Maya is one of the pillars upon which the Vedanta rests. Maya is one of the basic doctrines of the Advaita Vedanta. Maya cannot be defined; it can only be described by situations. We have to infer Maya from its functioning. Maya is a concept, if it is not demonstrated correctly the concept is misunderstood. According to Advaita vedanta, Brahman is the only reality. Brahman appears to us as the Universe of multifarious names and forms due to Maya. Vedanta says that everything that exists in the world, including science is the manifestation of Brahman, the supreme consciousness. By knowing the supreme, everything is known. Everything in this Universe is insentient; it gets its power of operation from the supreme consciousness. The energy, which is the working power of the Universe, is insentient; it gets its power from its source, the supreme consciousness. It is the Maya which makes the energy evolve from the supreme consciousness. Basically our mind is also insentient; it operates by the power of its source, the Atma. Atma is universal; it is only the insentient mind that differs. Each insentient mind wants to excel the other insentient mind. The delusion of the mind to see difference without knowing the truth is called Maya. This is one of the ways by which Maya functions.
We are drawn by this power called Maya. It binds us in the name of attraction and we are unable to free from that bondage. When we know the truth behind the binding power, we liberate from the bondage of Maya. Sometimes we suffer because of bondage, but still we hold on to that bondage. We are unable to leave the bondage due to various reasons. Many a time we like and accept the suffering. An apt metaphor for this concept is the family life. Many are aware of the responsibilities and the bondage of the family life; still they indulge in it. Unable to come out of the bondage, they accept the suffering in the bondage. Maya leads us to take such decisions. Once king Yudhishtra was asked a question by Yama Deva, “What is the most wonderful thing on the earth?” The king replied, “Every day people are dying around us, and yet men think that they will never die”. This is Maya. Maya deludes the mind and takes us away from reality. People who have lived long enough, and people who have struggled for a long time understand Maya. If there is happiness, then definitely there will be sorrow. There is no success without a failure. There will never be a perfectly good or bad world, because everything is a contradiction. The phenomenon which is appearing to be good now may appear to be bad tomorrow and vice versa. Good and bad are the manifestation of the same power. All these happen because of Maya. We detach from Maya by detaching ourselves from the misery, which is a function of Maya. Maya is the most difficult and intricate state of things to understand. In one form or other, we are all in Maya. Power of Maya is such that it makes us think that Maya itself is life and religion. Its power will not allow us to seek the truth. Scriptures and various other spiritual practices help us to know about the nature of Maya and this leads us to liberation. Sri Adi Shankaracharya in Manisha panchakam points out that “This entire world is a projection of pure consciousness. Because of ignorance(Maya), all this has been projected by Me”, (verse 2a). This universe has come out of Maya. Maya has no existence independent of the supreme consciousness. Maya is not real; it is only an illusion power of the Supreme consciousness. Just like the shadow which is always present with us, Maya always exists in the Supreme Being. This world which is the creation of Maya does not have an absolute existence. Maya, along with its creations becomes unmanifest in pralaya. Maya does not have any unchangeable, immovable or infinite existence.
Creations of Maya are multifarious. Maya creates luxury, wealth and power. Mind which is the projection of Maya is limited. It cannot go beyond the limits of time, space, and cause. We feel that we are bound and entangled in Maya. Humans have unlimited power, but they imagine that they are limited. A person enjoys various creations of Maya by imagining that he is limited. Maya does not allow him to realize either the limits of Maya or his own unlimited power. Bhagavan krishna in Sri Baghavad Gita says, “Verily, this divine illusion of mine, made up of the three qualities of nature is difficult to cross over, those who take refuge in Me alone, cross over this illusion” (7, 14).
The whole of human knowledge is a generalization of this Maya, trying to know it, as it appears to be. Everything that has name and form arises as an idea from the mind, and is within Maya. Even the concept of personal God is due to Maya. From the view point of Advaita vedanta , the idea of God with name and form is a mere creation. It is the idea of each individual, and that is the reason why the personal God differs according to different mentality. The truth lies behind the creation, which is ever pure, immutable and immortal. The manifestation is always changing. When we evolve more, the truth is revealed. Maya weakens our controlling and discrimination power.
Adi shankarara’s Vivekachudamani describes Maya as, “It is undifferentiated and undivided. Nobody can define what it is, but it has the power of God. Beginning less and yet, also called ignorance, it has three qualities; sattva, rajas and tamas. It cannot be understood except by its actions, and that, only by the illumined ones. It has created all this universe – produced it all. It is Maya“, (verse 108). Maya is unreal because it changes, and it is not unreal because it exists.
Maya has two powers – concealing power( avarana shakti) and projecting power( vikshepa shakti). Maya with these two powers conceals the reality and projects the non reality. The power of projection creates the world. “The foams and bubbles in the ocean are nothing but the ocean water in another form. The foams and bubbles conceal the ocean and project it in another form as foams and bubbles. Similarly, the world is a manifestation of Brahman. Brahman is limitless, unchanging consciousness. Like foams and bubbles in the ocean, names and forms become manifest”,( Drig Drishya viveka, 14). The foams and bubbles are not the reality, but it exists. It changes in no time. It gives a different appearance for the ocean. The foams and bubbles have the nature of the ocean. Similarly, the world exists, but it always changes. The world gives a different appearance for its reality, the Brahman. The world has the nature of Brahman. It is only Brahman in another form. A mind indulged in Maya thinks that this world is different from its reality and the source, Brahman. It is the projecting power of Maya that projects Brahman as the world. Maya conceals the truth of Brahman to make it appear in another form as the world. Maya projects the mind for this purpose and it deludes the mind and makes it think that the world is the reality. The mind forgets about Brahman. A mind detached from Maya will understand the Reality.
Sri Ramana Maharshi explains about Maya with another metaphor. He explains that, when we take fire as the substratum, sparks fly off from it. Spark is the modification of the fire. Sparks are not seen in fire itself, but come out of it. From this metaphor we infer that a power is inherent in the fire which produces the sparks. Like this a power lying latent in Brahman produces the illusion of the world(jagat). The substratum of this power is Brahman and the jagat is its effect. This power cannot be either Brahman or the jagat, but must be different from both. It cannot be defined. However it exists, but it remains inscrutable. Therefore the nature of Maya is indescribable. This power called Maya conceals the truth and projects its effect jagat,(Advaita bodha deepika).
Individuality is superimposed on the witness consciousness. When the veiling power is destroyed by knowledge, the superimposition becomes apparent. The modification belongs to Maya, and not to the underlying consciousness. The famous metaphor of rope and snake gives light to this concept. Sri Adi shankara explains that, a rope was lying on the floor in dim light. Every passerby thought that it is a snake and got afraid of it. In the bright light they understood that it is a rope. The misconception and fear is gone with proper understanding. In this metaphor the truth that it is a rope is concealed and the illusion of snake is projected. In the dim light the rope appeared as a snake. In the bright light, the reality that it is a rope is revealed. The truth that it is the rope is concealed and the image of the snake is superimposed on the rope by the projecting power of Maya. Similarly, the appearance of the world is true, but when Brahman is revealed by proper enquiry and understanding, the world loses its importance and Maya will not bind the mind. In the process of enquiry, Maya becomes more and more transparent and turns into knowledge. Maya flourishes in ignorance and disappears with the rise of enquiry.
It is an individual’s decision to either stay in Maya or to come out of Maya. Good and bad are not two different things; they differ in degrees. Similarly knowledge and ignorance are the outcome of the same supreme intelligence. Ignorance and knowledge are both present in an individual. It differs by degrees. We have to improve the knowledge so that ignorance disappears.
Advaita vedanta teaches us to go beyond limits. When our mentality expands, we realize Maya, and its base as the Supreme consciousness. Vedanta makes us realize that freedom is our nature and it is an illusion to think that Maya has bound us. Sri Vidhura says, ‘ the cause of the world lies in Maya, the mysterious power of the lord. Apart from the lord, it has no independent existence and apart from Him it cannot be understood at all’,(Srimad Bhagavata, 3, 7, 16). A realized or enlightened person is the most powerful in this universe.
Many are unaware of the difference between Brahman and Maya. Brahman is not affected by the modifications of the Maya. When moon is reflected in water, sometimes the moon wavers because of the distortion in the water. The defect is not with the moon. It depends on the medium which reflects the moon (water). As long as one sees the duality, he is dwelling in the realm of ignorance; jhana removes the illusion brought about by Maya. In Srimad Baghavata in Navayogi samvada, Antariksha points out that the creation, preservation and dissolution happen because of Maya. Maya manifests in creation and unmanifests in dissolution. Maya appears and withdraws by itself. Maya is different from the real substratum and also from the unreal phenomenon. A mind established in the Brahmic state is free from the clutches of Maya.
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Srimad Bhagavata, Volumes (1, 2, 4) (Trans, Swami Tapasyananda), Mylapore, Sri Ramakrishna Math
Vivekachudamani of Sri Sankaracharya (Trans, Swami Turiyananda), Mylapore, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1991
Advaita Bodha Deepika, Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai, 2008
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Drig Drishya Viveka of Adi Sankaracharya
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