Maya is delusion about what is real. Many people think that the world outside is maya, but maya is the mistaken way we see, experience and look at the world. Maya is totally interior, in the mind alone, just as is karma. It begins and ends in us. Maya disappears in us through the practice of meditation.
Maya means “The Measurer,” a reference to the two delusive “measures” Time and Space.
Maya is the dream from which we all must awake. However, just as we have a lower and higher Self, and conquer the lower self through the higher Self, in the same way maya is dual, consisting of maya and Mahamaya. Mahamaya is the “Great illusion,” also known as Mahashakti, the Great Power, the divine creative energy. Maya is the power of illusion, and Mahamaya is the power of awakening from illusion. Yoga invokes the Supreme Power, Mahashakti, which delivers us from the binding power of maya/materiality. It is the Absolute which frees us from the relative. Only the yogis really understand this. (See Philosophy of Gorakhnath by Akshaya Kumar Banerjea.)
Nothing is ever destroyed in essence, only the temporary forms. Maya is the net in which we are caught, the prison which confines us. We do not need to tear it apart or destroy it, we need only let it melt away at the advent of our Self-realization.
Krishna spoke truly in the Gita when he told Arjuna: “All this world is deluded by the three states produced by the gunas. It does not perceive me, who am higher than these and eternal. Truly this maya of mine made of the gunas is difficult to go beyond. Verily only those who attain me shall pass beyond this maya” (Bhagavad Gita 7:13-14).
It is interesting that Saint Anthony the Great, the first “official” monastic in Christianity, said: “I have seen the snares of the Wicked One spread out upon the face of the earth.” This he said in reference to the catching of birds in nets spread on the ground. Getting their feet tangled in the net they cannot escape. So it is with human beings, as well.
All sentient beings are caught in the net of rebirth. To escape that net is both difficult and rare. “Helpless, the same host of beings being born again and again merge at the approach of the Night [the dissolution of a creation cycle] and emerge at the dawn of Day [the beginning of a creation cycle] (Bhagavad Gita 8:19). “Whatever be the forms produced within all wombs, the great Brahma is their womb, and I the seed-casting Father” (Bhagavad Gita 14:4).
Just as salt is extracted from water by dehydration and can be melted back again by mixing it with more sea water, so the dream we call maya emerges from Brahman and returns to Brahman, Brahman alone having really existed at any time.
Before samsara begins at birth, and when it stops at death, the real nature of the person is glimpsed, but not to much use, since samsara in another world begins to take over. Therefore from birth to death it is all maya and must be understood to be so in order not to get hypnotized or drawn into its illusions.
This is extremely important: the universe is not just Shiva at its roots in the most subtle chidakasha, but on the very visible, material level as well. The universe is not a disguise of Satchidananda Shiva, but is a revelation of the Infinite Spirit. When we see the world we are seeing God. The problem is that our mind (manas) and intellect (buddhi) are distorted and even corrupted, so we mistake the Spirit we are seeing for matter. Our mind itself is maya.
Impermanence is the nature of this visible world. Things in the subtler astral and causal worlds last much longer, many times more than on earth, yet they too break up and dissolve. So although the invisible lasts longer, the wise seek to transcend the visible and invisible and enter into the Imperishable Reality.
Human beings are running frantically after what is basically nothing: mere shadows. This world and all within it is really insubstantial, a mirage. Yet from life to life people struggle for things of the world and suffer when they cannot get what they want, and suffer even more when they do. What a horrible paradox!
When I was small, I had the most peculiar delusion. I believed absolutely that if I could hold on tightly enough to something in a dream, I would be able to bring it over into the waking world. Sometimes I just came upon the thing in a dream, and sometimes I found myself in a store like Woolworth’s, which was a paradise for a child. Being alone in the store, I would run around in a frenzy of greed, grabbing as much as I could hold of what attracted me. Then I would sit down and hold on as tightly as I could. The strain of that would of course wake me. I would look down at my arms: empty. After a while I gave up. But humans take dozens if not hundreds of lives to get the idea.
People think it is clever to say: “I only believe in what I can see,” so in their ignorance they do not seek the invisible spirit, though it is the only Reality, the only thing they can really make their own. Their suffering is constant, stretching through life after life, until they get the right idea and seek God.
The adharmic center themselves in the world. Their thoughts, words, and deeds are hollow echoes of the world and its ways. They are absorbed in the world. The dharmic are just as centered and absorbed, but in the spirit-Self. They are poles apart, which is why they really cannot communicate with one another.
When you get into a train you just sit and it takes you to its destination. If you do not want to go there, that is unfortunate, because you are definitely going to end up there. Once we enter into prakriti, into relative existence, we are completely under its influence and like a swift river we have fallen into, it sweeps us along. All the talk of free will matters little, since hardly anyone really controls their life to any meaningful degree.
Sri Ramakrishna said that human beings are like animals tied to something. They can move around all they like within the length of the rope that binds them, but that is all. And most people are on very short tethers.
It is literally true that most people cannot help what they think or do; they are carried along by the current of material existence. Rebelling against this situation does very little but make us miserable. The only way to not be in the jail is to get out of the jail. Otherwise “around and around it goes and where it stops nobody knows.” People would like for things to be different, but they do not want to let go of the wheel.
Some aspiring (and failing) poet once wrote: “I just love the world so much,/Seems I can’t hold it close enough.” Not to worry–the world had that “poet” held tightly in its grasp (a stranglehold, actually).
There is no complete or lasting freedom for any but the yogi who extricates himself from prakriti, not just in this world but in all the worlds. Only in the boundlessness of Spirit is there any freedom.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote in a poem: “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” And that happens to be true to some degree: all our experience of the outer world is through the senses which only relay electrical impulses to the brain which translates those impulses into sensory impressions. (I am oversimplifying.) So what we know of the world is completely in our head, as insubstantial as a dream. On the other hand, though we do not perceive the actual world directly, it is real because is is a manifestation of divine intelligence and power. But for a the yogi it is good to keep in mind that what we perceive of creation is in our mind. Therefore we should deal with the world as an interior as well as an exterior entity. And cultivation of the interior life through yoga is the best preparation for dealing with the world meaningfully or successfully.
We must realize that maya/samsara is a dream, a dream of God in which we are dreaming our own part of the cosmic drama. Awakening is the only antidote to the dream. And then we will discover that the dream was nothing at all. This is very important. Awakening alone should be our interest. And yoga is the process of awakening. This is why in his incarnation as David, Jesus sang: “I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Psalms 17:15). And: “When I awake, I am still with thee” (Psalms 139:18). Therefore we must say with his son, Solomon: “When shall I awake? I will seek it yet again” (Proverbs 23:35).
Maya does not seize us, we seize maya. But in time our involvement with maya seems the other way around. This is what we call delusion. We must recognize the truth of the situation and shake off the paralysis it has induced in our will.
Involvement with maya is really a form of addiction. The first few times a person willfully takes an addictive substance, but eventually the substance “takes” the person who becomes a slave, sometimes even dying if the substance becomes unavailable.
It is an interesting fact that we can become addicted only to what is bad for us, not what is good. People who avidly eat certain foods are often found to be allergic to them or harmed by them in some way. So our problem is not maya: it is us. And we can solve the problem only if we hold that perspective and work from there.
Even as a child I was astounded at the ability of people to completely fool themselves about every aspect of life, and especially about their own thoughts and feelings as well as their ideas and attitudes toward others. Human beings truly are “dwellers in the mirage.” Everyone has their personal maya-illusion within the greater cosmic illusion. First we must break out of our personal maya into realization of the truth about the cosmic illusion and then out of that.
Poe was absolutely right in his poem, “A Dream Within a Dream.”
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow–
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand–
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep–while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
His problem was that he saw only half of the truth, the illusion, but not that divine state into which we will all eventually awaken.
We must realize that although we are presently immersed in the dream, we are destined to awaken into Infinity. Even though our mind and personality are really constantly shifting mirages, we need to see what is (at least presently) true about them. Therefore a yogi comes to know his own defects and merits and faces and deals with them in wisdom. Equally, the yogi comes to perceive all the desires in his mind and resolves them through purification of the mind. Then he will be able to differentiate between the impermanent and the eternal, between the unreal and the real. He will no longer be deceived by mere appearances, but will know the truth of things.
Next in Living the Yoga Life: Meditation