Synonyms of Mäyä
One has to note here that in Sankara’s commentaries, avidyä, mäyä, ajnäna and adhyäsa have been used as synonyms. (In fact, the term adhyäsa was introduced by Sankara, in his famous adhyäsa-bhäshyam in his commentary on Brahmasütra). Post-Sankara, some Advaita-Vedäntins (i.e. Vidyäranya (-1386 CE) in Pancadasi, and subsequently Sadänanda (mid 15th century) in his Vedäntasära have differentiated between mäyä and avidyä. As per their explanation – ajnäna is of two types – mäyä and avidyä. Whereas mäyä is the upädhi of Isvara who wields it, avidyä is the upädhi of the jiva who succumbs to its power. Whereas mäyä is suddha-sattva, avidyä is asuddha-sattva. As per Sankara, jagat is ontologically mithyä, and due to ajnäna, the error of jagat is perceived on Brahman. The jagat is adhyastha on Brahman. Sankara has defined adhyäsa as – atasmin tad buddhiù – meaning, to accept something as something that it is not. Superimposition of something seen earlier (smrti), is superimposed on something else is adhyäsa – smrtirüpah paratra pürvadrshta-avabhäsah; for example – mistaking the mother-of-pearl (nacre) to be silver. Similarly, the appearance of jagat on Brahman is adhyäsa. (Not a very good comparison, since the example (prätibhäshika) and the exemplified (vyävahärika) belong to two different orders of reality.
When we say that the jagat is adhyastha on Brahman – one has to understand that ajnäna creates this error. This ajnäna is not absence (abhäva) of jnänam. It is jnäna-virodhi. That is why it is possible to end it. To explain ajnäna further, it is stated that it has some kind of bhävarüpa, because through this ajnäna alone the Vedäntins have defined the jagat as prapanca. Thus, jagat is not of the nature of abhäva (nonexistent). However, one has to remember that it is not sat, – absolute real like Brahman; otherwise, the doctrine of Advaita will be negated. Actually, ajnäna is different from sat and asat, and is anirvacanéya. And this ajnäna is opposed (virodha) to jnänam, therefore, it can be ended. This ajnäna or bhränti being other than sävayava, niravayava, sat, asat, sad-asat is defined as – sarva-nyäya-virodhini, meaning – this error is nirälambä and does not come under any logic. It collapses under enquiry, just as darkness cannot exist with the rising of the Sun. Suresvara says, ‘the feature of avidyä is, it can not stand enquiry, it cannot be known by any means, otherwise it would be an object. Since avidyä has conflicting features such as bädhä (negation) and pratiti (projection), and since it is indescribable being sad-asat, avidyä is not subject to pramäëa and cannot stand enquiry. We have to understand that avidyä has been endorsed by Sankara, to explain the origin of the jagat.
Sankara brought about the following characteristics of mäyä or avidyä:
i) It is material and inert.
ii) It is trigunätmikä.
iii) It is an inherent power of Brahman (Vaishnavi-sakti), and non-different from it.
iv) It is beginningless (anädi).
v) It is positive (bhävarüpä) in nature, because it does exist, until we are able to go beyond it.
vi) It is categorically indefinable (anirvacaniya) because it is neither real (sat) nor unreal (tuccham).
vii) It is an appearance (vivarta) and phenomenal (vyävahärika), because it is responsible for the creation of the world.
viii) It is superimposed (adhyäsa) on the reality (the vastu i.e. Brahman).
ix) It can be negated by right knowledge (vijïäna-niräsya).
x) Its locus is Brahman (brahmäsrayä-mäyä)
The inexplicable mäyä is described as aghatana-ghatanä-patiyasi – making the impossible possible. Under its spell, even an incarnation of the Lord appears to forget his superhuman resplendence and behaves like an ordinary mortal. (Think of Lord Räma believing that there is such a thing as golden deer, and chasing it).
mäyä is responsible for the contradiction in our thinking and actions. Right is inevitably followed by wrong, and yet we work to create only right, believing that it will ultimately eliminate wrong in this relative world. It is often contended that the doctrine of mäyä, which denies the reality of right and wrong, is inconsistent with ethics. One can take shelter under mäyä and trample under foot all moral values. This is a distortion of the concept of mäyä. As long as a person remains under the spell of mäyä, right and wrong are real to him. As long as one sees a distinction between right and wrong, one must avoid the wrong, and follow the right. Sankara admits the reality of the relative world during the state of ignorance; and stresses the fact that, in that state, both right and wrong should be treated as real. Therefore, ethical laws must be obeyed. They form the foundation of the Vedäntic discipline. Only by pursuing the right and shunning wrong, one can ultimately go beyond the pairs of opposites. Likewise, social service (pürta), worship (ishtä), prayer, and the performance of various duties in the world are not in conflict with man’s longing to rid himself of mäyä and attain moksha – freedom.
Isvara’s mäyä that is anirvacaniya, from which this anirvacaniya jagat has come, has two powers – i) ävarana-sakti or veiling–power, and ii) vikshepa-sakti or power of projection. By the veiling-power, the basis is veiled, and by the power of projection, the mithyä jagat is projected.
Though mäyä is indescribable and indefinable, yet its existence can be inferred from its effects, such as the projection or manifestation (srshti), the preservation (sthiti), and the dissolution (laya), of the universe. mäyä carries on this work through two powers, known as the power of concealment (ävarana-sakti) and the power of projection (vikshepa-sakti). The former obscures the knowledge of the observer; it conceals, as it were, the true nature of Brahman. Although herself insignificant and unsubstantial, yet through an inscrutable power, it hides the Absolute Existence-Knowledge-Limitlessness, just as a patch of cloud conceals the effulgent solar disc. As the Sun, in spite of this concealment, retains its brilliance intact, so also the Self or Brahman retains in full its nature of Consciousness, in spite of its concealment by mäyä.
When the true nature of Brahman is hidden by the power of mäyä, there arises the condition of individuality (jivatvam) and relative existence. When a man’s consciousness is obscured by the concealing-power of sleep, there arises the condition, in which he sees the dream-objects and takes them for real. Similarly, when the true nature of Ätmä becomes concealed by mäyä, conditions are created for its appearance as a jiva – a finite being, endowed with the notion of being a doer or agent (kartä), and the experiencer (bhoktä) of pleasure and pain, love and hatred, and the other pairs of opposites. (The dream example and the exemplified (manifest jagat) here, belong to two different orders of reality – prätibhäshika and vyävahärika respectively.)
The concealing-power and the projecting-power of mäyä function almost simultaneously. Ignorance, which conceals the real nature of the rope (or Brahman), by the very power inherent in it, creates the illusion of a snake (or jagat). The projecting power of mäyä creates the entire universe (Brahmända) and all the objects dwelling therein.
Therefore, Brahman in association (as though) with mäyä may be called the manifester (not creator) of the universe. However, this projection is only an appearance; it is not real. As has been stated above, Brahman cannot participate in an act of creation. When one sees the dual universe and seeks its cause, one finds it in Brahman associated with mäyä. This is where Advaita differs with dualists, as they take the creation to be real. According to Advaita, the universe is super-imposed on Brahman through mäyä; and the superimposition cannot affect the real nature of Brahman.
mäyä is without beginning; that is to say, a person under the spell of mäyä cannot know its beginning; just as a sleeper while experiencing a dream, cannot know its beginning. The very concept of time, space, and causality, the pillars of the relative world, belong to mäyä.
mäyä appears to us in two different modes, or aspects, depending upon our way of looking at it. They are called the collective or cosmic (samashti) aspect, and the individual (vyashti) aspect. From the collective standpoint, mäyä is one; but from the individual standpoint, it is many. Vedäntins give the following illustrations to explain the two modes of mäyä. As a forest from the standpoint of the trees that compose it, may be designated as a number of trees, and as a reservoir from the same point of view may be spoken of as bodies of water, so also ignorance when denoting separate units is spoken of as many. This comparison is based on Sruti a statement, ‘Indra through mäyä appears as many’ (RVS-VI.47.18).
mäyä, both in its cosmic and in its individual aspect, hides the true nature of Brahman. Thus, the infinite Absolute appears as a finite being, limited by time and space. In association with the cosmic mäyä, Brahman appears as Isvara, and in association with the individual mäyä as the individual jiva. Thus, mäyä becomes the upädhi or limited adjunct of Brahman. An upädhi seems to alter or limit the true nature of an object. However, this limitation is only apparent, nor real. It is the association with the upädhis, or various physical bodies that makes Brahman appear as devatäs, gandhavas, apsaräs, people, animals, birds, trees, and the like. However, is must not be forgotten that the upädhi does not bring about any real change in Brahman. When the upädhi is discarded, the object regarded as finite by the ignorant is known as Brahman.