In the religions of India, Maya (Sanskrit māyā, from mā "not" and yā "this") is a term denoting three interrelated concepts: 1) power which enables those in its possession, most often gods, to produce forms in the physical word, 2) the reality produced by this process, 3) the illusion of the phenomenal world of separate objects. In early Vedic mythology, maya was the power with which the gods created and maintained the physical universe. With the onset of the more philosophical Upanishads and eventually the school of Advaita Vedanta, maya came to refer to the illusion of the worldly realm as it related to Brahman, the supreme cosmic power. Each physical object, as well as each independent ego-consciousness, is deemed illusory when considered in the monistic context of Brahman. In many branches of Hinduism, maya must be overcome in order to liberate the soul from reincarnation and karma. Similar conceptions of maya are held within Buddhism and Sikhism.
Maya is introduced in the Rg Veda, referring to the power that devas (divine beings) possessed which allowed them to assume various material forms and to create natural phenomena. For instance, Varuna, employed maya in order to perform his celestial duties:
Here, Varuna's creative ability is attributed to the power of maya he beholds, which he uses to keep all natural processes precise and orderly. Similar passages claim that the warrior-god Indra's maya keeps the firmament from falling from its fixtures in the heavens. Rg Veda 5:85 also illustrates more specified aspect of maya: its meaning as artifice or trickery. That is, maya becomes associated with the sorts of deception and trickery that a magician employs in order to create an illusion. For example, the ability of the various gods to appear in alternate forms is attributed to their skillful use of maya.
Maya is not limited to the gods, however, as their evil opponents, the Asuras, also have the ability to call upon maya. Many of Indra's primary adversaries, including the notorious serpent Vrtra, call upon maya in order to gain their malevolent powers. As could be expected, the Asura's maya often involves the aforementioned trickery. Later scriptural passages found in Atharva Veda 8.10.2 and Satapa Brahmana 126.96.36.199 portray maya as the esoteric power or knowledge that characterizes the asuras. In these later verses, maya is the power rooted in wisdom and intellectual pursuits, and exists independent of morality, since it can both benefit or hinder human welfare. Some early texts also attribute the powers of maya to human kings, and on some occasions the power of sacrifice is referred to as maya.
The view of maya put forth in the philosophical Upanishads serves as an important transitional phase between the Vedic conception of maya, which would come to dominate later Hindu philosophy and mythology. The Svetsara Upanishad in particular focuses upon reformulating the older Vedic conceptions of maya, presenting it as the means by which the phenomenal world is emanated from Brahman. Here it is claimed that the mahesvara (or "Great Lord," who is identified in this text as Shiva) projects the physical world out of the ineffable substrate of the universe known as Brahman. Maya is the power that brings all reality into being as it is perceived by human consciousness. Therefore, all the particular things contained within this material world are products of maya. These particulars detract from the perception of pure, unadulterated Brahman, and therefore maya comes to be perceived as a negative entity. The soul itself (or atman), which is conceived of as divine in its own right within the Upanishads, is also confined from realizing its true nature by maya's multiplicity of forms. However, the Svetsara Upanishad also prescribes a remedy for the atman's entrapment within maya: through meditation upon mahesvara, one can achieve union with Him and enter into his being. This suggestion would have considerable effect on later philosophical schools, particularly those of Vedanta.
Later devotional Hinduism came to conceive of particular deities as the sole object of their worship, primarily the gods Shiva and Vishnu. Mythologies recounting the history of these gods tend to conceive of their actions as examples of the operation of maya. One such example comes from the Matsya Purana, where Vishnu illustrates the significance of maya for the great sage Narada as a reward for his asceticism. The story provides insight into the undergirding philosophy of theistic Hindu doctrine: that is, the phenomenal world is simply an emanation of divine energy that has been filtered through maya. Vishnu, as it were, simply dresses himself in maya as a garment for purposes of taking shape for the eyes of mortals.
Maya is considered by theistic Hindus to be an indispensable part of God's feminine aspect, and has been called his Shakti, or energy. The feminine aspect of maya has been personified as Mahamaya ("great Maya"), a great goddess responsible for the creation of the physical world. This aspect of Maya is also visualized as the form of Divine Mother (Devi). She is perpetually smiling, having dominion over all of physical reality. Essentially, Mahamaya blinds humans in delusion (moha) while also possessing the power to free us from it. In the Hindu scripture 'Devi Mahatmyam,' Mahamaya is said to cover Vishnu's eyes in divine sleep (or Yoganidra) during cycles of existence when all is resolved into one. By exhorting Mahamaya to release Her illusory hold on Vishnu, Brahma is able to bring Vishnu to aid him in killing two demons, Madhu and Kaitabh, who have arisen from Vishnu's sleeping form. In later times Mahamaya is often considered a form of Kali or Durga, the consort of Shiva who presides over magic and spells.
In the Bhagavadgita, Krishna explains that he is able to become immanent in the physical world through the power of maya. Thus, maya has a positive aspect in its ability to spawn Vishnu's avatars who come to the aid of humankind through the protection of dharma. However, the Bhagavadgita also reiterates the Svetsara Upanishad when it states that maya is a negative concept, as its production of the physical world deprives human beings of insights into the true nature of the universe. The text suggests that those who put their faith in Krishna can transcend maya and realize god's essential nature. This prescription for salvation would come to have great effect on the devotional bhakti movement that arose in medieval India, and has persisted until today.
Shankara (788-820 C.E.), founder of the Advaita Vedanta ("non-dualist") school of philosophy, elaborated upon the notion of maya introduced in the Upanishads. For Shankara, maya is believed to be an illusion, a veiling of the true, unitary Self (Atman), which is absolutely equivalent with Brahman. The entirety of the universe except for the highest, indescribable form of Brahman, then, is an illusion created by maya. Perceived differences between Brahman and the individual soul are created by the perception of particulars in the physical world engendered by maya. Since Brahman is one and indivisible, then any perception of plurality is erroneous.
Shankara identified two polar aspects which compose maya: firstly avidya, (ignorance) and secondly vidya (knowledge). Avidya leads human beings away from god and toward imprisonment by material objects and the egoistic assertion of individuality. Meanwhile vidya leads to the realization of god and can be cultivated through virtuous spirituality. Both of these realms, however, are relative, including the realization of God. Shankara and the Advaitans claimed that when maya combines with Brahman, the supreme personal god also known as Ishvara, appears. Although this personal god with characteristics is still divine, Shankara claimed that it paled in comparison the supreme Brahman without qualities. Once an individual eschews all distinctions of the illusory particular things created by maya, including that distinction between humanity and Ishvara, Shankara believed one could then come to realize that tat tvam asi ("Thou art That," or "Atman is Brahman"). Only then can individuals escape maya and merge into oneness with Brahman.
Other Hindu schools of thought, however, do not see the physical world as an illusion (maya). For example, Visistadvaita Vedanta ("qualified non-dualism"), founded by Ramanuja (1017-1137 C.E.), holds that individual souls and the physical world are both real but utterly dependent on Brahman. Ramanuja emphasized the reality of the world as opposed to its illusory quality. Ramanuja stressed that the soul could only be liberated through complete surrender to Ishvara by way of bhakti. Many other contemporary Hindu philosophies take a similar stance toward the doctrine of maya, typically interpreting that it does not suggest a forthright denial of reality of the world. Rather, maya is interpreted by these philosophers to suggest that the nature of human experience is ultimately subjective.
In early Buddhism, maya referred to the deceptive nature of the ego and its perception of the world of appearances and forms, which an unenlightened individual accepts as the only reality. Additionally, maya was seen as a characteristic of samsara (the cycle of suffering and rebirth). In everyday human action, maya involves clinging to the notion of an independent self or soul, as well as the conviction that there exists an eternal absolute creator force in the universe called God.
As Buddhism evolved over the centuries its view of the samsaric world changed, and with it maya. The Mahayana Buddhist view of maya does not mark the world as an utterly meaningless realm of petty illusion. For example, the philosopher Nagarjuna differentiated between two levels of reality: first, paramarthika, the true and ultimate realm, and secondly vyavabarika, or the everyday world in which we persist and must find salvation. The Zen tradition also notes that it is not a form of self-deception to acknowledge the physical world as real; however, the deception occurs when one assumes the physical world to be the only permanent reality. In this tradition, nirvana and the world of maya are simply intellectual distinctions, and actually are one and the same entity. The realization of nirvana is based upon recognition of the impermanent nature of the form world. Through realization of the singular identity of maya and bodhi (or "enlightenment"), one can escape the bondage of the material world.
It should also be noted that in Buddhist mythology, Maya is the name given for Buddha's mother. This no doubt draws upon the term's creative and connotations, figuring maya as the infinitely fecund universal womb which births all transitory worldly forms.
In Sikhism, maya refers to the world as it is normally perceived. Sikhs conceive this world to be no more manifest than a dream. The Guru Granth Sahib states that, as in a dream, there is nothing in the physical world that anyone can truly identify as their own. Even though dreams may feel genuinely tangible, the dreamer cannot affirm them as dreams until they awaken. Thus, human beings must seek God in order to escape the grasp of maya. In this way, the Sikh formulation of maya is comparable with that of Vedanta. However, Sikhs do not denounce the world of maya and classify it as an unimportant aspect of life. Both 'miri' (the temporal world) and 'piri' (the spiritual world) are said to be of equal importance to human beings. The key to a fulfilling life, according to Sikh teachings, is to maintain the proper balance between these two realms of existence.
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