The Definition and Concept of Maya in Hinduism

Maya, Illusion

by Jayaram V

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 sustain the illusion of oneness and permanence. The illusion of 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.

From the human body to a giant galaxy, each object in the material universe is what it is because of the aggregation of things that sustain its current state. Change one of them and the object becomes something else in time and space. Thus what we experience as our world and what we consider to be our existence are real in a limited sense and limited perspective.

Our scriptures declare that creation is the play of consciousness. It differentiates itself into diverse things and in the end withdraws everything into itself for no apparent and specific reason because God does nothing with any particular aim or desire. Says the Yoga Vashista, "The world is nothing but a mere vibration of consciousness in space. It seems to exist even as a goblin seems to exist in the eyes of the ignorant. 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."1

The meaning of Maya

In an ordinary sense, the word 'maya' means, trickery, fraud or deceit. Magic, jugglery or witchcraft are different forms of illusion that distract and deceive the senses. The senses have the limited ability to perceive and discern truth, although we take them from granted and rely more on the appearances of things rather than the truth underlying them. 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 there is an experiencer distinct from the experience. Etymologically speaking, maya is that which arises from Prakriti (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 issue 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).

The nature of existence

According to Hindu tenets, our existential and the objective reality with which our senses interact every moment and which we hold to be true, is either the deliberate projection of the primordial Nature or the mechanical movements of its blind force. Whether it is an independent and eternal entity or an aspect of God is a subject matter of speculation in various schools of Hinduism. However, most agree that Nature is the cause of all manifestation, either on its own or through the enfoldment of the Divine Will. 'Mathr', the universal mother, with its 'matra' (matter or material wealth), is the cause of all whirling and churning of the universe and the consciousness. She is also known as Prakriti, Nature or the field (kshetra), while God is described as the owner or occupier of the field (kshetrajna). She is the force behind all diversity, activity and movement that take place in the universe. Whether she is independent of God or dependent upon Him, we leave it presently to the mystics and scholars to debate.

illusion means

Illusion is 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 a 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 everyday but do not acknowledge mentally unless we begin to think about it consciously. Even in the 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. A simple analysis of our perceptual experience establishes beyond doubt that the world is not what it appears to be and what we perceive through our senses is just a superficial reality. Science tries to go beyond the visible universe and unravel the truth hidden in the depths of matter. But at times it gets caught in the appearances of things and layers of complexity that is part of our analytical approach. Hindu scriptures remind us of this fact when they compare the world to an illusion. It is an illusion because it conceals truth and reveal itself differently each time we perceive it.

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. From an absolute perspective, the material universe is a temporary creation. It changes from moment to moment and is never the same. We cannot say we live in the same world each and every moment of our existence. The senses may take time to perceive the changes that happen in our environment, but change is what characterizes our world and our existence all the time. Duality and plurality are facts of life. Without them we cannot make sense of ourselves and our experiences.

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 truth by understanding the various states of our consciousness. For example, when we are awake everything looks real. We can touch and feel things consciously. But in our dream state the world becomes different. Here we are vaguely aware of what is going on, but from an experiential point of view, do not know clearly whether what we experience in a dream is true or not. When we are in deep sleep and our senses are in a state of complete rest, the world almost disappears from the field of our experience. Here we do not experience any duality or plurality. We even lose the sense of self or the ego sense. Thus for a spiritually awakened person, who begins to comprehend the illusion of appearances, the material world presents itself as a stage in which things appear and disappear according to the state of our consciousness, awareness and inclination. When people are caught in the maze of things (samsara) and develop an attachment with them, they become vulnerable to ignorance and suffering.

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 a real world. We cannot say the world is an illusion, unless we have lost our minds literally. 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.

From a dreamer's perspective, a dream is real when he is in the state of dreaming. At least that is what we feel when a dream is actually enacting itself out in our consciousness. But what happens when you wake up from your sleep and the dream actually comes to an end? Was that dream real or just a projection of your mind? If it exists where is it now? Was it an illusion caused by a zillion neurons in your brain or a product of your astral travel? Similarly, what happens to the virtual reality we create in the internet space, when we disconnect the computer from the internet? We know that internet is a vast network of computers. But we are not sure whether what we see and interpret as internet is its essential form. May be a few years from now with different set of browsers, devices and technology we experience the same internet differently. Our world is not much different in in its essential aspect from the virtual reality we experience in the internet space. It exists but in a limited sense. It is a qualified state which perceived differently by different individuals or by the same individual at different times, relative to their awareness, state of mind and expectation.

The reason the world is unreal

The world is an illusion because it is not what it appears to be, it is never the same, it is an aggregation of matter and a mental construct, just like in a dream, that can be different things to different people according to their perception of things and states of mind. It is an irrefutable fact that the world is not the same all the time. We do not live in the same world all the time just as we do not swim in the same river or the ocean every time we enter it. Neither are we the same people all the time. We change from moment to moment. Our minds and bodies are transformed and renewed all the time. Many things die and regenerate in us each moment we live. We do not see all this because we do not pay particular attention to the happenings in us and around us or our perceptions are limited. We do not comprehend the truths concerning our existence clearly because we are subject to delusion (moha) which in turn is caused by ignorance (avidya). Therefore we believe in many things that are not true. We consider our world as permanent although it is impermanent and we live as if we are immortal although we see death and decay as a part of our existence.

The illusion of the beings

An individual soul is subject to the illusion only so long as it is caught up in the material things. But the truth dawns and the soul remembers its true and essential nature, when the mind and the senses are withdrawn and the ego is subdued. The ego and the bonds formed by our desires form a veil of ignorance around the soul and keep the soul in bondage to the Nature. When these are removed through the practice of yoga, the soul is freed from the hold of Nature and become self-absorbed. This happens usually when an individual is shaken out of his mindsets and undergoes a paradigm shift in his awareness and thinking. The yogis call such experiences as samvegana, which is actually an intense churning of the mind when our worldviews and beliefs are shattered and we stand before the elemental forces of brute nature in a totally vulnerable and helpless condition. The Buddha underwent a similar experience when he saw death and sickness in the streets of Kapilavastu. Jesus had a similar experience when he went out into the desert.

Something similar to that happens to many at the time of their spiritual awakening. They shed their old beliefs and ways of living and awake into a new world of awareness and thinking in which they see things differently as the play of consciousness. When there is a spiritual awakening, we see the world differently. We become aware of a new reality. It is as if the world in which we lived had disappeared, like a dream and all the things to which we became attached and thought to be the source of our happiness and fulfillment were actually the cause of our suffering and inner imbalance. As we discard the worldly things and become centered in ourselves, our equation with the world undergoes a tremendous transformation. It is then we become aware of the play of maya, the apparent illusion caused by the movement and appearance of forms and things. We realize that from "the creator Brahma right down to the pillar, all appearance of materiality is unreal like objects seen in a dream."2

Maya and Prakriti

Maya is a state of existence, a point of view, caused by the imperfect discriminating intelligence (buddhi), which according to Hindu scriptures, is an aspect of Prakriti and the nearest in the hierarchy to the pure consciousness. From that limited perspective we experience duality and plurality. We see the world, but not the consciousness hidden in it and the things that are found in its space, which is responsible for their appearance. Because of maya, we see ourselves as different, distinct and diverse, not as individual souls of pure consciousness but as beings made of minds and bodies. We mistake our egos as the souls and our minds as the consciousness, seeking fulfillment through self promotion and self-preservation, and competing for attention and recognition even when such goals tend to destabilize our minds and inner peace. We seek things in order to fulfill ourselves and alleviate our fears and anxieties. We indulge in selfish actions out of desires and habits. As we indulge in selfish actions with a desire to get things and reach our goals, we reap the fruits of our own actions and become subject to bondage, births and rebirths.

Overcoming maya

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 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.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Yoga Vashista, Part 3, On Creation, The Story of Lila, Translation by Swami Venkatesananda, State University of New York Press, Page 86

2. Yoga Vashista, Part 3, On Liberation, The Story of The Sage From Outer Space, Translation by Swami Venkatesananda, State University of New York Press, Page 600.


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