My approach has been to try and put things into context, understand the symbolism, etc. Take Mara, for example. It is true that in some cases, Mara is portrayed as an actual being who apparently considers himself the head of the kamavacara
world. Nevertheless, in most contexts, Mara is used in reference to death, or in reference to the kilesas
(defilements). In regard to the story of the Buddha being assailed by the hosts of Mara under the Bodhi tree, G. P. Malalasekera's entry in the Dictionary of Pali Names
That this account of the Buddha's struggle with Māra is literally true, none but the most ignorant of the Buddhists believe, even at the present day. The Buddhist point of view has been well expressed by Rhys Davids (Article on Buddha in the Ency. Brit.). We are to understand by the attack of Mara's forces, that all the Buddha's
"old temptations came back upon him with renewed force. For years he had looked at all earthly good through the medium of a philosophy which had taught him that it, without exception, carried within itself the seeds of bitterness and was altogether worthless and impermanent; but now, to his wavering faith, the sweet delights of home and love, the charms of wealth and power, began to show themselves in a different light and glow again with attractive colours. He doubted and agonized in his doubt, but as the sun set, the religious side of his nature had won the victory and seems to have come out even purified from the struggle."
There is no need to ask, as does Thomas, with apparently great suspicion (Thomas, op. cit., 230), whether we can assume that the elaborators of the Mara story were recording "a subjective experience under the form of an objective reality," and did they know or think that this was the real psychological experience which the Buddha went through? The living traditions of the Buddhist countries supply the adequate answer, without the aid of the rationalists. The epic nature of the subject gave ample scope for the elaboration so dear to the hearts of the Pali rhapsodists.
As for the earthquake after Mara's defeat, to me this represents the the fact that Buddha's enlightenment was a stupendous, earth shaking event, not that the earth actually moved. A lot of people tend to take these poetic allegories literally, but I am not one of them. This is partially due to the nature of ancient Indian literature itself, which was full of allegory and symbolism. I will admit that when I first began studying the Suttas, I tended to take everything literally; but now, I have learned how to "read between the lines," as they say.
Even so, I am not saying people in ancient Indian did not believe in "supernatural" concepts, or that I do not for that matter, but I do think that not everything is meant to be taken literally. In The Celestial Key to the Vedas
, for example, B. G. Sidharth notes that the Mahabharata
"refers to an old lady who spins a fabric with 360 black threads and 360 white threads while a white horse stands by. The old lady is of course time. The black and white threads are night and day, and the white horse is the Sun. Incidentally, the origin of this symbolism is in the Vedic hymns of the Rig Veda. (1.64)" (53).
Of course there are myths and superstitions involved in allegories such as this, but I imagine that this would make complete sense to an ancient Indian, whereas we might not make the connections right away. The point is that one cannot simply assume that ever word is meant to be taken literally in Indian literature, or any other, which so heavily utilizes allegory and symbolism. It is easy to judge ancient cultures by our modern scientific standards, but I think that this is a mistake if and when we do not understand the subtleties of a particular culture because a lot can get lost in translation.
In the end, I think that there are many places in the Pali Canon where we can adopt a metaphorical interpretation of things that seem superstitious in nature. One can certainly have the view that ancient beliefs and myths are nothing but superstition, but it is just as possible that people did not know how to express certain ideas or experiences in any other way. Who knows. I am just offering possible explanations. Whatever the case, people such as Ajahn Buddhadasa had no trouble cutting through the superstitious aspects.