Later,Rupert Gethin wrote:I do not wish, however, to suggest that a psychological interpretation of such figures as Mara is the whole story. I am not claiming that all ancient readers or hearers of these "texts" would have conceived of Mara's daughters and armies simply as mystic symbols of particular mental states. No doubt for many, Mara, his daughters, and his armies would have had a reality as autonomous beings apart from their own mental states.
I do want to claim, however, that a psychological interpretation would have made sense to the authors and readers of these texts. Yet in making such a claim I do not wish to imply that a psychological reading somehow reveals the "true" and "real" significance of the various cosmological beings--the significance intended by the Buddha but which the Buddhist tradition had to compromise in the face of popular belief, and which we in the late twentieth century are at last privileged to access. The Buddhism of the Nikayas embraces the notion of rebirth, and the account of different realms of existence occupied by a variety of beings is integral to that.
The categories of "mythic symbol" and "literally true" are modern and are bound up with a complex ontology that has been shaped by a particular intellectual and cultural tradition. Thus to approach what, for the want of a better term, we call the mythic portions of the Nikayas with the attitude that such categories as "mythic symbol" and "literally true" are absolutely opposed is to adopt an attitude that is out of time and place. It seems to me that in some measure we must allow both a literal and a psychological interpretation. Both are there in the texts.
This was back in 1997; I don't think much has been done since then in this direction...In the light of an extremely suggestive article by Peter Masefield, it seems that instead of being misled into searching for meaning in terms of the categories of literal truth and mythic symbol, we should understand the Nikayas' reference both to a cosmic hierarchy of beings (humans, devas and brahmas) and to a psychological hierarchy of mental states (levels of jhana) as paralleling the Upanisadic categories of "with reference to the gods" (adhidaivatam) and "with reference to the self" (adhyatmam): that is, "reality" may be viewed either from the perspective of an exterior world (brahman) or from the perspective of an interior world (atman) that are in some sense--though, in the case of Buddhist thought, not an absolutist metaphysical one--the same.
Thus Masefield suggests that to talk or conceive of Mara as a cosmic entity on the one hand and as psychological forces on the other is essentially to shift from the adhidaivatam to the adhyatmam perspective. I am persuaded that Masefield has indeed identified here a way of thinking that runs very deep in the Indian philosophical tradition, and while the importance of this way of thinking may be acknowledged in the context of the Vedas and Hindu and Buddhist tantra, it is insufficiently understood in the context of early Buddhism.