At the very outset, it may be said without any fear of contradiction, that in philosophy unalloyed originality is a misnomer. It is actually the sum total of the thinking on a particular subject, collated, coordinated and brought uptodate by the stalwarts in this field. It would, therefore, be in the fitness of things to give a bird’s eye-view of the philosophic content supposed to emanate from the word ‘Maya’, as discussed in the various schools of philosopy in India, which has rightly been taken as the raw material on which the Vedantins and Kashmiri shaivites built their lofty edifices later on.
In the earlier Vedas-the first book of Humanity-‘Maya’ has been used in the sense of supernatural or extraordinary prowess attributed to the pantheon of gods. In more ancient Vedic hymns it is praised as ‘world sustaining power’. But the later Vedic literature comprising the upanishadic lore, it began to convey the sense of illusion, though in subdued tones. So, this philosophic content relating to this word, had already been spelt out in the time of upanishadas. The later philosophic treatises in the classical age of Sanskrit must have taken a cue from the meaning attached to this word in the upanishadas and have remarkably kept its intonation in tact. The succeeding philosophies tried to provide the why and what of this kind of import projecting from this word.
The logical Realism (Nyaya) of Gautama a virtual reaction against Buddhist scepticism has no concern for this word ‘Maya’, but substitutes it with the appellations Doubt (Sanshaya), fallacy (Hetuvabhasa) and Error (Mithya Jnana). To speak precisely, doubt is wavering knowledge, Fallacy is inconclusive knowledge and Error is defective knowledge. All these three attributed of knowledge definitely provide the base on which the superstructure of ‘Maya’ was installed later on.
Atomistic pluralism (Vaisheshika) of Kanada propounds the theory of (Abhava) with respect to Maya. It is that very attitude of Neti Neti (negation), on the contours of which vedantins later on elaborated their theory of Maya. This negation (Abbava) is an antithesis of affirmation (Bhava), absence of distinction between the two – The Existent and the non-existent and the result is Error (Moha), blurred perception.
The originator of Sankhya system of philosophy Kapila substitutes Maya with the avidya (ignorance) aspect of intellect (Buddhi). It has been explained as non-distinction of ‘Purusha’ from Buddhi called ‘Akhyati’ (non-apprehension). To quote:-
“Just as a danceuss retires after displaying her dance to the audience; in the same way, Prakriti (gross matter) manifests herself to the purusha (passive spirit) retiring subsequently.” This non- apprehension of ‘Sankhya’ is actually the precursor of Maya.
Patanjali in his yoga-sutras asserts “when the persons possessing a body mistake by their erring intellect, this very body for the soul (Atman), this kind of bondage is wrought by ignorance (Avidya); its annihilation is emancipation (Moksa).” While Sankhya calls it non-apprehension, yoga terms it as mis-appreheosion (Anyatha- khyati), which can be substantiated by misapprehending one-the rope from the other-the snake, due to the machinations of ignorance (Avidya).
The ardent advocate or Mimamsa Philosophy Jaimani contends that it is not non-distinction alone which engenders misapprehension, it is also attended with false identification (Akhyati), thereby erroneously inferring non-distinction between the broken piece of a conch-shell and silver. In this context, this school of philosophy holds that it is mal-observation coupled with faulty rememberance giving birth to this invalid cognition. It further argues that misapprehension is not a product of wrong knowledge, but a mere negative factor of non-perception due to weakness of mind. When the valid cognition dawns, it restores the strength of mind and misapprehensions do not recur. This is the exact purport of Akhyati theory of these investigating rationalists (Mimamsakas). Interestingly enough, Badarayana composed his Brahma-sutras getting inspiration from one of the branches of this system of philosophy called posterior mimamsa (uttara Mimamsa), commonly known as vedanta-sutras also.
It will be intriguing to note that none of the philosophic systems enumerated above have used the word ‘Mayas as such, even though they have lucidly narrated its essence and antecedents. They have refrained from using the exact appellation ‘Maya’, but have substituted it by ‘sanshaya’ (Doubt), ‘Mithya Jnana’ (Error), ‘Abbava’ (Negation), ‘Avidya’ (Ignorance) and ‘Akhyati’ (Non-discrimination), representing all those constituents of ‘Maya’ discussed thread-bare by the vedantins and shaivas alike subsequently.
Gauda Pada while commenting on the Vedanta or Brahma-sutras of Badarayana, has used this word ‘Maya’ for the first time in the classical period of Sanskrit literature.
He has vehemently laid down that Maya is unreal because it advocates duality as between the Jiva (soul) and the Brahma (Absolute Truth). This is like a dream seamingly looking real but inherently unreal. Just as in darkness the rope is imagined to be a snake, in the same way, the self is also imagined by its own illusion as having many forms. Actually in that state of existence there is no production (utpati) or no annihilation (Nirodha). To sum up, the imagination being unreal, finds itself realized in the non-existent existents. The objects are neither different nor non-different (Na Naredam… na prathak, naprathak); the sages have perceived it as devoid of imagination and cessation of all false appearance (Nirvikapla prapanchopashamah). The absolute truth (sat) is immortal, beyond the pale of birth and death, therefore it can not admit of any change by its own nature (svabhava), it is therefore, indivisible. All objects as they appear to us are likened to a magical or illusory elephant (Maya hasti), as it exists only or appears to us existing only with relation to experience. Hence, it is the experience which bestows on it the characteristics of birth, death etc. To quote: “By the nature of a thing is understood that which is its very condition, that which is inborn, that which is not accidental or that which does not cease to be itself.” Gaudapada treats life as a waking dream, and contends that world exists only in the mind of Man. “The world of duality is mere Maya, the Real being the non dual” (Mayamatramidam Dvaitam, Adavaitam Paramarathatah ). Just as sunlight falling on the finger appears straight when finger is straight and crooked when it is crooked, but in reality it is neither the one nor the other. It is as space in vessels seems to move when these are moved but in realty remain motionless; just as the sun does not quiver when its reflection quivers in the water, so the non-dual Atman is one and changeless (Avikari) in essence, but seems diverse through the association with objects (Visaya)- a trick manipulated by Maya; therefore, Maya according to Gaudapada is the faulty representation of transcendental consciousness into cosmic experience. When the unifying balance between the consciousness Absolute in personified Atman and the experience condensed as in Jiva is disturbed, it is said to be the sorcery of Maya. The Brahma and Jiva are not parallel entities, forms and names, or transforms itself into the world; this kind of they are congruent. The jagat or samsara – world of objects is transitory, it comes and goes, so the pleasure and pain. It is actually non-existent (Mithya), the ever-existent (Satyam)is only Brahma. When mental experiences appear as real, Maya is thought to have unleashed its jugglery.
However, it was left to Adi Shankaracharya to condense and re-interpret the content given in Brahma Sutras and Gauda Pada Karika and furnish a firm footing on which the Vedantic philosophy could survive triumphantly unaffected by other schools of Indian thought. Even though a host of commentaries is available on the Vedanta-Sutra, yet the ‘Shankara Bhashya’ is the tallest of them all. Hence, it should not seem surprising that vedanta and Shankaracharya have become synonymous. His is the last word on this branch of Indian philosophy.
As regards Maya Shankar’s premise is that it is an antithesis of Brahma because of being inextricably connected with the world (Jagat). Brahma is real (Satyam) while world is transitory or unreal (Mithya). It is definitely part and parcel of Brahma-the very basis of creation. As nothing can be created out of a vacuum, in the same way Brahma being the only eternal entity, the world does emerge out of it only. At this stage Ignorance (Avidya) intervenes to confuse the human mind and intellect by mistaking the Finite form of Brahma with its Infinite form. Therefore, ignorance is the progenitor of Maya (Illusion), unreal seeming as real. “Since Maya is deceptive in character, it is called ‘Avidya’ or false knowledge, it is not mere absence of apprehension but positive error.” Toys and pots made of clay, though bearing different names and shapes from each other, are nothing but clay; similarly this ‘Maya’ through ‘Avidya’ gives rise to plurality without scanning the inherent unity. When Brahma projects itself into myriad forms and names, or transforms itself into the world; this kind of activity inherently of Brahma is called Ishwara with relation to the world and the power to procreate is alluded to as Prakriti. (Ishwarsya MayaShaktih Prakriti). Therefore Maya is the energy of Ishwara, His inherent force by which He transforms the potential into the actual world.” It has no separate identity, it is in Ishwara as heat in fire. Maya through the machinations of false knowledge (Avidya) or erroneous perception (Mithya Jnana) exhibits its modus operandi (Vyapara) in two ways of concealment (Avarna) and misrepresentation (Viksepa). It hides the truth and at the same time mis-represents it. To conclude, it would be pertinent to quote from Shankara direct :-
“As the magician in not affected by the illusion (Maya) he has himself created, because it is without reality (Avastu), so also Paramatman is not affected by the illusion of a dream because the soul is not touched by sleep or waking.” The ever- erring factor which disturbs the mental and psychic equilibrium between the creator and his creation is Maya. Such mental aberrations have relation to time and space and in their context unity is regarded as plurality, heterogeneity as homogeneity. This is in brief the content of Maya as enunciated by Shankara.
Monistic Shaivism of Kashmir has the ‘Shiva-Sutra’ of Acharya Vasugupta as its sheet-anchor. This shaivite scholar has defined Maya as:
‘Kaladinama Tattvanam aviveko Maya.’
Non-discrimination of the limited elements of authorship (kala) etc is Maya.
Non-discrimination (Aviveka) has been explained by its commentator KshemaRaja as follows: “Paramartha Svarupasya Aprathana Svabhavah.” The nature of non-projection of the highest form of Truth.
This would clearly denote that the stage of non-projecting or non-extending of the supreme spirit is ‘Maya’. In other words, it would connote the inability of the supreme consciousness (Samvit) to transfer its consciousness to the objects around. This kind of non-perception and subsequent non-identification between the self (Atman) and the objects (Padartha) will precisely convey the purport of Maya in shaivistic thought: shaivism has treated maya as shakti (Energy), even the primeval Energy or Nature (Mula Prakriti). It is identical with the immanent form of Shiva; His transcendental form is unaffected by it.
Actually Maya is revealed in the Pashu (animal) stage of the Atman fettered by the impurities of action and perception, called the impurities of Maya (Mayiya Mallah). On the path of self-realization (Chaitanyam), it is to be contended with at the initial stage when the Jiva is bound by impurities (Pasha Badha) and when be is dispossessed of these fetters (Pashamukto), he becomes Shiva. So, the Maya is an ephemeral mental aberration between Jiva and Shiva, a stage between the Pasha-baddho (Animal) and Pasha-Muktoh (Subliminal) mental states, fleeting of course. It is in flux and flow as long as Jiva is possessed by non-discrimination (Aviveka); once this veil is shattered, it takes to heels. It can no longer seduce Jiva into wrong thinking even though being a seductress (Vimohini).
Hence, it is devoid of permanency. It is actually a passing phase at which uniform essence of creation is presented in multiform, one seeming many. To speak briefly, when one primoridal force is seen in multiplicity through faulty mental projection, it is said to be the working of Maya according to Shaivas; but at the same time its influence is far from being permanent, it is transitory and persists only till the time the ‘Sadhaka’ or the realizer is at a distance, or even at a discount from self-realization. It is more or less the immanent (Vishvarnaya) form of Transcendental Shiva (Vishvoteerna), and inalienable ingredient of His self-conscious spirit.
This very approach of shaivas marks their fundamental difference with the vedantists. The shaivas take Maya as an inevitable aspect of Shiva when releasing His shakti (Energy) from His fountain-head. Even though He is universe incarnate (Vishvarupa), yet He feels the urgency of creating a universe, so that His shakti (Energy) can have full play. This Maya is called a veritable screen which conceals the real form of things (Tirodhanankari) deluding us into believing the multiform of universe, which in essence is uniform. The moment, the realizer through his perceptive cognition (jnana), takes the blue (neela) and the yellow (peela) as one, and only one entity, the Maya stops her machinations. Therefore shaivas treat Maya as not as unreal but momentary. As against it, the vedantists proclaim that Maya is unreal (Ayathartha), coinciding squarely with their thesis that universe is unreal (Jagat Mithya).
Shaiva scholars are at pains to argue that this whole creation is a reflection (Abhasa) of the Super-self which is real, omnipotent and self-dependent (Svatantra): therefore, the relation between the world of appearance ( Vishvamaya ) and that of Transcendence (Vishvoteerna) is that of the reflected object and the reflector. If the reflector is real, how can an object, its reflection, be unreal; since the reflected object has no separate entity from its reflector. Hence Maya has to fulfill her role in transmuting transcendence into immanence. It is thus a veritable hide and seek between the primoridal and subliminal aspects of the same force which is Shiva. Vedantins taking Maya as a perennial deluding force, treat this world as unreal, illusory, but shaivas do not subscribe to this view. As argued earlier, they take this world as real-an image of superconsciousness (Chaitaynam) which to all intents and purposes is self-dependence (Svatantrva) incarnate. Hence shaivas invoke Maya as the progenitor of the world of objects as a whole (Sakala Janani), or as Casual Matrix (Amba). The attitude of shaivas towards the concept of Maya is positive, affirmative in the sense that as long as the equation between shiva and shakti is disturbed, it has to be there.
As against this, the vedantins treat Maya as negation of vidya (Avidya). The inherent ignorance of jiva makes it also a permanent affair with him; As long as ‘Jiva’ is a part of deluding universe, be cannot get rid of it, he can not be emancipated. Shaivas contend that a realizer can attain emancipation while living (Jivanmuktavastha) in this world, that is when his coalition (Jnana) is complete and does not waver in seeming diversity around him, he can attain bliss of unity, being in perfect health, mentally as well as physically. The line of thinking adopted by vedantins is that life being false needs to be abjured, while shaivas treat enjoying life (Bhoga) as a preamble to meaningful renunciation (Yoga). In this context Abbinavagupta has asserted emphatically that this world is essentially Truth. Therefore, in vedantic school of philosophy we come across with a galaxy of ascetics having renounced all earthly concerns (Sanyasins), but in shaivism we are confronted with spiritual guides (Acharyas) who have owned life and also have risen above it; with them matter is as important as the spirit. These are rather complementary to each other; hence they are averse to caste taboos and kitchen puritanism. Their approach is, to speak in nutshell, psychic and not intellectual like those of the vedantins. They had their eyes wide-awake and could even anticipate the demands, the vagaries of mind would make on human intellect later.
They provided the panacea in advance in terms of their emancipated and more healthy outlook, so that human mind does not get derailed into nihilism in future. In the context of changing time and consequent outlook, shaivas do possess an edge over all other Indian schools of philosophy; Maya, with them is therefore a fleeting psychic experience, as long as ‘Self-Dependence’ ( svatantrya ) is at an arm’s length. As soon as this kind of diversity ( Bheda ) is dismantled by the awakening of spirit (Chaitanya), such enveloping clouds, prone to error, meet away through the effulgence of spirit; The realizer does attain shivahood being dispossessed of such obdurating shackles as the Maya is called. At this pinnacle of spiritual bliss (Paramananda), the confusion between duality (Bheda) and Non-Duality (Abheda), manifested (Kula) or unmanifested (Akula), ceases permanently.
Vedanta preaches equipoise and tranquility of mind labelling it as Bliss (Ananda). This is mental bliss related to thinking (Bhauda) which is limited in essence. Hence, they have indulged in hair splitting argumentation. Their approach is, therefore, intellectual.
Distance between the intellect and the spirit does also mark the frontiers between the vedanta and shaivism. Vedantists lay emphasis on mental Ascendancy, while shaivas advocate vehemently spiritual Transcendence. The conception of Maya as illustrated by these two schools of Indian philosophy hinges obviously on their respective approaches.
Shaivism is a philosophy is more realistic and universal than the Vedanta, in is much as, it has made a happy amalgam of the prevailing Shakta and Tantric beliefs in vogue in Kashmir then; whereas vedanta is idealistic in approach and self-contained in content, thereby meant for only those who are intellectually more advanced-the elite-so to say. Common folk with common-place intellect have been by-passed, since they can not comprehend the exact essence of the brain-racking intellectual gymnastics indulged in by the towering giants of vedanta philosophy.
Hence the conception of Maya as outlined by the vedantists is above the average quotient of intelligence possessed by an ordinary man. Shaivism, on the other band, has given a straight and simple definition of Maya, in consonance with the average intelligence obtaining in an ordinary mortal. It has abstained scrupulously from jig-saw approach of the vedantists. To conclude, with Shaivas, Maya is a psychic disorder, a passing phase, while with the vedantins it is a mental aberration entwining the human mind and intellect permanently; they treat this world being entrenched in the mire of Maya as a waking dream.
The shaivas look at it as a seductress, a momentary disequilibrium between self and self-consciousness.” Therefore, Abhinavagupta has most graphically unfolded the import contained in Maya in this homely idiom:
“Maya is the unmixed part of that transcendental self which engenders the shade of distinction ( Bhedavabhasa ) in His Self-Dependent power (Svatantrya Shakhti), which does not stand in need of any aids.”
In conclusion, it may most fairly be emphasized that Indian outlook believes in assimilation rather than in segregation. It has made a heart-pleasing compromise with all that is good and edifying so the poet is not far from wrong when he asserts:
“Thou art Brahma-The Creator, Vishnu-The Preserver and Thou art Matter-the embodied soul, Ego-consciousness, the Moon, the Sun, Nature of things, the Lord of Jainas-Mahavira, the Illumined Sage-Buddha, Sky, Air also Shiva and Shakti. By these different names, 0 Goddess ! Thou art heard of and called by the righteous.”
Even though vedantins and shaivas are at variance with regard to the conception of Maya, yet their destination is same-ennobling human intellect and awakening human spirit. This is exactly the rhythmic jingle of the heart-beats of Indian mind from times immemorial.
(Courtesy of Kashi Nath Dhar)