In Sanskrit language the syllable ma means "not" and ya means "that". The word maya refers to "that, which is not". It signifies illusion, a state of consciousness when things are not perceived for what they are, but for what they are not. Various philosophies and viewpoints attribute different volumes of illusion to the world that surrounds us, to our perception of that world and ultimately to the consciousness itself.
According to the Vedas, the multitude of God's energies is categorized into three main divisions. These are called internal potency (antaranga-sakti), external potency (bahiranga-sakti) and marginal potency (taṭastha-sakti). The internal potency of God is His pleasure potency by which He manifests the spiritual world and the external potency are His separated material energies: earth (bhumi), water (apa), fire (anala), air (vayu), ether (akasa), material mind (manah), intelligence (buddhi) and false ego (ahankara), which make up the fabric of material manifestation, under the influence of time.
The marginal potency is the jiva - the living entity. Our position as that of living entities is marginal in a sense, that we are, by constitution, eternally covered; either by the internal or by the external energy. Just like when the land meets the ocean. There is a portion known as the "beach" which is on the margin. Sometimes the beach is covered by water and sometimes it is open land, we can say, covered by air.
God's energy, either internal or external, that covers our consciousness is called maya. And thus we have two types of maya: yoga-maya and maha-maya. We shall discuss these concepts here along with few insights into how philosophies other than Vedic see the phenomenon of "illusion".
The most extreme outlook on maya is represented by Buddhism. In sanskrit language, their philosophy is also called "sunya-vada". Sunya means "zero" and vada means "conclusion" or "truth". Their conclusion is that everything is an illusion and nothing really exists. We also call it voidism. The three basic characteristics of existence according to the Buddhist doctrine are dukkha - suffering or, more precisely, the unsatisfying nature of the world, anicca - the impermanence of all things and anatta - the no-self.
They maintain that there is no eternal soul in any living entity and no essence in any thing. We may thus deduct from the Buddhist teaching that our own consciousness, as manifestation of temporary combination of chemicals (not the eternal self), is illusory and whatever is perceived by that consciousness is also an illusion. The ultimate reality is that of "nothing" and this realization is the panacea for the living being's suffering. Why the suffering needs a solution if it is also temporary and actually non-existent in its essence? Why should we be compassionate to other living beings and not cause them harm, if ultimately there is no self to perceive pain which is illusory anyway? Why should we care for our deeds if even the samsara - the cycle of repeated birth and death in which we want to elevate our position by good karma is just a flickering manifestation of ignorance in perception? And why try for liberation (extinguishing the consciousness) by any kind of practice if everything is already void of any self or essence? These questions are difficult to answer for the supposed practitioners of Buddhist teaching and it is of no surprise. The reason is that Lord Buddha appeared specifically for the purpose of bewildering the atheists as it is prophesized in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, 2,600 years before His appearance:
tatah kalau sampravrtte sammohaya sura-dvisam
buddho namnanjana-sutah kikaṭesu bhavisyati
"Then, in the beginning of Kali-yuga, the Lord will appear as Lord Buddha, the son of Anjana, in the province of Gaya, just for the purpose of deluding those who are envious of the faithful theist." (SB 1.3.24)
There were people, and Lord Buddha appeared for their sake, who would not accept the existence of the soul and God as the Vedas propose, but who were misusing portions of the Vedas dealing with animal sacrifices and on their pretext were killing and eating innocent animals. They became bewildered by Lord Buddha, the empowered incarnation of Godhead to accept at least the preliminary, sub-religious principles of ahimsa - non-violence, principles of cleanliness, meditation etc. This was the purpose of Buddhist teaching - to stop animal-killing at a particular time, place and circumstance.
This philosophy of void as the ultimate (non)reality and denial of one's own consciousness and the whole world as illusory cannot satisfy the hankering and ever-active soul. If we specifically look into the "Buddhist" circles in the West these days, their members tend to theoretically propose all these doctrines, especially the no-self idea, but they are unable to live up to their tenets. Srila Prabhupada nails them in one of his purports. He says:
"The demonic conclude that the world is a phantasmagoria. There is no cause and effect, no controller, no purpose: everything is unreal. They say that this cosmic manifestation arises due to chance material actions and reactions. They do not think that the world was created by God for a certain purpose. They have their own theory: that the world has come about in its own way and that there is no reason to believe that there is a God behind it. For them, there is no difference between spirit and matter, and they do not accept the Supreme Spirit. Everything is matter only, and the whole cosmos is supposed to be a mass of ignorance.
According to them, everything is void, and whatever manifestation exists is due to our ignorance in perception. They take it for granted that all manifestation of diversity is a display of ignorance, just as in a dream we may create so many things which actually have no existence. Then when we are awake we shall see that everything is simply a dream. But factually, although the demons say that life is a dream, they are very expert in enjoying this dream. And so, instead of acquiring knowledge, they become more and more implicated in their dreamland."
Everything is an illusion, but they enjoy it. That is what makes them even more foolish and more illusioned, although they are supposed to strive for enlightenment.
From this Buddhist nihilistic concept of complete negation rose the philosophy of Mayavada, taught by Sripada Sankaracarya. The fundamental principles of Mayavada philosophy, very similar to Buddhism, are that:
1) name, form, individuality, thoughts, desires and words arise from maya or illusion, not God;
2) maya cannot be rationally explained since the very idea that anything needs explaining is itself maya;
3) the individual self or soul is not eternal, because upon liberation it ceases to exist;
4) like maya, the state of liberation is beyond all explanation.
The difference between Buddhism and Mayavada is that Buddha ultimately denied the existence of everything, while Sankara says that beyond the maya, the illusion of this manifested world, there actually exists an eternal impersonal monistic reality, Brahman, the nature of which is the self. That reality is the non-differentiated, formless, impersonal Self, the One. Brahma satyam jagan mithya. Brahman, the spirit is truth and this world, jagat is false.
As in Buddhism, one's individual consciousness is an illusion and in fact, there is no separate ego. After liberation, though, the consciousness doesn't cease to be but merges with Brahman. The most relished idea of the Mayavadis is "I am God, you are God, everyone is God. There is no God outside of myself. All is one."
Again, like Buddhists, the Mayavadis cannot answer simple questions such as "how did an illusory individual ego become separate from the One by maya? If Brahman is absolute oneness without duality, how did it became separated into fragmental illusory egos? Is maya outside of Brahman to separate parts of it into "individuals"? Where is the monism there?" "How does the Absolute forget its absoluteness to become an illusioned living entity subject to misery in the mithya jagat - illusory universe? Is forgetfulness more powerful than God?" "How does the illusory universe come from the real Brahman?" "If everything is an illusion, then whatever you say is also an illusion. Why should I hear from you then?" "If you are me and I am you, then your pocket is my pocket and my pocket is your pocket. Can you transfer the money from your pocket (which is my pocket) to my pocket (which is your pocket)?"
Srila Prabhupada, again, summarized this standpoint very nicely: "The philosophy of the Mayavadis is defective because it maintains that everything is maya but the nonsense they speak."
Sankaracarya is an incarnation of Lord Siva, the greatest of Vaisnavas and his, as well as Buddha's, delusional propaganda had a particular purpose. At the end of the day, he proclaimed Narayana the Supreme and beyond the manifested and unmanifested, but his so-called followers do not comply with his statements. His last words were:
bhaja govindam bhaja govindam bhaja govindam mudha-mate
samprapte sannihite kale marane
na hi na hi raksati dukrn-karane
He instructed his disciples: "You fools! Worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda! At the time of death, your grammar and word jugglery will not save you!"
So what is maya, actually, according to the Vedas and devotees of Krsna?
The answer is multi-faceted and truthful to the all-encompassing Vaisnava philosophy of acintya-bheda abheda-tattva - simultaneous oneness and difference. Technicalities of these explanations can go very deep, but we will try to put forward the basic understanding.
There are various ways how to approach maya for our understanding. She may be approached as energy or matter, she can be approached as a person - Mayadevi, the superintending agent of Krsna, keeping rebellious souls out of His eternal blissful pastimes or she can be approached as an attitude of the living entity towards his own existence. And the best is to understand her as all of these at once. Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita:
bhumir apo 'nalo vayuh kham mano buddhir eva ca
ahankara itiyam me bhinna prakrtir astadha
"Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego—all together these eight constitute My separated material energies." (Bg.7.4)
These energies cover the living entity with a subtle and gross material body and they also constitute the ingredients for the universe in which the living entity embodies himself. The material energy, maya, acts as a filter, a condition through which the jiva's pure consciousness is adulterated into forgetfulness of his original position in spiritual nature (because of his desire to enjoy separately). Thus maya, under the superintendence of the Lord, acts as a shadow representation of the original spiritual world to facilitate the shadow enjoyment of the bewildered jiva.
In the Brahma-samhita it is stated: srsṭi-sthiti-pralaya-sadhana-saktir eka chayeva yasya bhuvanani vibharti durga [Bs. 5.44]. Maya is Durga. She creates, maintains and dissolves the whole universe and has a tight grip over the jivas embodied within it. Goddess Durga is depicted with ten hands, piercing a demon with her trident. In each hand she carries a weapon. Durga means "fortress". Duh means "difficult," and ga means "going." It is very difficult, basically impossible for the jiva to leave this fortress on its own. The ten arms of Durga signify the ten directions: north, south, east, west, the four corners, up and down. In any direction we move, there is an armed hand of Durga vigilant to check us. The three spikes of the trident pressed against the chest of the fellow are the threefold misery inflicted constantly on the embodied living entity. They are known as adhyatmika - originating in our own bodies and minds (such as bodily disease or mental difficulty), adhibhautika - caused by other living beings (biting mosquitoes or a nasty boss), and adhidaivika - caused by natural phenomena (excessive heat or cold, earthquakes, hurricanes etc.). It is a fact, that every one of us finds one, two or all three of these constantly bugging him, more or less, and no one can deny that.
Thus the living entity finds itself in a situation of constant harassment by the material energy while being completely enamoured by and absorbed in the temporary forms of the same energy, which mimics the original beauty and pleasure of the spiritual world. It's like an abused wife unable to leave her tyrant-husband because she loves him and depends on him despite being tortured by him. It's a Stockholm syndrome when the hostage develops affection towards his captor. Such is the power of maya. She makes us feel happy and pleasurable time to time, enough to hook us up, while we constantly suffer under her stringent grip.
One very important thing to understand is that material nature or her elements have no separate power of their own to act or to create. Materialistic scientists are on their way to comprehend nature's wonderful potencies, but the scientist's attribution of the potencies' source is mistaken. They observe the wonderful workings of the universe and forces within it, but they seek the source of these potencies and activity in matter, which is inert.
Just like the woman cannot give birth to a child unless impregnated by a potent man, similarly, matter cannot give rise to all the various forms of manifestation on its own, without being activated by the Purusa - the Supreme Person. There must be consciousness behind a working systematic nature, just like there is a conscious mind on the background of any organized happening.
In physics, the second law of thermodynamics hints towards this understanding as it states that in closed systems (like the universe) energy in time doesn't concentrate, but disperses, which leads to loss of the differentials required for work even though the total energy remains constant in accordance with the law of conservation of energy. In other words, matter doesn't have the potency to organize itself from simple to complex forms in time, but quite the opposite - complex structures degrade into simple ones, although the amount of matter and energy is changeless. The natural force of material time pushes everything towards disintegration and the only force able to work against this current is a conscious living entity manipulating the elements (matter & energy) and integrating them into and maintaining them in more complex structures. The laptop on which I'm writing didn't come along on its own. It was assembled by people or by machines programmed by people - conscious beings. The only thing that will happen "on its own" with this laptop after a conscious being withdraws its influence will be that in due course of time it will disintegrate into the basic elements.
Matter on its own is like the skin-flesh nipples hanging from the goat's neck. One who pulls and squeezes them in order to get some milk is certainly a fool, as the actual udder is somewhere else. In this way, the materialistic scientists are seeking the source of animation within the universe in matter, while all the movement and life comes from the Supreme Animator, God or Krsna.
Concerning Maya in her personal feature, she is simply another servant of the Supreme Lord. Her thankless task is to chastise the living entities, who decide to exist on an inappropriate platform of illusory material sense enjoyment. This chastisement is not malicious, just like when a mother slaps a child, not out of malice, but to protect him from harming himself further. Our suffering in the material world, the impermanence of any of our hard-earned achievements and our ultimate frustration through the agency of death is a constant reminder of our incompatible position in the world of maya. The proof of this incompatibility is our innate desire to perpetuate existence, perception, bliss and relationships. Maya's duty is to facilitate the jiva's desire to separate himself from Krsna and to enjoy separately, so under her influence the living entity identifies himself with the covering of material elements and material senses. Maya also serves as Krsna's doorman so no one, who is still contaminated by separatist desires can enter His transcendental association.
From this point of view, Maya has two potencies: the covering influence and the throwing influence. The covering influence covers the living entity with material elements while throwing influence throws the living entity out from Krsna's circle and facilitates the desired forgetfulness of Krsna and entering the realm of matter.
In the course of their devotional service devotees are being tested by maya, whether they are really serious to return to Krsna's association. Maya comes with different kinds of allurements and aspiring devotees are confronted with their egos, minds and senses (superimposed on the soul by maya herself). From an old friend with a fat joint or a beautiful girl making moves to more subtle forms of illusion such as greed, desire for being worshipped by others or thinking oneself to be the best devotee in the whole universe. The last snare of maya is to think of oneself as God. Devotees sometimes fail to pass the test and many times they hate maya for doing this, but that is also not a correct attitude. Krsna says:
daivi hy esa guna-mayi mama maya duratyaya
mam eva ye prapadyante mayam etam taranti te
It is very difficult, practically impossible to overcome this energy of Krsna, maya. But one who surrenders unto the lotus feet of the Lord can jump over the ocean of illusion as if it would be a puddle of water contained in a hoofprint of a calf. Krsna orders maya to release the surrendered soul and then the chastising energy of the Lord becomes the most obedient servant of the advanced devotee to facilitate his pure devotional service.
And lastly, maya simply means forgetfulness of Krsna, as above mentioned. When we see ourselves as nonrelated or separate from Krsna, that is maya - that which is not. We are eternally related to Krsna and never separate. When we see ourselves as ultimate controllers and enjoyers, that is maya, because we are controlled and enjoyed by Krsna. When we consider the temporary body to be the self, that is maya, because the body is changing but the self remains the same, and when we consider the manifested universe to be the ultimate reality, that is also maya, because there is a world beyond this universe.
It is a question of consciousness. That's the reason why our movement is called Krsna consciousness movement, because at the end of the day, "matter" as the representation of illusion is created by one's attitude towards the energy emanating from God, Krsna. The powerhouse (run by an engineer) emanates one energy - electricity. But on the other side of the wire, the consumer has a variety of options: he can cool things down in the fridge or he can heat them up on a cooker. The energy running both the machines is the same, but its usage is different. Similarly, we can see the energy of Krsna as an agent for our illusory sense gratification - then it is matter, or we can see it as an object of service to give Krsna pleasure - then it is spirit. The same flower, the same laptop, the same sex life, the same eating, the same dancing, the same hearing, the same talking... everything remains the same, only our attitude changes and that decides which maya are we covered by: maha-maya or yoga-maya.
The jiva is always covered by a type of maya. Our free will is to decide the covering we'll put ourselves under. In the material world we are covered by maha-maya, we forgot about Krsna, about our position, we falsely identify with the inert, dead material body and we're trying to serve the alien material senses to derive pleasure from them. In the spiritual world, we are covered by yoga-maya. We always remember Krsna, we identify as His eternal blissful servants and we serve to satisfy His senses. Under the influence of yoga-maya, the devotee also forgets that Krsna is God and sometimes he forgets his position as a servant of Krsna. But that only happens so that the devotee and Krsna can enjoy the taste of their particular relationship, called rasa.
Krsna, God, is not a boring guy, simply sitting on a throne and ruling over. That is also there, but there is so much more to it. Krsna wants to enjoy friendship, His own submission to someone seemingly superior to Him and ultimately conjugal love. In order to have this exchanges with His devotees, they must forget about His position as the Supreme Lord and this forgetfulness is enacted under the influence of yoga-maya. The science of rasa is a very elaborate one and we may touch upon it in some of the future articles.
To summarize the Vaisnava viewpoint on maya: nothing false can come from the Truth. Krsna is the Absolute Truth and all His emanations are factual. Therefore devotees consider the world and the energy creating it as factual. It is not false, but its manifestation is temporary. The body we have is not false, it is temporary.
For a devotee, the world is Vaikunṭha - the spiritual world, because he sees everything in relationship with Krsna. Therefore everything is real and by his service, the devotee turns everything from matter back to spirit.
As Lord Brahma, the creator agent of this universe said in one of his prayers to Lord Krsna: "Actually, when one mistakes a rope for a snake, the existence of the snake is only within the mind. The existence of maya, similarly, is only within the mind. Maya is nothing but ignorance of Your personality. When one forgets Your personality, that is the conditioned state of maya. Therefore one who is fixed upon You both internally and externally is not illusioned"
A devotee never thinks "I am God" and because this crooked idea is "that, which is not", he is always fixed in Reality.