mãyã (Sanskrit: माया, "consisting of; made of") from roots ma, "to measure, to limit, give form" and ya, generally translated as an indicative article meaning "that" — is the principal concept which manifests, perpetuates and governs the illusion and dream of duality in the phenomenal Universe. The substance emanated from Brahman through which the world of form is manifested. Hence all creation is also termed maya. It is the cosmic creative force, the principle of manifestation, ever in the process of creation, preservation and dissolution. Denotes to the false identification of atman (Self) through anatma (non-Self — consists of body, senses, emotion, mind and intellect). The Upanishads underscore maya's captivating nature, which blinds atman (Self) to the transcendent Truth.
Mãyã is to be seen through, like an epiphany, in order to achieve moksha — liberation of the atman from the cycle of samsara. Ahamkara (ego-consciousness) and karma are seen as part of the binding forces of mãyã. Mãyã may be understood as the phenomenal Universe of perceived duality, a lesser reality-lens superimposed on the unity of Brahman. It is said to be created by the divine by the application of the lila (creative energy/material cycle, manifested as a veil — the basis of dualism). The samskaras of perceived duality perpetuate samsara.
Mãyã is neither true nor untrue. Since Brahman is the only Truth, mãyã cannot be true. Since mãyã causes the material world to be seen, it cannot be untrue. Hence, mãyã is described as indescribable. Maya has two principle functions — one is to veil Brahman and obscure and conceal it from our consciousness. The other is to present and promulgate the material world and the veil of duality instead of Brahman. The veil of Maya is piercable and with diligence and grace, may be permanently rent. Consider an illusion of a rope being confused as a snake in the darkness. Just as this illusion gets destroyed when true knowledge of the rope is perceived, similarly, Maya gets destroyed for a person when they perceive Brahman with transcendental knowledge. A metaphor is also given — when the reflection of Brahman falls on mãyã, Brahman appears as God (the Supreme Lord). Pragmatically, where the duality of the world is regarded as true, mãyã becomes the divine magical power of the Supreme Lord. Mãyã is the veritable fabric of duality and she performs this role at the behest of the Supreme Lord. God is not bound by mãyã, just as magicians are not illusioned and deluded by their own magic.
In Advaita Vedanta, mãyã is the limited, purely physical and mental reality in which our everyday consciousness has become entangled. Mãyã is held to be an illusion, a veiling of the true, unitary Self — the Cosmic Spirit also known as Brahman.
In Saiva it is one of the three pasha (bonds) that limit the atman and thereby facilitate its evolution. For Saivas and most other non-dualists, it is understood not as illusion but as relative reality, in contrast to the unchanging Absolute Reality.
In the Saiva Siddhanta system, there are three main divisions of mãyã, the pure, the pure-impure and the impure realms. Pure or shuddha maya consists of the first five tattvas — Siva tattva, Shakti tattva, Sadasiva tattva, Ishvara tattva and Shuddhavidya tattva. The pure-impure realm consists of the next seven tattvas. The impure realm consists of the maya tattva and all of its evolutes — from the kala tattva to prithivi, the element earth. Thus, in relation to the physical universe, mãyã is the principle of ever-changing matter.
Description by Shri Shankaracharya
- The Supreme Self (or Ultimate Reality) who is Pure Consciousness perceived Himself by Selfhood (i.e. Existence with "I"-Consciousness). He became endowed with the name "I". From that arose the basis of difference.
- He exists verily in two parts, on account of which, the two could become husband and wife. Therefore, this space is ever filled up completely by the woman (or the feminine principle) surely.
- And He, this Supreme Self thought (or reflected). Thence, human beings were born. Thus say the Upanishads through the statement of sage Yajnavalkya to his wife.
- From the experience of bliss for a long time, there arose in the Supreme Self a certain state like deep sleep. From that (state) Maya (or the illusive power of the Supreme Self) was born just as a dream arises in sleep.
- This Maya is without the characteristics of (or different from) Reality or unreality, without beginning and dependent on the Reality that is the Supreme Self. She, who is of the form of the Three Guna (qualities or energies of Nature) brings forth the Universe with movable and immovable (objects).
- As for Maya, it is invisible (or not experienced by the senses). How can it produce a thing that is visible (or experienced by the senses)? How is a visible piece of cloth produced here by threads of invisible nature?
- Though the emission of ejaculate onto sleeping garments or bedclothes is yielded by the natural experience of copulation in a wet dream, the stain of the garment is perceived as real upon waking whilst the copulation and lovemaking was not true or real. Both sexual partners in the dream are unreal as they are but dream bodies, and the sexual union and conjugation was illusory, but the emission of the generative fluid was real. This is a metaphor for the resolution of duality into lucid unity.
- Thus Maya is invisible (or beyond sense-perception). (But) this universe which is its effect, is visible (or perceived by the senses). This would be Maya which, on its part, becomes the producer of joy by its own destruction.
- Like night (or darkness) Maya is extremely insurmountable (or extremely difficult to be understood). Its nature is not perceived here. Even as it is being observed carefully (or being investigated) by sages, it vanishes like lightning.
- Maya (the illusive power) is what is obtained in Brahman (or the Ultimate Reality). Avidya (or nescience or spiritual ignorance) is said to be dependent on Jiva (the individual soul or individualized consciousness). Mind is the knot which joins Consciousness and matter.
- Space enclosed by a pot, or a jar or a hut or a wall has their several appellations (eg.,pot space, jar space etc.). Like that, Consciousness (or the Self) covered here by Avidya (or nescience) is spoken of as jiva (the individual soul).
- Objection: How indeed could ignorance become a covering (or an obscure factor) for Brahman (or the Supreme Spirit) who is Pure Consciousness, as if the darkness arising from the night (could become a concealing factor) for the sun which is self-luminous?
- As the sun is hidden by clouds produced by the solar rays but surely, the character of the day is not hidden by those modified dense collection of clouds, so the Self, though pure, (or undefiled) is veiled for a long time by ignorance. But its power of Consciousness in living beings, which is established in this world, is not veiled.
Other Related Terms
- mahamaya, means great maya.
- A mayavadin professes that the world is maya. Such a teaching would be wholly included in world-maya - and hence be illusory. Few all-is-maya teachers think of that and stand up to the hard consequences.
- paramaya, the supreme maya, stands for higher divine Nature.
- 'vidya-avidyamayi maya' is maya composed of Knowledge and Ignorance. vidyamaya is the maya of Knowledge (gnosis). avidya is non-vidya, that is, not-knowing, ignorance.
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