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Maya or Māyā (Sanskrit माया māyāa[›]), in Indian religions, has multiple meanings, usually quoted as "illusion", centered on the fact that we do not experience the environment itself but rather a projection of it, created by us. Māyā is the principal deity that manifests, perpetuates and governs the illusion and dream of duality in the phenomenal Universe. For some mystics, this manifestation is real. Each person, each physical object, from the perspective of eternity, is like a brief, disturbed drop of water from an unbounded ocean. The goal of enlightenment is to understand this—more precisely, to experience this: to see intuitively that the distinction between the self and the Universe is a false dichotomy. The distinction between consciousness and physical matter, between mind and body (refer bodymind), is the result of an unenlightened perspective.
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The word origin of māyā is derived from the Sanskrit roots ma ("not") and ya, generally translated as an indicative article meaning "that". The mystic teachings in Vedanta are centered on a fundamental truth of the universe that cannot be reduced to a concept or word for the ordinary mind to manipulate. Rather, the human experience and mind are themselves a tiny fragment of this truth. In this tradition, no mind-object can be identified as absolute truth, such that one may say, "That's it." So, to keep the mind from attaching to incomplete fragments of reality, a speaker could use this term to indicate that truth is "Not that."
In Hinduism, māyā is to be seen through, like an epiphany, in order to achieve moksha (liberation of the soul from the cycle of samsara). Ahamkāra (ego-consciousness) and karma are seen as part of the binding forces of māyā. Māyā may be understood as the phenomenal Universe of perceived duality, a lesser reality-lens superimposed on the unity of Brahman. It is said to be created by the divine by the application of the Lilā (creative energy/material cycle, manifested as a veil—the basis of dualism). The sanskaras of perceived duality perpetuate samsara.
In Advaita Vedanta philosophy, māyā is the limited, purely physical and mental reality in which our everyday consciousness has become entangled. Māyā is held to be an illusion, a veiling of the true, unitary Self—the Cosmic Spirit also known as Brahman. The concept of māyā was introduced by the ninth-century Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara. He refuses, however, to explain the relationship between Brahman and māyā.
Many philosophies and religions seek to "pierce the veil" of māyā in order to glimpse the transcendent truth from which the illusion of a physical reality springs, drawing from the idea that first came to life in the Hindu stream of Vedanta.
Māyā is a fact in that it is the appearance of phenomena. Since Brahman is the only truth, māyā is true but not the truth, the difference being that the truth is the truth forever while what is true is only true for now. Since māyā causes the material world to be seen, it is true in itself but is "untrue" in comparison to the Brahman. On the other hand, māyā is not false. It is true in itself but untrue in comparison with the absolute truth. In this sense, reality includes māyā and the Brahman. The goal of spiritual enlightenment ought to be to see Brahman and māyā and distinguish between them. Hence, māyā is described as indescribable. Māyā has two principal functions: one is to veil Brahman and obscure and conceal it from our consciousness; the other is to present and promulgate the material world and the veil of duality instead of Brahman. The veil of māyā may be pierced, and, with diligence and grace, may be permanently rent. Consider an illusion of a rope being mistaken for a snake in the darkness. Just as this illusion gets destroyed when true knowledge of the rope is perceived, similarly, māyā gets destroyed for a person when they perceive Brahman with transcendental knowledge. A metaphor is also given—when the reflection of Brahman falls on māyā, Brahman appears as God (the Supreme Lord). Pragmatically, where the duality of the world is regarded as true, māyā becomes the divine magical power of the Supreme Lord. māyā is the veritable fabric of duality, and she performs this role at the behest of the Supreme Lord. God is not bound by māyā, just as magicians do not believe the illusions of their own magic.
The following passage is by Sri Shankaracharya:
Spoken by Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 14, Verse 3:
My womb is the great Nature (Prakriti or māyā). In that I place the germ (embryo of life). Thence is the birth of all beings.
Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 14, Verse 4:
Whatever forms are born, O Arjuna, in any womb whatsoever, the great Brahma (Nature) is their womb and I am the seed-giving father.
Explanation: Prakriti (Nature), made up of the three qualities (Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas), is the material cause of all beings.
In the great Prakriti, I place the seed for the birth of Brahma (the creator, also known as Hiranyagarbha, or Ishwar, or the conditioned Brahman), and the seed gives birth to all beings. The birth of Brahma (the creator) gives rise to the birth of beings.
The primordial Nature (prakriti) gives birth to Brahma, who creates all beings.
(I am the father; the primordial Nature is the mother).
Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 13, Verse 26:
Wherever a being is born, whether unmoving or moving, know thou Arjuna, that it is from the union between the field and the knower of the field.
(Purusha is the knower of the field; Prakriti is the field; Shiva is another name for the knower of the field and Shakti is the field; Spirit is another name for the knower of the field and Matter (Prakriti) is the field.)
Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 7, Verse 5:
I am endowed with two Shaktis, namely the superior and the inferior natures; the field and its knower (spirit is the knower of the field; matter is the field) I unite these two.
Bhagavad Gita Ch. 7, Verse 6:
Know these two—my higher and lower natures—as the womb of all beings. Therefore, I am the source and dissolution of the whole universe.
Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 13, Verse 29:
He sees, who sees that all actions are performed by nature alone, and that the Self is action less.
(The Self is the silent witness.)
Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 9, Verse 17:
I am the father of this world, the mother, the dispenser of the fruits of actions and the grandfather; the one thing to be known, the purifier, the sacred monosyllable (AUM), and also the Rig, the Sama and the Yajur Vedas.
Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 18, Verse 61:
Arjuna, God abides in the heart of all creatures, causing them to revolve according to their Karma by His illusive power (Māyā) as though mounted on a machine.
Māyā may also be visualized as a guise or aspect of the Divine Mother (Devi), or Devi Mahamāyā, concept of Hinduism.
In Hinduism, māyā is also seen as a form of Laksmi, a Divine Goddess. Her most famous explication is seen in the Devi Mahatmyam, where she is known as Mahamāyā. Because of its association with the goddess, māyā is now a common girl's name in India and amongst the Indian diaspora around the world.
Essentially, Mahāmāyā (great māyā) both blinds us in delusion (moha) and has the power to free us from it. Māyā, superimposed on Brahman, the one divine ground and essence of monist Hinduism, is envisioned as one with Laxmi, Durgā, etc. A great modern (19th century) Hindu sage who often spoke of māyā as being the same as the Shakti principle of Hinduism was Shri Ramakrishna.
In the Hindu scripture Devi Mahātmyam, Mahāmāyā (Great māyā) is said to cover Vishnu's eyes in Yoganidra (divine sleep) during cycles of existence when all is resolved into one. By exhorting Mahamāyā to release Her illusory hold on Vishnu, Brahma is able to bring Vishnu to aid him in killing two demons, Madhu and Kaitabh, who have manifested from Vishnu's sleeping form. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa often spoke of Mother māyā and combined deep Hindu allegory with the idea that māyā is a lesser reality that must be overcome so that one is able to realize his or her true Self.
Māyā, in Her form as Durga, was called upon when the gods and goddesses were helpless against the attacks of the demon Mahisasura. The combined material energy of all the gods, including Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, created Her. She is thus said to possess the combined material power of all the gods and goddesses. The gods gave her ornaments, weapons, and her bearer, the lion. She was unassailable. She fought a fierce battle against the demon Mahisasura and his huge army. She defeated the demon's army, killed the demon, and hence restored peace and order to the world. Thus She is, even now, the protector of the Universe, which is lying in her lap.
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In Theravada Buddhism, the current expression of Buddhism most closely associated with early Buddhist practice, māyā is the name of the mother of the Buddha. This name may have some symbolic significance given the place of māyā in Indian thought, but it does not seem to have led this tradition to give to the concept of māyā much of a philosophical role. The Pali language of Theravada speaks of distortions (vipallasa) rather than illusion (māyā).
Subsequently, in Mahayana Buddhism, illusion seems to play a somewhat larger role. Here, the magician's illusion exemplifies how people misunderstand themselves and their reality, when we could be free from this confusion. Under the influence of ignorance, we believe objects and persons to be independently real, existing apart from causes and conditions. We fail to perceive them as being empty of a real essence, whereas in fact they exist much like māyā, the magical appearance created by the magician. The magician's illusion may exist and function in the world on the basis of some props, gestures, and incantations, yet the show is illusory. The viewers participate in creating the illusion by misperceiving and drawing false conclusions. Conversely, when appearances arise and are seen as illusory, that is considered more accurate.
Altogether, there are "eight examples of illusion (the Tibetan sgyu ma translates māyā and also other Sanskrit words for illusion): magic, a dream, a bubble, a rainbow, lightning, the moon reflected in water, a mirage, and a city of celestial musicians."  Understanding that what we experience is less substantial than we believe is intended to serve the purpose of liberation from ignorance, fear, and clinging and the attainment of enlightenment as a Buddha completely dedicated to the welfare of all beings.
Depending on the stage of the practitioner, the magical illusion is experienced differently. In the ordinary state, we get attached to our own mental phenomena, believing they are real, like the audience at a magic show gets attached to the illusion of a beautiful lady. At the next level, called actual relative truth, the beautiful lady appears, but the magician does not get attached. Lastly, at the ultimate level, the Buddha is not affected one way or the other by the illusion. Beyond conceptuality, the Buddha is neither attached nor non-attached. This is the middle way of Buddhism, which explicitly refutes the extremes of both eternalism and nihilism.
Nāgārjuna, of the Mahāyāna Mādhyamika (i.e., "Middle Way") school, discusses nirmita, or illusion closely related to māyā. In this example, the illusion is a self-awareness that is, like the magical illusion, mistaken. For Nagarjuna, the self is not the organizing command center of experience, as we might think. Actually, it is just one element combined with other factors and strung together in a sequence of causally connected moments in time. As such, the self is not substantially real, but neither can it be shown to be unreal. The continuum of moments, which we mistakenly understand to be a solid, unchanging self, still performs actions and undergoes their results. "As a magician creates a magical illusion by the force of magic, and the illusion produces another illusion, in the same way the agent is a magical illusion and the action done is the illusion created by another illusion." What we experience may be an illusion, but we are living inside the illusion and bear the fruits of our actions there. We undergo the experiences of the illusion. What we do affects what we experience, so it matters. In this example, Nagarjuna uses the magician's illusion to show that the self is not as real as it thinks, yet, to the extent it is inside the illusion, real enough to warrant respecting the ways of the world.
For the Mahayana Buddhist, the self is māyā like a magic show and so are objects in the world. Vasubandhu's Trisvabhavanirdesa, a Mahayana Yogacara "Mind Only" text, discusses the example of the magician who makes a piece of wood appear as an elephant. The audience is looking at a piece of wood but, under the spell of magic, perceives an elephant instead. Instead of believing in the reality of the illusory elephant, we are invited to recognize that multiple factors are involved in creating that perception, including our involvement in dualistic subjectivity, causes and conditions, and the ultimate beyond duality. Recognizing how these factors combine to create what we perceive ordinarily, ultimate reality appears. Perceiving that the elephant is illusory is akin to seeing through the magical illusion, which reveals the dharmadhatu, or ground of being.
Buddhist Tantra, a further development of the Mahayana, also makes use of the magician's illusion example in yet another way. In the completion stage of Buddhist Tantra, the practitioner takes on the form of a deity in an illusory body (māyādeha), which is like the magician's illusion. It is made of wind, or prana, and is called illusory because it appears only to other yogis who have also attained the illusory body. The illusory body has the markings and signs of a Buddha. There is an impure and a pure illusory body, depending on the stage of the yogi's practice.
The concept that the world is an illusion is controversial in Buddhism. In the Dzogchen tradition the perceived reality is considered literally unreal. As a prominent contemporary teacher puts it: "In a real sense, all the visions that we see in our lifetime are like a big dream [...]". In this context, the term visions denotes not only visual perceptions, but appearances perceived through all senses, including sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations.
|“||The real sky is (knowing) that samsara and nirvana are merely an illusory display.||”|
—Mipham Rinpoche, Quintessential Instructions of Mind, p. 117
Even the illusory nature of apparent phenomena is itself an illusion. Ultimately, the yogi passes beyond a conception of things either existing or not existing, and beyond a conception of either samsara or nirvana. Only then is the yogi abiding in the ultimate reality.
In Sikhism, the world is regarded as both transitory and relatively real. God is viewed as the only reality, but within God exist both conscious souls and nonconscious objects; these created objects are also real. Natural phenomena are real but the effects they generate are unreal. māyā is as the events are real yet māyā is not as the effects are unreal. Consider the following examples. In the moonless night, a rope lying on the ground may be mistaken for a snake. We know that the rope alone is real, not the snake. However, the failure to perceive the rope gives rise to the false perception of the snake. Once the darkness is removed, the rope alone remains; the snake disappears.
In some mythologies the symbol of the snake was associated with money, and māyā in modern Punjabi refers to money. However in the Guru Granth Sahib māyā refers to the "grand illusion" of materialism. From this māyā all other evils are born, but by understanding the nature of māyā a person begins to approach spirituality.
The teachings of the Sikh Gurus push the idea of sewa (selfless service) and simran (prayer, meditation, or remembering one's true death). The depths of these two concepts and the core of Sikhism comes from sangat (congregation): by joining the congregation of true saints one is saved. By contrast, most people are believed to suffer from the false consciousness of materialism, as described in the following extracts from the Guru Granth Sahib:
^ a: From a Proto-Indo-Iranian *māyā, cognate to Avestan māyā with an approximate meaning of "miraculous force", of uncertain etymology, either from a root may- "exchange", or from a root mā- "measure", among other suggestions; Mayrhofer, EWAia (1986-2001), s.v.