What is Maya and can we break the illusion?

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Being a follower of spirituality, I have been hearing this word Maya very often. They say that “Everything around us is Maya”. We mention Maya many times but we hardly understand the nature of it. The question is if there is a Maya or an illusion, then who put it on us and how do we get out of it. Why should a common person even think about it? Is breaking Maya will help us in solving our day to day problems? Will we become happier? Only understanding this mystical concept, we can get our answers but can we understand it? Maya is not just an Indian philosophy but also our reality until we go beyond.

Maya is normally termed as an ignorance. Many spiritual gurus would say that everything is Maya which means everything around us and including us is not true. According to many Vedantist including Adi Shankaracharya, our real nature is that of Brahman (The Soul or Consciousness) and Maya is like a veil covering this true nature. Due to this cover of ignorance, we are not able to realize our true self. For Swami Vivekananda, Maya is, “a simple statement of facts – what we are and what we see around us.”

Before going further, I would like to warn you that we should accept that we cannot explain Maya completely as we are living in it. You cannot explain the ignorance if you are yourself ignorant. Only an enlightened one can do it and has the right to do it because he or she has seen the light. We can only try to explain it until the reasoning allows us. Till the time we are in Maya, we cannot go beyond the reasoning as we can only operate at intellect level. Our attempt should to become familiar with it and affirming that we will break it one day.

There is a famous example in Vedanta which explains Maya well. It is an example of a rope and a snake. In the darkness, I see a snake hanging on the tree. In reality, it is a rope. Due to my ignorance, I perceive it as a snake. To satisfy my curiosity and to get rid of fear, I go closer to the tree and throw light on it. I now realize that it is a rope. Now a few questions to give you a sweet headache. Did my perception change the nature of the rope and made it a snake? Did throwing of light turned a snake into a rope? From which time my ignorance of snake started? In reality, the rope did not change to the snake, the only thing changed was how I looked at it.

Swami Vivekananda always believed in the practicality of any concept. He explained every difficult concept in such a way that commoner like us can also understand it. I have mentioned three explanation of Maya from his work “Complete works of Swami Vivekananda”. It is more appealing and effective when we read his own words. To give you some idea, we see or hear about death all around us every day and yet we can’t accept that we will die one day. Similarly, we see good and evil and yet we believe that one day only good will remain and evil will vanish.

Maya in Swami Vivekananda’s words,

“The whole world is going towards death; everything dies. All our progress, our vanities, our reforms, our luxuries, our wealth, our knowledge, have that one end — death. That is all that is certain. Thus it has been going on from time without beginning. Death is the end of everything. Death is the end of life, of beauty, of wealth, of power, of virtue too. Saints die and sinners die, kings die and beggars die. They are all going to death, and yet this tremendous clinging on to life exists. Somehow, we do not know why, we cling to life; we cannot give it up. And this is Maya.”

“We often hear that it is one of the features of evolution that it eliminates evil, and this evil being continually eliminated from the world, at last only good will remain. That is very nice to hear, and it panders to the vanity of those who have enough of this world’s goods. Very good, yet this argument is fallacious from beginning to end. It takes for granted, in the first place, that manifested good and evil in this world are two absolute realities. In the second place, it makes, at still worse assumption that the amount of good is an increasing quantity and the amount of evil is a decreasing quantity. Very easy to say, but can it be proved that evil is a lessening quantity?

As we increase our power to be happy, we also increase our power to suffer, and sometimes I am inclined to think that if we increase our power to become happy in arithmetical progression, we shall increase, on the other hand, our power to become miserable in geometrical progression. We who are progressing know that the more we progress, the more avenues are opened to pain as well as to pleasure. And this is Maya.”

Swamiji has written much more on the topic but we should try not to establish the ignorance. Now the question is why we are not able to get out of it. Because we are so satisfied with the sensory pleasures that we stay away from anything that challenges it. This is true of all sense-enjoyments, of all intellectual enjoyments, and of all the enjoyments of which the human mind is capable. They are nothing, they are within Maya, beyond which we cannot go.

There is still hope. We see that beyond this Maya the Vedantic philosophers have found something which is not bound by Maya; and if we can get there, we shall not be bound by Maya. We can either choose to stay as a slave to these sensory pleasures or we can choose to realize our true nature of Supreme Consciousness. Maya is a darkness that will keep us ignorant till we light the lamp of knowledge, the knowledge of the self.