A look into the concept that is Māyā and an exploration of its evolution.
The concept of Māyā was first developed around 3,000 years ago and now it is a key-component for religions like Buddhism. In parts of India it is common to hear people tease those in love as falling in the clutches of ‘Māyā’. When reading about yoga and meditation it is a term that always crops-up. So, what is Māyā?
If Gaudapada were here he would muse, “What isn’t Māyā?”, and he would love to argue his point. Māyā is a Hindu understanding that encompasses multiple meanings that draw lines between the real and unreal, the mortal and the immortal, the conscious and the unconscious and even the divine and the profane.
In addition to that, academically, we have come to understand Māyā as a core ideology of Hindu Traditions which envelopes the critical comprehension of illusion.
Maya and the Vedic era
Rewinding time to 1200 BCE teaches us that this idea of Māyā has had different roots. As mentioned earlier, the concept of Maya is over 3,000 years old and it first appeared in Vedic literature. The Rig Veda mentions Māyā at an estimated 70 times and studies of the ancient Vedic literature show that Maya was not understood as illusion rather it was commonly associated with might, power and supernatural abilities.
The verse above is from the 10th book of the Rig Vedas and is known as the Mayabheda. The Mayabheda is about the enigmatic nature of Maya and it explains this in multiple layers. For starters, the word ‘Bheda’ has multiple meanings which include dualism, disunion and contrasting, which lay a foundation for the nature of Maya. In the first line the word ‘Mayaya’ is used to describe the Asura’s magical abilities and this shows us the association of Maya with power, supernatural elements etc. The verse then builds on the nature of Maya by describing its grand and powerful nature. From this it is deductible that the Vedic period saw Maya as an intangible force that echoed divine abilities.
According to Sukumari Bhattacharji, author of The Indian Theogony:A comparative study of Indian Mythology from the Vedas to the Puranas, even other Vedic works express a connection between power and the concept of Maya. In the Rig Veda, Varuna’s role is empowered by his possession of supernatural wisdom of everything (Mayaya/ Asura Maya) and this allows him to be man and god, control all existence and bind everything. This is also what gave him the power to send rain showers, draughts etc. The Vedic corpus gives room to understand Maya as a mysterious element of the divine and the concept of Maya draws its strength from the unknown.
It is also important to note that the Vedas, in spite of incorporating Maya, did not place a high importance on the concept like it did with ideologies of Rta and Sarva.
Maya and the Upanishads
During the time-period between 800 and 200 BC the geographic location of India, like other Euro-Asian regions, experienced a metamorphosis on many levels. During this time period the Upanishads came into existence and the Vedic means of life underwent a slow demise as it fell prey to a larger framework of new thought.
The Upanishad era commenced with a frontal attack on, the then staple, Vedic traditions questioning the logic and reality of the Vedic way of living. The Upanishads embraced the uncertainty of life in a manner Vedic traditions could not and questioned concepts of existence and life after death.
The texts also known as the Vedanta, which when translated means ‘end’ of the ‘Vedas’, was pivotal in laying the foundations for modern day ‘Hindu’ traditions. Importantly, the perspective of Maya in the Upanishads serves as strong transition from the Vedic description of the term. In the Svetsara Upanishad there exists many thoughts of Maya and also, there is a