mAyA and Ishvara – Q.325

Q: My understanding of  original consciousness, mAyA, Ishvara is follows:

. Ishvara is the reflected conscious.
. mAyA( shudha satva prakRRiti) is the reflecting medium of original consciousness-Brahman.
. Ishvara controls or has full control over mAyA.

 My question is how can the reflection (Ishvara) have control over the reflecting medium, mAyA? For example, if I see myself in a mirror how can my reflection (image) control the reflecting medium, the mirror?

 Please let me know whether my understanding is correct and throw some light on this.

 A (Ramesam): As you may be well aware, the main thrust of “teaching” adopted within the Advaita philosophical system goes towards pointing out one’s mis-directed worldview and reorientating his/her view towards Reality which is Absolute, Immutable and Attributeless. 

 Ordinary folk on the street believe that there is a ‘me’ confined and contracted within ‘my body-mind’ and a ‘world’ exists out there external to a ‘me’ which is inside. Similarly, they believe in the reality of the body because of the sensations and the existence of a mind because of the thoughts and images. The falsity of this belief structure and the illusory nature of the objective world (including all percepts – world, body and mind) have to be convincingly conveyed to the spiritual aspirant.

 Several approaches are adopted by a teacher towards that end depending on the mental makeup and attitude of the inquirer. None, absolutely no one of these methodologies adopted by a teacher have unqualified validity or unquestionable sanctity. All these devices have to be ultimately discarded once the final understanding is attained.

 For one who starts with a belief in the perceived creation, the model of Eswara, maya and reflected Consciousness is given as a first approximation. In this model, it is visualized that the attributeless unchanging Brahman (= original Consciousness) appears as the illusory ‘self’ which is comparable to a virtual image (reflection) seen in a mirror. The name given to the very first virtual image appearing is Eswara who is pure satva with a very very little amount of other gunas. Eswara is said to be the cause for the subsequent multiplicity (i.e. created world). When once you begin to believe in this model of creation, you will naturally get two doubts. By what powers does Eswara create the world and how does the world get controlled and managed?

 Just like the saying — if you lie once, you are bound to lie  a hundred times to protect yourself –goes, you have to fabricate further fiction to answer the above two doubts.

 So the teacher talks of an inexplicable power of Eswara to explain his ability to create. This power is named ‘maya.’ By giving just a name, it does not mean that there is something real and tangible called maya on which you can put your finger. It has to be taken merely as an explanatory artifact.

Because the created world is illusory (like the virtual image in the mirror) and because it has emanated as an effect of ‘maya’, the reflected image (world) is also sometimes referred to as maya. So the word ‘maya’ connotes both the ‘power’ of the Creator, Eswara, and the ‘world’ which is the result of His creation.

 Now what is it that corresponds to a mirror, the reflecting medium, in this whole game?

The honest answer is “none.”

Why so? In this entire analogy, nobody is talking of an actual reflection taking place. The comparison is only to the “virtual” nature of a reflected image in a mirror. You see big mountains and houses and plants in the mirror. Are there really mountains and houses and plants in or behind the reflecting surface of the mirror?  If they are not there, how come they appear as if they are there behind the mirror, the reflecting medium?

 The metaphor used tries to convey the “unreality” of the world by comparing to the “unreal” quality of a reflected image. So do not worry about where is the mirror placed, what sort of mirror it is and what is controlling the mirror. Focus only on the “unreality” aspect of the image.

 Therefore, your question on how Eswara, who is a reflection, controls the medium (mirror) does not arise.

 Incidentally, maya is not the reflecting medium. You can imagine it to be something like an ‘operator’ in a mathematical equation. Suppose you say,

x + y = z                                                                                  –1.

Correspondingly, you can write the equation,

Brahman maya thought = Eswara                                          –2.

Eswara maya thought = world                                                –3.

 What has happened to “+” when you move to the right side in the equation (1)? Which member is controlling it? The role and significance of ‘maya’  in equations (2 and 3) is like “+” in the equation (1).

 In Vedanta, all similes used are said to be “ekadesIya” – i.e. they are specific to a point being illustrated. You will lose the meaning and purpose if you stretch it or extend beyond the specific point under illustration. Hence, the moral of the story is: do not mix the similes or extend them beyond the point being discussed at that level.

 A (Peter): Your understanding of these terms is not right, which is why there is confusion.

 Hopefully, the following clarification of terms will help:

 There is only one non-dual Brahman inseparably endowed with the potential to manifest – as the sun is inseparably endowed with the power of illumination and fire is inseparably endowed with the power to heat.

 Brahman’s inseparable potential to manifest is called māyā. The other name for māyā is prakṛti.

 Māyā or prakṛti is the name for the universe in an undifferentiated and unmanifest form (like a seed is a tree in an undifferentiated and unmanifest form, or the stillness of water is a wave in an unmanifest and undifferentiated form).

 From the perspective of the manifest universe, Brahman with its potential to manifest is called Īśvara. It is merely a name, not a different character. Another name for Īśvara is saguṇa Brahma.

 From the perspective of Brahman there is no controller, no reflection, no medium! There is only the Reality that is either manifest – when it gets the name ‘universe’ (jagat) – or unmanifest – when it gets the name Īśvara.

 Analogies like mirror, reflection etc must be considered in the context in which they have been raised and cannot be stretched to make general points. For example, what we see when we see an opaque object is reflected light. What is the difference between light and reflected light? None. It is only give the term ‘reflected’ from the perspective of the seen object. Light is light. It is either manifest (when there is a manifesting medium like an opaque object) or it is unmanifest.

 Hope this clears any vagueness or doubts.

A (Dennis): The main thing you have to understand is that, in reality, there is only brahman – brahman is all there is. All the teaching is aimed at providing this understanding. Along the way, however, it also has to provide interim explanations for the way things seem to be. Once you have the ‘final understanding’ (i.e. Self-realization, enlightenment or mokSha), you can drop ALL of the teaching as being mithyA. Ishvara is saguNa brahman – brahman in the ‘guise’ of creator of the universe. mAyA is the term used to ‘explain’ how Ishvara accomplishes this. Of course, it explains nothing – mAyA effectively means ‘magic’! I don’t think I have come across Ishvara being referred to as a ‘reflection’ or mAyA as a ‘reflecting medium’. Maybe you are confusing this with the concept of chidAbhAsa? (See—An-Examination-of-chidAbhAsa.ashx for an essay on this.) Ishvara is brahman ‘with attributes’ and those attributes include such things as all-knowing, all-powerful etc. I.e. Ishvara is certainly not an inert reflection! Maybe you can provide a source for the teaching you claim? If not, I would forget it and assume you were mistaken.


8 thoughts on “mAyA and Ishvara – Q.325

  1. Bhagavān Śrī Kṛṣṇa says in the 4th Chapter 6th verse “Keeping my Māyā under My control, I become one who as though has a body”. So the questioner is right in his understanding that Īśvarā has full control over Māyā. In fact that is the key difference between a Jīva and Īśvarā. In the case of Jīva, individual, his avidyā (ignorance) conceals his true nature; however in the case of Īśvara, Māyā is under his control and does not cover his nature. How come?

    I quote Swāmi Dayānanda Saraswati here from his commentary on this verse – “Krsna tells Arjuna here that, as Isvara, he keeps the maya under his control. His powers, the gyāna-śakti, the power to know, the kriya-śakti, the power to do, and the iccha-śakti, the power to desire, are all under his control and are not limited in any way. Since his power to know is without limitation, he does not require an antahkarana, a mind, to know. Without the mind, he has all knowledge. All-knowledge, omniscience, cannot depend upon a given mind because any mind will have some limitation. Furthermore, the mind itself is a creation and, before creating it, the Lord must have knowledge. Therefore, no mind is required by Isvara. The very maya itself makes him omniscient. He is called Parameśvara and this Parameśvara alone becomes the world. This is the maya, the trick of it all.”

    Understanding Īśvara thus is very important. At the pāramārthika level, I am Brahman and Brahman alone is. At the vyāvahārika level, one has to understand Īśvara is everything; and that’s why Krsna calls a gyāni as the highest of the 4 bhaktas (Verses 7.16, 7.17 Bhagavad Gītā).

    Pāramārthika is only for understanding, and even after understanding it, one continue’s in Vyāvahārikā until videha mukti (death). A jīvanmukta, remains in the world as a Bhakta, seeing everything as Īśvara.

    God does come as Avatārā (incarnation) in Vyāvahārikā (BG 4.07). God’s grace is also true in Vyāvahārikā.

    A Jīvanmukta is the highest of all Bhaktās.

  2. Thank you Śuka for this addition to the discussion. It made me look back at the original question and Dennis’s link to the piece on cidābhāsa and see that one more thing needs to be added: the term ‘reflected consciousness’ as a translation of cidābhāsais a key culprit that causes confusion.

    Swami Dayanadaji tends to avoid translating cidābhāsa as ‘reflected consciousness’ and prefers ‘manifest consciousness’. Just as ‘reflected light’ which causes an opaque object to be seen is nothing more than a manifestation of pure light, the object being the manifesting medium.

    Consciousness is either unmanifest as Īśvara or manifest as the cosmos. When we say that Īśvara is manifest we mean that the total universal law and order (Īśvara, the Lord, in religious terms) is what we experience as the world. It is pure knowledge made manifest.

    Māyā is the Brahman’s potential to manifest poised in an undifferentiated and unmanifest state prior to manifestation. In this state three powers of knowledge (jñāna śakti), action (krīyā śakti) and materialisation (dravya dravya) are ‘under control’: i.e. unmanifest and undifferentiated.

    This state of satyam, jñānam and anantam ‘under control’ as unmanifest and undifferentiated jñāna, krīyā and dravya dravya is called Īśvara, the Lord, the total natural universal law and order. When manifest it is either called jagat, cosmos, (experienced as jñāna śakti together with krīyā and iccha śakti-s) or you can say it is a ‘reflection’/manifestation of Īśvara.

    • Dear Sitara

      Apologies for packing my response so tightly: I keep forgetting that there is no way to give binary answers to binary questions if a lot of background basics have not been covered. So I hope the unpacking below does the trick.

      1. After reading the responses of others I could see that there was another way of responding to the question by addressing the misunderstandings at the heart of the confusion. Three key ideas are the source of the confusion (i) the term ‘original consciousness’ in the opening sentence (ii) the term ‘reflected consciousness’ in the statement ‘Īśvara is the reflected consciousness’, and (ii) the term ‘control’ in the statement ‘Īśvara controls mAyA’.

      2. The easiest misunderstanding to resolve is the distinction between ‘original consciousness’ and ‘reflected consciousness’: there is NO difference. To explain this we are given the analogy of light. Any opaque object is seen because it reflects light. One can say that the light reaching our eyes from the object is ‘reflected light’. But what is the difference between ‘reflected light’ and ‘original light’? There is no difference: light is light. ‘Reflected light’ is merely the name given to ‘original light’ seen together with a reflecting medium (the object). In the same way, ‘reflected consciousness’ is the name given to ‘original consciousness’ seen together with the reflecting medium of the perceptible gross and subtle universe. ‘Original consciousness’ is given the name Brahman.

      3. Secondly, a number of problems arise from the use of the term ‘reflected consciousness’ – like imagining mirrors with something in front and something reflected, etc – which is why teachers like Swami Dayanandaji and my own teacher Swamini Atmaprakasanandaji use the term ‘manifest consciousness’ instead. ‘Original consciousness’, like ‘original light’, is unmanifest. Only when it is associated with the manifesting medium of names and forms can we become aware of it. So consciousness is either manifest or unmanifest. What we see when we see the universe is ‘manifest consciousness’. When we say, ‘The tree is’, the word ‘is’ indicates consciousness (Brahman), which is made manifest by association with the name and form ‘tree’. Without this association consciousness (Brahman) is unmanifest.

      4. So the phrase, ‘Īśvara is the reflected consciousness’, is a shorthand way to indicate that Īśvara is the name given to consciousness (satyam-jñānam-anantam Brahman) associated with the manifest form of the universe. More strictly, Īśvara is the name given to consciousness (Brahman) associated with the unmanifest form of the universe. The name given to the unmanifest form of the universe is māyā. So Īśvara is the name for consciousness (Brahman) associated with māyā. We can understand Īśvara as the total universal natural law and order poised for manifestation.

      5. Two things need clearing at this point: what is meant by ‘consciousness (Brahman) associated with māyā’? And what is māyā? Brahman is associated with māyā as the sun is associated with its inseparable power to illumine, and fire with its inseparable power to heat, or water with its power to wet. This is not a possessor-possessed association: Brahman does not possess māyā. Māyā is Brahman’s inseparable potential to manifest. Another way of saying this same thing is: Māyā is the inseparable potential of consciousness to manifest.

      6. NOTE: there aren’t two things, Brahman and māyā. Māyā has no independent existence outside Brahman, it is ‘as though’ existent, mithyā. And, being mithyā, it can be resolved back into that on which it is dependent, namely, consciousness (Brahman). Ultimately there is only consciousness in truth. Of even more importance is to note that there are not three separate entities either: Brahman, Īśvara and māyā. There is only one, non-dual, secondless Brahman.

      7. The step before full manifestation can be imagined as Brahman poised for manifestation: i.e. Brahman (pure existence-consciousness) together with its potential to become manifest (māyā śhakti). An analogy that is useful is of undisturbed water: i.e. water with its potential to manifest in the form of waves, ripples, etc. This potential is the stillness of water.

      8. Undifferentiated and unmanifest in this stillness of water are countless waves, ripples, breakers, foam, etc. Only when the stillness is disturbed do these become manifest. Stillness of water can thus be seen as unmanifest waves, ripples, etc.

      9. Similarly māyā is the unmanifest form of the universe: three undifferentiated and unmanifest powers of knowledge, action, and materialisation (jñāna, krīyā and dravya śakti-s). In this poised state māyā can be described as being ‘under control’ as there is no movement, no manifestation, no differentiation.

      10. So finally all the concepts in the question come together: The perceptible universe can be described as Īśvara manifest, i.e. the power of consciousness made manifest (not ‘reflected consciousness’). And Īśvara, poised immediately prior to manifestation, is consciousness (Brahman) ‘together with’ its manifesting power (māyā) under control, i.e. undifferentiated and unmanifest. Īśvara is consciousness with māyā under control.

      11. When the equipoise of māyā is ‘disturbed’ (due to universal prārabdha) the three undifferentiated and unmanifest powers (jñāna, krīyā and dravya śakti-s) become manifest as the three guṇa-s (sattva, rajas and tamas), which combine in different proportions to form the primordial elements, which themselves re-combine to manifest as the subtle and gross universe of names and forms. Pervading all this changeable roll-out is the changeless consciousness Brahman.

      • Dear Peter,

        As usual your explanations are mainly excellent. I did find your point 2 slightly misleading however, although I understand what you are getting at. You seem to be saying that the bimba (original) and the pratibimba (reflection) are the same. This is not so as I understand it. The quality of the reflection depends upon that of the reflecting medium. Muddy water does not give a clear reflection etc. Moreover, the reflection disappears when the medium is destroyed, whereas the original is unaffected. My article on chidAbhAsa goes into this—An-Examination-of-chidAbhAsa.ashx. It is ignorance which leads us to think that we are the reflection when we are really the original. Rectification of this mistake is enlightenment.

        • Dear Dennis,
          ‘Reflected consciousness’ is ‘pure consciousness’ ‘mixed with’ name and form of the reflecting medium, just as reflected light is pure light ‘mixed with’ the opaque object that reflects it. Once separated from names and forms there is no difference between pure and reflected consciousness. There is only consciousness and names ‘pure’ and ‘reflected’ are only to indicate whether it is manifest or not. Without the manifesting medium of name and form (with which, as you rightly point out, it it becomes entangled due to ignorance) consciousness is unmanifest. That’s why Swami Dayananda prefers the term ‘manifest consciousness’ instead of ‘reflected consciousness’. There is only one consciousness: either manifest or unmanifest (or pure and reflected if you prefer – as long as you appreciate the similarity).

  3. And there’s one more point worth making: consciousness can never be tainted or distorted by the ‘reflecting medium’. Distortion is due to not being able to distinguish between pure consciousness and the manifesting medium. If you can cognitively separate them (i.e. understand what’s the truth of the situation) you’ll see that consciousness is consciousness – there are no two grades, one pure and the other somewhat lesser.

  4. Dear Peter,

    Yes, of course there is only Consciousness in reality. And even though it may appear to be tainted, this is only the ‘snake’ on the ‘rope’.

    But I was taking issue with the metaphor. In the case of an object being seen, the light reflected off the object is actually different from the incident light. If the object appears red, this is because light of all other wavelengths is actually being absorbed by the object and the red part of the spectrum is what is left to be reflected. So the ‘original’ light is white (i.e. all colors of the visible spectrum) and the reflected light is red. I.e. the reflected light is NOT the same as the original.

    To return to the non-metaphor, the behavior of a Mother Teresa is clearly quite different from that of a Hitler, although it is the same Consciousness that is animating both. Brahman is the same; chidAbhAsa (which is only a meaningful concept from the vyAvahArika perspective) is different. This difference is due to the nature of the mind (vAsanA-s, karma) which is doing the reflecting.

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