Traditional Teaching and Deep Sleep – III. mAyA & Creation

[The latter part of the article requires a bit of mathematical (or at least arithmetic) orientation in the reader. If you know the addition, 1 + 1, that is enough. Otherwise, it could prove slightly boring!]

We shall tackle now the question of how we wake up to be what (we think) we were before we went to bed.

I said in my previous argument that our waking up to a new morning and into an awake state is comparable to another cycle of creation.  So I suggest we examine how creation itself takes place.

From a scientific perspective, creation seems to be happening from ‘nothingness’ and dissolving back into nothing.  Vedantins prefer to call nothingness as ‘Beingness’ simply because even ‘nothingness’ has to ‘Be.’

If we go by what Quantum Physics tells us, what we may refer to as ‘nothingness’ is not just emptiness.  There is an enormous amount of energy in ‘Emptiness.’ Physicists have been able to measure this energy of empty space.

The energy within the empty space of the nucleus of an atom is the main reason for the weight of the nucleus (and hence of the matter we are all).  The energy of the emptiness within the intergalactic space is the reason for the expanding universe causing the colossal and mighty galaxies to recede from one another at speeds exceeding the speed of light. This vast energy is the result of constant creation and annihilation of virtual particles smaller than sub-atomic particles. Thus creation-dissolution is an ongoing unstoppable roiling and boiling process from emptiness to emptiness within emptiness!

The same thing happening at the huge scales of a universe is exemplified by the cyclical models of the origin of the universe (known as Ekpyrotic Models). Does any ‘memory’ of the past cycle get carried onto the next cycle? Apparently not as per the present understanding of the Physics. Each creation can, therefore, be taken to be a fresh creation in its own right. (We shall discuss the Physics in simple terms in a separate essay).

So it is our own ‘mutually re-enforcing convenient belief system’ that makes us think that we wake up to be the same entities that went to sleep!


In the traditional teaching, mAyA is invoked almost axiomatically to explain the creation of the world. Our esteemed colleagues, Peter and Sitara were kind to make well thought out observations regarding mAyA in another thread.  Howsoever an enticing edifice we may subsequently build starting with an assumption of the operation of mAyA, it still remains to be an ‘explanatory artifact’, a non-entity.    I give below in a condensed form (freely rendered into English) the explanation given by Brahma Shri Kuppa V. Krishna Murthy from the Chapter 3: Creation (utpatti prakaraNa) of Yogavaasishta to give us a feel of what mAyA is and what it explains.

The sum and substance of the entire 3rd Chapter on Origination (utpatti) comprising nearly 7000 verses is that “Nothing is ever born”!

How is it then that I see a world?

Let’s say you are seeing a world and it is there now.

But you witnessed a world in your dream. The dream world was there then. What happened to it? It dissolved into deep sleep.  What is it that is left after the dream dissolved?  Only yourself.

Similarly, the wakeful world too dissolves at the end of a kalpa (period).  Something remains after the wakeful world too dissolves. What remains will be “Beingness.”

You continue to exist after the dream world ended.  But are you shaped out of the dream world material? No. No-thing of the dream world matter relates to you now.  You are different from it in all respects.

Likewise, whatever remains after the wakeful world ends cannot be anything of this world. It cannot be the brightness or darkness of this world.  It cannot be made of any material from this world.  It has to be pure “Beingness.”

This pure “Beingness” is said to have created Hiranyagarbha because of mAyA. “mAyA” is none other than an imagination.

Let us try to understand what mAyA is using the quotidian experience of simple addition we carry out day in and day out.

We are all familiar with the arithmetic operator ‘+’ standing for addition.

What exactly does this sign ‘+’ do?

For example, let us say that there is one banana. I place another banana next to it. Then we can express it in the form:

1 + 1

This formulation introducing ‘+’ has not brought to bear any change upon the first banana or the second banana.

Next we write the equation:

1 + 1 = 2

How could we formulate the above equation balancing  the left hand and right hand sides?

Wherefrom did the numeral ‘2’ get generated?

The two ‘1’s representing the first banana and the second banana on which ‘+’ has no effect, obviously, could not have generated ‘2’.

So the numeral ‘2’ must have got generated by the sign ‘+’.

But ‘+’ by itself all alone cannot generate ‘2’.  It can generate ‘2’ only when it comes in-between two 1s.

It happens so because, though the ‘+’ sign has no effect on any of the 1s (called the operands), it has an effect on the ‘mind’ of the person doing the calculation.

The symbol ‘+’ produces the image of the numeral ‘2’ in the mind of the person carrying out the calculation.

‘2’ appears clearly as a numeral. How can we say that ‘2’ is imagined in the mind?

If ‘2’ is really an entity and not an imagination, it should relate to something or the other.  But in the equation we have written, ‘2’ is related to neither the first nor the second operand.  When the two bananas came together next to each other, the idea of ‘2’ got generated in the mind of the person. Therefore, the number two is an idea only.  When we expressed the idea as a numeric character and scripted it, it appeared as ‘2’.

The long and short of it is that the number ‘two’ is only an imagined idea. The idea of two gets generated in the mind of an observer from the idea of ‘+’ sign. Therefore, we have to admit that the idea of ‘plus’ is also resident in the observer’s mind only.

The bananas are on the table. They form one set (shown in red color). The idea of ‘+’ and the number ‘2’ are in the mind of the observer. They form another set (shown in blue color).

[1   1]    —   The red set on the table.

[+   2]   —    The blue set in the mind.

We mix up these two sets and write down the equation:

1 + 1 = 2

In order to find the locus of the force responsible for causing the mixing up of both the sets, let us examine the position prior to the origination of the idea of ‘2’.

There were two distinct entities, namely the bananas and the mind.  Bananas are bananas and mind is mind. They were not related to one another and are completely independent of each other.

Only after the introduction of the symbol ‘+’, the mix up in the two sets has arisen. Hence, we have to conclude that the locus of the power causal for the mix up rests in the sign ‘+’ .

Thus, the concept of ‘+’  has caused two things:

i)  Though it existed in the mind of the observer, it appeared ‘as though’ it was related to the ‘things’ being observed;

ii)  It engendered the idea of the number ‘2’ in the mind of the observer, but it falsely projected the sense that the number existed  in the things external to the mind.

Such false projections, when encountered in the world, are described as illusions, magic or jugglery. The simple arithmetic calculation is a very common example of such an ‘illusion’ that we come across all the time in our daily life.

Now applying the above logic, we are ready to formulate the expression for creation on the lines of 1 +1 = 2:

Beingness + thought = Hiranyagarbha (Creator)

Just as ‘+’ does not affect the first or the later ‘1’, mAyA too does not affect Beingness or thought.

The symbol ‘+’ is not any entity. So also mAyA is also not an entity.

Just like ‘+’ creates the idea of ‘2’ in the mind of the observer but projects it onto the things which are outside the mind, mAyA too  creates the idea of a Creator in the mind of the seer and projects Him to be somewhere over there beyond one’s own mind.

The imaginary Hiranyagarbha creates further imaginary worlds.

When everything is so obvious an illusion generated within the mind but projected to be existing somewhere out there, how can we say that it is the same ‘me’ that wakes up the next morning?

6 thoughts on “Traditional Teaching and Deep Sleep – III. mAyA & Creation

  1. Ramesan: But isn’t the difference betwen the numerical symbol + and the concept ‘Maya’ (neither of them ‘real entities’) that the first, though an abstract entity, somehow has a correspondence to states of affairs in the world, whereas the second (Maya) does not, being a purely imaginary construction? The first one is not the result of superimposition as the second one is (or is it too?), is a sign or symbol arrived at by convention and has results in the ‘world’ of arythmetic-mathematics (and physics!), allowing for multiple operations that can be corroborated and made into a useful system. This is the mystery of mathematics and arythmetic (called pure sciences), which the philosophers of those disciplines have to contend with.

    To repeat, numbers as symbols (or concepts) not only have definite meanings (in the mind, of course), but also have some kind of correspondence to states of affairs in the world.

    • Dear Doctor,

      First thank you for the observations.

      I should admit that I do not think I understood the comment fully. The burden of my entire argument is in pointing out the similarity between mAyA and the arithmetic operators. Neither ‘+’ nor ‘mAyA’ can be said to be a “result of superimposition.”

      Because of the habituation (long-term potentiation) of our thought processes, we find it difficult to transcend the ‘nama-rupa (we more easily think that there is a “correspondence of states” and thereby tend to be trapped in the fallacy created by the mind). While the operands (numbers) may have assigned ‘objects’, the operators create projections outside the mind.


  2. Thank you, Ramesan; I see your point. Even as an artifact, the notion of maya is a real conumdrum (a no-winner). Even if it is mithya, like all concepts are, the mind should be able to get a grasp, or a handle on it (is it a koan?). I will promptly go back to some previous discussions touching on this concept, or mental construction, knowing that when true knowledge arises it will vanish, together with the other afilliate concept: ignorance. We know that ignorance (avidya) and Maya are coeval, both beginningless and endless (though individual ignorance can disappear, but not so primordial or universal ignorance – we are told).

    In the book I am reading (by R. Puligandla), it is stated that ignorance and Maya, not being exact synonyms, though closely related to one another, from the epistemological viewpoint “ignorance may be regarded as prior to maya, in that the latter presupposes the former… ignorance is the necessary condition for maya”. One page later, one reads that superimposition (of names and forms on the nameless and formless reality) is the source of ignorance. If that is so, then superimposition is the grand-father of maya; does it not follow?

    Not being a true (?) cosmological or an ontological principle, can one say that ignorance (or maya?) are – one or the other – inherent in the nature of thought/thinking (as a friend told me recently)? In my understanding this is not so; if anything, maya, rather than a koan, etc., might be prop or a lean for thought to find an answer to the problem of understanding what life-world-‘I’ are. Any thoughts, by you or any others in the team? Thank you. A. Martin.

  3. I must say that I don’t really want to join in the basic discussion here. I have actually begun to make some headway on my next book so don’t want to divert my efforts too much if I can help it! But I would just say that my understanding is that ignorance is usually said to be the cause of adhyAsa, both specifically relating to the jIva. mAyA relates to Ishvara, i.e. the universal, cosmic level. And Ishvara is sarvaj~na so ignorance simply does not apply here; mAyA is a ‘force’, as it were, that is ‘wielded’ by Ishvara.

    Best wishes,

  4. Thanks again Martin.

    I have been actually waiting for others to comment.
    I thank Dennis for his observations.

    I wish more of our experts could comment on maya/ignorance/nescience/avidya/adhyaropa/abhava etc. etc., their relative superiority/hierarchy and their locus and so on.

    There have been discussions on the meaning and relative significance of maya and avidya / ajnana since almost the days of Sankara’s first disciples. Sankara himself used these words sometimes as if they are distinct and sometimes as if they are synonymous. I guess expert scholars have been debating on the usage of these words at several internet fora even to date. As for me, I could never get interested in these polemics.

    From Dennis’s comment, we can deduce that Isvara being the locus for ‘maya’, adhyaropa cannot be the grand-father for it. The superimposition is at the level of the individual – a creature of Isvara.

    The way I understand is as follows:

    The very first vibration (I called ‘throb’) that generates the I-consciousness (which gives the first sense of separate entity) is totally harmless and is an unavoidable ‘feature’ that happens for some inexplicable reason (or acausally) in the ‘Blob.’

    The harm really starts with the subsequent thoughts of ‘me-mine’ – classifying some of the percepts as ‘me’ and ‘mine’ – this automatically generates a bigger set of left-out percepts that are ‘not-me’ and ‘not-mine.’

    Perhaps, you could have seen where my argument is heading.

    The harmless first I-consciousness thought is (in the classical terminology) Isvara.
    The subsequent ‘me’ is the ego or I-thought (ahankara vritti).
    The ‘mine’ is the body-mind ‘here.’
    The ‘not-me and not-mine’ is the world ‘out there.’.
    The harm referred to begins with the process of like-dislike operation and consequent happiness (if like happens) and misery (if dislike happens).

    Now, one can go on creating several explanations, models and terminologies such as nescience, avarana (veiling), vikshepa (projection) etc. as can be convenient to each person to ingest the message in his/her own way.

    In my humble opinion, it is pointless and fruitless to get into the nuts and bolts levels of these words, their orthologies and semantics and try to match with that authority or this or claim the superior explanatory power of one over the other. The model that is the mental ‘construct’ of one could be worthless for me.

    warm regards,

  5. Thank you! One can breathe more deeply after reading Dennis’ and Ramesan’s in-put (above). Especially after trying to figure out the following excerpt from an article by R. Balasubramanian:

    ‘There is a huge philosophical difference between saying that avidy¯a is the mutual superimposition of the real and unreal by the mind, and saying that avidy¯a is the mutual superimposition of the real and the unreal, where the unreal refers to the ego-mind-body complex. The latter, philosophically tenable position, can be paraphrased as “avidy¯a is the mutual superimposition of the real and the mind”’.

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