Malleable Māra

Transformations of a Buddhist Symbol of Evil

By Michael D. Nichols

Subjects: Religion, Buddhism, Cultural Studies, Myth, Asian Studies
Hardcover : 9781438473215, 268 pages, March 2019
Paperback : 9781438473222, 268 pages, January 2020

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Reprints
Note on Translations

1. Mapping out Māra

2. Machinations of Māra: The Myriad Menaces of the Evil One

3. Māra the Demon: Asura Ancestry

4. Māra the God: Brahmanical Background

5. Māra’s Metamorphosis: The Rise of the Mahāyāna and its Impact on the Evil One

6. Māra Multiplied: The Evil One Across Asia

7. Go West, Evil God: Modernized Māra

8. And then Māra Disappeared: Concluding Thoughts


Analyzes the breadth of representations of the mythic figure of Māra in Buddhism to reveal how closely tied such narratives are to the social and historical concerns of Buddhist communities.


2019 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title

This is the first book to examine the development of the figure of Māra, who appears across Buddhist traditions as a personification of death and desire. Portrayed as a combination of god and demon, Māra serves as a key antagonist to the Buddha, his followers, and Buddhist teaching in general. From ancient India to later Buddhist thought in East Asia to more recent representations in Western culture and media, Māra has been used to satirize Hindu divinities, taken the form of wrathful Tibetan gods, communicated psychoanalytic tropes, and appeared as a villain in episodes of Doctor Who. Michael D. Nichols details and surveys the historical transformations of the Māra figure and demonstrates how different Buddhist communities at different times have used this symbol to react to changing social and historical circumstances. Employing literary and cultural theory, Nichols argues that the representation of Māra closely parallels and reflects the social concerns and anxieties of the particular Buddhist community producing it.

Michael D. Nichols is Associate Professor of Philosophy/Religion at Saint Joseph's College.


"…this volume is a strong amalgamation of knowledge pertaining to Māra. It not only serves as an excellent introduction to the figure, but it also provides the reader with a well-reasoned picture of the 'process of perpetual change and reinvention' that so often permeates Buddhist concepts and figures." — Religious Studies Review

"…the prospective reader should not hesitate to dive into this fine book." — Reading Religion

"Described by the author as literary and mythical in its approach, as opposed to explicitly philosophical or linguistic, the book is evenhanded, carefully researched, and rich in detail and nuance. It is sure to be a key text in studies of Māra and the concept's importance for understanding Buddhist soteriology and its evolving history … Highly recommended." — CHOICE

"This book is an original and engaging exploration of the various forms myths about Māra have taken across Buddhist history." — Maria Heim, author of Voice of the Buddha: Buddhaghosa on the Immeasurable Words