The Concept of ‘MAYA’ – the Cosmic Illusion

      Maya, (Cosmic Illusion, for want of a better word in English), is a fundamental concept in Hindu philosophy, notably in the Advaita (nonduality) school of Vedanta. Maya originally denoted the magic power with which God can make human beings believe in what turns out to be an illusion. By extension, it later came to mean the powerful force that creates the cosmic illusion that the phenomenal world is real. For the nondualists, Maya is thus that cosmic force that presents the ‘infinite Brahman’ (the supreme being) as the finite phenomenal world. Maya is reflected on the individual level by human ignorance, ‘ajnana’ of the real nature of the self, which is mistaken for the empirical ego but which is, in reality, identical with Brahman. Maya is used in various connotations, implying a principle, power or process. Since in Hindu view non-existence can never be the source of creation (just as a plant can never sprout without a seed), Maya is the metaphysical principle that is used in Hinduism to explain the projection of the phenomenal world by Brahman, the Cosmic Self.
      There are two views among Hindu scholars relating to the concept of Maya. In some philosophical systems, Maya refers to the mysterious power or the cosmic energy of the Supreme Being with which He projects the universe from Himself. In other philosophical systems, Maya is the thought of a cosmic illusion or ignorance, avidya, that deludes the individual soul (atman) into forgetting its own divine nature. This forgetfulness of its true nature further causes the soul to mistakenly identify itself with the body and mind, assume individuality, and thus subject itself to pleasure and pain in the phenomenal world.
      This mistaken identity of the soul with the body and mind is said to be, in Hindu scriptures, analogous to mistaking a rope for a snake in dull light. In this the rope – snake analogy, the rope represents the soul, the snake denotes the individual or individuality, and the dull light represents Maya. Thus there are two powers associated with Maya. The first is the power of veiling the truth, and the second is the power of projecting the truth as something else.
     Maya may be explained yet in another way. In the Hindu view, atman provides sentience (sensitivity) to a sentient (conscious) being and gives rise to faculties to the mind and intellect in a human body. In the absence of a body, atman does not say “I”. In the absence of atman, the inert body does not say “I” either. However, when the two meet, mysterious power in the form of “I- thought” appears. This mysterious “I – thought”, also called ego, is the result of Maya. This aspect of Maya is explained by Paramahamsa Sri Ramakrishna, “Maya is nothing but the egotism of the embodied soul. This egotism has covered everything like a veil. All troubles come to an end when the ego dies.
      This Maya, the ego, is like a cloud. The sun remains in the sky, but a dense cloud cover prevents us from seeing it. When the clouds disperse, we become aware that the sun has been there all the time. Our clouds—Maya appearing as egotism, selfishness, hatred, greed, lust, anger, ambition—are pushed away when we meditate upon our real nature, when we engage in unselfish action, and when we consistently act and think in ways that manifest our true nature: that is, through truthfulness, purity, contentment, self-restraint, and forbearance. This mental purification drives away the clouds of Maya and allows our divine nature to shine forth.
      According to many schools of Hinduism, the world is an illusion, a play of the supreme consciousness of God. It is a projection of things and forms that are temporarily phenomenal and sustains the illusion of oneness and permanence. The illusion of the phenomenal world is created and sustained by stand-alone objects thrown together either by an act of randomness or through the deliberate choice of conscious will.
     Death is the end for us – of life, of beauty, of wealth, of power, of virtue. Irrespective of status, everyone dies, and yet, this tremendous clinging on to life exists. We cannot give it up. And this is Maya. Knowledge of happiness brings knowledge of unhappiness. Material prosperity is reflected in misery elsewhere. The strong prey upon the weak. Desire is never satisfied with the enjoyment of desires; it only increases. The more we progress, the more avenues are open to pain as well as pleasure. All this is Maya. Our feelings, thoughts, and aspirations are all integral to our life; the core of life is the march towards perfection. When we take life as we experience it to be all that we perceive, we forgo perfection. It is life minus that ‘ideal component’; the differential, that is Maya.


The symbol OM visually consists of three curves, one semicircle, and a dot.
The large bottom curve symbolizes the waking state, A.
The middle curve signifies the dream state, U.
The upper curve denotes the state of deep sleep, M.
The dot signifies the fourth state of consciousness, Turiya
The semicircle at the top represents Maya and separates the dot from the other three curves. It signals to us that it is the illusion of Maya that is an obstacle to the realization of the Highest.
     Our scriptures declare that creation is the play of consciousness. It differentiates itself into diverse things and in the end withdraws everything into itself. Says the Yoga Vasishta, “The world is nothing but a mere vibration of consciousness in space. All this is but Maya: for here there is no contradiction between the infinite consciousness and the apparent existence of the universe. It is like the marvelous dream of a person who is awake.”
     In an ordinary sense, the word ‘Maya’ means, trickery, fraud or deceit. In the spiritual parlance, Maya means unreality, distinct from the reality represented by God or Brahman. God in His eternal and absolute aspect is pure consciousness and His creation is a mere formation within that consciousness. It exists so long as 270 there is an experienced distinct from the experience.
     Maya is that which arises from Prakirti (nature) or Pradhana (primal energy). ‘Ma’ means the source, the cause, and ‘Ya’ means that which proceeds, goes, walks, or spreads out. Thus, literally, Maya means that which issues forth, expands, or arises from the source, ‘Ma’, the universal mother. Maya is also described in the Hindu scriptures as the play (lila) of God enacted through his creative and dynamic energy or force (shakti). It is the web of deception weaved by the universal spider (Brahman) to envelop the worlds in delusion (moha).
     An illusion is the appearance of things differently from what they are actually. It is part of our normal existence. We do not have to be spiritually inclined to notice it. For example, everything in the universe is in constant motion, but we think as if we live in a stable world because we do not perceive the motion unless we pay particular attention to the planets and the stars and the movement of time. The sky has no color. But to our eyes, it appears as blue, because of the reflection of the light by the molecules in the air. This is an illusion, which we see every day but do not acknowledge mentally unless we begin to think about it consciously. Even at night, we remember the sky to be blue! We consider the milk to be a white liquid. This is also an illusion because in reality milk is a combination of several atoms and molecules that come together to give the appearance and taste of milk. The appearance of a person as a combination of the mind and the body is also an illusion because man is more than the mere union of the two.
Is the world ‘really’ unreal?
     Hinduism considers the world to be false or unreal not in a physical sense but in an eternal and absolute sense. The world is an illusion not because it does not exist, but because it is not what it appears to be all the time. Our scriptures say that we should not be misled by this ordinary sensory experience of ours. We should pay particular attention to our perceptions and go beyond the appearance of things to know the truth. We can arrive at the truth by understanding the various states of our consciousness. (awake, dream state, deep sleep).
     Why this is important for an individual? How does it matter whether the world is real or unreal? No one can dispute the fact that, at any given moment, the world in which we live is real. It does exist in some specific form and state, independent of whether we exist or not. It is real in the physical sense. It is also tangible to our senses. We experience its existence in innumerable ways in our minds and through our senses all the time. Right now, at this very moment, we are in the real world. We cannot say the world is an illusion unless we have literally lost our minds. This does not mean it is not an illusion. This is the paradox, the real truth, to understand which we have to go deeper into ourselves to discover our true nature and the meaning of self-absorption.
Overcoming Maya
    Maya disappears only when our minds and senses are fully stabilized, and we are able to experience things without the division of the seer and the seen. The only way to steer clear from Maya is to be able to see the truth as it is, which is possible only when our egos yield place to our real selves. Maya is something that separates us from the divine power called GOD. An Individual’s true nature is divine, but through Maya, or ignorance, that divinity in us is covered.
If by the grace of God, one’s ego vanishes, then one sees God.ैवी &ेषा गु णमयी मम माया दरु0यया |
मामेव ये 1प34ते मायामेतां तरि4त ते || 14||

daivī hyeṣhā guṇa-mayī mama māyā duratyayā
mām eva ye prapadyante māyām etāṁ taranti te
BG 7.14: My divine energy Maya, consisting of the three modes of nature, is very difficult to overcome. But those who surrender unto me cross over it easily.


     Maya cannot be overcome without a fundamental shift in our awareness and inner conditioning. Where there is duality, the sense of separation, there is Maya. When our minds and senses are active, we remain under the influence of Maya. When we perceive things in a state of duality, we remain in the domain of Maya. Maya disappears only when our minds and senses are fully stabilized, and we are able to experience things without the division of the seer and the seen. Even the gods are not free from the influence of Maya because they also experience duality 272 and plurality. Truly no one is ever free from Maya, till one has lost all sense of duality forever. The only way to steer clear from Maya is to be able to see the truth as it is, which is possible only when our egos yield place to our real selves.
     Sri Aurobindo discusses the concept as follows: “The one thing that can be described as an unreal reality is our individual sense of separateness and the conception of the finite as a self-existent object in the Infinite. This conception, this sense is pragmatically necessary for the operations of the surface individuality and are effective and justified by their effects; they are therefore real to its finite reason and finite self-experience: but once we step back from the finite consciousness into the consciousness of the essential and infinite, from the apparent to the true Person, the finite or the individual still exists but as being and power and manifestation of the Infinite; it has no independent or separate reality.”

Food for thought: Is Maya a mirage, or like a mirror image? Is it like seeing through a cataract or experiencing a dream? If all we see and experience is an illusion, what is so-called life, if we ‘conquer’ Maya? If it is an illusion, why is it the same for everybody? Why we all see the same sun rising, stars twinkling, rains falling, hurricane flooding, people dying? What is the purpose of the creator to so ‘fool’ all his creations?

Author: Dr. Venugopal Menon

Was born and raised in a loving family in pre-independent India, became a doctor, served Indian army, got married, then came over to America with wife and a daughter, established as a successful Allergist, raised a family of three children, was involved in many social establishments, retired, and wrote memoirs, 'My Mother Called Me Unni, A Doctor's Tale of Migration'.

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