By Swami Harshananda
māyā (‘that which does not [really] exist’)
If God, the Absolute—called Brahman or Atman in the Upaniṣads—is ‘ekam eva advitiyam’ or ‘One only, without a second’, how can he become this world of duality or multiplicity?—is a question that has
puzzled many an Indian philosopher for ages. The Advaita Vedānta school which
was vigorously propagated by Śaṅkara (A. D. 788-820) solves this problem by putting forth the theory that it is due to māyā, an inscrutable and apparent power of Brahman which functions in two ways. It covers the real nature of Brahman as caitanya or pure consciousness and projects this world of duality in that
Brahman as the substratum. These two aspects of māyā are respectively called ‘āvaraṇaśakti’ and ‘vikṣepaśakti’.
At the individual level, māyā is
termed ‘ajñāna’. At the cosmic level,
though māyā lasts for the full cycle of creation, at the individual level, it can be eliminated by jñāna or spiritual knowledge.
An illustration can make this point clear. A piece of rope lying on the road appears like a snake for a person passing by it at dusk. The semidarkness successfully hides its real nature as the rope and projects the illusion of a snake on it
simultaneously producing fear in his mind. If that person however, brings a light and a stick to kill it, he discovers that it is only a rope! He then, perhaps, laughs at it and goes away. But, the next day, if he is passing by the same road at the same time, he will again see the rope as a snake but does not react with fear. This is because his ignorance regarding it has now been destroyed. The semidarkness of the dusk and the snake-like shape of the rope being external to him, the illusion itself persists. What has changed is only his personal reaction. Similarly when a person destroys his personal avidyā or
ajñāna. through spiritual illumination, his
reactions to the world and its affairs will undergo a thorough transformation,
though the world itself—being a product of māyā—will continue to remain as it is.
Even Śaṅkara accords a much greater degree of reality to the world and calls it ‘vyāvahārikasattā,’ an empirical truth.
Māyā or Māyāpurī is the same as Haridvāra (the modern Hardwar in Uttaranchal), one of the seven most important places of pilgrimage situated on the river Gaṅgā.
In the purāṇas and tantras, Māyā is one of the names of the Divine Mother.
The word also stands for the bīja (seed-letter) ‘hrīm’ of the Divine Mother.
The Jayākhyasamhitā (8.77) states that Māyā is one of the four Saktis of Viṣṇu the other three being Lakṣmī, Jayā and Kīrti.
See also ADVAITA VEDĀNTA DARŚANA.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore