By Swami Harshananda
Māyā, an Architect
Prince Duryodhana was subject to an optical illusion making himself a subject for laughter of Draupadī at the exquisitely beautiful palace of the Pāṇḍavas in Indraprastha, their capital. This incident became the root cause of Mahābhārata war. The creator of this wondrous place was Māyā, the chief architect of the asuras or demons.
When Arjuna cleared the forest Khāṇdavavana for being consumed by Agni, the god of fire, Māyā who was living there took refuge in Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa saved his life. As a token of his gratitude, Māyā built the palace at Indraprastha, the new capital of the Pāṇḍavas. He also gave a divine gadā or mace to Bhīma and the śaṅkha or conch Devadatta to Arjuna.
Māyā was the son of Kaśyapa and his third wife Danu. Right from his boyhood days, he was interested in the science of architecture. He acquired proficiency in it by appeasing Brahmā, the creator, through severe austerities. For some time, he was the king of the dānavas. Hemā was his queen. The two fierce demons, Māyāvī and Dundubhi, were his sons and Maṇḍodarī was his daughter. She was given in marriage to Rāvaṇa of Laṅkā. ‘Mayamata’ is the science of architecture attributed to him. Viśvakarma, the chief architect of the devas or gods, was his rival in this field.
Māyā, as Power
If God, the Absolute, is called Brahman or Ātman in the Upaniṣads, he is ‘ekam eva advitiyam’ or ‘One only, without a second’. Then how can he become this world of duality or multiplicity is a question that has puzzled many philosophers for ages. The Advaita Vedānta school which was vigorously propagated by Śankara 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 as ‘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 clear this point. 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. Perhaps, he even might laugh at it and go 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 Śankara accords a much greater degree of reality to the world and calls it ‘vyāvahārikasattā,’ an empirical truth.
Māyā, a City
Māyā, as Mother
In the purāṇas and tantras, Māyā is the name of one of the Divine Mother. The word also stands for the bīja ‘hrīiṅ’ of the Divine Mother. The Jayākhyasamhitā states that Māyā is one of the four Śaktis of Viṣṇu the other three being Lakṣmī, Jayā and Kīrti.
- Mahābhārata, Ādiparva 228
- Dānavas means demons.
- He lived from A. D. 788-820.
- Bīja means seed-letter.
- Jayākhyasamhitā 8.77
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore