What Is Maya?

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Maya (magic/dream/illusion)

Maya Definition

In yogic philosophy, Maya is a term that means illusion. More specifically, the illusion that the world is the way it seems when we perceive it through our senses. It refers to the things that we, as humans, think are real, but are not.

Though, as we will explore, different schools and philosophies interpret Maya differently.

It is also another name for the Hindu mother goddess Lakshmi.

an illustration of a man standing in front of a giant keyhole with the sky

maya deep dive

Maya is Nature herself — the phenomenal worlds, ever in transitional flux as antithesis to Divine Immutability.

Paramahansa Yogananda

Many yogis believe that the ultimate source of all energies in the universe (material and non-material) is God/the Absolute/Source.

Maya refers to how we perceive this body, mind, and world around us as the be-all and end-all of life.

The illusion that some accept this physical body as the whole and complete self, that there is nothing more beyond it. The misperception that causes us to believe our material world is our fundamental reality.

Every being, to one extent or another, is affected by Maya.

Attraction to Maya keeps the self in an endless cycle of death and rebirth (samsara), in a constant attempt to be fulfilled by temporary manifestations of material energy.

Maya, which is also translated as ‘that which is not’, is the very force that causes these temporary things to look desirable and important, preventing us from seeing the One Truth.

Think of her as the steam that fogs up your car windscreen or glasses and stops you from seeing clearly, or the one-too-many mojitos or beers that make decisions sound like a good idea (when really they’re not).

She is an intrinsic feature of the structure of creation. The Samkhya system identifies Maya with prakrti (primordial matter) as the source of the universe.

fog in forest covered mountains

Maya in non-dual thought

In non-dual thought specifically, Maya is the idea that the world, and everything in it, appears as many when in reality it is actually One.

It is the falsely perceived duality of the world, a veil that stops us from seeing the true nature of reality.

1. Maya in Vedanta

In Vedantic thought, much like in many other non-dual philosophy, Maya is thinking that you are separate from the divine.

Self-realization helps us to understand that this is just an illusion.

Specifically to Vedantic philosophy, maya only appears to exist and stops existing as soon as you enter the space of non-duality (the realization that everything is One). Once you leave the space, maya will then appear to exist again.

Like a hallucination or a mirage, though you believe you have seen it, and it appears that way, you haven’t actually seen it. Like a hallucination, Maya originates in the mind.

Through Maya, Brahman projects himself as many instead of One in a cosmic illusion – it’s a tool that Brahman uses to project the universe. Thus, when one realizes Brahman, Maya ceases to exist.

Many spiritual teachers often compare this to the story of a man walking down the road in the dark who sees a snake and becomes petrified. When he gets closer, he sees that the snake is merely a coiled rope.

The truth dissolved the fear of the snake, though the fear he experienced and belief that he had seen a snake appeared very real. However, now he knows the snake is just a rope, he will not be fooled again into thinking it is a snake.

In the same way, once we discover that the many is simply the fragmented appearance of the One, the illusion of maya dissolves.

In early Vedic literature, however, such as in the Rig Veda, the term was used to convey intelligence or extraordinary power. In other scripture, such as Atharva Veda, it’s used to talk about the power of creation and has a more supernatural tone of magic or illusion.

In Vedic texts, Maya deludes and confuses the Atman by causing us to believe we are separate from the unchanging reality of Brahman.

a rope on the floor

2. Maya in Tantra

In Tantra, speaking from a non-dual Shaiva Tantra perspective, Maya is not solely an illusion as other schools believe.

Maya is of a material nature and, because its essence is experienced within the context of this material existence that we live in, by its very nature, it’s real!

We see Maya as an integral part of the unified Absolute.

Since everything in the universe is an expression of consciousness, and this consciousness (like everything else) is divine in nature (as it both came from and its revelation is made possible by God), Maya is just as real as God him/herself.

Maya is a form or manifestation of Shakti, who has many different forms, and is no different therefore from God. If you’re struggling to wrap your head around the non-dual perspective, you could consider Maya as an act of Shakti.

A core belief in Tantrism is that both concealment and revelation are happening everywhere, all the time. Therefore, the force of Maya creates a contraction.

This distinction between concealment and revelation is surely the only way that we know how to distinguish one from the other (you only know you are awake because you were asleep!), to know unbound freedom because you have experienced constraint.

The self will always contract, and due to the inherent characteristics of consciousness or Shakti, it will always reveal itself too. Maya can be seen as concealment, creating ignorance around our true selves and the nature of the universe.

Yet, the contraction is simply part of the world of phenomena that consciousness hosts and therefore, it’s divine!

an eye with the universe in the iris

maya in your life

Overcoming the ignorance (or concealment) that is Maya is the essence of the spiritual path, regardless of the philosophy or religion it belongs to.

1. Attachments and desires

Let go of your ideas about what you already know. Your beliefs and opinions, likes and dislikes, the idea that you know exactly who you are and what you’re here to do.

The Truth can not be arrived at through logic, it’s something much deeper than that.

Work on releasing your desires too, and know that you’re unlikely ‘missing’ anything from your lives because whatever you seek can be found inside of you.

An important part of this one, too, is to understand that others are also still caught in the grasp of attachments and desires.

Karma Yoga is a great tool for this step.

2. Meditation and yoga

Stillness is an important part of lifting the veil, helping us to get closer to the true nature of reality. In turn, the discovery of your true nature allows you to find lasting joy, or ananda, beyond the temporary essence of the material world.

The same goes for all practices of yoga too, whether Bhakti, Jnana, Kriya, Karma, or any other tools that bring you closer to your essence nature!

a woman meditating cross legged outside with her hand on her heart

3. Be present

Stay as present as possible, for as much time as you can. Meditation will help with this step too.

Know that everything is in flux all the time and all experiences have the potential to be seen as beautiful. Cultivating a state of presence-awareness will allow you to become open to seeing new perspectives, without being stuck in old habits and action-reaction cycles.

4. Don’t stress

As in the tantric path, remember that absolutely everything involves divine grace; nothing can happen without it. 

The very nature of life is just that; concealment and revelation, to both become and withdraw. A constant pulsation of consciousness that yearns to be revealed, yet in its divine play of becoming will innately contract.

Some days might feel like you’re neck-deep in the thick fog of Maya with more concealment than ever. Know that it’s not personal!

No more personal than how the weather changes from sun to rain, or how the trees shed their leaves in autumn. It’s simply part of the phenomenon that exists through and as consciousness herself.

An interplay of manifesting, involving, and evolving; Maya is just as much an indispensable part of this path as moments of revelation. This is the path of yoga; to dance in both the shadows and the light, but dance nonetheless.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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