“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.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.3)
अक्षरं ब्रह्म परमं
स्वभावो ऽध्यात्मम् उच्यते
akṣaraṁ brahma paramaṁ
svabhāvo ‘dhyātmam ucyate
“I am having a little trouble understanding the Sanskrit concept of maya, as explained in the science of self-realization. I know that some people equate maya with the Devil of other popular spiritual traditions, but then the people I trust as authority figures say that the comparison is not exact.
“For starters, maya as an illusory energy is a devotee of the Supreme Lord. She is not working against Him, but rather for Him. Her interests align with God’s. From what I have heard, the Devil is sort of this antagonistic opposition, someone who competes with the Supreme Lord for the hearts and minds of the human population of earth. In that sense, it might be more appropriate to compare the Devil to evil historical figures like Hiranyakashipu and Ravana.
“The confusion for me is pinpointing exactly what constitutes activity in maya. If I am playing sports, someone else might accuse me of being in maya. If I am enjoying a pizza pie for dinner, the same criticism. Certain kinds of music, interest in purchasing a large home, going on vacation – you name it and the activity is a candidate for derision by those who are supposedly not in maya.
“This is confusing to me since this line of thinking would potentially eliminate every kind of daily activity. It is like we are asking people to stop being human beings. How is that beneficial? How is that properly worshiping God?”
The root definition to the word is “that which is not.” Maya is the opposite of Brahman, which is the Absolute Truth. Though technically Brahman is everything we see around us, in the general context Brahman is only the spiritual side. You and I are Brahman, but we don’t know it. Instead, we falsely identify with the changing body, which is maya.
In keeping with this view, practically everything we see around us could fall into the maya category. The Sanskrit words “neti neti” say that Brahman is “not this and not that.” That pebble on the side of the road is not Brahman. Neither is the road itself. You look at that tree standing outside of your home – it is not Brahman.
The living entities are Brahman. There is a source to that energy, who is known as Parabrahman. Parabrahman is another way to understand the Supreme Lord. He can never be in maya precisely because every energy emanates from Him. He is always above dichotomies such as matter and spirit, death and birth, enlightened and illusioned, and so forth.
In terms of activity, we can think of maya as the illusory energy which suppresses the natural inclination towards the Almighty and serving Him. The dharma of the Brahman individuals is to serve Parabrahman. This property can never be fully removed, but the tendency in behavior can be suppressed.
This is where maya shows effectiveness. Instead of serving God, I serve my own senses or the senses of others. That is how practically any activity can be considered maya. If through indulgence I am coming closer to the Supreme Lord, then it is not maya.
Therefore, someone practicing devotional service might visibly be on the same level as those in maya, but the effect is different. They sing songs to glorify the Almighty: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. They visit different places to appreciate the exceptional artistic output of the original person. They speak words to others to enlighten them as to the origins of this universe and our place within it.
A simple shift in thinking, of purifying the consciousness, is all it takes, but to make such a determination is rare. We require the assistance of the spiritual master, who is an expert in the craft of yukta-vairagya, which is dovetailing activities in service to God, while at the same time remaining detached from that with which we are coming into contact.
Guru expert at his craft,
A roadmap for success to draft.
Where still in activities so,
But towards transcendence to go.
Maya not the senses attacking,
Consciousness on Brahman tracking.
Appearing to others similar where,
But something meaningful there.