The theory of Maya is found both in the Upanishads and in the writings of Shankara

Let us consider the theory of Maya and the reasons for which it is held so important in the Vedanta of Shri Shankara. A famous Western scholar, Gough, says: “The theory of Maya which enunciates the unreality of Jivahood and Jagat, is the vital life of the ancient Indian philosophy”. Shri Shankara has extracted the theory from the Upanishads and it occupies a prominent position in his system. Some people think that Shri Shankara himself is the author of Mayavada. But the act is that the theory of Maya is found both in the Upanishads and in the writings of the great Shankara. Let us consider the question deeply. We have already indicated that in the Upanishads the word “Shrishti” (creation) is considered an element or part of Brahman and attempts are made to explain it in this sense; but it does not mean the rise of the reality of the world. In the unmanifest form the world abides in Brahman for ever, but when it comes into manifestation it is called the world. Our intellect which is itself included in the creation of the world cannot know the secret of it. How can a son know anything about the birth of his parents?

The limit of the power of our knowledge is not the limit of Truth. The existence of the world in the non-manifest form of Brahman does not denote the reality of it.

Professor Gough and others have quoted many texts from the Upanishads in support of the doctrine of Maya. They ‘ all refer to the creative power of Ishvara and the ignorance which envelops the Jiva. In the Isha Upanishad and the Chandogya Upanishad the words ‘Tamas’ (darkness) and ‘Avidya’ (the veiling power) indicate only the intellectual doctrine of Maya. It is true that Maya is a veiling power which conceals the truth from our sight, “but it is located in our own individual condition and our limited state; it does not touch the spiritual Reality. The word ‘Asat’ (unreal), used by Shri Shankaracharya in his commentaries on the Taittiriya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads, means the world as name and form and does not indicate the unreality of the spiritual principle. The holy Acharya negates duality and does not postulate anything else by the word ‘Avidya’. He says that the effect is not different from the cause. The meaning is clear from the writings of the holy Acharya that Jagat is not different from Brahman, of which it is the effect.

Shri Shankara in his commentary on the Katha Upanishad (2.1.20.) says that Atman is said to be the only reality in the sense that, apart from Atman, there is no other existence; everything exists by being inseparably existent with Atman. The holy Acharya uses the word Maya in the sense “this Brahman which appears as Sansara”, which means that in Brahman there is no difference between the existence of Jagat and the existence of Self. Commenting on the well-known Shruti: As the spider creates the web out of itself….” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 6.10.), the holy Acharya says: “As the spider, without depending on any source other than Self, creates the web out of its own body, similarly Ishvara creates the world of name and form out of his own Self and nothing else”. He further says that name and form have no existence other than the existence of Ishvara. This is the real meaning of the word ‘Bflithya’ or unreality. The word ‘Maya’ is also used in the ethical sense, meaning crookedness of conduct. This is explained in the commentary on the Prashna Upanishad.

In the Mandukya Karika of Shri Gaudapada “Maya” means the unreality of the world (Karikas 2.12.). In the Svetasvatara Upanishad (4.10.) which is in the later group of the classical Upanishads, “Maya” is used as meaning the creative power of Ishvara. Ishvara is called “Mayin” (the Lord of Maya). The theory of Shankara is based mostly on the conception of the Svetasvatara Upanishad. He stresses not so much the unreality of the world as the immutability of Ishvara. We have shown that the world is inseparable from and not a mutable effect of the God-Principle. The theory of Maya is better explained in Shri Shankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads than in the Karikas of Gaudapada. Apart from the latter, the word “Maya” is nowhere else used in a more or less nihilistic sense.


Index for this series of essays

1.Introduction : Limitations make Reality appear what it is not

2.Preliminary Observations : ”Darshana” means the search after the ultimate truth of life in the world

3.Brahman as the cause of the world : According to Vedanta, Brahman is the highest truth

4.The Jiva : Shri Shankara gives no hint as to the birth of the Jiva

5.Advaita : There is no other existence apart from the existence of Self (Atman)

6.Maya : The theory of Maya is found both in the Upanishads and in the writings of Shankara

7.Theory and Practice : Vedanta can he learned only by practice

8.The help of a Guru is needed : The real essence of Shruti is the great experience of the Sage

9.The function of Reason : Realised experience alone is the highest proof in determining the nature of Self

10.Contemplation (Niddhidhyasana) : Sat-Chit-Ananda is an experience of the Self and not of the mind

11.Renunciation (Sannyasa) : In the philosophy of Shri Shankara, the highest good is Moksha

12.Moral virtues : Ethical living according to Dharma makes the spiritual experience easier

13.The Personal God (Ishvara) : In Vedanta, devotion to God is the greatest instrument of spiritual cognition

14.Release (Moksha) : According to the Advaita Vedanta of Shri Shankara, release (Moksha) is eternally true.

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