Maya is life limited by form and name, space and time. The Divine whose manifestation is the life in the world is formless, nameless, beyond time and space, eternal and infinite. So, this life is called Maya, Illusion, unreal, divorced from the Divine.   But deeply viewed, Maya is not illusion; it is the evolving Play of the One becoming Many.


Ignorance Begets Maya, with Knowledge Maya Ends

What Is Maya?

Maya in Hindu philosophy connotes an illusion of the Soul-insubstantial, a sort of jugglery, mithya (falsehood), having no independent reality of its own, an illusory shadow of the Real.

Maya reigns on the life of humans who are living in Ignorance and under this Ignorance, the material life seems to be the only reality of existence. But when Knowledge comes and one realizes that his Soul is the ultimate reality of existence Maya loses its hold on him and subsequently the illusion of the ephemeral gives way to the real existence in the Soul that is infinite and eternal, unbound, unborn.

Explaining Maya by an analogy, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsha, one of the greatest mystics of India, said, “The snake itself is not harmed by the poison it carries in its fangs, but when it bites, the poison kills the creature bitten. The same is true about Maya. It is in God but it does not affect Him in the least, while the same Maya keeps the whole world deluded.”


Realization of Brahman Leads to Liberation from Bondage

Adi Shankara

The theory of life as Maya or Illusion got its classical form following the mighty ascendency of Adi Shankara, (788-820 C.E.) on the spiritual horizon of India. Before him, Lord Buddha came and he said that the world of names and forms is deceptive. He preached that Nirvana or liberation from the sorrowful samsara– the endless cycle of birth, karma, suffering, death and rebirth-is the only way out of this unreal, delusive play.

Though deeply inspired by Buddhist Nirvana, Shankara sought to integrate it within the framework of the Vedantic school of spiritual philosophy. He is the founder of Advaita Vedanta-the non-dualist school which believes in the One existence without a second-no name, no form, no plurality, no scope of getting deluded into the Maya of multiplicity of souls.

He asserted that the Brahman, the Supreme Spiritual Being, is the one and the only Reality and the finite beings living for a limited period of time, dying and then coming back for desire-satisfaction or under the inexorable law of karma is an illusion imposed on the Soul.  The reality of ourselves is Brahman: unborn, deathless, void of name and form- pure Consciousness where no impurity can exist.


Unreal Mistaken for the Real

Rope & Snake

The analogy of snake and rope is often used to explain Maya and Reality-the Sat and Asat-the real and the unreal. We see a rope in the fading or faint light and mistake it for a snake. The snake is an illusion while the rope is real. It is a mistaken superimposition: imagining the unreal as the real. Likewise, we superimpose the Maya of multiplicity upon the one and indivisible Soul, the Brahman.

There is another interesting point involved in this analogy. We can mistake a rope for a snake only when we see it in dwindling light. We cannot see the rope when it is complete dark. Similarly, under the broad daylight, we cannot make the mistake since the rope is clearly visible. Darkness here stands for complete unconsciousness and the blazing daylight signifies complete knowledge. In between, there is half-light or semi-darkness and this symbolizes Man who is a transitional being standing between Ignorance and Knowledge.


Brahman’s Relation to Maya  


The Shankarite philosophy is extremely captivating because of its simplicity. Further, it is a powerful tool in the spiritual advancement of humans, from bondage of senses to liberation in soul.

It is interpreted differently by different minds, but when it is taken in its classical form of absolute irreconcilability between Maya and Brahman, it deepens the puzzle of life rather than solve it. Many questions remain unexplained and it seems like a hurried escape from the Illusion by positing the Immutable Brahman to negate the life in Maya.

But this simple solution cannot completely satisfy the thinking mind as the rational mind seeks answer to the question as to why the eternal and immutable Brahman chooses in the first place to create the Illusion or allows the Illusion to thrive?


Maya is a Projection of Brahman

Creativity & Maya

What is creativity involving a poet, writer, musician, painter? Is the creator and his creativity different? No. The creativity and the creator are one. While creating, the creator just brings some potentiality in his unmanifested self into manifestation.  What he creates is himself and nothing but himself.

This is how the Rishis of Upanishads sought to reconcile the Maya and Brahman on the strength of their profound spiritual experiences. They averred that Maya is the creative projection of Branham Himself. Maya cannot exist without Brahman; Maya lives in Brahman because of the delight of Brahman in Maya.

Now let us explain it in a simpler way. On a movie screen, images move and the scenes change fast. While the images walk, jump, dance the movie screen stands unchanged, stable, immobile; it allows the mobility of the images on itself.

This is how the static Brahman is allowing the dynamic play of Maya on Itself. It remains unchanged, but the life in Maya It projects is changing from moment to moment, ceaselessly.


“The world is real; it is only our perception of it that is false.” Sri Aurobindo


Divine’s Play:  Adventure with Ignorance

Play with Division & Darkness

But the question is: why the Brahman projects Maya from Itself and allows it on Itself? Why the Brahman lets Itself get obscured by Maya and suffers Himself in Maya?

When one attains knowledge-complete knowledge of static and dynamic Brahman– he realizes why the Brahman has become Maya.

Maya is self-limitation of one Brahman to enjoy the life in its plurality, in its multitudinous forms and names-the life pleasant and terrible. The mystics say that this life is the Divine Play or Lila.  According to them, it is the individual soul’s (disguised Brahman) perilous adventure involving ignorance, division, darkness, embracing the opposites: the Good and the Evil, in complete negation of the Divine Truth, for the delight of enjoying the opposites.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsha explained Maya and the Reality this way: the spiritual aspirant while seeking Knowledge and liberation from Ignorance looks upon the world as a framework of illusion, a terrible trap, a bewitching trick, but strangely this very world becomes to him a ‘mansion of mirth’ after he attains complete knowledge of Maya and Brahman. This trap-like life becomes the God’s Play with desires, strife, discord, struggle in multitudinous forms and names.


Self-Losing in Temporal, Self-Finding in Eternal

Hide & Seek

We have concluded that the Lila in Maya is essentially the Divine play: the adventure of Brahman in Ignorance, hidden in forms and names. But the question is: why we don’t find the Divine anywhere in life? Where is the Divine? The mystics’ answer is: the Divine remains elusive, unfindable because He has cleverly concealed Himself in life.

Man seeks the Divine because he knows He is somewhere.  He runs about hither and thither like the musk deer which frenziedly searches for the fragrance outside while it is lying within itself.  Finally, man finds the Divine deep within himself. This is like losing and self-finding: losing oneself in Maya and then with Maya gone, rediscovering oneself in the Nitya, the Eternal, the One void of names and forms.

At the end of Maya comes the joy of self-finding, God-finding.  But this joy of self-discovery or God-discovery cannot come unless one goes through the travails of Ignorance, enjoying Ignorance fully. Then, he will come out of the Ignorance and seek the Divine with the passions of a helpless, frightened child who cannot find its mother.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsha explained it through a simple example from life. The mother does not come to the child as long as it sucks its toy. But when it throws the toy away and cries ‘mother, mother’, then the mother takes down the rice-pot from the hearth and comes running to the child.


“The Divine is Himself the play, Himself the player, Himself the playground.” Sri Aurobindo 



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