What is Maya in Hinduism?

Hindu marriage

by Jayaram V

In Hinduism maya is used to denote both Prakriti or Nature and the deluding power. Prakriti is the dynamic energy of God. According to some schools of Hinduism, Prakriti exists eternally as a separate entity from God. Just like Him, it is unborn, uncreated, independent and indestructible. It either acts independently of Him or acts in unison with Him as a co-creator or partner.

According to other schools, Prakriti is the dynamic energy of God, either latent or created on purpose. It comes into existence during the act of creation, as a manifestation of His Will, to envelop the beings He creates and subject them to the state of duality. Whether it is independent of Him or dependent, all schools of Hinduism, with a few exceptions, recognize God as the Creator.

In His role as Iswara, the Lord of the visible and invisible universe, God undertakes five different functions, namely, Creator, Preserver, Destroyer, Concealer and Bestower of grace. In His role as Concealer, He unleashes the power of Maya, through Prakriti, to conceal Himself from what He creates and delude all the living beings (jivas) into thinking that what they experience through their senses is true and that they are independent of the objects and other beings they perceive through their senses. Maya therefore causes ignorance and through ignorance perpetuates the notion of duality, which is responsible for our bondage and mortality upon earth.

When we know that maya is the power that blinds us, binds us and deludes us, we become aware of the extent of its influence and its role in our lives. Out of this awareness comes a sense of caution and discriminating, which ultimately leads to our salvation. But till we reach that stage, we remain in the grip of maya, like fish, caught helplessly in a net. Saivism recognizes maya as one of the pasas (bonds) or malas (impurities). It is responsible for our animal (pasu) existence or beingness and becomingness. It causes in us ignorance and egoism and binds us to the objects we desire and seek. It makes us believe that the objective world in which we live and experience alone is true. It draws us outwardly and binds us to the things, we love or hate or we want to possess or get rid of. It is responsible for our experience of time and space which otherwise do not exist. It conceals our true nature and makes us believe that we are mere physical and mental beings. Through its powerful pull, it draws us forcefully into the objective reality of the world in which we live and binds us to things and events through our thoughts and desires.

Unlike the western religion, in Hinduism God is not separate from His creation. His creation is an extension of Him and an aspect of Him. This world comes into existence, when God expands Himself outwardly, like a web woven by a spider. In His subjective and absolute state, His creation is unreal and illusory, but in our objective and sensory experience and in our beingness it is very much real and tangible. It is a projection or reflection of Him, like the objects in the mirror and the mirror itself, different from Him somewhat, but also not so different, dependent but virtually distinct. He uses the concealing power of His own maya to draw Himself into Prakriti and conceal Himself in it as a limited and diluted being.

How the beings are subjected to delusion? It is through the senses and their activity. The Bhagavadgita explains the process thus, "By constantly thinking of the sense objects, a mortal being becomes attached to them. Attached thus he develops various desires, from which in turn ensues anger. From anger comes delusion, and from delusion arises confusion of memory. From confusion of memory arises loss of intelligence and when intelligence is lost the breath of life is also lost (2.60-63)." So the sense first draw out and involve us with what we see and experience. Through this constant contact with the sense objects, we develop attachment with them. This attachment in turn causes desires. Because of the desires, we want to own and possess things, we develop likes and dislikes, attraction and aversion. We draw ourselves into situations and relationships we believe will lead to our happiness and fulfillment. We become so involved in the process and with Prakriti that we forget who we are and why we are here or what we need to do in order to be ourselves.

Maya causes delusion in many ways. Under the influence of Maya an individual loses his intelligence and power of discretion. He forgets his true nature. He loses contact with his true self and believes that he is the physical self with a mind and body that are subject to constant change, instability, and birth and death. In that delusion, he believes that he is doer of his actions, that he is responsible for his actions, that he is alone and independent, that he cannot live with or without certain things and so on, where as in truth he is an aspect of God, who has concealed himself, who is actually the real doer, and for whose experience all this has been created. Because of his ignorant thinking, he develops attachment with worldly objects and wants to possess them. He spends his life in the pursuit of unworthy objectives in the world considering them to be imperative for his success, survival, happiness and personal pride.

He accepts as true what his senses perceive, ignoring the truth that is hidden in every thing or that lies beyond his mind and senses. Driven by passions and emotions, instincts and desires, he suffers from the conflicting experiences and sensations of heat and cold, happiness and sorrow, success and failure, and union and separation from what is desirable and undesirable. He becomes restless, driven by the passions and emotions of his unstable and undisciplined mind. Deluded thus, he pursues wrong aims, indulges in wrong actions and suffers from the consequences of his own actions and gets caught in the cycle of births and deaths. One can overcome the power of maya, by developing detachment, by withdrawing the senses from sense objects, by surrendering to God and by performing desireless actions accepting God as the doer.

Nature of Reality

Does Hinduism consider the world in which we live as real or unreal? Hinduism considers the world in which we live as a projection of God and unreal. It is unreal not because it does not exist, but because it is unstable, impermanent, unreliable and illusory. It is unreal because it hides the Truth and shows us things that lead to our ignorance. It is unreal because it changes its colors every moment. What is now is not what is next.

In one moment so many things happen here. Many new souls enter. Many depart also. Friends become enemies and enemies friends. The sun and the earth change their positions continuously in space and time, while the wind moves, the rivers flow and the oceans shift their currents. The people who live on earth are also very fickle. Their minds are never stable. Their thoughts never cease. They seem to live today and disappear tomorrow. While all this is going on in the whole wide world, at the microscopic level, millions of atoms, cells and molecules in the bodies shift and change their positions or get destroyed.

The world in which we live gives us an apparent illusion of stability, where as in truth it is not. It is an illusion to believe that this world is the same always, or that the people we deal with are the same all the time. The world is therefore an illusion, not because it does not exist in the physical sense, but because it is unstable, ever changing, impermanent, unreliable and most important of all never the same. Ask yourself this question. Are the same person you were a minute ago?

The scriptures say that it would be unwise on our part to center our lives around such an unstable world, because if you spend your precious life for the sake of impermanent and unreliable things, you are bound to regret in the end for wasting your life in the pursuit of emptiness. The real world lies beyond our ordinary senses where our existence would be eternal and where things would not change the way they do in this plane.

The philosophy is very simple but difficult to follow. After all what is illusion? It is something like a mirage which misleads you into wrong thinking and wrong actions. This world precisely does that. It offers you happiness but leads you into the darkness of suffering. It tempts you with many things and when you run after them you find them to be unreal and incapable of quenching your thirst for stability and permanence.

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