What is Maya and how does it impact our lives? The Sanskrit word maya literally means “deception, illusion, infatuation, appearance, ignorance or cosmic illusion.” Maya is the magical power in creation that veils human vision and causes humans to perceive the infinite, undivided, and changeless reality (Self or Brahman) as finite, divided, and changing. Swami Muktananda writes, “The Self of every individual is an integral part of God…When this is the true law, why do we human beings experience imperfection, why do we feel broken and scattered, and why do we keep crying out and weeping? The reason is our forgetfulness of our own real nature caused by maya. Although illusory, this Self-forgetfulness is very powerful. It has been called ignorance, nescience, maya, or impurity.”
Maya is a popular term in the Hindu religious, spiritual and philosophical literature and is used with different connotations in different contexts. From the spiritual perspective, maya is the veiling and obscuring twin power of Nature, which creates an illusion in our perception. What is meant by illusion? A person is said to be under illusion when he or she declares something to be other than what it really is. In other words, he or she takes as true or real something which is neither. The classic Advatic metaphor illustrating how maya operates is that of seeing a rope as a snake. In twilight, a person may see a coiled rope as a snake, but the snake disappears in the bright light of the sun and the rope is seen as it really is. In this example, a person seeing the rope as a snake is under illusion because he or she sees something (a rope) but misinterprets it as something else (a snake).
Maya helps an individual to attain superior worldly knowledge, but at the same time deceives him or her by creating a false notion of his or her own true being. Maya creates a sense of differentiation in us. It conceals the higher reality from us in the first place and then projects it to us as something else. Maya strengthens our attachment to the material world and hampers our will to know who we really are. In this sense, maya is ignorance (avidya),or impurity. “Maya is the ignorance that darkens our consciousness and tends to limit it within the boundaries of our personal self (ego). It is this Avidya, this ignorance, this limiting of consciousness that creates the hard separateness of ego, and thus becomes the source of all pride, greed and cruelty incidental to self-seeking…” writes Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate for literature.
If maya is the cause of ignorance, then why has God created it? “That is His play,” replies Paramahamsa Sri Ramakrishna. “The glory of light cannot be appreciated without darkness. Happiness cannot be understood without misery. The knowledge of good is possible because of the knowledge of evil. Maya may be likened to the skin of a mango. The mango grows and ripens because of the presence of its covering skin. You throw away the skin when the mango is fully ripe and ready to be eaten. [Likewise] it is possible for a man to attain gradually to the knowledge of Brahman because of [the presence of the] covering skin of maya. It [maya] is necessary…”, explains Sri Ramakrishna.
According to Hindu scriptures, the ultimate reality is infinite, undivided and changeless. But, under the influence of maya, we see this reality divided into finite things and beings of the world, and changing in space and time. Thus maya is a mistaken or limited way of looking at the world. It allows us to perceive the world, but differently from what it really is. Under the spell of maya, an ordinary person sees the world only as a show of fleeing names and forms. But when the same person attains self-knowledge, he or she transcends maya, sees God everywhere, and ceases to see the differences created by the body-mind-ego complex. The world does not disappear for them, but presents itself as the glory of God, a divine play (lila). Worldly people are interested in the names and forms of the gold ornaments, but a self-realized person looks upon them only as gold through and through, observes Swami Shivananda.
Sages and seers remind us that because of maya our aims, objectives and interests naturally keep changing from early childhood to old age. For a baby the mother is the reality and all else is maya. For a child, toys are the reality and everything else, including his or her mother, is maya. For a young person, new interests in the form of work, wealth, family, art and research become the reality and everything else is maya. In old age, the earlier pursuits of one’s life become trivial and desire to know the ultimatereality (Self) becomes the reality. In the case of a fortunate few, gifted with vision and wisdom, Self-realization is the reality right from a young age, as is evident from the lives of saints and seers of all religions and cultures.
Maya is the mother of all our worldly illusions. It impacts our minds and our lives by creating the following four great illusions (Mahamaya), which we must overcome in order to succeed on our life’s ultimate journey to Self-awareness.
Illusion of Separateness
The illusion of separateness induces us to believe that God has created us separate from Himself and from everything else in the nature. Hindu saints and seers assert that the illusion of separateness is the first major hurdle in achieving peace and harmony in the world. Scriptures declare that while we perceive diversity in the nature due to maya, in reality there is oneness behind the great multiplicity of things and beings in the universe. Rig Veda declares: “Truth is one, wise call it by various names.” Sri Aurobindo writes, “’In nature, therefore, all things that exist, animate or inanimate, are becomings of the one Self of all. All these different creatures are one indivisible existence.”
Sages and scriptures reveal that the illusion of separateness must be overcome by recognizing that all things and beings are different manifestations of one Reality, call it what you may – Brahman, God, consciousness, awareness, the absolute. This mental attitude, i.e. recognition of unity in diversity, is the first critical step in one’s journey to Self-awareness.
Illusion of Materiality
The illusion of materiality leads to the erroneous view that big is better and our self-image and worth are determined by what we possess, and not by who we are. This attitude results in our attachment to the physical world and lust for material wealth.
The Bhagavad Gita declares, “when a person ceases to have any attachment either for the object of senses or for actions, and has renounced all thoughts of the world, he or she is said to have climbed to the heights of yoga.” This does not mean that we should not acquire material wealth and satisfy our genuine needs and desires. In Hinduism, wealth (artha) is considered as one of the four legitimate ends of human life, the other three being dharma (righteousness), kama (fulfillment of noble desires), and moksha (Enlightenment or spiritual freedom). What the Bhagavad Gita teaches is that acquiring wealth should not become the single end of one’s life.
Illusion of Rationality
The illusion of rationality leads us to the belief that all we can know is what we perceive through the mind and senses. We tend to believe that reason is the highest tool of knowledge and will solve all life’s problems. We think that reason can give us a true understanding of what or who we really are, the world around us, and will lead us to permanent peace and bliss.
Hindu scriptures classify knowledge into two categories: rational or lower knowledge (para vidya) and higher or intuitive knowledge (apara vidya). The lower knowledge consists of worldly knowledge such as humanities, arts and sciences, which is necessary in order to enhance our physical aspect of life. We are, however, spiritual beings with physical bodies and not vice versa. Love, freedom and peace are spiritual essence of our true nature and cannot be realized through material wealth and abundance alone. Rational knowledge is inadequate to understand the aim of our lives, our relationship with human beings, other creatures, and with God. “Thought can grasp the unfolded (physical phenomena), but only something beyond thought – intuition, unmediated insight, and intelligence – can experience the enfolded (what is beyond physical phenomena)…”, says David Bohme, a most significant 20th century theoretical physicist.
Sages reveal that the intellect often works as an instrument of the ego. This is why reason often separates rather than unites. A reasonable man is not necessarily a virtuous man, because often he or she uses reason to fulfill his or her own selfish ends. The higher or intuitive knowledge is necessary to attain love, freedom and peace and expressed in the Upanishads in many phrases such as “knowing by becoming” and “to know Brahman is to become Brahman.” The sages and saints proclaim that higher knowledge is a matter of being rather than just doing and true knowledge is synthetic and unifying and not analytic and divisive. In our endeavor to know others and ourselves truly, we should not treat others as objects, but as ‘I’s’ and ‘thou’s’, advise Hindu sages and seers.
Illusion of Duality
The illusion of duality (or dualism) is the most powerful illusion that leads to the true-false dichotomy in ethics and religion. In ethics, this illusion induces us to think that an act is only either right or wrong, or good or bad. Hindu sages adopt a monistic viewpoint, according to which truth is a matter of degree. While we must adopt the truth in all situations and circumstances, we must recognize that the truth and falsehood are usually shared. The illusion of dualism in ethics often leads us to think that our views are right and those of others are wrong. It induces us to use evil means to attain good ends. Ends and means cannot be separated, writes Mahatma Gandhi. Only through good means should good ends be realized.
The illusion of dualism in religion leads to the true-false dichotomies, such as believers-nonbelievers, saved-unsaved and redeemed-unredeemed. The religions that have accepted such dichotomies have historically become divisive and created hatred among people. History shows that such religions have brought more misery to the humankind than any other single cause. The true object of religion should be to bind people through love, mutual respect and acceptance so that the humankind can become one large family of God (vasudhaiva kutumbkam). People are not saved or unsaved, or redeemed or unredeemed. Life is not a matter of going from evil to good, but from lesser good to higher good, writes Swami Vivekananda.