Doctrine of Maya
The doctrine of Maya forms one of the pillars of the Vedanta philosophy. It is often interpreted as to mean illusion. Although such interpretations might have some relevance in the course of the development of its principle, in Vedanta its meaning goes much beyond illusion. The historical process of evolution of the meaning of the word “Maya” starts from the Rig Vedic period down to the times of Sankara, when it acquired a rigid and technical sense, which survives even to-day.
In the Rig-Veda the chief meanings assigned to the word “Maya” are “power" (Prajna, knowledge) and "deception" (Kapata). It is noticed that wherever it means “power” the idea of “mystery” necessarily goes with it i.e., it does not mean any "physical" power, but "a mysterious power of the will" which would translate into such Sanskrit expressions as Sankalpa Sakti or Iccha Sakti.
Certain inexplicable things or results are produced by this mysterious will-power, and these being extra-ordinary by their very nature may be said to be beyond the ordinary human understanding which is apt to be "deceived" by such phenomena. Hence, the idea of "mysterious will power" and “deception” came to be associated with the word “Maya”.
The word “Maya” is derived from “ma”, to measure or by which is measured, meaning thereby, that illusive projection of the world by which the immeasurable Brahman appears as if measured. The same root gives further the sense of “to build” leading to the idea of "appearance" or illusion. Thus, the word “Maya" meant in the Rig-Veda supernatural power, mysterious will-power, wonderful skill, and that the idea of the underlying mystery, illusion or magic being more and more emphasized later on till in the time of Sankara when it was firmly established. Another interpretation of the word is the term maya denoting “ma” not and “ya’ this i.e. not this what is seen, an expression implying illusion is that which gives the impression of being something it is not.
The view of Maya put forth in the philosophical Upanishads serves as an important transitional phase between its Vedic and Mythological conceptions. Isha tells us that the veil which covers the truth is golden, so rich, gaudy and dazzling that it takes away the mind of the observer from the inner contents. Katha says how people live in ignorance and thinking themselves wise, move about wandering, like blind men leading the blind. Chhandogya tells us that the Atman is the only Reality; everything else is merely a word, a mode and a name. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad says ‘The Lord on account of Maya is perceived as manifold.’
Svetaswatara Upanishad in particular identifies Maya with nature when it says ‘Know nature to be Maya and the ruler of Maya to be the Lord Himself.’ It describes God as a Mayin who creates this world by His power. Here it is claimed that the mahesvara (or "Great Lord," who is identified in this text as Shiva) projects the physical world out of the substrata of the universe known as Brahman.
Later devotional Hinduism came to conceive of particular deities as the sole object of their worship, primarily the gods Shiva and Vishnu and recount their actions as examples of the operation of Maya. We have already seen such power in the story of Narada and Krishna narrated in the beginning. Maya is considered by Hindu theism to be an indispensable part of God's feminine aspect, and has been called his Shakti, or energy. The feminine aspect of Maya has been personified as Maha Maya (great Maya), a great goddess responsible for the creation of the physical world. This aspect of Maya is also visualized as the form of Divine Mother (Devi).
With the advance in thought, the principle of unity attracted more and more attention, so much so that as early as in the Rig-Veda we find statements such as “ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti " i.e., the wise speak of the One Being under various names, the multiplicity was felt to be due to a mode of speech only, not real in itself which subsequently came to be expressed by Sankara as "brahma satyam jagan mithya Jivo brahmaiva naparah." i.e. Brahman is the only Reality ; the world is ultimately false ; and the individual soul (Atman) is non-different from Brahman .
While Sankara synthesized all these forms of thought into a single whole with the help of the Sruti as well as reason. Before him was another great Advaitist, Gaudapada who was honored as the teacher of Govindayogindra who himself was the teacher of Sankara. He has left to us one of the most wonderful expositions of the fundamentals of Advaitism, called "Karikas on the Mandukya Upanisad."
The Karika is the first available systematic treatise on Advaita Vedanta. Although Gaudapada’s philosophy is based on the Upanishads, particularly on Mandukya, as well as logic and reasoning, he is also much influenced by Mahayana Buddhism. His philosophy as reflected in the Karika is an extreme form of Advaita, emphasizing the non-dual Reality behind this apparent diversity. Amongst the four sections of the Karika, the last one viz.Alatashanti Prakarana (Quenching the fire brand) gives the example of a fire brand or lighted torch (alata) when moved around fast creates an optical illusion like a circle of fire though no such circle really exists. Gaudapada compares the illusory nature of the world to this imaginary circle of fire. The conception of Maya as developed by Gaudapada was subsequently elaborated by Sankara.
Sankara’s contributions on the question of Maya
According to Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is the only Reality. This Brahman appears to us as the universe of multifarious names and forms because of our ignorance of Brahman, in the same way as a rope, when not recognized as such due to dim light, appears as a snake. This ignorance is also known by the names 'Nescience' and 'Maya'.
In his commentary on the Kathopanishad Sri Sankara says: "Alas, how unfathomable, inscrutable, and variegated is this Maya, that every creature, though in Reality identical with the supreme Being and even when taught so, does not grasp that fact and does not recognize himself as the supreme Self, while, even without being told, he accepts as his Self the not-Self, namely, the aggregate of body and senses and thinks, 'I am the son of so and so', though these (the body, senses, etc.) are only objects (of perception) like pots, etc. Verily, they are being deluded by the Maya of the supreme Being so much that every one moves again and again (through the unending cycle of birth and death)".
In Vivekachudamani Sankara points out that Maya is the power of the Lord. It is without beginning, is made up of the three gunas and is superior to the effects as their cause. It is to be inferred by one of clear intellect only from the effects it produces. It is that which brings forth this whole universe. Maya is neither existent nor non-existent nor partaking of both characters; neither same nor different nor both; neither composed of parts nor an indivisible whole nor both. It is most wonderful and cannot be described in words.
In Mayapanchakam, a work consisting of five stanzas, Sri Sankara brings out how Maya makes incompatibles appear together and is adept at making the impossible happen.
Sankara’s Tattva-Bodha, a basic textbook of definitions on Vedanta gives a very precise definition of maya as ‘depending on Brahman for its existence is maya which is of the nature of the three gunas viz.sattva, rajas and tamas’. Based on the above definitions the nature of maya can be summarized as:
1. Brahmasraya - That which has Brahman as its substratum
2. Trigunatmika - Made up of the three gunas
3. Anirvachaniya - Indescribable
4. Jnana Virodhi - Antagonistic to knowledge,
5. Bhavarupa - Positive
6. Viksepa & Avarana Sakti – Projecting and concealing powers and
7. Anadi –Beginningless
Sankara’s philosophy at the back of these definitions is that this finite, mortal, ever-changing world that we see around us is born out of Maya alone and the basic truth is one only, advaita. The one without a second! This One Reality called Brahman appears as the many, the Absolute to have become the Relative, due to the peculiar, indefinable, factor called Maya inhering in Brahnman itself.
Just as semi-darkness hides the real nature of a rope lying on the road as a rope and instead projects it as a snake which is not there so also Maya conceals the true nature of Brahman as Sat-Chit-Ananda (by its avarana sakti) and projects on that base, this manifold universe (by its viksepa sakti). The creation and multiplicity are due to Maya. Through its influence names and forms are falsely superimposed upon Brahman. As long as one sees the duality, one is dwelling in the realm of ignorance or avidya or Maya.
Even as a light reveals the rope thereby dispelling the appearance of a snake, removing all the fear, in the same way, jnana or right knowledge removes the illusion brought about by Maya.
Maya is also described in the scriptures by various other terms like prakriti, ajnana, sakti, nature, illusion, nescience, ignorance etc. Under its influence the Self, which is the same as immortal Brahman, regards Itself as an embodied being and experiences the suffering and miseries of the world. With the help of Maya, but retaining control of it, Brahman appears as an avatar or incarnation in order to subdue the power of inequity and establish righteousness.
It must be understood that the very purpose of spiritual discipline is not to establish Maya but to cross over Maya and know one’s own real divne nature. Bhagavan Sri Krishna promises in the Bhagavad Gita to take all of us through this very Herculean process.