The Padhana Sutta in the Sutta Nipata is the earliest version of the ‘Buddha verses Mara’ story and, incidentally, the only one found in the Pali Tipitaka. This sutta is interesting for a variety of reasons. For example, Mara tells the Buddha that he has pursued him ‘for seven years’ (satta vassani), whereas tradition tells us that the Buddha’s quest for truth lasted six years. Mara’s army is made up, not of monsters and ghouls, but various negative psychological traits and states of physical deprivation, underlining the story’s allegorical and didactic intent. In verse 444 the Buddha tells Mara that after he has attained enlightenment he will ‘go from country to country training many disciples’. In other words, he had already decided to teach the Dhamma even before his encounter with Brahma Sahampati after his enlightenment (Vin.I,6-7).
However, in this post I would like to examine verse 449 from the Padhana Sutta. The verse describes Mara’s 'defeat' and reads, ‘The lute fell from the armpit of that one overcome with disappointment. Then that discouraged one disappeared there and then’. Now throughout the sutta the Buddha’s adversary is called by three names – Mara, Namuci or Kanha. Now this last name can be translated as ‘Dark One’ or ‘Darky’ and of course its Sanskrit equivalent is Krishna. Now we meet with Krishna under his alternative name of Vasudeva in the Ghata Jataka (No.454), a story very similar to the one about Krishna in the Bhagavata Purana. But what is the Hindu god Krishna doing trying to hinder the Buddha attaining enlightenment in the Sutta Nipata? Well, Krishna is probably the most amorphous of all Hindu deities. He can be the insatiable lover, (some Indians even associate the blue color of Viagra pills with Krishna), the adorable child, the trickster, the brave warrior, the noble friend, the thoughtful philosopher, the incarnation of God, etc. He is most commonly depicted today playing a flute, and in earlier times, a lute (vina), as in the Sutta Nipata. The best ‘biography’ of Krishna I know of is in Trevor Ling’s outstanding ‘A History of Religion East and West’ (1968).
But whatever Krishna became later, he started off as an aboriginal fertility god, similar to Pan (you know, dalliancing in the wood with the shepherdesses and playing his pan pipes). His aboriginal origins also explain his color, although the Aryan distaste of blackness caused him to become blue as he was gradually incorporated into Hinduism. But at the time of the Buddha, Krishna was a popular but minor a god of sensual love and in that role he tried to distract the Buddha from his noble quest.