[This essay originally appeared in two parts in the June and July, 2009 issues of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams’ Monthly ‘Sapthagiri’ which has been revised here].
We are all familiar with the term Maya or Illusion but not quite well acquainted with its tremendous Vedantic significance. Before we start an enquiry into what exactly is meant by the term Maya let me tell you some stories
Story of dividing the elephants
“A man died, leaving behind 17 elephants as his only wealth. He had three sons, According to his will; the first son should get one-half of his wealth, the second one-third and the third one-ninth. Now how could the sons divide 17 elephants among themselves in the manner stipulated? The king, who happened to be passing by on his elephant, said he would solve the problem. He alighted from his elephant and put it beside the 17 of the dead man’s. He said he had added his elephant to the 17 to make the number even. So the first son got one-half of the 18 that is nine elephants. The second got one-third of the 18 that is six. The third got two, one-ninth of the 18 elephants. The king said: “This leaves one elephant, the one I added to your father’s collection. I take it back now that the division of the elephants among you is over.” The sons were happy that the division was in accordance with their father’s will.
However, was the division indeed in accordance with their father’s will? It was not. It was a mere illusion that they had kept to the provisions of the will. Such is the nature of illusion that we take comfort from what we see as just and get upset over what we perceive as unjust.” [The Hindu dt 04/08/2009]
Story of Narada fetching water for Krishna
Once Narada said to Krishna, “Lord show me Maya.” After a few days Krishna asked Narada to make a trip with him towards a desert. After walking several miles Krishna asked Narada to fetch some drinking water. Narada entered a nearby village and knocked at a door which was opened by an extremely beautiful young girl. At the sight of her Narada forgot everything and began talking with the girl. That talk ripened into love; he asked the girl’s father for the daughter; they were married, lived there and had three children. After twelve years his father-in-law died and Narada inherited his property. He lived, as he seemed to think, a very happy life with his wife and children, his fields and his cattle, and so forth.
Then came a flood. One night the river rose until it overflowed its banks and flooded the whole village. Houses fell, men and animals were swept away and drowned and everything was floating in the rush of the stream. Narada had to escape. With one hand he held his wife, and with the other two of his children; another child was on his shoulders and he was trying to ford this tremendous flood. After some time the child on his shoulders fell and was swept away by the current of the water. In trying to save that child, Narada lost his grasp of the other children who were also lost. At last his wife was also torn away from his tight clasp and Narada was thrown on the bank, weeping and wailing in bitter lamentation.
Behind him came a gentle voice, “My child, where is the water? You went to fetch a pitcher of water for me, and I have been waiting for you; you have been gone for quite half-an-hour.” “Half-an-hour!” Narada exclaimed! Twelve whole years seemed to have passed through in his mind; but in fact all these scenes had happened in half-an-hour only. And this is Maya.
These stories provide an insight into one of the principal doctrines of Hinduism which says that the phenomenal world is simply an emanation of divine energy that has been filtered through Maya. This is reiterated in the Mahabharata when the voice of a Yaksha asked Yudhishtir: ‘Of the entire world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful?’ the celebrated reply was: ‘that no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die’. This is Maya.