Question on mAyA

V. Krishnamurthy profvk at YAHOO.COM
Tue Dec 10 23:27:40 CST 2002

The following question has been raised by Sri Venkat Ramanan.
“In advaita, is Maya considered real or imaginary. I mean if everything
except for the self is unreal, then is Maya also considered unreal ?”

I am pretty sure the same question must have been raised earlier in the
list and must have been answered. But I did not make the search. As the
question is any way very important, I venture to give my answer now.

Let me first attempt to state the questioner’s viewpoint.  Unless mAyA is
already present, neither concealment nor projection can take place. Is
mAyA then coeval with brahman? Do they exist side by side? Does this not
contradict the non-dual status of brahman? Where does mAyA operate? What
is its base of operation?  These questions raise very profound  issues.
The base of activity of mAyA cannot be brahman because the latter is
Absolute Luminosity and there is no place in it for ignorance or darkness.
Nor can the jIva be the base of operations of mAyA. For jIva itself cannot
come into existence until mAyA has operated. There seems to be an
irresoluble logical difficulty here.

But the difficulty will vanish once we realize that we are here making an
implicit assumption that is not valid. We are actually assuming the prior
reality of time and space before the appearance of mAyA. Otherwise we
could not have asked the question: Where does mAyA operate? When does it
come into existence? These questions are valid only if you have a frame of
reference in time and space independent of mAyA. But time and space, says
Sankara, are themselves creations of mAyA. (cf. ‘mAyA-kalpita-desha-kAla-
kalanAt’ in his dakshiNAmUrti-stotra, sloka no.4). In fact, this is also
the answer to the physicist’s question: When did time originate? Time did
not originate in a timeless frame because we would then be begging the
question. The very fact that we are conscious of the passage of time is a
consequence of mAyA. So questions such as, ‘Where does mAyA operate?’
and ‘When did it start operating?’ are not properly posed. Time and space
cannot claim prior existence. It is therefore wrong to ask whether mAyA is
prior to jIva or later than jIva. Ultimate Reality is beyond space and
time. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, time, space and causation are
like the glass through which the Absolute is seen. In the Absolute itself,
there is neither space, nor time nor causation.
As in the field of modern physics, so in the field of vedanta, time and
space are modes incidental to sense perception and should not be applied
to what is trans-empirical. jIva and mAyA are both given a priori in our
experience and we have to take them as such. They are anAdi
(beginningless). The only relevant question that you can ask about them is
about their nature and final destiny. Examination will show that mAyA is
neither real nor unreal. ‘I am ignorant’ is a common expression, within
anybody’s experience. Hence mAyA is not completely unreal. But it
disappears with the onset of knowledge. So it is not real either. Thus it
is different from both the real and the unreal. In Sanskrit it is
therefore called ‘sad-asad-vilakshaNa’, meaning that it is different from
both the real and the unreal. And for the same reason it is said to
be ‘anirvacanIya’, meaning, that which is undecidable or  that which
cannot be defined one way or the other. It is in this sense  we say that
the world of perception, the common world of experience, cannot be
rejected out of hand as totally false, like the hare’s horn or the lotus
in the sky; nor can it be taken to be totally real because it suffers
contradiction at a higher level of experience. It is real in the empirical
sense and unreal in the absolute sense.
This is also the case with a dream. For the dreamer, the dream is real.
The acceptance of the reality of the dream to the dreamer is the king-pin
of Sankara’s explanation of advaita. He bases many of his arguments on
this phenomenal reality of the dream. This reality, called ‘vyAvahArika-
satyaM’ is in between the total unreality  - ‘asat’ – of the barren
mother, and the total reality – ‘sat’ - of brahman. The dream and
similarly the perceptible universe is neither ‘sat’ nor ‘asat’. It
is ‘mithyA’. The meaning of the word ‘mithyA’ is not falsehood but
comparative unreality. It is not total non-existence like hare’s horn but
it is midway between the absolute truth of brahman and the absolute
falsehood of hare’s horn.
There are actually different analogies to explain the peculiar
relationship between brahman and the universe. The analogy that Sankara
very often uses is the relationless relationship of the rope that is
mistaken for the snake, because of poor lighting. The rope appears as a
snake no doubt, but actually there is no snake there, ever. Even when it
appeared to be there, it was not there. But the one who saw it did really
get scared on ‘seeing’ the snake and only when help came in the form of
better lighting did the person  realize that what ‘was there’ all the
time  was only a rope. The second analogy that is used in the literature
is the appearance of water in a mirage. And the third one is that of the
dreamer and his dream. Each of these three analogies has its own
limitation in explaining the relationship between brahman which is
invisible and the universe which is visible. Brahman is the rope; the
visible universe is the snake. What appears as the universe is not really
the universe. When spiritual illumination takes place we will know that
what was there all the time was only brahman. Similarly in the example of
the mirage and water, the water appearance is only an illusion. What is
there in reality is only sand, no water. The dream of course is totally a
mental aberration, fully subjective and it vanishes the moment the person
wakes up.
The three analogies are not however just three analogies in place of one.
There is a gradation, says Ramana Maharishi. First it may be questioned,
with reference to the analogy of the rope and the snake that when the
lighting situation improves the appearance of the snake is no more there,
whereas, in the case of brahman versus universe, even after learning that
brahman is the substratum of truth, and the universe is only a
superimposition like the snake on the rope, we still continue to see the
universe; it has not disappeared! For this the Maharishi wants you to go
to the analogy of the mirage. Once you understand it is the mirage and no
watershed, the appearance of water is no more there. But now there is
another objection. ‘Even after knowing that there is only brahman and the
universe is only an appearance, one gets certain wants fulfilled from this
appearance of a universe: one gets one’s hunger satisfied, thirst quenched
and so on. But the water in the mirage does not quench one’s thirst; so to
that extent the analogy is inappropriate’. The analogy of the dream meets
this objection, says the Maharishi. The dreamer has his thirst quenched in
the dream. The thirst itself is a dream thirst and it is quenched by
drinking (dream) water in the dream; so also the wants that one feels in
this universe like hunger and thirst are also quenched by corresponding
objects in this universe. Thus in this sense the analogy of the dream is
reasonably perfect. Maybe that is why Sankara uses the analogy of the
dream so emphatically to describe the reality or unreality of the
In advaita the concept of reality is always comparative. Relative to
materials things made out of the materials are unreal. In other words if a
bucket is made out of plastic, the bucket is unreal relative to the
plastic. It is the cause that is ‘more real’ than the effect. The cause of
the world versus the world itself gives us a comparison about their
relative reality. When we say that the universe is unreal, we mean that IT
order to explain this relative unreality the theory of superimposition is
meticulously worked out by Sankara. While the snake is superimposed on the
rope, the rope undergoes no aberration or modification in the process. It
is the same rope all the time. What appears to you is only in your mind.
The visible universe is just a perishable (kShara) superimposition on
brahman. Brahman does not undergo any change in the process. All the time
brahman remains as brahman, the imperishable (akShara) substratum. This is
where the nirguNa  (attributeless) character  of brahman is effectively
applied by Sankara to his explanation of this mysterious relationship.
This phenomenon of brahman not being visible but something else, the
universe,  being visible, is exactly what the term ‘mAyA’ means. It does
two things. It hides brahman from you. Simultaneously it projects the
universe to you. The declaration that this is what is happening comes
forth from the Lord Himself in Gita IX – 5, 6. ‘Everything that is
perceptible is pervaded and permeated by Me, who is unmanifested. All the
beings are established in Me but not I in them; they are not in Me either,
this is my divine yoga.’. He remains unmanifested while what is visible is
basically a permeation by him. While he remains unchanged, and
imperceptible, the universe is what is perceptible. Everything visible is
supported by Him as the only substratum, whereas He Himself is not
supported by anything. He is His own support. The snake appears on the
rope, the rope does not undergo any change, but the snake is supported by
the rope, (meaning, without the rope there is no snake). But in reality
the snake was never there and so it is also true to say that the snake is
not in the rope. To the question: Where is the snake?, the answer is: it
is in the rope. To the question, Is the snake there?, the answer is, there
is no snake, the snake was never in the rope. It is in this strain that
the Lord gives out, almost in the same breath, what appears to be two
contradictory statements. Everything is in Me; and nothing is in Me. This
is the cosmic mystery of the existence of the Universe. It is and is not –
sad-asad-vilakshaNa, mAyA!

praNAms to all seekers of spirituality.

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