What is the doctrine of Maya?

The Doctrine of Maya asserts that the whole world and cosmic creation, subjective and objective, is illusory, and that mind is the sole reality. The objects of our senses, our bodily apparatus, our mental cognitions, inferences, generalizations, and deductions are but phantasmagoria. Though men of science classify and give fanciful Latin and Greek names to the various forms of matter, organic and inorganic, matter itself has no true existence. Colour and sound, and all things seen by the eyes or perceived by the sensory organs, as well as space and dimension, are equally fallacious phenomena.

Maya is the Magic Veil, ever worn by Nature, the Great Mother Isis, which veils Reality. It is by yoga alone that the Veil can be rent asunder and man led to self-knowledge and self-conquest, whereby Illusion is transcended. Ultimate Truth is illusorily ever associated with Error; but, like an alchemist of things spiritual, the master of yoga separates the dross, which is Ignorance, from the gold, which is Right Knowledge. Thus, by dominating Nature, he is liberated from enslavement to Appearances.

Professor Shastri has shown, in his scholarly examination of the Doctrine of Maya,1 that the germs of the doctrine already existed in the later stage of Vedic civilization; and that, in the course of its long evolutionary history, the word maya itself, in different grammatical forms, has connoted various but fundamentally interrelated concepts. Primitively, maya denoted a form of intelligence, energy, power (shakti), and deception. It chiefly implied a mysterious will-power, whereby Brahman wills, and as maya, form is realized. As denoting deception, maya refers to that magical glamour of appearances which causes the unenlightened percipient of them to conceive multiplicity and duality as being  real. As the supreme magician, maya produces the great cosmic illusion, the universe of phenomena.

The fundamental meaning of the word maya, derived from the root ma, is ‘ to measure’. Hence maya is that illusive projection of the Cosmos whereby the immeasurable Brahman appears as if measured. From the same root is further derived the meaning of ‘ to build’, and this leads to the concept of the phenomenal universe being the magical structure built by Brahman, or, in the Mahayana sense, by Mind.

As an outgrowth of the earlier Vedic age, the Doctrine of  Maya is traceable throughout the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, where its meaning is chiefly ‘illusion ‘, till, in the time of Shankara, this meaning became fixed. Historically speaking, maya has commonly been viewed from two chief aspects:

    1.  A s the principle of creation – maya as a cause – corresponding to the sense of shakti (wondrous power);
    2. As the phenomenal creation itself – maya as an effect – corresponding to the sense of “illusion”, “appearance”, etc.’

That the microcosmic mind is not different or really separate from the Macrocosmic Mind has been aptly illustrated by the thinkers of India: Air in a sealed jar, as they explain, is not different from the outer air surrounding the jar, for once the jar is broken the confined air becomes the unconfined;

The Doctrine of Maya asserts that the whole world and cosmic creation, subjective and objective, is illusory, and that mind is the sole reality. The objects of our senses, our bodily apparatus, our mental cognitions, inferences, generalizations, and deductions are but phantasmagoria. Though men of science classify and give fanciful Latin and Greek names to the various forms of matter, organic and inorganic, matter itself  has no true existence. Colour and sound, and all things seen by the eyes or perceived by the sensory organs, as well as space and dimension, are equally fallacious phenomena.

Maya is the Magic Veil, ever worn by Nature, the Great Mother Isis, which veils Reality. It is by yoga alone that the Veil can be rent asunder and man led to self-knowledge and self-conquest, whereby Illusion is transcended. Ultimate Truthis illusorily ever associated with Error; but, like an alchemistof things spiritual, the master of yoga separates the dross, which is Ignorance, from the gold, which is Right Knowledge. Thus, by dominating Nature, he is liberated from enslavement to Appearances.

Professor Shastri has shown, in his scholarly examination of the Doctrine of Maya,1 that the germs of the doctrine already existed in the later stage of Vedic civilization; and that, in the course of its long evolutionary history, the word maya itself, in different grammatical forms, has connoted various but fundamentally interrelated concepts.

Primitively, maya denoted a form of intelligence, energy,power (shakti), and deception. It chiefly implied a mysterious will-power, whereby Brahman wills, and as maya, form is realized. As denoting deception, maya refers to that magical glamour of appearances which causes the unenlightened percipient of them to conceive multiplicity and duality as being real. As the supreme magician, maya produces the great cosmic illusion, the universe of phenomena.

The fundamental meaning of the word maya, derived from the root ma, is ‘ to measure’. Hence maya is that illusive projection of the Cosmos whereby the immeasurable Brahman appears as if measured. From the same root is further derived the meaning of ‘ to build’, and this leads to the concept of the phenomenal universe being the magical structure built by Brahman, or, in the Mahayana sense, by Mind.

As an outgrowth of the earlier Vedic age, the Doctrine of Maya is traceable throughout the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, where its meaning is chiefly ‘illusion ‘, till, in the time of Shankara, this meaning became fixed. Historically speaking, maya has commonly been viewed from two chief aspects:

    1.  A s the principle of creation – maya as a cause – corresponding to the sense of shakti (wondrous power);
    2. As the phenomenal creation itself – maya as an effect – corresponding to the sense of “illusion”, “appearance”, etc.

That the microcosmic mind is not different or really separate from the Macrocosmic Mind has been aptly illustrated by the thinkers of India: Air in a sealed jar, as they explain, is not different from the outer air surrounding the jar, for once the jar is broken the confined air becomes the unconfined; and, similarly, by breaking the Vessel of Maya, the microcosmic mind becomes what it ever has been and ever will be, the Macrocosmic.

Primordial Mind, whence maya arises, is ever unborn and unconditioned; It transcends its own creations. The Lord Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, declares that with a single portion of His Essence He created the visible universe and yet ever remains apart from it.Worlds and universes are mind-made; they are of the stuff of which dreams are shaped. It is their illusiveness which is maya. Things, appearances, are what mind makes them to be. Apart from mind they have no existence. When, by means of yoga, the microcosmic aspect of mind is swept clear of the mists and the mirages of conditioned being, it sees itself as the One, emancipated from all mayavic delusions, from all concepts  of multiplicity and of dualism, from all the magical deceptions of Nature.

As wonderful power, or essential energy, in the form of heat, light, and electronic motion; as the mighty vibratory Dance of Life, as Nature, from whose Womb creatures come forth into Delusion, maya is the Great Shakti, the Mother of Creation, containing in Herself the Primeval Germ, or Egg, the Universe-embracing Collective Thought-Form of Father Mind, realized, through illusory matter, as Appearances. Through innumerable myriads of forms, through innumerable myriads of eyes and sense-organs of creatures, through innumerable myriads of microcosms, Mind knows Itself to be the Dreamer of Maya’s. Kingdom. But until the Mirage of Being is scattered by Bodhic-Enlightenment, the Many know not the One. The Doctrine of Maya is the philosophical basis for the related doctrine of the One illusorily perceived as the Many, of the Macrocosm as the totality of all microcosms. In Greek thought, this was summed up in the axiom of Xenophanes, ‘All is One’.

Parmenides later taught concerning the unique unity of being and thought. Plato, like his great disciple Plotinus, arrived at substantially the same conclusion in the Doctrine of Ideas. Kant, too, probably influenced by the Platonic School, similarly postulated that the world has no metaphysical, but purely an empirical, or apparitional, existence. Schopenhauer gratefully acknowledges indebtedness to the Upanishads for the formulation of his parallel deductions. On the assumption that the Universe has a relative existence, in relation to Mind whence it arose, the theory of Relativity represents a modern restating, in terms of Western science, of the age-old Doctrine of Maya.

Thus, in the meaning conveyed by the Doctrine of Maya, the illusory body, the mayavi-rupa of Hindu Philosophy, is, like the whole Cosmos, of which it is a part, merely an appearance, a transitory thought-form, like every object in Nature. Like the Earth and the Universe, whence it sprang, it has a relative, but not a real existence. As an appearance, which is comparable to a magical illusion, the illusory body of man is no more than an emanation of Mind, in the sense implied by the Tibetan term tulku, referring to the physical manifestation of the Nirmana-Kaya (‘Body of Divine Incarnation’). It is merely the mayavic product of the will to live, the offspring of desire, the sangsaric sheath of mind.

EXCERPT FROM : “TIBETAN YOGA

AND SECRET DOCTRINES”

by W. Y. Evans-Wentz

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