Doctrine of Maya
by Swami Sivananda
You must try to understand the right significance of Maya which is the chief characteristic of Vedanta or Kevala Advaita school of Sri Sankara. The term Maya appears in the Svetasvatara Upanishad and in the Gita, chapter VII-14, Mama Maya the divine illusion of Mine. Svetasvatara Upanishad IV-10 declares that Maya is the material cause of the world and the possessor of Maya is the great Lord. Maya is that portion of the primitive non-intelligent principle in which pure Sattva is not subordinated to Rajas and Tamas. In other words, that portion in which pure Sattva is predominant is called Maya. The world is regarded as Maya, as it cannot be accepted as real.
Does Maya really exist or not? The Advaitin gives a reply: This inscrutable, indescribable Maya cannot be said either to exist or not to exist. It is a strange phenomenon which cannot be accounted by any law of nature. Maya is Anirvachaniya i.e., incapable of being described. It is neither Sat (real) like Brahman nor Asat (unreal) like a barren woman's son or horn of a hare or a lotus flower in the sky. The phenomena produced by a magician do not really exist, because they vanish soon. The magician himself is fully aware that it is mere illusion. But we cannot say that they do not exist at all, because we are conscious of the phenomena, though only for a short time. We are never conscious of a thing which is altogether non-existent like the lotus flower in the sky. Similar is the phenomenon called the universe which is imagined to be distinct from Brahman. It is like the silver for which the mother-of-pearl is mistaken. It is difficult to conceive how the infinite comes out of itself into the finite. The magician brings out a mango tree before us from out of nothing. The tree is there, though we cannot explain it. So we call it Maya or illusion.
If we know the nature of the Brahman, all names and forms and limitations will melt away. The world is Maya as it is not the essential truth of the infinite reality of the Brahman. The world somehow exists and its relation to the Brahman is indescribable (Anirvachaniya). The illusion vanishes by attainment of knowledge of the Brahman. Sages, Rishis and Srutis emphatically declare that the Maya vanishes entirely as soon as the knowledge of the Supreme Self dawns. It is in this sense, in the sense that it vanishes when Atma-Jnana arises that this phenomenal universe is said to be unreal (Mithya), in contradistinction to the Self-existent and Self-luminous Brahman who never ceases to exist and shine. The Eternal always abides in its own nature. It rests in its own native pristine glory.
Srutis declare: All indeed is Brahman. There is no such thing as diversity. This is the experience of liberated sages. The Sankhyas and the Tarkikas teach that emancipation is attained by a knowledge of the true nature of the Spirit and by discriminating spirit from matter. The world of names and forms vanishes entirely from the vision of a sage. It is only an illusion that can be removed by mere knowledge. It is the illusory notion of serpent which is removed when the rope that is mistaken for a serpent is recognised. Therefore it must be clearly admitted that the universe which is removed by knowledge of Self is also an illusion.
If you give up entirely reading of newspapers and shut yourself up in a room for a month and if you plunge yourself in deep meditation, you will have a very light impression of the world in your mind. Gradually this light impression also will be obliterated. The world is nothing but a play of the two currents of Raga-Dvesha. If these two currents are destroyed, the world will vanish. Because the minds of the worldly people are filled with passions, attachment and delusion, this world appears to be real.
Some philosophers state that this world is real because, if at the very outset, they declare, the world is unreal, the aspirants will be bewildered. It is only with a view to prevent this perplexity that the universe is spoken of as real.