By Purnima Coontoor January 2010 A recurring theme in eastern philosophy and western thought, maya, is an illusion that the individual consciousness is separate from cosmic consciousness. Maya itself manifests, perpetuates and governs this illusion of separateness or dualitytest Yaa Devi sarva bhooteshu, bhranti roopena samsthita,Namastasyei, namastasyei, namastasyei namo namaha(Salutations to the Divine Mother who abides in all beings in the form of ‘Bhranti’ or Delusion) You are a slave, Neo, you were born into bondage, born into a prison, and you cannot smell or touch or feel. A prison for your mind,” This is not Lord Krishna holding forth on the mysteries of the universe to Arjuna in the Gita, but Morpheus, a highly evolved soul, trying to convince his new recruit, Neo, that the world he inhabits is actually a virtual world called ‘matrix’, in a Hollywood movie of the same name. In a typically western spin to the eastern concept of maya, Matrix talks about the phenomenal universe as a simulated reality, created by sentient machines, to keep the human population subdued and in captivity, completely devoid of free will. Morpheus and his crew are a group of free humans who ‘unplug’ others from the matrix and recruit them to their resistance against the machines. The movie trilogy is all about the evolution of Neo, who realises his potential, battles the evil Agent Smith, emerges as the free spirit that he is, and releases humanity from this make-believe world. Sounds familiar? The matrix is our world, to which we are tied in eternal bondage by the evil sentient machines – the five senses of man that give rise to anger, attachment, desire, possessiveness, greed, envy and pride. Morpheus is the higher consciousness that instigates the seeker Neo to fight the ego, Agent Smith, and ultimately be liberated from the virtual world, matrix. It was 2000 years ago that Adi Sankara, India’s greatest philosopher and proponent of the philosophy of Advaita, described the world as ‘mithya’ or unreal. The seer encapsulated the entire message of Vedanta crisply: Brahman satyam(Brahman, the all-pervasive Cosmic Consciousness is real); jagat mithyam (the entire cosmos, gross and subtle, as perceived by our senses is unreal); and Jivo Brahmaiva napara (there is no difference between the essence of Brahman and the individual). The universe, which is one, appears to us in multifarious forms because of our ignorance, he said, and called this ignorance, nescience or maya. Sankara composed many treatises on the nature of Brahman and man, one of them being Maya Panchakam, a set of five verses which describe the effect of maya in our lives. • Maya, says Sankara, makes the impossible happen in various ways. It superimposes the distinctions of duality on the soul, atman, which makes man believe that the world, God and the soul are separate. • Maya makes even the most intelligent among men to behave no better than animals, by tempting them with wealth and possessions. • Maya makes the soul identify itself with the body made up of the five elements, and whirl intensely in the ocean of transmigratory existence. • Maya creates the notion of ‘I’ ness, creates the distinctions of caste, creed and attachment to worldly possessions and relationships, whereas the nature of the soul is pure bliss. • Maya also creates the distinctions of different godheads like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in the undivided universal consciousness, and thereby perplexes even the learned by making them look upon the three energies as different from one another. A comprehensive description that cannot be improved upon! The serpent or the rope? The illusion of maya ‘Maya’ is thus a recurring theme in eastern philosophy and western thought. The Buddha called the world a mirage. All the world is a stage, said Shakespeare in As You Like It, “… men and women are but actors who have entries and exits; and one man plays many parts, his act being seven ages”. A lovely statement that rolls glibly off our tongues, but is it easy to internalise its philosophy? The predicament of humanity is like the actor playing the role of a beggar, who continues to beg even when the director says ‘pack up’, forgetting that he has a Mercedes waiting to whisk him away to his mansion. Forgetting that we have the wealth of sat-chit-ananda or pure bliss inside us, which our Creator in utter compassion packed inside us when we were born, we seek satisfaction and pleasure in our external world through family, relationships, career, fame, fortune, health, wealth and prosperity. With these conquests, we do experience happiness and joy, but only for small periods because these feelings are directly proportional to our achievements and possessions. The external quest is an endless one that cannot quench the thirst of the soul. A renunciate once found a hole in his loincloth. The sanyasi figured mice were at play in his hermitage, and acquired a cat to catch the mice. He needed to feed his cat, so he got a cow that could give him milk to feed the cat. He found that the cow needed to be taken care of, so he acquired a wife who could do that. No prizes for guessing what happened next! Caught in the vortex of samsara, the sanyasi abandoned his inner quest in favour of the outer. Like this sanyasi, we go on acquiring possessions hoping they will give us happiness, but find ourselves ultimately possessed by the possessions. To get out of this vortex, we first need to understand how maya came about in the first place, and therein lies a fascinating tale! The mechanics of maya The word ‘maya’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘ma’ (that) and ‘ya’ (not). ‘ma’ also means ‘to measure, to limit, to give form’. Maya can thus be taken to mean ‘that which is not’. The scriptures say that there is a fundamental flaw in the way the universe is perceived by man. An individual sees everyone and everything in the universe as having separate identities, and experiences ‘reality’ with respect to a time frame and space. This is nothing but a severely crippled and limited projection of the mind governed by the ego, which does not allow individual consciousness to perceive the highest reality where there is no duality. This illusion that the jeevatma (individual consciousness) is separate from paramatma (Cosmic Consciousness) is termed maya. Thus, maya is the principal concept, which manifests, perpetuates and governs this feeling of separateness or duality, which is actually an illusion. Even the concept of time and space itself is a projection of maya, ‘That which is not’. For non-dualists, maya is not an illusion but a relative reality, in contrast to the absolute, unchanging reality. Everything that man experiences in the waking, dreaming and deep sleep states is called maya. Brahman or Cosmic Consciousness or the Self is the unmanifest, pure, primordial, formless energy existing in infinity. When this energy decided to manifest, the process of maya began. Different schools of thought have different names for this primordial energy. Vedanta calls it ‘Brahman’, Sankhya philosophy calls it ‘Purusha’, Yoga calls it ‘Atman’, Buddhism terms it ‘Shunya’ and Aristotelian philosophy calls it ‘Pure Potential’. The Shaktas (worshippers of Shakti) call it ‘Aadiparashakti’; the Shaivaites (worshippers of Shiva) call it ‘Paratpara Shiva’; the Vaishnavites (worshippers of Vishnu) call it ‘Parabrahma’. Other recent schools of philosophy like the ISKCON call it ‘Krishna or Christ Consciousness’. The not-self or the manifest energy in the phenomenal world is called ‘prakriti’ in Sankhya and Vedanta. For this formless unmanifest energy to manifest with form, a number of ‘tattvas’ or attributes, the building blocks that act as raw materials came into being. Twenty-four to thirty-six of such tattvas are specified in the scriptures depending on these schools of thought. Prominent among these attributes are: • The panchabhutas or five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether) • The five tanmatras or subtle mediums of sensation (sense of smell, taste, sight, touch and sound) • The corresponding five jnanendriyas or sense organs (nose, tongue, eyes, skin and ears) • The five karmendriyas or organs of action (hands, feet, organs of speech, reproduction, excretion) • The antahkarana or five inner instruments (mind, ego, intellect, the principles of male and female) • The sat kanchukas or six limitations (time, space, desire, knowledge, power, illusion – maya) Thus, maya, we can see, is part of the very building block of the universe, as the verse at the beginning of this article suggests. The devi stuti hymn in praise of the divine mother says that the Divine is in our very DNA in the form of delusion itself. Scriptures also hold that it is the divine mother, called Mahamaya, who causes Lord Vishnu to close his eyes in yoga nidra or deep slumber, so that he can dream his cosmic dream uninterrupted! Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the great devotee of Goddess Kali, called maya the mysterious and majestic expression of divinity. He called the divine mother the mighty weaver who was like “…the effulgent sun, bringing into existence clouds of different colours and shapes, shining through, standing behind them and thus conjuring up wonderful forms in the blue autumn heaven’. Echoing these sentiments, wildlife photographer Vijay Cavale feels the hand of maya in nature – in the weave of a spider’s web that traps its prey and the effortless flight of birds that welcome
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