Life is unimaginable without Goddess Maya but maya is not the goddess of illusion. Maya means illusion which in turn is defined as that thing which appears to be real but not real. In Sanskrit ‘maya’ means that which cannot be explained. In order to declare something to be real, it has to be experienced and it has to be explained. Illusion is available only for experience and cannot be explained. The illusion by a magician can be experienced but not explained. If that can be explained then, it is no longer an illusion.
‘Avidya maya’ represents dark forces of creation which keeps the human mind on the lower planes of consciousness. ‘Vidya maya’ represents higher forces of creation that elevate human beings to the higher planes of consciousness. These truths are difficult for a common man to understand. Therefore, these are presented in concrete forms as Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu religion. In the premises, Goddess Maya is the whole universe cutting across social, economic, political and religious paradigms.
PURUSHA-PRAKRUTHI: Brahman exists verily in two parts, on account of which, the two could become ‘husband and wife’. One Ultimate Reality which is of the nature of non-dual Existence – Consciousness became the cause of the universe of multiplicity. Since Brahman is the foundation on which Maya exists, to symbolize this factor Maya is described as the half-body of Lord Shiva. She is the consort of Shiva. Maya is also known as Shakthi or Prakrthi, energy or power. Shiva is the intelligent or spiritual cause of the universe. Maya is the material cause of the universe. It is Goddess Maya that helps humans to be perceptible. Together with Shakti and Prakriti, Goddess Maya makes the dominant combination of Mahamaya.
MAHAMAYA: Mahamaya is sometimes visualised as Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth but more in terms of Goddesses Kali and Durga. Kali and Durga are said to free man from ‘moha’ the grand illusion, which means infatuation of deep attachment with sense gratification and the material world. In the Hindu tradition, Goddess Maya is the maiden aspect of Kali and Mahamaya refers to Mayadevi, the personification of Maha Kali. Her mild form is Durga. She symbolises the ‘giver of awareness’ that maya is an addition to Reality; the covering power of illusion which creates the contradiction between ‘me’ and ‘mine’ or ‘thee’ and ‘thine’. Goddess Maya Shakti is the celestial power which brings out the evolution of the material world. This is made possible by a relationship of the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas.
BRAHMA SAMHITA: This is a Sanskrit Pancharatra text. It is composed of verses in the voice of Brahma glorifying Sri Krishna at the beginning of creation. It is revered by Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It is said that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu rediscovered 62 verses of Chapter 5 at the Adikeshav Temple in Thiruvattur, Kerala.
Verse 5.43-44: Vaishnavites view the ultimate Goddess as Radha or Lakshmi, the consorts of Krishna and Vishnu respectively. Durga is the goddess of material creation, though she is also known as Kali, Uma, Parvathi etc with various incarnations and moods. She is also Mother Earth, known as ‘Bhu’ and the personified form of the Lord’s energy; when manifesting as spiritual energy, she is called Yoga Maya; when her darker side is unleased, she is known as Bhadra, Bhadra Kali or Maha Maya, illusion personified.
The Brahma Samhita Verse 5.43 explains that the material world is her central avenue of concern – the venue for her service. There are 4 levels of existence contextualising Durga’s place in the Lord’s creation. (i) Krishna’s own abode, Gokula-dham, the most profound manifestation of the Kingdom of God. (ii) Just below that is Hari-dham or Vailuntha, the dwelling of Vishnu – this is still the spiritual realm, but not quite as high as Krishna’s original abode. (iii) Lower in spiritual geography is Mahesh-dham, the dwelling place of Shiva and his devotees, and (iv) finally, there is Devi-dham, the material world, where the Goddess Mother – Mother of the universe exerts her control.
Now, Devi-dham consists of 14 divisions of planetary systems, which make up our visible cosmos. The Brahma-Samhita Verse 5.44 states the following about the Goddess: “The Lord’s external potency, Maya, who is by nature a shadow of the spiritual potency, is worshipped by all people as Durga – the creating, preserving, and destroying agency of this mundane world. I adore the primeval Lord Govinda – Krishna, in accordance with whose will Durga conducts herself”
Therefore, Verse 5.44, identifies Durga as the presiding deity of Devi-dham, a goddess whose physical appearance is both frightening and symbolic. She is often depicted with ten arms that represent ten kinds of fruitive activities. She rides on a ferocious lion signifying her heroism, and is popularly known for trampling Mahishasura – a buffalo demon that is said to represent all vices and ego. Durga is the wife of Shiva. She has two sons, Kartikeya and Ganesh, who are embodiments of beauty and success, respectively. She holds a snake that evokes destructive time, and holds twenty diverse weapons, each representing various pious activities in the Vedas to suppress vices.
Durga incarnates in many forms. Although these manifestations, such as Kali and Uma are worshipped as distinct deities with specific characteristics, they are nonetheless aspects of the same Goddess. The term Goddess here refers to several overlapping feminine divinities – Durga, Kali, Mahadevi, Mayamaya etc.
As Shiva’s consort, Durga has various names: Parvathi, Gauri, Uma, Devi, Bhavani etc. Her characteristics are diverse and manifest differently, depending on the aspect her devotees. More intense still is her alter-ego, Kali who is the beneficiary of blood sacrificial offerings.
The Goddess is identified as Prakrithi – material nature and Maya – Illusion. Indeed, two of her more popular names are Mulaprakriti – the embodiment of primordial matter and ‘Maha-Maya – the great illusion. This is significant. Lord Krishna in the Gita 9.10 states “The material energy – prakriti is working under my direction, O son Kunti, and is producing all moving and non-moving beings. Prakriti is Durga, and Krishna controls her by giving her direction. When one doesn’t acknowledge that, Durga becomes Maha-Maya – the Great Illusion.
SHAKTISM AND MAYA: It is to be noted, the above from Brahma Samhita, is all from a Vaishnivite point of view. In Shaktism, the Mother Goddess, stands on her own as the Supreme Feminine Godhead. Shaktam goes back to pre-Vedic times and is the subject of many Puranic stories as well. While Shaktas claim the Goddess is Supreme, others claim her to be some sort of mediatrix, a vehicle to reach the ultimate masculine deity, very much what Lakshmi is in the Vaishnavite tradition. It is also to be noted that in Vaishnavism the feminine divine is exalted above the male counterpart. In this sense, mother worship in Vaishnivism also views itself as a form of Shaktism in which ‘higher feminine powers are given their due'. This is irrespective of the fact that Vaishnavism views Shakti as Shiva’s wife and not Mother Goddess of the Shakta cult.
DEVI MAHATMYA Chps 81-94 of the Markendeya Purana: Devi Mahatmyam is also known as Durga Saptashati or Saptashati Chandi. ‘Candika’ is the ‘violent and impetuous one’. It has 700 verses arranged in 13 chapters. It is seen as an attempt to unify Vedic male pantheon with pre-existing Mother Goddess Cult and define Divinity as Female principle. It is the testament of Shakta doctrine. Although Siva is known in Devi Mahatmya, the Goddess bears no special relationship to him or anyone other than Her own devotees. As Shakti, She is also beyond the realms of being a consort to anyone.
The Devi Mahatmya is told as three stories by the Sage Markandeya to Sage Baguri. Briefly King Suradha is driven out of his kingdom. In the forests he meets Vyasa, a businessman. It becomes apparent that his own people have engineered the ploy. This is unnatural so they end up meeting sage Sumedhas in the forest. He explains that all this is the illusion created by the great Goddess Vishnya Maya. They become interested in knowing this Maya Goddess. The stories are than told by Sumedhas. In all 3 episodes, Devi manifest to annihilate the enemies of God or is an agent thereof. 1st story – Devi is central to the myth, the power that induces Vishnu to slumber. Brahma sings to the great goddess to withdraw so that Vishnu could slay the demons. 2nd story – Durga slays Mahishsura. 3rd story – Kali encounters Raktabija.
NARADA AND MAYA: Devi Bhagawat Purana narrates an incident where Narada desires to know from Lord Vishnu the secret of Maya. The Lords leads him to a lake and Narada found himself transformed into a female and forgot who he really was. He marries King Taladhbaj and gave birth to children. While he was taking pride in his children, Vishnu dispelled this illusion and brought Narada back to the realm of reality. Thus Narada learns the power of Maya over man.
In another story, Narada asks Krishna about maya. “Maya cannot be explained; it has to be understood” says the Lord. They walk looking for water as their throats were parched. ‘Fetch me some water’ says Krishna. Narada walks until he reaches a settlement only to see a pretty girl near a well. She is the chieftain’s daughter. He gets a drink from her and follows her to the house only to ask for her hands in marriage. The pre-nupital is agreed for Narada to be a resident son-in-law. The chieftain dies. Narada has four children so on so forth. One day, they were faced with flood disaster. Narada puts everyone in a boat against the swirling waters. A giant wave capsizes the boat and swallows his family. He is so distressed..... ”Narada, where is the water?”...Narada wakes up, “my children, my wife, save them Krishna”he says. “Come to your senses Narada....it is all an illusion” said the Lord.
UPANISHAD: Svetasvataropanishad 4.10: Know that Nature- Prakriti is Maya and that the great God is the Lord of Maya. The whole world is filled with beings who form His Parts; Brhandaranayaka Upanishad 2.5.19: The Lord on account of Maya is perceived as manifold.
GITA 18.61: The Lord dwells in the hearts of all beings, O Arjuna, causing all beings, by His illusive power, Maya, to resolve as if mounted on a machine.
ADI SHANKARACHARYA: ‘Brahma satyam jagat mithiya, jivo brahmaiva naparah’ – Brahman is the only truth, the world is unreal, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and the individual self. This is one of the Mahavakyas. In Advaita, Brahman is the Cosmic Spirit veiled by maya. Barhman is satyam, truth. Since Brahman is the only truth, maya is true but not the truth. What is true is true for now, while the Truth is Truth forever. Since maya causes the material world to be seen, it is true in itself but untrue in comparison with the Absolute Truth. As such, reality includes both maya and Brahman. Saying this metaphorically, when the reflection of Brahman falls on maya, Brahman appears as God. Where the duality of the world is regarded as true, maya becomes the divine magical power of the Supreme Lord. Maya cannot exist independent of Brahman.
Vivekachudaamani Verse 110: Maya can be destroyed by the realisation of pure Brahman, the one without a second, just as the mistaken idea of a snake is removed by the discrimination of the rope. She has her gunas as rajas, tamas and sattva.
SWAMI VIVEKANANDA: “The world has no existence – what does this statement means? It means that it has no absolute existence. It exists only in relation to my mind and to the mind of everyone else. We see this world with the five senses but if we had another sense, we would see in it something more. If we had yet another sense, it would appear as something different. It has therefore, no real existence; it has no unchangeable, immovable, infinite existence. Nor can it be called non-existence, seeing that it exists, and we have to work in and through it. It is a mixture of existence and non-existence. We find that Maya is not a theory for the explanation of the world; it is simply a statement of facts as they exists, that the very basis of our beings is a contradiction, that everywhere we have to move through this tremendous contradiction, that there is good and there is also evil, wherever there is life, death must follow as its shadow, and everyone who smiles will have to weep and vice-versa....”