The Sanskrit word Maya (that which it is not) is derived from its roots Ma (not) and Ya (that).
There are many words or phrases in Hindu Philosophy such as Karma, Maya, Moksha, Yoga, Dharma, etc. Each of these and other such words have a common frame of reference with different annotations depending on the context in which they are used. There are also extensive treatises on these words that span theological and mythological realms.
Maya is often described as the illusion or perceiving something other than what it is. It has simple practical implications in our daily life as much as it has profound philosophic implications as it pertains to our role and purpose in life.
A brief description of the illusion (Maya) in our daily life is noted as follows:
Reflecting or dwelling on the sense objects (body and its organs) as being real, a person gets attached to them. From this attachment or affinity arise all desires; from these desires is born anger or envy; from envy is born confusion and from confusion the loss of memory (or clear vision or purpose in life). When the clarity in vision is lost, it leads to lack of reasoning or analytical power, which further leads to the “death” of the person. B.G. 2. 62 and 63.
Every person in the entire world exists in three states of connection (Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance) with the world external to him/her. Without this understanding they see the world as shifting and ever changing (Illusion). Hence they do not comprehend the eternal, constant or unchangeable reality of their existence. B.G. 7. 13
The view that any one of us is defined by our body and mind and trapped by our experiences is Maya or illusion. Hence we see a divided world of self-driven needs, preferences, attachments, family, circle of friends, etc. Limited in this perception we find it difficult to go beyond them to see the larger forces of Nature which are eternal and universal (common to all).
The totality of our existence can be described as five layers as illustrated in the figure below:
Source: Vivekachudamani (Crown Jewel of Knowledge and Understanding) by Swami Sankaracharya – Verses: 154 to 212.
The five layers (Pancha Kosha) consist of:
- Our body which one can touch and feel (Defined by our name, height, weight, etc.). It is nourished and sustained by the food we consume.
- All our body functions such as breathing, digestion, perception, voluntary and involuntary responses and mental faculty (“I think therefore I am”)
- Our experiences resulting from the body and its functions connected to anything external to them. (“I am a product of my experiences”).
- Our understanding of the experiences and their basis based on the connectors (Guna) – knowledge, bias and ignorance and the dominance of one over the other two (“I exist as a witness to my experiences and the understanding of their ebb and flow”).
- Our existence as the result of the forces of nature at play which create and sustain our body, body functions, experiences and even the understanding of the basis of these experiences. (“I am Brahman — I exist enabled by and as a witness to the Laws of Nature; Thath Thwam Asi – I and the Universe exist as an integral part of each other”).
The above five layers of our existence are interconnected. These five layers of our existence is the reality, the truth, which merely exists. They are inviolable. They are self-evident. It is the larger order.
Everything we see as the specifics are interpretation of the above truth. Such interpretation or perception varies depending on the time, context and circumstances. They are like the millions of reflections of the single sun. Relying on these reflections or interpretations as the truth is described as illusion (Maya).
This illusion is a permanent nature of every one of us and in the life of all. Let us explore a few of the impacts of this illusion in our daily life:
- In the material world we believe that we live on a solid ground, when we also know that the core of the earth is nothing but a molten magma at constant flux. Our planet itself is in a unique journey in the constellation while we build bridges, dam and sky scrapers on it or mine or drill deep for minerals, fuel and water. We are torn apart by our feelings and emotions as if they are the governing forces, while we are balanced delicately between a few universal forces (Gravitational, magnetic and nuclear).
- Recognition of this illusion helps us to find a perspective between what is significant and insignificant in our daily lie.
- Recognition of this illusion helps us to focus on larger issues such as protecting our planet (since we exist as a result of a delicate balance in this planet on many dimensions – earth, water, ocean, air and space).
- We think we are individuals and hence unique and special, when we also know that every one of us – indeed every living object we know – are enabled by biological processes governed by the laws of nature!
- Recognition of this illusion eliminates the fear of death and helps us to cope with grief.
- Attention to better living habits is seen as tools to manage the biological processes as part of daily living (rather than means to meet self-centered needs for better health, longer life, etc.).
- We think we are unique since our experiences are specific to us ignoring the reality that every one’s experiences are rooted in the same three connectors – knowledge, bias and ignorance – and the dominant connector for the given moment.
- Mindfulness of this illusion (or reality) helps us cope with any event in life with even minded approach. It also helps us to be respectful of others and their needs; Exploring the connectors at work becomes the way of life, rather than impulsive reaction to events and circumstances. Tolerance and forgiveness evolve on their own accord. We also find the courage to challenge and stand up against discrimination, racism and bigotry, because it is the right thing to do (and not as a personal mission to meet one’s own needs).
- Non duality (between happiness and sorrow, love and hate, like and dislike, etc.) becomes second nature to a person who is constantly aware of this illusion.
- Even in trivial matters like a conversation what I said and my intent behind that may be totally misconstrued. This misunderstanding can happen – and frequently it does – even among people intimately known to each other. Debating and arguing on what was said and perceived is illusion! Focusing on the nature of the communication and the reason for the miscommunication arising out of the three connectors at play is the wisdom required in that instance (and in many situations in our daily life).
These five layers (sheaths) can be understood inside out – starting from my understanding of myself as a material object, expanding outwards until it is realized that “I” and the “Universe” exist as integral in each other. Every atom is part of the Cosmos; the cosmos cannot exist rejecting any atom as outside of it!
Conversely the “I” can be understood starting from the universal view (I exist as the representation and witness to the laws of nature at play (I am Brahman) working down wards to “I am made up of material objects one can touch and feel”. Not recognizing this interchangeable nature of the five layers of our existence is also an illusion (Maya).
Another aspect of our illusion (Maya) is the notion that these five layers we described above are independent of each other. It is generally believed that when you are young you need to worry about your health and personal well being. As you grow older you can focus on understanding your experiences, role and purpose in the larger order. Ultimately one reaches a state of realization to declare that “I am Brahman”. The reality is that all the five sheaths (layers) co-exist. None of the layers exist without the others. A lotus flower is made up of layers or petals. An onion is made up of layers. The lotus or onion does not exist without its layers. For a given moment one can discard petals of the flower or the layers of the onion. But our removing or discarding them does not deny their existence (or even co-existence of the petals or the layers). They merely exist. They are all parts of nature.
“We exist as part of nature. Our existence becomes evident through five layers: Material object (Sareeram); life processes (Prana); consciousness or awareness (Budhi); Knowledge and understanding of the discrimination between the three connectors (Gyanam) and “I” as an integral and inseparable aspect of the larger order or laws of Nature(Thath Thwam Asi; Aham Brahma).
Liberation (from the notion of birth and death; from the constantly changing and momentary influences of our experiences) is gained through an understanding of the above inseparable and interconnected layers of our existence.
This is the simple truth. By this knowledge and its practice one lives a life of eternal peace.” ——— Viveka Chudamani (Swami Sankaracharya).