Cultures & Traditions

Mara

The earth-touching (bhumisparsha) mudra recalls the Maravijaya or the historical Buddha Shakyamuni’s victory over the demon Mara. In the story of Buddha subduing Mara, the demon of desire and death, Mara taunts the Buddha as he meditates under the Bodhi tree. Mara, representing ignorance and unable to understand enlightenment, sneers at the Buddha and questions his enlightenment. When his taunting failed to remove the Buddha from his meditative state, Mara resorted to threats and summoned his army. Prince Siddhartha at this moment performed the bhumisparsha mudra, extending his right arm to touch the earth, calling it as witness to his steadfastness and enlightened state.

At this moment, the earth goddess emerged from the ground with her long hair streaming water. As she wrung out her hair, Mara and his army were swept away by the waters. The abundance of the waters represents historical Buddha Shakyamuni’s infinite merit, evoking the Indian tradition of pouring water upon the ground every time one makes a donation. The water from the hair of the earth goddess serves as testament to the number of good deeds performed by the Buddha in previous lives.

Within the larger Buddhist tradition, Mara and his army symbolize obstacles to greater understanding, such as ignorance and earthly desire. Prince Siddhartha’s journey, as well as any Buddhist follower’s, towards enlightenment directly threatens Mara’s power, since anyone who reaches enlightenment withdraws from the realms of desire.

Adapted from

DMA Connect, 2012.