya stories show prior awareness of the epics. For example, Aśvaghoṣa specifically mentions episodes from the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyāṇa in his works, both Buddhacarita and Saundarananda, showing not only that the core of the epics existed during that time, but that Buddhist communities were aware of them. Even more directly relevant to our purposes, and contributing to my selection of the particular version of Indra versus Viśvarūpa above, Aśvaghoṣa directly cites the episode in which Indra loses his place to Nahuṣa, which follows immediately upon the thunder-god‟s abdication due to Brahminicide accrued by slaying Viśvarūpa and Vṛtra.374 Outside the Māravijaya stories, we find evidence in the Pāli literature that, even if not specifically tied to asceticism, the theme of Indra‟s paranoia over his cosmic position was well-established. In the Sakkasaṃyutta, there is a story of a yakkha, called a kodhabhakkho (“anger-eater”) who usurps Sakka‟s throne when the god is absent. The other 373

J.A.B. van Buitenen, The Mahābhārata (trans.) vol. 1, pg. xxv. BC 11.14. As Doniger (O‟Flaherty) noted in The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, the story of Indra slaying Tvaṣṭṛ‟s son Viśvarūpa goes back to the RV (10.8.8-9), but in that account, though Viśvarūpa is described as “the one desirous to obtain great strength” (bhūrīd udinakṣantam), the later epic narrative adds the all important method for the attainment of that strength: asceticism. 374

140 gods try to remove the interloper by hurling abuse and even weapons upon him, but true to his name the yakkha literally consumes this abuse and becomes more regal, handsome, and god-like with every angry attack. When Sakka arrives, he greets the yakkha in exactly the opposite manner. Though his spot has been usurped, the thunder-god heaps kindness, respect, and compassion upon the yakkha who, in the reverse process, becomes uglier, less regal, and less powerful, finally yielding the throne back to Sakka.375 This marvel of Buddhist equanimity (or what some might call aggressive passivity or even reverse psychology) clearly illustrates what we saw in the first part of this chapter about the Buddhist redefinition of Indra‟s character from the Vedic warrior to the pacific Sakka. As such, it does not make sense as a satire or redefinition without the author(s) or audience‟s awareness of the prior model. Thus in this particular story, there is no narrative payoff or punch-line if one is not aware of stories in which Indra responds with hostility and violence at the prospect of losing his throne. On the basis of these points, both internal and external to the Māravijaya narratives, I believe Buddhist literati were therefore quite well aware of the Brahmanical narrative cycle involving Indra and, in the form of the Buddha-to-be versus Māra, offered their response. From the beginning of the encounter in these stories, we can see their strong relation to the prior narratives, first in Māra‟s reaction when he realizes Gotama is on the verge of attaining awakening. Whereas the rest of the world rejoiced at the sage‟s vow when he took his spot under the tree, “Māra, the enemy of the good teaching, trembled in fear.”376 Another term found in the Buddhacarita for Māra‟s unease is viṣādaḥ (13.4), which is the same word used to describe Indra‟s dismay at Viśvarūpa‟s austerity in one version of that story: “Having seen the brilliant

375 376

SN I 237-238. BC 13.1: tatrāsa saddharmaripustu māraḥ.

141 and immeasurable asceticism of that virile being, he [Indra] became immovably dejected (viṣādam), thinking „he [Viśvarūpa] must not attain status as an Indra.”377 In other instances other terms are used to convey Indra‟s unease at the growing power of ascetics. Mahābharata 1.20.5, for example, in which the ascetic Śaradvata gains extraordinary power, uses the word saṃtāpayāmāsa, meaning he “heated” or “burned” Indra through his gathering power. Derived from the root “tap,” which also gives us “tapas” (asceticism, or austerity), the choice of that term in that instance conveys the double nature of tapas: it is the heat or power one generates within, but also projects without onto others.378 Though he does not “burn” Māra as such, there is something of the same sense in the Lalitavistara in which the Buddha-to-be decides Māra ought to be present at his awakening. Consequently, he sends a beam of light called sarvamāramaṇḍalavidhvaṃsanakarī (“that which makes the destruction of all Māra‟s realms”) from his forehead into the god‟s realm, capturing Māra‟s attention by making all the abodes dim and quake.379 Furthering the similarity, when explaining the reason for his unease to his attendants, Māra says, “if he [Gotama] proceeds to overpower me and relates the path of release to the world, then my realm is empty.”380 In other versions Māra‟s concern is likewise focused on his own power and authority and the fear that these will be divested or supplanted by Gotama‟s success. As the Lalitavistara phrases it, Māra fears the sage will render his realm vacant (śunyaṃ 377

MB 5.9.7: tasya dṛṣtvā tapo vīryaṃ sattvaṃ cāmitatejasaḥ | viṣādam agamaścakra indrayojaṃ mā bhaved iti || 378 Here Brockington‟s observation, cited earlier, that tapas is used throughout the epics as a means of coercion of the gods is appropriate: the gods, especially Indra, physically feel the heat radiating from an ascetic‟s body and, lest they or the universe be burnt, must do something to address the situation. A famous instance not involving Indra occurs in the Kirāta Parvan in which Arjuna performs austerities until he is exuding enough smoke and flame to scorch (same phrasing, saṃtāpayati, “he causes to heat,” i.e., “burns”) local ṛṣis and consequently garners Śiva‟s attention (MB 3.69.20-30). 379 21.1. 380 BC 13.5: yadi hyasau māmabhibhūya yāti lokāya cākhyātyapavargamārgam | śūnyastato „yaṃ viṣayo mamādya

142 kariṣyati puraṃtava) and leave the god powerless (abalo balo).381 Spread over multiple sections, several passages in the Mahāvastu version show that Māra fears his power will be eclipsed.382 Then later, after Gotama has taken his meditation spot, the god of saṃsāra resolves that the sage “must be removed from his throne lest the multitudes desert my realm.”383 The mention of a throne as a contested object in the struggle occurs elsewhere and is an evocative image. In his early apprehensions about the bodhisattva, the Mahāvastu further states that Māra considered him potentially as a rival king, meaning that from the god‟s point of view, the contest was entirely about lordship and supremacy. 384 In the Nidānakathā, Māra leaves no doubt about his perspective on the scope of the struggle, or his disdain for his opponent‟s stature, telling Gotama to get up from his seat for it does not belong to him, it is Māra‟s. 385 The word I have paraphrased here as “seat” (pallaṃkā) means more specifically a cross-legged sitting position – i.e., Gotama‟s meditation posture – but in the context and in conjunction with the other versions, I believe we would be warranted in interpreting it also as a reference to the throne. In the characters of both Māra and Indra we can thus see the same kind of devotion to and protective impulse for their own position and power. In The Symbolism of Evil, writing about what he called the “wicked god and the tragic vision of existence,” Paul Ricoeur stated that, “the jealous gods cannot endure any greatness besides theirs; man, then, feels himself thrust back into his humanity.”386 While Ricoeur is primarily referencing the Greek gods, such as Zeus, who


LV 21.4. See MV II 162-163 and 314-316. 383 Ibid., 409. 384 Ibid., 315: pratirājasaṃjñāṃ bodhisatve upasthāpetvā. 385 Pg. 73: Siddhatta uṭṭhahatha etasmā pallaṃkā nāyaṃ tuhyaṃ pāpuṇāti mahyaṃ eso pāpuṇātīti. 386 Pg. 217. 382

143 withheld power and knowledge from the mortal beings under them, his words apply equally well to both Māra and Indra. Ricoeur goes on to discuss the role of Prometheus in Greek mythology as an agent of resistance to the tyrannical rule of the gods, as the rebel who brought fire to humanity. That fire, Ricoeur argued, symbolizes “reason, culture, the heart,” and “summed up what it is to be [human], breaking with the immobility of nature and the dreary repetitiveness of animal life.”387 While Brahmanical and Hindu traditions have no misapprehensions about the often capricious and self-interested nature and behavior of the gods, these traditions, through ritual and ideology, have reconciled themselves to these facts and even incorporated them.388 On the other hand, the Buddhist portrayal of Māra suggests no such acceptance. By obscuring the knowledge of reality and striving to prevent beings from attaining such knowledge, Māra is the epitome of Ricoeur‟s “wicked god” and, according to the Māravijaya stories, in order to free humanity, this god must be overthrown. In this way perhaps we can see the Buddha as a comparative figure to Prometheus, though obviously with a number of caveats and disanalogies. One immediately interesting point of contrast is the symbolism of fire. While perhaps connoting civilization in the Greek context, as Ricoeur claimed, fire means no such thing in Buddhism. Rather, in that tradition it represents desire and that which must be overcome or extinguished (literally, “nirvāṇa”) before awakening is achieved. At any rate, we can say with certainty that Buddhist traditions portrayed Māra as a tyrannical figure bent on maintaining his position of superiority over humans. Contrary to this


Ibid., pg. 223. This is illustrated, for example, in the scene in Abhijñānaśakuntalam when the revelation of Śakuntalā‟s parentage (from an apsaras and a sage whose tapas was threatening the gods) elicits only the dry observation from King Duṣyanta that “the gods do possess fear of the deep meditation of others” (asyetadanyasamādhibhīrutvaṃ devānām), (Act 1, pg. 28). Also see Doniger (O‟Flaherty), The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, pgs. 139-173 for a full treatment.


144 view, as I have argued, the strict division between gods and humans plays into the Brahmins‟ favor, and therefore so does Indra‟s jealousy and insistence at all costs that such a boundary be maintained. Notably, Māra and his minions express the same fear about the mingling of the mortal and immortal, the human and the godly. In the Lalitavistara, the god tells his attendants that Gotama “will make even the three downfalls [ignorance, desire, and anger] empty entirely, he will make the citadel of gods and humans entirely full. The beneficent one, having touched immortality, will bestow happiness, supreme immortality, and knowledge of meditation.” 389 In the first case, the nature of Māra‟s anxieties come into better focus in relation to the Buddhist conception of the Wheel of Becoming (bhavacakra). A means of communicating the inner workings of the realm of kāmadhātu, the Wheel of Becoming is conceived in five (or six) gatis consisting of (in descending order of auspiciousness) devas, humans, animals, pretas, and hells as sections of a circle around a hub, at the center of which are a pig, a rooster, and a snake. The Lord of Desire himself is considered to encompass the wheel, grasping it with both hands and feet.390 A potent symbol of saṃsāra, which literally means “turning,” the wheel thus depicts Māra‟s pervasive influence over all the various aspects of saṃsāra. The animals at the center of the wheel respectively represent ignorance, desire, and anger (the three downfalls to which Māra refers in the foregoing passage) that serve as the properties fueling the turning of the wheel and keeping beings trapped in continuous rebirth. The fears Māra voices, consequently, bear on the inherent categories of saṃsāra. Upon awakening, the god believes, Gotama‟s spread of the


21.3: śunyāṃ kariṣyati apāyatrayo „pyaśeṣaṃ pūrṇāṃ kariṣyati purāṃ suramānuṣāṇāṃ | dhyānābhijña paramaṃ amṛtaṃ sukhaṃ ca dāsyatyasau hitakaro amṛtaṃ spṛśitvā || 390 For a full discussion of the bhavacakra‟s symbolism, importance in Indian Buddhism, and connection to Māra, see David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, pgs. 14-18. Though there is debate as to the extent to which the bhavacakra was a conceptual rather than visual image in Indian Buddhism, there is no question as to its pictorial ubiquity in the Tibetan tradition.

145 dharma will mean that beings currently inhabiting the lower existences will vacate those realms and flood the two higher areas of birth. The hierarchical nature of saṃsāra will thus be irreparably skewed, like a wheel spinning out of balance. In the second case, Māra expresses concern that upon becoming a Buddha, Gotama will achieve immortality and bestow this same state on other beings. This touches on a frequent theme in Indian religions, as Doniger (O‟Flaherty) has shown by cataloging and discussing numerous mythic instances of virtuous demons and ascetic humans challenging the cosmological classificatory system by seeking immortality, a quality only the gods may possess. 391 As Doniger tells us, the gods attack this problem one of two ways: destroy the challenger or alter the classifying system to include him; either way, the system remains intact and free from anomalies.392 The former strategy we have seen attributed to Indra in the epics and will look at in relation to Māra shortly, but for now it is interesting to note that the latter incorporating strategy is also present in the Māravijaya narratives. In the Lalitavistara, for example, as an alternative to awakening, Māra‟s seductive female servants advise Gotama that he could use his accumulated store of ascetic power to gain a heavenly existence where he could live like a god attended by celestial nymphs such as themselves.393 The Mahāvastu contains similar instances of “bartering” in which Māra suggests Gotama “cash in” (so to speak) his austerity to become a king over all the continents of the earth second only to the gods in power and renown. For instance, Māra tells Gotama that “once you have made the sacrifices called the „horse sacrifice,‟ „person sacrifice,‟ „white lotus,‟ and „young bull sacrifice,‟ you will be immortal and a god.” 394 These suggestions


See The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, especially pages 79-83. Ibid., pg. 82. 393 21.118. 394 II 405: aśvamedhaṃ puruṣamedhaṃ puṇḍarīkaṃ nirargaḍaṃ | 392

146 seek to resolve the situation in a manner befitting Brahmanical taxonomy: were Gotama to take either course Māra (or the god‟s surrogates) proposes, the sage would be fully a god or fully a human and not a Buddha, which can be seen as an ambiguous mixture of both classes. As I established earlier, and Doniger (O‟Flaherty) also points out in her work,395 there is a clear ideological component behind this hierarchy that plays into Brahmanical favor. That such a taxonomical concern is aligned with Māra in the Buddhist stories is just as clearly an ideological attempt to subvert the Brahmanical categories. In this way we can understand why the Buddhist authors so knowingly, willingly, and explicitly cast the Buddha in a role Brahmanical tradition would consider anomalously demon-like and, correspondingly, Māra defensively deva-like. Besides appeals to the prevailing structure of the cosmos and the riches thereof that Gotama could obtain, Māra has other recourse in defending his position from the ascetic. This takes us to the battle scenes themselves, perhaps the most famous parts of the Māravijaya narratives. Though present in some form in all versions, there is some variety as to the order and presentation of the confrontation, but an overview of its events shows again how aspects of the stories have been appropriated from and engage with Brahmanical sources. The confrontation itself consists (generally) of three parts: temptation to sensual pleasures, armed attack, and challenge of the sufficiency of Gotama‟s merit. The first bears obvious resemblance to the Indra/asectic stories, for just as the thunder god employs apsarases to distract and seduce ascetics from meditation, Māra assigns beautiful and scantily clad women, usually described as his daughters, to stir Gotama‟s desire for pleasure. However, while in the Brahmanical stories this occurs usually as the precursor to a military intervention, Buddhist narratives locate it


etāṃ yajñāṃ yajitvān ho hisi amara maru || See Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, pgs. 82 and 222.

147 differently. In the Nidānakathā and Buddhacarita Māra first attacks with his army, and then some time after Gotama becomes the Buddha the three daughters appear to tempt him sexually. In both cases, the daughters assume a series of physical forms (young virgins, middle-aged women, mothers, etc.) in an attempt to find an appearance most desirable to the Buddha. 396 In the latter instance there exists the possibility that the incident is the interpolation of another author, for it occurs in the fifteenth chapter and only the first thirteen and part of the fourteenth chapters exist in Sanskrit and can be verified as Aśvaghoṣa‟s work. 397 Adding some weight to the interpolation argument is the fact that the episode with the three daughters is strikingly similar to a text from the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN I 124-137), perhaps suggesting it was added to the biographies somewhat later. Also, technically the Buddhacarita includes a sensual temptation in the thirteenth chapter, as Māra‟s first attempt to sway Gotama is through an arrow designed to instill him with lust.398 The Lalitavistara is one version that definitively puts the apsaras temptation first, as in that account Māra marshals his army, but sends in his daughters first, who show off various body parts and in various forms, all of which the Buddha-to-be derides in turn.399 There are two points I wish to make on the varied content and placement of these temptations of desire. First, the tendency to place the encounter with Māra‟s daughters after the Buddha‟s awakening may reflect the grafting on of a text extant since the Nikāyas, but it also may stem from a wish to make the victory over tempting females seem more ongoing and less final, a theme I will deal with more in the next chapter. Second, should we assume that the 396

NK, pgs. 78-79; BC 15.13-36. Cowell, pg. ix. 398 13.12-16. These verses seem intended clearly to evoke Kāma‟s encounter with Śiva, and as such I will deal with them more fully in chapter five. 399 21.90-100. 397

148 episode with the daughters is an interpolation, this in combination with the similarity to the apsaras aspect of the Indra/asectic stories seems only to speak more to an express desire on the part of the Buddhist authors to mirror their narratives against the Brahmanical versions. The second prominent aspect of Māra‟s confrontation with Gotama is the invocation of the god‟s army, which stands in for the martial phase of Indra‟s attack, the thunderbolt. As we have seen, Māra does summon storms and wind in the Nidānakathā and unleashes lightning in the Lalitavistara and Mahāvastu.400 Though he does not attempt to use a thunderbolt against Gotama in quite the same decisive manner as Indra does against ascetics, the fact that Māra‟s signature weapons (bow and arrow, as well as snares or nooses) are not highlighted in the Māravijaya narratives while lightning gains an explicit mention, seems to suggest, at least circumstantially, that the Buddhist portrayal of Māra in the Māravijaya is more closely patterned on Indra than the Buddhist portrayal of Māra in other texts. This would, naturally, serve to align the two mythic cycles very closely. At any rate, however, since the thunderbolt is not Māra‟s primary weapon, or even greatly emphasized in the Māravijaya stories, it would be difficult to maintain generally that he is vajrabāhu (“one in the arm of whom is the thunderbolt”) in the same way as Indra.401


For the MV reference, see II 339. Gonda notes the frequency of this term for Indra, Epithets in the Rig Veda, pg. 63. There is, however, a curious instance in the Buddhacarita in which Māra is called “citrāyudham,” which Johnston translates as “him of the bright weapon” (188). Were we to keep to this translation there is the ambiguous possibility that Aśvaghoṣa suggests Māra bears a thunderbolt-like weapon. The word “citra,” however, while meaning “bright,” can also suggest multicolored, which is in keeping with the weaponry associated with Kāma, who Māra is clearly likened to elsewhere in the thirteenth chapter. In fact, in the same line is another bahūvrīhi, “puṣpaśaram,” meaning, “the one whose arrows are flowers. This is entirely in keeping with instances when Kāma‟s bow is referenced in other contexts, though that weapon it is not usually called citrāyudham. For example, in Kālidāsa‟s Abhijñānam-Śakuntalam there is reference instead to Kāma‟s kusumāyudha (“weapon of flowers”) (3.3). I will deal more extensively with the relationship between Kāma and Māra in the next chapter. 401

149 One point in which the Māravijaya narratives, and the continuing representation of Māra in general, seem to go out of their way to make Māra like the king of the gods, however, is placing the lord of desire on an elephant during the battle. As Hopkins documents, in the epics Indra frequently rides the gajarājavāhana, “the mount who is the king of the elephants” (Airāvata), in keeping with his royal status.402 Māra, too, is frequently depicted as charging at the bodhisattva on an elephant, called “Girimekhala” (“girdled with mountains”) in the Nidānakathā, though elsewhere unnamed.403 By the time of the Mahāvaṃsa, the Theravāda tradition seems to take the Māra/elephant association as established fact, since that text describes the god as “the one with an elephant” (Māro sahatthī).404 In addition to explicit mention of the elephant, numerous passages in the Thera – and Therīgāthā exhort practitioners to conquer Māra “with his mount” (savāhanam).405 Besides this possible correlation, there is other circumstantial evidence linking Māra‟s attack, particularly the Mārasena, to the Indra or even broader Brahmanical tradition. Though the members of the army (described in all versions as being misshapen mismatches of body parts, human and animal) bear the most prominent morphological resemblance to rākṣasas, piśācas, and other such beings, certain aspects of their behavior seem to connect them to more deva-like figures.406 For instance, some of Māra‟s soldiers seem reminiscent of the maruts, Indra‟s literal stormtroopers. These soldiers of Māra take on the form of massive, black clouds, dropping


Epic Mythology, pg. 124. NK, pg. 72; also see Padhāna-sutta 3.2.18: māraṃ svāhanaṃ yuddhāya. 404 ed. Wilhelm Geiger, 30.75. See also Thupavaṃsa, which like the Nidānakathā, places Māra on an elephant named “Girimekhalā” (pg. 233). 405 For a few examples, see pgs. 23, 105, 124, and 129. 406 For descriptions of these creatures strikingly similar to descriptions of the Mārasenā see for instance AV 8.6. In fact, LV 21:16 explicitly lists rākṣasas, pretas, piśācas and so forth as members of the army. 403

150 deluges of rain and lightning.407 Similarly, in the Rig Veda the maruts are frequently described as manifesting into dark clouds and bearing shining or bright spears (bhrājadṛṣṭayaṇ), most likely referring to lightning.408 In case of references to lightning, it is perhaps worthwhile to note that, of the many terms available in Sanskrit and Pāli for “lightning,” both the Vedic verses to the maruts and the Buddhist descriptions of the monstrous Mārasena use “vidyut.” In addition, the maruts are portrayed as quite fearsome, inciting fear in all manner of beings (bhayante viśvā bhuvanā) as they are “awful to see” (dṛso haraḥ).409 Though the Māravijaya accounts describe the Mārasena as frightful primarily in terms of gross deformity, there at least seems a superficial similarity regarding their awfulness and power over storms in relation to the maruts. Though different in arrangement and detail, the actual battle sequence of the Māravijaya narratives still closely follows the epic Indra/ascetic pattern. The components are the same (temptation to desire and physical attack) and, what is more important, the motivation – destroying a threat to the human/deva boundary and maintaining deva dominion over the world – is identical. It would perhaps be more surprising were there no differences, thereby indicating an unwillingness for the Buddhist authors to place their stamp on the other narratives with which they were interacting. In that list we could place the multifarious pandemonium of the Mārasena, possibly related to the tradition of maruts but just as closely affiliated with the traditions of yakṣas and other demi-god/demi-demon beings. The calm and equanimity with which Gotama greets the assault is universal in the myth cycle and departs significantly from Brahmanical accounts of the demons who battle gods or the ascetics who challenge the heavens. This quietude


BC 13.45: bhūtvāpare vāridharā bṛhantaḥ savidyutaḥ sāśanicaṇḍaghoṣāḥ; LV 21, pg. 222, line 19: vidyudvarṣān kṣipanto vajrāśaniṃ kālameghān. 408 RV 1.64.11 and 5.55.1, for instance, refer to their shining spears. 409 RV 1.85.8. See also 1.19.5 where they are called “ghoravarpasaḥ,” “of frightful form.”

151 surely plays a part in the ideology of the peaceful Buddha. Even more dramatic is the addition by authors of the Nidānakathā and Lalitavistara of Gotama‟s call on the earth to testify to his merit. Iconographically enshrined in the ubiquitous bhūmisparśa (“earth-touching”) posture, this popular image of the Buddha-to-be in seated position touching the earth with the fingers of one hand relates to a crucial moment in those texts. Māra challenges the ascetic‟s right to claim awakening, arguing that, after all, as a god of high station he has earned greater merit and therefore has a better claim to the seat Gotama occupies. The entire host of the Mārasena assent to Māra‟s claim, shifting the burden to the ascetic, who calls on the earth to bear witness to the meritorious acts he performed in previous lives. A thunderous earthquake ensues and Māra‟s army is shaken away in calamitous ruin, Gotama‟s superior merit thereby demonstrated.410 The Nidānakathā further describes that as the sage gained awakening, flowers bloomed throughout the universe, creepers sprouted and blossomed on trees, and fruit germinated on vines. 411 If we read this explosion of fertility not only as an expression of universal joy but also the creative power of stored austerity, it provides another valence to the rain imagery in the Buddhacarita and Saundarananda. Though Gotama could have “cashed in” his austerity for kingship or worldly pleasures, he instead applies it toward meditative accomplishment, the release of which comes as the sprouting of vegetation or showers of rain. This is in keeping with other textual traditions in which the release of an ascetic‟s austerity is linked with rain and fertility. In those traditions, however, the ascetic‟s practice normally equals drought and a local king sends a woman to seduce the sage, thereby vacating his powers. 412 In the case of the Buddha, however,


NK, pgs. 74-75; LV 21.188-191. As referenced earlier (n.306), later accounts such as the Paṭhamasambodhi have the Mārasena flooded away by water. 411 NK, pg. 76. 412 See Wendy Doniger (O‟Flaherty), Śiva, the Erotic Ascetic, pgs. 41-46.

152 he has resisted all challenges and the energy that is released does not represent depletion, but rather regeneration. What better way than a literally earth-shaking and earth-renewing ending to depict the defeat of a god and the beginning of a new cosmic and social order? Conclusion At this point I am in the somewhat uncomfortable position of admitting to what most scholars (whether they acknowledge it or not) actually engage in. Namely, what I have done in this chapter is really quite artificial, for resolving the two strands of the myth cycle, namely divine-Buddha/demon-Māra and demon-Buddha/divine-Māra, into isolation seems like separating two singers engaged in a harmonious chord. I began this chapter with the analogy of Rubin‟s Vase and the śleṣa, two ambiguous constructions carrying double meanings. With both, I suggested that to understand either object fully, the two meanings have to be taken together. So it is also with the Māravijaya narratives. As I have pointed out along the way, there is certainly overlap between the two currents in the stories, since both work to redefine the culture at hand while simultaneously playing the Brahmanical norm off against the Māra figure. On the one hand, there is the Buddha as a new kind of kṣatriya who prevails against ancient chaos (Māra) without fighting, leaving behind the old warrior ways (also Māra). On the other, there is the unabashedly demonic Buddha who breaks ontological categories to usher in a new order against Brahmanical deva-tyranny (Māra, yet again). Deftly, without announcing its double-intent, the Māravijaya myth cycle makes sociological and cosmological claims simultaneously that are as much anti-Brahmanical as pro-Buddhist. As with the Rubin‟s Vase or śleṣa, or so much of Buddhist thought, correct perception makes all the difference.


Chapter 5: Māra, Dealer of Death through Desire: the Buddhist Mortification of Kāma

154 I. Introduction In the Indian Buddhist traditions, desire (kāma) represents the force most consistently obstructive to release from the rounds of rebirth.413 Given that these traditions are rooted in renunciation and asceticism, this simple fact is unsurprising, but it perhaps conceals the complexity with which Buddhist literature defined and understood the concept(s) of desire in relation to other Indian traditions. For instance, though Brahmanism and, later, Hinduism also positioned desire against self-denial, there is also the tendency in those traditions for these forces to flow into and penetrate one another dynamically. Indeed, as Doniger (O‟Flaherty) points out, we should not interpret the Hindu perception of these forces as diametrically or intrinsically opposed, for though they represent different polarities of experience and practice, Hindu philosophical and narrative discourses posit a potentially energetic vacillation between these powers.414 Buddhist traditions, on the other hand, have been much more systematically suspicious of desire, defining and cataloging its nature and psychological effects in order to root it out. Academic analysis of the Buddhist treatment of desire – and the distinctiveness of that treatment from Hinduism – has primarily focused on this philosophical and psychological level. David Webster, for instance, in his otherwise very helpful work The Philosophy of Desire in the Pāli Canon, claims that, “Buddhism, devoid of such „grand narratives‟ of cosmology [as exist in Hinduism], has perhaps been dialectically forced to engage more with the roots of desire.” 415 Though certainly lacking a cosmogonic narrative, in contrast to Webster‟s assertion, we have 413

This statement, and the attitudes toward desire that I ascribe to Indian Buddhism throughout this chapter, clearly do not apply to Tantric Buddhism. The inclusion of the views of that strain of thought fall well outside the bounds of this dissertation and, though certainly interesting, will not be dealt with here. 414 Śiva, the Erotic Ascetic, especially pgs. 33-39 and 82. 415 Pg. 89.

155 seen a narrative tradition in Buddhism which deals with desire in the mythological sense, namely the figure of Māra. Representing the coordination of desire and death, lust plus decay, Māra constitutes a distinctively Buddhist narrative conceptualization of the nature and peril of kāma. In this chapter I will show how narratives of Māra assert a distinctively Buddhist position on the subject of kāma, in relation and opposition to Hindu perspectives. To accomplish this admittedly expansive task, I have divided the chapter into two parts. In part one I first examine the history and definition of various notions of desire in the respective traditions, then analyze narratives of Māra versus the Hindu personification of desire, Kāmadeva. The centerpiece of part one is a comparison of the kāvya works Buddhacarita and Kumārasaṃbhava, which both deal with the root narrative of a god of desire assailing a powerful ascetic. The manner in which they do so, however, reveals the ideological perspectives of each tradition. In part two I deal with how Buddhist literature employs Māra to make statements on issues of gender. Both the Kāma and Māra mythologies communicate a discourse that women are alluring yet dangerous expressions of desire, the ultimate agents of prakṛti (“matter,” in the case of Hinduism) or saṃsāra (in the case of Buddhism). Buddhist literature appropriated these associations between kāma/prakṛti as a means to sort women into roles appropriate and inappropriate in relation to the male sangha. This involved associating women of the household sphere with the daughters of Māra, while women who join the sangha specifically renounce that identity. The common thread between the two halves of this chapter is that as Buddhist literature engages kāma, either as an abstract concept or a personified deity, it relentlessly correlates desire with death. Hereafter I refer to this process as the “mortification” of kāma, for whenever and wherever kāma (“desire,” or “lust”) arises, Indian Buddhist traditions never fail to overlay that notion with “Māra,” literally “Death.”

156 Hence desire, lust, and love are considered conflations, connotations, and coordinations with death, decay, and destruction. II. Kāma and Māra in Kāvya Literature The Development of Kāma Given its expansive nature, it is difficult to trace a precise origin of the term kāma. Scholars who have studied the term tend to define it in ways that convey almost a sense of angst and perpetual longing. Catherine Benton, for instance, insists that beyond merely connoting desire in a sexual sense, kāma is desire in the broadest possible sense, meaning want for whatever one does not possess.416 Joanna Macy describes kāma in a similar manner, suggesting it is “the urge to remedy the sense of one‟s own incompleteness.”417 Textually, one of the very first references to kāma comes in that earliest strata of Indian works, the Rig Veda, which asserts that, “kāma arose in the beginning, and that was the first issue from the mind.”418 Here the exact nature of kāma is not specified, but it is given a primordial nature and affiliated with manas, the mind, closely aligning desire with thought. To a degree, this reinforces the definitions of Benton and Macy, which both ascribe a deliberative, almost contemplative quality to kāma, as they both see it as the recognition of one‟s deficiency. The other important aspect of the Rig Veda verse, though, is the ancient origin of kāma: it arose in the beginning, and therefore (perhaps unsurprisingly) has always been with us as an integral part of existence.


God of Desire, pg. 4. “The Dialectics of Desire,” pg. 146. 418 10.129.4: kāmas tad aghre samavartatādhi manaso retaḥ prathamaṃ yad āsīt. An identical passage occurs in the AV at 19.52.1. 417

157 These qualities of the abstract concept “kāma” find their way into the representation of Kāmadeva, who does not appear as a personified figure until the second century BCE. 419 In her fascinating work on that deity, Benton delineates the facets and contours of Kāmadeva‟s literary and artistic appearances, including stories of his origins. In the Śiva Purāṇa, for instance, the creator Brahmā gazes upon a beautiful woman and the god Kāma springs from his mind due to the thought of lust. That text then describes Kāma‟s essential features, both physically and metaphysically: he has a golden body, beautiful eyes and face, a fish for his emblem, and a sugarcane bow with flower arrows for his weapons, which he will use to exert control over even Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva, let alone lowly mortals.420 The Śiva Purāṇa account, though far later than the Vedic text, harkens back to the Rig Veda verses by locating Kāma‟s origin in Brahmā‟s mind. Kāmadeva continues this Vedic sense of kāma‟s intimate connection to identity and consciousness, as is evident from two of the god‟s primary epithets: smara (“memory”) and manobhava (“mind-born”). At the same time, in the case of the Śiva Purāṇa it is not simply a generic thought of desire or incompleteness (to use Benton and Macy‟s phrase) that generates Kāmadeva, but more specifically the thought of lust over a woman‟s physical form. By the time of its personification as a god, kāma thus seems more expressive of desire in terms of sexuality and lust rather than the general sense of “wanting.” There is another aspect to kāma, though, attaching to both the abstract and personified senses, which also goes back to the Vedic tradition and lends a darker, more ambivalent hue to his coloring. Though beautiful himself and constantly surrounded by green and growing things – indeed, Madhu, the personification of spring is Kāmadeva‟s constant companion – the god of

419 420

Benton, God of Desire, pg. 128. This is the case, at any rate, for textual accounts. Śiva Purāṇa, 2.18-42. See Benton‟s translation, which is excellent: God of Desire, pg. 25.

158 love is also considered a god of affliction, torture, and pain. The refrain of a love spell in the Atharva Veda, for instance, declares, “I pierce you in the heart with the terrible arrow of Kāma.”421 Just as desire can be warm as the spring sun, it can also burn, pester, and madden, like the buzzing or stinging of the bees and wasps that accompany spring flowers. In fact, Kāmadeva‟s sugarcane bow and flowering arrows are often said to be covered with bees and wasps, suggesting that just as the petals of a beautiful flower can hide a stinging insect, the blossoming of love contains potential heartache. Playing again on this connection to the mind, besides smara and manobhava, Kāmadeva is also very frequently called “manmatha” (“mindbreaker”) and “madana” (“maddener”), emphasizing the other aspect that, even when fulfilled (not to mention unrequited), desire and lust can drive a person crazy. It is in this vein that the Atharva Veda calls Kāmadeva‟s arrow “terrible” (bhīma) and also that King Duṣyanta complains to Kāmadeva in Abhijñānaśakuntala: “Those like me [lovelorn] see your flower arrows and the moon‟s cool rays as false. The moon emits fire with its cool rays and your flower arrows are as hard as steel (vajra).”422 How to comprehend this ambivalence has generated something of a disagreement among scholars. E. Washburn Hopkins, an early scholar of epic literature, while acknowledging the potentially maddening influence of Kāmadeva, thought it a step too far to associate the god with death or destruction.423 In her study, on the other hand, Benton sees these and other passages as evidence that “desire works always in the shadow of death.”424 It is fair to say that in early literature, at least as far back as the Atharva Veda, kāma is regarded ambivalently as a wondrous 421

3.25.1-4: isuḥ kāmasya yā bhīmā tayā vidhyāmī tvā hṛdi. 3.3: tava kusumaśara tvaṃ śītaraśmitvam indor dvayam idam ayathārthaḥ dṛsyate madvidheṣu | visṛjati himagarbhair agnimindurmayūkhais tvam api kusumabāṇānvajrasārīkaroṣi || 423 Epic Mythology, pg. 166. 424 God of Desire, pg. 34. 422

159 but also wounding power. The representation of Kāmadeva shows that desire strikes from without (through piercing arrows) and also springs from within (born of one‟s own mind). However, while the Atharva Veda verses and Duṣyanta‟s lament express negative and painful aspects of Kāmadeva, and even if we go as far as Benton to see desire as being in the shadow of death, it is still another leap beyond these premises to conclude that desire and death are one and the same. This is the Buddhist interpretation of kāma, and in the next section I trace the boundaries and history of that claim. Buddhism and Kāma The idea of “desire” is connoted by many terms in Buddhist scriptures. In his project on desire in the Pāli Canon, David Webster delineates between these terms and demonstrates how each shows a slightly different shade of what one might translate as “desire” in English. During that discussion, Webster highlights passages in the Netti Pakaraṇa and Dīgha Nikāya which seem to allow for positive uses of desire. In the former, the passage reads, “desire (taṇhā) is of two types: skillful and unskillful. The unskillful leads to saṃsāra, while the skillful is the desire (taṇhā) for abandonment [of saṃsāra], which leads to diminuition [of worldliness].”425 For Webster, this creates the seeming paradox of desiring the end of desire.426 Given our discussion of the notion of desire in other Indian materials in the preceding section, we can perhaps suggest some other ways to look at this passage. For one, the Netti Pakaraṇa verse clearly indicates that intention is the crucial factor in separating skillful from unskillful taṇhā, specifically that one with the intention to end taṇhā possesses skillful taṇhā, while unskillful taṇhā points toward saṃsāra, meaning it is desire purely for the sake of desire. The affiliated Dīgha Nikāya text, the 425

Netti Pakaraṇa, pg. 87: tattha taṇhā dvidhā kusalāpi akusalāpi | akusalā saṃsāragāminī kusalā apacayagāminī pahānataṇhā || 426 Philosophy of Desire in the Pāli Canon, pgs. 132-134.

160 Saṅgīti Sutta, gives the same sense, describing profitable desire as the desire which leads to the cessation of desire (nirodhataṇhā).427 In the face of the long Indian tradition, going back to the Vedas, of treating desire as a primordial force intrinsic to human existence, I would interpret these Buddhist passages as admissions that a desiring disposition is the default status of the human condition, but that desire can be redeployed. In other words, one can work with human nature, though it is flawed with desire. For our purposes, however, there is another more important distinction to make. In these Buddhist passages the Pāli term I have (perhaps too generally) translated as “desire” is taṇhā, which may be more specifically rendered as a “craving” or “thirst” for something. In this way, taṇhā perhaps corresponds to the general, abstract sense of kāma (as Benton and Macy define it above) as the feeling that we are incomplete, and the subsequent yearning to remedy that deficiency. As we saw above, though, the personified Kāmadeva is most often associated with desire not for something, but rather the potentially maddening yearning for someone. According to certain Buddhist texts, such as we have seen in the Netti Pakaraṇa and Dīgha Nikāya, it is possible to rehabilitate the desire for something (taṇhā), but is the same allowance made for the desire and lust for someone (kāma)? In fact, a survey of Buddhist texts, both relatively early as well as commentarial, shows that a different, more negative standard applies to kāma. Referring back to the Netti Pakaraṇa is an interesting place to start, both due to its qualifications about the usefulness of taṇhā as well as the text‟s position in the tradition as a guide to the Pāli Canon for commentarial writers. 428 Though technically non-canonical, it is a fairly early text (perhaps dating from the first century 427

DN II 216. George Bond has written illuminatingly on this use of the Netti Pakaraṇa. See The Word of the Buddha: the Tipiṭaka and its Interpretation in Theravāda Buddhism, pgs. 34-99. 428

161 CE), preserving a sense of how the Canon was viewed prior to the writing of other commentaries.429 Buddhaghoṣa‟s Visuddhimagga is another useful work to consult, representing the point at which the Pāli Canon was effectively closed and the scriptures thereof were seen retrospectively. Within the Canon itself, I will primarily look at the Suttanipāta, a quite early text, and the Potaliya Sutta, which contains several lengthy analogies of kāma to decay and death. Examining the textual tradition from these multiple angles and along this continuum nevertheless reveals a uniform perspective on the subject of kāma, all of it negative. For instance, the Netti Pakaraṇa describes the dangers of kāma in terms of the middle way, saying “the pursuit of self-mortification and attachment to sensual desires (kāmasukhallikānuyogo) are thus an impurity, while concentration and insight are purity.” 430 Elsewhere, listing the four kinds of confused perceptions (vipallāso), the Netti Pakaraṇa states that one who possesses the wrong perception of asubhesa santi (seeing “peace in the ugly”) is “one who clings to kāma” and “grasps at kāma.”431 Reinforcing this perspective, the Visuddhimagga lists the “excitement of kāma” (kāmacchanda) as the first of five factors (pañcānga) representing worldly obstacles to concentration.432 The Suttanipāta sees a similar relationship, stating that “whoever avoids kāma, like one would avoid a snake‟s head with his foot, is mindful (sato) and overcomes attachment in the world.”433 Whereas the usage of taṇhā suggests that the term is understood in the broad sense of general “craving” or “wanting,” kāma refers more specifically to sensual, even lustful or


E. Hardy, Introduction to the Critical Edition of the Netti Pakaraṇa, pg. xxvii. 110: tattha atta kilamathānuyogo kāmasukhallikānuyogo ca saṃkileso samathavipassanā vodānaṃ. 431 115: pathame vippallāse ṭhito kāme upādiyati idaṃ vuccati kāmupādānaṃ. 432 Pg. 146. 433 4.1.3: yo kāme parivajjeti sappasseva padā siro | so imaṃ visattikaṃ loke sato samativattati || 430

162 sexual, desires. As the Suttanipāta passage illustrates by its likening of kāma to a snake slithering on the ground underneath one‟s foot, there is also something insidious and threatening about sensual desire that one must avoid at all costs. I am not aware of any passage in Buddhist literature that describes taṇhā in quite this way, showing that kāma was almost definitely seen in a different, more menacing light. The Potaliya Sutta continues this portrayal, as the Buddha likens the pursuit of kāma to a dog licking the blood from meatless bones thrown out by a butcher or a bird of prey carrying a piece of meat and thus becoming the target of attacks by envious rival birds of prey.434 In both cases, there is a fleeting sense of satisfaction followed quickly by dismay or danger, showing that the pleasure reaped through kāma is only momentary and ultimately empty. Additionally, these are both very violent images, as the dog attempts to gain satisfaction from the butcher‟s slaughter of other beings, while the bird of prey comes into life-threatening peril after seizing its supper. Quite vividly, both parables communicate that death is just around the corner from kāma, if not hidden secretively within it. The Dhammapada states this relationship outright, declaring that “kāma gives birth to sorrow” (kāmato jāyati soko), while in the Theragāthā we are told that “whoever desires desire, desires pain” (yo kāme kāmayati dukkhaṃ so kāmayati).435 There is a potential counterexample in Indian Buddhist literature, namely the story of the Buddha‟s half-brother Nanda, as told especially by the poet Aśvaghoṣa. Nanda begins the story as a householder, passionately devoted to his wife Sundarī. The couple is so deeply in love that the text describes them as “targets for Kandarpa and Ratī,” that is, for Kāmadeva and his wife

434 435

MN II 364. See DhP 16.7 and Theragāthā, pg. 14.

163 Ratī.436 The Buddha takes pity on Nanda, seeing how he is caught “in the mire of love” (snehapaṅkān), and resolves to set him free.437 This rescue mission first requires subterfuge and coercion to draw Nanda into the sangha. After his ordination, Nanda‟s practice and resolve falter to such an extent that even further drastic action is needed on the part of the Buddha. The Awakened One takes his half-brother on a voyage to the heavenly realms where the celestial apsarases frolic. There he promises that, if he practices diligently, Nanda can have all these nymphs, whose beauty far surpasses the earthly Sundarī. Ironically, however, once Nanda undertakes Buddhist practice with the same fervor that he once devoted to the pursuit of pleasure, he realizes the emptiness of desire, releases the Buddha from the earlier promise, and attains awakening. This story would at first seem a perfect instance of Webster‟s conundrum, namely of the usefulness of desire for ending desire, lending kāma a certain utility in the Buddhist tradition. In several places, though, the text goes out of its way to describe Nanda‟s case as exceptional, perhaps as the proverbial exception that proves the rule. The Buddha‟s course of action is described as a radical course of treatment, indeed “just as a doctor strives to increase pain in order to draw disease out from the body.” 438 Desire is thus still a disease, even when it is used as a treatment. Elsewhere the narrative describes kāma as “without value or substance” (asāra) and “dreamlike” (svapnanibha).439 Perhaps most damningly, sensual pleasures are declared “auspicious for no one and the cause of pain, both now and hereafter.”440 The portrayal of kāma in Saundarananda is consistent with the rest of Buddhist scripture and, far from advising 436

Saundarananda, 4.8: kandarparatyor iva lakṣyabhūtaṃ. Ibid., 5.18. 438 Ibid., 10.43: doṣāṃś ca kāyād bhiṣag ujjihīrṣur bhūyo yathā kleśayituṃ yateta. 439 Ibid., 5.22-23. 440 Ibid., 9.47: paratra c‟ aiv‟ eha ca duḥkhahetavo bhavanti kāmā na tu kasya cic chivāḥ. 437

164 Nanda‟s course of treatment for everyone, the text describes it in terms similar to the use of poisons to cure a disease. In the final analysis, then, the representation of kāma in Saundarananda contributes to the Buddhist understanding that, while very rarely and provisionally expedient, desire is still ultimately poisonous. Though we have seen a degree of danger ascribed to kāma in Hindu literature, it is revealing that the perceived hazard of sensual desire and the corresponding animosity towards it in that tradition in no way approaches what one finds in the Buddhist canon. In the Kāma Sūtra, for instance, the text‟s organizing principle is that sensual desire has its place in life, and while kāma is to be enjoyed, one cannot give oneself over to pleasure without restriction. The goal of this classic Hindu treatise on desire is therefore not to eradicate or unduly exalt kāma, but provide a manual by which the wise may pursue sensual pleasure in an informed and controlled manner. Ludo Rocher supports this interpretation of the Kāma Sūtra, arguing that the text goes to great lengths to strike a balance between the power and pursuit of kāma and the other puruṣārthas (“goals of humans”).441 The Buddhist attitude toward kāma clearly diverges from such perspectives, and we are now in a position to investigate the ways the narratives of Māra and Kāmadeva reflect and advance these contrasting attitudes. God of Saṃsāra and God of Desire One need not look far for instances in Buddhist literature linking Māra to kāma and Kāmadeva, the concept and the deity. In the first case, we find that, according to the Āneñjasappāya Sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya, sensual desires (kāmā) are Māra‟s dominion (māradheyyaṃ), Māra‟s realm (mārass‟ esa visayo), Māra‟s bait (mārass‟ esa nivāpo) and


“The Kāma Sūtra: Vātsyāyana‟s Attitude Toward Dharma and Dharmaśāstra,” pgs. 522-524.

165 Māra‟s hunting ground (mārass‟ esa gocaro).442 Similarly, a monk named Rāhula declares in the Theragāthā that he, “having forsaken desire” (taṃ kāmam aham ujjhitvā), and thus having “broken Māra‟s bonds” (chetvā mārassa bandhanaṃ), has achieved peace (nibbuto).443 Elsewhere in the Theragāthā another monk, named Uttarapāla tells of how previously “the five qualities of kāma, the deluders in the world, caused me to fall,” placing him “under the control of Māra and the power of strong arrows.”444 Finally, though, he proclaims his success at breaking free from the “snares of the lord of death” (maccurājassa ahaṃ pāsāpamuccitaṃ) and by the same process gave up all sensual desires (sabbe kāmā).445 The Theragāthā‟s imagery of five qualities of kāma (pañca kāmaguṇā) in conjunction with arrows has an obvious resonance with the established description of Kāmadeva‟s five lustinducing flower arrows. The hunting image also appears in the Majjhima Nikāya‟s Nivāpa Sutta, which contains an extended metaphor of a deer trapper (Māra) who employs traps and bait (pañca kāmaguṇa) to ensnare herds of deer (renouncers and Brahmins). The metaphor involves four different deer herds, of which three are unable to resist or are eventually deceived into taking the bait. Only the fourth herd, which represents the Buddha and his followers, completely shuns the bait and finds a place where the hunter cannot follow.446 We find a brief allusion to this image in the previously mentioned Saundarananda as well, as Nanda‟s fellow monks are incredulous that being so close to escape he would still cling to sense desires, like a deer running


MN II 261-262. Theragāthā, pg. 35. 444 Ibid., pg. 31: pañca kāmaguṇā loke sammohā pātayiṃsu maṃ. pakkhano māravisaye daḷhasalla samappito. The five kāmagunā correspond in Indian philosophy to the five senses. See also the Vekhanassa Sutta, MN II 42-43 for a discussion of the kāmaguṇā. 445 Ibid. See also DhP 1.7-8 which similarly correlate overcoming kāma to defeating Māra. 446 MN I 151-160. 443

166 back into the hunter‟s net.447 Conversely, when Nanda finally overcomes his kāma appetites, he is said to have conquered Māra.448 The forces of sensual pleasures, therefore, are cast as Māra‟s weapons and tools to trap beings in saṃsāra, associating kāma with entrapment in the round of rebirth and death. He is a hunter who uses snares and baited hooks to capture all, even bhikkhus, who delight in sensual pleasures.449 Indeed, the picture that emerges from these accounts is of a lurking, prowling entity, singularly devoted to entangling beings in an intractable net of desire. In this way, the Buddhist texts cast the generic force of kāma as one of the prime machinations for Māra to lure and deceive beings into the never-ending cycle of death. Beyond the generic sense of kāma, however, certain Buddhist texts explicitly identify Māra as Kāmadeva. One of the clearest examples comes in the Buddhacarita, which describes Māra as “the one who those in the world call Kāmadeva” (yaṃ kāmadevaṃ pravadanti loke) and “supreme lord of the actions of kāma” (kāmapracārādhipatiṃ).450 Additionally, he is referred to by compounds meaning, “the one whose arrows are flowers” (puṣpaśaraṃ), and “one of the bright weapon” (citrāyudhaṃ), suggesting his bow is iridescent and variegated like Kāma‟s. 451 Furthermore, when the god sets out to arrest Gotama‟s progress toward awakening, he approaches the ascetic, “having seized his bow made of flowers and the five arrows that make delusion.”452


8.15. Ibid., 18.28. 449 SN IV 92-94; 159. 450 13.2. 451 Ibid. 452 Ibid., 13.7: tato dhanuḥ puṣpamayaṃ gṛhītvā śarānāṃstathā mohakarāṃśca paṃca | This is the verse from Cowell‟s edition. Johnston‟s differs slightly, reading in part “śarān jaganmohakarāṃśca pañca,” but this does not change the meaning substantially. 448

167 By so baldly conflating Māra and Kāmadeva, Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita clearly takes a different tack from the Nikāyas, which as we just saw merely assign the force of sensual pleasures to Māra as his sphere of control and chief power. This is obviously a different strategy for relating Māra to the concept of desire and past scholars have explained the variance in terms of a gradual tendency on the part of Buddhist authors to add layers of mythology onto philosophical discourses. Maurice Winternitz, for instance, contrasts “simple and sober” early suttas of the Nikāyas with the “exaggeration of the later biographies of Buddha,” particularly works like the Buddhacarita, but especially the later Lalitavistara.453 Along the same lines, Ernst Windisch saw the Māra symbol developing from a simple metaphor in the philosophical discourses of the Nikāyas to an unwieldy mythology in the various stories of the Buddha‟s awakening.454 As I discussed in chapter two, many scholars still approach the Māra mythology from the related perspective that the figure is merely an allegory for philosophical positions, rather than investigate the significance of its literary qualities. In terms of the material at hand in this chapter, there are at least two primary problems with interpreting the different representations of Māra/kāma between the Nikāyas and Buddhacarita as the result of an evolution from philosophy to literature. First, as we have seen throughout this dissertation, Māra‟s appearances in the Nikāyas can also have elaborate literary and mythical qualities, blurring such easy distinctions between philosophy and literature. Second, this logic collapses Buddhist narratives like Buddhacarita and Lalitavistara into one category, leaving us illpositioned to appreciate the differences between these stories and what those differences might represent. From the perspective of the Māra/kāma question, it seems clearly significant that of

453 454

See History of Indian Literature, Vol. II., pgs. 97 and 260. Māra und Buddha, pgs. 210-213.

168 the Māravijaya narratives, only the Buddhacarita clearly and explicitly conflates Māra with Kāmadeva. Lalitavistara describes Māra as lord of Kāmadhātu and, along with the Nidānakathā and Mahāvastu, portrays an attempt by the god to instill Gotama with sensual desire as a means to arrest his progress to awakening, but through the wiles of his daughters. By endowing Māra with Kāmadeva‟s name and characteristic equipment (the five flower arrows), Aśvaghoṣa makes a very deliberate descriptive move in the Buddhacarita that distinguishes that narrative‟s characterization of Māra from the others. In the rest of this part of the chapter, I argue that this difference demonstrates Aśvaghoṣa‟s engagement with the Hindu kāvya literature surrounding the trope of the powerful ascetic versus the desire god. Through that trope, the Buddhacarita advances a particular treatment of desire, death, and asceticism. By looking at Aśvaghoṣa‟s work in this way, I am in part reacting against the sentiments of some, as voiced by the critical editors of the Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa – a compendium of Sanskrit poetry which figures in my following analysis – who believed that Sanskrit kāvya was so rife with myth and “sensuous emotion” that Buddhists could only write such literature “by forgetting they were Buddhists.” 455 On the contrary, my argument will show that Aśvaghoṣa‟s kāvya is not an un-Buddhist concession, but an advancement of Buddhist values through the medium of poetry. As such, Aśvaghoṣa‟s work stands in conversation with another classic kāvya work, Kālidāsa‟s Kumārasaṃbhava, which directly treats the same desire-god-versus-ascetic trope. By comparing the different treatments of this theme in these directly related works, we gain a unique vantage on the Buddhist/Brahmin dialogue about the relationship of kāma and death.


The Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa of Vidyākara, ed. D.D. Kosambi and V.V. Gokhale, pgs. 58-59.

169 The Backgrounds of Aśvaghoṣa, Kālidāsa, and the Śiva/Kāma Myth Cycle Scholars are nearly unanimous on the connection between Aśvaghoṣa and Kālidāsa, as well as the deliberate commentary each made on the other‟s respective tradition. Though approximately two centuries separate the poets (with Aśvaghoṣa dated most likely to the second century CE reign of Kaniṣka and Kālidāsa to the fourth or fifth century), A.B. Keith, for instance, writes that “we cannot minimize the influence of Aśvaghoṣa on Kālidāsa.”456 A.K. Warder similarly believed that Kālidāsa, though an orthodox Brahmin, made a “thorough study of the epics of the great Buddhist poet” and additionally drew liberally on aspects of the Buddhist vaṃśa literature to craft the Raghuvaṃśa , the chronicle of the lineage of Rāma.457 For his part, Aśvaghoṣa quite certainly was influenced by and reacted to Brahmanical traditions in his work. Some have even speculated he was once a Brahmin before becoming a Buddhist. 458 Throughout the Buddhacarita, as both Patrick Olivelle and E.H. Johnston note in the prefaces to their respective translations, Aśvaghoṣa overtly alludes to the Hindu epics, particularly the Rāmāyāṇa, which he references in an effort to cast Gotama as a sort of “new Rāma.” 459 Other passages in the Buddhacarita refer to Gotama and his palatial surroundings as akin to those of Indra (indrasamo), and after the Prince‟s departure the bereavement in the city of Kapilavastu is likened to the state of Indra‟s heaven when the thunder god abdicated after committing Brahminicide.460 Both authors thus reacted to and adapted aspects of the other‟s narratives,


Classical Sanskrit Literature, pg. 23. Indian Kāvya Literature, pgs. 131-137. See also Krishnamurti‟s Kālidāsa, pgs. 74-75. 458 Winternitz, History of Indian Literature, pg. 257. 459 See Olivelle, The Life of the Buddha, pgs. xxii-xxiii, and Johnston, Buddhacarita, or Life of the Buddha, pgs. xlvii-l. Some of the most significant allusions are deliberate parallels between Gotama‟s great departure and Rāma‟s exile into the forest. For example, the charioteer who drives Gotama away from the palace confines compares himself to Rāma‟s charioteer Sumantra (6.36) and Śudhodana compares his grief at Gotama‟s renunciation to Daśaratha‟s lamentations (8.79, 8.81). 460 See 5.22, 5.45, and 8.13. 457

170 participating in a literary game of one-upmanship in which they sought to portray their particular tradition as superior. As mentioned above, the particular narrative we will examine stems from the desire-godversus-ascetic trope, which appears as Māra versus the Buddha in chapter thirteen of Buddhacarita and as Kāma versus Śiva in chapter three of Kumārasaṃbhava. An early version of the Kāma/Śiva confrontation, which is a mainstay of later Purāṇas, appears to be the root text both authors worked from in devising their differing versions. Though dating Purāṇic literature is a hazardous endeavor, we can perhaps delineate between younger and older Purāṇas, and even younger and older versions of particular Purāṇas. Thus a quite late Purāṇa, like the Śiva Purāṇa, which has one of the most developed accounts of the clash between Śiva and Kāma, probably went through numerous recensions and an earlier version may have served as the inspiration for both Aśvaghoṣa and Kālidāsa.461 Briefly outlined, the basic story involves the devas sending Kāmadeva to incite sensual desire in Śiva, who has renounced all worldly pleasure, in order to procure a son to lead their army against a mighty demon. As helpfully outlined by Benton, almost all variants involve the king of the gods, Indra, summoning Kāmadeva into his presence (literally, “remembering him,” playing on the connection of kāma to manas), then dispatching him to imbue Śiva with desire, whereupon the ascetic god becomes enraged and reduces Kāmadeva to ashes with fire from his third eye.462 Later, however, the god of desire is either revived or realized to still be alive, yet in an intangible, bodiless (anaṅga) form, which is arguably even more powerful for lacking the limitation of physical form. Different versions ascribe the upper hand variously to Śiva‟s asceticism or Kāmadeva‟s power such that the upshot, 461

See the following authors for that specific claim: Ludo Rocher, The Purāṇas, vol. II of A History of Indian Literature, pg. 89; Mirashi and Narayan, Kālidāsa: Date, Life and Works, pg. 139. 462 See God of Desire, pgs. 48-49 for Benton‟s helpful outline.

171 when taken together as one mythic cycle, is of tension and conflict surging and rebounding back and forth, like ocean waves rising, falling, and crashing against a rocky shore. Doniger (O‟Flaherty) notes the ambiguity of the symbolism of fire, which is the power ascetics possess (tapas) and the infuriated Śiva uses to incinerate Kāmadeva, but is also the fire of passion, used by the love god to burn us all with desire.463 Read in this way, Śiva‟s incineration of Kāmadeva, far from showing his superiority, demonstrates that he was, in fact, aroused, as is also borne out by his later marriage to Pārvatī. As that conclusion suggests, besides the contrast between the figures of Māra and Kāma, we will also find that the two narratives are concerned with distinguishing the characters of Śiva and the Buddha. Though their respective traditions consider both figures masters of self-control and meditation, one is a human (or quasi-superhuman) and the other is a supreme deity. Also, in their respective confrontations with the god of desire, they fight for different causes. In the case of Śiva, the god resists leaving the disciplined life of self-denial for the householding realm and what is at stake is the balance between asceticism and fertility. The Buddha‟s battle with Māra, on the other hand, represents the battle between the Buddhist path and the twin forces of kāma and death. For Aśvaghoṣa, the concern is to show the Buddha as even more powerful than Śiva, while Kālidāsa attempts to maintain Śiva‟s preeminence while negotiating a balance between the Lord of Yoga‟s might and the intractable nature of kāma. Narratives of the conflict of Kāmadeva and Śiva thus emphasize the impossibility of eradicating desire, but also the necessity of controlling and even sublimating its power. 464 In other words, the mythic cycle expresses to a large degree the philosophy of desire we saw above

463 464

Śiva, the Erotic Ascetic, pgs. 157, and 257-260. God of Desire, pg. 58.

172 in the Kāma Sūtra, that since kāma cannot be destroyed, it should be given its appropriate due. We also saw, however, that the Buddhist tradition has a diametrically different position, and it is these two opposing points of view that will play out in the respective narratives of Aśvaghoṣa and Kālidāsa. The Buddhacarita and Kumārasaṃbhava Compared Māra‟s first scheme in the Buddhacarita for breaking Gotama‟s meditative practice plainly resonates with the Śiva/Kāma myth cycle. Having taken up his bow, described earlier as citrāyudhaṃ (the “bright” or “variegated weapon”), Māra draws one of his five flower arrows. The particular arrow is described as lelihānaḥ, which is a form of the root “lih” and can mean “serpent,” in keeping with the root‟s base meaning of “lick or lap” (due to the snake‟s tendency to flick its tongue). When applied specifically to an arrow, however, this form of “lih” can simply mean “destroyer.”465 Though arrows are often likened to snakes, especially venomous snakes,466 in Indian literature, Aśvaghoṣa actually makes a subtle move in this characterization. Kāmadeva‟s arrows are associated with flowers (lotuses or mangoes, for example) and given names such as harṣaṇa (“excitement”) or unmāda (“madness”). The former is given as the shaft that strikes Śiva in the Śiva Purāṇa, whereas it is the latter in the Vāmana Purāṇa.467 Benton cites a few other names for Kāmadeva‟s arrows, such as vijṛmbhaṇa (“blossoming”), which is in keeping with the botanical metaphor for desire, as well as santāpana (“afflicting”), an appellation that resonates with the tradition of ambivalence toward Kāma going back to the


BC, 13.13. See A.A. MacDonell, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, pg. 263 for the meanings of the root lih, and pg. 264 for lelihānaḥ specifically. 466 E. W. Hopkins, Epic Mythology, pg. 166. 467 See Śiva Purāṇa, 18.25 and Benton, God of Desire, pg. 54 for a partial translation of the Vāmana Purāṇa account.

173 Atharva Veda.468 Even at its strongest, though, this ambivalence does not carry the same injurious connotation as Māra‟s arrow, which leads to destruction, foreshadowing how the text will go on to classify desire as merely another name for death. Before employing this destroying arrow, Māra extols its irresistible power by listing some of its past victims. First he mentions Śūrpaka, who Johnston believes refers to a fisherman completely overcome with desire for a princess, which might be a reference to a variant of the Kathāsaritsāgara.469 Next he references Purūrava, a descendant of the mighty lunar race, who became “helpless” (vicittaḥ) in longing for the apsaras Urvaśī, and also Santanu, father of Bhīṣma in the Mahābhārata, who lost his self-control (svatantraḥ) in desire for the goddess Gaṅgā. Both fell to their respective states at the arrow‟s slightest touch. 470 In Aśvaghoṣa‟s other work, Saundarananda, as Nanda laments his unquenchable desire, he offers an even lengthier list of similarly luminous, powerful men who have succumbed to the power of kāma, including accomplished sages like Āṅgirās and Kāśyapa, as well as gods like Indra and Sūrya.471 The point in both texts, as Māra declares threateningly to Gotama in Buddhacarita, is that if these adept and sturdy men of the past could not ward off the potency of this arrow, how can he hope to resist? The most revealing comparison occurs when Māra actually discharges the arrow and observes with astonishment that Gotama does not stir even the slightest bit. His confidence suddenly faltering, Māra expresses disbelief at the fact that “Śambhu (Śiva), though a god, when pierced was swayed toward the daughter of the mountain king (Pārvatī). This one disregards that 468

Benton, pg. 56. BC, 13.11; Johnston, Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita, or Acts of the Buddha, pg. 190 n.11; Warder, Indian Kāvya Literature, pg. 174. 470 BC 13.12. 471 7.25-7.46. 469

174 very arrow.”472 At this point the text uses some terms more reminiscent of Kāmadeva‟s activity, as Māra decides that “neither flower-arrows nor excitement (puṣpabāṇaṃ na harṣaṇaṃ) nor binding to pleasure (nāpi raterniyogam) are appropriate for this one.”473 In what may be the use of a pun, the verb I have translated as “appropriate” (arhati) is also the root for the Buddhist term arhat, a literally “worthy” or “accomplished one,” and the term for an awakened person in several schools of Indian Buddhism. Gotama‟s worthiness for awakening has made him unworthy (in the sense of ill-suited) for desire, suggesting he is transcending these problematic aspects of human nature. With the failure of his destructive, desire-inducing arrow, Māra changes strategies and summons his host of goblins (bhūtagaṇa) to attack Gotama. The manner in which he makes this summons has great import on the current argument, for it is said that he “remembered” (sasmāra) his army, and consequently the host of goblins, ghouls, and monsters appeared.474 As I demonstrated in chapter four, the figure of Māra also owes a great deal to the mythology of the god Indra, who plays the part of “remembering” (sasmāra), in other words summoning, Kāmadeva into the presence of the gods so that he can be assigned the task of assailing Śiva with desire. The characterization is meaningful in the Hindu context as it reinforces Kāmadeva‟s connection to memory and the mind, which as we have seen is also expressed in his epithets manobhava and smāra. The fact that Aśvaghoṣa uses the same verb in Buddhacarita cannot be seen as accidental, for the poet has already collapsed the figures of Kāmadeva and Māra while explicitly referencing the desire god‟s conflict with Śiva. Rather than ordering an agent of desire into battle, as does Indra, Māra commands a gruesome army of death, which the text describes at 472

BC 13.16: śailendraputrīṃ pratiyena viddho devo „pi śambhuścalito babhūva na cintayatyeṣa tam eva bāṇaṃ. Ibid., 13.17. 474 BC 13.18. 473

175 length in a passage that occupies more than half the entire chapter. What we find, then, is that Māra‟s Kāmadeva aspect very quickly gives way to death, so quickly in fact that the Kāmadeva characterization seems as if a veneer by comparison, a veneer that is shed to reveal destruction and monstrosity. The narrative, through its course of events and its use of language, shows that underneath kāma lurks death. If, when it comes to the Hindu stories, what comes first to mind is desire, in the Buddhist versions, it is instead death. To make this point, as we have seen, Aśvaghoṣa draws on Hindu literary figures both major and minor, from the Mahābhārata to the lineage of Manu, but none more obviously than Śiva and Kāma. These are the raw materials he has imported, converted, and inverted to show that desire and death are in fact coordinates. In the course of making that point, he also advances the Buddha as a clear superior of Śiva: the ascetic god trembled and burst open his third eye in his bid to defeat Kāmadeva, while the Buddha did not bat so much as an eyelash in overcoming Māra. In their commentaries on the text, both Johnston and Olivelle suggest that, since the Buddhacarita alludes to Śiva being pierced and weakened by the arrow, Aśvaghoṣa may have had access to a version of the story that has been lost.475 While this may be the case, there is also the possibility that Aśvaghoṣa portrayed Śiva in a weaker light so as to aggrandize the Buddha‟s conquest of kāma and death all the more, positioning the Awakened One as the preeminent power and authority in the universe, greater even than Śiva, the Maheśvara (“great god”) and Yogeśvara (“lord of discipline”). Lest we think the Buddhist account of these events is unanswered and unchallenged, the third chapter of Kālidāsa‟s Kumārasaṃbhava provides a very different rendering of the same root narrative. As the otherwise invincible demon Tāraka can only be defeated by the son of 475

Buddhacarita, or Acts of the Buddha, pg. 491 n. 16; Life of the Buddha, pg. 462, n. 13.16.

176 Śiva, the stage is set for the appearance of Kāmadeva. As king of the gods, Indra leads the war council and brings Kāmadeva into their presence from his mind (manasā). Upon arriving, Kāmadeva immediately boasts of his power, pronouncing that he will overwhelm whoever he is sent against and “will afflict his dharma and artha like a flooded river overcomes both banks.”476 This line and its metaphor are significant for two reasons. First, it directly echoes a verse in Buddhacarita in which Māra affirms, “I will go in order to break [Gotama‟s] vow like a flooded river burst over a dam.”477 Beyond those parallel verses, the comparison of kāma‟s ferocious power to a flash flood appears in other Buddhist texts. Suttanipāta, for instance, warns that those who are not wary of kāma will be overwhelmed, “like a broken boat in the water,” while those who assiduously abandon kāma, “having bailed out the ship from the flood, will cross over to the other side.”478 The other side represents awakening, which is obstructed by the rushing waters of desire, forded only through diligent practice. The Theragāthā, like the Buddhacarita, names Māra as the inundating power, with a monk named Māluṅkyaputta cautioning, “do not allow Māra to break you again and again as a flood breaks a reed.”479 Like the whole of the Buddhacarita narrative, these two verses emphasize the connection between kāma and death, and perhaps even more pointedly, re-death, for attachment to desires constitutes attachment to saṃsāra, Māra‟s kingdom. The comparison is important, secondly, for how the Kumārasaṃbhava verse treats the metaphor slightly differently. In that case, it is not exactly the path to awakening that Kāmadeva threatens to obscure, but dharma and artha, the other puruṣārthas, which key Hindu texts, not


Kumārasaṃbhava, 3.6: kasyārthadharmau vada pīḍayāmi sindhostaṭāvogha iva pravṛddhaḥ. BC 13.6: yāsyāmi tāvad vratamasya bhettuṃ setuṃ nadīvega ivātivṛddhaḥ. 478 4.1.5-6: nāvaṃ bhinnaṃ ivodakaṃ…tare oghaṃ nāvaṃ siñcitvā pāragū. 479 pg. 44: mā vo naḷaṃ va soto va māro bhañji punappunaṃ. 477

177 the least of which being the Kāma Sūtra, balance with or even emphasize over kāma. Through their deluges of kāma, both Kāmadeva and Māra isolate and even violate core principles of the traditions they respectively represent. The comparison we can make between the “kāma flood” metaphors in both literatures helps put into relief how each tradition viewed the position and potential danger of the intensity of desire. After taking up the mission from the gods, Kāmadeva begins to display some of that intense power as he processes to Śiva‟s āśrām with his wife Ratī and Madhu (Spring) as companions. The world begins to transform in their wake as desire and passion exude from their very presence: winter changes to spring, flowers burst into bloom, animals become amorous toward their mates, and the ascetics practicing near the āśrām lose all focus.480 With Kāmadeva‟s stature established, the party enters the hermitage and the text transitions to a description of mighty Śiva. The reader is treated to elaborate descriptions of the god‟s unbending posture, dark and lustrous form, motionless eyes, rays of light shooting from his head, and the severe gaze he uses to penetrate into his inner self (ātmānam ātmany avalokayantam).481 The god‟s concentration is so potent and indomitable, that we are told he is “still like a reservoir of water without a ripple.”482 The juxtaposition of these two lengthy descriptions creates an atmosphere not unlike a heavyweight fight, albeit of cosmic proportions: in one corner is Kāmadeva, master of desire and the irresistible force, while in the other corner is Śiva, lord of meditation and an immovable object. At heart, however, the story appears to portray Kāmadeva to be at a distinct disadvantage, particularly by foreshadowing his immolation throughout the narrative in the use of epithets such 480

Kumārasaṃbhava, 3.24-39; cf. Śiva Purāṇa, 18.2-10. Kumārasaṃbhava, 3.44-3.50. 482 Ibid., 3.48: apāmivādhāram anuttaraṅgam. 481

178 as “anaṅga” (“bodiless”).483 Additionally, as Kāma first observes Śiva in the creeper bower he is called “āsannaśarīrapātas” (“the one whose body was soon to fall”).484 Sensing he may be outmatched, the desire god actually drops his bow briefly, but regains form once Pāravatī arrives on her daily rounds in service of Śiva. Newly encouraged by a beautiful female form through which to channel his power, the archer strings an arrow called saṃmohanaṃ (“bewilderment”), and Śiva‟s concentration is disturbed “like the mass of the sea at the beginning of the moon‟s rise” (candrodayārambha ivāmburāśiḥ).485 This beautiful phrase deftly plays off the earlier image of Śiva as a motionless reservoir of water, showing how it is now rippled with waves and eddies. At the same time, it reinforces the scale of the confrontation at hand: the pull of desire is as powerful as the gravity of a celestial body, while ascetic self-control is as stern as the weight of the ocean. In this instance, the ocean pushes back, for as he instantly senses the disruption, Śiva scans about for the cause. In a fascinating interplay of the notion of sight, Śiva‟s yogically enhanced gaze catches Kāmadeva squinting his eyes as he aims.486 Overcome by rage, he opens his third eye and unleashes a volley of scorching, blazing fire that utterly obliterates Kāmadeva.487 Or so it would seem. As the rest of the story reveals, in Kumārasaṃbhava as well as the other versions, Kāmadeva‟s demise has been greatly exaggerated. Though in Kālidāsa‟s version Śiva recovers his yogic composure very quickly, faster than in other variants such as the Vāmana and Śiva Purāṇas, Kāmadeva has still been able to affect him. Indeed, as Doniger (O‟Flaherty) has written, the “fire of Kāma” is a double entendre, meaning that the fire is the


Ibid., 1.48. Ibid., 3.44. 485 Ibid., 3.67. 486 Ibid., 3.70. 487 Ibid., 3.71-3.72. 484

179 mingling of the forces of tapas and kāma rather than their opposition.488 Some of Kālidāsa‟s other work bears out this hypothesis, as King Duṣyanta laments in Abhijñānaśākuntalṃ that, since he has been reduced to ashes, the only way one can explain Kāmadeva‟s continuing power to burn souls (such as his) is that the god of desire partially absorbed Śiva‟s fire. 489 The outcome of the confrontation is even murkier when we take into account that, in the end, Śiva takes Pārvatī as his wife and the joining of their hands is said to set in motion (vṛtti) the activities of the mind-born one (manobhava).490 While at great cost, it would seem that Kāmadeva accomplished his mission after all. When comparing the two kāvyas, we can see that both are concerned with blending sets of concepts and ideas. Kālidāsa perhaps has the more difficult task of presenting both figures as potent, yet flawed. This he accomplishes by showing Śiva as the rigorous ascetic who restores his concentration in the face of a powerful seduction, yet oversteps his bounds in trying to completely eradicate all desire. The latter is symbolized by the flashy, but ultimately ineffectual immolation of Kāmadeva. For his part, the god of desire, who arrogantly announced his ability to flood dharma and artha, is chastised rather brutally, but attains an even more expansive presence as anaṅga, the bodiless one. Both are exalted and both are humbled, all in the service of demonstrating that tapas and kāma are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but have their time and place. As we saw, Aśvaghoṣa‟s concern is quite different. While Kālidāsa‟s Śiva and Kāmadeva achieve a measure of détente, the Buddha‟s victory over Māra is unambiguous and complete, also revealing in its course that the force with which he has actually been contending is not 488

Śiva, the Erotic Ascetic, pg.169. 3.4 490 Kumārasaṃbhava, 7.77. 489

180 desire, but death. When Māra‟s “lelihāna harṣaṇa bāṇa” (“destructive exciter arrow”) fails, he quickly exchanges those tools for his “bhūtagaṇa” (“horde of goblins”), an almost endless parade of monsters carrying spears and axes rather than flowers. Lurking just underneath the seductive beauty of desire, then, is the horror of death. While the flower arrows of Kāmadeva may hide stinging bees, the bow of Māra conceals murdering beasts. For Aśvaghoṣa, and Buddhism in general, there is thus no balance to achieve with kāma. As the poet has so potently expressed through his implementation of the figure of Māra, all desire is conducive of saṃsāra, which is unquestionably ruinous. Later poetry, such as that anthologized in the Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa, further reinforces these contours and distinctions. One verse, attributed to Saṃghaśrī, explicitly compares Śiva‟s reaction to Kāmadeva with how the Buddha confronts Māra: Kāma and anger are both states inimical to self-control. Having Killed Anaṅga, what did the enraged Three-eyed one accomplish? But the One who peacefully and calmly overthrew Manmatha without enmity, the Buddha, chief of sages, may he point to your welfare.491 Bluntly inquiring as to the point of Śiva‟s outburst, for by giving in to either desire or anger he disrupts his practice, the writer demonstrates the superiority of the Buddha‟s reaction, which is no reaction at all. Another verse, given as Vallaṇasya‟s, uses the Hindu narrative‟s muddled decision to exalt the Buddha: while Kāmadeva is reduced to ash, Śiva becomes married, and Māra sulks away in defeat, in contrast to all those characters, the Awakened One emerges unbowed.492 Other verses point to Kāmadeva‟s ability to subdue Śiva, the god of gods, using


1.3: kāmakrodhau dvayamapi padaṃ pratyanīkaṃ vaśitve hatvānaṅgaṃ kim iva hi ruṣtā sādhitaṃ tryumbakena | yastu kṣāntyā śamayati śataṃ manmathādyānarātīn kalpāṇaṃ vo diśatu sa munigrāmanīrarkabandhuḥ || 492 Ibid., 1.9.

181 only flowers,493 or the god‟s paradoxical combination of marriage and asceticism494 as evidence that the heavyweight bout was not a split decision, but rather a knockout in favor of Kāmadeva, again placing the Buddha far above Śiva. Comparison of these two narratives places their respective theories of desire into relief, and due to the obvious connection between the authors through the kāvya tradition, sheds light on the debate over the appropriate place of kāma between the two traditions. On the one hand, the Hindu tradition walks a fine line, recognizing the disruptive power of kāma, expressed by the maddening and pervasive presence of Kāmadeva, but still maintaining that the emotion and drive have a profitable use. Buddhism, on the other hand, engages in a literary process I would call the “mortification of kāma,” through which both the abstract sense of kāma and the mythic figure of Kāmadeva are subsumed into Māra and subordinated to the power of death. Whereas from the Hindu point of view, an attempt to destroy desire is delusional, from the Buddhist perspective, anything less than the eradication of desire is delusion unto destruction and death. In the next part of this chapter I will show how Buddhist narratives of Māra similarly adapt and refashion other aspects of the kāma mythology, but to the particular end of creating and reinforcing a gender hierarchy. II. The Gender of Māra Introduction In the preceding section I undertook an analysis of the correspondence of chapter thirteen of Buddhacarita and chapter three of Kumārasaṃbhava to show the common root yet ultimately divergent trajectories of the portrayals of Māra and Kāmadeva, respectively. This point,

493 494

Ibid., 14.5: kusumapṛṣatkairdevadevasya. Ibid., 5.33.

182 however, is not the only area of overlap between the two stories. In fact, in another glaring example of borrowing, both texts contain an episode in which a main character conducts a procession through the streets of a celebrated city, to the great fanfare of the occupants. Though this trope appears throughout Indian literature and is rather commonplace, the way in which the two corresponding passages play off one another is revealing. In the Kumārasaṃbhava, this passage occurs when Himālaya leads Śiva through his city on the way to wed Pārvatī. As the god travels the streets, women race to their windows just to catch a glimpse of him, leaving their hair undone, their feet still wet from bathing, clothes half arranged, and makeup half applied.495 The eyes of these sundarī (“beautiful women”) watch Śiva intently as he processes along, following him this way and that, darting in all directions like bees (vilolanetra bhramaraiḥ) to behold the god‟s glorious physical form.496 Representing Śiva‟s entrance into house-holding status, to a degree the passage also realizes Kāmadeva‟s earlier boast to Indra that, whoever his target, he will break that person‟s asceticism using the lovely, playful eyes of sundarī - beautiful women.497 As such, it reinforces the notion that perhaps Kāmadeva did win after all. Buddhacarita contains a nearly identical processional scene in which, after hearing Siddhattha will be leaving the confines of his father‟s palace on a chariot ride, women rush to their windows to catch a glimpse of the prince. In their haste, they similarly leave their hair, clothes, and makeup undone, jangling their misplaced jewelry. 498 As they peer from the windows, it is said that “the city shone on all sides with beauty, like heavenly mansions with


Kumārasaṃbhava, 7.55-7.68. The same passage, with different characters, also takes place in Kālidāsa‟s Raghuvaṃśa, 7.5-7.12. 496 Ibid., 7.62. 497 Ibid., 3.5. 498 BC 3.14-3.19.

183 apsarases.”499 For his part, the prince appears to them in a form as beautiful as the “one whose banner is a flower,” i.e. Kāmadeva.500 Though identical in structure and nearly so in language, the Buddhacarita processional passage occurs in a very different context and provides a very different interpretation of the house-holder situation. While Śiva heads into the city towards matrimony and acceptance of the house-holder‟s life, Siddhattha heads out of the city for the journey on which he will see the four sights that will stun him into renunciation of the householder‟s life. As it plays out in Kumārasaṃbhava, the procession of Śiva represents an acceptance of kāma, whereas in Buddhacarita, Siddhattha‟s procession signals the eventual rejection of kāma. This culminates later in the narrative when, after he has escaped the palace and set upon the path to awakening, Siddhattha sends his charioteer and horse back to the city without him. Thinking the prince is coming, the women again rush to the windows, but this time they are dirty, unadorned, unkempt, and, when they see the Prince‟s horse rider-less, bereft and sorrowful.501 While Śiva enters the city for his marriage, the future Buddha never reenters, which is treated like a funeral. A key point of contrast for the differing portrayals of procession in these narratives is the attitude each hero develops toward the sundarī, the beautiful women who rush to glimpse them. In many ways, they represent the force of kāma that is being either accepted or rejected by the traditions behind these respective versions of the processional trope. In this second part of the chapter, I will investigate how the Buddhist mortification of kāma and Kāmadeva portrays almost the entire female gender as agents of Māra. To develop this line of thought, and its interrelation with the mortification of kāma, I will first briefly discuss the role of women in 499

Ibid., 3.20: śrīmat samantān nagaraṃ babhāse viyad vimānair iva sāpsarobhiḥ. Ibid., 3.24. 501 Ibid., 8.14-22. 500

184 Indian Buddhism, especially as expressed by the literary figures of the apsaras and Māra‟s daughters, and then show how kāvya descriptions of female beauty are inverted by Buddhist literature as a means to warn monks, as well as nuns, about the inherent dangers of women. Throughout, as we will see, Māra lurks in the background. Women in Buddhism: Egalitarianism, Androcentrism or Misogyny? Over the years, scholarship has taken conflicting views on the situation of women in Buddhism, with more recent research tending to overturn the sanguine assessments of earlier scholars. I. B. Horner, for instance, in her pioneering work in the 1930s, thought that membership in the bhikkhunīsangha offered women a level of self-determination and authority unparalleled in India to that point, such that she considers the Buddha‟s decision to create an order of nuns “a bright light in the history of freedom.”502 Later interpreters, such as Susan Murcott and Miranda Shaw, have sought to support Horner‟s initial findings by emphasizing the ritual and patronage practices performed by nuns and laywomen, and also searching out the voices of individual women in the Buddhist tradition.503 Shaw particularly has advanced the case of Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, the Buddha‟s stepmother, as a female Buddha on par with Gotama. Basing her case on the Gotamī Apadāna of the Khuddaka Nikāya – in which Gotamī leads a community of five hundred nuns, displays supernatural powers, and achieves extinction – Shaw argues that the story of Gotamī proves the existence of a school of thought in the Indian tradition which believed women could achieve Buddhahood and were equal to men.504


Women Under Primitive Buddhism, pg. 113. See Murcott, The First Buddhist Women: Tradition and Commentary on the Therīgāthā, pgs. 30-35; Shaw, Buddhist Goddesses of India, pg. 146. 504 Buddhist Goddesses of India, pgs. 146-151. 503

185 The example of Gotamī is an interesting case in point, however, and admits of other interpretations. Liz Wilson, for one, in her ground-breaking work Charming Cadavers (which greatly informs my work in this second part of the chapter) does not deny that Gotamī may have been a role model for women, but in that capacity other aspects of her story would also have served to reinforce a subordinate position for nuns and laywomen. For example, as Wilson points out, Gotamī is invariably deferential to the Buddha and dependent on his instruction and permission at all phases of her learning and displays of supernatural power.505 The story of the original founding of the bhikkhunīsangha in the Anguttara Nikāya and Culavagga of the Vinaya Piṭaka would seem to support Wilson‟s point of view. As those texts portray the event, Gotamī pleaded with her stepson repeatedly to found a women‟s order, but the Buddha refused until a man (Ānanda) spoke on her behalf. Even then Gotama famously predicted that the admission of women into the order would halve the life of the dharma and instituted eight additional prātimokṣa rules (applying only to women) limiting their authority. 506 Within the text, the Buddha describes these rules as a dam to hold back a dangerous flood, which evokes imagery we saw in the first part of this chapter. If we recall, in Hindu literature kāma was sometimes metaphorically described as an uncontrollable rush of water, and this same image was recast in Buddhist narratives as the power of Māra.507 This classifies women as inherently dangerous and in need of special instruments of control, which is an attitude we would expect if the text were written from a male, monastic, and ascetic point of view. As wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters, women like Gotamī would represent the social world male renouncers


Charming Cadavers, pg.144. See AN IV 227. Some of the rules are, for example, that a nun must bow and follow the instruction of any monk, even if he is her junior in years as well as time ordained. 507 Ibid. Also see Wilson, Charming Cadavers, pg. 147. 506

186 sought to escape in the first place.508 According to some, like Nancy Falk, the eight further rules (garudhamma), and the fear of women they represented, stunted women‟s abilities to assume roles of institutional leadership and thus may have led to the demise of the bhikkhunīsangha even before the rest of the Buddhist institutional tradition died out in India.509 While Horner and others view the story of the bhikkhunīsangha‟s founding as the interpolation of later misogynist editors and thus discount its legitimacy, that point is not beyond refutation and does not address the suspicion of women clearly voiced in numerous other texts. In the Dīgha Nikāya, for instance, Ānanda asks how bhikkhus should behave towards women, and the Buddha expresses the preference that monks avoid speaking to or even seeing women. If seeing or speaking to women is unavoidable, the Buddha cautions his followers to “concentrate and have presence of mind” (sati upaṭṭhāpetabbā) – in other words, to be on their guard.510 At the same time, given the necessity of obtaining alms from householders, contact with women would in fact have been unavoidable. Diana Paul and Ellison Findly both claim that the celibate monk‟s dependence on the female householder for the necessities of life might have exacerbated anxieties about women, as is voiced in Buddhist admonitions against begging from widows, prostitutes, and other women whose sexuality is not under male control.511 Yet other passages portray the difference between such women and housemistresses as being one of degree, not kind. In one Saṃyutta Nikāya text, for example, the Buddha strongly cautions against undue socialization with female donors, for if a monk should happen to see the “woman of the house” (mātugāmaṃ) “scantily clad” (dunnivatthaṃ), he will succumb to kāma, which of course leads to 508

Ibid., pg. 143. “The Case of the Vanishing Nuns,” in Unspoken Worlds, pg. 216. 510 DN II 141. 511 Diana Paul, Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in the Mahāyāna Tradition, pg. 8; Ellison Banks Findly, “The Housemistress at the Door,” in Jewels of Authority: Women and Texts in Hindu India, pg. 25. 509

187 māraṇaṃ - death.512 All women, then, are in a sense duplicitous, for though they manifest and exhibit the potential pleasures of desire, within those forms lurks the power of death.513 Thus while it is possible that, in some isolated cases, the bhikkhunīsangha was a space for women to exercise a certain authority, and that the Indian Buddhist tradition contained multiple perspectives on the place of women, 514 one of the most prominent (if not also dominant) threads of discourse in Buddhist literature asserted that women were dangerous. As the preceding passage from the Saṃyutta Nikāya demonstrates, the link between kāma and Māra is an important part of this rhetoric. In the next section I will first explore how Buddhist literature triangulates women, desire, and death by conflating two classes of literary characters, the apsaras and the daughters of Māra. Secondly, I will demonstrate how this triangulation further serves to reduce women to the emblematic role of material (prakṛti) obstacles of the world of rebirth and death (saṃsāra). Apsarases, Mārakanyāḥ, the Prakṛti/Saṃsāra Complex A Saṃyutta Nikāya text tries to communicate the illusory and dangerous nature of the phenomenal world to its readers and listeners by referring to it as a “forest called delusion” (vanaṃ taṃ mohanaṃ nāma) that “resounds with hosts of nymphs” (accharāgaṇasaghuṭṭḥaṃ) and “is associated with hordes of cannibal ghouls” (piśācagaṇasevitaṃ).515 The term accharā, which I have translated as “nymph,” corresponds to the Sanskrit apsaras, which has a history and significance in Indian mythology bearing on the meaning of this Nikāya passage and this


SN II 271. Wilson, Charming Cadavers, pgs. ; see also B.C. Law, Women in Buddhist Literature, pg. 50. 514 Alan Sponberg, for instance, delineates three main categories of representation of women in the Pāli literature: soteriological inclusiveness, institutional androcentrism, and ascetic misogyny. “Attitudes Toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism,” in Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, pgs. 13-20. 515 SN I 33. 513

188 chapter as a whole. In Vedic usage, apsaras means “moving in the waters,” as one finds in an Atharva Veda passage describing how the apsarases and gandharvas make their homes in the waters.516 Besides waters, the apsaras was also associated with and thought to dwell in trees, suggesting that the figure might have originated within the same fertility cults that worshipped yakṣas/yakṣasīs.517 In addition to the yakṣa and the gandharva, who are male celestial musicians, the apsaras has also been associated with more malign creatures, such as the rākṣasa, literally “night roamers” who cause injury, disease, and threaten the sacrifice.518 Other verses in the Atharva Veda, in fact, contain verses one can chant to ward off or expel apsarases and rākṣasas, showing that the two kinds of beings were not thought simply to travel in the same circles, but possessed similarly threatening powers and behaviors.519 Unlike the gandharva and rākṣasa, the apsaras is seen as a strictly feminine entity who post-Vedic literature comes to regard as the courtesan and messenger of the devas.520 Several verses in the Mahābhārata give lists of notable apsarases (such as Ghṛtācī, Rambhā, and Urvaśī) along with their attributes, which include proficiency in music (especially the lute), dancing and extraordinary beauty.521 Of the apsaras‟s attractive physical qualities, particular emphasis falls on their waists, breasts, and “lotus eyes” (padmalocanāḥ) which cast “amorous sidelong glances” (kaṭākṣahāvam) capable of “enchanting the mind and heart” (manoharāḥ).522 The bewildering,


For speculation on the etymology of apsaras, see MacDonnell, Vedic Mythology, pg. 134; AV 2.2.3. Gail Hinich Sutherland, The Disguises of the Demon, pg. 46. 518 N. N. Bhattacharyya, Indian Demonology, pg. 41. 519 AV 4.37.2. 520 They are referred to literally as the “girls” or “maidens of the gods,” for instance in the MB 1.130.6 (devakanyā), and Abhijñāna-śākuntalaṃ, 3.43 (surayavatī). 521 For instance, see MB 1.114.50-54. The connection between the apsaras and music, MacDonnell believes, may go back as far as AV 4.37.5, though it occurs with much greater frequency in the post-Vedic, epic literature. Additionally, Banerjee points out that the Nātyaśāstra contains a creation story of sorts in which the apsarases are created by Brahmā especially to be mistresses of the art of dancing. Apsaras in Indian Dance, pg. 30. 522 MB 3.44.31-32. 517

189 even intoxicating nature of their beauty is closely allied to Kāmadeva, who we will recall uses the power of desire to create madness (madana) and churn minds (manmatha). Either directly alongside or acting in the name of Kāmadeva, apsarases are frequently given the task of seducing human ascetics into releasing their built-up stores of tapas through sexual wiles.523 That the seduction of these ascetics usually occurs in wooded areas near lakes or streams continues the apsaras‟s Vedic associations with trees, water, fertility, and nature in general. It also, as Banerjee and Handique note, unifies the symbolism of these celestial nymphs in the Indian concept of prakṛti, literally “matter,” or “worldliness.”524 In a web of correspondence, the symbol of the apsaras links feminine beauty with prakṛti and all that is attractive and pleasurable (i.e., sexuality and music) about the world. As the Saṃyutta Nikāya verse above demonstrates very succinctly, Buddhist literature captures this same web of correspondence involving the apsaras (Pāli, accharā), yet portrays it as illusory and dangerous. The natural world of prakṛti in that verse is now the “forest of delusion” and the delightful apsarases are shadowed by the cannibalistic, ghoulish piśācas, echoing the same “bait and switch” between death and desire found in Gotama‟s confrontation with Māra in the Buddhacarita. The seductive celestial nymph, as we discovered in chapter four, has a very different valence in Buddhist literature, which exalts stamina and resistance in the face of feminine beauty. In fact, Buddhist literature transparently melds the nature and symbolism of the apsaras into the characters of the daughters of Māra in a maneuver Ernst Windisch quite rightly called a “transference of names.” 525 Māra‟s heavenly realm is described in terms like that of Indra and other devas, with his daughters dancing and


For a just a few examples of a pervasive trope, see MB 1.65.20-45, 1.154.1-5, and 1.120.1-14. Krishnakanta Handique, Apsarases in Indian Literature, pg. 20; P. Banerjee, Apsaras in Indian Dance, pg. 133. 525 Māra und Buddha, pg. 197: “ubertragung des namens.” 524

190 playing lutes amidst jewel-bedecked mansions.526 As was also mentioned briefly in chapter four, and will be explored in great detail very soon, Māra‟s daughters are also on the frontline of the god‟s assault on the Buddha in many versions of the Māravijaya narrative, attempting (unsuccessfully) to seduce Gotama through sexual blandishments. This is also a very obvious continuation of the apsaras/ascetic trope in Hindu literature, but like Aśvaghoṣa‟s submersion of Kāmadeva into Māra, the grafting of Māra‟s daughters onto the apsaras similarly conflates desire and death. In this way, the prakṛti symbolism of the Hindu apsaras becomes the saṃsāra symbolism of Māra‟s daughters. Another episode in the Buddhacarita illustrates this transition exceptionally well and also points to a further dimension of the Buddhist “mortification” of the apsaras. When the Prince returns from his chariot ride after the vision of the four sights, his harem is waiting to engage him in sexual activity and they greet him with eyes “blossomed with wonder” (vismayotphullalocanāḥ).527 Being ones whose “minds are captured by Manmatha” (manmathākṣiptacetasaḥ),528 they surround Siddhattha and display physical forms that he admits would “be capable of swaying even a sage without lust.”529 Flaunting their eyes, arms, legs, hips, and breasts, the harem encompasses the Prince in a scene like “Vivasvat surrounded by apsarases.”530 Given the Prince‟s revelation of the inherently painful and fleeting nature of life, the same prakṛti symbolism (nature, sex, music, etc.) used in the Hindu characterization of the apsaras here appears as a mere façade over the reality of suffering, death, and rebirth. Indeed,


For example, see MV II 360 and LV 21.43. BC 4.2. 528 Ibid., 4.3. 529 Ibid., 4.11: śaktāścālayituṃ yūyaṃ vītarāgānṛṣīnapi. 530 Ibid., 4.28: vivasvānapsarovṛtaḥ. 527

191 the Prince is figuratively and literally enclosed (vṛtaḥ) by these forces, just as we all are according to Buddhism. The passage implies something else in addition, for while the apsaras and Māra‟s daughters are celestial beings, the harem women, though the epitome of human beauty, are just that – human. The Buddhist redefinition of the Hindu apsaras/prakṛti complex does not cease at transferring that symbolism from one group of celestial nymphs to another, in this case Māra‟s daughters, who signify the desire/death dialectic of saṃsāra. Rather, as the Buddhacarita passage suggests, all women possess the apsaras/prakṛti nature and are capable of derailing one‟s practice and clouding his understanding. Thus, they are more accurately seen as representatives of saṃsāra. Yet, Buddhist narratives are by no means unique among Indian traditions in implicating women as the conduit for the depredations of desire. According to a verse in the Subhāṣitaratnakośa, though Kāmadeva lacks the māyā (magical or creative powers) of other devas, he does not need such abilities as long as he has the “tender and resounding speech” (mṛdu ca mañju ca bhāṣitāni) and “sidelong glances and pleasing brows” (vilocanavīkṣitāni vāmabhruvāṃ) of women as his weapons (ayudham).531 The female eye figures prominently in kāvya descriptions of Kāmadeva‟s powers and weaponry, even equating the god‟s five arrows with their glances and the pupils with the “sharp arrow tips that pierce men‟s hearts.”532 In Kumārasaṃbhava, as Kāmadeva boasts to Indra of his power to sway ascetics from their practice, he is able to do so specifically through the “lovely, playful eyebrows and sidelong


16.3. Ibid., 14.2. The equation of the arrows and sidelong glances: pakṣmalāḥ strīkaṭākṣāḥ pañcabānasya bāṇāḥ; and the comparison of the arrow tips and pupils: narahṛdayabhidastārakakrūruśalyāḥ.


192 glances of beautiful women.”533 As another example, the related Śiva Purāṇa also suggests that Kāmadeva‟s bow is found in the contracted brow of women.534 As a whole, the mythic cycle of Śiva‟s destruction of Kāmadeva greatly contributes to this trope, for as we saw in part one, the god of desire is briefly put off, but not eradicated, and by some accounts is ultimately triumphant over the ascetic. In many interpretations, the physical form of Kāmadeva and his desire-inducing power are simply redistributed through Śiva‟s fire into other elements. Benton explains that this is the case in the Matsya Purāṇa, which disperses the essence of kāma to the “sweetness of honey, the fragrance of mangoes, the intoxication of wine, moonlight, and the brisk quality of spring air.” 535 Kālidāsa similarly portrays the influence of the god in the calling of birds, bees, flowers, and the onset of spring in general.536 But in those cases, the poet also links these elements to kāma through women, showing that just as often the reservoir and reinvigorating agent for Kāmadeva‟s energy appears in feminine form, particularly women‟s eyes. Though now a “bodiless god” (devamanaṅgameva), a verse tells us, Kāmadeva is still able to restrain the three worlds through the “lotus eyes of lovely women” (ramanīnetrotpala).537 Elsewhere the lovely gaze of women is specifically said to bring the god back to life after his seeming destruction by Śiva. 538 Thus while Hindu writings portray Kāmadeva‟s power as undoubtedly potent and expansive, from another perspective the god can also be seen as a largely dependent entity, reliant as he is on the attractiveness of women both to instill men with desire and, in the later


3.5: sundarīnām ārecitabhrūcaturairvilāsaiḥ kaṭākṣaiḥ. 18.31: bhrukuṭyau caite kandarpasya. 535 God of Desire, pg. 49. 536 For example, see Raghuvaṃśa 9.43 and Abhijñānaśakuntalam, 4.29. 537 Subhāṣitaratnakośa, 14.6. 538 Ibid., 16.12. 534

193 descriptions of the Śiva/Kāmadeva cycle, to bring him back from the brink of destruction. This dependence expresses the Hindu perspective that women are the locus of prakṛti, as is further evidenced by the ubiquitous triangulation of kāma, the natural world (bees, flowers, etc.), and the feminine gender.539 The mediation of Kāmadeva‟s power through women offers an interesting comparison to Buddhist descriptions of Māra‟s influence and nature, and also reveals an essential contrast in how the two traditions dealt with the issue of gender. The gender of Māra is itself an interesting place to begin. In the Anguttara Nikāya, the Buddha warns his followers that women are entirely and without exception the snares (pāsa) of Māra, suggesting a very close connection between that gender and the god of saṃsāra.540 Other Pāli texts, however, leave little doubt as to Māra‟s personal gender. As the Netti Pakaraṇa puts it, “no case exists in which evil Māra might be a woman, but that evil Māra might be a man, such a case exists.”541 The Bahudhātuka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya makes the same distinction. In the midst of a cosmological list, the text declares it impossible for a woman to be a cakkavattin (“wheel turner”), a Brahmā, a Sakka (Indra), as well as a Māra.542 Boyd believes that this represents a misogyny by which the extremes of existence (demon and god) are reserved only for men, but this assumes a Western characterization of Māra as a demon in opposition to the gods, while I have argued that the Buddhist literature actually portrays Māra as a multiform of gods like Indra and Brahmā. 543 In contrast, I suggest that the combination of these verses – that women can never be a Māra but are 539

While Knut Jacobsen has argued that the scholarly linkage of prakṛti with women in sāṃkhya philosophy is based on flimsy evidence, the materials with which I am concerned are literary in nature and do show this relationship. “The Female Pole of the Godhead in Tantrism and the Prakṛti of Sāṃkhya,” Numen, pgs. 56-81. 540 AN III 68-69. 541 Pg. 93: itthi māro pāpimā siyā ti ṭhānaṃ netaṃ vijjati. Puriso māro pāpimā siyā ti ṭhānaṃ etaṃ vijjati. 542 MN III, 65-66. 543 Satan and Māra: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil, pg. 116

194 always the instruments of Māra – shows that Buddhist mythology mediates Māra‟s influence through women in a fashion similar to how Hindu mythology funnels the power of Kāmadeva through women. The nature of what is being mediated, however, represents a fundamentally different outlook on women. While Kāmadeva‟s connection to women in the Hindu context suggests that the feminine is inextricably linked to a force that can enthrall a man, but also scorch and enfeeble his mind, Buddhist rhetoric casts women‟s power to entrance instead as a force masking the horror of death. In the words of Liz Wilson, this serves to feminize saṃsāra and portray the realm of death and rebirth “as a prison in which women are the agents of incarceration.”544 Indeed, Wilson has shown convincingly that “repulsive figurations of the feminine” are widespread in Indian Buddhist literature, serving as signposts by which monks (and sometimes nuns) could recognize and recall the inextricable link between desire and death.545 The Mahādukkhakkhandha Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya serves as an excellent case in point of Wilson‟s thesis. In that text, the Buddha gives his bhikkhus a lesson in the dangers of rūpa (“form”) by magically manifesting the body of a young girl, then slowly altering the image to reflect her aging, sickness, death, and final putrescence and decomposition. Gradually, as her beauty and body decay, her internal organs and fluids, which the body normally conceals, slough out disgustingly. At that point, the Buddha declares, “the danger is manifested” (ādīnavo


Charming Cadavers, pg. 4. See also Nancy Falk, “The Case of the Vanishing Nuns: the Fruits of Ambivalence in Ancient Indian Buddhism,” pgs. 108-110, and Diana Paul, Women in Buddhism, pg. 5. 545 See Charming Cadavers, especially pgs. 8-12 and 77-110. It is also worthwhile to note that, as Patrick Olivelle has revealed in his studies of the Upaniṣadic literature, some Hindu renouncer groups possessed an equally raw, and profoundly negative, view of women, particularly their bodies. As these groups were similarly reacting against Brahmanical ideologies, this demonstrates a commonality amongst renouncer groups as to the dangers women posed when it came to attempting to leave society behind. See Patrick Olivelle, Saṃnyāsin Upaniṣads, pgs. 77-78.

195 pātubhūto), meaning that foul death, which lurks beneath the allure of desiring forms, has been revealed.546 While the Majjhima Nikāya text makes the connection between women and saṃsāra explicit, in the next sections I want to examine in more detail how Buddhist narratives of Māra and Māra‟s daughters are employed in that venture. I will look at how those narratives redeploy the tropes Hindu literature uses to link celestial beings of desire (Kāmadeva and apsarases) with human women and cast them as emblems of creeping death. Specifically, we have seen that the symbolism of music, dancing, nature (forests, flowers, bees), and the eye are all used in Hindu kāvya to connect women to desire and all that is prakṛti in existence. The Buddhist narratives we will examine divert those symbols to show that women represent desire, and hence are a front for Māra, and therefore are partisans for death. Men versus Women: The Buddha In the Buddhist tradition, the obvious model for dealing with the dangers posed by women will always be the Buddha himself. Buddhist literature contains several examples of the Awakened One sidestepping such temptations at different stages in his journey. These differences are important and cast interesting light on the assessments made to this point, as well as the stories we will examine below later. When the Buddha was still Prince Siddhattha, we have already seen how the women of his harem surrounded the bodhisattva upon his return from his chariot ride and made a series of sexual overtures. Throughout that scene the women are either explicitly called apsarases or are described in language evocative of portrayals of apsarases in Hindu literature. For example, their eyes are compared to lotuses and other parts of


MN I 88-89.

196 their bodies to various other flowers, such as the aśoka and tilaka.547 This relates the harem women to the entire kāma/apsaras/prakṛti complex, but it also lays the foundation for the inversion of that complex in a later scene in which the harem lies sleeping. Siddhattha is on the verge of departure and his vision of the women, who are passed out in stupors after their revelry, removes any doubt from his mind about the correctness of his decision. We are told that the lutes and flutes of the women are silenced and in the gloom of the twilight their formerly blooming, flower-like bodies are now like “karṇikāra branches torn by an elephant” or lotuses with bent stalks.548 Their eyes, so alluring and bewitching previously, are now closed, the ornaments they jingled in Siddhattha‟s face are now disheveled, and the bodies they flaunted look contorted and unsightly.549 Bit by bit, symbol by symbol, this passage unravels and inverts the tropes of the earlier presentation of the harem, revealing that the kāma-laden, prakṛti nature the women presented at that time was actually only a front for saṃsāra and a trap from Māra. When the future Buddha is just setting out on his journey, therefore, he encounters and overcomes the obstacle of human female beauty. The situation changes, however, when Gotama is on the precipice of awakening or has already become a Buddha. At that point, Māra‟s daughters, the celestial representatives of female beauty, accost the renouncer and attempt to rekindle his desires and lusts. There are several versions of this encounter, three of which take place after Gotama has become the Buddha and two before.550 The Saṃyutta Nikāya, Buddhacarita, and Nidānakathā all place the encounter after Gotama‟s awakening. The latter two narratives appear to be based on the Nikāya account, which begins with Māra‟s daughters 547

See especially BC 4.35-4.38. Ibid., 5.51: gajabhagnā iva karṇikāraśākhāḥ; 5.53. 549 Ibid., 5.57-5.61. 550 It is worth noting that the Buddhacarita version comes in a later chapter (15.11-15.34) which is most likely a later interpolation by an author other than Aśvaghoṣa and hence not part of the original narrative. 548

197 Taṇhā (“craving”), Rāga (“lust”), and Ārati (“dissatisfaction”) vowing to rectify their father‟s failure to ensnare Gotama in the web of saṃsāra. Not unlike Kāmadeva‟s boastful speech in Kumārasaṃbhava, the trio describes how they will capture Gotama “like a forest elephant” (araññam iva kuñjaraṃ) with the “snare of lust” (rāgapāsena).551 The daughters then manifest a multiplicity of physical forms, from young virgins to older mothers, seeking the particular body type and age that will arouse the Buddha, but they are unable to elicit any reaction whatsoever. Astounded at his resilience, the daughters remark that this display would have ruptured the heart of any other Brahmin or ascetic, driving him mad and causing hot blood to spurt from his mouth (uṇhaṃ lohitaṃ vā mukhato uggaccheyya).552 The Pāli term for “mad” (ummādam) is directly related to the Sanskrit term from which Kāmadeva derives his epithet Madana – the maddener. The particularly gory and violent sentiment of this passage shows a far harder edge to the notion of kāma, however, than what was found in the Hindu materials. Indeed, the daughters‟ intended consequences of their display implies that desire not only entails death, but a violent, painful death. Another revealing passage occurs after the daughters return to their father and report their failure. Māra derides their attempt, saying it was doomed from the start, like trying to break through a mountain with a lotus stalk.553 This expresses certainly the futility of the action, but also engages the broader kāma/apsaras/prakṛti symbolism we have been investigating. Whereas in part one we saw how Kāmadeva instilled Śiva with desire through his flower arrows, here the “lotus flower,” connoting lust for women, cannot contend with the unswayable mountain that is the Buddha. The phrase also very compactly communicates the extent to which Gotama has 551

SN I 124. Ibid., 125. 553 Ibid., 126. 552

198 gained the ability to see through the prakṛti nature of women to the saṃsāric reality beneath, transcending and escaping the power of kāma and Māra. Additionally, when we look at the narratives of Gotama‟s life as part of one cycle, it becomes clear that the insight which allows him to remain aloof and untouched by the decadent temptations of Māra‟s daughters takes root during the sleeping harem scene in Buddhacarita. At that moment the Prince witnesses the botanical beauty of his human harem wilted and withered, decaying in the shadow of death. That realization about human women propels him on the path to becoming a Buddha and plants the seeds that will lead him to reject even celestial women, like Māra‟s daughters. This is because, as the myth cycle as a whole begins to tell us, in terms of their connection to and tendency to enmesh one in saṃsāra, there is little difference between the two. The Lalitavistara version of Gotama‟s encounter with Māra‟s daughters illustrates these concepts in even more vivid fashion by effectively collapsing the harem and daughter narratives. Unlike the other accounts (with the exception of the Mahāvastu), the Lalitavistara places the encounter with the daughters as one of the trials Gotama undergoes just before his awakening. When Māra senses the ascetic is about to break from the bonds of saṃsāra, he convenes a war council, at which a lieutenant named “Ratilola” (“ramblings of desire”), promises to overwhelm Gotama with one thousand well-adorned apsarases who carry the sounds of thousands of musical instruments.554 As the stated purpose is to draw Gotama back into bondage within the realm of death and rebirth, the use of these clearly prakṛti elements strikes an immediate resonance between those attributes and saṃsāra. Agreeing with Ratilola, Māra dispatches his daughters, who are explicitly labeled apsarases in the text. Once before the ascetic, they begin to “display the thirty-two kinds of 554

LV 21.53.

199 female artifices” (dvātriṃśadākārāṃ strīmāyām upadarśayanti).555 In an exhibition reminiscent of the earlier harem scene in Buddhacarita, among other displays, Māra‟s apsaras daughters bear their breasts and thighs, pucker red lips, pose to exaggerate the flatness of their bellies or roundness of their hips, cast penetrating sidelong glances, and dangle their earrings. 556 Besides further connecting the harem with Māra‟s daughters, the description of their erotic parade in front of the ascetic is also significant for how it involves Buddhist views of the body in the midst of its denouncement of sensuality. The enumeration of the daughters‟ “female artifices” (thirtytwo) is clearly deliberate, for this corresponds exactly to the mahāpuruṣalakṣana – the marks of the great man, a cakravartin (Pāli, cakkavattin), the “wheel-turner” who is either a world ruler or a Buddha. Indeed, just prior to the arrival of Māra‟s daughters, as he first calls the earth to witness to his superior virtue, the text gives a brief description of various aspects of Gotama‟s thirty-two marks, such as his webbed fingers and the wheels on the soles of his feet.557 As Reiko Ohnuma has shown, Buddhist literature portrays the attainment of a Buddha‟s body not as an overnight achievement, but rather the work of numerous lifetimes involving sacrifice of imperfect members, which in the next lifetime are replaced by perfected counterparts. 558 In this way, over eons of meritorious deeds and laborious sacrificial acts, the bodhisattva gradually assembled a body of the thirty-two marks, which is necessarily also a male body. As Ohnuma puts it, “in this case, it is the male body – perhaps a trope for Buddhahood itself? – that constitutes the desired ideal, while the female body is cast as ordinary and imperfect.” 559 In terms of the confrontation in the Lalitavistara, the juxtaposition of the thirty-two marks of Buddhahood 555

Ibid., pg. 233 line 25. Ibid., pgs. 233-234. 557 Ibid.,pg. 232, lines 23-27. 558 See Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature. 559 Ibid., pg. 221. 556

200 against the thirty-two feminine wiles of Māra‟s daughters creates an obvious and revealing opposition. On the one hand, there is the dharmic, perfected body of the soon-to-be Buddha, which serves as a signpost for the path to release from saṃsāra and suffering. On the other hand, are the arrayed forces of prakṛti and saṃsāra, which are shown as feminine and conducive only to entrapment in desire and death. As this framing would suggest, a great deal of the ensuing encounter after the daughters put on their sensual show revolves around a point-counterpoint argument on the merits of desire and the female body. Making their case first, the apsaras daughters tell Gotama that, “Beautiful spring, the greatest season has come, the trees have bloomed. Enjoy it, lover. Your body is beautiful and well-adorned with the marks of a ruler.”560 Two points immediately follow from this verse. First, by locating the seduction in the woods, in springtime, the text has aligned itself clearly with the earlier Hindu conceptions of the apsaras and Kāmadeva, and also the more negative Buddhist perception, as evidenced by the Nikāya passage cited above, that the woods and its accharās are emblematic of delusion.561 Second, even as they attempt to bewitch Gotama with their bodies, they flatter his by recognizing the beauty of his thirty-two marks, which follows a precedent in the Buddhacarita: upon seeing the “beautiful, brilliant bodily marks” (śobhitaṃ lakṣanair dīptaiḥ) with which the Prince was born, the harem women consider him the human form of Kāmadeva himself (nāryaḥ kāmo).562 This in turn corresponds to Kālidāsa‟s work, such as Raghuvaṃśa, when the princely descendant of Raghu and his wife parade through 560

LV 21.90: suvasantake ṛtuvara āgatake ramimo priya phullitapādapake | tava rūpa surūpa suśobhanake vaśavarti sulakṣaṇacitratake || 561 I should point out that due to its distinction from urban areas and the seclusion it provided, the forest in other Buddhist contexts has been a symbol of austerity and thus purity of tradition. See Michael Carrithers, The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka and Daniel Boucher, Bodhisattvas of the Forest and the Formation of the Mahayana: A Study and Translation of the Rastrapalapariprccha Sūtra. 562 BC 4.4.

201 the streets and appear to onlookers to be the instantiations of Kāmadeva and Ratī.563 In that instance, the beauty of their bodies is a function of their royal bearing, which is one of the valences of the thirty-two marks as well. However, by choosing the path of Buddhahood instead, Gotama has eschewed the earthly royalty represented by the descendants of Raghu, and to which both the harem women in Buddhacarita and Māra‟s daughters in Lalitavistara respond. By making the connection between Gotama‟s thirty-two marks and kāma, both groups of women, earthly as well as celestial, show they fundamentally misunderstand the difference between perfect and imperfect bodies. They demonstrate that they would not recognize the dharma if it appeared before them. Indeed, due to the physical form of Gotama‟s thirty-two marks, it actually has. Possessed by this misapprehension about the qualities of a perfect body, the daughters proceed again to offer their bodily forms to Gotama for appreciation. They tell the sage that they are well-ornamented divine women (marukanya sulaṃkṛtikā) who have come so that he may enjoy their bimba-like lips, white teeth, lotus-like eyes, and rounded breasts and hips, as well as their dancing and music.564 Interestingly, they end their appeal with the assertion that “if you do not want such desirous women, you are indeed greatly and mightily deceived regarding the world.”565 This perspective seems in large part a distillation of the view of kāma in Hindu texts, that desire is embedded in the world and inescapable, even for the most accomplished of ascetics, as the Śiva/Kāmadeva myth cycle demonstrates. They thus exhort Gotama to fall in line with this view of existence, for by this vantage kāma is only natural and entirely human.


Ibid., 7.15. LV 21.92-96. 565 Ibid., 21.98: yadi necchasi kāmasulālasikāṃ suṣṭu suvañcitako „si bhṛśaṃ khalu loke. 564

202 The Buddha-to-be, naturally, offers a different take, beginning with the declaration that kāma only “accumulates much pain, and is in fact the root of pain.”566 Desire is endless, he continues, and the concept of beauty that Māra‟s daughters admire and represent is illusory, like a “theater of illusion” (māyāraṅgam).567 Gotama then proceeds, point by point, to refute the pristine and attractive nature of each body-part the women have offered to him, describing for instance how the smooth belly hides urine and feces, the eye floats in polluted liquids, and so on.568 “A man who becomes a slave to kāma on the part of beautiful women is a fool,” Gotama summarizes, “and abandons virtue and concentration.”569 Very deliberately, then, the bodhisattva reveals the latent suffering within desire, the mark of death that hovers over kāma, and establishes virtue and concentration, the dharmic way, as the diametric opposition to the prakṛti/saṃsāric desires the women offer him. Rather than admit defeat, the daughters intensify their efforts, swaying like young vines, playing their music even louder, and once again positioning their overtures in the context of the spring season.570 Their appeal builds to a fever pitch as they finally exhort the ascetic to enjoy their favors and abandon his austere life, “having gone to the pleasure garden of women, of desire and lust in the city of Māra.”571 In each case, Gotama offers a rejoinder, again pointing out that a body desirable on the surface hides unpleasantness, such as worms and maggots, 572 and that the springtime‟s blooming trees and buzzing bees will dry up and die, like all else. 573 The Buddha-to-be finally dismisses the daughters with the gender-condemning proclamation that he 566

Ibid., 21.100: bahuduḥkhasaṃcayā duḥkhamūlā. Ibid., 21.101-102. 568 Ibid., 21.103-105. 569 Ibid., 21.107: kāmādāsu bhavīti yo nara pramadānāṃ śīle utpathi dhyāyi utpathi matihīno. 570 Ibid., 21.111-112, 115. 571 Ibid., 21.119: mārapure ca kāmaratayaḥ pramadavaśagataḥ. 572 Ibid., 21.124. 573 Ibid., 21.122. 567

203 has “given up the company of women, whose quality is to captivate.”574 Realizing their defeat at last, the daughters retreat back to their father. The Lalitavistara narrative puts a number of issues into relief. First, drawing on Hindu kāvya imagery, the stories of the Buddha‟s resistance to Māra‟s daughters demonstrates that the kāma/apsaras/prakṛti complex is actually a Māra/saṃsāra complex, with the beauty of the female body and the natural world covering up the dark truth of death‟s inevitability. The apsaras is not simply a beguiling minion of Kāmadeva who might cause one to lose his faculties temporarily. In reality, she is an agent of Māra on a mission to blind and anesthetize men to the horror of suffering and impermanence so that they will be bound forever to saṃsāra. But, secondly, these stories ceaselessly pursue a connection between the celestial apsaras in Māra‟s service and human women. The women of the harem and the daughters of Māra play similar roles in similar ways in their respective appearances in the Buddhacarita and Saṃyutta Nikāya, while Gotama‟s final indictment of desire is directed not only at the apsarases who have accosted him, but to women as a gender. In this way, thirdly, when we look at the myth cycle of Gotama‟s encounters with the daughters of Māra longitudinally, as a prince he must overcome the temptations of human women (his harem) while as a Buddha-to-be or a fully Awakened One he contends with Māra‟s daughters or Māra himself. The sense is that once he has progressed far enough along the path, Gotama breaks through the mediation of Māra‟s power through women to confront the interrelation of death and desire at its root. In the next sections, I will look at how the paradigms and themes of the Buddha‟s resistance to Māra‟s daughters are used to measure success or failure along the path for monks and nuns in terms of battling the forces of Māra masked as kāma. 574

Ibid., 21.126: nārisaṃgha tyajamī guṇaharapramadāḥ.

204 Men versus Women: Bhikkhus Earlier we encountered a Majjhima Nikāya passage in which the Buddha instructed his monks on the folly of attachment to rūpa by conjuring the form of a young girl and gradually decomposing her before his followers‟ eyes. At the end, Gotama declared, “the danger is manifested” (ādīnavo pāturahū), providing a lesson in the consubstantial nature of women, kāma, and death. As we just saw in the previous section, the life of the Buddha, especially his rebuke of the harem and Māra‟s daughters, also provides a model for monks to replicate the Awakened One‟s success. In that model, Gotama progressed from overcoming the wiles of human women to transcending the ploys of Māra‟s celestial apsarases, largely by realizing that the two groups are one and the same. In Buddhist literature monks similarly confront the kāma temptations of the feminine and, like Gotama at the beginning of his journey, they face the initial stage of confrontation with earthly females and their success is measured by whether or not they are able to recognize the apsaras/Māra nature of the women they encounter. A typical example comes in a Theragāthā verse attributed to Nāgasamāla, describing a monk‟s reaction to a woman encountered on his alms route. We are told this woman is “ornamented, well-dressed, with a garland, adorned with sandalwood paste, dancing to music in the middle of the great road.”575 Having just examined the mythology of Māra‟s daughters in great detail, it is not difficult to see the similarity between the description of those celestial women and the account of this “dancing woman.” In that light, even though the Pāli term for “road” in this verse is patha and not magga, it is tempting to read the “great road” that the woman obstructs not only as the alms path but also the Buddhist path (magga) in general.


Theragāthā, pg. 33: alaṃkatā suvasanā mālinī candanussadā | majjhe mahāpathe nārī turiye naccati naṭṭakī. ||

205 Nāgasamāla quickly recognizes this fact, seeing through the woman‟s dress and music to the “snare of death laid out” for him.576 Once this connection is made, Nāgasamāla tells us in language identical to the Buddha‟s Majjhima Nikāya lecture, that the “danger is manifested” (ādīnavopāturahū). Māra, who lays out traps in the forms of seductive women and hunts through snares of kāma, has been revealed. Buddhaghoṣa‟s Visuddhimagga tells a similar story of the elder Mahātissa in the midst of a discussion on the non-apprehension of signs that are a “basis for defilement” (kilesavatthubhūtaṃ), such as male, female, and “the sign of beauty” (subhanimittādikaṃ). Within this context, the story of Mahātissa is somewhat ironic, for according to the passage, the elder was traveling and encountered a woman “elaborately adorned, like a daughter of the gods,” (i.e., decked out like an apsaras).577 Being “one of corrupt mind” (vipallacitta), she laughs and smiles at the elder flirtatiously, yet when Mahātissa looks at her, he focuses solely on the sight of her teeth, gaining a “perception of ugliness” (asubhasaññaṃ), presumably due to the fact that the teeth are a visible reminder of the inner, skeletal self we all possess. 578 When the woman‟s husband passes by and asks the elder if he saw her, Mahātissa replies that all he saw was a skeleton (aṭṭhisanghāṭo) or, more literally, a “collection of bones.”579 I suggest the story is ironic in its context for, while the frame is Buddhaghoṣa‟s exegesis of apprehension beyond signs such as gender, the meaning of Mahātissa‟s encounter seems entirely predicated on gender. Indeed, it is another example of a monk successfully internalizing the Buddha‟s teaching and recognizing


Ibid.: maccupāsaṃ va oḍḍitaṃ. Visuddhimagga, I 20: sumaṇḍita pasādhitā devakaññā viya. 578 Ibid., I 21. 579 Ibid. 577

206 that a woman‟s apsaras allure is just a cover for death and the machinations of Māra, in a way perhaps analogous to how the skin covers the skeleton. Buddhist literature, however, does not a provide a spotless record of monks triumphing over the female forces of kāma and Māra. In some stories, the monk struggles and backslides, if he reaches a state of realization at all. The story of Nanda, the Buddha‟s half-brother, as briefly related in part one, is very clear on how difficult it can be to renounce desire and appreciate its connection to death. Having left his wife Sundarī and ordained against his wishes, Nanda is relentlessly pained by longing for his spouse and former life, until the Buddha takes his halfbrother on a tour of the heavens, where he sees apsarases the likes of which make Sundarī look like a mutilated, one-eyed monkey by comparison.580 Though clearly in a manner unlike the Buddha or other monks, Nanda has gained insight into the repulsiveness of mortal feminine beauty, albeit by comparison to celestial women. Over time, and again with the help of superiors such as the accomplished monk Ānanda, Nanda proceeds to give up his aspirations for apsarases as well, grasping finally that their beauty is just as ephemeral. Though it takes a different tack, and lends a much longer trajectory to the journey, this narrative closes the same circle, equating mortal women to apsarases. Indeed, at one point in the text, as Sundarī waits in vain on the balcony for her husband‟s return, she is compared in all her jewelry and finery to an apsaras looking on for her lover.581 Like Gotama before him, though his perceptions are certainly different along the way, Nanda first conquers his attachment to mortal women, then overcomes his desire for the apsarases, positing that the two groups represent the same folly, the same hindrance, and the same danger.

580 581

Saundarananda, 10.50. Ibid., 6.3.

207 Part of the reason Nanda‟s practice is so fraught, we are told, is due to his strong connection to the married householder life. Before taking his half-brother on their heavenly journey, the Buddha gives as one of his reasons for this extraordinary measure the grave extent to which Nanda is “wandering in the delusion named „wife.‟”582 Karen Lang has argued that the application of the phrase “lord death‟s snare” to women in the Theragāthā (as we saw above with Nāgasamāla) is meant to impress upon monks the danger that women, especially former wives, will draw them back into the social world they have renounced.583 In fact, one such episode details a monk looking upon his former wife and their children, holding their arms out to him, as “lord death‟s snare.”584 One of the most famous cautionary tales of a monk backsliding in this instance, of failing where Nanda eventually succeeded, comes in the Vinaya Piṭaka with the case of Sudinna. Alarmed at his ordination, Sudinna‟s family questions the young monk, his wife asking if he is performing the practice to gain celestial women (accharā).585 Though he answers in the negative, the question foreshadows later events and symbolism. Later, out of concern for producing an heir, Sudinna‟s mother asks the monk‟s former wife to dress in all her finest jewels and clothes, and beseeches her son to father a child with his wife.586 Sudinna acquiesces and, in a heavily charged phrase, “having taken his former wife by the arm, plunged into the great forest.”587 Combined with the earlier reference to the accharā, his wife‟s ornamentation and the association of his descent from the practice and breaking of his precepts with a plunge into the depths of the woods, long associated with the apsaras, this short passage seems designed to 582

Ibid., 10.3: bhāryābhidhāne tamasi bhramantam. “Lord Death‟s Snare: Gender-Related Imagery in the Theragāthā and the Therīgāthā,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, pg. 70. 584 Theragāthā, pgs. 299-300. 585 Vinaya Piṭaka, I 17. 586 Ibid., 17-18. 587 Ibid., 18: purānadutiyikāya bāhāyaṃ gahetvā mahāvanaṃ ajjhogāhetvā. 583

208 represent Sudinna‟s sexual indulgence as surrender to the prakṛti forces of kāma. When Sudinna‟s transgression comes to light, the Buddha reveals the real impact of the monk‟s weakness in the face of kāma: he will endure repeated suffering and death (maraṇā).588 Lang is correct, then, that the specter of death, and more specifically Māra, is used to keep monks leery of the allure of women, but it is also couched in a way that borrows and inverts the kāma/apsaras/prakṛti symbolism of Hindu literature. In this way, the lord of death and the lord of desire become two halves of the same whirling sphere, the realm of saṃsāra, into which men are pulled by the undulating arms, legs, and eyes of beautiful women, earthly as well as celestial. If this is the case, however, how should we consider the situation of women who identified themselves as Buddhists? In the next section I will look at the appearance of these themes in narratives of Buddhist nuns. Women versus Women: Nuns The Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta and Therīgāthā are especially useful resources for investigating this question, as they are purportedly accounts from the point of view of nuns. In one sense, the way in which Indian Buddhist nuns viewed their own female gender is fairly clear. Lang has detailed the ways in which awakened women invariably became indifferent to or even disdainful of their femininity, as attested to in their textual testimonies as well as the monastic practices of head-shaving, wearing form-concealing monastic robes, and engaging in austerities, all of which serves to erase gender distinction.589 This would suggest that female practitioners had internalized the androcentric rhetoric of their male counterparts. Along these lines, Wilson argues that only “those nuns who saw themselves from the point of view of their male observers

588 589

Ibid., 20. “Images of Women in Early Buddhism and Christian Gnosticism,” Buddhist-Christian Studies, pgs. 99-101.

209 had the best chance of being recognized by their peers for their perspicacity and insight in the Dharma.”590 Here I wish to add to this scholarship by showing how the entangled symbolism of Māra and the kāma/apsaras/prakṛti complex, treated as an external enemy in narratives of the Buddha and bhikkhus, becomes the enemy within from the perspectives of nuns. This dynamic is especially apparent due to the fact that, unlike monks, there are several instances in which nuns are said to contend directly with Māra.591 One account, seemingly quite complimentary to women, begins with Māra insulting the nun Somā as possessing only “two finger wisdom” (dvangulapañña), meaning she only has enough intelligence to tell if rice is cooked by squeezing it between thumb and forefinger.592 In both the Bhikkhunīsaṃyutta and Therīgāthā versions, Somā retorts that when the mind is focused, gender is meaningless. 593 Though implying that men and women possess equal potential for awakening, and thus easily constituting some of the most uplifting words about women in the entire Pāli Canon, Somā‟s response also comprises a negation of femininity, suggesting that the notion of her gender must be overcome rather than embraced. The double-standard becomes evident if we apply the same logic to the Buddha‟s awakening. Gotama was not required to renounce his masculinity or the category of gender as a prerequisite to awakening; in fact, on the contrary, as the principle of the thirty-two mahāpuruṣalakṣana makes clear, Gotama‟s maleness is a necessary condition for Buddhahood and his conquest of Māra. Somā, on the other hand, must reject her femininity as an empty state in order to push back Māra.


Charming Cadavers, pg.13. The story of Moggallāna in the Mārattajjanīya Sutta is a key exception. Besides this case, though monks may encounter Māra, he is usually disguised in the form of someone or something else. 592 SN I 129; Therīgāthā 61. This is Dhammapāla‟s interpretation of the dvangulapañña phrase, see Therīgāthāṭṭhakathā, pg. 67. 593 Ibid. 591

210 Elsewhere Māra‟s overtures to nuns are overtly sexual, for example encouraging Selā, Upacālā, Sīsūpacālā, and Uppalavaṇṇā to enjoy the “pleasures of desire” (bhuñjāhikāmaratiyo).594 Each responds with the formula “I know you, evil Māra, you are beaten” (evaṃ jānāhi pāpima Māra nihato tvam asi), precisely as the Buddha does in the Mārasaṃyutta to each of Māra‟s challenges. The similarity in language and structure intimates a similar ability for women to overcome Māra, but comparison to the Buddha‟s experiences is once again interesting, for Māra‟s sexual and kāma-related challenges of Gotama are always mediated by women, either his daughters or the harem. Structurally, if women were on par with men, one would thus expect nuns to face a mediating figure corresponding to the apsaras. In fact, Indian mythology possesses such a class of beings, as we saw earlier in our overview of the apsaras, namely the gandharvas, forest-dwelling minstrels of the gods. Instead, these Buddhist narratives portray nuns as being approached directly by Māra, suggesting that the mediating apparatus was not considered necessary in this case, perhaps because women were thought intrinsically more given to kāma and prakṛti. Thus, while aspects of the Buddhist tradition certainly view kāma and Māra (particularly through the later scholastic delineation of four or five Māras) as intrinsic to the personality of all humans, regardless of gender, literary works such as the kind we have been considering tend to portray these threats to males extrinsically and females more intrinsically.


Therīgāthā, pgs. 129, 141, 142, 145. Interestingly, though Buddhist tradition insists on Māra‟s maleness, I have not found an instance in which Māra himself attempts to seduce a nun. On a connected issue, there is a point of debate in the Kathavatthu on whether or not Māra is responsible for the nocturnal emissions of monks. While some monks in the past, the text explains, believed that Māra could directly cause these emissions as a way to make bhikkhus doubt their practice, the ultimate decision is that Māra is not responsible (pgs. 164-165). Extrapolating from this, we might say that the Buddhist tradition has been wary to consider the possibility of personal sexual contact between Māra and the members of the sangha, male or female.

211 Other verses further illustrate that interpretation, such as the story of the nun Vijayā. In this case, Māra draws on the apsaras/prakṛti multiform of music to appeal to Vijayā, telling her that while they are young, together they should play the “five limbs of music” (pañcāṅgaikenaturiyena).595 While we have seen music employed by Māra‟s daughters and the harem against Gotama and a woman in the road against Nāgasamāla, both as attempts to ensnare these men in the web of saṃsāra, in neither case do the women ask them to play this music together. Māra thus seems engaged in an effort to reenlist Vijayā in what is her latent, apsaras nature. Vijayā‟s response is also informative, as she replies to Māra‟s offer that she is “troubled and ashamed by this foul body, which is impermanent and will break up, and I have removed the craving for kāma.” 596 Cutting to the chase, Vijayā immediately recognizes Māra‟s musical invitation for what it is: an appeal to reawaken the seductive power of her own body. Her response makes the further connection that she is immune to his ploy, and in fact has overcome taṇhā and kāma, precisely because she has realized the disgusting nature of her female body. Vijayā‟s rebuttal indicates that she appreciates Māra‟s musical proposition, the female body, and kāma to be an interwoven, inextricably linked combination of saṃsāric impulses. A final Therīgāthā story crystallizes these issues particularly well. In this narrative, an unnamed man waylays the nun Subhā in Jīvakamba forest. Taken by her beauty – Subhā, in fact, means “beautiful” – he makes sexual advances toward the nun, first emphasizing the natural splendor of their location until he proposes more directly that “we should delight in this blooming forest.”597 Even at this point the story already provides an interesting contrast to the


SN I 131. Ibid: iminā pūtikāyena bhindanena pabhaṅgunā | aṭṭiyāmi harāyāmi kāmataṇhā samuhatā || 597 Therīgāthā, pg. 159: ramāmase pupphite vane. 596

212 Vinaya Piṭaka account of Sudinna and also Gotama‟s trial by Māra‟s daughters in the Lalitavistara. In both those cases, the women are either made out to be or are in fact apsarases whose mission is to seduce the man and pull him into the forest, the flowering blooms and seeming vitality of which they both exalt and embody. As we saw, Sudinna does not appreciate that the consequences of pursuing kāma with the apsaras is thrall to Māra, while Gotama is victorious since he has mastered that insight. In Subhā‟s case, the genders of the protagonist and antagonist have been reversed: here the male praises the beauty of nature and invites the female into the forest of kāma. The significance of this alteration begins to come to light when the man attempts further flattery – or at least what he takes to be flattery – by comparing Subhā to an accharā (Sanskrit, apsaras) in beauty. Her eyes especially enrapture the man, making his kāmarati (“lust for desire”) and kāmaguṇa (“quality of desire”) increase, and he compares them in form and beauty to blue lotuses.598 Seeing her disturbingly, even threateningly, persistent suitor‟s lustful state of mind, Subhā offers a response that again invites parallels to Gotama in the Lalitavistara. Just as the Buddha-to-be, when faced with Māra‟s daughters‟ recitation of the attractiveness of the various parts of their bodies, offers a negative appraisal of each part in turn, so Subhā critiques as impure or vile each aspect of her own body that her admirer has praised. Her eyes, which the man singled out, she especially denigrates, calling them “like balls set in a hole, with a bubble in the middle, filled with fluid.”599 In very similar language, reacting to Māra‟s daughters flaunting their lotus-like eyes, in the Lalitavistara Gotama contends that “eyes are equal in resemblance to

598 599

Ibid., 159-160. Ibid., 162: vaṭṭanir iva koṭar‟ ohitā majjhe bubbuḷakā sāssukā.

213 bubbles bound to the skin, just like hard lumps of blood broken forth on the cheek.”600 The difference, of course, is that the Buddha-to-be directs his invective at the apsarases circling around him, while Subhā maligns her own body, focusing the withering critique inward. The nun‟s reaction diverges most dramatically from Gotama‟s when, faced with her suitor‟s incessant propositioning, Subhā rips one of the esteemed eyes from its socket to offer to the man. Shocked and tempered by the display, the man relents and repents his behavior. Later Subhā encounters the Buddha, receives a special teaching and becomes an arhat. In the last lines, we are even told that “having seen the one of whom the marks are excellent in merit, her eye became just as it was previously.”601 In part, the story of Subhā seems to confirm Wilson‟s thesis that women are recognized as authorities only when they themselves espouse misogynist rhetoric. Commenting on this story, Wilson indeed believes that “it is only by blinding herself…that Subhā was at last treated as a woman of insight – a seer and not just a sight to be seen.”602 Indeed, it is remarkable that after Subhā goes to self-mutilating lengths to demonstrate the inherent putridity of her female body, her eye is restored by the presence of the Buddha‟s perfected, unquestionably male body. 603 In another parallel to the Lalitavistara, which put forth the dichotomy between Gotama‟s thirty-two marks of Buddhahood and the thirty-two wiles of Māra‟s daughters, we are similarly faced with the curative purity of the Buddha‟s body versus the intrinsic impurity of a woman‟s body. The badgering suitor focuses on these superficially attractive aspects of femininity, comparing and contextualizing it into what we have seen as the kāma/apsaras/prakṛti complex. He seems, in his 600

LV 21.103: netrā budbudatulyasādṛā tvacanaddhāḥ kaṭhinaṃ śoṇitapiṇḍamudgataṃ yatha gaṇḍaṃ. Therīgāthā, 162: passiya varapuññalakkhaṇaṃ cakkhu āsi yathā purāṇakan ti. 602 Charming Cadavers, pg. 169. 603 In his commentary, Dhammapāla supports the interpretation that it is the sight of the Buddha‟s thirty-two marks of perfection which restores the nun‟s eye, see Therīgāthāṭṭhakathā, pg. 260. 601

214 attempt to seduce Subhā, to be trying to appeal to or reawaken the apsaras nature latent within her, which the Indian Buddhist tradition seems to attribute to all women. Though Buddhist texts are replete with vividly loathsome descriptions of the human body in general, from the narratives we have looked at it seems clear that special abuse was reserved for the female body. By appropriating, inverting, and redeploying the kāma/apsaras/prakṛti imagery in Hindu literature, Buddhist authors created a means by which to show monks and nuns either emulating or falling short of the Buddha‟s example. In the case of monks, this required vigilance against the external threat of Māra‟s daughters, masked as everyday women. In the case of nuns, this required discipline and mindfulness against their own, inner apsaras nature. Conclusion At the end, I would like to reiterate the main points of both parts of this chapter and the theme which binds them together. In the first part, I examined how Buddhist literature portrays kāma as simply a veneer for death, with a special eye to the ways in which Aśvaghoṣa‟s Buddhacarita subsumed the Hindu god Kāmadeva into Māra as a means for advancing this perspective. In part two, I examined how Buddhist literature appropriated the Hindu apsaras/kāma/prakṛti complex, molding it into the relations of Māra, Māra‟s daughters, and saṃsāra, which serves to support a gender hierarchy and express fears of women on the part of a male, ascetic community. As a whole, the two parts expose the manner in which narratives of Māra, rather than simply being a Buddhist repackaging of the notion and figure of Kāma, are actually a complicated strategy by which the force of desire is “mortified” and shown to be a front for the power of death.


Chapter 6: Dialogues with Death: Māra, Yama, and Coming to Terms with Mortality

216 I. Introduction In this final chapter of the dissertation, I will consider the intersections of the Buddhist Māra narratives with the evolving Hindu conceptualizations of death. Arguably, nothing may be more central to the existence of religious belief and institutions than the fact of human mortality. Stuart Blackburn writes that, “As a source of Indian religious thought, death is probably unsurpassed,”604 while Wendy Doniger (O‟Flaherty) has argued that all Indian religions, in some fashion, are founded on the pursuit of immortality. 605 In the case of Indian Buddhism, the issue of death is inextricably linked to the figure of Māra, who stands for the cosmological and individual processes of death, and whose very name means “Death” (or perhaps, with more etymological precision, “Killer”). For their part, the Vedic, Brahmanical, and later Hindu traditions conceived of their own variety of ways for dealing with the unpleasant fact of mortality. Mythically, a whole constellation of figures have personified or conceptualized death from the Vedic to Purāṇic eras, including Mṛtyu, Kāla, and Nirṛti. At the center of this assemblage, however, has always been the figure of Yama, whose representation has changed dramatically from earlier to later traditions. As will become clear, those changes in the representation of Yama come largely as a result of changing ritual and philosophical means of dealing with death. This chapter is thus primarily a study of the ways in which, through the figures of Yama and Māra, Buddhist and Hindu (and pre-Hindu) narrative traditions expressed their differing views on how to deal with – and even overcome – death.

604 605

“Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism,” History of Religions 24:3, pg. 255. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, pg. 214.

217 To argue these points, I have laid the chapter out in the following way, which is generally similar to the preceding chapters. First, I will outline the salient characteristics and changes in representation of the figure of Yama, from Vedic to Purāṇic times, noting how these attributes correspond to prominent ritual, doctrinal, and social ideologies. Building on that discussion, I will then demonstrate the ways in which early Buddhist portrayals of Māra as a god of death are critiques of the ideologies one finds represented in the early depictions of Yama. In the second half of the chapter, I move from more general arguments to make more specific comparisons between particular narratives. In the first part of that section, I will compare the Kaṭha Upaniṣad and narratives of Māra, paying particular attention to the different portrayals of the gods of death in each story and their interactions with, respectively, the Brahmin Naciketas and the ascetic Siddhattha Gotama. In both cases, the hero challenges and wrests knowledge from the god of death and there are clear structural similarities in the narratives. At the same time, the differing nature, tenor, and stakes of the contests in the respective stories shed light on the differing Brahmanical and Buddhist values behind each text. In the second section of the latter part of the chapter, I will look at how the theme of escaping or thwarting the power of death has been represented in each tradition through the figures of Yama and Māra. In particular, I will compare the Hindu stories of Sāvitrī in the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇic narratives of Ajāmila and Śveta with the Buddhist Mahāparinibbāna Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya and the story of the monk Godhika in the Mārasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Each of these stories, in its own way, demonstrates a way to overcome death, but in so doing possesses the unique flavor of its distinct tradition, which comes into relief through the comparison. Therefore, ultimately in this chapter I will argue, as I have throughout the dissertation, that the figure of Māra stands at the nexus of

218 Buddhist literary interaction with Brahmanical and Hindu values and acted as an explicit and implicit means by which the tradition could critique those opposing principles. Though by looking here at the post-Buddhist Purāṇic literature, in this chapter we are also in a position to assess how, in some ways, we can potentially regard Hindu narratives of Yama as a reaction against Māra. II. Yama and Māra, Gods of Death The Changing Faces of Yama As a point of departure, and for the sake of comparing Yama and Māra, it is helpful to survey the long and dynamic history of the Hindu god of death. Yama is a very minor figure in the early Vedic pantheon, to the extent that scholars, from as far back as Arthur MacDonnell, have noted that he is technically not even a god at this point.606 This stands in great contrast to the contemporary situation in which, as Filippi points out in a survey of Indian views of death, “Yama is a deity who inspires dread. In India, talking about him or simply pronouncing his name is avoided even today.”607 That startling change can be accounted for by the equally revolutionary shift from Vedic ritualism to Hindu devotionalism, the effects of which on the figure of Yama I will outline below before proceeding to a comparison with Māra. Starting in the Vedic period, there are indications that Yama may have been considered the first human to die and, by paving the way for others, became the regent of the afterlife. In the only Rig Veda hymn dedicated solely to Yama, it is said that when he died he “found the path for many” (bahubhyaḥ panthām anupaspaśanam).608 Elsewhere in other Vedic texts there is the suggestion that Yama was a mortal who elected to die, and is thus a representative of the mortal 606

Vedic Mythology, pg. 171. Mṛtyu: Concepts of Death in Indian Traditions, pg. 1. 608 10.14.1. 607

219 condition.609 For this reason, in some instances death is already in Vedic times referred to as “Yama‟s path” (pathā yamasya).610 Strictly speaking, in this sense Yama is an example of death, rather than its instigator or overseer, and as such in Vedic times Yama is associated more with death as a state rather than as a process. He is said to have a palace in which the pitṛs (literally, the “fathers”) reside after death, and which can be one‟s abode too, if the requisite sacrifices and rituals are carried out.611 In the palace of Yama, hymns and music are constantly playing, ghee, milk and other foods are plentiful, and the devotees of Yama want for nothing in his charge. 612 Somewhat obviously, perhaps, in early scholarship A.B. Keith considered the glories of Yama‟s realm as a way to escape the frightful reality of death, and reinforce ritual practice via the promise of such lavish rewards in addition to freedom from extinction. As true as that may be, even in the Vedic period there are hints of a darker side to Yama‟s nature. For instance, in a hymn in the Atharva Veda, the author declares “I ward off all the roaming messengers of Yama,” who take one to the abode of the dead.613 These particular figures, the messengers of Yama (yamadūta), take on great prominence in later tradition as a source of fear, and here in a very early reference, we see misgivings about their nature, as well as the character of Yama. Additionally, in the Brāhmaṇa literature there is the famous story of Bhṛgu, who travels to the realm of the afterlife at his father‟s command and, during his sojourn there, sees all manner of horrors, including a naked man, pitch black in color, with red eyes, carrying a club (musula),


For instance, see RV 10.13.4 and AV 6.28.3 and 18.3.13. RV, 1.38.5. 611 For example, see RV 10.14.8 and 10.16, which call the pitṛs “Yama‟s subjects” (yamarājño). 612 See especially RV 10.135 and AV 18.2.37, 18.4.32. 613 8.2.11: yamadūtāmścarato „pa sedhāmi sarvān. 610

220 who punishes those who shed the blood of Brahmins.614 Though identified as Krodha (“anger” personified), in their analyses of this narrative both Bodewitz and Doniger (O‟Flaherty) consider the mysterious being as a form of Yama.615 As such, the figure is an early example of what will come to be the common, frightful appearance of Yama as the dark judge of the dead who punishes wrongdoers and carries the living off to his realm. Part of the reason behind that transition might lie in Yama‟s relationship to other figures in the Vedic pantheon associated with death who were, already in that period, considered frightful and pernicious to humans. Chief among these may be Mṛtyu who, as we will see, holds a special place in the eventual Buddhist conceptualization of Māra. (Indeed, etymologically both figures stem from the root “mṛ,” meaning “die.”). At points in the Rig Veda, and even more frequently in the Atharva Veda, the hymn author pleads to be freed from the snare (pāśa), bonds, or “foot-fetters” (paḍbīśa) of Mṛtyu.616 In a different tactic, another Atharva Veda hymn attempts to avoid Mṛtyu by placation, offering “homage to Death, the Endmaker.”617 “Antaka,” the term I have translated here as “Endmaker,” is one we will see again as a frequent appellation of Māra in Buddhist literature, particularly in the Pāli canon. Besides Mṛtyu, passages in the Vedas also describe the deities Varuṇa and Nirṛti as possessing snares or fetters and the authors exhort those figures to release their bonds on devotees.618 While Mṛtyu plainly represents death, in the Vedic period Varuṇa was also associated with kingship, and hence his act of binding was primarily associated with punishing


This story is found in ŚB and Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa 1.42-44. See H.W. Bodewitz, Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa I, 1-65, pg. 109n. 24 and Doniger (O‟Flaherty), Tales of Sex and Violence: Folklore, Sacrifice and Danger in the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, pg. 39. 616 For examples, see RV 7.59.12 and AV 8.1.4, 8.8.10, and 16.8.32. 617 8.1.1: antakāya mṛtyave namaḥ. 618 For Varuṇa‟s bonds, see RV 1.24.15 and AV 2.10. For Nirṛti, see RV 10.59.1-4 and AV 3.6.5. 615

221 violators of law and order.619 This is why Varuṇa is said to have one thousand eyes (sahasracakṣāḥ) – to maintain complete and total watch over all beings. Nirṛti, on the other hand, is a more mysterious – and most likely female620 – figure primarily associated with disease and destruction, placing her seemingly at odds with Varuṇa, yet she is described in similarly fearful terms. Above all of these points, the overarching ideology of sacrificial ritual serves to unite all of these Vedic personalities. From the Rig Veda to later Brahmanical texts, sacrifice is the means by which one overcomes both Mṛtyu and Nirṛti. For instance, in terms of the former, the Atharva Veda advises the devotee to “from that path [death], make an armor of protection with Brahmanical knowledge” (patha imaṃ tasmād rakṣanto brahmāsmai varma kṛṇmasi) that will “release the fetters of death” (avamuñcan mṛtyupāśān).621 The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa contains a lengthy passage in which Prajāpati, the creator deity discussed previously in chapter three, instructs the gods in a special sacrifice by which they can defeat Mṛtyu and Antaka and achieve immortality.622 In a slightly different vein, the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa suggests that only those who do not offer sacrifice become targets for Nirṛti, giving this as an impetus for maintaining ritual observances.623 While sacrifice keeps these malign forces at bay, it generally operates in a more


See Dumézil, Mitra-Varuṇa: an Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty, for a fuller discussion of this aspect of Varuṇa‟s early character. 620 RV 7.37.7 and AV 6.63.1 both refer to Nirṛti as “devī.” 621 8.2.10 and 8.2.2, respectively. 622 ŚB Prajāpati is in possession of this special knowledge through a correspondence, discussed in chapter three, by which the creator and death, by virtue of both representing the Year (Time) have a distinct relationship. Therefore Prajāpati is the perfect being to consult for knowledge of how to defeat Mṛtyu since, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, as the creator deity he is in many ways most closely related to death. J. Bruce Long states his understanding of the relationship in this way: “the person who perceives the mystical identification between Prajāpati, Kāla [Time], and Mṛtyu and gives public demonstration to this knowledge by faithfully performing his sacrificial duties will survive for a full term of life” (76). See “Death as Necessity and Gift in Hindu Mythology,” in Religious Encounters with Death: Insights from the History and Anthropology of Religions. Ed. Frank Reynolds and Earl E. Waugh. 623 See also ŚB,,

222 positive manner in relation to Yama, usually serving to gain Yama‟s favor. For example, gifts to Yama are frequently said to result in “live a long life among the gods”624 and, together with the pitṛs, Yama grants land to and for sacrificers.625 Over all, then, Yama is a largely benign figure whom Vedic authors advised one could call upon for assurance of bliss in the next world as well as safety from the more insidious forces associated with death. However, there are traces, as early as the later Brāhmaṇas, of a different side to Yama, betraying a much closer connection to the darker powers. We have already seen a hint in the black figure of the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, and in another verse in that text Yama‟s relationship to sacrifice is described in a similar way as what is outlined above for Nirṛti. According to that passage, since he is the one who “restrains” (yamayati, from the root “yam,” making a play on the etymology of “Yama”) Yama is Mṛtyu and the one who conducts sacrifice to him must know this fact in order to gain admission to Yama‟s realm.626 The Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa casts Yama in an even more imposing light, saying that the sacrificer owes a debt to Yama and, if it is not paid, the yamadūtas will drag him away by the neck.627 Perhaps, though starting out as a beneficent figure presiding over a blissful afterlife realm, Yama‟s connection to death gradually drew him into similar orbits with personalities such as Mṛtyu. In any case, during the Vedic period, whether it is to assure a pleasant hereafter or avoid expiring in a horrific manner, the recourse is sacrificial ritual, and the representation of Yama reflects this. That situation changes in the very late Vedic/Upaniṣadic period in which the efficacy of sacrificial ritual in general, and hence its ability to deal with the reality of death in particular, was


RV 10.14.14: sa no deveṣu āyamad dīrgham āyuḥ prajīvase. See also AV 4.34.3-4, 18.2.3, and ŚB ŚB 626 Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, 1.28. 627 Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, 625

223 greatly questioned. As the Muṇdaka Upaniṣad states, for example, those who uphold salvation through ritual hold onto unsteady boats and “go again and again to old age and death.” 628 Death, in this case, as the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad puts it, is now equivalent to a hunger, devouring beings over and over again to match their continual birth and destruction.629 In this text, it is also, for perhaps the first time, called “evil” (pāpmā mṛtyuḥ).630 The increase in the power of death, and the inverse decline in the stature of ritual, necessitated another solution to the problem of mortality, which the Upaniṣadic tradition tends to locate in mystical, quasi-theistic knowledge. The later Śveta Upaniṣad, for instance, is typical among these texts in advising that if one wishes to escape the cycle of rebirth and transcend death he must realize the identity of all things (including himself) with the imperishable ultimate reality, Brahman. 631 The transition from the Vedic anxiety about securing a good place in the afterlife to the notion in the Upaniṣads of death as a power that continually consumes beings had definite consequences on the representation of Yama. In fact, Bulcsu Siklós contends that Yama – who he also argues completely absorbs other figures such as Mṛtyu and Antaka in the post-Upaniṣadic period – “grows in significance and menace along with the doctrine of transmigration...”632 Just


1.2.7: jarāmṛtyuṃ te punarevāpi yanti. 1.2.1. See also Hermann Oldenberg, The Doctrine of the Upaniṣads and the Early Buddhism, pg. 70. 630 Ibid., 1.5.23. 631 1.7 and 6.15 state this point especially well. 632 “The Evolution of the Buddhist Yama,” pg. 174. Siklós‟s main point is sound, but I believe his suggestion that Yama completely absorbs other figures of death is an overstatement. Yama certainly is the dominant figure of death in epic and Purāṇic texts, but older figures originating from the Vedic period still occur sporadically, often as lieutenants or subordinates of Yama, but occasionally also as independent, powerful figures. Kāla, for instance, is referred to in the Mahābhārata as the one who (continuing the Bṛhadāraṇyaka metaphor) “cooks” (pacati), “burns” (nirdhantaṃ) and destroys beings (1.1.88-89). A section of the late Śānti Parvan in the Mahābhārata contains a lengthy story about Brahmā‟s creation of a goddess of death named Nirṛti who, in an apparent departure from her Vedic predecessor, reacts with horror and remorse at the prospect of delivering beings into extinction and must be convinced to perform this necessary function for the health of the cosmos (12.248.12-12.250.41). These episodes show, in contrast to Siklós, that some of these older figures retained a certain degree of autonomy, especially in the epic literature, where there can even at times be a certain degree of confusion over the identity of figures of death and their precise relationship to one another (See The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, pg. 229). 629

224 as death has grown in immensity, so has Yama, from a minor, only quasi-divine figure in Vedic texts to an imposing authority in epic and later Purāṇic texts. Yama is now described with an impressive string of epithets, for instance in a passage in the Mahābhārata where he is called “the destroyer of all beings” (sarvabhūtavināśakṛt), “the unconceivable self” (acintyātmā), “the king of Dharma” (dharmarājo), and perhaps most impressively, one who “shines like a second sun, rising at the end of the world” (dvitīya iva mārtaṇḍo yugānte samupasthite).633 Elsewhere in the Mahābhārata, during several of the battle sequences, rival warriors regularly threaten to send one another into the yamadaṃṣṭrāntaraṃ - the “fangs of Yama,” once again bringing to mind the Upaniṣadic image of death as a ferocious predator devouring all existence.634 Along these lines, Lourens van den Bosch notes that in material depictions of Yama, both in medieval temple carvings as well as contemporary illustrations, he is usually shown with very dark skin (stemming potentially from the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa episode) as well as very prominent teeth or fangs.635 Building on these images of Yama as the destroyer of individual beings, Lynn Thomas has investigated references in the Mahābhārata to the pralaya (the periodic destruction of the universe) and concluded that the deity most often associated with that cataclysmic event in the epic, either directly or indirectly, is Yama.636 In Thomas‟ view, this suggests a microcosmic/macrocosmic relationship between the death of the individual and the death of the universe in the epic,637 while for our purposes it shows the extent to which the figure of Yama has grown from Vedic times.


3.42.10-11. For example, see 7.85.18 for one instance of the phrase. 635 “Yama – the God on the Black Buffalo,” in Visible Religion, Vol. 1, pgs. 53-54. 636 “The Identity of the Destroyer in the Mahābhārata,” pgs. 255-272. 637 Ibid., pg. 268. 634

225 Another important dimension of Yama‟s expanded character is hinted at in one of the Mahābhārata epithets quoted above: Dharmarāja, “lord or king of Dharma.” In this capacity, according to the Mahābhārata, Yama constantly observes the behavior of all humans, duly administering rewards or punishment.638 He carries the daṇḍa, the club or staff associated with judgment and punishment and similes in the Mahābhārata evoking the power or fearsomeness of Yama‟s daṇḍa are as commonplace nearly as evocations of Indra‟s thunderbolt or Agni‟s fire. 639 Using that daṇḍa, we are told that Yama rewards and cherishes (anugṛhṇāti) the righteous (dhārmika), yet grievously chastises the wicked (adhārmika).640 At one and the same time, as Dharmarāja, Yama is supreme lord (parameśvara) of those who follow dharma, and restrainer (saṃyaccan) of the “evil” (pāpakaḥ).641 This role clearly evokes the character of Varuṇa in the Vedas, who watched over the world with a thousand unblinking eyes, observing and reacting to the behavior of the just and unjust. Due to this, Kusum Merh considers Yama and Varuṇa as “duplicates”: both are royal, uphold cosmic law, and bind violators of that law with snares (pāśas).642 Bodewitz, meanwhile, attributes Yama‟s frightful transformation to a meshing with the figure of Varuṇa, who was perceived in Vedic literature as a grim judge. 643 Sutherland largely agrees with that assessment, arguing that Yama‟s role as Dharmarāja is the result of a conflation with Varuṇa, and the darker visage the god takes on further comes from “guilt by association,” wherein the judge becomes


See 1.68.29-31. For instance, see 5.185.5 or 6.90.21 as just two of many similar examples. 640 MB 12.68.45. 641 Ibid., 12.92.38. The word translated here as “restrainer” (saṃyaccan) comes from the root “yam” and again suggests another play on Yama‟s name. 642 Yama, the Glorious Lord of the Otherworld, pgs. 79-80. 643 “The Dark and Deep Underworld in the Veda,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, pg. 222. 639

226 partly associated with the injustice he punishes, and transforms from the impartial overseer to a “grim avenger.”644 Though I agree to a large extent with the point of view of these scholars, I would also emphasize the role possibly played by the shift in perceptions of death from Vedic to Upaniṣadic tradition. As discussed above, with the advent of belief in rebirth, re-death emerges as an obvious corollary and greatly enlarges the terror associated with the end of life: it will continue to happen, again and again and again. Though Yama‟s connection to Varuṇa might explain the epithet “Dharmarāja” or the use of pāśas, I would suggest that the Upaniṣadic fear of death is also at work in the horrific depictions of Yama one finds in many post-epic, Purāṇic accounts. In the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa, for instance, at the time of death the unrighteous are said to see, “the men of Yama come, the hard-souled, terrifying, foul-smelling ones who carry hammers in their hands.”645 These awful beings bind the deceased with snares and carry them away to the realm of Yama, where they see the dread god, “with very red eyes, looking like a mass of ground collyrium, amidst Antaka, Kāla, and Mṛtyu.” 646 Yama has a gaping mouth with frightful fangs (daṃṣṭrākarālavadanaṃ), brandishing the daṇḍa as well as a pāśa to drag this soul further along its unfortunate journey.647


The Disguises of the Demon, pgs. 78-81. With a nod to American popular culture, it is difficult not to think of the D.C. comic book character “Batman” in this context, who prowls the streets of the fictitious Gotham City punishing crime. Indeed, Batman primary epithet is “the Dark Knight” and, perhaps analogous to the “thousand eyes” trope of Varuṇa, the character is frequently depicted perched atop a skyscraper, watching for criminal activity. For a further analysis of the mythic themes of Batman, see my forthcoming article (Summer 2010) in the Journal of Religion in Popular Culture: “„I Think You and I Are Destined to Do This Forever‟: A Reading of the Batman/Joker Story Cycle through the Combat Myth.” 645 10.60: vibhīṣaṇāḥ pūtigandhāḥ kūṭamudgarapāṇayaḥ | āgacchanti durātmāno yamasya puruṣāstadā || 646 Ibid., 10.78: gatamātro „tiraktākṣaṃ bhinnāñjanacaya prabham | mṛtyukālāntakādīnāṃ madhye paśyati vai yamam || This is a prime example of the survival, but subordination, of the Vedic figures of Antaka, Kāla, and Mṛtyu. 647 Ibid., 10.79-80.

227 This account of the poor soul dragged off by Yama‟s servants (the yamadūtas or yamapuruṣas) into the realm of the dead for punishment is typical of a standard formula one finds in many Purāṇas, such as the Śiva, Padma, and Garuda Purāṇas.648 The frightening descriptions of Yama and his messengers and the torments they visit upon the unrighteous dead are frequently identical. Luckily, though, other individuals who have been generous in their gifts to Brahmins and the gods will not be caught by Yama and his followers, or will see them in a much more pleasing and gentle visage.649 However, the Purāṇas also offer a reliable means of escape for those neglectful of Brahmanical values, which is consistent with Hindu practice during the Purāṇic period. In the Padma Purāṇa, we are told of the cruel King Suvarṇa who, when his time of death arrives, sees a flower drop from the hair of a prostitute and exclaims, “Nārāyaṇa!” As the yamadūtas approach, they are beaten back by Viṣṇu and his servants, who have come at the exclamation of one of that god‟s epithets, “Nārāyaṇa.”650 Equally confident in the power of bhakti to thwart death, the Mṛtyavaṣṭaka hymn in the Garuda Purāṇa seemingly taunts Yama, declaring in its refrain that, as long as one believes in the power of Viṣṇu, “what will death do?”651 To sum up the broad strokes of this lengthy but important survey of the changing faces of Yama, from the Vedic to Purāṇic period we have seen that the representation of the figure


See Śiva Purāṇa Umāsaṃhitā 7.28-57, Padma Purāṇa 7.21.47-57 and 7.23.83-113, and Garuda Purāṇa 2.5.8892. The origin of the yamadūtas is interesting, stemming possibly from the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa mention discussed above. In Epic Mythology, E.W. Hopkins argues that the yamadūtas are rākṣas drafted into the service of Yama, but the descriptions do not always match up (113). Though Yama is occasionally seen in the company of rākṣas, as well as piśācas (for instance in the army he leads against Tāraka‟s general Grasana in the Skanda Purāṇa,, I do not find the correspondence ultimately very convincing. 649 For instance, see Garuda Purāṇa, 2.30.17-28 and 2.31.1-43. 650 7.10.38-61. There are many other examples of this kind of accidental, yet efficacious bhakti. The sense seems to be that if inadvertent devotion to Viṣṇu (or Śiva, etc.) is so potent, how much more powerful is single-minded worship? 651 1.233.1-11: kinn mṛtyuḥ kariṣyati.

228 closely tracks the particular values emphasized by prominent Brahmanical and Hindu traditions of each time. During the Vedic period, Yama was a benign ruler of the land of pitṛs and closely associated with ritual sacrifice, which was the means for achieving a timely passage into that realm. The Upaniṣadic literature largely overturned those ideas and practices and, with the fear of recurrent death, Yama became much more prominent and much more imposing. At the same time, in epic and Purāṇic literature we find the god also as the Dharmarāja, who is frightful primarily to those who have done wrong (in terms of Brahmanical values). Yet, though Yama may be the judge of the dead, the Purāṇic tradition offers bhakti as an appellate court to which even the unrighteous may plead their case for clemency. The representation of Yama, death more generally, and the means for overcoming death, thus closely correspond at each interval with the changing values and principles of the Hindu traditions to which they belong. In the next section, we will view Māra from the same perspective and examine the severe contrasts which early Indian Buddhist literature uses that figure to draw on the issue of human mortality. Māra and the Buddhist Response to Death Given the fact that both Yama and Māra represent death in their respective traditions, it has been a natural move for scholars to look to the Vedic and Brāhmaṇa texts for predecessors to Māra. James Boyd and Ernst Windisch both briefly remark that the figure of Mṛtyu is an obvious antecedent of Māra, primarily due to the aforementioned etymological link.652 David Kalupahana, taking a more abstract approach, likens Māra to Kāla since, by overseeing and standing for the operation of saṃsāra, Māra is in some ways a personification of time.653 Others, though, have argued that Māra and Yama are interchangeable, identical figures, or that Māra

652 653

See Boyd, Satan and Māra, pg. 74 and Windisch, Māra und Buddha, pgs. 185 and 195. “The Buddhist Conception of Time and Temporality,” Philosophy East and West, pg. 182.

229 operates in Buddhist traditions merely as a subcategory of Yama. 654 While it is true that, as Wayman and Siklós have observed, Buddhist Tantric traditions in the later medieval period tend to merge the functions and representations of the two figures, to the point even that Māra tends to disappear, this cannot be said for the earlier Indian Buddhist literature, which clearly separates the two deities.655 Though Yama and Māra obviously both stand for death, if we penetrate deeper than this obvious surface similarity, we begin to perceive the complexity of the literary borrowing, inversion, and thus ideological critique imbedded in these mythic construct. The work of this section of the chapter will be to pursue the general contours and salient points of those complexities. The first point one encounters looking at the treatment of death in Buddhist literature, which represents an immediate obstacle to labeling Māra the “Buddhist Yama,” is that Yama appears as a separate figure in early Pāli and also later Buddhist Sanskrit texts. In some cases, this Buddhist appropriation of Yama plays a very similar ideological role to what one finds in the later Brāhmaṇa or even epic and Purāṇic texts. For example, the Dhammapada, in verses that are clearly evocative of episodes in those Hindu texts, advises someone who is close to death that, “now you are like a yellow leaf, and the servants of Yama have appeared for you.” 656 Elsewhere, in the same chapter, the Dhammapada describes death as “Yama‟s presence.”657 More common, however, is the association of Yama with the petaloka (Sanskrit, pretaloka), the realm of hungry ghosts, which is also often referred to as “Yamaloka.” This realm (which is considered a separate 654

For arguments of the identity of the two figures, see Bhattacharyya, Indian Demonology, pgs. 11 and 67, and Bhattacharji, The Indian Theogony, pg. 107. 655 See Wayman, “Studies in Yama and Māra,” Indo-Iranian Journal, pg. 125, and Siklós, “The Evolution of the Buddhist Yama,” pg. 180. 656 18.1: paṇḍupalāso va dāni „si yamapurisā pi ca taṃ upaṭṭhitā. There are also references in the Petavatthu to the “men of Yama,” for example, Yamapurisānaṃ santike (“in the presence of Yama‟s men”) (246). 657 Ibid., 18.3: yamassa santike.

230 gaṭi, or separate rebirth destination for beings) is occupied by beings who have amassed large stores of negative karma and must expiate this condition by spending a certain time as a wandering, starving ghost. At various points in Buddhist texts, from Pāli to Sanskrit works, Yama is described as the regent of this petaloka, such that references in this literature to “Yama‟s realm” can be taken as allusions to the state of hungry ghosts. 658 As the relative position of the petaloka in the Buddhist hierarchy of rebirth might suggest, there is a clear moral connotation to Yama‟s realm, which these texts do not fail to communicate. According to the Devatāsaṃyutta, for instance, those who are stingy in giving alms or obstruct the process of donating to the sangha risk rebirth in one of the unfortunate realms, as an animal or in the hells or Yamaloka.659 In this case we see an interesting appropriation and redeployment of Vedic usage of Yama, and death in general. In those texts, hymn authors exhorted practitioners to practice ritual sacrifice as a means to ward off disease or untimely death, and to secure a place in the pitṛloka of Yama. Later epic and Purāṇic passages, emphasizing Yama as a punishing judge, enumerate the grisly ordeals of those who neglect their gifts to Brahmins and devas. The brief Devatāsaṃyutta reference immediately presents the same flavor, but advises donations to the sangha as the ritual prophylactic in its particular context. What is also immediately apparent is that in the Buddhist case (as well the Hindu, if one has not lived up to his or her religious obligations) the realm of Yama is not a desirable destination. It is perhaps also even more significant that, as I will discuss later, though there are instances in which Hindu texts describe Yama and his realm in glowing terms, the same does not occur with the Yama conceived in Buddhist writings, much less with Māra.

658 659

For example, see DhP 4.1-2, or at a later point on the chronological spectrum, MV II 324. SN I 34: nirayaṃ tiracchānayoniṃ yamalokam uppajjare.

231 The most detailed Buddhist account of Yama and the petaloka, including the circumstances for getting in and out of that realm, occurs in the Petavatthu, a compilation of discourses on and stories of hungry ghosts and other such beings. These stories discuss in detail the misery of life as a peta and the usual transgressions, such as lack of generosity, which lead one to become a Yamassaṭhāyino – a “guest of Yama,” i.e., a peta.660 Beyond this, some of the narratives add a particularly Buddhist escape route to this state. In the Serinīpetavatthuvaṇṇanā, for example, when a woman named Serinī becames a petī (Pāli feminine for “peta”), she beseeches a member of the sangha to approach her mother and request that this still-living relative make donations to the Buddhist community on her behalf. When this occurs, we are told that the merit from the mother‟s donation releases Serinī from her awful state. 661 In some senses, perhaps we could see this pathway out of petahood as analogous to the way bhakti is played as kind of trump card over Yama in the Purāṇas. In both cases, a key ritual or concept to the tradition is exalted as the means to escape the ghastly fate of (or closely associated with) death. Over all, the close correspondence of terms (Hindu Sanskrit Yamapuruṣa versus Buddhist Pāli Yamapurisa for Yama‟s servants, to give one example) and similar role of the figure of Yama in each tradition strongly suggests a borrowing relationship between the two literatures. In each case, though, the Buddhist authors have substituted merit-making for the sacrificial or Brahmanical ritual. The Buddhist adaptation of these tropes goes deeper in some cases, however, and shows the ways in which the Brahmanical figures were inverted to aggrandize not just Buddhist practices, but Buddhist figures and social hierarchies. A prime example can be found in the

660 661

Petavatthu,pg. 59. Ibid., pgs. 201-204.

232 Devadūta Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya. At the start of the sutta, the Buddha, through his “divine eye” (dibbena cakkhuna) describes the experience of those who commit violent or despicable acts and are thus reborn in the hells. First, these offenders are brought before Yama (called rāja, throughout, indicating the author(s)‟ knowledge of Yama‟s epic/Purāṇic role as Dharmarāja) and he chastises them for being unmindful toward and ignorant of the various devadūtas (“divine messengers”) that appear throughout the world. The reader then learns, as they are discussed in succession, that the devadūtas are the infant, who signals the reality of birth, the elderly, who signify the truth of aging, corpses, which betray the fact of mortality, and so forth. Then the condemned is taken into the hells and put through various torments, such as immersion in boiling cauldrons, which are quite similar to the tortures described in the Mahābhārata or even the later Purānic passages discussed previously. At the end of the sutta, after the torture scene is done, Yama declares that wrongdoers can expect just this sort of treatment, but also that he wishes there were a way for him to be reborn as a human so that he could leave his own realm and hear the dharma from the Tathāgata‟s own lips. Finally, the text ends with the Buddha‟s postscript to his monks that this account was not something he heard from another samaṇa or Brahmin, but that he saw these events himself.662 Of the significant aspects we can draw out from this sutta, we should first note that the dūtas, which Hindu texts cast as the horrible figures who drag offenders to hell, have been redefined as aspects of Buddhist teaching, approximating (but also expanding on) the famous four sights that drove prince Siddhattha to grapple with the existence of dukkha and renounce worldly life. Second, though the structure of the story and the role of Yama are clearly the Hindu narrative framework for such tales, in this Buddhist narrative Yama makes an explicit declaration 662

MN III 178-187.

233 of his subordinate status in relation to the Buddha. 663 In this text, the powerful Hindu god of the dead is a functionary on the part of the dharma and a sounding-board for the preeminence of the Buddha. In this way, we can see the text working on the character of Yama in an analogous way to the Buddhist transformations of Brahmā and Indra (Sakka) that I explored in chapters three and four, respectively. Finally, we are told that the Buddha, who has related the scene entirely through his “divine eye,” which is “perfect and superhuman” (visuddhena atikkantamānusakena), possesses a knowledge of the state of hell beings beyond any other ascetic or Brahmin. Buddhist concepts, and the figure of the Buddha himself, are thus aggrandized through the appropriation of a Hindu narrative frame and personality, namely Yama, the god of death. Māra and The Buddhist Conceptualization of Death The preceding observations hint at the dynamics we will find when we look at the Māra narratives as a critique of Brahmanical and Hindu views of death. Yet before proceeding to that stage, it is useful to take a step back and gain some basic perspective on key Buddhist appraisals of the phenomenon of death. As George Bond has explained, the Buddhist interpretation of death is twofold. On the one hand, there is the long term fact of the end of one‟s life, yet on the other hand, Buddhist traditions have also characterized the short term arising and passing away of the aggregates which compose all “persons” as a kind of continuous death.664 Beyond this


On this point, the discussion in the Kathāvatthu on the reality of niryapālas (“hell guardians”) is also relevant. In that section of that text, the discussants conclude that, while beings like Yama exist and roam the hells torturing beings reborn there, these figures are really only the instruments through which karma is enacted (20.3, pgs. 596597). That conclusion is in some ways reminiscent of the story of Gautamī in the Mahābhārata, who refuses to kill a poisonous snake that bit her son, arguing that death is the result of karma, and further violent action would only stoke the fires of future negative rebirths (13.1.10-73). Here, in the same way, the figure of death is seen only as an extension and subordinate of karma. 664 “Theravāda Buddhism‟s Meditations on Death and the Symbolism of Initiatory Death,” History of Religions, pg. 240.

234 distinction, Buddhist traditions start on (and most likely greatly influenced) the Upaniṣadic premise that death, in Bond‟s words, is “the fearful and disastrous culmination of an existence already marred by sorrow and suffering, and this tragedy, death, is magnified by the surety of rebirth and the repetition of suffering and death.”665 There are no exceptions to this rule, as Buddhist texts such as the Anguttara Nikāya make clear: There is the fact of age. „Not aging‟ is an unobtainable state for anyone in this world, with its ascetics, Brahmins, devas, Māra, and Brahmā. There is the fact of disease. „Not getting sick‟ is an unobtainable state for anyone in this world, with its ascetics, Brahmins, devas, Māra, and Brahmā. There is the fact of death. „Not dying‟ is an unobtainable state for anyone in this world, with its ascetics, Brahmins, devas, Māra, and Brahmā.666 Against the inescapable truth of life‟s frailty, then, even the gods are helpless, leaving humans in an even more desperate condition. In the central narrative of Siddhattha‟s departure all versions relate that it was his experience of the ugly reality of aging, sickness, and death that pushed him to renounce his princely life in order to discover the dharma.667 Outside even Siddhattha‟s experience, the Mahāpadāna Sutta, in its story of the life of the previous Buddha Vipassī, demonstrates that the experience of the four sights, with death predominant among them, is seminal in the career of every eventual Buddha‟s realization of the dharma. 668 With this background, we can start to appreciate the ways in which the figure of Māra expresses a typically Buddhist perspective on death, while at the same time bearing the marks of the conversation Buddhist literature carried on with Vedic and later Hindu traditions. First, many of the terms used to refer to Māra in Buddhist texts stem directly from usage in Brahmanical 665

Ibid. AN III 54 (3.48.2): jarādhammaṃ mā jīrī ti alabbhanīyaṃ ṭhānaṃ samaṇena vā brāhmaṇena vā devena vā mārena vā brahmunā vā kenaci vā lokasmiṃ vyādhidhammaṃ mā vyādhīyī ti…maraṇadhammaṃ mā mīyī ti… 667 For just a few examples see BC, 1.70 and 3.60 or MV II 161. 668 See DN II 22-32 for the account of Vipassī‟s experience of the four sights. 666

235 texts to connote deities associated with death. In Pāli works, it is standard to find the phrase “pāpimā Māra” (“evil Māra”), which as we have seen is applied to describe death in both the Brāhmaṇas as well as the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. Even more definitive, however, is the application of the epithet “Antaka,” a common synonym for death-dealing gods in Hindu texts from the Vedas all the way to Purāṇic tradition. In the Mārasaṃyutta, the Buddha refers to Māra with this epithet numerous times, such as when the god attempts to frighten him by taking the form of an abnormally large and fierce elephant. In response, the unperturbed Buddha simply says, “You are defeated, Antaka.”669 This exact phrase appears a number of times in the Therīgāthā as well, as nuns proclaim their victory over ignorance, desire, and death.670 Elsewhere in the Mārasaṃyutta, there is an incident in which Māra claims that the Buddha‟s Middle Path strays from pure asceticism and is not austere enough. The Buddha responds that other, more extreme ascetic regimens are often aimed at immortality (amaram) and are thus pointless (anattha). After affirming the threefold principles of the eightfold path (sīla, samādhi, and pañña) as the only viable course of practice, the section ends with the same formula, “You are defeated, Antaka.”671 Significantly, here a rival form of ascetic practice, namely arduous selfdenial aimed at realizing an immortal self, as was advanced in the philosophy of the Upaniṣads and the orthopraxy of Brahmin ascetics, is articulated by Māra. Paradoxically, Māra (“death) advances a path leading to amara (“immortality”), but, as many other Buddhist writings point out (including the Anguttara Nikāya passage cited previously) the notion of amara is merely illusion. Thus, as is characteristic of many of Māra‟s appearances in Buddhist texts, the god has attempted to obscure the reality of human mortality with a false path. In this case, it is important 669

SN I 104: nihato tvaṃ asi antakā ti. For example, see pgs. 129, 130, 137, 141, and 142. 671 Ibid., 103. 670

236 to point out that the false path is identified with rival (Brahmanical) practice and the reference to Vedic terminology through the epithet “Antaka” simultaneously calls attention to the inescapable fact of death (“that which ends”) but also identifies Māra with the rival tradition. Other usages of the term “Antaka” to refer to Māra do not necessarily translate to an explicit sectarian comment, though they similarly tug and pull at the original meaning and context of the term until it takes on a more Buddhist sense. For instance, to advance the values of a renunciant‟s life, we are told that sons, fathers, and other familial ties cannot save one “seized by Antaka” (antakenādhipannassa) and thus the wise should leave home and pursue the Buddha‟s teaching.672 In another verse which evokes many of the themes discussed in chapter five, the Dhammapada asserts that “Antaka puts under his sway those who cannot be satisfied in desire, whose mind is attached and only picks flowers.” 673 In a characteristically Buddhist move, using the figure of Antaka (again standing in for Māra)674 this verse collapses the categories of desire (kāmesu) and death, which one does not find as a usage of Antaka in non-Buddhist contexts. The commentarial tradition also employed and reworked the term “Antaka,” as evidenced by Dhammapāla, who glosses the term in his commentary on the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya as one who destroys the constituent elements and aggregates. 675 Finally, in the Mahāvastu, the Buddha relates to an audience of monks that when he achieved awakening under the bodhi tree, he “defeated Māra with his mount and soldiers, and Antaka was


DhP 20.16-17. Ibid., 4.5: pupphāni heva pacinantaṃ byāsattamanasaṃ naraṃ | atittaṃ yeva kāmesu antako kurute vasaṃ || 674 The commentary to this verse makes explicit that “Antaka” here refers to none other than Māra (pg. 135). 675 Dīghanikāya-Aṭṭhakathā-ṭīkā, II 193: virāg‟ ādiguṇānaṃ antakaraṇato antako. 673

237 reduced to ashes.”676 Thus in effect, Māra, the destroyer and ender, has himself been destroyed and ended by the Buddha‟s power, giving us another example of the playful use of this old Vedic term. A second obvious instance in which the characterization of Māra borrows from the representation of Brahmanical figures of death involves the pāśa, or “snare,” sometimes also called the mārabandhana, or “bonds of Māra.” We have already seen the pāsa as a key attribute of the god of death throughout Vedic, epic, and Purāṇic traditions. Buddhist traditions frequently characterize Māra as a binding, ensnaring deity, who also carries those implements. In the Mārasaṃyutta alone there are several instances in which Māra challenges the Buddha‟s escape from saṃsāra, asserting instead that the Awakened One is still bound by death and rebirth, by the mārapāsa or mārabandhana.677 Conversely, the Dhammapada states that “those who restrain the mind release Māra‟s bonds,” equating the escape from repeated death to mindful awareness.678 Another Dhammapada verse aligns the concept of Māra‟s snares with other language regularly associated with Yama. According to that text, if one recognizes the illusory nature of the body, which is Māra‟s snare, “one cuts Māra‟s flowers and goes out of the sight of King


II 286: māro ca nihato sabalavāhano bhasmīkṛto antako. If we recall from chapter four, the Mahāvastu is also a prime source for the application of the epither “Namuci” to Māra, meaning that even by the time of this later, more Mahāyāna-flavored text, these types of comparisons with Brahmanical traditions were still occurring. 677 See SN I 105 and I 111 for two examples. In his commentary on the Saṃyutta Nikāya, Buddhaghoṣa glosses “mārapasena” with “kilesapāsena” (“ the snare of defilements”), which means the impurities of the ignorant mind. See Sāratha-ppakāsinī, pg. 171. This is in keeping with the commentarial tendency to highlight the defilements as a main point of the Māra figure, but it also stands as another example of the redefinition of earlier Brahmanical mythic tropes into exclusively Buddhist terms. Dhammapāla, on the other hand, portrays the snares of Māra as a kind of anesthesia, promoting sloth and indifference to the suffering inherent in the world. See Dīghanikāya-Aṭṭhakathāṭīkā, II 193: attano mārapasena pamatte bandhati. 678 3.5: ye cittaṃ saññamessanti mokkhanti mārabandhanā.

238 Death.”679 Instead of “Dharmarāja,” Yama‟s immediately identifiable appellation that affiliates the god of death with eternal law, Māra is here called “Maccurāja,” “King Death.” This title, a fairly obvious play on Yama‟s grand epithet, does not connote stature or regality, but merely the function of destruction. For instance, a verse in the Theragāthā describes that the dharma is the means by which to escape Māra‟s realm and “gain release from the snares of King Death.”680 Another verse in the same text warns against complacency in the face of the power of Māra, which is “the army of King Death” (“maccurājassa senaṃ”).681 Whenever the term occurs the verse immediately enumerates the means to escape from Maccurāja‟s sight, such as conquering hate and desire, recognizing worldly pleasures as ephemeral, and perfecting the virtues (sampannāsīlām).682 Māra as a rāja in these instances may point to a dharma, but it is the Buddhist dharma. To summarize this section, we have seen that Buddhist texts borrow aspects of the Vedic, Brahmanical, and even later Hindu portrayals of Yama and death and use them to put forward a characteristically Buddhist interpretation of human mortality and its solution. The most pointed of these critiques comes in the ways in which Māra builds on and adapts attributes of preceding figures, such as Antaka, Mṛtyu, and Yama. Moving away from some of these broader and more general points, in the next sections of the chapter I will consider the relationships between very specific narratives and texts, starting with the Kaṭha Upaniṣad in comparison to the representations of Māra.


DhP 4.3: chetvāna mārassa papupphakāni | adassanaṃ maccurājassa gacche || 680 pg. 31: asakkhiṃ maccurājassa ahaṃ pāsā pamuccituṃ. 681 Ibid., pg. 2. 682 See MV III 373, DhP 4.14, and 13.4.

239 III. Dialogues with Death The Kaṭha Upaniṣad and Buddhist Narratives of Māra As many scholars have noted, there was most likely a tremendous degree of conversation and overlap between the composition of the Upaniṣads and early Buddhist texts. 683 Patrick Olivelle, an esteemed scholar of Upaniṣadic literature, believes the Kaṭha Upaniṣad was composed during the last few centuries BCE, making it post-Buddhist, and exhibits early theistic tendencies “whose later literature includes the Bhagavad Gītā and the Purāṇas.” 684 This text thus sits in an intermediate position between the ancient Vedic tradition and the developing Hindu theistic movements and, we will see, contains elements of both traditions as well as evidence of potential debate with Buddhist doctrines. At the same time, the core narrative most likely stems from a story originally found in the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, though as Olivelle points out, a definite “Upaniṣadic twist” has been put on the action.685 In terms of its relation to Buddhist thought, at times the ideas expressed in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad are so similar in content and spirit to those writings, and given the chronological murkiness involved, in the course of my comparison I will view these texts and traditions as potential contemporaries and parallel works rather than posit a clear progression or influence of one text over another. The story that we are concerned with begins as the young Brahmin Naciketas observes his father making offerings to other Brahmins. He repeatedly asks his father, “to whom will you give me?” until his father, annoyed at the questioning, angrily declares, “I give you to Death!”686 In a verse that seems to evoke the Vedic role of Yama as the first mortal to die, Naciketas then 683

See Oldenberg, The Doctrine of the Upaniṣads and the Early Buddhism; Patrick Olivelle, The Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads; Brian Black, The Character of the Self in Ancient India. 684 Introduction, Upaniṣads: a New Translation, pg. xxxvii. 685 Ibid., pg. 231. See Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa for the root narrative 686 Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 1.1.4: mṛtyave tvā dadāmi.

240 replies, “I go as first of many. I go among many.” 687 Despite this apparent fatalism to the capricious decision on the part of his father, the young Brahmin also expresses a bit of apprehension, and deepens the tension for the audience, when he further remarks, “What will Yama do? What will he do to me now?”688 The answer is rather surprising, for Yama appears only after Naciketas has already stayed in the god of death‟s realm for three full days and nights. Ashamed at this lax treatment of a Brahmin guest, Yama offers Naciketas three boons. As we might expect, Naciketas takes advantage of the first boon as an opportunity to assure his eventual return to the land of the living, and as Yama grants this, he says that the father will be pleased to see his son “released from the mouth of death.”689 Some interesting observations are possible even at this point. First, the god of death is addressed alternately as “Yama” and “Mṛtyu,” showing the amalgamation of those two figures by this point in time. Second, though death is portrayed to a certain degree as fearful – Naciketas wonders about his fate in that realm and there is also the ominous reference to the “mouth of death” –Yama acts as a gracious host and even freely grants Naciketas‟ request to leave. The character of death in this narrative is thus already quite complex, demonstrating the text‟s intermediate position in Hindu tradition. For his second boon, Naciketas requests instruction in a special fire sacrifice that leads to the heavenly state of amṛtatvaṃ (“immortality”).690 Yama instructs his guest in how to build the appropriate altar and in the procedures of the sacrifice, which will allow him to “attain an endless


Ibid., 1.1.5: bahūnāmemi prathamo bahūnāmemi madhyamaḥ. Ibid.: kiṃ svid yamasya kartavyaṃ yan mayā „dya kariṣyati. 689 Ibid., 1.1.11: tvāṃ dadṛśivān mṛtyumukhāt pramuktam. 690 Ibid., 1.1.13. 688

241 world” (anantalokāptimatho) and even names the ritual after Naciketas.691 Furthermore, Yama (who the text refers to at this point as “mahātmā” – the “great souled-one”) explains that whoever performs this sacrifice “transcends birth and death” (tarati janma mṛtyū) and “attains knowledge of Brahman and the god who should be praised” (brahmajajñaṃ devamīḍyaṃ viditvā).692 Finally, the sacrificer who conducts this particular ritual “rejoices in the heavenly realm, having surpassed sorrow, and casts off the snares of death.”693 Pausing again to draw additional observations, it becomes clear at this point in the text that there is considerable conversation occurring with Buddhist (and possibly other renunciant) traditions. First, while the importance of sacrificial ritual has obviously been carried over from the Vedic tradition, the goals for that practice have been redefined in terms more reminiscent of renunciant ascetic traditions, such as the eclipse of the round of rebirth and knowledge of the ultimate reality (Brahman). On the other hand, immortality in a realm that sounds a great deal like the Vedic pitṛloka (where there is no age, hunger, or thirst)694 is also a point of sizeable emphasis. The text‟s stress on the path to amṛtam lends even more significance to our earlier discussion of the Mārasaṃyutta episode of Māra‟s criticism of the Buddha‟s moderate asceticism as not leading to immortality. If we recall, the Buddha responded that practices aimed at immortality, clearly being advanced here in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, are “pointless” (anattha) and summarily dismissed Māra with a terse, “You are defeated.” In this Upaniṣad, the god of death (here Yama) is also an advocate of the pursuit of immortality, even lauding the “Naciketas ritual” as capable of snapping the “snares of death” (mṛtyupāśān). In some ways this is an odd


Ibid., 1.1.14. Ibid., 1.1.16-17. 693 Ibid., 1.1.18: sa mṛtyupāśān purataḥ praṇodya śokātigo modate svargaloke. 694 Ibid., 1.1.12. 692

242 admission for the god of death to make, for he is essentially informing Naciketas (and the text‟s audience) of a means to nullify his own power, but it is in keeping with the older Vedic character of Yama as a benign benefactor of humans willing to conduct sacrifice. It is unimaginable, on the other hand, that Māra would ever contribute to the weakening of his pāsas, let alone even reveal their presence or nature. Indeed, in the Mārasaṃyutta Māra‟s “entreaty” that the Buddha should practice asceticism leading to immortality is considered yet another trick on the part of a deceitful god. From the comparative perspective, we can also appreciate how that episode involving Māra is as much a Buddhist comment on Hindu sacrificial rituals as it is on the character of Māra. Up to this point, Naciketas has been getting along with Yama quite well, yet that relationship appears to shift when the Brahmin formulates his third boon request, which asks for the knowledge of whether or not a person exists after death. Yama resists, asking Naciketas to choose a different boon, for this kind of knowledge eludes even the gods. The young Brahmin responds in a very crafty manner, arguing that since there has been such doubt on the issue, how could he ever find a better teacher on the matter than death himself? Yama‟s further attempts to dissuade Naciketas from this request are especially intriguing in light of the events of what I have called the “Māravijaya” myth cycle. Rather than pursue this boon, the god of death suggests the Brahmin ask for more earthly or material prizes, such as numerous long-living sons and grandsons, vast amounts of territory, and, in general, “enjoy the desires of desires” (kāmānāṃ tvā kāmabhājaṃ).695 Specifically, Yama advises Naciketas to pursue “whatever desires are difficult to obtain in the world of mortals. Ask for all those desires you choose,” 696 such as “beautiful

695 696

Ibid., 1.1.23. Ibid., 1.1.25: ye ye kāmā durlabhā martyaloke sarvān kāmāṃśchandataḥ prārthayasva.

243 nymphs” (rāmāḥ) with chariots and musical instruments the likes of which “are unobtainable by mortals.”697 Naciketas will receive all these things, Yama assures, if he drops his inquiry about the nature of death.698 The term used for “death” in the preceding instance, appearing for the first and only time in the text, is “maraṇaṃ,” the primary Buddhist term for death. In almost all cases in Brahmanical works, including the Kaṭha Upaniṣad up to and after that verse, one finds the term “mṛtyu” for the general state of death. Furthering the Buddhistic flavor of this part of the text, Naciketas replies to Yama, calling him “Antaka” – another rarity for the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, but as we have seen, a frequent appellation of Māra in the Buddhist Pāli sources – and declares that who, “having seen immortality and the ageless” (ajīryatām amṛtānām upetya) and experiencing “age and mortality” (jīryanmartyaḥ), could delight in long life or desires?699 With a verse like that in mind, it is not difficult to see why Upaniṣadic scholar Hermann Oldenberg felt he detected “a presentiment of Buddhistic greatness” in the story of Naciketas, “who gives up happiness and glory without thinking, to wrest from god the highest good, the knowledge that leads one beyond old age and death.”700 I believe Oldenberg is correct that there is a relationship between the story of Yama and Naciketas in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, but I question whether the narrative presages Buddhist thought or actually borrows from it. Besides the circumstantial evidence of the use of “maraṇaṃ” and the reference to Yama as “Antaka” in a context reminiscent of Pāli stories of Māra, we can point to numerous other similarities between Yama‟s actions in the first chapter of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad and Buddhist narratives of Māra that


Ibid.: imā rāmāḥ sarathāḥ satūryā na hīdṛśā lambhanīyā manuṣyaiḥ. Ibid.: naciketo maraṇaṃ mā „nuprākṣīḥ. 699 Ibid., 1.1.28. 700 The Doctrine of the Upaniṣads and the Early Buddhism, pg. 133. 698

244 strongly suggest that, even if the Brahmanical authors were not borrowing from those stories, they were at least embroiled in close conversation. Taking the Māravijaya cycle as a first example, in previous chapters we have analyzed several aspects of this collection of stories, which depicts Māra‟s attempts to impede Gotama‟s realization of Buddhahood. Those frequently begin with a kind of temptation Māra offers the Buddha, either personally or through others, in exchange for the sage to cease his meditation. In the Padhāna Sutta of Suttanipāta, which we have considered as perhaps the earliest entry in the cycle, Māra feigns concern for Gotama‟s health, telling the Buddha-to-be that he should give up the rigors of asceticism and instead perform the agnihotra to make merit that will allow him to acquire worldly riches.701 In later versions, such as Lalitavistara and Mahāvastu, Māra sends his daughters to sway Gotama from his practice with promises of the pleasures he could experience in the world, not unlike the minstrel nymphs Yama encourages Naciketas to acquire through his boon.702 The Lalitavistara is especially evocative of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad account, with Māra‟s daughters promising Gotama that if he abandons his quest for insight he “will become the most excellent, powerful king and lord of the earth,” all the while playing their thousand tūryas, the same term used in Kaṭha Upaniṣad for the nymphs‟ musical instruments.703 Besides these examples, in other texts Māra alludes to how the Buddha could acquire the riches of the world, if only he used his power to do so. Just as Yama encourages Nackietas to use his boon to ask for sons, grandsons, and territories, in Mārasaṃyutta Māra criticizes the Buddhist path by asserting that it is sons, cattle, and possessions that bring joy to life, and by 701

3.2.2-4. It is interesting to read this episode against the first subchapter of Mārasaṃyutta, in which, as we saw earlier, Māra criticizes the Buddha for not being austere enough! 702 The daughters of Māra appear in other texts, of course, such as Buddhacarita, Nidānakathā, and Mārasaṃyutta, but in those cases Gotama is already awakened. 703 21.115: rāju bhaviṣyaseśvaravaraḥ kṣitipati balavān.

245 renouncing these for the dharma, the Buddha has also given up the best parts of existence. Like Naciketas, the Buddha devalues these attachments, saying that they only bring sorrow (soca).704 Later in the same text, in a section entitled “Rulership” (rajjaṃ), as the Buddha ponders the question of whether a kingdom could ever be ruled with complete justice, Māra comes to the Buddha and tries to encourage him to use his wisdom to create such a kingdom. Māra argues that, along with ruling righteously, the Buddha is also capable of using his psychic powers to transform the entire Himālayas into a mass of gold, thus connecting world domination and the amassing of riches. In response, the Buddha replies, in words echoing Naciketas, “how could someone pursue desires (kāmesu) who has seen the origin of pain and suffering?”705 In a similar vein, the Mahāvastu contains a scene in which Māra supposedly appears to the previous Buddha Dīpamkara just after his birth in order to tempt the newborn with the prospect of world dominion. “You will become a wealthy, wheel-turning monarch over the four continents,” the god of saṃsāra tells the infant.706 Māra‟s declaration plays on a key aspect of many stories of the lives of Buddhas, namely that at birth they are predicted either to be world-conquerors or worldsaviors. Māra, obviously, would prefer the former and seeks to implant that thought as the foremost option in the impressionable child‟s mind. Yet, though obviously at this tender age, baby Dīpamkara does not hesitate to reply that he will instead become all-seeing, all-knowing, and the most supreme of persons.707 In other words, he aspires to a state rivaling or surpassing gods like Māra, rather than chase the petty dominions and possessions of the earthly, mortal state. As this Mahāvastu example demonstrates, along with the other passages cited from earlier 704

SN I 108-109. Ibid., I 116-117:yo dukkham addakkhi yato nidānaṃ | kāmesu so jantu kathaṃ nameyya || 706 MV I 220: caturdvīpomahākośo cakravartī bhaviṣyasi. Cf. MV II 22. 707 Ibid., I 220: sarvajño sarvadarśīca bhaviṣyaṃ puruṣottamaḥ. 705

246 texts, one of the hallmarks of the representation of Māra throughout Buddhist literature is the deity‟s concern to draw the Buddha away from his path and teaching with promises of earthly desires. In this way, the Buddhist Māra and the Yama portrayed in the first canto of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad similarly act to try to dissuade a human seeking knowledge beyond the mortal realm. A second, perhaps more thematic, correlation between these two textual traditions comes in the connection made between the god of death and music. On this point, both the Buddhist Māra narratives and the Kaṭha Upaniṣad draw on a common Vedic foundation which associated Mṛtyu with music, and the arts more generally. One of the most salient examples of that alliance comes in the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, where Prajāpati and Mṛtyu engage in a contest. Prajāpati‟s implements are the standard tools of sacrificial ritual, while Mṛtyu employs the lute, dance, and song (vīṇāyāṃ gīyate yan nṛtyate).708 Prajāpati eventually defeats Mṛtyu and absorbs the musical and artistic instruments into the sacrificial regimen, but as we can see from the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, the association of the god of death with music and dance persists pass Vedic times. If we recall, one of Yama‟s offers to Naciketas as a substitute boon was “beautiful nymphs with chariots and musical instruments” (imā rāmāḥ sarathāḥ satūryā).709 In response, Naciketas tells Yama, “Vehicles, songs and dances are yours and yours alone” (tavaiva vāhāstava nṛtyagīte).710 By this interpretation, which extends back to the Vedas, music and dance are the devices of death, used to distract and overcome the living. Given this past history, it is no surprise that Māra and his daughters are frequently associated with music. In Theragāthā, a verse attributed to the monk Anuruddha describes his


Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, 2.69-70. Also see O‟Flaherty‟s analysis in Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, pgs. 133-134. 709 Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 1.1.25. 710 Ibid., 1.1.26.

247 life prior to joining the sangha, in which he surrounded himself with “song and dance” (“naccagītehi”), meaning he “delighted in Māra‟s realm” (mārassa visaye rato). Additionally, in the Padhāna Sutta and Mārasaṃyutta the god of saṃsāra is said to carry a vīṇā, which he drops, in each case, precisely at the moment he realizes that the Buddha or his disciple has defeated him.711 The same sense is found in the Lalitavistara, which tells that, as Māra‟s dreams show premonitions of Gotama‟s awakening, the splendor and grandeur of his realm is surpassed and all of his musical instruments lay smashed on the ground. 712 When looking at these same passages, particularly those from the Pāli texts, Richard Gombrich sees an instance of comedy: the supposedly great, superior god Māra is left sitting on the dirt with his lute broken. 713 I would not wish to discount that aspect of the imagery, for as we have seen throughout this dissertation Buddhist texts frequently used Māra as a satire against rival traditions. At the same time, we need to be mindful of the Vedic antecedents of these images and the ways in which their reproduction in the Pāli texts could serve as Buddhist appropriations and redefinitions of Brahmanical ideas. Here, Māra‟s vīṇā and association with music clearly places him in the lineage of Mṛtyu and the company of the Upaniṣadic Yama. Indeed, Yama‟s association with music does not end in the Upaniṣadic period. Rather, in the Mahābhārata, when Nārada gives Yudhiṣṭhira a tour of the divine abodes, we are told that Yama‟s heavenly realm is incredibly radiant, “fulfills all desires” (sarvataḥ kāmacāriṇī) and


See Suttanipāta 3.2.25 and SN I 122. The Sārathappakāsinī commentary on the Mārasaṃyutta occurrence of Māra‟s vīṇā describes the instrument as of the most beautiful color and grandeur (suvaṇṇa mahāvīṇaṃ) (184). According to the Suttanipāta commentary (393) and a brief reference in Visuddhimagga (392), Māra‟s vīṇā is somehow connected to a gandharva named “Pañcasikha” (“five crest”) who, depending on the source, lives among the Mahābrahmās or Indra. The precise relationship between Māra and this gandharva (did they share the vīṇā or did one acquire it from the other?) remains unclear. 712 Chapter 21, pg. 219. Some of the instruments mentioned include the vīṇā, but also others such as a śaṅkha (conch shell). 713 See How Buddhism Began, pg. 80.

248 “delights the mind” (manaśca praharṣiṇī).714 There is no grief, age, hunger, thirst, or anything unpleasant there – in fact, “all desires, whether human or divine, are located there.”715 Further delighting the lucky inhabitants of this realm are the “hundreds of great-souled gandharvas and hosts of apsarases who sing, dance, laugh, and play music.”716 The portrayal of the glorious atmosphere and multitudes of musical attendants closely match the details given of Māra‟s realm, described in most detail in early Indian Mahāyāna texts, with its shining palaces, immense riches, and, as we saw earlier, daughters of Māra who dance and play music as the Buddhist form of apsarases.717 The linkage between death and music seems, therefore, to be a longer-lasting trope in both traditions. However, throngs of gandharvas and apsarases are a standard feature of divine realms in later Hindu cosmology, appearing, for example, as a prominent part of Indra‟s realm, as we discussed in chapter four. So in this way the Mahābhārata description of Yama‟s heaven is somewhat cliché, and the similarity of Māra‟s realm to these heavenly abodes, besides linking music, the arts, desire and death, is also a blanket condemnation of the glorious nature of Hindu devalokas. This kind of consideration raises an important caveat. Namely, we cannot fail to take note of the fact that the Kaṭha Upaniṣad and Mahābhārata come from different periods and represent distinct Hindu traditions. The latter has a more fully developed theistic trajectory, which aims at aggrandizing the devas by portraying their realms as lavishly as possible. For its part, by the end of the first canto, the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, though advocating certain kinds of ritual sacrifice in line with Brahmanical orthodoxy, also possesses a far more renunciant-flavored 714

2.8.3. 2.8.4-5: na śoko na jarā tasyāṃ kṣutpipāse na cāpriyam…sarve kāmāḥ sthitāstasyāṃ ye divyā ye ca mānuṣāḥ. 716 2.8.35: gandharvāśca mahātmānaḥ śataśaścāpsarogaṇāḥ | vāditraṃ nṛttagītaṃ ca hāsyaṃ lāsyaṃ cac sarvaśaḥ || 717 For descriptions of Māra‟s realm, see MV II 360 and LV 21, pg. 219. 715

249 attitude toward the ultimate goal of such practices, as well as the value of worldly life in general. Indeed, up to the point we have examined thus far, by attempting to sway Naciketas from his requests for knowledge through offers of worldly pleasures, Yama plays a decidedly Māra-like role in the text. Reading on, however, at the beginning of the second canto Yama‟s attitude abruptly changes. Suddenly the god of death praises Naciketas for resisting his earlier overtures. “Naciketas,” he says, “you have considered and rejected pleasing forms and desires. You have not obtained wealth on the part of which many people descend into grief.”718 The young Brahmin, Yama goes on to say, has earned the god‟s respect by being “an aspirant for knowledge” (vidyābhīpsinaṃ) rather than a pursuer of various forms of pleasure who is “fooled by the delusion of wealth” (vittamohena mūḍam).719 Most striking, in one line Yama even declares that such a person, desirous of pleasure and wealth, and “who thinks there is no other world, falls under my sway again and again.”720 Previously we have considered cases, particularly in the Pāli literature, in which Māra boasts that through the extent of his powers of death and desire he enslaves the world of beings and gods, bringing them into rebirth after rebirth.721 In each of these situations, the Buddha dictates the limits of Māra‟s power, declares his freedom, and the evil god disappears. In conspicuous contrast, Yama makes a very similar claim about the extent of his power and those who are most susceptible to its delusions, yet he praises Naciketas for aspiring beyond this state and goes on, in the most explicitly didactic and


Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 1.2.3: sa tvaṃ priyānpriya rūpāṃśca kāmān abhidhyāyan naciketo „tyasrākṣīḥ | naitām sṛṅkāṃ vittamayīmavāpto yasyāṃ majjanti bahavo manuṣyāḥ || One term in this verse, “sṛṅkāṃ,” is a complete mystery. MacDonnell‟s A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary does not have a citation, while Monier Monier-Williams lists only “of unknown meaning” for the word (pg. 1245). The verse makes sense without the word, but the mystery remains. 719 Ibid., 1.2.5-6. 720 Ibid., 1.2.6: ayaṃ loko nāsti para iti mānī punaḥ punarvaśamāpadyate me. 721 For example, see SN I 133.

250 theological section of the text, to instruct the Brahmin in the esoteric dimensions of the nature of the immortal self/Brahman and the essence of the syllable oṃ.722 Given the known composite nature of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad and the sudden shift in Yama‟s character, it is possible that the first and second cantos represent different traditions that build on the earlier Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa tale of Naciketas. However, it is just as likely that this shift in the representation of the god of death was also meant as an Upaniṣadic interpretation of Brahmanical initiation, which here would mean an induction into the mysteries of esoteric knowledge needed for union of one‟s immortal self with the equally immortal Brahman. Walter Kaelber notes that the symbolism of the text has broad resonance with Brahmanical initiatory practices, such as upanāyana and dīkṣa.723 In yet another article on the text, James Helfer views Kaṭha Upaniṣad as the story of an individual undergoing an initiation which involves a death (Naciketas‟ journey to Yama‟s realm), a transformation (his debate and instruction with Yama), and finally a rebirth (the return to his father at the end of the narrative). 724 Employing this lens of initiation helps us accomplish several interpretive goals with the text. First, we can appreciate how this Upaniṣadic narrative has adapted the trope of the confrontation with a god of death to the end of imparting the characteristically Upaniṣadic teaching of worldly denial and union with the ultimate reality of Brahman, which are the fundamental aspects of Yama‟s teaching. The first canto would then be the test Naciketas must pass in order to ascend to that level of knowledge. Second, that realization of the role Yama plays, and the more minor teaching of the “Naciketas sacrifice” he gives along the away, point to


For example, see Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 1.2.15-18. “The „Dramatic‟ Element in Brāhmaṇic Initiation: Symbols of Death, Danger, and Difficult Passage,” History of Religions, pg. 56. 724 “The Initiatory Structure of the „Kaṭhopaniṣad,‟” History of Religions, pg. 355. 723

251 the intermediate nature of the text in the development of Hindu traditions. In a nod to Vedic and Brahmanical orthodoxy, sacrificial ritual and the importance of devas are still maintained (in that Yama serves as Naciketas‟ teacher), but the emphasis still rests finally on the transformative power of the knowledge of Brahman. Finally, the lens of initiation enables some concluding analysis about the divergent themes and representations of the figures of Yama and Māra in the respective texts. As George Bond has pointed out, death meditation in Theravāda traditions fits the same general crosscultural pattern of initiation rituals: the aspirant separates from society, confronts death, acquires wisdom, and then undergoes a symbolic rebirth into a new status. 725 In terms of Buddhist narrative, the story of Siddhattha Gotama‟s renunciation and attainment of Buddhahood also matches this pattern, and has served as the cultural paradigm for many Buddhists. After Gotama left the palace (separation), he confronted death (both individually, through extreme asceticism, and cosmologically, in the battle with Māra), gained insight (awakening), and achieved a new status (Buddhahood). One could argue that this is simply the imposition of an external paradigm onto the material rather than the expression of a meaning native to the authors of the narrative, but there is evidence internal to the tradition that the Buddha‟s awakening might have been seen as a kind of “death,” and his awakening thus a birth into a new state. For instance, Robert DeCaroli has argued that the choice of Gayā as the site of Gotama‟s awakening was made in light of the importance of that location for Brahmanical funerary ceremonies (śrāddha).726 As a result, we might be able to interpret the choice of that site as the authors‟ means of suggesting to


“Theravāda Buddhism‟s Meditations on Death and the Symbolism of Initiatory Death,” History of Religions, pgs. 250-251. 726 See Haunting the Buddha, pgs. 109-115.

252 an audience, who would most likely have understood this aspect of Gayā, that Gotama was administering his own “funeral” prior to a new awakening. In between those events, though, stands the intervention of Māra and the crucial difference between the portrayal of that incident and Yama‟s behavior in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad. Instead of the magnanimous deity who merely tests the aspirant to knowledge, besides Māra‟s temptations of desire, in each version of the narrative (which I have gone through in detail in chapter five), the god of saṃsāra expresses outrage that a human would attempt to achieve knowledge and power beyond his own and calls up his monstrous army in an effort to kill Gotama. While the Kaṭha Upaniṣad portrays Yama as a willing and valuable teacher, Buddhist narratives show Māra as a tyrannical obstacle to be overcome. Noting key exceptions to the comparison between the cross-cultural initiatory pattern and the Buddhist meditation exercises, Bond writes that, “No spiritual beings or ancestral figures are necessary as mediators of the supreme wisdom in Buddhism. It is not true for Buddhism, that, as Eliade says of primitive religions, „the dead know more than the living‟ and therefore must instruct the living.” 727 From the perspective of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, though, this is precisely the case, for Naciketas requires Yama‟s instruction. In that text, we find that devas still have much they can teach humans. On the other hand, as symbolized by Māra, the narratives of the Māravijaya show gods not only to be unnecessary for the realization of ultimate truths about existence, but that they are actually one of the fundamental problems. This comparison is further borne out by a few examples from the Mārasaṃyutta. In a passage also cited in chapter three, Māra tries to convince the Buddha that “the life of a person is


“Theravāda Buddhism‟s Meditations on Death and the Symbolism of Initiatory Death,” History of Religions, pg. 254.

253 long” (dīgham āyu manussānaṃ) and “death has not come” (natthi maccussa nāgamo), which the Buddha quickly and curtly rejects.728 What is interesting in the context of comparison with the Kaṭha Upaniṣad is that in the second canto, as Yama praises Naciketas, the god of death also describes those who are not as astute and, by virtue of pursuit of health and wealth and not believing in the “other world,” are caught again and again by death. 729 In other words, in some sense Yama praises Naciketas for not falling into the very trap Māra sets for the Buddha. This clearly demonstrates the very different roles of devas in both traditions. Secondly, Māra, in seeming desperation to stop the spread of the dharma, asks the Buddha, “If you have realized the tranquil path leading beyond death, go on that path entirely alone. Why teach others?”730 The Buddha, who (as usual) is completely unvexed by this question, replies simply that when people ask him about what lies beyond death, he tells them the truth and instructs them in the dharma. By this response we can see that the Buddha is in the same instructive position, relative to monks and other adherents to the dharma, which Yama occupies for Naciketas. Having achieved that status and position, Gotama now offers the teaching to the public at large, circumventing the initiatory tests and examinations given by Yama, and the ordeals and perils offered by Māra. Helfer, in his aforementioned study of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, observes that the interaction between Yama and Naciketas at the end of the first canto could “remind one of the Buddha‟s temptations by Māra, but they would appear to be out of place.”731 Hopefully after the preceding discussion, and our own analysis of the narratives through the symbolism of initiation, we can 728

SN I 108. See Kaṭha Upaniṣad, 1.2.6 above. 730 SN I 123: sa ce maggam anubuddhaṃ khemam amatagāminaṃ | pehi gaccha tvam ev‟ eko kim aññam anusāsasīti || 731 “The Initiatory Structure of the „Kaṭhaopaniṣad,‟” History of Religions, pg. 363. 729

254 see that this episode in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, taking into account what occurs in the second canto, acts as a study in contrast to the figure of Māra and thus actually fits extremely well in the narrative as a setup for the Upaniṣadic teaching of Brahman as ultimate reality. What we have is not a literary device out of place, but an instance in which two traditions have employed the same trope of a trial by the god of death and, due to differing worldviews and perspectives on the question of human mortality, take that plot in divergent directions. Escaping from Death – Bhakti and Parinibbāna In this section, I will look at instances not of debating death, but defeating it and overcoming the frailty of human mortality. Beginning first with key examples in Hindu texts, an obvious instance to consider involves the story of Sāvitrī in the Mahābhārata, which remains one of the most popular and well-known appearances of the god Yama in the current Hindu imagination. As Dimock and van Buitenen point out in their overview of genres and characters of Indian literature, Sāvitrī serves as a “prototype of the faithful wife” and, because of her spousal devotion, “had the power to snatch her husband from the jaws of death.”732 The story appears in the Vana Parvan (“Forest Book”) of the Mahābhārata, which ties together many narratives set in the forest, and in the section of the narrative that concerns us, Sāvitrī and her husband, Satyavan, are in the forest when the latter lays down to rest because of a headache. Sāvitrī is immediately concerned since her husband has been prophesied to die at precisely this moment. Indeed, her fears come to fruition as, soon after Satyavan lays down to rest, an extraordinary yet frightful figure appears. On the one hand, he wore beautiful yellow robes, a magnificent diadem on his head, and was as glorious to behold as the sun.733 At the same time,

732 733

The Literatures of India: an Introduction, pgs. 51 and 79. MB 3.281.8.

255 he was dark in color, had red eyes, bore a snare in his hand, and “stood next to Satyavan, regarding him intently.”734 Explaining that he is Yama, god of death, the imposing figure proceeds to draw out Satyavan‟s life force, bind it with his pāśa, and begins to leave for his kingdom. Sāvitrī immediately follows and Yama tells her to turn back, for at her husband‟s death her duty to him has ended. She disagrees, arguing that “wherever he is led, she will go, as the eternal dharma demands.”735 This declaration of Sāvitrī‟s determination initiates a situation somewhat similar to what is found in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad involving a dialogue with the god of death and the granting of boons. Instead of attempting to obtain knowledge of esoteric dharma, however, as was Naciketas‟ goal, Sāvitrī is determined to win back her spouse, and her means will be knowledge of dharma. As she follows Yama, Sāvitrī expounds to him the meanings of sanātana dharma, of the importance of adrahaṃ (“non-injury”) and dayāṃ (“compassion”), along the way commending his essential role in the order of the cosmos as well as his fundamental fairness. 736 On the last point, she explains that he is called “Dharmarāja” because, “Lord, through equal application of dharma, beings are made happy,” and it is Yama‟s position to accomplish this.737 After each point Sāvitrī makes about the nature of dharma, Yama is pleased and grants her a boon, carefully exempting the life of Satyavan. She selects such rewards as the return of her father‟s sight and the reestablishment of her father-in-law‟s kingdom. With the granting of each


Ibid., 3.281.9: śyāmāvadātaṃ raktākṣaṃ pāśahastaṃ bhayāvaham | sthitaṃ satyavataḥ pārśve nirīkṣantaṃ tameva ca || Given the simultaneously dreadful and splendorous descriptions of Yama, Frederick Holck believes this passage is an example of how the figure exemplifies Otto‟s concept of the mysterium tremendum. See Death in Eastern Thought, pg. 67. 735 MB 3.281.20: yatra me nīyate bhartā svayaṃ va yatra gacchati | mayāpi tatra gantavyameṣa dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ || 736 Ibid., 3.281.23-39. 737 Ibid., 3.218.40: śamena dharmeṇa ca rañjitāḥ prajāstastaveheśvara dharmarājatā.

256 boon, Yama insists she no longer follow him: “Go back, do not exhaust yourself” (nivarta gacchasva na te śramo bhavet) which suggests the length of the journey to the realm of Yama for the living, but also the hopelessness of her task to retrieve her husband. Undaunted by these odds, Sāvitrī persists despite Yama‟s wishes to the contrary and continues to win boons through her knowledge of the nature and duty of dharma. Finally, she very cleverly requests one hundred sons from Satyavan. Technically avoiding the prohibition on the request for Satyavan‟s life, this boon cannot be fulfilled while he is dead. Sāvitrī wastes no time in pointing out this inescapable fact to Yama. “Let Satyavan live!” she cries. “I am as if dead without my husband. Without my husband I cannot be happy and do not want heaven or prosperity. Without my husband, I do not want to live. You granted my boon for one hundred sons, and bound and carried off my husband. I ask for this boon: let Satyavan live! That is the only way your word will be true.” 738 Having carefully set up Yama by winning boons via her knowledge of the inviolate and righteous nature of dharma, as well as emphasizing the god of death‟s fundamental fairness and virtuous position as Dharmarāja, Sāvitrī places him in a position where he must either forfeit Satyavan as his prisoner or violate dharma by breaking his word. Apparently holding no grudge, the Dharmarāja releases Satyavan from the pāśas “with a delighted soul” (dharmarājaḥ prahṛstātmā), suggesting that to some extent he is actually pleased by Sāvitrī‟s devotion and dedication to saving her husband.739Over all, this would seem the obvious message of the story: though in some ways


Ibid., 3.281.51-53: …jīvatu satyavānayaṃ yathā mṛtā hyevamahaṃ vinā patim… na kāmaye bhartṛ vinā kṛtā sukhaṃ na kāmaye bhartṛ vinā kṛtā divam | na kāmaye bhartṛ vinā kṛtā śriyaṃ na bhartṛ hīnā vyavasāmi jīvitum || varātisargaḥ śataputratā mama tvayaiva datto hriyate ca me patiḥ | varaṃ vṛṇe jīvatu satyavānayaṃ tavaiva satyaṃ vacanaṃ bhaviṣyati || 739 Ibid., 3.281.54.

257 frightful, Yama is ultimately fair and just and the devotion (in concert with dharmic knowledge) of a spouse can overcome even the god of death. While Sāvitrī certainly outwits Yama, she does not humiliate him. There are stories in later Purāṇas, however, which seem to delight in abusing the figure of death in an effort to express the extraordinary powers of Śiva and Viṣṇu. In the Kūrma Purāṇa, for instance, the Śaiva devotee Śveta sees “terrible death” (here “kālakaraṃ ghoraṃ”) approaching “with a spear in its hand” (śūlahastiṃ) and immediately prostrates before the liṅga of Śiva to make an offering.740 The “Endmaker” (kṛtāntaḥ) is not impressed: “as if laughing, he stood before [Śveta] and said, „let‟s go, let‟s go.‟”741 Binding Śveta with his snares, Death is preparing to take his prisoner when Śiva descends from the sky, demanding the release of his devotee (bhaktaṃ). Angry at this interference, and “thinking highly of his own stature,” Death actually charges Śiva.742 The confrontation is short-lived, for Śiva kicks Death (now called “Mṛtyu”) “contemptuously with his left foot” and the “supremely frightful one died,” saving Śveta. 743 In the Liṅga Purāṇa version of the story, Śiva arrives with his entire entourage of Umā, Nandin, and the gaṇas, causing Death to drop dead at their mere sight, conferring upon Śiva the epithet, “mṛtyujayaṃ” (“conqueror of death”).744 Not to be outdone, the Vaiṣṇava tradition demonstrates a similar effectiveness for devotion toViṣṇu. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa, for example, contains the story of Ajāmila, a Brahmin who neglects his ritual duties, makes money through nefarious means, and compromises his purity through fathering children with a servant. The youngest of these children, though, is 740

2.35.15. Ibid., 2.35.17: ehyehīti puraḥ sthitvā kṛtāntaḥ prahasanniva. 742 Ibid., 2.35.25: kālātmā ‘saumanyamānaḥ svabhāvam. 743 Ibid., 2.35.26-27: sāvajñaṃ vai vāmapādena mṛtyuṃ; mamāra so „tibhīṣano. 744 1.30.21,28. 741

258 named “Nārāyaṇa,” one of the names of Viṣṇu, and, despite all his other bad qualities, Ajāmila dotes on this son. One day, the lapsed Brahmin sees “three men, snares in hand, exceedingly terrible, with crooked mouths and raised, bristled hair, coming to lead him away.” 745 Instinctively, and out of fright, Ajāmila calls out his son‟s name, “Nārāyaṇa!”, and Viṣṇu‟s attendants appear and disperse the yamadūtas. In the introduction to this story, the text states its intended meaning: those who offer devotion to Viṣṇu, even once in life, “do not see Yama and his servants who bear snares, even in sleep, for their expiation has been accomplished.”746 This sense would seem to apply to both the foregoing Purāṇic examples, which obviously express the effectiveness of bhakti, the primary emphasis of Hindu practice in this period, at the expense of Yama and the position of the god of death, who is entirely humbled. In combination with the story of Sāvitrī, these epic and Purāṇic narratives together work to assert that devotion and correct practice, whether as a chaste wife or devotee of god, has the power to overcome even the fact of death. To be sure, the Buddha‟s relation to Māra contains some similarities to this Purāṇic animosity toward death. A clear example comes in some of the epithets applied to the Buddha (such as “mārabalahantā,” meaning “killer of Māra‟s forces,” or “māranighātī,” meaning “Destroyer of Māra”),747 which carry a very similar sense to the death-vanquishing names given to Viṣṇu or Śiva. The Buddha‟s conquest of Māra under the Bodhi tree, and in the narratives set after that event, certainly stand as key moments in the expression of the power of the Buddhist dharma: it is the only means to overcome the repeated rounds of death and rebirth, which Māra


Bhāgavata Purāṇa, 6.1.28: sa pāśahastāṃstrīn dṛṣṭvā puruṣān bhṛśadārūṇān | vakratuṇḍānūrdhvaromṇa ātmānaṃ netumāgatān || 746 Ibid., 6.1.19: na te yamaṃ pāśabhṛtaśca tadbhaṭān svapne ‘pi paśyanti hi cīrṇaniṣkṛtāḥ. 747 See, respectively, LV 21.80 and MV II 415.

259 rules and represents. Yet, as was established in an earlier section of this chapter, the fact of human mortality and impermanence operates in many ways as the first and founding premise of Buddhism, meaning that, to a certain degree, though Māra, representing entrapment in endless death, can be defeated, death as a fact of existence can never be overcome. In the remainder of this section, I will discuss how two Buddhist narratives, the stories of Godhika in the Mārasaṃyutta and the account of the Buddha‟s own death in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, navigate this tension. Beginning with the former, we are told of the disciple Godhika‟s attempts to maintain the highest levels of meditative concentration, only to fall away each time. Finally, he determines to kill himself while still at the highest jhana, thereby preventing further backsliding. Māra realizes what is about to occur and appears before the Buddha, ironically addressing him as “maraṇābhibhū,” meaning “one who has conquered death (Māra),” and pleads for him to stop Godhika from carrying out his act. Unconcerned and seemingly unfazed, the Buddha replies, “This is how the steadfast behave. They are not attached to life. Having removed craving with its root, Godhika goes to final nirvāṇa.”748 Proceeding with his monks to find Godhika, the Buddha and bhikkhus see a cloud of “smoke” (dhūmā) and “darkness” (timira) moving about in the sky. As a point of comparison, the Sāratha-ppakāsinī commentary on Māra‟s appearance here describes him as “like a dark rain cloud,” which matches the first description of Yama in the Matsya Purāṇa version of the Sāvitrī.749 The Buddha tells his followers that this dark apparition is Māra, searching in vain for Godhika‟s viññāṇaṃ (“consciousness,” or “life force”). Māra appears again, this time to admit that he cannot find Godhika, and the Buddha simply states 748

SN I 121: evaṃ hi dhīrā kubbanti nāvakaṅkhanti jīvitaṃ | samūlaṃ taṇham abbuyha godhiko parinibbuto ti || 749 See Sārathappakāsinī, pg. 184, and Matsya Purāṇa, 210.2.

260 (repeating part of what he said previously) that, “having conquered the army of death, having not returned to repeated birth, having removed craving with its root, Godhika goes to final nirvāṇa.”750 Māra, “afflicted with grief” (sokaparetassa), then disappeared. In this story, like the Mahābhārata tale of Sāvitrī and the Purāṇic episodes of bhakti, someone escapes from the clutches of death. However, in the case of Godhika, he neither asks for nor requires outside intervention. Indeed, though the Buddha figures prominently and is the one to address Māra at each point in the narrative, Godhika does not even call upon the Buddha‟s assistance to attain final nirvāṇa and thus elude Māra‟s ensnaring grasp. He relies entirely on the meditative teaching he has received and the disregard to attachments, even to life, that he has cultivated to achieve final release. In this way, Godhika is even said, by the Buddha no less, to have “conquered the army of death,” equaling Gotama‟s feat under the Bodhi tree, and he accomplished this deed entirely on his own, with devotion only to the dharma. The events of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta are perhaps more ambiguous. Early in this text, we are told that the Buddha is getting older and has in fact been quite ill, overcoming his sickness only through sheer will (viriya) and the desire to offer some final discourses to his followers.751 Later, during a conversation with one of his chief disciples, Ānanda, he hints that one such as himself, who has mastered the “four psychic powers” (cattāro iddhipādā) can extend his life to at least one hundred years, if only he is requested to do so. Ānanda, however, remains oblivious to the Buddha‟s multiple hints of this fact because “his mind was taken over by


SN I 122: jetvāna maccuno senaṃ anāgantvā punabbhavaṃ | samūlaṃ taṇham abbuyha godhiko parinibbuto ti || 751 DN II 99.

261 Māra.”752 Once Ānanda leaves, Māra appears, seemingly triumphant since he has prevented the Buddha‟s disciple from ensuring the teacher‟s continued existence. The tone of Māra‟s speech to the Buddha, though, is anything but exultant, as the god of saṃsāra proceeds to practically beg the Buddha to pass into final nirvāṇa: “Go to final nirvāṇa now, dear lord. Go to final nirvāṇa now, well-gone one. The time of final nirvāṇa is now, dear lord.”753 He then goes on to list each of the conditions that the Buddha gave as prerequisites for his eventual death, such as the establishment of an order of monks and nuns, a laity, and the spread of the dharma to other lands. At the end of each stipulation, Māra notes that it has been fulfilled and again exhorts the Buddha to go to final nirvāṇa, “because these are his own words.” 754 Thus, instead of celebrating a moment of rare victory, in which he has finally overcome one of the Buddha‟s disciples and prevented an extension of the Awakened One‟s life, Māra, the god of death, is portrayed as a weak supplicant.755 At this point, the Buddha makes what would be a startling statement from a regular individual. “Do not be concerned, evil Māra. The final nirvāṇa of the Tathāgata is not far off. In three months the Tathāgata will go to final nirvāṇa.” 756 For one, though this hardly deviates from their other interactions, the Buddha greatly condescends to Māra, telling the god of death “not to concern himself” (appossukko). More significantly, the Buddha selects the timeframe for his own 752

Ibid., 103: yathā taṃ mārena pariyuṭṭhita citto. In other Buddhist texts Māra is chiefly only able to take over the minds of non-Buddhists and in his commentary on the verse Dhammapāla attempts to resolve this inconsistency by arguing that Ānanda was still susceptible to Māra‟s powerful influence because at this point he was still not technically awakened. See Dīghāṭṭhakathāṭīkā, II 192. 753 Ibid., 104: parinibbātu dāni bhante bhagavā, parinibbātu sugato, parinibbāna-kālo dāni bhante bhagavato. 754 Ibid., 104-106: bhāsitā kho pan‟ esā bhante bhagavatā vācā. 755 Though, at least in the Divyāvadāna version of the story, at the Buddha‟s decision to die, Māra leaves as an extremely happy supplicant: “Then evil Māra, having realized that the ascetic Gautama would achieve final nirvāṇa, was highly thrilled and content and rejoiced with joy and pleasure before disappearing.” (atha mārasyapāpiyasa etad abhavat parinirvāsyate vata śramaṇo gautama iti viditvā hṛṣtaḥ tuṣṭaḥ pramudita udagraḥ prītisaumanasya jātaḥ tatraivāntarahitaḥ). See The Divyāvadāna, a Collection of Early Buddhist Legends, pg. 202. 756 DN II 106: appossukko tvaṃ pāpima hohi, na ciraṃ tathāgatassa parinibbānaṃ bhavissati, ito tiṇṇaṃ māsānaṃ accayena tathāgato parinibbāyissatīti.

262 death and, as we can tell from Māra‟s statements, had previously selected the conditions that would need to be fulfilled before he deigned to pass into death. For these reasons we might see this exchange as further proof of the Buddha‟s victory over Māra, and death in general. At the same time, we must take into account the events involving Ānanda. After all, there was an opportunity for the Buddha to further hold death at bay and, though through no fault of his own, he was unable to do so. This would seem to indicate that even one such as the Buddha cannot extend mortal life indefinitely and, despite his history of routing Māra, he must eventually give in to the power of death. Based on the balance of these issues in the text, I suggest the roles played by Ānanda and Māra and the Buddha‟s responses constitute an attempt by the tradition to maintain the Buddha‟s superiority over Māra and death in the face of the indisputable fact that Siddhattha Gotama, the person, died. When we look at this text‟s description of the Buddha‟s passing, we get much the same sense. On one hand, he passes in relative calm, showing the perfection of his self-restraint by moving through the various levels of meditative concentration even as he dies. However, at the moment of his death there is a tremendous earthquake, accompanied by the rumble of thunder.757 Thus the earth and sky seem to show their distress, and they are soon joined by younger members of the sangha, who cry, collapse, and bemoan the passing of their teacher.758 Other members of the assembled crowd react with equanimity, however, and the more accomplished monk Anuruddha chastises the emotional members of the gathering, telling them to stop their crying, for the Buddha himself told them “whatever is born, becomes, and is put together must

757 758

Ibid., 156. Ibid., 157-158.

263 decay. It cannot be otherwise.”759 This is true even in the case of the most learned, wise, and powerful Buddha, and so his death thus becomes the ultimate example of the teaching he espoused. However, one noticeable absence from the Buddha‟s death is Māra. Though he leaves the mortal world like other humans and necessarily gives in to physical death, the Buddha has triumphed over the cosmic death and rebirth that Māra represents. In contrasting the Hindu texts surveyed in this section with the Buddhist Pāli texts considered, we can easily appreciate that, while both show a triumph over death through the means particular to each tradition, the Buddhist narratives, particularly the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, are simultaneously concerned with preserving the basic fact that death is inescapable and unavoidable. This should not be a surprising fact, though, for as we discussed earlier, the misery of death, both for the dying and bereaved (the latter demonstrated so poignantly in the behavior of the Buddha‟s own disciples at his passing) is in many ways the raison d‟être for the Buddhist tradition. Conclusion At the conclusion of this chapter there are only a few final remarks I wish to make. In the preceding, I have compared and contrasted the Hindu and Buddhist perspectives on the phenomenon of human mortality by studying the literary symbolism and potential relationships between the figures of Yama and Māra. In some instances, such as Buddhist borrowing and redefinition of certain key terms, we were able to draw rather explicit linkages between the literatures. In other cases, though, the relationship was more implicit and stemmed most likely from two religious communities responding to that most central of human dilemmas, the inevitability of death. By comparing Yama and Māra, I have attempted to show how these two 759

Ibid., 158: yan taṃ jātaṃ bhūtaṃ saṃkhataṃ palokadhammaṃ tam vata mā palujjīti n‟ etaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati.

264 traditions were responding to that central question and, along the way, how they potentially borrowed from and responded to each other.


Chapter 7: Conclusion

266 Final Thoughts At dusk on a late summer evening eight years ago, I sat on my balcony reading an English translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, browsing the text for ideas for the thesis I would write during the master‟s program I was just starting. As a light fog rolled over the Ohio fields, I came across a passage in which a being named “Māra” appeared and challenged the Buddha to name one spot that was outside his sphere of control. I had only heard vaguely of this figure up to that point and, as the sun continued to slip beneath the horizon and the fog thickened, a slight chill went up my neck. I began to wonder who “Māra” was and if there might be further research to do on the figure. Māra has been my almost constant companion for the past eight years, from my master‟s thesis work to this dissertation. In this conclusion, which represents the end of the latter phase of that research, there are three primary goals I wish to accomplish. First, I want to briefly restate the main themes of the preceding chapters and the contributions to scholarship that I have tried to make. Second, I want to highlight the specific issues of “social imagination” and “interreligious dialogue” that have been at the core of the entire work, both explicitly and implicitly. Third, I will conclude with a discussion of possible directions future research on Māra could take and the bearing this dissertation may have on those potential projects. To summarize some of the fundamental aspects of this work, throughout the preceding I have argued that Māra constitutes a Buddhist appropriation of Brahmanical themes and mythic figures. Of the latter, I have focused especially on the Brahmanical/Hindu deities Brahmā, Indra, Kāma, and Yama. While appropriating aspects of these themes and figures, Buddhist literature simultaneously uses the Māra figure to invert these aspects, aggrandizing the Buddha and the

267 dharma at the expense of Brahmanical cosmologies, practices, and social hierarchies. Yet, even as the Buddhist use of Māra reinterprets these categories, it also redeploys and reproduces them, maintaining a deep connection to their Brahmanical competitors. By revealing this social dimension of the Māra mythology, I believe I have also demonstrated the deep ambivalence of early Indian Buddhists toward the Indian (particularly Brahmanical) atmosphere in which they practiced and spread the teachings of the Buddha. These insights can help us partially untangle the thorny question of “audience” in terms of these Buddhist texts. Given the connection that this dissertation has brought to light between Māra and Brahmanical tropes and figures, and the degree to which we have seen that aspects of the symbol‟s representation make little sense without prior knowledge of those Brahmanical elements, we are justified in concluding that the audience for these texts included Brahmins as well as Buddhists, or at least Buddhists with Brahmanical background and knowledge. While some esteemed scholars of Buddhist Studies have expressed agnosticism regarding the audiences of Indian Buddhist texts, 760 I believe the literary dialogical approach that I have taken in this dissertation helps bring us closer to a better understanding of that issue. Second, the dialogic literary approach also situates us to address the material explored in this dissertation as an early example of what could be called “interreligious dialogue.” Early in the process of developing this project, I hoped and intended to reconstruct concrete social contexts for each of the texts I studied. Though certain broad social movements are certainly observable and indisputable (such as the rise in urbanization and conflict between renunciants and householders around the time the Buddha is thought to have lived), the murkiness of textual 760

Richard Gombrich, for instance, has suggested “we cannot know very much about the Buddha‟s interlocutors or about what his audiences were thinking or taking for granted.” See “The Buddha‟s Book of Genesis?” Indo-Iranian Journal, pg. 161.

268 dating and the fact of the layering of texts soon proved this aim impossible. What I have developed instead and pursued during the preceding chapters is the concept of social imagination. Cross-cultural surveys have revealed that mythic narratives are frequently etiological in nature, that is, explanations or justifications of how certain states or practices came into being, whether at the macro level of cosmogony or the micro level of sociogony. Indeed, relying as I have on the works of Bakhtin, Barthes, Doniger, and Liszka to explain my approach to the myths discussed in this work, we can almost always observe a homology between the creation of the universe and the structure of society, namely that the former is a device by which to justify and naturalize a particular vision of the latter. The words “particular vision” in the preceding are especially important, for obviously we cannot read mythic narratives as actual historical accounts. To take an example from the Mārasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya discussed in chapter three, it is certainly possible, and even probable, that Brahmin ascetics with knotted hair, carrying udumbara staffs might have approached bhikkhus and challenged their practice.761 The actual historicity of the account is not the issue with which we should primarily be concerned, however. Rather, that within this account the Brahmin is identified with Māra, making a mythic turn with the narrative, is the significant fact for it reveals something about how the Buddhist authors might have perceived their social interlocutors and competitors. Even if we cannot read myths for factual history does not mean they are not important sources for learning about history. As one scholar has put it, myths reveal “sentiments rather than events.” 762 How religious groups portray one another through mythology, therefore, can be extremely informative as to how they may have attempted

761 762

See SN I 117 for the story. Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pg. 23.

269 to frame their interactions, especially in cases (such as ancient India) in which the historical record is not always as complete as we would like it to be. This dissertation has been an attempt to trace and uncover Buddhist sentiments about Brahmins (and also the reverse at times) as communicated through the mythic vehicle of Māra and, from that, speculate about some of the social dynamics that may have prevailed at the time. Given the amount of borrowing the dissertation has revealed, we can speculate the Buddhist-Brahmanical relationship was characterized by a lively level of exchange. At the same time, there was a definite degree of ambivalence, for as we have seen, Buddhist and Brahmanical sources do not simply reproduce the forms they borrow, but rather rework them into satires or other narrative structures meant to advance their own favored perspective. On that point, and in this context of thinking about what the present work might mean for the issue of interreligious dialogue in general, it is also helpful to revisit what the dissertation says about the usage of symbols of “evil.” While I have shown that Buddhist narratives of Māra are often quite sharp in their critique of Brahmanical ideas, even to the point of demonization at times, the tone is perhaps softer than what most Western audiences might recognize from familiar religious rhetorics of evil and demonization. For example, we can point to Ronald Reagan‟s condemnation of the former Soviet Union as an “Empire of Evil,” George W. Bush‟s labeling of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil,” or from another quarter, the Ayatollah Khomeini‟s charge that the United States was the “Great Satan.” These invocations of “evil” suggest a totalizing approach to the group considered an adversary in each case. In the case of the ancient Indian Buddhist deployment of Māra, we can observe a dramatically different dynamic. Instead of using Māra as a blunt weapon of blanket condemnation in their

270 interreligious dialogue with Brahmanical groups, the Buddhist texts we have examined employ more complex strategies. First, there is a strategy we might call “opposition.” We have seen these Buddhist texts use the symbol of evil Māra to divide Brahmin deities into structurally opposed representations, as I discussed in chapters three and four regarding Brahmā and Indra, respectively. On the one side, there is the reimagined Brahmā or Indra who adopts Buddhist values, while on the other side, there is the still-recognizably Brahmanical Brahmā or Indra who criticizes or contradicts Buddhist teachings. The primary dividing line between these representations, I have shown, is their narrative relationship to the symbol of Māra. Second, there is the strategy we might call “inversion.” One of the clearest examples of this use of Māra appeared in the second half of chapter four, as we considered the Māravijaya myth cycle in relation to epic narratives of Indra‟s conflict with ascetic challengers. While adopting the structure of the Brahmanical narrative, the Buddhist story inverts the roles of protagonist and antagonist: through the usage of Māra, the god becomes the villain overthrown by the now heroic human. The strategy of inversion, I have argued, as this particular example shows in a very clear way, is a way to flip the cosmological hierarchy of divine superiority over humans, and thus interrogate the social hierarchy of Brahmanical supremacy. Third, there is the related strategy of “reversal.” Instead of reordering the characters or events of a narrative, this use of Māra appropriates a Brahmanical narrative and reveals that concepts or characters are not really what they appear to be. A prominent example was covered in chapter five with Aśvaghoṣa‟s “mortification” of Kāmadeva through the symbol of Māra in Buddhacarita. Indeed, as I show in that chapter, Māra in the Buddhist tradition in general is

271 geared toward a revelation that desire is in fact death and the apparatus for doing that work is often the reversal of Brahmanical ideas or characters. In the case of each of these strategies, we see that Buddhist narratives employ Māra to criticize or redefine aspects of Brahmanical traditions to their favor. At the same time, though, they do not issue wholesale condemnation of Brahmins or their practices. Rather, each strategy also seems predicated on the belief that something is salvageable in Brahmanical thought, giving the impression that Buddhists sought to establish a dialogue with their competitors, even perhaps drawing them into a social relationship, even if the terms were dictated entirely from their perspective. These categories of the strategic usage of “evil” Māra in early Indian Buddhist texts may prove useful for those analyzing Buddhist interreligious dialogue in other cultural contexts, as well as for those studying the idea of how social imagination can be traced through mythic narratives in other cultural or religious regions. Finally, I think it is useful to point out paths not taken in this dissertation, if only as a way of demonstrating the expansive nature of the figure of Māra and the great potential the god‟s mythology possesses for scholarly exploration. A logical extension of the investigation carried out in this dissertation would look at Indian Buddhist traditions after 300 CE, particularly the various Mahāyāna movements, and examine the treatment of the deity by those groups. According to preliminary and cursory surveys I have conducted of those materials in an earlier study,763 the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa and Śūraṃgamasamādhi Sūtras contain substantial episodes dealing with Māra. Most significantly, in the case of both texts, Māra is interpreted through the lens of particularly Mahāyāna concepts such as non-duality and upāya-kauśalya (“skillful


Michael Nichols, Malleable Māra: The Transformations of a Buddhist Symbol of Evil. Unpublished Master‟s Thesis. Miami University, Oxford, OH. 2004. See chapter two of that work especially.

272 means”) and the astonishing case is made that the god of saṃsāra is actually (or eventually will become) a bodhisattva.764 While this treatment of Māra is obviously in stark contrast to earlier Indian Buddhist traditions, such as I have surveyed in this dissertation, it is also worthy of note that the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa and Śūraṃgamasamādhi Sūtras‟ suggestion that evil Māra is/will be a bodhisattva also differs from earlier Mahāyāna treatments as well. In the Aṣṭasahāsrikāprajñāpāramitā, which perhaps represents the earliest strata of Mahāyāna writings and thought, Māra is instead portrayed as an entirely oppositional entity, persecuting and testing the adherents of the Perfection of Wisdom, much as the god was portrayed in the non-Mahāyāna texts examined in this dissertation. As a crucial difference, however, the Aṣṭasahāsrikāprajñāpāramitā portrays not Brahmins as the potential agents of Māra, but other Buddhists who are hostile to the Mahāyāna notions in the Perfection of Wisdom.765 This development alone demonstrates how the myth of Māra is sensitive to social context and atmosphere, but it is certainly not the end of the (re)interpretations of the figure. To that list we can also add American Buddhist Stephen Batchelor‟s Living with the Devil, a decidedly psychoanalytic work that operates at length to associate Māra with the Western figure of Satan, as well as internal mental urges and impulses. Māra has also appeared in feature films, including the Disneyesque 2007 animated feature from Thailand, The Life of Buddha and Bernardo Bertolucci‟s 1994 picture Little Buddha, starring Keanu Reeves as Siddhattha Gotama. Both films portray the supposed events of the Māravijaya myth cycle in highly stylized form, occasionally inserting new elements into the narrative. The Bertolucci film, for instance, after it 764

See The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti, trans. Robert Thurman, pg. 44; Śūraṃgamasamādhisūtra: the Concentration of Heroic Progress, trans. Etienne Lamotte, pgs. 176-179. 765 For example, see The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, trans. Edward Conze, pgs. 167 and 170. Stephen Kent hints at some of these dynamics but does not delve specifically into the significance of the use of Māra in his article “A Sectarian Interpretation of the Rise of the Mahāyāna,” Religion.

273 has portrayed the daughters of Māra dancing before Gotama and Māra‟s army as a marching horde with flaming arrows, depicts Māra taking on Gotama‟s form and asking if the meditating sage will become his god. Predictably, Gotama refuses this request and calls the earth to witness, driving Māra away. To what, exactly, the earth should bear witness is difficult to know, for the movie does not depict Māra‟s challenge to Gotama‟s merit, which precipates the earth‟s witness in the traditional narratives. Strictly speaking, the movie‟s dialogue between Māra and Gotama cannot be traced to any of the narrative versions of the Māravijaya to which we have access and is thus, in that sense at least, an innovation on the story. At the same time, the interpretive move the film has made is still consistent with certain aspects of the Buddhist myth. For example, we saw in chapter four that at points in the Mahāvastu and Lalitavistara, Māra or his daughters ask Gautama to use his store of merit to achieve rebirth as a god, a move which I traced to the notion of Brahmanical classification in epic narratives like the Mahābhārata. Namely, according to those schemes, if human challenging the gods could not be destroyed, he should be reclassified as a god to preserve the cosmic hierarchy. Perhaps, then, we can see a resonance between a twentieth century CE film interpretation and a narrative going back to as early as the third century BCE. To a great extent, the speculations in the foregoing paragraphs that extend the reasoning of the dissertation to points beyond its bounds actually bring the argument full circle in two important ways. First, it serves to highlight the notion of Buddhist appropriation and innovation of cultural forms, practices, and concepts, whether it is in terms of the development of new forms within the tradition (Mahāyāna), new geographic regions (Batchelor‟s American Buddhism), or a new communication medium (film). My explication of the way early Buddhist narratives of

274 Māra adapt and redefine Brahmanical stories and concepts is thus a microcosm of processes that the Buddhist tradition has experienced and performed throughout its history, from India to Japan, Tibet to the United States. It is also evidence, secondly, of the protean nature of mythic narratives, which take on different forms according to cultural and historical circumstance. It is in both these senses that we can deem Māra “malleable,” and perhaps explain the symbol‟s longevity and enduring fascination. Indeed, these facts perhaps go some distance toward explaining the ease with which a young graduate student in the Midwest United States, far removed from the time and place of Māra‟s origination, could so easily be drawn into his grasp simply by reading on his balcony one late summer evening.

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