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The Buddhas Encounters with Mra the

Their Representation in Literature and Art

Ananda W.P. Guruge

Buddhist Publication Society

KandySri Lanka

The Wheel Publication No. 419

Published in 1997
Copyright 1997 by Ananda W.P. Guruge
ISBN 955-24-01682
Originally published in the Sri Lanka Journal of Buddhist Studies,Vol. II (1988).
BPS Online Edition (2011)
Digital Transcription Source: BPS Transcription Project
For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted and redistributed in any
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The Buddhas Encounters with Mra the Tempter
I. Introduction.................................................................................................................................................3
II. Mra Legends in Canonical Texts...........................................................................................................4
III. Temptations by Mra in Non-canonical Buddhist Literature...........................................................9
IV. Mra Episodes in Asian Buddhist Art................................................................................................12
V. Conclusion...............................................................................................................................................15

The Buddhas Encounters with Mra the Tempter

I. Introduction
In his Dictionary of Pli Proper Names Professor G.P. Malalasekera introduces Mra as the
personification of Death, the Evil One, the Tempter (the Buddhist counterpart of the Devil or
Principle of Destruction). He continues: The legends concerning Mra are, in the books, very
involved and defy any attempts at unravelling them.1
Analysing a series of allusions to Mra in the commentarial literature, he further elaborates on his
definition with the following observations:

In the latest accounts, mention is made of five MrasKhandhamra, Kilesamra,

Abhisakhramra, Maccumra, and Devaputtamra. Elsewhere Mra is spoken of as one, three,
or four.2


The term Mra, in the older books, is applied to the whole of the worldly existence, the five
khandhas, or the realm of rebirth, as opposed to Nibbna. 3

(iii) Commentaries speaking of three Mras specify them as Devaputtamra, Maccumra, and
Kilesamra. When four Mras are referred to, they appear to be the five Mras mentioned in (i)
above less Devaputta Mra.
Malalasekera proceeds to attempt a theory of Mra in Buddhism, which he formulates in the
following manner:
The commonest use of the word was evidently in the sense of Death. From this it was extended
to mean the world under the sway of death (also called Mradheyya, e.g. AN IV 228) and the
beings therein. Thence, the kilesas (defilements) also came to be called Mra in that they were
instruments of Death, the causes enabling Death to hold sway over the world. All temptations
brought about by the kilesas were likewise regarded as the work of Death. There was also
evidently a legend of a devaputta of the Vasavatti world called Mra, who considered himself
the head of the Kmvacara-world [the sensual realm] and who recognised any attempt to curb
the enjoyment of sensual pleasures as a direct challenge to himself and to his authority. As time
went on these different conceptions of the word became confused one with the other, but this
confusion is not always difficult to unravel.4
What follows from this statement, even though Malalasekera did not elucidate enough, is that the
term Mra, when it occurs in Buddhist literature, could signify any one of the following four:

An anthropomorphic deity ruling over a heaven in the sensual sphere (kmvacara-devaloka),

namely, Paranimmita-Vasavatti. He is meant when Mra is called kmadhturja (the king of
the sensual realm). In this position, he is as important and prestigious as Sakka and
Mahbrahma in whose company he is often mentioned in the canonical literature. This Mra, or
Mradevaputta, is not only a very powerful deity but is also bent on making life difficult for
holy persons.


The Canon also speaks of (a) Mras in the plural as a class of potent deities (e.g. in the
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) and (b) of previoushence, logically futureMras (e.g. in the
Mratajjanya Sutta). According to Tibetan texts, the Ascetic Siddhartha could have, with the
instructions given by raklma, become a Sakra, a Brahm, or a Mra. 5


Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (1937: reprint Luzac, London, 1960), 2:611.
The five terms mean: Mra as the five aggregates, Mra as the defilements, Mra as kammic
constructions, Mra as Death, and Mra as a young deity. (Ed.)
3Malalasekera., 2:612.
4Ibid., 2:613.

(iii) A personification of Death is called also the lord of death (Maccurja), the exterminator
(Antaka), the great king (mahrja), and the inescapable (Namuci). The preoccupation of the
Buddhist quest for deliverance is consistently stressed as escaping the phenomenon of death,
which presupposes rebirth. The entire range of existence falls within the realm of Mra
(Mradheyya) on account of the ineluctable presence of death. (Cf. Schopenhauers concept of
Morture.6) All states of existence, including the six heavenly worlds of the sensual sphere, are
said to return to the power of Mra, which means into the power of death. 7

Mra can also be seen as an allegorization, with almost immediate personification, of the
power of temptation, the tendency towards evil, moral conflict, and the influence of such factors
as indolence, negligence, and niggardliness. Similar to Satan in Judeo-Christian and Islamic
thinking and Ahriman in Avestan thought, though in no way identical, this Mra is described as
Ppim (i.e. the Evil One, or simply the Evil), 8 Pamattabandhu (Kinsman of Dalliance), Pisua
(Calumnious or Malicious), and Kaha (the Black). Grimm calls this Mra the prince and
bestower of all worldly lust and distinguishes him from Lucifer of the Bible on the ground that
this personification always remains apparent.9

In this paper, where the Buddhas encounters with Mra are analysed as they are presented in
literature and art, the main concern will be with Mra as a personification of temptation (i.e. with (iv)
above), but we will also briefly examine how the other concepts are sometimes subsumed under this,
and how the literary description or the artistic representation of Mra is conditioned by the merger of
three separate concepts as well as by the general body of Indian mythology. It has to be noted that
Mra is another name for the Indian God of Love, known also as Kma or Kmadeva (Lust, or God of
Lust), Manmatha (Tormentor of Minds), Anaga (Body-less), Kusumyudha (Flower-weaponed),
Pacaba (Of Five Arrows), and Makaradhvaja (Dragon-flagged).

II. Mra Legends in Canonical Texts

The Pli Canon includes several accounts attributed to the Buddha himself on his quest for
deliverance and these have obviously provided the raw material for the reconstruction of his
biography. Among them, the most comprehensive as regards the details of the discipline and training
which the Buddha followed is the Mahsaccaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikya (No. 36). It elaborates
the circumstances leading to the renunciation, the Great Departure, as the term Abhinikkhamana is
usually translated; the period of studentship under ra Klma and Uddaka Rmaputta; the
austerities he practised for six years; the process of meditation and contemplation and the progressive
spiritual attainments; and the final achievement of Enlightenment. The entire statement has a ring of
authenticitya purposeful recollection of the highlights of his life and career. But, as E.J. Thomas has
pointed out, the most remarkable feature in this recital is the entire absence of any temptation by
The same comment would also apply to the Bhayabherava Sutta (No. 4 of the Majjhima Nikya),
where the Buddha recounts the doubts and fears which he encountered in the days of his austerities
in the forest. Nor does the Dvedhvitakka Sutta (No. 19) of the same Nikya, which analyses the
Buddhas thought process prior to the Enlightenment and how it led to his Enlightenment, digress
from the philosophical treatment of the theme to refer to temptations by Mra. Thomass explanation
is that later authorities put additional events in different places. 11 But a more reasonable
5W.W. Rockhill, The Life of the Buddha and the Early History of His Orderderived from the Tibetan Works in
Bkah-hgyur and Bstan-hgyur (1884: reprint Orientalia Indica, Delhi, 1972), p.27.
6George Grimm, The Doctrine of the Buddha: The Religion of Reason and Meditation (Akademie Verlag, Berlin,
1958), p.98.
7Bhikkhun-sayutta, No. 7 (S I 133).
8Grimm, p.331.
10E.J. Thomas, The Life of the Buddha as Legend and History (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 3rd ed.,, 1949),
p.68. See too MN Suttas No. 26 (Ariyapariyesana), No. 85 (Bodhirjakumra), and No. 100 (Sagrava).
11Ibid., p.68.

explanation, to my mind, is that poetical imagery or allegorization is more the domain of poetry and
hence not to be expected in prose sermons. That is precisely why almost all the accounts of Mras
temptations in the Pli Canon are in verse, fully or partially, and the conversations with Mra
invariably are recorded in verse.
The most important among them is the Padhna Sutta in the Sutta-nipta (vv. 425 ff.) of the
Khuddaka Nikya. Here, Mra is presented as Namuci and described as a person who approached
the striving Bodhisatta speaking kind words (karua vca bhsamno). The words attributed to him
are as follows:
O you are thin and you are pale,
And you are in deaths presence too;
A thousand parts are pledged to death,
But life still holds one part of you.
Live, Sir! Life is the better way;
You can gain merit if you live,
Come, live the Holy Life and pour
Libations on the holy fires,
And thus a world of merit gain.
What can you do by struggling now?
The path of struggling too is rough
And difficult and hard to bear.12
The reply which the Buddha gave Mra has the makings of the entire concept of the allegorization or
personification of temptation and psychological conflict. We find here all the ingredients which, in
course of time, fired the imagination of countless writers, poets, painters, and sculptors all over Asia
for over two millenia.13
The Buddha recognises the speaker of these kind words and is conscious of Mras hidden
agenda. So he rebukes him as Pamattabandhu (the Friend of Heedlessness), Ppim (the Evil One),
and Kaha (the Black One). The hosts of Mra are also identified:
Your first squadron is Sense-Desires,
Your second is called Boredom, then
Hunger and Thirst compose the third,
And Craving is the fourth in rank,
The fifth is Sloth and Torpor
While Cowardice lines up as sixth,
Uncertainty is seventh, the eighth
Is Malice paired with Obstinacy;
Gain, Honour and Renown, besides,
And ill-won Notoriety,
Self-praise and Denigrating Others:
These are your squadrons, Namuci.14
Although the numbering of the hosts stops at eight, two more sets are identifiable. Thus the concept
of ten hosts has also been established. Similarly conceived is Mra riding an elephant (savhana),
which could, of course, mean any rideelephant, horse, or chariotand arrayed for war with an
army all around (samant dhajini disv).
The Buddha himself announces his readiness to give battle:
None but the brave will conquer them
To gain bliss by the victory.
Better I die in battle now
Than choose to live on in defeat.

amoli, The Life of the Buddha (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1972), p.19.
2:615: Hence we have practically all the elements in the later elaborated versions.
14amoli, p.20. (In line 5, Sloth and Accidy has been amended by me to Sloth and Torpor.)

I sally forth to fight, that I

May not be driven forth from my post.15
The Buddhas squadrons, however, are not named; but earlier, in listing the psychological defences he
possessed against Mras kind persuasive words, the Buddha had said:
For I have faith (saddh) and energy (viriya)
And I have wisdom (pa) too.
Further to underline the psychological dimension of the battle, as conceived in this context, the
Buddha proceeds to tell Mra:
Your serried squadrons, which the world
With all its gods cannot defeat,
I shall now break with wisdom
As with a stone a clay pot.16
One element, however, is still not evident: Mra does not claim the seat on which the Bodhisatta is
seated, and hence the need to call as witness the earth (or the earth-goddess, as the later versions have
it) has not arisen. It may, nevertheless, be noted that the Buddhas reply assumes an effort on the part
of Mra and his hosts to dislodge him from his position:
I sally forth to fight, that I
May not be driven from my post
(M ma hn acvayi).
On the other hand, a further reason is given for the Buddhas determination to fight:
From land to land I shall wander,
Training disciples far and wide.
This implies a further element in the legends of Mras temptations, which are found in canonical
texts as well as elsewhere relating to the obstacles he had tried to place on the Buddhas advent into
his mission as a teacher.
Another pointer in the Padhna Sutta to other legends is contained in the last three verses, which
speak of a later encounter of Mra with the Buddha. Though Chalmers interprets this passage as a
statement addressed to the Buddha,17 the accusative case Gotama in verse 24 indicates that it need
not be so construed. Here, Mra says:
For seven years I pursued the Buddha at every step
Yet with the wakeful Buddha I got no chance.
As a crow that hopped around a fat-coloured stone
Thinking we may find a tender delicacy
Flies away in disappointment
In disgust I give up Gotama.18
The final verse of the sutta, which tradition assigns to the Buddha but which appears from the
contents to be of much later origin than verses 120, shows the degree to which the personification of
Mra had developed. Here, he is called dummano yakkho, a disappointed sprite (N.B. not VasavattiMra, the devaputta) and is said to be so frustrated that his lute drops from his armpit. We shall
return later to the implications of this reference to Mra as yakkha.
Altogether absent from the Padhna Sutta is the episode with the daughters of Mra, who are
elsewhere represented as tempting the Buddha with their charms after their father with all his hosts
had failed. This story (S I 124ff.), along with several others, occurs in the Mra-sayutta of the

p.21. I read the third line, ta te paya bhecchmi. The reading gacchmi is preferred by Helmer Smith,
who also suggests vechchmi (from the root vyadh).
17Lord Chalmers, Buddhas Teachings being the Sutta Nipta or Discourse Collection (Harvard Oriental Series,
Cambridge, 1932), pp.104105.
18Ibid., p.105.

Sayutta Nikya. The majority of these episodes do not fall within the category of temptations by
Mra. They reflect mostly the hostility which Mra had to the Buddhas mission and consist largely of
disturbances he had created in different guisesmaking noises, breaking things, disrupting sermons.
It is Mra preventing the people from getting out of his clutches in the sense of escaping from
Mradheyya. These, therefore, do not come in the category of temptations, the topic of this paper.
The Mra-sayutta, comprising twenty-five suttas, does contain a number of temptations in which
the Buddha or a disciple is involved. Sutta No. 1 (S I 103) speaks of a moment when Mra became
aware of a thought of the Buddha as regards his attainment of Enlightenment and approached him
You have forsaken the ascetic path
By means of which men purify themselves;
You are not pure, you fancy you are pure,
The path of purity is far from you.19
In another sutta (No. 13, S I 110), when the Buddha was in pain on account of a foot injury, Mra
addressed him in verse:
What, are you stupefied, that you lie down?
Or else entranced by some poetic flight?
Are there not many aims you still must serve?
Why do you dream away intent on sleep
Alone in your secluded dwelling place? 20
Again, Sutta No. 20 (S I 116) records an instance when the Buddha was debating in his mind whether
it was possible to govern without killing and ordering execution, without confiscating and
sequestrating, without sorrowing and inflicting sorrow, in other words, righteously. Mra is said to
have approached the Buddha and pursuaded him to govern righteously. Apparently, the temptation
here was for the Buddha to revert to lay life and resume a royal career so as to rescue those suffering
from the cruelty of rulers.21
In each of these cases, the Buddha gives an apt reply, which convinces Mra that he has been
recognised. Each discovery is concluded with the statement, Sad and disappointed, Mra vanished.
The Bhikkhu-sayutta (S I 128ff.), in particular, gives ten similar accounts of temptations which
bhikkhuns had experienced in lonely places. Here, too, the statements, attributed to Mra or the
bhikkhun concerned, and often both, are in verse. For example, it was Kisgotam who was
addressed thus by Mra:
How now? Do you sit alone with tearful face
As mother stricken by the loss of child?
You who have plunged into the woods alone,
Is it a man that you have come to seek?22
She gives a reply. Mra knows that he has been found out andas in the case of all similar episodes
vanishes from the place, unhappy and despondent. (Therigth 182ff., 189, 196ff. contain similar
dialogues with Mra.)
Into this same pattern falls the episode narrated in the Mahvagga of the Vinaya Piaka (Vin I 20f.).
When the Buddha was alone after he had sent out the first sixty disciples on missions to propagate
the doctrine, Mra approached him saying:
Bound art thou by all the snares,
Both those of devas and of men,
In great bondage art thou bound,

21Malalasekera, 2:617.
22Maurice Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature, Vol. II (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1983), p.56.

Recluse, you wont be freed from me.

The Buddha bluntly contradicts him and Mra disappears.
The recurring idea behind all these episodes is that doubts, anxieties, and longings which arise in the
lonely mind of the Buddha or a disciple are personified as Mra. With a firm resolve, they vanish, and
that is what Mras disappearance signifies.
Very different from all these suttas is the Mradhtu Sutta (S I 124ff.; No. 25), which starts with the
story of the Padhna Sutta and continues to describe how the vanquished Mra sat down crosslegged on the ground not too far from the Blessed One, silent, dismayed, with shoulders drooping
and head down, glum, with nothing to say, scraping the ground with a reed. The way the story is
connected with the preceding sutta gives the impression that this incident takes place seven years
after the Enlightenment, when all the efforts of Mra to discover the Buddha heedless had failed. The
daughters of Mra inquire about their fathers despondency and receive the reply:
An Arahant sublime is in the world;
And when a man escapes from Mras sphere
There are no wiles to lure him back again
By lust, and that is why I grieve so much.
What follows is pure allegory. The three daughters have apt names: Tah (Craving), Arati
(Boredom), and Rag (Lechery). They conspire and, on the principle that mens tastes vary, assume
forms ranging from those of virgins to mature women. They display wiles by which any ordinary
mans heart would have burst or hot blood would have gushed from his mouth, or he would have
gone mad or crazy or he would have shrivelled, dried up, and withered like a cut green rush.
Unmoved by all their charms and wiles, the Buddha rejects them with a series of well-chosen similes:
Fools, you have tried to split a rock
By poking it with lily stems;
To dig a hill out with your nails;
To chew up iron with your teeth;
To find a footing on a cliff
With a great stone upon your head;
To push a tree down with your chest.23
What all these Mra legends in the canonical texts establish beyond any doubt is that the
allegorization of temptations had commenced very early in Buddhist circles. The imagery of a
personified Mra accompanied by a tenfold army and supported by three daughters could even have
originated with the Buddha himself. As suggestive imagery, it must have epitomised what most of
the Buddhas disciples and followers had subjectively experienced with wavering faith when the
sweet delights of home and love, the charms of wealth and power, began to show themselves with
attractive colours.24 While they were perpetuated in poetry, no one took them literally. As
Malalasekera says with reference to the Buddhas victory over Mra, That this account of Buddhas
struggle with Mra is literally true, none but the most ignorant of the Buddhists believe, even at the
present day.25
But that does not mean there had been no confusion. With the four concepts of Mra, outlined in
the introduction to this paper, such confusions were quite commonplace. For example, even
Buddhaghosa could not distinguish between the allegorical Mra and the Mradevaputta. With
regard to the seven year surveillance of the Buddha by Mra in No. 24 of the Mra-sayutta, he says
that Mradevaputta, having failed to see any lapse on the part of the Buddha over this period, came
to him and worshipped him. Despite the lack of clarity, Mra was already a full-fledged concept by
the time the Pli Canon was completed in its present form.


Rhys Davids article on Buddha in Encyclopaedia Britannica, quoted in Malalasekera, 2:615.
25Ibid., 2:614.

III. Temptations by Mra in Non-canonical Buddhist

As the biography of the Buddha came to be presented systematically, temptations by Mra began to
figure as a major element in relation to several decisive steps taken by the Buddha. A number of such
occasions representing critical points in the career before and immediately after the Enlightenment
had been identified by the time the introduction to the Jtaka Commentary was composed.
This introduction, which contains perhaps the oldest continuous life story of the Buddha, mentions
six such occasions:

At the time of the renunciation, when Mra is represented as trying to persuade the future
Buddha to return home on the ground that he would, in seven days, become a universal
monarch (cakkavatti mahrja).


During the period of austerity, when the future Buddha was in a very weak condition and Mra
approached urging him to give up the struggle.

(iii) On the eve of the attainment of Buddhahood, when Mra is said to have come with his hosts and
challenged the future Buddhas right to his seat. This is the occasion of the great victory over
Mra symbolising the Enlightenment.
(iv) During the fourth week after the Enlightenment, when Mra is presented discouraging the
Buddha from preaching: If you have realised the safe path to immortality, go your way alone
by yourself. Why do you want to admonish others? It is when Mra failed in this effort that his
three daughters, Tah, Arati, and Rag stepped in.26

Just after the first sixty disciples were sent out on missions, when Mra is shown trying to
convince the Buddha that he had really not attained liberation.

(vi) Just before the Buddha met the thirty Bhaddavaggiya young men, when Mra is presented again
as challenging the Buddhas Enlightenment.
It should be noted that other encounters individually described in the Mra-sayutta are not
included in this list, possibly because they were not connected with any important event or decision
in the life of the Buddha. Also to be stressed is the fact that the list is at variance with the information
given elsewhere in the Pli Canon.
Not all biographies of the Buddha agree with this list, or with the timing of the encounters, or with
the words or actions attributed to Mra. The Lalitavistara, though a later Buddhist Sanskrit work,
appears to have been based either on the introduction to the Jtaka Commentary or on an earlier
source. As such, the divergences other than in regard to poetic exaggerations and greater emphasis on
the supernatural aspects are minimal. One important variation in the Lalitavistara is that Mra, the
wicked one, closely followed the Bodhisattva for six years as he was practising austerities seeking and
pursuing an entrance. Such a long period of surveillance suggests the function of Mradevaputta
(i.e. a living being such as a deity) rather than an encounter explainable in allegorical terms. Another
departure is that the daughters of Mra try to tempt the Buddha under the Bodhi-tree, and their
names are Rati, Arati, and T. 27 Whereas the Pli sources say that the vanquished Mra drew lines
on the ground with a stick or a reed, the Lalitavistara states that Mra wrote the words the ascetic
Gotama will escape from my realm.
The version which reveals some very significant departures is the life of the Buddha recorded in
the Tibetan texts. As far as Rockhills selective translation of the relevant material in the Dulva shows,
five points have to be noted:

with Mra-sayutta Nos. 2425 where this event is said to have taken place seven years after the
Enlightenment. Avaghoa in his Buddha-carita (Chap. XV) dates it in the fourth week, as does the Avidre
Nidna of the Jtaka.
27Spence Hardy and Bigandet, basing their works on Sinhala and Burmese traditions, have these names as
Tah, Rati, and Raga; Rockhill, p.31.


Mra has made no effort to dissuade the future Buddha at the time of his renunciation.


As the hour of Enlightenment approached, Mra went to the future Buddha saying, Devadatta
has subdued Kapilavastu; he has seized the palace and has crushed the kyas. He had also
caused apparitions of Yasodhar, Mgaj, 28 Gop, Devadatta, and other kyas to appear. What
followed was only an argument in which Mra failed to convince the future Buddha.
Apparently, the imagery of a great war ending with victory over Mra does not figure in this

(iii) When Mra failed to prevail, his daughters, who are differently named as Desire, Pleasure, and
Delight, tried all their allurements in vain.
(iv) When the Enlightenment was attained, Mras bow and standard fell from his grasp and all his
cohorts, a million and thirty-six thousand in number, fled, filled with dismay.

When the Buddha was suffering from a colic after partaking of the honey offered by the two
merchants, Mra informs the Buddha that it was time to die. But the Buddha indicates his
intention to live until the faith is well founded.29

The Chinese Abhinikramaa Stra has a few more variations. For instance, it says that Mra brought
a bundle of official notices purporting to be fromkya princes to dissuade the future Buddha from
continuing with his quest for deliverance.30
Whether as a conscious effort in rationalising this diversity of information or as a result of
concentrating on the most dramatic instances when the Buddha encountered temptations, three
events gained in popularity: namely, the Renunciation or Great Departure; the Victory over Mra,
described either as Mravijaya or Mrayuddha (Vanquishing of Mra, or the Battle with Mra); and
the Temptation by Mras daughters. Each incident acquired embellishments at the hands of poets
and creative writers until by about the first century B.C. a number of elements had firmly taken root:

Renunciation: Mra appears in the air and talks of the imminent receipt by the future Buddha of
the gem-set wheel of Universal Monarchy. When rejected, Mra disappears vowing to keep an
eye on him like an omnipresent shadow. When the future Buddha wishes to turn back and see
his city, the earth obliges by turning itself around like a potters wheel.


Victory over Mra: Mra rides the elephant called Girimekhal and assaults the future Buddha
along with ten squadrons or hosts; Mra assumes a fearsome guise with a thousand arms; his
army too assumes fearsome forms and makes eerie noises to generate fear; rain, hail, showers of
fire, thunder, and an earthquake are also used in the process; his final weapon is his disc which
fails to harm the future Buddha; Mras last step is to challenge the future Buddhas right to the
seat on which he is seated; the earth is summoned as a witness; the earth quakes and Mra and
his hosts run in disarray. Mra is dejected and begins to draw lines or scribble on the ground.

(iii) Temptation by Mras daughters: They are three in number; they seek to lure the Buddha some
time after his Enlightenment; they use dance, song, music, and sweet talk as their arsenal to
generate lust in the Buddhas mind; the Buddha shows not the slightest interest; they fail.
These basic elements are observable both in literature and art. The second and the third have, of
course, become more popular as themes for graphic description in prose or verse as well as for
imaginative representation in sculpture and painting.
Among the earliest poems on these themes is Avaghoas Buddhacarita (circa 2 nd century A.C.),
which devotes two chapters to the Victory over Mra (Chapter 13) and the Temptation by Mras
daughters (Chapter 15). Already new elements had begun to appear. Mra comes not only with three
daughters (named here Rati, Prti, and T) but also with three sonsVibrama (Confusion), Hara
(Gaiety), and Darpa (Pride). Of course, Mra himself is represented as an enemy of the perfect
Dharma (Saddharmaripu) and is actually called Kmadeva, the God of Love:
28Mgaj is the name in Sanskrit sources for Kisgotam of the Pli sources. It is she who uttered the lines
Nibbut nna s mt.
29Rockhill, pp.2734.
30Samuel Beal, The Romantic Legend of Sakya Buddha (London, 1875), p.207.


He whom they call in the world Kmadeva, the owner of the various weapons, the flowerarrowed, the lord of the course of desireit is he whom they also style Mra, the enemy of
In the typical style of this Indian Cupid, the first weapons used are the five flower-arrows. When they
fail, Mra thinks: He is not worthy of my flowershaft nor my arrow gladdener, nor the sending of
my daughter Rati (to tempt him); he deserves the alarms and rebukes and blows from all the gathered
hosts of demons. Thus he summoned his army of animal-faced and hideous monsters, which
Avaghoa describes conjuring many a grotesque appearance. Their collective assault on the future
Buddha finds lively description in as many as twenty-three verses. The reaction of the future Buddha
is his resolute steadfastness and an admonition to Mra to desist from his futile effort:
Give not way, then, to grief but put on calm, let not your greatness, O Mra, be mixed with
pride; it is not well to be confidentfortune is unstablewhy do you accept a position on a
tottering base?32
The description of the encounter ends with the following four verses:
70. Having listened to his words, and having seen the unshaken firmness of the great saint, Mra
departed dispirited and broken in purpose with those very arrows by which, O world,
you are smitten in your heart;
71. With their triumph at an end, their labour all fruitless, and all their stones, straw, and trees
thrown away, that host of his fled in all directions, like some hostile army when its camp
has been destroyed by the enemy.
72. When the flower-armed god thus fled away vanquished with his hostile forces and the
passionless sage remained victorious, having conquered all the power of darkness, the
heavens shone out with the moon like a maiden with a smile, and a sweet-smelling
shower of flowers fell down wet with dew.
73. When the wicked one thus fled vanquished, the different regions of the sky grew clear, the
moon shone forth, showers of flowers fell down from the sky upon the earth and the
night gleamed out like a spotless maiden.33
There is no reference to either the ten squadrons of Mra or the matching armies, in the form of the
recollection of the Ten Perfections (Pramit) by the future Buddha. Nor is the question of the right to
the seat raised or the earth summoned as a witness.
As writer after writer vied with one another to present the momentous struggle of the Buddha in
his endeavour to attain Enlightenment, new details were added and new imagery created. Right
down to the modern writers and poets in Buddhist countries, particularly Sri Lanka, Burma, and
Thailand, the process has continued. The licence which they continue to exercise is an indication, by
itself, that what is elaborated is an allegory, a symbolic representation of an inner conflict and crisis,
and not an historical event. The writers or the artists are not meddling with facts and misrepresenting
history but are sharpening their own conception and appreciation of the most critical experience of a
man who transcended himself.
Avaghoa takes up the episode of Mras daughters in Chapter 15. The Buddha has passed four
weeks since the Enlightenment and Mra comes to him saying, O holy one, be pleased to enter
Nirva, your desires are accomplished. The Buddhas response being negative, Mra becomes
despondent and the daughters take upon themselves the task of luring the Buddha. What follows, in
contrast to the Victory over Mra, is a tame dialogue between the Buddha and each of the daughters.
The whole theme is disposed of in twelve verses and the girls end up by professing to be the
Buddhas disciples.
This episode, too, underwent embellishment and elaboration. Earlier Pli sources as well as the
Lalitavistara had given an indication of the potential which the theme has both in descriptive poetry

Cowell (tr.), The Buddhacarita or Life of Buddha by Avaghoa (Cosmo, New Delhi, 1977) p.137.
33Ibid., p.147.


and graphic art. Poets in several languages have succeeded in conjuring up scenes of singing and
dancing of three damsels in seductive postures.
According to the tenets of Oriental poetry, a great poem has to evoke a range of emotions among
which heroism and eroticism have been especially sought after. The Victory over Mra and the
Temptation by Mras daughters provided the basis for many a creative effort, in rendering a more
balanced character, in terms of the tenets of ornate poetry, to poems on the Buddha which could
otherwise be humdrum or deeply philosophical. Whether this was permissible had been a question
which the Buddhist writers had grappled with from the days of Avaghoa. But the fact that the
themes have been widely, if not entirely, viewed as symbolic and allegorical have all alone ensured a
very high degree of liberty in artistic expression. This is what the far-flung representations of these
themes in sculpture and painting demonstrate even more convincingly.

IV. Mra Episodes in Asian Buddhist Art

Even before the Buddha came to be represented in human form, the Great Departure and Victory
over Mra had become popular themes depicted at both Sanchi and Amaravati.
Sculptures on the gateways of the Great Stupa at Sanchi (first century B.C.) include a scene of the
Great Departure34 and two scenes of Mras Assault (north gateway) and Defeat (west gateway). 35 A
riderless horse (repeated four times) represents the future Buddha (symbolised by the royal parasol)
leaving the city in the company of countless gods in a mood of jubilation. None of the figures can,
however, be identified as Mra. Apparently, the panel does not represent Mras temptation. But, as
described in the Lalitavistara and Avaghoas Buddhacarita, the horse is borne on the hands of
yakas or deities.
In the panels depicting the assault and defeat of Mra, the future Buddha is represented by an
empty seat under the Bodhi-tree. Mra himself is shown in one as a stately figure, a veritable god,
reflecting Avaghoas identification of Mra as Kmadeva, the Indian God of Love. This figure is
characteristically handsome, whereas his hosts in both panels are grotesque in size and appearance.
In the assault scene, they make hideous faces and are apparently jeering and shouting. In the
defeat scene they are despondent and retreating in disarray. As Mras hosts retreat on the right-hand
half of the panel, the rejoicing deities are shown approaching the Bodhi-tree from the left. Apparently,
it is Mra who, with bow in hand, rides the elephant. In neither is there any overt depiction of the
temptation by Mras daughters, unless the two female figures at the left-hand corner of the assault
scene are meant to suggest it; but this appears most unlikely.
Among the Amaravati sculptures of the second century A.C. are two scenes depicting the Great
Departure36 and Mras Assault.37 In the first, a riderless horse, above whom is held the royal insignia
of a parasol, is carried on the hands of squatting dwarf figures. Here, again, the encounter with Mra
is not represented. With the characteristic phenomenon of horror vacuii in the sculptures of this
period, the panel is crowded with rejoicing deities, one of them in a dancing pose. Even in the
damaged state, the panel on Mras Assault gives the impression of the dynamism that the sculptor
34Anil de Silva-Vigier, The Life of the Buddha retold from Ancient Sources (Phaidon, London, 1955), plate 69. The
riderless horses (four moving towards the right and one moving in the opposite direction) represent action as is
usual in the synoptic technique of storytelling in ancient Buddhist sculpture. The horses going to the right are
represented as carrying the Bodhisatta, whose presence is symbolised by a royal parasol held above them. The
returning horse is led by a sorrowing Channa.
35Heinrich Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia: Its Mythology and Transformation (Bollingen Series No. 29; Pantheon,
New York, 1955), plate 12, north gate rear view central architrave; Anil de Silva-Vigier, plate 69. The majestic
seated figure (slightly off the centre to the left) could be that of Mra, conceived, as Avaghoa did, as the Indian
God of Love. This panel depicts the Assault and is dated by some art critics to the early first century B.C. The
scene of Mras Defeat is found on the west gateway. Sir John Marshall, The Buddhist Art of Gandhra
(Department of Archaeology of Pakistan, Cambridge, 1960), fig. 7. Mra could be the figure on the elephant
holding a bowagain symbolising the God of Love by his traditional weapon.
36Zimmer, plate 89.
37Ibid., plate 88.


had intended to convey. The hosts of Mra are depicted with various weapons raised ready to attack,
while Mra himself appears to be the seated figure to the left of the empty seat under the Bodhi-tree.
Here too Mra is a handsome god in princely attire. This panel seems to combine synoptically three
events: the Assault, the Defeat of Mra, and the Temptation by Mras daughters: note the dancing
figure on the right.
It is in Gandhara art that we notice a further development of the two themes and the emergence of
the scene depicting the Temptation by Mras daughters. A sculpture in the Lahore Museum 38 shows
the future Buddha riding a horse. Around him are depicted two of the four sights which prompted
the renunciation: namely, old age and death. A princely figure with a halo, standing in the left corner
of the panel, could be Mra, and the wheel-like object at the right upper corner could be the symbol of
Universal Monarchy, of which Mra apprised the future Buddha. The scene includes symbolically a
third element, the role of the earth, represented as a female figure emerging from the ground, in
enabling the future Buddha to take a last look at his city without turning back. Not only do we see
here the story of the Great Departure in all its traditional details, but also the continuing
representation of Mra as a devaputta. The halo here is particularly suggestive. Another fragment of a
Gandhara sculpture appears to be a Great Departure panel. 39 Here, again, the earth-goddess emerges
from the ground and bears upon her shoulders the feet of the horse. The two standing figures have
been identified by Grunwedel as guards. But there is also the likelihood that the one in front with the
bow in hand is Mra. Hence this panel, too, might be a representation of this encounter.
The representation of Mra in Gandhara sculpture has been discussed at length by Grunwedel. He
says: Mra rarely if ever appears in Buddhist sculptures except in the representations of the
temptation scene. Though different sculptors may have taken their own ways of representing Mra,
still there was a fixed type also for this deva. He appears, at a later date, in full festal attire, youthful
in figure, with bow and arrow. His attributes, bow and arrow and Makara, suggest that there is
some connection with Greek Eros.40
He had further attempted to identify as Mra a figure, earlier considered to be Devadatta, in a
sculpture depicting the Kyapa legend, which is now in the Lahore Museum. 41 This figure occurs in
another sculpture in the Lahore Museum, which depicts the hosts of Mra. 42 An Indianized version of
the figure appears in the relief from Loriyan Tangai in the Calcutta Museum. 43
Two Gandhara sculptures of Mras Assault show further developments in the treatment of the
subject. In the Mardan sculpture (now in the Peshawar Museum) 44 the characteristic posture of
touching the earth in summoning it to witness (i.e. bhmi-spara-mudr) has already come into
existence and the defeat of Mras host is symbolised by a crouching and a wailing figure (reduced in
scale) in front of the future Buddha. The sculpture at the Boston Fine Arts Museum 45 depicts in great
detail the symbolic crouching and falling figures.
The exact composition and details of Gandhara art, with pronouncedly Indian countenances, are to
be found in the later sculptures of Amaravati and Nagarjunikonda. But the temptation scene of
Mras daughters gradually asserts a prominence in artistic representation. The defeated hosts of
Mra depicted in reduced scale crouching in front of the Buddhas seat 46 are overshadowed by the
dancing female figures in the seductive half bent pose (ardhabhaga). (See the upper frieze of the
slab depicting the stpa at Amaravati.47)

Grunwedel, Buddhist Art in India (London, 1901), p.98; illustration 50.

p.99; illustration 51.
40Ibid., pp.92, 94.
41Ibid., p.88; fig. 5 in illustration 42.
42Ibid., p.96; illustration 48.
43Ibid., p.101; illustration 53.
44Marshall, plate 43; fig. 67.
45Ibid., plate 44; fig. 68.
46Zimmer, plate 92 (b). Note the lower square represents the Great Departure. See also The Way of the Buddha
(Government of India, Delhi, 1955), plate 52 (Nagarjunikonda).
47Ibid., plate 96. In both examples from Amaravati, the Buddha is depicted with the abhaya-mudr rather than
with the bhmi-spara-mudr.


The finest combination of the attack by the hideous hosts of Mra and the temptation by Mras
daughters is to be found in Ajanta (c. 600 A.C.), both in a painting in Cave 1 and in a sculptured
version in Cave 26.48 Apart from their artistic merits the composition has demonstrated how this could
be extended to massive dimensions. Examples come from far-flung places like Tun-huang in China 49
and Dambulla50 and Hindagala51 in Sri Lanka. At Dambulla the entire ceiling of the largest cave is
devoted to the theme of Mras Assault, bringing together many characteristics that had been
progressively incorporated in the artistic representation of this event.
A curiously interesting piece of art comes from Qyzyl in Chinese Turkistan. 52 A fresco depicting
how the death of the Buddha was announced to King Ajtasattu shows a painting on cloth of major
events in the Buddhas life. On the left upper corner is Mras Assault, represented in miniature with
tremendous economy of space and figures but with a telling effect. In a tenth century fresco of Tunhuang53 is a highly Sinocized version of Mras Assault, but Mras hosts have been represented as
described in literature. The two fully dressed Chinese damsels standing by the seat of the future
Buddha could be two of Mras daughters. If they are in the process of luring the ascetic, they seem to
be doing so only by song! The imposing figure of a Chinese warlord, standing behind them, could be
Mra himself.
In Borobudur,54 we see the continuation of the Indian tradition of sculpture, and the panels
depicting Mras Assault and the Temptation by Mras daughters reflect the Lalitavistara accounts
most faithfully. Of special interest is the representation of Mra with his thousand arms, wielding a
bow. The theme persists in Southeast Asia. From Angkor Thom 55 comes a relief which depicts not an
attack on the person of the future Buddha as elsewhere, but a war between two armies: the hosts of
Mra pitted against the army of pramits of the Buddha. A book cover 56 from Nepal depicts the
daughters of Mra in demure poses and a wood carving of the 16 th century57 shows the future Buddha
in the bhmispara-mudr, the earth-touching posture, surrounded by the hosts of Mra.
In a gradual process to abstract representation of Mras Assault, the bhmi-spara-mudr
becomes a short-hand way of recalling the event. From Pagan 58 comes an example where the
additional element of the Temptation by Mras daughters is portrayed discreetly on the pedestal
with three dancing girls and two playing musical instruments. Perhaps the same interpretation would
apply to the Nland sculpture in which three female figures on the pedestal have grotesque faces,
possibly suggesting the association of Mra as a yaka or demon. 59 But the three female figures do not
appear in all cases. The Buddha statue in the earth-touching posture (as in the case of the one from
Bihar of the 8th or 9th century)60 ultimately becomes identified as one of the Dhyni Buddhas of the
Mahyna tradition with the specific name Akobhya, meaning imperturbablean instance where

48Anil de Silva-Vigier, plates 71 and 72. No figure is readily identifiable as that of Mra, though he may be the
imposing figure holding a sword, to the Buddhas right, or the one to the left with a swaying mace in hand.
49Basil Gray, Buddhist Cave Paintings at Tun-Huang (Faber and Faber, London, 1959), plate 19, which gives a
detail from a mural in Cave 254 (dated 475500 A.C.). Mra is represented as an imposing personage, i.e. a
devaputta with a halo, to the left of the Buddha.
50The ceiling painting at Dambulla is of such dimensions as to preclude the possibility of a photographic
reproduction. The current efforts under the Sri Lanka Unesco Cultural Triangle Programme to document the
cave paintings of Dambulla are expected to enable this important painting to be reproduced for wider
51Jean Boisselier, Ceylon (Archaeologia Mundi, Nagel, Geneva), plate 78. Mra is depicted as a demon with
many arms, riding a multitusked elephant.
52Zimmer, plate 612.
53Anil de Silva-Vigier, plate 73.
54Ibid., plate 68, and Zimmer, plate 486 (b).
55David L. Snellgrove (ed.), The Image of the Buddha (Vikas/Unesco, New Delhi, 1978), p.329; plate 252.
56W. Zwalf, Buddhism: Art and Faith (British Museum, London, 1985) p.119, plate 172.
57Snellgrove, p.347, plate 272.
58Zimmer, plate 471 (d).
59Ibid., plate 380.
60Ibid., plate 381.


the quality of steadfastness which the temptations of Mra brought out in the Buddha becomes
personified as a separate entity.61
Just as the mode of presentation of the Temptation scenes underwent change over the centuries,
the concept of Mra too changed in the eyes of the people. As late as the eleventh century, Sri Lankan
Buddhistsas seen from a representation of vanquished and retreating Mra in the murals of the
Mahiyangana Stpa relic chamberseemed to have considered Mra to be a devaputta, a god. 62 But
as time went on, he came to be depicted exactly like his hideous-looking hosts and his god-like
appearance was replaced by what was traditionally ascribed to a yaka or demon. 63 This change is
further seen on the cover of an ola book which depicts Mra not in a temptation scene but in a Jtaka. 64
The prevalence of this concept is further attested by examples from Thailand where a picture of the
Great Departure drawn in the eighteenth century represents Mra as a demon. 65 The final evolution of
Mras transformation may perhaps be seen in the Tibetan Yamntaka, who is iconographically
represented as a fierce looking demon with multiple arms. 66

V. Conclusion
This examination reveals that the temptations of Mra as allegorical representations of the mental
torment, conflict, and crisis experienced by the Buddha as well as his disciples are as old as Buddhism
itself and the imagery could have originated in the Buddhas own graphic poetical expressions. The
early compilers of the life of the Buddha did not make a conscious effort to deal systematically with
individually recorded instances of such temptations. As such, there is a fair amount of confusion as
regards the nature and the timing of the related events. Eventually, however, the Great Departure, the
Victory over Mra, and the Temptation by Mras daughters came to be singled out for detailed
treatment in literature and art. Embellishments and variations were freely allowed according to the
writers or artists conception of the situation, as the allegorical aspect was considered the more
significant. The historical or factual aspect of the related events was secondary and the diversity of
presentation made a definite contribution to the enrichment of both literary and artistic creativity.
What both literature and art show very clearly is that Mras personality as conceived by Buddhist
writers and artists underwent a marked change with the spread of Buddhist culture. In India, in
earlier times, Mra was yet a devaputta, in fact the handsome God of Love with all his traditional
characteristics. Later on, closer to modern times, in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and
Indonesia, he becomes more and more pronouncedly demonic.
This analysis has been limited to those of Mras encounters with the Buddha which have a
predominant character of temptation, i.e. where Mra is allegorized and personified. Other aspects of
Mra as a devaputta and a personification of death await similar analysis. An effort made in this
direction could be invaluable especially to answer the many questions which Malalasekera had raised
in his article in the Dictionary of Pli Proper Names.67


Thus often only an inscription or a still living Buddhist tradition in the places where
archaeological pieces are found can distinguish a Skyamuni in his victory over Mra (Mravijaya) from
Akobhya. See plates 206, 207, 208, and 210 (pp. 278280). Plate 206 is significant in that the Buddha is crowned
to distinguish him as the supreme Buddha.
D.B. Dhanapala: The Story of Sinhalese Painting (Saman, Maharagama, undated), p.23 (explanation on
63Siri Gunasinghe, An Album of Buddhist Paintings from Sri Lanka (Ceylon)Kandyan Period (National
Museum, Colombo, 1978), plate 39. Also see Boisselier, plate 78.
64Zwalf, plate 217, p.155.
65Grunwedel, p.102; illustration 54.
66Zimmer, plates 603 and 605.
67See in particular Malalasekera, 2:615, 618, and 619.


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