What Is Maya

Lord Krishna“Since the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the original cause of everything, the Vaishnava sees everything in relationship with Krishna, even in this material world. By such advanced knowledge, everything becomes spiritualized. In other words, everything in the material world is already spiritual, but due to our lack of knowledge we see things as material.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 32)

The first instruction taught to aspiring transcendentalists of the Vedic school is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” This instruction is needed at the beginning because the living entity at the time of birth associates only with its body. What else could it know anyway? An infant doesn’t know how to talk, read, move, or communicate properly with anyone. It doesn’t even know that it is going to grow up into a mature adult at some point in the future. Everything is learned through experience and explicit instruction offered by authority figures, but aham brahmasmi cannot come from experience; it must be taught in the beginning stages of self-realization, when a person is most open to learning about their real identity and their position in the world. If we are Brahman, or pure spirit, then everything else, including our bodies, must be of a different nature. That which is not Brahman is known as maya, or the illusory energy governing the material world. The rules delineating the separation between maya and Brahman are not absolute, though. In fact, the material elements are only the source of delusion for one whose consciousness is not properly situated. In the higher scheme everything is part and parcel of God, even His separated energy.

“The Supreme Lord said, The indestructible, transcendental living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called the self. Action pertaining to the development of these material bodies is called karma, or fruitive activities.” (Bhagavad-gita, 8.3)

Lord KrishnaAfter initial instruction, through further study the properties of Brahman are learned in more detail. Brahman is truth; it is not deluded by temporary gains and losses. The bodies assumed by the living entities are guaranteed to go through cycles of change, sometimes accumulating and sometimes dwindling. The spirit soul, or Brahman, transcends even death, as nothing is capable of destroying the soul. Depending on the desires fixed in the consciousness at the time of death, a new type of body is crafted for the next life. Despite the changes in outer coverings, the spirit soul’s constitutional makeup does not change.

Why is it important to know Brahman? In the absence of knowledge of our true identity, we will associate with temporary objects. The harm in such a mentality can be illustrated in a variety of ways, but we can take something as simple as a school system to see what results. School is meant to provide an education, not to be a permanent home. If, for instance, a student should take their identity from their participation in a particular school, there will eventually come a time when that identity becomes invalid. Either there will be graduation or dropout, but nevertheless the flawed identity will dissipate.

The wise person knows that their tag as “student” is just temporary, a label meant to further a larger purpose. Similarly, the human form of body is meant to act as a launching pad towards a higher, more pleasurable destination. One who identifies with their body and the different objects and relationships it accumulates will be in for a hard fall at some point in the future. Either the forces of nature will take away possessions or eventually death will come and take away their body. If I spent my whole life living a lie, I obviously didn’t make the best use of my time. Associating only with the body is akin to going through life with your eyes closed, only to have them opened at the time of death, when it is too late.

If we are not our bodies than what are we? How do we even see ourselves? Are not the eyes part of the material body as well? Understanding our identity as Brahman is very difficult, for even having the opportunity to hear of the differences between matter and spirit is considered a great blessing, something not bestowed on every living entity. The animals, insects and plants have no way of understanding Brahman, even though that is their identity as well. Through enough study, hearing and regulative practice, the realization of Brahman can come. At that time, the world will be seen as full of material elements covering pure spirit.

But just as the mentality that views everything as “mine” and belonging to “my body” is harmful, the other extreme of everything being maya and nothing being real is also detrimental. If one doesn’t advance to the next step after Brahman realization, they have every chance of being deluded into thinking that Brahman, or pure spirit, is the summit of existence. If Brahman can’t be seen, then obviously the Supreme Absolute Truth must be invisible. If everything is false, or maya, then the Supreme Truth must not exist in this world. Therefore the only option is to negate all activity, completely remove association with worldly objects and hopefully merge into the light of Truth, this invisible spiritual effulgence.

“By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.4)

Lord KrishnaIn the extreme cases both the gross materialist and impersonalist philosopher seeing everything as maya are trying to become God, or the Supreme Controller. One side is attempting to attain that feat through accumulation of objects of maya, while the other is trying to remove maya’s influence altogether. The real position of maya, or material nature, is not a fixed one. She is an energy acting under the direction of the Supreme Lord, who is above both Brahman and the material nature. The Supreme Absolute Truth is one, but He has different energies to those who are not God. The Lord is never separate from His energies, but to understand Him to some level, we make distinctions between matter and spirit, the material world and the spiritual world.

So, is God maya or Truth? Obviously if the living entity is Brahman and not maya, then the Supreme Lord must be the same way? This is where things get a little tricky. In the Bhagavad-gita, the treatise on spirituality delivered by Lord Krishna, it is said that those who try to understand the Absolute Truth by being only devoted to the unmanifest, or all-pervading, aspect have a very difficult time, especially if they are embodied. This means that a person who is dwelling in a material form finds it almost impossible to understand what “all-pervading” means and how the Supreme Personality can be above maya. If I myself have to dissociate from maya, why shouldn’t God?

“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 12.5)

The true fact is that God is not invisible. When He is described as all-pervading, or unmanifest, this is from the perspective of the conditioned eye. The difference between a conditioned eye and a liberated one is the ability to perceive of the Absolute Truth’s presence everywhere. The distinction can be likened to the viewing of a large number, one in the millions or billions. If the number is written down just with the numerals, it is very difficult to properly make it out. On the other hand, if commas are inserted in the proper places, the number can be read and understood instantly. The numbers are the same in both manifestations, except one is more difficult to understand.

Identical numbers represented differentlySimilarly, the unmanifested and the manifested aspects of the Supreme Absolute Truth are really the same, as the Supreme Lord is one without an equal. His presence is everywhere; it’s just that we don’t have the eyes to see Him unless we implement the proper methods of spiritual practice. Taking another example, if we seat a blind man and a man with vision in front of a painting, to the blind man the painting will be invisible. To the person with vision the painting is manifest right before them. Just because the blind man thinks that the painting is invisible doesn’t mean that the painting doesn’t exist. Similarly, just because a person takes maya to be everywhere and the Lord to be invisible doesn’t mean that maya acts on God or that the Lord cannot be seen. The terms “unmanifest” and “invisible” apply to the angle of vision used in specific cases.

What really is maya then? To understand its purpose, the marginal position of the living entity must be remembered. The Supreme Lord is the spiritual whole. His body is supremely attractive and fully transcendental; hence it is described as Krishna among many other names in the Vedic tradition. For Krishna there is no distinction between body and soul. He is completely one; for Him there is neither delusion nor contact with inhibiting matter. The living entities, we jiva souls, are also spiritual in nature, but we have a choice in association. When deciding in favor of Krishna’s company or the association of God in one of His many other non-different forms, we get a spiritual body and don’t get deluded into becoming attached to a temporary nature.

On the other hand, if we choose against Krishna’s association, we take shelter of a separated energy, which is known as material nature, or maya. Maya acts at Krishna’s command, which is influenced by the living entity’s desires. Maya is neither absolute nor autonomous. The material nature is inhibiting only for those who are deluded in consciousness. Those who use maya to further their God consciousness, however, don’t suffer any of material nature’s inhibiting effects. With this we’re essentially introducing an exception to the rules governing the differences between Brahman and maya.

Lord KrishnaWhile the exception seems too convenient to be taken seriously, even the impersonalist believes in exceptions to their rules. For instance, the person thinking that everything is maya and that God is invisible and formless nevertheless posits their theories in sound vibrations and written word. Words are written out on paper or placed onto internet websites, both of which are governed completely by maya. But according to the authors of these works, maya is false, a delusion, not reality. If maya is false and the words containing impersonalist philosophy are presented through the medium of maya, then the philosophy itself is maya! If the philosophy is false, or not real, why should anyone accept it?

The impersonalists obviously make an exception to their rule of everything being maya when they present their philosophy. So, in this way the idea of maya having different utilities based on the purpose of the individual is not a novel concept. God’s true position is as Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is never associated with maya, and neither are His devotees. When used to further one’s God consciousness the material elements take on a divine nature. The mahamaya turns into yogamaya when used to connect with Krishna.

As a simple example illustrating the difference, normal sound vibrations are used to convey messages and songs. If the content is related solely to the body that is temporary and destined to be renounced, then obviously there is association with maya. On the other hand, if the sound vibrations are used to address God and recite His names, such as those found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, there is no debilitating influence. A school is just a building after all, made of brick and mortar like any other large dwelling. In this respect the school is no different from a warehouse. But since there is education established within the rooms, the school building has significance. In a similar manner, any collection of material elements used to further one’s God consciousness ceases to be maya.

More important than understanding Brahman, the material nature, and God’s all-pervasiveness is knowing the Supreme Lord’s position as being beyond all of this. There is no better way to learn this fact than by hearing from Krishna directly and seeing Him personally. These benedictions were granted previously to many notable personalities, including Arjuna, a talented fighter. He was the recipient of the Bhagavad-gita, a work spoken by Krishna that is still celebrated, studied and honored to this day. In the Gita Krishna specifically addresses those who can’t think beyond the stringent rules of Brahman and maya.

“Unintelligent men, who know Me not, think that I have assumed this form and personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is changeless and supreme.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.24)

Lord KrishnaKrishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita that the foolish think He has assumed His body, not knowing His real nature as changeless. If we see someone in front of us, even if they are exquisitely beautiful, we will apply whatever knowledge we have acquired to our identification method. “Vedanta philosophy tells me that we are not this body. Brahman is Truth and the material elements are maya. Therefore this person standing before me holding a flute must also be covered by maya. But boy, let me tell you, there is something unique about Him. If His flute is maya, then maya must be something wonderful. If His facial features, His lustrous hair, and the flower garland around His neck are maya, then maybe maya isn’t so bad?”

It’s very difficult to get past the strict rules that we have been taught, and it’s even harder to understand how someone could transcend them. With enough faith in the process of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, Krishna can be seen for who He is. He is never subject to maya’s influence, and His body and those belonging to His avataras, or incarnations, are not affected by the laws of material nature in any way. Similarly, the deity manifestations crafted from material elements are also spiritual. Stone and marble are standard objects of matter, but when they are used to create a worshipable figure, one that is installed in a temple or home and honored regularly and which matches the transcendental features belonging to the Supreme Lord described in the numerous Vedic texts, the material elements become spiritualized. If even marble can turn into a divine element, imagine what can happen to the humble living entity who turns their life over to God. For the paramahamsa, the supreme swan of a transcendentalist, Krishna’s influence is seen everywhere. Therefore maya cannot harm them.

In Closing:

Living entity at birth identifies with the body,

Yet this form is ever changing, not source of identity.

Sincere student of Vedas learns from the start,

That they are Brahman, a purely spiritual spark.

If we are spirit then everything else must be matter,

Known as maya, false world leaves taste that is bitter.

If everything is maya, God fits into where?

Is He invisible, on His form we cannot stare?

From Bhagavad-gita learn Truth’s real nature,

Lord has both personal and impersonal feature.

Matter is inhibiting for the ignorant,

For devotees, everything in life is pleasant.

For the elements are used for God consciousness,

To remember the Supreme Lord, bask in His pleasantness.

Use matter to make deities and transcendental sound,

Maya becomes divine, benefits will be profound.

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