What Is Maya? | Maya Definition

māyā - माया

Cosmic illusion; literally, “the measurer.” Maya is the power in creation by which limitations and divisions seem to exist in the Oneness that is true reality. (1)

In the Vedic Scriptures

What is maya? According to Paramhansa Yogananda,  the ancient Vedic scriptures say that the physical world operates under one fundamental law of maya, the principle of relativity and duality. God in his absolute form is Complete Unity. The only way He can appear as the separate and diverse manifestations of creation is under the false or unreal veil of maya, or illusion. (2)

Clarifying maya‘s definition, Yogananda further states in Chapter 30 of the Autobiography of a Yogi:

That cosmic illusion is maya. Every great scientific discovery of modern times has served as a confirmation of this simple pronouncement of the rishis.

Newton’s Law of Motion is a law of maya: “To every action there is always an equal and contrary reaction; the mutual actions of any two bodies are always equal and oppositely directed.” Action and reaction are thus exactly equal. “To have a single force is impossible. There must be, and always is, a pair of forces equal and opposite.”

Fundamental natural activities all betray their mayic origin. Electricity, for example, is a phenomenon of repulsion and attraction; its electrons and protons are electrical opposites. Another example: the atom or final particle of matter is, like the earth itself, a magnet with positive and negative poles. The entire phenomenal world is under the inexorable sway of polarity; no law of physics, chemistry, or any other science is ever found free from inherent opposite or contrasted principles.

Physical science, then, cannot formulate laws outside of maya, the very texture and structure of creation. Nature herself is maya; natural science must perforce deal with her ineluctable quiddity. In her own domain, she is eternal and inexhaustible; future scientists can do no more than probe one aspect after another of her varied infinitude. Science thus remains in a perpetual flux, unable to reach finality; fit indeed to formulate the laws of an already existing and functioning cosmos, but powerless to detect the Law Framer and Sole Operator. The majestic manifestations of gravitation and electricity have become known, but what gravitation and electricity are, no mortal knoweth.

In Western Literature

The famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was fascinated with the concept of maya and wrote about it in his journals, aiding the definition of maya. In one of his journals he quotes from the Vedas, “the world is born of maya.” He also wrote a short poem called maya (or Maia):

Illusion works impenetrable,
Weaving webs innumerable,
Her gay pictures never fail,
Crowds each on other, veil on veil,
Charmer who will be believed
By Man who thirsts to be deceived. 

How Do We Free Ourselves from Maya?

Long concentration on the liberating spiritual eye has enabled the yogi to destroy all delusions concerning matter and its gravitational weight; thenceforth he sees the universe as an essentially undifferentiated mass of light.
—Paramhansa Yogananda

Freeing ourselves from maya is the essence of the spiritual path, regardless of which religion one belongs to. This is done through perfect stillness and concentration, which can be reached by prayer, the practice of a particular meditation technique, non-attachment, devotion, and many other practices.

Traditionally in the Hindu culture, devotees would seek to free themselves from maya through sacred rituals. However, Swami Kriyananda says that the practice of offering oblations into a sacrificial fire accompanied by Sanskrit mantras can help one to attain certain outward benefits, but that they cannot take one out of maya except to the extent that one’s practice of them is accompanied by the thought of self-offering.

On the other hand, he says that mental self-offering (offering the heart and mind) is the highest sacrifice, and does not need any external ritual. (3)

 Further Reading

  1. Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda. Chapter 5, “A ‘Perfume Saint’ Displays his Wonders.”
  2. International Journal of Literature and Arts. Emerson’s Passion for Indian Thought, Sardar M. Anwaruddin
  3. Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Kriyananda. Chapter 29, “The Nature of the Godly and the Demonic.”