“Day after day countless living entities in this world go to the kingdom of death. Still, those who remain aspire for a permanent situation here. What could be more amazing than this?” (Maharaja Yudhishthira speaking to Yamaraja, Mahabharata, Vana-parva, 313.116)
The person new to the science of self-realization that is bhakti-yoga hears a few key terms quite often. One of them is “maya.” This word translates to “illusion,” but there is a lot more to it than that. As is the case with all energies, maya originates from the highest being, the singular divine entity who is responsible for the creation, maintenance and destruction of everything we see. He is typically addressed as God, someone who is loved, hated, or completely forgotten by the many sons and daughters roaming the universes.
The energy known as maya is not inherently ill-motivated. It is not trying to punish. It is acting at the direction of God, who is all-merciful and kind. He does not force anyone to love Him. Maya facilitates the desire to forget. The original sin, if you will, is this decision, made so long ago that we can’t even remember. Maya is there to maintain the illusion, to keep us from seeing so many important things.
1. The changing bodies.
Reincarnation looks like a neat idea believed in by the population in the Eastern countries, but it can be demystified quite quickly. There’s much more to it than getting punished with birth in a lower species in the next life for sinful activity in this life. Reincarnation is the changing of bodies. We should be able to notice this all the time, as the shift from boyhood to youth and then to old age is the most obvious proof of reincarnation.
dehino ‘smin yathā dehe
kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā
dhīras tatra na muhyati
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)
That we have to cut our hair and nails is further evidence. Our identity remains the same throughout. We don’t get a new name after a haircut. An athlete who starred many years prior still gets adulation due to what they did. They get called the greatest of all-time, but what are they doing at the present? If they are so great, why can’t they perform as well right now? The reason is the changing body. The identity remains the same, though. The same concept is applied to future lives, but due to the illusion of maya these things are difficult to see.
2. My eventual death.
There was a famous king in ancient times known as Yudhishthira. He was the son of the god of justice, Yamaraja. In a conversation he had with his father one time, Yudhishthira responded to a question about what he thought was the most amazing thing. The king’s answer was that even though people see so many others die, including loved ones close to them, they never think it will happen to them.
This can only be due to maya. Illusion doesn’t work on just what we see right now. Another one of its weapons is forgetfulness. We are grief stricken upon the loss of a loved one, but eventually we forget. We don’t think the same will happen to us. Or if we do, we try to forget about it. We act as if we are never going to die.
3. My true identity.
The first instruction taught to aspiring students in the Vedic tradition is “aham brahmasmi.” The literal translation is “I am Brahman.” Translating further, we get, “I am a spirit soul, part and parcel of the Supreme Lord.” The maintained identity mentioned previously with respect to the changing bodies is the spirit soul. My identity is as Brahman, which is imperishable.
avināśi tu tad viddhi
yena sarvam idaṁ tatam
na kaścit kartum arhati
“Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.17)
If my true identity is spirit, what is my body then? It is part of the material nature. It is a collection of gross elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. The part of the body we can’t see consists of subtle elements: mind, intelligence and false ego. That entire body is a product of maya since it creates the illusion of identification. I identify with my body instead of the soul within. This is a terrible mistake and it is the cause of the torturous existence we experience.
4. The equality of all beings.
If maya prevents me from knowing my identity, it also keeps me from knowing who others are. I don’t see that there is an animating force within all species, not just the human. Due to maya’s influence I kill others without regret. Sense gratification, which is also due to maya, drives me to seek enjoyment at any cost. Though the animal eats, sleeps, mates and defends just like the human, I make silly excuses like saying they are lower life forms that man has dominion over. The parents have dominion over the children, but this doesn’t mean the children are killed for food.
brāhmaṇe gavi hastini
śuni caiva śva-pāke ca
“The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.18)
The lack of knowledge of equality of spirit is also what leads to discrimination against races, genders and religions. Everyone is struggling through the same journey of life. They are all victims of the same maya, so they are under illusion from the start of life. We are able to predict how others will behave because of similarities. If someone hurts me with abusive words, I should know that others can be hurt in the same way. Yet maya makes me forget.
5. The Supreme Lord and His all-attractive personal form.
If I can’t see my true identity and the changing of bodies, how am I going to notice God? His presence is actually everywhere. Both spirit and matter have a source. This means that the presence of any created object is evidence of the creator. One should be able to see God at every second, but maya blurs the vision from noticing.
ahaṁ sarvasya prabhavo
mattaḥ sarvaṁ pravartate
iti matvā bhajante māṁ
“I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who know this perfectly engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 10.8)
Maya continues to act even on those who gain some knowledge of the science of spirit. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada reveals that the last snare of maya is the false idea of oneness with the divinity. The first snare is identification with the body. Escape comes from knowledge of the difference between matter and spirit. But maya continues to act, and so the spiritualist has a difficult time conceiving of the Supreme Lord. They think He is impersonal, that anyone can merge into Him through enough meditation and detachment from the phenomenal world.
The Supreme Lord is originally a person. He is all-attractive in His transcendental features. He is known as Bhagavan since He possesses all opulences in full. The greatest shame in being a victim of maya is not being able to see and worship Bhagavan.
From connecting with God the person directly, everything gets taken care of. The requisite knowledge and detachment arrive automatically. It is for this reason that the wise teachers recommend the path of bhakti-yoga for all people, regardless of how strong they are swayed by maya. By the sound of the Lord alone, one can begin to break free of illusion and enter the truth of light: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
From maya’s influence greatest shame,
That vision of attractive God not to gain.
So many other things not to see,
Like how others all equal to me.
Though living death eventually to come,
Experienced but keeping awareness none.
Through devotion nature of maya turn,
Into a benefit true enlightenment earn.
Categories: the five