The Nature of Maya
the illusory power of Brahman
Chapter 3 from the book Moksha Gita by Swami Sivananda commetary of Swami Krishananda
1. The Guru said: Maya is the Upadhi (limiting adjunct) of Ishwara. She is an illusory power of Brahman. She keeps up the Lila of Iswara through Her three Gunas, viz. Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas (Purity, passion and darkness).
COMMENTARY: Maya is the cosmic aspect of the power that hides Reality's essence. It is the limiting adjunct of Ishwara or the highest manifestation of the Absolute. The cosmic force of mentation limits the Infinitude of Brahman and makes it appear as the Cosmic person or Ishwara. Brahma, Vishnu and Siva are the three aspects of this Ishwara even as the same Mr. Jackson may be a Collector, a Magistrate and a Minister all at once. The differences in the Person are due to his different functions and powers, but the being is one. The power of veiling the Reality particularises its being by a special mode of objectification and makes it hail as the Ishwara or the God of the universe. The absolute nature of non-duality is split up into the quality of relativity the reason for which is not known. Even Ishwara, therefore, has an element of non-being in him, because he is limited to relative existence by Maya. But Ishwara is the Lord of Maya and not its slave as the Jiva is. He puts on the cloak of Maya, and yet is conscious of the Absolute Condition of Existence. This is the difference between the Omniscient Ishwara and the ignorant Jiva or the earthly individual.
The qualities of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, light, activity and darkness, form the essence of Maya and it is these qualities that play the havoc of the world-phenomenon. Sattva illumines, Rajas distracts and Tamas clouds the understanding of the individual. The appearances of Ishwara and Maya correspond to all further miniatures of the same in the planes of greater ignorance where they get more and more separated until in the earthly plane they are totally cut off as the physical entities which constitute the diverse nature of the world. In logical language, Ishwara is a degeneration of Brahman caused by the self-limiting power of objectification or the force of Maya the reason for the appearance of which is an eternal enigma.
2, 3. Maya is not non-existent because it appears; neither is it existent because it is destroyed by the dawn of knowledge. Maya is not That. It is an indescribable appearance.
COMMENTARY: The root-meaning of the word "Maya" indicates its non-existent nature. But we cannot account for the existence of a non-existent appearance. Even appearance is after all not non-existent, for a non-existent thing never is, and an appearance is something which is. Otherwise one could not talk of and speculate over appearances. Maya is therefore not non-existent because it appears to us, and it is not even existent for it is non-enduring. This mystery eludes all reason and logic and cannot be determined its nature by any metaphysics. The greatest philosophers began to hide themselves within the conviction that the human mind is not all-knowing and therefore it cannot answer trans-empirical questions. Somehow Maya exists. Why it cannot be said. And somehow Maya disappears. Why it cannot again be said. It is an illusion that has deceived even the wisest of men and has led astray even the ablest of geniuses. Only Self-Knowledge or intuitive illumination can solve the why and how of Maya.
Maya is not that. It is not Brahman and yet, it is the Power of Brahman. It is a deceptive and indescribable appearance which not only makes the individual forget the Unity of Brahman but in addition to it presents an unreal distractive phenomenon of diversity. Intellect which is rooted in egoism is the distracting factor in the individual and the Anandamaya-Kosha or the sheath of ignorance is the veiling factor.
Maya is, therefore, a beginningless play of cosmic imaginative force which apparently divests the Eternal Nature of its Indivisibility and makes it put on a variety of forms in its own being and further gives way to the descension into strong attachment of such egoistic centres of consciousness to their particular forms and experiences. Maya is termed in many ways, appearance, power, force, phenomenon, and the like, which all go to point to its unreal character and its untrustworthy behaviour. Every thought, therefore, is an activity in the realm of Maya, for all thoughts spring from individual consciousness which is itself the effect of the diversifying nature of Maya. All individuals, right from the supreme Ishwara, down to the insignificant creature of the netherlands are within the boundaries of Maya, differing only in the degree or the extent to which each is influenced by it.
4, 5. Maya is Indescribable. Maya is Sat-Asat-Vilakshana (distinct from existence and non-existence), Anadi Bhava Rupa (beginningless existence), Anirvachaniya (inexpressible by speech). She is neither Sat nor Asat (not real not unreal). Maya is Anadi Santam (Beginningless but with an end). She is beginningless but has an end only for the sage who has realised the Self. Maya is Suddha Sattva (pure Sattva).
COMMENTARY: Maya is neither Sat nor Asat, neither real nor unreal, neither is, nor is not. It transcends human comprehension, it stands above all ratiocination, it controls even the reasoning capacity of the individual. The degree of intelligence of a person is proportional to what extent he is freed from the stupefying influence of Maya. It is hard to withdraw oneself from its clutches for it originates from and is based on the Eternal Brahman Itself. That which is based on the Infinite Reality must therefore be a hideous power difficult to win victory over. To extricate oneself from the hypnotic effect of this Divine Illusion the individual has to dehypnotise himself into the consciousness of Self-Illumination and absoluteness.
The nature of Maya is Anadi-Bhava or beginningless existence and is Anirvachaniya or inexpressible by speech. It is Sat-Asat-Vilakshana, distinct from existence and non-existence. It is Anadi-Santam, without beginning, but with an end. It is ended by Brahmajnana or Absolute Wisdom arrived at through intense meditation or Nididhyasana. Maya differs from Brahman in that Brahman is Anadi-Anantam, beginningless and endless, whereas Maya is Santam or removable. The origin of ignorance cannot be found out, but it is well known that sages who have realised the Eternal Brahman free themselves from the effects of Maya. One can only tell how to free oneself from Maya, but one cannot say why Maya creates a universe.
Maya is Shudda-Sattva (pure sattva) and is not preponderated by Rajas or Tamas. That is the reason why Ishwara or the Cosmic Lord is uncontrolled and unaffected by the hypnotising power of Maya.
Ishwara who is the Infinite limited by Maya is midway between the Indivisible Brahman and the multiple universe. Hence Ishwara is conscious of the Eternal Reality as well as of the diverse world of nature.
He is in a sense, the mediator between Jiva and Brahman. Here is the necessity of the Jivas for developing devotion to God, for a sudden jumping into the Infinite Brahman is hard for the ignorant Jivas, without the help of the Universal Controller, Ishwara. Ishwara is the Personal God, the object of religious worship, and Brahman is the Absolute Truth, the object of philosophical quest.
6. He who gets knowledge of the Self having overcome Maya, the illusory power, will alone know what Maya is, how it arises and is destroyed.
COMMENTARY: One who acquires Infinite Knowledge does not find any mystery in the appearance of Maya. The spiritual seeker overcomes Maya through meditation on Brahman and negation of worldly propensities. The Truth-centred Sage possesses the wealth of imperishable wisdom and is ever in unison with the One Whole Being of Brahman. The terrible sport of Maya appears as Satya or real to a worldly person, as Anirvachaniya or indescribable to an aspirant, and Tuccha or mean to a Jnani.
Knowledge of the Self is the resting in the awareness of the unlimitedness of Consciousness and Bliss in one unchangeable mass. When this stupendous state of Truth is experienced Maya flees away from that Light of Enlightenment. Where there is Light there cannot be darkness. When Avidya is destroyed, Vidya shines by itself. When the clouds are no more, the sun shines in his pristine greatness. When ignorance is removed, Knowledge at once reveals itself. When egoism is disintegrated, the Absolute alone hails supreme.
The why, what and how of Maya can be known only by one who has transcended Maya and has entered the Glory of the Self. Others can merely speculate over it, but cannot solve the riddle, for the instrument or the mechanism of human knowledge is centred in his psychological organ which is a modification of Maya itself. Darkness cannot destroy darkness. Ignorance cannot remove ignorance, for they both are not contradictory forces. Man's highest faculty of knowledge is the intellect which is itself a creature of self-limitation and hence it is impossible for the human being to determine the nature of the Power that supersedes him in extent and subtlety. It is only the intuitional light which comprehends in itself the totality of existence that can step above Maya and behold the majesty of the Self. Only then can the illusoriness of Maya and the eternity of Brahman be realised in completeness. Intellect should give way to the higher religious experience not based on the ego. Real religion begins when the intellect stops working. That is the religion of Self-realisation where the entire Brahman is experienced and Maya is totally negated.
7. The five elements, the five Tanmatras (subtle or root elements) and the various objects of the world are all products or modifications of Maya.
COMMENTARY: The five rudimentary principles of sound, touch, colour, taste and smell and the five gross elements of sky, air, fire, water and earth are born of the Vikshepa-Shakti or the distracting power of Maya, which projects thereby the world of objective existence. Constant change within itself is the natural tendency of the force of Maya. Maya does not rest in itself. It is a vigorous active agent whose sole purpose is to transform itself into the phenomenon and Noumenon through evolution and involution of diverse bodies. Disintegration and integration are the two aspects of the destructive and constructive powers of Maya. Individuals are thrown into Being or Becoming by this gigantic Power according to the extent of the process of development undergone by each individual.
The fivefold functioning of breath, the five sense-organs and the five organs of action are again the further modifications of the subtle root-elements. Mind, intellect, sub-conscious and ego are the fourfold functions of the psychic mechanism which is the product of the Sattva-portion of the subtle elements. The macrocosm and the microcosm are thus closely related as the original and the duplicate. The physical sheath or the body is the materialised effect of the psychic being and thus the entire universe with its individuals is a modification of Maya.
8. Just as you can infer the existence of fire through smoke, so also you can infer the existence of Maya through Her various manifestations.
COMMENTARY: The existence of Maya is inferable through the universal workings of nature. The main action of Maya is diversification and Unification. The existence of Maya is felt by the perception of something which cannot belong to the Eternal Reality.
Birth, growth, change, decay and death are the common phenomena which are seen in the daily life of every individual. These fivefold modifications are the essence of egoistic life.
Creation, preservation, destruction, love, hatred, exhilaration, pain, are certain factors in the evolution of the universe. Such activities as these cannot belong to what is absolutely permanent. Activity is a struggle to overcome the existing defect. An untainted being which has no reason to wish for anything else, which is in itself full and perfect, changes not and acts not, for there is no purpose whatsoever in modifying itself into something else. It is ever satisfied in itself and is eternally in joyous repose. Therefore, the bustle of universal life and the daily cry and strife of individuals must be Maya.
Moreover the existence of individuality itself proves the existence of Maya. Individuality is not permanent, for it is limited and finite. A finite being cannot be everlasting. Therefore, individuality is a negation of Absoluteness. Hence, individual existence must be Maya.
The people of the world struggle to obtain external objects, because their egoistic personalities are not allowed their existence independent of the other objects of the universe. They strive hard and feel the necessity to relate themselves to the manifold entities that exist apart from themselves, thus proving the unreality of their individual independence. Therefore life as different personalities in the world is Maya. Thought, speech and action are non-eternal and are mere expulsions of consciousness-rays, and therefore, the multitudinous appearance of degrees of reality also is a phase of Maya.
9, 10. Maya is of the nature of mind. Maya generates different degrees of illusions. Maya pervades everywhere. If your mind is destroyed by discrimination and Vichara, (Self-enquiry) then Maya will not afflict you.
COMMENTARY: Maya is centred in the individual consciousness in the form of mind. Whatever Maya does, that the mind also does. Mind is miniature-Maya.
The veiling and distracting activity of Maya is undertaken by the mind in the form of nescience and egoism. Nescience is seated in the innermost sheath or the Anandamaya kosha of the soul and the ego is seated in the intellect. The mind projects the physical body even as Maya projects the cosmos. The activity of the universe is going on in the human body too. The Chandogya Upanishad says that the space within the heart contains the earth and the heaven, the sun, moon, stars, lightning, clouds, wind, fire, etc., in the same way as the outer space contains. Whatever is found in the external universe is found exactly in the miniature cosmos or the human body. Jiva is therefore a degraded copy of Ishwara. And Atman, therefore, is Brahman.
There are different degrees in the manifestation of Maya or illusion. The power of disfiguring Reality is not of the same degree everywhere. Maya is more manifest and works more powerfully in inanimate beings than animate, more in brute nature than in refined, more in Tamas and Rajas than in Sattva, more in the uncivilised than in the civilised, more on earth than in heaven, more in man than in the celestial, more in an aspirant than in a saint, more in the sleeping and dreaming states than in the waking, more in gross forms than in subtle. Maya is manifest in a progressive evolutionary basis on one hand and as a steady concealing of Reality on the other hand. In other words the whole process of appearance is in the domain of Maya.
Maya pervades in every quarter and cranny. There is nothing on earth or in heaven which is not controlled by the play of Maya. The universal change drags together with it the entirety of the individuals also and each individual is compelled by the cosmic change to change itself in the same manner befitting the cosmic process of Maya. Nothing here, not even a piece of straw, can be excluded from the operation of the law of Mayaic evolution. Maya is the ruling power which borrows its strength from Brahman.
When the mind is destroyed, Maya also is swept away from the vision of the individual. When the eye-sight is corrected, the appearance of two moons vanishes. When sun sets, there is no more the dance of the mirage. The whole universe is the perception by the mind of the Absolute Brahman in varieties of forms due to the fluctuations caused by desire for objective gain. Hence, the destruction of the mind is the brushing aside of the entire phenomena and that ends in the experience of the light of the Self.
11. This mind which ever hankers after sensual objects is the seed of Maya. If the mind is annihilated Maya will vanish. You will attain the state of quiescence. Brahma-Jnana will dawn in you.
COMMENTARY: The seed of Maya is the mind which sends forth branches of its objectifying force through the channels of the organs of sensing. The mind hankers after the objects of the senses, including the intellect and the ego. The craving for objects is the effect of the desire of the individual consciousness to flow with the process of self-multiplication and self-preservation as laid in the scheme of the workings of Maya. The very meaning of phenomenal existence is preservation of the egoistic individuality and reproducing oneself into manifold forms. The senses are projected by the mind of the individual in order to effect this process of Maya. The functions of the mind day and night are in accordance with Maya's law of diversification and preservation of the diversified forms through attachment to such forms and further through an additional external urge to reproduce oneself and strive to maintain individual life. This whole mad process of the mind constitutes the life of man on earth.
When these functions of the mind are inhibited through the force of conscious effort on the part of the discriminative consciousness, the play of phenomenal existence is stopped its further progress, and when the seed of the mind is burnt by spiritual knowledge, the tree of Samsara is cut off root and branch!
The restlessness of the individual is caused by the projecting forth of mental forces for purposes of acquiring objects of sense. So long as the objects are not obtained there is the reign of agitation and irritation everywhere. There is only a temporary peace when the objects required are acquired, but the next moment the mind darts upon some other source of objective gratification and keeps the restlessness in continuity. Perfect quiescence comes only when the functioning of the imaginative mind is restrained and put an end to through meditation and Self-Knowledge. Only Brahma-Jnana can dispel the mental ignorance completely.
When true wisdom dawns the mind realises its nature of Self-sufficiency and turns back to the Atma or the Source of Consciousness and rests as one with it in peace.
This is the salvation of the individual, where the individual merges itself into the Infinite Consciousness and exists as the Absolute.