Did Māra actually initiate Brahmā and his assembly?

In yet another entry in what is becoming an extensive series of essays on MN 49, may I draw your attention to the usage of a single verb, upanesi.

This verb is used twice in the text. In both cases, it is spoken in a dialogue with Māra while he is possessing a member of Brahmā’s assembly; once by Māra, and once by the Buddha. In both cases the context—that is, Māra’s speech—is similar, warning the Buddha to back off his attack on existence itself, lest he suffer some dire fate. Alternatively, if he follows Brahmā, he will be rewarded. It would therefore seem very likely that the word is used in the same sense.

However, so far as I have seen, every translation renders them completely differently. In addition, even the Critical Pali Dictionary and Cone’s Dictionary of Pali seem to miss this connection.

In the first passage, Māra finishes his speech by saying:

Nanu tvaṃ, bhikkhu, passasi brahmaparisaṃ sannipatitan’ti?
Do you not see the assembly of Brahmā gathered here?”
Iti kho maṃ, bhikkhave, māro pāpimā brahmaparisaṃ upanesi.
And that is how Māra the Wicked held the assembly of Brahmā up to me as example.

Here I translate upanesi following the commentary. Various translators say that Māra “conducted me to the company of Brahmā” (Horner), “directed my attention to Brahma’s assembly” (Thanissaro), or “called to witness the Brahmā’s assembly” (Bodhi).

There is then a long passage, after which Māra once more possesses a member of the assembly, and says:

sace kho tvaṃ, mārisa, evaṃ pajānāsi, sace tvaṃ evaṃ anubuddho, mā sāvake upanesi, mā pabbajite
If such is your understanding, good sir, do not upanesi your disciples or those gone forth.

Here the commentary is of no help, since it gives a purely verbal gloss. CPD and DoP, however, take upanesi here in the sense of “initiate”, an allusion to the ancient Brahmanical ritual of upanayana, where someone, typically a young boy, is inducted into their spiritual life, somewhat comparable to Confirmation in Catholicism.

The various translators have here “communicate” (Horner), “lead” (Thanissaro), or “guide” (Bodhi). While it isn’t obvious how the two usages are related, surely they must be connected somehow.

A crucial question is whether this could, in fact, be used in the sense of the upanayana ceremony. There seems to be some doubt as to the antiquity of this ceremony, and it seems unlikely it is being literally invoked here. Rather, it’s probably part of a range of everyday meanings that gradually became codified as a specific ritual. In that sense, it is usually taken to mean “led close to” as in introduced to a mentor; but the word is also used for the beasts led to the sacrifice—make of that what you will!

I tend to agree with the commentarial reading of the first passage here, and I think this can be applied in the second case, too. Rather than meaning “initiated”, it means “hold up as example”. This agrees nicely with the rest of the passage.

sace kho tvaṃ, mārisa, evaṃ pajānāsi, sace tvaṃ evaṃ anubuddho, mā sāvake upanesi, mā pabbajite
If such is your understanding, good sir, do not hold it up as an example for disciples or those gone forth! Do not teach Dhamma to disciples or those gone forth! Do not build expectations regarding disciples or those gone forth!


Just thinking about the title of this post, if the term “upanesi” did mean initiate, then it wouldn’t be Brahma and his assembly that are initiated, right, but rather the Buddha who was initiated into the assembly? So the connection between the two passages would be:

Thus Mara initiated me into the assembly of Brahma.

If such is your understanding, do not initiate your disciples into it.

But yes, this sounds too ritualistic and extreme. The Buddha is not being initiated into or inducted into Brahma’s assembly, and the Buddha’s disciples are not, even on Mara’s account, being inducted into some kind of mystery cult. It seems like the other, more general allied meanings like lead into, brought into, brought before, or conducted into the presence of make more sense. Possibly the word “introduced” also makes sense for both passages?

Traditionally, a visitor to a royal court on business would have to be conducted into the presence of the assembled court and introduced to the court by someone already well-known to the court. Using “introduced” here, the two passages could be connected this way.

Thus Mara introduced me to the assembly of Brahma.

If such is your understanding, do not introduce your disciples to it.

Just a suggestion!

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Umm, yes, it is not an easy one! And I am not very confident about my conclusions. Sometimes I start these little essays thinking I have an answer, then as I go along it all starts to fade away …

But thanks for the suggestion, I have given the matter some thought, and may end up revising my translation.

First of all, regarding the meaning “initiate”, the only citation that the dictionaries give for this sense is, in fact, this very passage. And remember that the sense does not seem to have been clearly established even within the Brahmanical tradition at the time. So we should be very cautious about it. In fact it seems to me that the Dictionaries are wrong, and it should not be applied.

As far as the grammar goes, it seems to me that in the first example we can construe the terms in either sequence, depending on the sense. Leaving out extraneous words, we have:

maṃ        māro       brahmaparisaṃ upanesi
accusative nominative accusative    verb

So the verb applies to both “me” and “Brahmā’s assembly” as object. I can’t find an exactly parallel construction, but compare with these:

maṃ hi bhante aññatitthiyā sāvakaṃ labhitvā
upāsakaṃ maṃ bhavaṃ Gotamo dhāretu

Notice that though the sense is similar in both cases (“accept me [acc.] as disciple [acc.]”) the two accusatives take a different sequence in each case.

Rgarding the sense of the verb, I must start with a mea culpa: I said that both occurrences of upanesi were spoken by Māra. This is wrong, and I must amend my original post. The first example was spoken by the Buddha immediately after Māra’s speech, referring to Māra’s actions. To summarize the plot so far: the Buddha realizes that Baka had wrong view; goes to visit him; Māra possesses a member of the assembly and exhorts the Buddha to do what Brahmā says; then he shows the assembly to the Buddha. Finally the Buddha says the line with upanesi.

Now, it seems to me that we can read the line in two senses. As you suggest, we could take the more direct, literal sense (as in the translations by Horner and Thanissaro) of “lead, introduce”. This would make sense if the Buddha had not previously been introduced to the assembly. In fact, the text is a little ambiguous on this point. It mainly speaks of Brahmā, not his assembly, and while Māra possesses a member of the assembly, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Buddha had seen the whole assembly. In this reading, not until Māra shows the assembly to the Buddha does he see it.

But this reading is not unproblematic. We normally assume that the Buddha is perfectly familiar with such assemblies, and doesn’t require Māra to point them out.

In the speech of which this is the conclusion, Māra argues that those who do what Brahmā says end up reborn in a higher realm. It seems to me that what he is doing at the end here is not literally leading the Buddha to the assembly, but saying, “Here, this is what you can get if you do what Brahmā says.”

As I mentioned in my original post, this is the commentarial explanation, which I translate here:

And that is how Māra the Wicked upanesi-d the assembly of Brahmā to me means: ‘Monks, Māra said, “Monk, don’t you see Brahmā’s assembly shining, radiating, blazing with fame and glory? If you too do not overstep the word of the Great Brahmā, but do whatever he says, you too may shine with such fame and glory.” Speaking thus he upanesi-d and upasaṃhari-d Brahmā’s assembly to me.’

The verb upasaṃharati, which directly glosses upanesi, is used in a variety of senses, one of which is in the Satipatthana Sutta, where one is enjoined to “compare” a corpse with one’s own body. On the other hand, upasaṃharati, like upaneti, is used in a literal sense of “bring, present”. But I think the two cases are basically the same: an example is something that you “bring up” or “present”. The English word example, in fact, has the exact same etymology, from “take out”.

Okay, let’s look a little closer at the second case. Unlike the first case, here we have just one object in accusative (technically two, as it is repeated for the disciples and those gone forth, but these just duplicate the sense, unlike the first case, where the verb relates the two accusatives to each other.) So the obvious reading would be translate each verb as simply applying to the accusative. And this is exactly what each of the translators does: “Don’t lead the disciples … teach Dhamma to the disciples … get greedy regarding disciples”, (etc.)

But here, too, the sense is not as obvious as you might think. Māra doesn’t want the Buddha to stop teaching. On the contrary, he wants him to teach—Brahminism. He would be delighted to see the Buddha “guiding” disciples and “wishing” for them to achieve that state, for that is how he keeps them in his power. What he must mean is that he wants the Buddha to not teach that realization, i.e. the end of all attachments and rebirth. So in this passage, while this is not explicitly mentioned, it must be assumed that the object of the previous sentence must be implicitly understood.

This kind of construction is not unprecedented in such contexts. If we compare with the aforementioned passage in the Satipatthana Sutta, we have:

So imameva kāyaṃ upasaṃharati
They’d compare it with their own body

Where “it” is not explicitly present, but must refer back to the previous sentence.

Now, I mentioned that the commentary was no help in this passage. However, while it does not explain the verb, it does clarify the syntax:

Mā sāvake upanesīti gihisāvake vā pabbajitasāvake vā taṃ dhammaṃ mā upanayasi
Do not upanesi disciples: Do not upanayasi (verbal resolution of upanesi) lay or renunciate disciples with that teaching.

Thus the commentary makes it explicit that we are to assume the verbs here are read with a double accusative, as in the previous sentence, with taṃ dhammaṃ i.e. the realization mentioned in the previous sentence, being implied: “Do not present that teaching to disciples.”

As a side note here, the sub-commentary fills in the gap in the commentary by glossing upanesi as pātesi, “make them attain”. In the previous case, it has uyyojesi, “encourage”, “urge onwards”. So the sub-commentary seems to take both occurrences in a similar sense. While the explanation of the general situation is the same as in the commentary, the sub-commentary uses a different verb (uyyojesi vs. upasaṃhari).

So perhaps after all, the dominant sense of upanesi here is “present”, with the notion (as an example) implicit. This is, in fact, very similar to how “present” is used as a verb in English: a detective “presents” the evidence, or a salesman “presents” a sales pitch, in each case showing something that is calculated to inspire a specific course of action.

I’ll let this sit for a little while, but I’ll probably go back and change my original post at some point.


Yes “presents” seems to make a lot of sense in the context. I imagine Mara directing the Buddha’s attention, with a broad sweep of his arm, to the gathered assembly, who are kneeling there worshipping Brahma, somewhat glassy-eyed (because they are in Mara’s power). But maybe I am just reading it that way because that’s what Thanissaro’s translation suggests.

On further thought, “introduced” doesn’t seem so good, because there is nothing in the story to suggest the Buddha is brought to the assembly, or shown to them. The image is either that they are already there and Mara is just points them out, or that he suddenly conjures them up. Since he is disguised as a member of the assembly, it probably makes most sense to think of him as rising from his place in the assembly and saying, “look, dont you see us all here?”


I wonder if the research on a particular word should reflect how pivotal that word is to the scriptures overall.

With metta