One of the main ideas of the Advaita Vedanta school of thought is that “the world is Maya”, and commonly, especially in the West, “Maya” has been translated as “illusion”. This is not a fully correct translation, and I will try to explain in this post some nuances of the meaning and why the translation is misleading.
This is my understanding, hope I am corrected if there is something wrong. Maya is one of the key concepts in Advaita Vedanta, and many pages of analysis have been written on it. So this is just a humble approach to a vast and almost unfathomable concept:
What is Maya? In one of the Puranas, is told that once the Maharishi Narada asked Lord Vishnu about the nature of Maya. They were walking in a desert, and Lord Vishnu asked Narada to fetch some drinking water, so Narada entered into a village and knocked at the door of a house. The door was opened by such a beautiful girl that Narada forgot about the water. He started a conversation with the girl and fell so much in love with her that he proposed the girl´s father for her daughter to get married to him.
They got married, and had three children. Twelve years had passed. One day, there was a flood by the river, and he was trying to save his whole family: with one hand he was trying to hold his wife, and with the other, two of the children, the third one over his shoulders. But the current was so strong that swept away one by one all his beloved ones, the last one, his beloved wife. In deep mourning and desperation, suddenly he heard a voice, “My dear child, where is my water?”…Narada responded: “How can you ask me for water now? Don´t you see that I´ve lost my entire family?”, Lord Vishnu told him: “think ,where did your family come from?. From me, I am the only unchanging and eternal truth in the Universe. But, ´´you got enchanted by the world and my creation and took it as the ultimate truth, not realising that it is a mirage, and forgetting about Me, the One and Only eternal.´´ What for you was the passage of twelve years, for me it has been only half an hour. Your perspective according to which this world is the all in all, is Maya.“.
In this story, it is important to keep in mind that Lord Vishnu that is a form of Brahman(m), CREATED the whole events, that come all out of Him. Likewise the whole creation is an extension of Brahman of His 0wn substance as it is said that the spider creates from its own substance the web. And likewise the whole Maya displays from Brahman only.
The point is that Maya SHOULD NOT be translated as a mere illusion. We need the help here of another sanskrit “non- translatable” term. Maya is Mithya, Mithya is that which doesn´t have an independent reality by itself. Maya as this world (universe) is to Brahman the only reality like milk is to whiteness: milk cannot exist without its whiteness, but whiteness perfectly exists by itself. It is not possible to remove the whiteness from the milk. Milk would disappear. Or removing the gold from a golden ring; ring would not exist anymore. As the nature of a golden ring is the gold, the inner nature of the whole existence of this World is Brahman.
The example often given, the wave cannot exist without the Ocean, though the Ocean exists even when there are no waves.
This world is illusory only in the sense that it owes its existence only to Brahman. Was it not for the Divine permeating everything and all, the world would not exist. Because Maya is the active Shakti of Brahman. But the world by itself has only a relative existence, limited by time and space, and having therefore a beginning and an end and certain dimensions. In this sense it is also Maya “relative” and not absolute. Maya has the fabric of the dreams: while we are dreaming, everything seems to us so real, because WHILE WE ARE sleeping if we dream, we cry, laugh, suffer and enjoy, and feel it as completely truth. But when we wake up, we realise that it was not true. “Brahmam satyam, jagat mithya”, Brahman is the Truth, the world is Mithya.
This is what it is explained by the seers;
Only from the viewpoint of an enlightened being, at that level of understanding and experiencing the life, one can SEE that the world is like a dream, only existing as something relative, not final and not absolute. Only THAT which is eternal, not limited by time or space and therefore infinite, can be considered as Ultimate Truth. Therefore, only Brahman is True, All the rest is Maya.
But while we are sleeping spiritually speaking, we should not dare to consider this world as a dream, because this would lead to a lack of commitment with life, wasting the opportunity that is given to us to progress by the teachings that life has there for us and by what we are supposed to do in every life.
However, it is good to keep in mind that the reality of this world is only relative, in the explained sense, till we can experience it by ourselves when we wake up to our true nature. Because this knowledge will help us to develop samata in life, equanimity, and this will provide an acceptance of the events as the Highest Reality in us is unaffected by the dream. Never forgetting to act, whenever it is required, always with the proper detachment to the fruits of the actions, as Lord Krishna has taught us in the Bhagavad Gita.
– Taking the relative (limited by time and space) as absolute (infinite and eternal), this is Maya. Then, living a materialistic life without any spiritual perspective is the result of being absolutely trapped by Maya.
– While we are sleeping is better that we live the dream fully with the involvement required but with the detachment that we can get from a higher perspective of the relativity of the “reality” of this world. Meanwhile, if we want to progress spiritually, we should acknowledge the pervasiveness of Brahman in the whole existence, and put ourselves in the disposition to experience this Truth that has been experienced by so many enlightened beings before, starting for the Rishis of yore, who reached to the highest levels of understanding and left the sacred Vedas for us and specifically the Upanishads (the last part of the Vedas that deal with the philosophical questions) as a guide towards the Ultimate.
– When we fully wake up spiritually, everything will drop by itself, and will take its proper proportions. A day will reach for all of us when we will experience that the Only truth is Brahman. That day, when all our veils of ignorance will fall down, we´ll get the liberation from this samsara, this mad circle of births and deaths and will live in the absolute truth of Brahman in us and everywhere. That spiritual ultimate height is called Moksha. It will be like a fine morning in which we wake up after a vivid dream, that was life till that very moment. But we don´t need to die to attain liberation. It is good to be alive and take life as an opportunity for progressing spiritually till the final aim.
When shall we experience that the fabric we are made of is Divinity? And when shall we realise that our divine nature IS WHAT HOLDS OUR EXISTENCE?
OM TAT SAT