Buddhism, yoga

Yama and Mara: Hindu and Buddhist personifications of Death, a hypothesis

Both Buddhism and Hinduism personify Death in the form of a deity. The two traditions’ imagination around this figure naturally has many overlaps, but I’m suddenly thinking about some that I can’t find any reference to in the scholarly literature. The correspondence is about the role of Death as Teacher, as appearing in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, and the role of Māra the Tempter in the Pāli Buddhist texts. I’ll narrate briefly two stories, then speculate wildly. 

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Naciketas and Yama

Death personified in early Yoga (the Kaṭha Upaniṣad)

The Hindu deity associated with death has many names, the most common of which is Yama, the “Lord of Death”. There are many complex myths about Yama’s origin, role, and activities, but one in particular was deeply important in early Yoga history, narrated in the beautiful Kaṭha Upaniṣad, from around 1000-500 BCE. The Kaṭha tells the story of a young seeker named Naciketas (N) who, after an argument with his father about the proper conduct of a sacrifice, is cursed by him, and walks to the home of Death (Yama) to inquire after the truth. Upon arriving, he finds nobody home, and waits for 3 days. When Yama returns, he praises the boy for his bravery, apologizes for not treating him as a guest should be treated, and offers 3 boons (wishes to be fulfilled).

For the first boon, N asks to be returned home alive and restored to his father’s graces. I often teach on the profundity of this first boon for seekers, reading in it the necessity to resolve conflict in our intimate relationships before deeper spiritual work can proceed. Forgiveness and developmental/attachment therapies sit here, and many issues in contemporary yogis’ contemplative work (especially manifestations of “spiritual bypass”) might be avoided if work on this level of the self were substantially assured before further practice.

For the second boon, N asks for the secret to the fire sacrifice (yajña). Yama teaches him the form and chants in exhaustive detail, and upon hearing the instructions repeated back perfectly, declares N a master of the form, so much so that the sacrifice itself will now be named after the boy: the Naciketas Sacrifice. I read in this the standard historical analysis of the yogic internalization of the Vedic ritual, and the beginnings of understanding the individual body as the site of liberation, as the Buddha and later Hindu traditions will emphasize. This layer is about discipline, learning, purification, and precision.

At the last boon, however, N seems to get in trouble. He asks for the secret to what lies after death, whether people exist after they die. Death resists answering and offers N wealth, power, sensual pleasures, and long life as replacement prizes. This episode resonates with other myths of a spiritual seeker being met at the eve of liberation by a figure who tries to pull them off their path through offering material comforts. Jesus in the desert and the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree are archetypal examples, and I’ll focus on the Buddhist one below. N refuses, saying that all those things are also under Yama’s power (i.e.: will inevitably die), and he wants the way beyond Yama’s power. Yama finally relents, offering the first systematic contemplative practice to be called “yoga”, Adhyātma Yoga, “Yoga of the Deep Self”, and a long, beautiful wisdom teaching on the true identity of the Soul/Self, or Ātman. The practice centers on overcoming the preference for pleasure over pain, and thus on pratyāhāra, “sense-withdrawal”, which is central to all the subsequent classical yogas (contemplative systems in the Upaniṣads, Buddhism, Patañjali’s Yoga, Saṇkhya, and the Bhagavad Gītā, among other schools) until the radical flowering of new contemplative forms in the Tantric period (~500 – ~1300 CE). N practices according to Yama’s instruction and is liberated.

In the Kaṭha, Yama appears as the Guru, the ultimate teacher. But how can the same figure be both the teacher and the thing the seeker wants to be free from? Death seems to resist N’s demand for the secret of birth-and-death, but then he admits that he was just testing him, saying that most seekers succumb at that point and accept worldly power instead of the path to wisdom. [I think we can see a lot of these figures in power nowadays.] Yama praises N’s steadfastness, and in his instructions on yoga invokes the all-important practice that N has already demonstrated: not to be swayed by pleasures or reactive to pain. N already has the great yogic quality of equanimity, and now just needs a View teaching, which he gets, to realize the truth. In the comparison below, I’ll focus on Death/Yama’s multiple roles as the Enemy (the thing to be free of), the Tempter (who offers power and pleasure in the place of wisdom), and the Teacher (the source of wisdom).

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The Buddha performing “Earth-Witness” mudra to dispel Mara

Death personified in early Buddhism

Māra (literally “death”) appears in the Pali texts as a semi-divine figure who confronts the Buddha both before and after his liberation, and many monks and nuns periodically, always with the intent to cause them to doubt their actions or in some way interrupt their practice. Stories of practitioners meeting, and invariably recognizing and thus dispelling, Māra fill a chapter in the Samyutta Nikaya, as well as appearing regularly in other sutta collections. Māra continues to figure in the Mahāyāna literature as well, and his role develops substantially.

Māra’s most well-known appearance is in a biographical myth not in the Pāli suttas but in the introduction to [possibly] Buddhaghosa’s 5th century CE Jataka commentary, and two Sanskrit biographies: Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita, “Life of the Buddha” (BC), and the Lalitavistara (LV), of the Sarvastivada school. In these, Gotama (the not-yet-Buddha) is visited by Māra as he sits under the Bodhi Tree on the eve of liberation. Māra has already visited the Buddha at key points in his search, including an attempt to dissuade him from leaving home to begin it. Now Māra tries to dissuade the Buddha from proceeding to liberation, shooting at him with the arrow of sensual desire (the same flower-tipped arrow that caused Śambhu (Śiva) to lose his yogic discipline and succumb to lust), and sending his sexy daughters, named Lust, Delight, and Thirst (Rati, Priti, and Tṛṣna in the BC; RatiArati, and Tṛṣna in the LV) to seduce him. That failing (and the implication of course is that the Buddha, even unenlightened, is stronger than weak-willed Shiva), Māra sends in a vicious army of demons, who also fail to budge the sage. (In the LV, the attacks are reversed in order).

In the LV, a source for the most iconic moment in the myth, Māra tries doubt, his signature weapon throughout the Pāli texts: he tries to convince Gotama that he has no right to become free — meaning “free from me”, since Gotama has said from the beginning that he seeks “the deathless”. In the iconic moment of victory, the Buddha wordlessly reaches down and touches the Earth, symbolically calling on the Divine Feminine to bear witness to his aeons of practice and cultivation of the Perfections (parami), and thus his “right” to awaken. The goddess appears, offers her earthquake-triggering witness, and Māra is vanquished, clearly outmaneuvered. The image of the Buddha touching the earth is one of the most beloved in many traditions, called Bhumisparśa Mudra (“Earth-witness Mudra”), depicted endlessly, and the narrative of the moment brings tears to devotees (like me), who perhaps feel in it a vindication of our own right to be here, and to practice for freedom.

(On a personal note, I think much of my own emotion isn’t a direct parallel to Gotama’s, but a very modern psychological response. The moment rings in me as an assertion of self-worth, which is a direct challenge to a deep narrative I carry (along with countless of my wounded peers): being not-good-enough. I see this as a profoundly healing, but developmentally less mature, version of the Buddha’s confidence in his right to absolute freedom from Death.)

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Comparing the two myths

The figure of Māra in the Pali texts is historically descended from the Vedic deity Yāma, revealed in the arrow-shooting action, around which both the Vedic and Buddhist myths use the alternate name Kamadeva, “God of Love/Desire”, possibly an early iteration of our own arrow-shooting Eros/Cupid. Both traditions thus understand desire as intimately linked to death, first through the reality that sex leads to birth which leads to death, but more importantly in relation to the renunciate path, in which one might turn away from sensual contact in the search for the deathless. But despite the parallel, the presence of Māra as personified evil in the Buddhist texts has no direct analogue in Vedic mythology, and according to Stephen Batchelor may thus reflect the influence of external theologies like that of Zoroastrianism, which was dominant in Persia at the time, and which the Buddha may have encountered. Yama isn’t evil at all in the Veda, but an important governing deity, and clearly in the Kaṭha isn’t trying to deceive Naciketas as Māra is the Buddha.

But there are several interesting parallels between the myths to draw out:

1. Both Naciketas (N) and Gotama (G) set out on their quests motivated by an initial encounter with death: N through his father’s curse, and G through the 4 Heavenly Messengers (old age, sickness, death, and the wandering ascetic).

2. Both upset their parents when they leave.

3. Both meet the personification of death once they’ve proven their fortitude and sat in a place of retreat fasting for some time. N sits in Yama’s house for 3 days without food or water. G sits under the bodhi tree after years of ascetic fasting (and almost dying, thus we could say poetically “visiting the house of Death”).

In G’s case, his fast is ended by his admission that it has failed to succeed at liberating him, and his insight that pleasurable meditation (jhāna) will be a more successful method. He then takes some food from Sujata, a local woman offering alms, and sits under the tree after his strength is restored. In N’s case, Yama tells him that being left without food is no way to treat an honored guest, and apologizes. In both cases, fasting is criticized, once on social grounds (N), and once on efficacy grounds (G).

(Does Yama then feed N while they talk? It would seem strange for him not to, since he just went on about it. Maybe he at least made him some tea… but the text doesn’t say. Gotama got kheer. Good fast-breaking food. Mmm. Time for break-fast…)

4. Both master an existing soteriological system, are praised for doing so, then decide it’s not sufficient and aim higher. N masters the Vedic sacrificial ritual (yajña), then asks for the wisdom that understands what happens after death, which turns out to be attained through the practice of samādhi based in sense-withdrawal (the meditative skill formalized in Patañjali’s later Yoga Sutra as pratyāhāra). G masters formless meditative concentration under 2 local teachers (samādhi, also based in sense-withdrawal, since the 2 states he learns are characterized by “nothingness” and “neither-perception-nor-non-perception”), but sees that it’s not sufficient in itself and goes in search of a full end of suffering, which will entail specific inquiry/contemplations (vipassanā).

If we think about the standard historical narrative here, we might discern an interesting sequence. N (a kśatriya, or member of the warrior caste) embodied the shift from the Brahmanic tradition to the Śramana reformation which asserted the ability (and right — an interesting resonance with G’s insistence on “right” in his calling on the Earth for witness) of individuals to a direct contemplative relationship with the divine outside of the Brahmin-controlled sacrificial ritual. And G embodied a refinement of the Śramana method to include types of inquiry (viveka or vipassanā, “clear seeing”) not detailed before. [This theory assumes the Kaṭha precedes the Buddha, but some scholars suggest the opposite might be true, reading Buddhist influence in the Kaṭha.] Pāli scholar Richard Gombrich also suggests that the Buddha rejecting fasting as efficacious may be a direct reference to, and repudiation of, Jain ascetic practice.

5. Before the true breakthrough to inquiry and liberation, both are tempted by Death through the offer of  sensual objects. N is offered wealth, power, long life, beautiful women with chariots and musical instruments, and the fulfillment of all worldly desires. G is offered essentially the same, starting with the promise that G would conquer “the lower worlds” with arrows and “gain the higher worlds of Indra”, implying the power and wealth of earthly kingship followed by the long-lived pleasures of heaven. When that fails, Māra sends in his seducing daughters. (The Buddhist texts then add a battle, with Māra sending in an army. This is a conspicuous difference between the myths.)

Both have the heroes rejecting these temptations, of course, and insisting on their right to proceed. N has the right because Yama promised, and can’t go back on his word. G has the right because of his cultivation of merit (puñña) in the past. In a sense both hinge on merit, since Yama’s promise was a direct result of N’s patience and fortitude. Both seekers earned the right to their success.

6. In the Buddhist story, at this point Māra is dispelled, leaving G alone to pursue his inquiry. In the Kaṭha, Yama gives in and begins teaching. What if these signify the same thing? For N, Yama as Tempter and Enemy is vanquished, and only Yama as Teacher remains. For G, Māra as Tempter and Enemy is vanquished, and his independent power of samadhi and inquiry remains. After his realization, the Buddha will proclaim that he has no teacher, and this contributes to his social status as outside any of the existing spiritual lineages.

But is Māra ever a Teacher?

Not literally in any text I know of, but here’s an idea:

The Buddha’s realization as described in the Maha-Saccaka Sutta (MN 36) and repeated in the later texts comes after 3 specific inquiries and visions. The first is into his own countless past lives, each of which he sees in detail (his name, clan, appearance, food, experience of pleasure and pain, his death and where he was reborn). This insight sees the past, one’s own history as a cosmic mala, each bead a life, with aesthetic variation but structurally the same, and how there has been a conditional process unfolding for aeons, manifesting as birth-after-birth-after-birth-after-birth-after…

(Really? Can’t I just be done already? I think it’s the endlessness of it that would convince me to leave. Privileged über-comfortable Western yogis often will say that they’re not interested in getting off the wheel of saṃsāra — that life is beautiful and should be celebrated. It is, for sure, and please do! …like by protecting the planet we’re destroying, caring for humans who are different than us, and generally taking way better care with our actions! And… I bet if we could really feel the length of time and amount of suffering these myths are suggesting, we’d be ready to do something else. Most people are still desperately wanting to have an orgy with Māra’s daughters/sons and get rich on his fool’s gold. But what if I could actually see that I’ve been doing this, and failing to find happiness in it, for a gazillion lifetimes?)

The second insight is into the future, and expands the circle of insight beyond himself to the wider world. G saw “the passing away and reappearance of beings”, and how wholesome actions lead to beauty and fortunate rebirth (heaven realms), and how unwholesome actions lead to ugliness and unfortunate rebirth (animal realms and hells). The ethical reframing of karma is one of the Buddha’s core teachings. He frequently challenged a common Brahmanic view that it was birth (as in caste/clan) that made one Noble (ariya), convincing debate opponents that it was ethical actions that made a person Noble, or honorable. He focused on seeing the lawful results of action and understood the universe as intrinsically moral.

If the first insight scares me into wishing strongly for release, the second one impresses upon me the profound importance of Wise Action. If I could actually see the process by which certain actions have enormously painful results, wouldn’t I stop doing them? (I’m talking to you and me, complacent contributors to climate disaster, institutionalized racism and sexism, and globalized commodity capitalism!) The second insight is the wake-up call to see beyond our myopic fixation on immediate comfort and entertainment and actually get what’s happening to us because of what we’re doing.

So the first two insights are the specific answers to N’s third question. They describe what happens to beings after death: beings transmigrate in resonance with their ethical or unethical actions, you’ve been doing this for a Really Long Time, and It Hurts. Māra is the teacher here, not the mythic personification anymore, but simply the reality of nature, which is birth and death.

Practice: The Death Contemplations

Reflecting on the inevitability of our own death and meditation on images of dead bodies in states of decay are central Buddhist practices, descended from these very insights. The first is a practice known as The Five Reflections, drawn from this sutta. Here’s an English version to chant every day:

I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond ageing.
I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness.
I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying.
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.
I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma. Whatever kamma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir.

(from the Abhayagiri monastic chant book)

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The Corpse Contemplations: Maranasati

The corpse contemplations are part of a practice called Mindfulness of Death, which in Pali is Māranasati, or “Remembering Māra”. “Remembering”, a literal translation of the word for Mindfulness, sati, appears in the texts as the most wholesome thing one can do in relation to things that one respects deeply. In the instructions for Mindfulness (the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, MN 10) the practitioner “remembers”, meaning is intimately aware of, their body and that of others in terms of the breath, movements and postures, parts of the body, the experience of the 4 great elements, and the images of a corpse in decay. The whole series teaches in a systematic way that this body is headed in one direction only! In addition to the body contemplations, the practitioner trains in awareness of the core feelings of pleasant and unpleasant (again, to become conscious of how habitually we react to them), then the awareness of wholesome and unwholesome states of mind, then a series of important qualities of mind and heart to cultivate on the path, culminating with awareness of — realization of — the lynchpin teaching of the 4 Noble Truths.

The whole text is a list of the aspects of experience the practitioner who longs for freedom should pay attention to, to respect. Death primary among them. Death is the teacher because death is what guides the search, and the insight into death’s power is the insight that the Canon describes practitioners exclaiming when they awaken suddenly: All that is subject to arising is subject to passing awayThe insight into impermanence is a humble bow to death, and the end of denial, resistance, and fear.

G’s third insight was the insight into suffering (dukkha) and its end through the uprooting of its causes: the realization and completion of the Four Noble Truths. The sequence of insights shows a systematic pattern: understand your own past (self), understand how the world works (others), and stop doing the actions that bring harm to yourself and others. In this way, even if we ignore the “future lives” issue, which the Buddha refused to answer anyway because anything he would say would be misinterpreted, we can see a simple ethical equation: actions have consequences. So act as if you really get this. (This is the 5th of the 5 Reflections, above.)

Properly performed Vedic sacrifice (an important early meaning of the word kamma/karma) maintained the lawfulness of the cosmos, ensuring the continuity of nature through the maintenance of the human-divine bond. Gotama disrupts that by seeing through it: order is maintained not by proper ritual sacrifice but through an lawful causality, with ethics the determining factor (this is what karma evolved into in Buddhism). The gods have been demoted, themselves subject to a greater law, or dhamma/dharma: Dependent Origination, the uniquely Buddhist vision of conditionality. They too will die and transmigrate in accord with their actions. Even the gods are not free from Death.

(This gives rise to the Buddhist interpretation of the Indian pantheon as “offices” rather than individuals. Viṣnu, Indra, and the rest are just fortunate beings with awesome karma, who will die and be reborn elsewhere, with someone else taking their place. The Buddha himself describes several lifetimes where he was Sakka, the King of the Devas, an analogue to Indra. See Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, ch. 3 for a full discussion of this.) Ok, one more parallel between the myths…

7. If the Buddha’s teaching hinges on Dependent Origination, which describes how we suffer (so that we can learn how not to), is there a parallel in the Adhyātma Yoga teaching that Yama gives? They’re both schools of Classical Yoga, so we’ll find several similarities. Here’s the obvious one:

The heart of Dependent Origination is a sequence of experiences (there’s 12 “links” in the chain, but I’m skipping the first several for simplicity): …sense contact, pleasant-unpleasant feeling, grasping, clinging, becoming, birth, old age/sickness, and death. The sequence describes how we suffer, and are born and die in an endless round of lives (or moments of fixated ego, if you prefer a psychological rather than cosmological framing story), through reacting to constantly changing pleasant and unpleasant sense contacts by liking and disliking them (grasping), which solidifies into action (clinging), the sense of a self who wants and acts (becoming), and the results of action: birth [in a station befitting the action], old age, and inevitable death.

The yoga taught in the Kaṭha also focuses on undoing the habitual reactivity we have to pleasant and unpleasant.

In the secret cave of the heart, two are seated by life’s fountain. The separate ego drinks of the sweet and bitter stuff, liking the sweet, disliking the bitter, while the supreme Self drinks sweet and bitter, neither liking this nor disliking that. The ego gropes in darkness, while the Self lives in light. (Kaṭha Upaniṣad I.3.1, trans. Easwaran)

In the Kaṭha, the “separate ego” is the doer, ignorantly pursuing a doomed hedonism, “groping in darkness”, driven by likes and dislikes. In Dependent Origination, the sequence is reversed, which of course has implications for the identity of the actor. Here the separate ego doesn’t do the drinking, but appears as a result of drinking. Beings plunge from pleasant or unpleasant experiences right into preference and grasping, resulting in the solidification of a self where there wasn’t one before. The sense of self appears as a direct result of clinging. Once you latch on to something, it becomes part of you, in fact it simply “becomes” you. The sequence in the Kaṭha does imply that the separate self exists in a way that the Buddhist sequence doesn’t, and this is the main doctrinal spat the traditions have been having for millennia. Is it that the separate self doesn’t know its own nature (as not different from the Divine Self), and suffers until it realizes it? Or is it that the sense of a separate self itself was an illusion, simply arising as a result of the play of conditions in which habitual reactivity rather than wisdom is dominant? Maybe these are not so different!

In both traditions, the way out is through the doorway of equanimity, which itself is found through restraint of the senses. N is taught how uncontrolled senses and mind lead to being reborn in saṃsāra, the round of birth-and-death, and how control of the senses and mind in the way a charioteer drives a team of horses, keeping them undistracted and on the road, is the path to not being reborn. (Kaṭha 1.3.3-9) This is a practice of focus and seclusion, of limiting the possibilities for distraction. The practice of pleasurable meditation that G intuited was the way to liberation also begins with seclusion, as in this description, also from the Maha-Saccaka Sutta (MN 36) (my emphases):

“So when I had taken solid food and regained strength, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities, I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.

The progression of G’s practice starts with seclusion from sensual pleasures and proceeds all the way to full equanimity (in 4th jhāna), after which he begins the series of 3 inquiries. Both traditions emphasize the renunciate practice of disciplining one’s relationship to the objects of the senses as a doorway to deep meditation and inquiry. Both hinge on reframing our habitual reactions to pleasure and pain. Both hold understanding actions and their results as the key to going beyond death. And both include the wisdom that the self/soul is not what we conventionally perceive it to be. And the main contradiction between them, the existence or not of a self (atta/ātman vs. anatta/anātman), the Buddha tends to refuse to answer or describes in apophatic terms, insisting on phenomenological investigation over ontological assertion.

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These myths are far more similar than they are different.

This isn’t news, really, to historians, though fundamentalists in both traditions like to assert their tradition’s uniqueness, of course. This pathway and teaching is central to many of the Classical Yoga traditions, including the Yoga tradition of Patañjali, Saṇkhya, Jainism, and Vedānta as expressed in the Bhagavad Gītā, and persists in the later Tantric revelations in a further developed and radicalized form. Western practitioners can enjoy and celebrate the relevance of both myths to their own lives if the stories resonate for them. (In fact, I first heard Naciketas’ story in a dharma talk by a European vipassanā teacher, though when I asked him about it later, he said that he just knew it as an “Indian myth”, and didn’t know its provenance. The paucity of study in Western Buddhist circles rears its head again! But he still gave a beautiful talk on it…)

The parallel that drew me to write this was the uncanny semiotic relationship between Yama and Māra, and the way the Buddha often drew on existing Brahmanic teachings and terminology only to reframe them for use in his brilliant phenomenological process. What if Māra is Gotama’s Tempter and Teacher, in a direct parallel to the Kaṭha myth? What if the two myths are just versions of the same heroic seeker story? In the Kaṭha, Yama addresses Naciketas as “Gautama”, a name which Naciketas has used to refer to his father first. I know it’s a common name, but… What if the myths are referring to the same person, the same home-leaving, death-confronting, sense-conquering, self-realizing, warrior-caste hero, at least archetypically?

Here’s how each ends:

N: “When all desires that dwell in the heart of one cease, then the mortal becomes immortal and here attains Brahman. When all the knots of the heart are severed here on earth, then the mortal becomes immortal, so far is the instruction… Nachiketas then having acquired this knowledge imparted by Yama, and also the whole teaching about Yoga, attained Brahman, having become free from all impurities and death. Thus it will be with another also, who thus knows the nature of the Ātman.”

G: “When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. I discerned, as it was actually present, that ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the way leading to the cessation of stress… These are fermentations… This is the origination of fermentations… This is the cessation of fermentations… This is the way leading to the cessation of fermentations.’ My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”

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Sources

Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought (Oxford, Routledge, 2009)
Gombrich, Ancient Indian Cosmology (in Ancient Cosmologies)
Gombrich, How Buddhism Began (Oxford, Routledge, 1996)
Karetzky, Mara, Buddhist Deity of Death and Desire (East and West 32.1, 1982)
Siklós, The Evolution of the Buddhist Yama (Buddhist Forum IV, Shin-IBS 1996)
Stache-Rosen, The Temptation of the Buddha (Bulletin of Tibetology, 1975)
Wayman, Studies in Yama and Mara (Indo-Iranian Journal, 1959)

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[Some scholars have speculated that there hasn’t been very much Buddhist-Hindu comparative study because there are relatively few practitioners with experience in both to do that study. Buddhism was absent from India for almost 1000 years before the two traditions met up again, initially in the West, and only recently through a growing Indian Buddhist resurgence (and via the Tibetan diaspora/exile). Much more comparative philology and translation is needed, which I’m confident will affirm the traditions’ close relationship more than their distance. New initiatives, like the exciting Murty Classical Library, will be huge in revealing the depth and interwoven wisdoms of the many Indian traditions.

Transparency endnote: This post, like one I wrote a couple years ago comparing khandha and kośa, falls under the rubric of “highly speculative comparative theology”, and grew out of an attempt to write one footnote on Māra for my dissertation. (Serious metastasized digression! D’oh!) I’m not enough of a Pāli or Sanskrit scholar to really translate the relevant texts themselves, and I know only the most common texts well. Nevertheless, I’m willing to speculate on a correspondence I haven’t ever heard mentioned, as a way to “think in public”, and have enough hubris to do so. Folks who prefer their theology flavored by doctrinal certainty and scholarly consensus, this post is not for you.

Also, readers new to Buddhism and Yoga history and philosophy, please don’t take this as “history” or preach it in your classes with a tone of certainty. Go sit with a good teacher, read all the relevant texts yourself, and some books about each separate tradition, and practice passionately. This kind of speculation is for pleasure and interdisciplinary fertilization among folks who live immersed in these religions. Scholars better than I, I’d love your thoughts, either below or in private.]

Thanks for reading.

6 thoughts on “Yama and Mara: Hindu and Buddhist personifications of Death, a hypothesis”

  1. Piers Moore Ede says:

    Wonderful, scholarly piece Sean, I shall read it again because there’s so much in there. Particularly value your personal insights (such as re. Bhumisparsha Mudra) which really bring these concepts home for me.

    1. seanfeit says:

      Thanks, Piers! (Looks like I didn’t reply when you commented initially — sorry!) Blessings.

  2. Marisa says:

    Wonderful piece! Very helpful for my own writing, too. Thank you. Fits tidily with Campbell’s monomyth, as I’m sure occurred to you. Although in this case Return takes on a whole new meaning…

    1. seanfeit says:

      Thanks, Marisa! I’m excited to read your writing — whenever… It’s the novel we talked about a few years ago? I hope going well.

  3. Cole Turner says:

    Lovely exploration of this theme … as a synthesizer myself I can really appreciate this.

    1. seanfeit says:

      Thanks! Warm wishes for your practice.

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