Malleable Māra

Transformations of a Buddhist Symbol of Evil

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Michael D. Nichols
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , March
     268 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael Nichols’ Malleable Māra: Transformations of a Buddhist Symbol of Evil is the culmination of a nearly twenty-year research project, the seeds of which were planted during his master’s studies and sprouted during his doctoral research. The result is a work that collects the major functions that the mythological figure of Māra “the Evil One” has served throughout the history of Buddhist literature. The range of literature surveyed runs the doctrinal spectrum, including major texts from the Pāli canon (notably from the mārasaṃyutta), selections from Mahāyāna texts (Vimalakīrti Sūtra, Śuramgāmasamādhi Sūtra, and others), letters from Nichiren, and even modern Canadian Buddhist writings inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

Two theoretical notions color Nichols’ approach toward Māra: Wendy Doniger’s notion of the “metamyth” describing mythic narratives that challenge or respond to other mythic narratives, and James Liszka’s concept of “transvaluation” describing how myths and mythic figures are used to further sociopolitical criticism. “By examining the changing ways Buddhist authors and communities have employed the myth of Māra to reflect their social relations,” the author writes, “we can appreciate how they have, at times, used Māra to literally demonize their rivals” (5-6). And here is a key point from this work: by seeing who gets cast in the role of Māra, we can identify those groups which early Buddhists, Mainstream and Mahāyana, thought of as threatening their status, a valuable tool for historians of Buddhism.

As nascent Buddhism began to expand in India, for instance, Māra took on characteristics of prominent brahmanical figures such as Yama and Kāma, showing a conscious effort on the part of Buddhists to downplay the power of these earlier figures and elevate that of the Buddha. Nichols harnesses both conceptual and textual support for a comparison of Māra with Kāma in a discussion of similarities of the Buddhacarita and Śiva Purāṇa. While Kāma ultimately succeeds in shooting Śiva with an arrow of lust for Pārvatī in the latter text, the former casts Māra in the same role, saying that it was he who shot at Śiva and now shoots at Siddhārtha Gautama to dissuade him from attaining Buddhahood. After impotently loosing his mighty arrow at the soon-to-be Buddha, he marvels, saying, “Śambhu (Śiva), though a god, when pierced was swayed toward the daughter of the mountain king (Pārvatī). This one disregards that very arrow” (92). In this way the Māravijaya “victory over Māra” narrative in the Buddhacarita shows the superiority of the Buddha over brahmanical figures.

With the rise of the Mahāyāna, Māra’s use gestures toward intrabuddhist rivalries. Nichols traces an evolution in Mahāyana attitudes toward Māra, citing texts that show early anxieties on the part of bodhisattvas and later texts that claim Māra himself to be a bodhisattva. In early Mahāyana texts, readers find passages arguing that fellow Buddhists who criticize the prajñāpāramitā or the bodhisattva ideal are none other than Māra in disguise. Furthermore, the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā states “Māra, the Evil One, will make great efforts to cause difficulties” (107) and doubts for the practicing bodhisattva, making the case that personal doubts about the efficacy of new Mahāyāna texts are proof that the practitioner is on the right path. Nichols writes, “These uses of Māra redeploy the figure as a means to communicate concepts central to the teachings [of] the evolving Mahāyāna movement,” in this case, the authority of prajñāpāramita and the use of upāyakauśalya “skillful means” (195).

Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions are tackled within a single chapter. This is partly due to Nichol’s lack of experience in the necessary languages, for which he cannot be faulted. A particularly fruitful treatment of Nichiren’s letters show the Japanese monk arguing that Māra is repsonsible for inflicting those around him with anger and envy for his spiritual purity, making them drive him away and condemning him to a nomadic life. But more importantly, “Persecution by Māra is thus understandable, expected, and a badge of honor for Nichiren and, he exhorts, all those who would follow him in his adoration of the Lotus Sūtra as the highest form of Buddhist practice” (153).

A further chapter on Māra’s appearance in Western Buddhist literature shows striking continuity with older traditions, despite the popularity of viewing Māra as an allegorical or psychological force devoid of true evil intent. The Canadian Puṇṇadhammo’s scathing critique of modern life in his work Letter from Māra (Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 2016) casts the evil one as a modern CEO praising the use of technology and television, showing a demonization through Māra that fits alongside earlier Buddhist works demonizing brahmins or other Buddhists. The literature surveyed convincingly supports Nichols’ claim that the Māra myth at every twist and turn “is employed to serve as a foil or teaching tool for the doctrine held by the particular Buddhist tradition concerned” (155).

Minor issues arise with inconsistent diacritics and spelling errors, though these are more reflective of the work’s proofreading than of Nichols himself. More substantively, the work would be improved by the inclusion of more illustrations. Five illustrations are included in the opening chapters dealing with early Buddhism and Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions, but the reader is left without representations of Māra from the visually rich traditions of Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan Buddhism. This is telling of the work as a whole, namely that Mainstream and Indian Mahāyana traditions receive the lion’s share of the attention, with other traditions receiving more of an overview. But these are minor points that do not seriously detract from the work as a whole, and the prospective reader should not hesitate to dive into this fine book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Butcher received his PhD from the University of Washington in Asian Languages and Literature.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael D. Nichols is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Saint Joseph’s College.


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