“Since it was almost night, and all the inhabitants of Vrindavana, including the cows and calves, were very tired, they decided to take their rest on the river bank. In the middle of the night, while they were taking rest, there was suddenly a great forest fire, and it quickly appeared that the fire would soon devour all the inhabitants of Vrindavana. As soon as they felt the warmth of the fire, they immediately took shelter of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, although He was playing just like their child.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 17)
The common translation for the Sanskrit word of maya is “illusion.” Taking the two component words together, you get, “That which is not.” The “not” refers to the Absolute Truth, Brahman. Maya is a potency causing illusion. Like a mirage in the desert, we take something to be other than what it is.
For instance, because of maya’s influence I associate identity with my body. That is not a wise proposal, considering that the body is always changing. One day I am a toddler, learning how to use the bathroom on my own. The next day I am a student in school learning how to read.
A few years down the line, I am a top executive at a large, multinational corporation. To take the identity solely from the body is not wise, precisely because I am no longer a toddler, a student, an early learner, and so forth. One day, I will no longer be an executive, either, or perhaps the company gets acquired and my title changes as a result.
Another influence of maya is to feed the burning fire of desire. Sort of like adding fuel on top of a raging flame, because of illusion I want one thing after another. I keep thinking that the satisfaction of this particular desire will put a halt to future restlessness, that I will finally achieve shanti [peace], but just the opposite occurs.
आवृतं ज्ञानम् एतेन
āvṛtaṁ jñānam etena
“Thus, a man’s pure consciousness is covered by his eternal enemy in the form of lust, which is never satisfied and which burns like fire.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.39)
There is the saying that you should fight fire with fire. Another saying is, “I survived because the fire in me burnt brighter than the fire around me.” The idea is to be stronger than the attacking force. If someone is causing me trouble, I can try to retreat and hope that they lose the target, that they can no longer find me.
Another approach is to gain in strength so that the opposition is the one retreating. In Vrindavana, one time a literal fire threatened to devour the people. They unfortunately found themselves in the middle. There was no way out. No chance to call a fire department or rescue agency. The emergency services apparatus did not exist.
They did have someone special nearby, though. The dearest friend to the cowherd boys, the beloved of the cowherd girls, the darling and adorable child to the parents of children, Shri Krishna was there. He is actually the Supreme Personality of Godhead, at whose behest maya operates.
The illusion is intentional; sort of like taking a seat in an auditorium for the opening night theatrical performance. The audience knows that they are about to view a scripted performance, that the events are not real. If not for this intentional illusion, there would be no purpose to the interaction.
In the same way, the material world exists to facilitate the primary desire in illusion, to be forgetful of the Supreme Lord and His standing as topmost person in the universe, Purushottama. Maya is loyal in this regard; she maintains the illusion for as long as someone wants.
If they find themselves in grave danger due to the fire of illusion surrounding them, they can always call upon Krishna to rescue. The fire in Him burns brighter than anything that could possibly attack. In that situation in Vrindavana He simply devoured the flames. They went straight into His transcendental mouth, and the crisis was averted.
In the raging fire of illusion augmented by the dark age of Kali, the same Krishna is the ideal agent of rescue. He can be called upon through sound, and so the wise choose to fight the fire with the greatest potency on the other side, the one from whom this entire cosmic manifestation has come: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
The one from whom has come,
War against raging fire won.
Like in Vrindavana that time,
Where surrounded friends to find.
So that no other hope in sight,
Dangerous flames shining bright.
But Krishna there to meet the need,
Wise when in this way to proceed.