Māyā [1] is derived from the root √ma : means – to measure, to form, to limit . In the Vedāntic tradition it means specifically , “the illusion superimposed upon reality as an effect of ignorance.” Later Śankara describes the entire visible cosmos as māyā, an illusion superimposed upon true being by man’s deceitful senses & unilluminated mind [3].

  • The Nirukta [4] (2.8) first relates the root √ma to mātā which means “the atmosphere” encircling the earth. This also means the “mother’s womb” in it the ātmā : soul takes shape and form and is born in this world. The womb ensconces the ātmâ : self. Similarly the atmosphere covers the earth. Literally, therefore, mātā means “ a vast region encompassed by air” and the mother’s womb is the soul’s passage into this world of māyā . Here it is nurtured, develops into a fœtus and takes on the human shape and size – ready for its earthy experiences.
  • What is this māyānvi world that the soul now enters ? – the answer is best given by excerpting from Heinrich Zimmer [5] :-

 Māyā is the measuring out, or creation, or display of forms; māyā is any illusion, trick, artifice, deceit, jugglery, sorcery, or work of witch-craft; an illusory image or apparition, phantasm, deception of the sight….The māyā of the Gods is their power to assume diverse shapes by displaying at will various aspects of their subtle essence. But the Gods are themselves the productions of a greater Māyā : the spontaneous self-transformation of an originally undifferentiated, all-generating divine Substance. And this greater Māyā produces, not the Gods alone, but the Universe in which they operate. All the Universes co-existing in space and succeeding each other in time, the planes of being and the creatures of those planes whether natural or supernatural, are manifestations from an inexhaustible, original and eternal well of being, and are manifest by a play of māyā. In the period of non-manifestation, the interlude of the cosmic night, māyā ceases to operate and the display dissolves.

Māyā is existence: both the world of which we are aware, and ourselves who are contained in the growing and dissolving environment, growing and dissolving in our turn. At the same time, Māyā is the supreme power that generates and animates the display: the dynamic aspect of the universal Substance. Thus it is at once, effect (the cosmic flux), and cause (the creative Power). In the latter regard it is known as Shakti, “Cosmic Energy”…..

Having mothered the Universe and the individual (macro- and microcosm) as correlative manifestations of the Divine, Māyā then immediately muffles consciousness within the wrappings of her perishable production. The ego is entrapped in a web, a queer cocoon. “All this around me,” and “my own existence”– experience without and experience within– are the warp and woof of the subtle fabric. Enthralled by ourselves and the effects of our environment, regarding the bafflements of Māyā as utterly real, we endure an endless ordeal of blandishment, desire and death; whereas, from a standpoint just beyond our ken Māyāthe world, the life, the ego, to which we cling– is as fugitive and evanescent as cloud and mist [6]……

  • In S. Radhakrishnan’s [7] thought māyā has great preponderance. In the Introduction to his Principal Upanishads he says :-

The actual fabric of the world, with its loves and hates, with its wars and battles, with its jealousies and competitions as well as its unasked helpfulness, sustained intellectual effort, intense moral struggle seems to be no more than an unsubstantive dream, a phantasmagoria dancing on the fabric of pure being… Indifference to the world is not, however, the main features of spiritual consciousness…The withdrawal from the world is not the conclusive end of the spiritual quest, There is a return to the world accompanied by a persistent refusal to take the world as it confronts us as final…

In the Maitrī Upanishad, the Absolute is compared to a spark, which, made to revolve, creates apparently a fiery circle,….The Aitareya Upanishad asserts that the universe is founded in consciousness and guided by it, it assumes the reality of the universe and not merely its apparent existence. To seek the one is not to deny the many…. māyā in this view states the fact that Brahman without losing his integrity is the basis of the world. Questions of temporal beginning and growth are subordinate to this relation of ground and consequent. The world does not carry its own meaning. To regard it as final and ultimate is an act of ignorance…In the Chāndogya Upanishad (III.14), Brahman is defined as tajjalān as that (tat) which gives rise to (ja), absorbs (li) and sustains (an) the world. The Brhad-āranyaka Upanishad (V.5.1) argues that satyam consists of three syllables, sa , ti , yam , the first and the last being real and the second unreal, madhyato anrtam. The fleeting is enclosed on both sides by an eternity which is real….

            The different metaphors are used to indicate how the universe rises from its central root, how the emanation takes place with the Brahman remains ever-complete, undiminished. ’As a spider sends forth and draws in (its thread), as herbs grow on the earth, as the hair (grows) on the head and the body of a living person, so from the Imperishable arises the universe. Again, ‘As from a blazing fire sparks of like form issue forth by the thousands even so, many kinds of beings issue forth from the Immutable and they return thither too.’ The many are parts of the Brahman even as the waves are parts of the sea…

            Indra is declared to have assumed many shapes by his māyā. Māyā is the power of Īśwara from which the world arises…it is Īśwara who has the power of manifestation and māyā is that which measures out, moulds forms in the formless….Brahman is logically superior to Īśwara who has the power of manifestation….The Beyond is not an annulling or a cancellation of the world of becoming, but its transfiguration. The Absolute is the life of this life, the truth of this truth….While the world is created by the power of māyā of Īśwara, the individual soul is bound down by it in the sense of avidyā or ignorance. We are subject to this delusion when we look upon the multiplicity of objects and egos as final and fundamental. Such a view falsifies the truth. It is the illusion of ignorance…while the world process reveals certain possibilities of the Real, it also conceals the full nature of the Real.

  • A book by Donald A. Braue titled “ Māyā” – In Radhakrishnan’s thought …is a must-read for every serious student of this subject. Here there is an elaborate discussion on ‘Six Meanings Other Than Illusion’ for the word māyā in Radhakrishnan’s writings :-
  1. māyā1 : as inexplicable mystery : Radhakrishnan is convinced that reality in its entirety cannot be grasped by the discursive intellect. This conviction shapes the first meaning of māyā. Most often, māyā1 signifies the inexplicable mystery surrounding the relation between Brahman and the world….

            We can never understand how the ultimate Reality is related to the world of plurality. Since the two are heterogeneous, and every attempt at explanation is bound to fail. This incomprehensibility is brought out by the term māyā1. When the Absolute is taken as pure being, its relation to the world is inexplicable anivārcanīya.