Siddhartha & Mara: meeting the shadows at the door to the unconscious

First illustration of Fire Lance and a Grenade, 10th Century, Dunhuang. From the book “The Genius of China”, Robert Temple. US Public Domain via Wikimedia

In the image above, we see Buddha obtaining enlightenment. Dark shadow figures assail Buddha from the upper right hand corner, while attractive female figures seduce Buddha from the lower right-hand corner.

The image itself suggests enlightenment. The Buddha holds his left hand in his lap, palm facing upwards. Fingers from his right hand touch the earth. This posture is called the Bhumisparsha mudra, as the earth touching or the earth-witness gesture. This gesture implies that the earth (or eternal) is the witness to enlightenment.

The path of enlightenment is expressed by the background images. The demons of Mara express a confrontation with the shadow. The female figures express temptation of the instinct by anima.

What follows is the story Of Buddha’s enlightenment as told by Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces:

“The young prince Gautama Sakyamuni set forth secretly from his father’s palace on the princely steed Kanthaka… Assuming the garments of a monk, he moved as a beggar through the world, and during these years of apparently aimless wandering acquired and transcended the eight stages of meditation… he was on his way to the great Tree of Enlightenment, the Bo Tree, under which he was to redeem the universe. He placed himself, with a firm resolve, beneath the Bo [Bodhi] Tree, on the Immovable Spot, and straightway was approached by Kama-Mara, the god of love and death. The dangerous god appeared mounted on an elephant and carrying weapons in his thousand hands… but the Future Buddha remained unmoved beneath the Tree. And the god then assailed him, seeking to break his concentration. Whirlwind, rocks, thunder and flame, smoking weapons with keen edges, burning coals, hot ashes, boiling mud, blistering sands and fourfold darkness, the Antagonist hurled against the Savior, but the missiles were all transformed into celestial flowers and ointments by the power of Gautama’s ten perfections. Mara then deployed his daughters, Desire, Pining, and Lust, surrounded by voluptuous attendants, but the mind of the Great Being was not distracted. The god finally challenged his right to be sitting on the Immovable Spot, flung his razor-sharp discus angrily, and bid the towering host of the army to let fly at him with mountain crags. But the Future Buddha only moved his hand to touch the ground with his fingertips, and thus bid the goddess Earth bear witness to his right to be sitting where he was. She did so with a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand roars…  Having won that preliminary victory before sunset, the conqueror acquired in the first watch of the night knowledge of his previous existences, in the second watch the divine eye of omniscient vision, and in the last watch understanding of the chain of causation. He experienced perfect enlightenment at the break of day. Then for seven days Gautama—now the Buddha, the Enlightened— sat motionless in bliss; for seven days he stood apart and regarded the spot on which he had received enlightenment; for seven days he paced between the place of the sitting and the place of the standing; for seven days he abode in a pavilion furnished by the gods and reviewed the whole doctrine of causality and release; for seven days he sat beneath the tree where the girl Sujata had brought him milk-rice in a golden bowl, and there meditated on the doctrine of the sweetness of Nirvana… the King of Serpents emerged from the roots and protected the Buddha with his expanded hood; finally, the Buddha sat for seven days beneath a fourth tree enjoying still the sweetness of liberation. Then he doubted whether his message could be communicated, and he thought to retain the wisdom for himself; but the god Brahma descended from the zenith to implore that he should become the teacher of gods and men. The Buddha was thus persuaded to proclaim the path.  And he went back into the cities of men where he moved among the citizens world, bestowing the inestimable boon of the knowledge of the Way.”

The story of Buddha’s enlightenment as told by Joseph Campbell offers a unique perspective on the hero archetype. Buddha is a hero not because he climbs a great mountain, or because he conquers a great nation. He is not a hero because of some grand external journey he embarked upon, nor the external demons he battled. Buddha is a hero because of his journey to himself and the battle he won within himself. In the story, the true journey is taken under the Bhodi tree, a journey into the infinite and eternal realms of being. In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung says:

“The darkness which clings to every personality is the door into the unconscious and the gateway of dreams, from which those two twilight figures, the shadow and the anima. (CW 9i para. 222)

Darkness is encountered at the “door to the unconscious”. The demon and anima figures express the two primary archetypal “twilight figures” found at the gateway to the infinite. Jung adds that these twilight figures show up in our “nightly visions or, remaining invisible, take possession of our ego-consciousness”. They represents the those aspects of our personality of which “our ego-consciousness” is not aware. Jung called these figures the “projection-making factor”. If we are unaware of our them, then the twilight figures may gain “a free hand and can realize its object.”

Mara represents the attachment to objects and the object world that all beings have. Mara represents the protective making factor, as karma which we are not yet aware of. To reach enlightenment Siddhartha must realize this protective making factor of consciousness, thereby freeing himself from the assaults of Mara.


  1. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1)
  2. Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Footnotes on the Shadow from Carl Jung:

  • It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature. Blindly he strives against the salutary dogma of original sin, which is yet so prodigiously true. Yes, he even hesitates to admit the conflict of which he is so painfully aware. (CW 7)
  • To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle. (CW 10)
  • Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. (CW 11)
  • The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. (CW 9)