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Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part LV
by Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share

Maya Mahathugni

Continued from Part LIV

In Hinduism, the term Maya has multiple meanings and connotations depending upon the contextual reference and reason is embedded in the interpretations of the world itself. According to ancient Hindu scriptures, the universal existence is comprised of two intertwined parts in general philosophical sense; one is invisible subtle world (Sukchma Sansar) represented by the Supreme Consciousness (Brahman, God) and individual consciousness (Self, soul), and the other is the visible gross world (Sthule Sansar) comprised of empirical or material or objects. While the seers and scholars visualise the former as real and permanent, the latter is considered unreal and impermanent but gives an illusion of representing real world. Due to this nature of the gross world, the ancient seers, scholars and the modern philosophers call it Mayavi or illusionary world.

The aforesaid qualifications are based on deep philosophical analysis and observation; hence it appears to be a sustainable concept. Afterall, the Science represents only an intellectual and systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through experiment, observation and interpretation. A simple illustration could be given from the human attributes to appreciate and understand the logic of the existence of the subtle world. We don’t physically see any human emotions but that does not mean they don’t exist: For instance, love doesn’t have a shape but a person in love is found to be extremely compassionate, caring and selfless. Similarly, when a person is under the influence of anger, he becomes irrational, agitated, aggressive and sometimes even violent. Here these emotions represent subtle existence that need a medium (physical being) for expression.

Maya – Nature, Meaning and Connotation

Maya has multiple tangible and intangible meanings and connotations in Hinduism, the literal meaning being illusion or magic. In Vedic literature, it connotes to extraordinary power and wisdom while in post-Vedic period, it refers to illusory state where things appear to be present and real but actually, they are not because they are not stable and permanent, and are constantly changing. Due to this attribute, they are considered as unreal in spiritual sense. In other words, Maya is the power or precept that conceals the true nature of the spiritual reality under the veil of physical existence. According to Advaita philosophy, Maya is an illusion that makes the world appear as duality. Besides, Maya is a sobriquet for the goddess Lakshmi too, who is considered the deity of wealth, prosperity and love by Hindus. The same term refers to material wealth and treasure too.

The stated duality has been explained in a different way by the Samkhya school of Indian philosophy, which describes the universal reality into two aspects i.e. the Purusha and Prakriti. Here Purusha is defined as the Supreme Self or the Subject, individual Self being only part of it, as the one who is conscious or knows, while the Prakriti, on a much broader canvas, encompasses everything else that is seen or known in the universe, including all that is material and psychological. This unmanifest Prakriti, or Maya, which is otherwise absolute, pure and formless, is a pool of limitless potential comprising of three fundamental balancing forces called the gunas namely Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Prakriti manifests as the universe of tangible and intangible objects through the interplay of these gunas in various concentrations, proportions and forms.

In a broader sense, the Prakriti or Maya or Nature is the divine and dynamic energy of Brahman (God). It comes into dynamic mode during the act of creation, as a manifestation of the latter’s creative potential, of beings simultaneously subjecting them to the state of duality. As Hinduism has many schools of philosophical thoughts, some even believe that the Prakriti (Maya) existed eternally as a separate entity along with Brahman and just like the latter, it is unborn, uncreated, independent and indestructible. However, whether as part of Him or independent, the most schools of Hinduism are in agreement of Brahman’s (God) role in creation. With Maya or Prakriti in play, the living beings are made to believe that what they experience through their senses is real and that they are independent of the objects and other beings they perceive through their senses. Therefore, Maya in effect causes ignorance and delusion leading to duality responsible for the bondage in the empirical or material world.

Maya in Ancient Hindu Scriptures

In Vedas and Upanishads, the terms Maya or Mayava find a mention at several places with varying meanings and interpretations by the scholars and Indologists. To illustrate it, a few selective quotes and references are taken from these scriptures for the current discussion. In Rigveda itself, the term Maya has been used in several hymns in the context of illusion, magic or power. The Rigveda also refers to Mayabheda i.e. breaching of Avidya (ignorance) in few Mantras, which essentially means the destruction of the illusion caused by Maya that occurs during the course of learning the true Knowledge, i.e. the knowledge of Brahman. The translated version of the hymn 177 in 10th Mandala of Rigveda by Laurie Patton, an American academic, author and poet is reproduced below:

The wise behold with their mind in their heart the Sun, made manifest by the illusion (Maya) of the Asura; the sages look into the solar orb, the ordainers desire the region of his rays.

The Sun bears the word in his mind; the Gandharva has spoken it within the wombs: sages cherish it in the place of sacrifice, brilliant, heavenly, ruling the mind.

I beheld the protector, never descending, going by his paths to the east and the west; clothing the quarters of the heaven and the intermediate spaces. He constantly revolves in the midst of the worlds. (Rigveda X.177.1-3)

In the aforesaid hymn, symbolically a contrast has been created between the mind influenced by the light (Sun) and ignorance (illusion of Asura). The hymn is a call to discern person's enemies or vices, perceive deception, and make good use of own mind to make distinction between that which is perceived and that which ordinarily remains unperceived.

In Hindu mythology, Maya is used in multiple contexts. For illustration, Devas’s king Indra has been referred at places to using Maya to conquer Vritra; deity Varuna’s supernatural power is equated also with Maya; then, both the Devas and Asuras are equipped with Mayavi (magical) powers that they used against each other in conflicts and wars. The Atharvaveda (Book 8, Chapter 10.22) describes the primordial woman Viraaj, whom Asura called Maya and whose magical powers were exploited by them for self-gratification and sustenance. The contextual meaning of Maya in Atharvaveda relates to the "power of creation", and term Viraaj has been used in other texts also for the primeval being, Purusha, and some deities.

The Upanishads describe the existence as an interplay of the Purusha and Prakriti, while the former represents the eternal and unchanging principles of Supreme Consciousness, the latter denotes the impermanent and ever-changing empirical world. Various schools of Hindu philosophies have attempted to describe the two and their corelation but the essence of the spiritual concept is that the Purusha or Brahman manifests as Atman (Self, soul) and the Prakriti or Maya as the material world but the source of dynamic energy behind the Maya in material manifestation remains Brahman Himself. Hence Upanishads treat the knowledge of Atman as Vidya (true knowledge) and the knowledge of Maya as Avidya (ignorance). Though Maya is literally translated as “illusion” but by implication it is different from its usual meaning or effect. It’s so because here the illusion does not imply that the material world does not exist or is merely imaginary; instead, it refers to its impermanent, transitory and misleading nature that tends to take the person away from the ultimate spiritual reality.

The concept of Maya has been dealt with by many Upanishads. For instance, Svetasvatara Upanishad (4.9-10) is among the oldest texts that made explicit reference of the Brahman being the hidden reality, Maya (nature) as magic with the former as magician. Human beings are infatuated with this magic creating bondage for self through illusions and delusions. The essence of Upanishadic wisdom is that the Maya is a perceived reality, that has a tendency to crowd the true reality. Some cosmic realities as per Upanishads are as follows: Atman is conscious, Maya is unconscious; Brahman is the figurative Upadana i.e, the principle, the cause while Maya is the literal; Brahman and Atman is eternal, unchanging, invisible, absolute and resplendent consciousness while Maya is prone to birth, change, evolution, replenishment and death with time under varying circumstances.

Gaudapada was a 6th century Hindu philosopher and scholar of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, who authored the Mandukya Karika that included detailed commentaries on the Mandukya Upanishad, one of the ten such principal texts. While describing the nature of Brahman, Atman and Maya, he insisted that the seeker must have true insight and accurate knowledge of the hidden truth for the liberation. He tried to explain in his Karika the corelation and interplay between Atman and Maya as follows:

Aniscita yatha rajjurandhakare vikalpita,
Sarpadharadibhirbhavaistadvadatma vikalpitah.

Niscitayam yatha rajjvam vikalpo vinivartate,
Rajjureveti cAdvaitam tadvadatmaviniscayah.

Pranadibhiranantaisca bhsvairetairvikalpitah,
Mayaisa tasya devasya yaya sammohitah svayam.

(As the rope, whose nature is not really known, is imagined in the dark to be a snake, or a water-line, etc.; so also, is the Atman imagined. When real nature of the rope is ascertained, all illusions about it disappear with conviction that it is that one rope and nothing else; even so is the nature of the conviction regarding Atman. The Atman is imagined as Prana and other endless objects. This is due to Maya of the luminous i.e. Brahman-Atman by which It is deluded.) (Mandukya Karika 2.17-19)

In Puranas and particularly in Vaishnavite literature, Maya is often mentioned as one of the powers of Lord Vishnu. There is legendary story in the Bhagavata Purana that once the sage Markandeya expressed his desire to Lord Vishnu to experience latter’s Maya. Consequently, Vishnu appeara as an infant on a fig leaf floating in a deluge and swallows the sage as only apparent survivor of the cosmic deluge. Markandeya perceives all creations of the universe, including his own hermitage, in His belly. Now the infant disgorges out the mesmerized sage, everything disappears and Markandeya realizes that he was in his hermitage all the time and had only experienced Vishnu's Maya.

In Hindu texts, the material world (Maya) has been described as mrigtrishna (mirage of the deer) at many places. In hot desert, the reflection caused by the sun rays often creates an impression of the water for the deer, he runs for it in vain, and ultimately dies exhausted. In the same manner, the Maya creates illusion of happiness in the material world and people driven by sensory organs keep on chasing illusory happiness and end up without reaching the goal of life.

This aspect has been beautifully explained in the Garuda Purana also as under:

Chakradharo ’pi suratvam suratvalabhe sakalasurapatitvam,
Bhavtirum surapatirurdhvagatitvam tathapi nanivartate trishna.

(A king wishes to be the emperor of the whole world; the emperor aspires to be a celestial god; a celestial god seeks to be Indra, the king of heaven; and Indra desires to be Brahma, the secondary creator. Yet the thirst for material enjoyment does not get satiated.) (Garuda Purana: 2.12.14)

The various schools of Hindu philosophy have questioned, debated and tried to explain Maya, each one in their own ways. The Samkhya school propounded its concept of duality through Purusha and Prakriti, with some texts and commentaries equating the latter with Maya as the product of the interplay of three gunas in varying combinations and proportions. The realism-driven Nyaya school opined that neither the soul (Purusa) nor the material world (Prakriti) was an illusion, insight of which was later adopted and redefined by the Advaita Vedanta in a more plausible way. In Yoga school of thoughts, Maya is the manifested world and the yogic perfection of the Brahman is the cause of the creation of Maya.


The concept of Yoga as power to create Maya gave rise to compound term ‘YogaMaya’, which finds mention in Hindu texts, including Srimad Bhagavad Gita (7.25). The concept of Maya discussed in the current piece is largely derived from the philosophy of the Advaita Vedanta school. The Vedanta school itself is divided into many sub-schools on the principles of Advaita and Dvaita, and their derivatives, in that the former believes in oneness of the Brahman (God) and Atman (soul) while the latter considers Brahman and Atman as distinct entities. According to the Vedanta concept, the perceived world is not what it appears to be and Maya is one that manifests and perpetuates this false sense of duality among beings. According to the Advaita philosophy, we experience two realities; one is Vyavaharika (empirical reality) and the other Paramarthika (absolute, spiritual reality). Maya is illusory because it has potential to create bondage to the empirical world, and thus, it hinders realization of the truth, which is unitary Self and its relation with the Supreme Soul, or Brahman. As per Advaita concept, Maya is cause of the manifestation of the material world, whereas Brahman, which supports Maya, is the principle force behind creation cause of the world.

The modern age seer and scholar, Swami Vivekanand held that the Vedantin’s description of Maya in its current evolved form, is neither idealism nor realism, and nor a theory. It is a simple statement of facts about what we are and what we see around us. The following quote of Swami from the commentaries of Adi Shankara on Fourth Vyasa Sutra aptly describes the position:

“The Vedas cannot show you Brahman, you are That already. They can only help to take away the veil that hides truth from our eyes. The cessation of ignorance can only come when I know that God and I are one; in other words, identify yourself with Atman, not with human limitations. The idea that we are bound is only an illusion (Maya). Freedom is inseparable from the nature of the Atman. This is ever pure, ever perfect, ever unchangeable.”

What has been so painstakingly captured in many Hindu scriptures but often explained in so complex or symbolic way, a fifteenth century saint and mystic poet Kabirdas put so well in his simple poem “Maya Maha Thugni Hum Jaani”. The translated text of the poem reads as under:

“Her Hands hold and sway a lattice-like trap, while she speaks in a sweet voice: For Keshava (Krishna, God), she represents an embodiment of abundance, and for Shiva the empress of the world; she is seated as the priest’s idol and in the places of pilgrimage manifests as the holy water; she is the yogini in yogi’s abode and the queen in the king’s palace; for some people, she is the priceless diamond and for others she is just a petty penny; devotees find her seated in the object of devotion, and for Brahma she is consort. Kabirdas says that all this is a long and untold story of Maya, who is the greatest illusory power.”

Maya and Srimad Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is one Hindu text which not only embodies the supreme spiritual mystery but also contains the essence of all the four Vedas and other scriptures. This is one treaty where a person can find solution of the most of his doubts and queries on Hindu spiritualism; hence the author considers it appropriate to mention it separately and independently. In His discourse to deluded Prince Arjuna in Kurushetra, Shree Krishna declares Maya as God’s divine energy as interplay of three gunas, which is difficult but not impossible to overcome by any devoted seeker.

Daivi hyesha guna-mayi mama Maya duratyaya,
Mam eva ye prapadyante Mayam etam taranti te.

(My divine energy Maya, consisting of the three modes of nature, is extremely difficult to overcome. However, those who surrender unto me cross over it easily.) (BG: Chapter 7, Verse 14)

The truth Shree Krishna revealed to Arjuna over five thousand years ago through a dialogue, more acceptable and much later evolved Advaita philosophy largely reflects the same concept. The Shwetashvatar Upanishad too described Maya as being the energy of God. In Ram Charit Manas, Tulsidas has mentioned at one place that some people think Maya is non-existent, but actually it is an energy engaged in the service of God. While revealing the nature of Maya, Shree Krishna said:

Naham prakashah sarvasya yoga-Maya-samavritah,
Mudho ’yam nabhijanati loko mam ajam avyayam.

(Being veiled by my divine YogMaya energy, I am not manifest to everyone; hence, the ignorant people do not know that I am unborn and immutable.) (BG: Chapter 7, Verse 25)

He further explains to arjuna that the YogMaya energy of Brahman serves as a veil to make Him invisible to the ignorant people, who can see and believe His finite form known by birth but are unaware of His (Brahman) highest state which is immutable and unsurpassable. This can be learnt only through the embodiment of truth, knowledge and bliss.

According to Adi Shankara, the YogMaya is the Maya formed by the union (yoga) of the three gunas viz. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas; therefore, the veil or illusion spread by the combination of gunas is called YogaMaya. Shree Krishna says that the YogMaya by which He is veiled is actually His own creation subject to own control without obstructing knowledge in the same way as the magical effects caused by the magician do not obstruct his own skills. In Bhagavad Gita, Shree Krishna has essentially explained three kinds of Yogas and their derivatives, i.e. the Karmayoga, Jnanyoga and Bhaktiyoga, that could be practiced by seekers to get rid of ignorance (and consequent delusion) in the quest of the realization of AtmanBrahman.

The essence of all yogas is to get rid of desire to achieve equanimity through an equipoised mind. The living beings have ten senses in number, of which five are the organs of perception and the other five as the organs of action. In addition, the five subtle sensory experiences of touching, seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting also significantly matter, being accountable for the feelings of likeability and dislike towards the things. These sense organs along with the subtle senses are the instruments for the cause of uncontrolled desire, which incite to attachment and cravings for the object(s), which are the products of Maya or Nature, that delude the being in turn. In essence, what we see around is the empirical realm owing to Maya, while the absolute reality is hidden under the latter’s veil. The Bhagavad Gita emphasizes the living beings to look beyond the mere appearance of things to explore the spiritual truth of the universe.

One brilliant example of empirical reality and its nemesis is quoted in the Sabha Parva of the epic Mahabharata. Duryodhana visits the Mayasabha (hall of illusion) in the Indraprastha on the occasion of the Rajsuya Yagya by Pandavas, and becomes confused and envious after experiencing its glamour and grandeur; in turn, Queen Draupadi ridicules him watching his predicament. This episode enfuriates Duryodhana who feels insulted and resolves to take revenge against the cousin Pandavas and Draupadi for belittling him through this outlandish display of power and wealth. Needless to mention, the episode becomes the main cause for the subsequent ugly events leading to the Mahabharata war. In this episode, the Mayasabha symbolizes the world, Duryodhana the egoistic individual (jiva) and Draupadi personifies Maya instigating the state of confusion, delusion, confusion and emotional agony of the Kaurava prince. The great story of Mahabharata vindicates how human beings fall prey to miseries and destruction for their desires and cravings under the influence of Maya.

In chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita, many verses describe how desires and cravings could be controlled to achieve an equipoised mind and freedom from the Mayavi influence. Shree Krishna says that the one who learns to detach his mind away from the material allurements and thereby renounces the desires of the senses, such a person experiences the inner bliss of the soul and becomes transcendentally reformed. While it is easier for the seers and ascetics to manage their sensory organs but for the ordinary person and householders, the task of the control of senses poses a tough challenge because he habitually craves for the worldly pleasures, hence easily falls prey to the influence of the objects of enjoyment. Shree Krishna describes different paths to achieving it through the yogas of action (Karma), knowledge (Jnan) and devotion (Bhakti). Even if the one is unable to pursue any of these paths, an unconditional surrender to God would carry the same effect.

Sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja,
Aham tvam sarva-papebhyo mokshayishyami ma shuchah.

(Abandon all varieties of dharmas and simply surrender unto me alone. I shall liberate you from all sinful reactions; do not fear.) (BG: Chapter 18, Verse 66)

The Machinations of Maya

Hinduism not being a dogmatic religion, independent concepts and theories exist but the larger consensus is that Maya is the divine and dynamic energy of the God Himself. Though it is identified as the distracting and deluding force that pushes the soul into the whirlpool of Samsara but the God Himself appears to be Mayavi too, Who ostensibly creates it and its machinations to put Jiva in a constant struggle and test between the empirical and spiritual realities. With Moksha or liberation set as ultimate goal, the individual (Self) must be aware of the machinations of Maya and knowledge to overcome it. Hence in the following paragraphs, let us briefly learn how Maya binds living beings to the empirical world, conceals the truth and deludes them into the vicious cycle of births and deaths through her machinations, engaging a variety of factors such as sensory organs and subtle senses, diverse creation, desires and cravings, attachment to various objects, Karma, bondage, interplay of gunas, and so on.

As already mentioned earlier, we have ten sensory organs for perception and action as also five subtle senses which under the influence of Maya are mostly used to perceive, know, relate and interact with the empirical world. They are difficult to control and tend to drag the being to Samsara instead of realizing soul and directing it to spiritual path. Another important perceptible occurrence is diversity in creation. People tend to be fascinated with the diverse nature of empirical world but are unable to perceive the underlying spiritual unity. Even as individuals, people are engrossed in diverse material possessions and accomplishments but fail to perceive the pure consciousness supporting Self.

The Self (Atman) is eternal, infinite, indestructible and without imperfections, and the physical body is just a clothing for it which is discarded at the death. As the Atman is different from the body and mind, it can be perceived only in a transcendental state when the mind and senses are inert and silent. In contrast, the most beings are driven by the body and mind which fall an easy prey to the desires and consequent cravings for the sensory objects. Hence, they most often engage in desire-ridden actions that lead to Karma and bondage. Similarly, under the influence of Maya, ego and duality, the living beings develop the deeper attachment towards material possessions and inducements. Attachments lead to desire-driven actions, which is responsible for bondage in cycle of birth-death-rebirth. This is the reason why scriptures recommend practicing self-restraint, detachment and renunciation in life.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Shree Krishna has declared egoism and ignorance as demoniac attributes which are captivated by the mind and body of the people under the influence of Maya. Ego is one attribute, which is characterized by the attitude of irrational ownership and doership among individuals by taking control on the body and mind. Similarly, due to ignorance, people tend to assume that the enjoyment of the sensory objects in material world is the real aim and truth of life and they verily indulge in all such activities, which prevent them in experiencing own spirituality and essential nature of Self. The ego and ignorance add to the cause of duality and delusion. It is this state of ignorance and egoism, which is the cause of most human sufferings and major obstacle in the path of liberation.

If Maya is the macrocosm, the attributes like egoism, ignorance and delusion undoubtedly manifest as the microcosm of the living beings. The deluded person is unable to see things in correct perspective and often mistakes one for another ultimately making own life miserable. This is the reason why scriptures insist on knowledge (Jnanyoga) for overcoming delusion and confusion of the mind. The true knowledge purifies the mind and body, induces desireless actions and meaningful contemplation about the Self: As a result, the person gradually overcomes ignorance to perceive the real purpose of life and hidden Self. Three gunas are considered as the dynamic modes of Maya and their combination in various proportion reflects how the person is inclined and conducts in both worlds i.e. empirical and spiritual realms.

Karma and bondage are two other major derivatives of the machinations of Maya that determine the present and future destiny of soul. Karma literally relates to action, work or deed but at spiritual level Hinduism relates it to the principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). This aspect has been beautifully explored in Bhagavad Gita, where Lord Krishna Himself revealed that good intent and good deed contribute to good Karma leading to future happiness and peace, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad Karma that inflict future pain and suffering. As per Bhagavad Gita, Karma is also closely linked with the concept of rebirth as also the nature and quality of future life by leaving its imprints on the Self (Atman). According to the scriptures and even common Hindu belief, the selfish or desire-ridden actions under the influence of Maya bind men to their consequences and this bondage leads to the vicious cycle of birth and death.

Impermanence and constant change are among the most striking features of the material or empirical world. They are also considered as the essential machinations of Maya and no living being is spared of their effect. This impermanence and changes are also the cause of gradual decay and death of the mortal body. The attributes of impermanence and mutability enable Maya to have an important role in the transmigration of the soul, which is otherwise eternal, permanent, indestructible and immutable. The state of beingness is reflected through the materiality of the body and mind at the gross and/or subtle levels through the desires and cravings, which ultimately lead to the Karma and bondage of the soul. This is the reason why Shree Krishna insisted on selfless actions and eschewing all desires and cravings to achieve a stable mind that paves the path of liberation.


In common parlance, the spirituality and modern science are often perceived as having mutual antagonism and inherent contradictions. Also, it is the latter rather than the former in the modern age which is found more hostile and bitter critic on concepts and theories on spirituality. In the process, the scientists often tend to forget that, unlike dogmatic religion(s) and spirituality of the West, the Indian spirituality is based on the same principles of the experimentation, observation and analysis that usually the modern science is based upon. Notwithstanding this antagonism, there are many issues related to life principles which the modern science is still unable to logically explain while the same is so often done with the relative ease by the Indian spiritual concepts. For illustration, the science may or may not accept the concept of the gross and subtle realms but the spirituality has not only propounded this but also can logically prove this. In this context, one may refer to the illustrations of the human emotions like love or anger already given in the opening paragraphs. They do not have a permanent body but still exist as subtle properties making use of a gross body for expression and impact.

Both the soul and Maya are the subtle energies of the Universal Consciousness, known as Brahman in Hinduism or God in common parlance. While the individual soul in its purest form is same as Brahman, the former has ultimate destiny of merger with the latter through the process of Moksha or liberation but the mechanics are veiled through Maya, which is the chief cause of the material world. The Hindu scriptures appropriately put forth the principles and processes whereby this cosmic union could be achieved by overcoming: Desires through detachment and renunciation; egoism through contemplation about Self; demoniac attributes through divine qualities; ignorance through knowledge; impact of three gunas through practicing purity; duality through realizing Self; delusion through discernment; and Karma and bondage through selfless action. Nonetheless, it also true that the absolute truth of our existence may remain beyond our reach in most cases due to various limitations, but people could still wisely strive for the true knowledge for attaining relative peace and harmony in life.

To be continued...

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