If your inner Mara already subdues you,
you are subdued by the outer Mara too.
As summarised from the Brahma-Nimantanika Sutta, the Buddha spoke of an occasion, when a wrong view arose in the mind of Baka Brahma, a god residing in Maha Brahma Heaven. He had assumed that his existence and world was constant, permanent, eternal and total (‘salvation’), not subject to ageing, death and rebirth. The Buddha thus swiftly manifested in his world to instruct him. Welcomed by Baka Brahma, who repeated his thoughts to him, the Buddha exclaimed that he was actually being ignorant by mistaking so. Just then, Mara, the most evil god (a heavenly ‘demon’ from the Paranimmita-Vasavatti Heaven) possessed an attendant of Baka Brahma and told the Buddha not to rebuke him, for he is ‘the Maha (Great) Brahma, the Conqueror, Unconquered, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Creator, Most High Providence, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be.’
Mara next warned that before the Buddha’s time, there were those who found fault with the elements (of the realms of rebirth), beings, and even gods like Brahma, who were subsequently reborn in lower realms with suffering. He claimed that those who praised the above instead are reborn in refined realms with happiness. As such, the Buddha ought to be agreeable with Baka Brahma, as defiance could lead to loss of good fortune and even lead to hell. The Buddha replied that he recognises Mara, and that Baka Brahma and his assembly is now under Mara’s control, that despite Mara’s thinking that he, the Buddha too was subdued, he was not.
Baka Brahma then reasserted his earlier claims, adding that as there is no greater liberation than his realised by anyone in the past, that since the Buddha will not find it either, he ought to save himself from trouble by staying in his world to do his biding. The Buddha replied that with his direct superior knowledge of all things as they are, he could discern the limits of Baka Brahma’s power and influence, that there are other brahmas (such as Brahma Sahampati), whom Baka Brahma is unaware of, in higher heavens, such as Abhassara Heaven (a second jhanic heaven), from where Baka Brahma fell from in his previous life (to the present first jhanic heaven), that he has forgotten. (Having fallen from higher heavens more than once, Baka Brahma had spiritually devolved, although he pridefully assumed he was already perfect.)
Unconvinced, Baka Brahma wished the Buddha well in what he thinks he knows, to which the Buddha added that his enlightened consciousness is luminous and boundless, beyond the limits of all sensual phenomena. Still unconvinced, Baka Brahma announced that with his supernormal powers, he will make himself disappear from the Buddha’s sight, which he welcomed. However, as his powers were subdued by the Buddha, he could not do so. The Buddha in turn announced that he would disappear from Baka Brahma’s sight instead, which he too welcomed. Staying invisible, the Buddha used his powers to demonstrate their boundlessness, speaking to everyone present of the danger in clinging to the extremes of delighting in becoming and searching for non-becoming. All present were amazed at the Buddha’s powers and wisdom.
Mara next possessed another attendant, telling the Buddha that if had he awakened to what he claimed, he should not teach anyone the Dharma (path to enlightenment), for there were some in the past, who claimed to be awakened, who taught so, and had lower rebirths. And there were those who did not teach, who had higher rebirths. As such, he suggested the Buddha to only abide in his own well-being. Again, the Buddha recognises Mara, replying that his request is uncompassionate to the welfare of others, that Mara dreads defiance of him by those whom he teaches, that those who claimed to be awakened, as mentioned by Mara, were not truly so, while he, the Buddha, is truly awakened. Concluding that defilements which lead to suffering and rebirth have been eradicated by the Buddha from their roots, Mara was silenced in defeat.
It is worth noting that Mara was insidious in secretly and repeatedly trying to keep Baka Brahma and his assembly deluded. He even tries to delude the Buddha, to dissuade him from teaching. Speaking through others without showing his form, this reminds us that anyone who speaks and acts with delusion is also under Mara’s control, be it the actual Mara or one’s inner demon of delusion. Mara can be ‘no body’ in particular!
The sutta also points out that unenlightened gods are still deluded, of how the demand for blind obedience to a so-called omnipotent creator god arose from Mara. In this sense, some gods, despite their might from having much good karma, can unwittingly become ‘servants’ of Mara, so long as they stay deluded.
Also noteworthy is that the Buddha proves his superiority by sharing his wisdom first, and only resorts to display of supernormal powers when the unconvinced Baka Brahma wanted to flaunt his. As the Buddha taught in the Sangarava Sutta, the miracle that is the highest and most sublime is that of direct Dharma instruction, which is able to transform the foolish into the wise. This miracle he skilfully delivered in word and example, along with the miracle of supernormal disappearance of form, with simultaneous all-around appearance of his voice, which made all pay special attention to his teachings.
The Buddha expressed his supreme all-pervasive wisdom and supernormal powers, while showing the limits of Baka Brahma’s and Mara’s. Simply by readily recognising Mara (‘naming the demon’) and overpowering Baka Brahma’s powers, he shows his greater control. The power to be invisible to all yet making all (including Mara’s varied disguises) ‘visible’ illustrates how much more the Buddha is able to discern, while how little others have yet to discern of his abilities.
The name of the sutta means ‘Brahma’s Invitation’ as the Buddha was welcomed by Baka Brahma. ‘Brahma’ refers to both the highest classes of gods (devas), while also meaning ‘of great or high power’. When the Buddha declared his freedom from rebirth, which Mara was trying to bind him to with related threats, the Buddha, being the one of truly great and high power, was also inviting Mara, or anyone else, to refute him, which is impossible, because his realisation and teachings are truly supreme in greatness and power.
Interestingly, taught before the truly wide spread of major ‘almighty god’-centric beliefs, the sutta seems to outline some parallel core concepts – (1) the threat of ‘hell’ for non-believers, (2) the promise of ‘eternal’ heaven by a heavenly ‘Father’ for his faithful ‘creation’, and (3) the claim of him being ‘the Conqueror, Unconquered, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Creator, Most High Providence’. In this sutta, however, the Buddha taught Baka Brahma that none of these attributes applied to him (or any other god). The threat and promise are likewise shown to be unsubstantial. This incident is also listed as one of eight great inspiring victories of the Buddha in the Jaya Mangala Gatha (Stanzas of Victory and Blessings), which is often recollected and recited to invoke the blessings of the Buddha for the clearing of obstacles via the power of truth and rejoice.
In a related teaching called the Baka Brahma Sutta, when Baka Brahma asserted that many yearn to be like those in his heaven, the Buddha revealed that their life spans, although apparently long to them, are still limited, possible only as Baka Brahma had done much good to help others in his previous lives. Baka Brahma then remarked that the Buddha must know others’ lives too, as his radiant majesty illuminates even the heavens. As these suttas remind us, the Buddha is indeed, as traditionally called, an unsurpassable ‘Teacher of Humans and Gods’!
Though a deity of great purity, radiance and power,
Baka, the Brahma god, was nevertheless in the grip of false views,
like an arm tightly held by a snake’s coils.
Him the Sovereign Sage (the Buddha) cured by higher wisdom.
Through this mighty triumph of the Buddha,
may blessings and victory be mine!
– Jaya Mangala Gatha (Excerpt)
Good karma alone is not good enough,
as it still binds one to rebirth.
Even if it leads to a good rebirth for a long time,
wisdom is still needed for liberation.
Beyond heavens and hells,
Beyond the realms between,
Beyond gods and demons,
Beyond the beings between,
Are the Buddhas supreme,
With supreme compassion and wisdom.
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