Maya: The Concept of Illusion

Maya is the term for “cosmic/worldly-illusion,” “multiplicity,” “that which is not” within the Hindu religion. Though Maya’s etymology is unclear, we can trace through the ancient scriptures and texts to discover its origin and its myriad of meanings and uses.

In early Vedic literature, specifically the Rg Veda, we see the term is used to represent “intelligence,” (prajna/buddhi) “extraordinary power,” and “deception” (kapata) in its simple and compound forms. This idea was developed and conveyed to humanity by the God Indra, who took on many forms with his Maya or “extraordinary willpower”, in which he did marvelous things that mortal humans could not comprehend. Since his “extraordinary willpower” defies normal human understanding, it is considered a phenomenon and we accept it as a form of “deception” from what we think we know as true, or what we are familiar with (see Shastri 10-11). In other Vedic scripture such as the Atharvaveda, the term has more influence as a supernatural element, portraying Maya as “great illusion” and “magic” in which embodies a person and the world. In the Brahmanas the word is again used for “intelligence” (prajna/buddhi). In the Upanishads, the grand philosophical texts that have been sometimes used to describe the esoteric values of the Vedas as a whole, we see the term expand its illusionary meaning to “cosmic illusion”. The Upanishads also recognize Maya as something the Atman creates and controls, thus being deluded by multiplicity that arises from within the self. There is only one true reality, and all plurality and multiplicity is Maya which the Atman creates. The Sankhya philosophy identifies Maya with Prakrti (primordial matter) as the source of the universe, with the distinct difference that the latter is real. It is the equilibrium of the three qualities of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. (Shastri 29). The Sankhya philosophy tells us that Maya’s influence on humankind is through the use of the three gunas. Maya appeals to our senses, and through the three gunas we become deluded by matter, energy, mass and mistakenly take them to be something on their own.

Maya was conveyed in early Vedic literature, specifically the Rg Veda and Atharvaveda, by describing “the one reality” “Brahman,” and “Atman”. The term is conveyed not through literal use at first, but by the representation of multiplicity, deception or illusion from the one true reality, Brahman. Maya is something that embodies the Atman and deludes it by believing that we are something entirely on it’s own, independent of Brahman. The early story of Svetaketu is a prime example; it shows how after Svetaketu completed his sacred education, he remained conceited, pedantic and opinionated. As this was also apparent to his father, his father asked him firstly whether he learned anything about the unheard being heard, the unseen being seen. Svetaketu failed to respond and asked for his fathers knowledge, his father said, “My son, as everything made of clay is known by a single clump of clay, being nothing more then a modification of speech, a change, a name, while the clay in the only truth” (see Gough 43). Maya embodies Atman and Brahman, and creates an illusion to the cosmic perspective. Knowing the many is being deluded, knowing the one is vanquishing the many. Every atom, molecule, cell, being, planet is all multiplicity from the One. As Indian philosophers say: if we know Brahman, we know all things (Gough 43). In the Upanishads Maya is the appearance that distinguishes all from true reality. He who sees as it were a plurality actually existing is never saved, but is over and over the subject to the pangs of birth and death in this samsara. The conception of Maya exhibits itself in such passages clearly, and yet many do not see it (Shastri 56). A high point of the Upanishads was that the reference to an “other”, which was a broad reference to anything in our daily natural lives, which is in turn multiplicity, was meant to be meaningless because anything that which is multiplied cannot be Brahman or the One. It also perceived that with multiplicity, no one true meaning can exist. For something to exist independently of Brahman would imply that it has another purpose or meaning that Brahman does not, which is false because Brahman is the only true reality (see Shastri 38-39)

The Atman is the ultimate goal and reality in life within the Hindu tradition. The Atman is the true self and the only self. It is said to be waiting just beneath the skin, waiting to be discovered. Maya embodies Atman and deludes the self into believing our natural realms of multiplicity are independent from the self. Not only does Maya’s illusion extend externally, it also confuses humans to recognize with their bodies and their identities, mistaking them as our own and independent from the One true reality. In the Upanishads, Atman is sometimes used to represent the earth, water, wind, men, and the natural world. This unity shows how all beings, elements and things are Atman. Atman can be seen as pure consciousness, unifying your conscious with the one of Brahmans, which is true consciousness. This means that all things exist only so far as they are my consciousness, which is a unity; hence the multiplicity, which seems to exist independent of my consciousness, is not real but only a mere name (Shastri 63). Maya embodies Atman, because all cows, earth, men, wind are portions of our conscious, but Maya confuses our Atman into believing they are entirely creations and beings on their own. This extends into our interaction with people, believing that being is completely independent from you. We believe he is he, she is she, they are they, I am only I, and all I can ever be is I. This is false, we are all Brahman, and we are deluded into seeing and believing plurality. Maya inspires a chain of events that are extremely hard to stop once they have begun. We begin becoming attached to the elements, such as fine metal and jewels, our aesthetics, what makes us unique and individual, where we reside, what we eat, how we are represented, how others think of us, the clothes we where, our status, etc. All these things are brought on by our multiplicity and continuously take us farther and farther away from the true One reality. People who latch onto plurality or multiplicity do not achieve liberation, and will continue the cycle of samsara until their lives are filled with understanding and desire to unify one self.

It is by a multiple concentration that the one self assumes the aspect of a multitude of selves, and it is by a multiple exclusive concentration that it loses sight, in each self, of its identity with the other selves and with the self of all selves. The result is avidya, the great ignorance, the thick veil hiding from us not only our true self but also a broad tangle of subliminal influences both acting on us and exerted by us (Mohrhoff 6).

Avidya is used in Vedic philosophy subjectively to represent the natural form and matter of the world that we perceive, distinguishing self from non-self, and then leading into preferences, likes and dislikes, egoism and more. Avidya is different from Maya because it is referring to the process of not knowing our true self, being ignorant and unwise due to Maya’s illusion, and not representing the illusion itself, only the process of forgetting our true nature. When one discovers his Atman, Avidya is destroyed along with Maya freeing himself from the cycle of samsara and realizing one’s true self.

Moksa or Mukti is the central concept in Hinduism and refers to the liberation from Maya’s illusion, the freedom of the cycle of samsara and the unification with Brahman. Thus all things melt into the original self, as the darkness faints and melts away before the rising sun. Its fictitiously limiting mind with all its modes has been dissolved, and the soul is the Self again; the jar is broken, and the ether that was in it is one with the one and undivided ether, from which the jar once seemed to sever it. The sage has seen the Self, and passed into oneness with it, lost like a drop in water (see Gough 60). Moksha is also known as Nirvana in the other heterodox Indian philosophies such as Buddhism and Jainism. Once a person is liberated, enjoying the glory of enlightenment, they seek to help others also unify with the self. Thus liberated from metempsychosis, but still living in the body, the sage is untouched by merit and de-merit, unsoiled by sinful works, uninjured by what he has done and by what he has left undone, unimplicated in his actions good or evil (Gough 61).

Maya is an extremely crucial and frequently misunderstood concept within Hinduism. Maya is the cosmic illusion which arises from the self’s consciousness which uses the three gunas of nature to delude us from what we truly are, giving us the idea that we are entirely independent and separate from anything else. Maya is multiplicity on every level, from a microscopic level of atoms to the universal size of planets; it is all in some shape or form, a variation and change to the “One” true reality and given its own identity. Maya develops ignorance, termed Avidya, which signifies the descent into the delusion, where we are completely lost from our Atman, even though he is just beneath the skin. Maya encompasses Brahman, therefore it encompasses our whole existence, everything we perceive is a creation of Maya and only with mental fortitude and spiritual willpower may we free ourselves from this ever-repeating cycle of samsara and illusion from the one. Once Maya has faded from our perception and we are finally realizing Atman and seeing the true reality of existence, we have achieved the state of moksa, the highest state of consciousness and existence within most Hindu religions. Maya is the necessary opposite to moksa, for without the delusion, there is nothing for one to realize.


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Related Topics for Further Investigation







Rig Veda

Atharva Veda

Vedanta Philosophy

Sankhya System

Jnana Yoga


Three Gunas



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Article written by: Forrest Freihaut (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.