Saturday, February 21, 2015

“Maya” – The Veil of illusion!

Maya: unreality, delusion, deception, fraud, trick; magic, witchcraft; in Indian philosophy and mysticism, the veil of illusion; the illusion of sensory appearance; the illusion that veils perception of the divine Reality, projecting transience as real; the principle responsible for vivarta (whirling about, i.e. illusion, delusion); all that which is not eternal, which is not real or true; hence, the phenomenal universe and all material appearances.

Though often associated specifically with the physical universe, maya is essentially a power originating with the universal mind, and prevailing throughout the worlds of the mind. Maya is often represented as a beautiful, but faithless, woman who lures mankind and keeps the soul tied to the realm of illusion.

This world is taken as reality by most of its inhabitants. However, the concept of reality is poorly understood. It is worth considering, for example, whether something that changes, and cannot be relied upon to remain the same indefinitely, can be considered real in an absolute sense. Similarly, can something be considered real if it promises to be one thing, but turns out to be another- if it has actually been a deception and an illusion? Things in this world are not eternal or unchanging, but possess only a relative reality. Just as a dream seems real when dreaming, but is revealed on waking to have been an illusion, so are this world and consciousness here realized to be illusory upon the awakening of higher consciousness.

Even from a scientific viewpoint, this world and its experiences are not what they seem. Matter appears to be solid and 'real', yet physicists say that it is actually comprised of tiny packets or 'particles' of energy, held together by the forces between them and spinning at incredible speeds. It is the speed, the mass, the forces between them, and the energies of these 'particles', together with the limitations of sensory perception, which give rise to the appearance of a stable, 'solid' physical universe. In fact, it is a constantly shifting and vibrating sea of energy, perceived only partially by the physical senses. This is just one small aspect of maya.

Similarly, man bas desires for things and achievements of the world which he thinks will bring happiness and fulfilment to his life. However, if he manages to attain them, he finds that they do not, after all, bring the expected peace of mind. In fact, they may bring even more worry and unhappiness. He was therefore led on and deceived by the appearance of things. This, too, is maya.

In the astral and causal realms, as well as in the physical universe, maya is all-pervasive. Here, maya is deceptively beautiful and alluring, blissful and beguiling. And though a soul may earn the right to a prolonged stay in heaven through devoted spiritual practice or through good deeds on earth, sooner or later the right to dwell there is exhausted, and the soul is forced to return to the material plane. Consequently, the soul's stay in heaven was deceptive. Souls may even think they have reached the highest Divinity, when in fact they have only seen the lord of the astral or causal regions. This is also maya.

The two fundamental aspects of this illusion are time and space. Many mystics have pointed out that time is not real. It is a creation of mind and maya. And since, in this world, souls live entirely enveloped by time and space, the entire fabric of the world is also illusory. Everything in this world lies within the orbit of time and appears to be governed by it. No moment has any reality except the present, for that which is past cannot be regarded as real, nor that which is yet to happen.

Wherever there is mind, there is maya, for the mind is the divider of the One into the multiplicity and diversity of the lower realms of creation. Taking this ever shifting many-ness as reality is the illusion cast by maya over everything within these realms. Souls who live in the worlds of the mind, therefore, live in a domain of illusion which they take to be real. This is all the work of mind and maya.

Although there is some scholarly difference of opinion, the meaning of maya, like many terms in Indian philosophy, has probably developed from earlier times. In the Rig Veda, maya is used to indicate the supernatural or magical power attributed to the gods, especially Varuna, Mitra and lndra. It is praised as a world-sustaining power. In the sense of deception and cunning, it is the special skill of the asuras (demons). It also means the power of transformation and the ability to assume strange forms, though in this sense it is little different from the maya of later times:

Of every form, he (Indra) is the pattern:
his is the only form to be regarded.
lndra, through maya (illusion), assumes many forms.
-Rig Veda 6:47.18


(O lndra), all your battles of which men tell
were but illusion (maya).
For you have never had an enemy,
neither today nor in former times.
-Rig Veda 10:54.2

It is in these senses that maya also appears in the Hindu epics. Megnatha, in the Ramayana, and Ghatotkacha in the Mahabharata use magical powers (maya) in their fights.

It is in the Upanishads that maya moves definitively out of the realm of the mythological into the sphere of the philosophical and metaphysical, and is described more or less as it is presently understood in Indian mysticism. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad, for example, asserts:

The creator of maya projects the universe,
and by means of maya, becomes entangled in it
as a separate entity (i.e. the jiva, the imprisoned soul).
Know prakriti to be maya,
and the great Lord to be the master of maya.
The entire universe is filled with those things
that are parts of His being.
-Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4:9-10

Prakriti, here also identified with maya, is the subtle pattern or essence underlying all forms in the creation below Brahman. To attain mystic knowledge of Brahman, the soul has to pierce the veil of maya. Hence, the same writer continues:

May the one Lord, who,
by the power of His maya,
covered Himself like a spider
with threads of primal matter (pradhana)-
Grant union with Brahman!
-Shvetashvatara Upanishad 6:10

Maya is being depicted as the means by which souls are held captive in the creation. Hence, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says:

O Arjuna! The Lord dwells in the hearts of all beings,
revolving them all by the mystery of maya,
as if turning on a wheel.
-Bhagavad Gita 18:61

And he also says that devotion to God is the means of escape:

My divine maya, constituted of the three gunas, (attributes)
is difficult to overcome.
They who take refuge in me alone,
only they overcome maya.
-Bhagavad Gita 7:14

Later Indian philosophers and mystics have understood maya in this manner, although the different philosophical schools have elaborated differently on the essential theme. The ninth-century Shankara, for example, often uses maya, avidya (spiritual ignorance) and ajnana (lack of spiritual knowledge) synonymously, when speaking of maya as it affects the individual. But Shankara also speaks of maya as the underlying cosmic force or principle by which the creation has come into existence. The Tantras, on the other hand, call this creative force shakti (energy or power), considering the universe of mind and matter to be the play of shakti. To some schools of Indian philosophy this shakti is real and eternally coexistent with Brahman.

According to Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is real or true and the world is false or unreal. Hence, the world is often described as maya (illusion). But this illusion is not to be confused with delusion. In delusion, there is nothing there. In an illusion, something is present, but it is mistaken for something else. Shankara uses the example of a man who mistakes a rope for a snake, and reacts accordingly. For the man, the rope does exist. It is just that he mistakes it for something else. Nevertheless, Vedantists also say that from the viewpoint of Brahman, maya does not exist. For one who is merged into Brahman, there is only Brahman and nothing else.

The viewpoints of the various schools of philosophy, however, are essentially intellectual developments. Discussions and intellectual points of view are one thing; maya is another. In fact, Advaita Vedantist, Swami Nikhilananda, points out that the differences of description and opinion are themselves the products of maya:

As the (human) mind itself is a product of maya, one cannot, through reasoning, know the cause of maya. It is maya, ignorance, that produces the illusion of desha, kala and nimitta -space, time and causality - which hides the true nature of pure consciousness and projects the multiple universe. Or, according to a higher Vedantic concept, maya through its nama and rupa- names and forms- manifests the multiple objects of the relative world. Brahman, stamped, as it were, by names and forms, appears as the multiple objects (of creation).
-Swami Nikhilananda, Introduction to Atmabodha, Self-Knowledge, pp.51- 52, Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center, New York, 1989.

Putting the matter more simply, but more expansively, he also says:

On account of maya, or ignorance, man has forgotten his true nature and finds himself entangled in the relative world of good and evil, pain and pleasure, life and death, and the other pairs of opposites. From the cradle to the grave, the un-illumined soul engages in ceaseless action, striving to shun evil and realize the good. But his activities are influenced by love and hate, attachment and aversion, and he hopes to experience, through action, infinite and eternal happiness in the outside world. He roams aimlessly in samsara, the world of change and becoming, rising or falling according to the results of his action. Only gradually does he discover the impossibility of attaining abiding happiness through work associated with I-consciousness and the desire for results....

Our daily practical life in the dual world is not possible without maya. We all live, move and think in maya. Inexplicable in the extreme, maya is described as "aghatana-ghatana-patiyasi" - making the impossible, possible. Under its spell even an incarnation (avatar) of God appears to forget his superhuman resplendence, and behaves like an ordinary mortal.

Maya is responsible for the contradictions in our thinking and actions. Good is inevitably followed by evil, and yet we work to create only good, believing that it will ultimately eliminate evil in this relative world. We believe in the progressive evolution of the universe. This is maya. The cause determines the effect; yet we seek to accomplish good ends by bad means, we seek to establish peace through war. This is maya. A man robs his fellow men and then gives away his wealth in philanthropy, expecting eternal happiness hereafter. Attachment, without which no happiness is possible on earth, creates bondage and brings suffering to both lover and beloved. This is all maya. Money creates leisure and builds up culture, and in the end emasculates a nation, and brings about its ruin. The performance of duty elevates a man above the animals, and also obstructs his ultimate freedom. We want to conquer nature through material resources, and in the end we only become slaves of matter. This is maya.

As long as we identify ourselves with the relative world, this maya or contradiction broods over our every action and thought. There is no freedom in maya. Freedom lies beyond... Souls laden with the burden of relative experience, and weary with journeying hither and thither in the world of ignorance, discover that there is no ultimate happiness in maya, in desiring of desires or in their fulfilment. Then they seek Brahman, the Lord of maya, who is the embodiment of freedom and peace. The Lord says in the Bhagavad Gita: "Those who take shelter in me ultimately go beyond maya." The light of Brahman destroys maya as the light of the sun destroys the gloom of night.

It is often contended that the doctrine of maya, which denies the reality of good and evil, is inconsistent with ethics; one can take shelter under maya and trample underfoot all moral values. This is a distortion of the concept of maya. As long as a man remains under the spell of maya, good and evil are real to him. As long as one sees a distinction between good and evil, one must shun the evil and follow the good. Shankara admits the reality of the relative world during the state of ignorance, and stresses the fact that, in that state, both good and evil should be treated as real. Therefore, ethical laws must be obeyed. They form the foundation of the Vedantic discipline. Only by pursuing the good and shunning the evil can one ultimately go beyond the illusion of the pairs of opposites. Likewise, social service, worship, prayer, and the performance of various duties in the world are not in conflict with man's longing to rid himself of maya and attain freedom.
-Swami Nikhilananda, Introduction to Atmabodha, Self-Knowledge, pp. viii-ix, 54- 56, Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center, New York, 1989.

Swami Nikhilananda is speaking from the traditional Indian yogic and Advaita Vedantic point of view. Indian Saints, writing for simple, unlettered people, have expressed themselves in even simpler language. Saint Paltu, for example, describes the pervasive presence of maya in the world. No soul escapes, he says, and he mentions human imperfections, the three gunas (fundamental characteristics of diversity), spiritual ignorance and karma as aspects of maya which keep souls tied to the "grinding wheels of maya":

The grinding wheels of maya turn,
crushing the world to pulp.
Crushing the world to pulp,
there is no escape,
however you may try to get out.
Between the two grinding stones of the hand mill of maya,
not a single creature survives.
The wheel is being worked by her five minions-
lust, anger, attachment, pride and avarice.
The three gunas pour handfuls of grain into the mill.
The flour is kneaded by ignorance,
and baked into a bread in the heated oven of karma.
Desire is the harlot
who has ruined home after home;
And great is the power of Kaal (Satan),
who makes a morsel of all.
"Listen," says Paltu, "none can escape being crushed
without love and devotion for the Lord."
For the grinding wheels of maya turn,
crushing the world to pulp.
-Paltu, Bani 1, Kundali 185, Paltu Sahib ki Bani, Vol.1, p.78, Belvedere Printing Works

Maya, he intimates, is the associate of Kaal, "who makes a morsel of all". Kaal here is the negative power, the administrator of the worlds of the mind, of which maya is an integral aspect. Guru Amardas says that maya pervades the creation. It is the source of pain, pleasure and ego, and is eradicated by the divine Word (Shabd):

Maya is pervading the three worlds,
and is greatly clinging to the mortals.
Without the Guru, emancipation (mukat, liberation) is not gained,
nor do double mindedness (dubidha, duality) and maya depart.
Whom do men call maya?
What work does maya do?
In woe and weal, has maya enchained this mortal,
and caused him to go about his business in ego.
Without divine Word (Shabd), doubt is not dispelled,
nor does pride depart from within.
-Guru Amardas, Adi Granth 67

A number of mystics have equated ’mithya’ with the power of illusion known as maya. Inayat Khan writes:
In Hindu philosophy ... life in the world is an illusion, and therefore every experience and knowledge of this life is also illusion. The Sanskrit word for this illusion is maya; it is also called mithya.... When the soul begins to see the truth, it is, as it were, born again; and to this soul, all that appears truth to an average person, appears false; while what seems important and precious in life to that average person has no value or importance for this soul; and what seems to this soul important and valuable, has no importance or value for the average person.
-Inayat Khan, Sufi Message, The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan vol. 9, p.224

Shankara also says:

Brahman alone is real;
the world is unreal (mithya):
the individual soul (jiva) is not different from Brahman.
-Shankara, Brahmajnanavalimala 5:21; The Spiritual Heritage of India, p.282 by Swami Prabhavanada, 1962;

Guru Ramdas also speaks plainly:

As many as are the kings, emperors, nobles, lords and chiefs,
deem them all as perishable, false (mithya),
and engrossed in duality.
The eternal Lord is ever stable and immovable:
by meditating on Him, O my soul (man, mind),
thou shalt be approved.
-Guru Ramdas, Adi Granth 861

-Quoted in the book “A Treasury of Mystic Terms, Part 1, Volume 6” @

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