Ignorance Goes, but mAyA remains – Revisited

Ask any teacher of Non-duality the question “Why we see a multiplicity of objects instead of Oneness in the world?,” pat comes back the reply that “It is all due to mAyA, an inexplicable and indefinable power of the Creator God, Ishwara. mAyA is so much reified and deified in some texts that they present it almost as a given “fact.” They romanticize mAyA; sing paeans in lilting poetry as a Divine Goddess vested with special powers – that of concealment of the Truth and projection of an unreal world filled with variegated objects (e.g. 110-111, vivekacUDAmani).

But Gaudapada in his kArikA-s on mANDUkya and Shankara in his commentary on them regard mAyA to be no more than an explanatory artifact. Gaudapada mentions ‘mAyA‘ in the sense of a magic-show in the last chapter of his kArikA-s. For example:

धर्मा इति जायन्ते जायन्ते ते तत्त्वतः 
जन्म मायोपमं तेषां सा माया विद्यते    —    4.58, GK.

Meaning: The entities that are born are, in Reality, not born. Their birth is as that of a thing through mAyA (magic). mAyA has no Reality. (Trans: Swami Gambhirananda (Sw-G)).

If there remains any doubt, Gaudapada adds for further clarity,

यथा मायामयाद्बीजाज्जायते तन्मयोऽङ्कुरः 
नासौ नित्यो चोच्छेदी तद्वद्धर्मेषु योजना    —  4.59, GK.

Meaning: As from a magical seed grows a sprout equally illusory, it being neither eternal nor destructible, just so is the logic (of birth and death) applicable in the case of objects. (Trans: Sw-G).

For clarity, Shankara explains in his commentary:

माया नाम वस्तु तर्हि ;

Objection: Then there is an entity called mAyA.

नैवम् , सा माया विद्यते मायेत्यविद्यमानस्याख्येत्यभिप्रायः

Answer: Not so. ‘sA ca mAyA na vidyate,’ and that mAyA does not exist; the idea being that the term relates to something non-existing.

Shankara further adds at 4.59, GK.

अभूतत्वादेव धर्मेषु जन्मनाशादियोजना युक्तिः, तु परमार्थतो धर्माणां जन्म नाशो वा युज्यत इत्यर्थः    — Shankara bhAShya at 4.59, GK.

Meaning:  The idea is that, from the standpoint of logic, there can be no real birth or death for the objects. (Trans: Sw- G).

We may sum up the position, in Gaudapada’s words:

प्रपञ्चो यदि विद्येत निवर्तेत संशयः 
मायामात्रमिदं द्वैतमद्वैतं परमार्थतः    —  1.17, GK.

Meaning: It is beyond question that the phenomenal world would cease to be, if it had any existence at all (to start with!). All this duality that is nothing but mAyA (magic-show) is but Non-duality in Reality.

Shankara does not mince his words in his exposition on the verse. He writes:
“[The world] being superimposed like a snake on a rope, it does not exist. There is no doubt that if it had existed, it would cease to be. Not that the snake fancied on the rope through an error of observation, exists there in reality and is then removed by correct observation.

[To give an analogy.] Not that the magic conjured up by a magician exists in reality and is then removed on the removal of the optical illusion of its witness. Similarly, the duality that is nothing but mAyA, and is called the phenomenal world is, in supreme Truth, Non-dual. It is like the rope and the magician. Therefore, the purport is that there is no such thing as the world which appears and disappears. (Trans: Sw-G).

If Gaudapada and Shankara take the stand that there is no world for it is not created, why does the shruti talk about creation at all?

Gaudapada declares in an earlier chapter,

मृल्लोहविस्फुलिङ्गाद्यैः सृष्टिर्या चोदितान्यथा 
उपायः सोऽवताराय नास्ति भेदः कथञ्चन    —  3.15, GK.

Meaning:  The creation that is multifariously set forth with the help of the examples of clay, gold, sparks etc., is merely by way of generating the idea (of Oneness). But there is no multiplicity (of objects) in anyway.

In his commentary at 3.15, GK, Shankara observes that the shruti speaks about creation “only as a ‘means’ (upAya) for engendering in us the Oneness of the individual and the Supreme Self.” He even rules out the idea that it is meant for any other purpose including meditation!

“Opponent: [The Vedic texts speaking of creation etc.] is meant for meditation with a view to attaining self-identification.

Answer:  Not so. For, it cannot be a desirable end to be identified with quarrel, creation or dissolution. The texts creation etc., are meant simply for generating the idea of Oneness of the Self and they cannot be fancied to bear other interpretations. There is not any multiplicity caused by creation etc., in anyway.”

In addition, Shankara argues very vociferous at 2.1.33, BSB: लोकवत्तु लीलाकैवल्यम्

चेयं परमार्थविषया सृष्टिश्रुतिः ; अविद्याकल्पितनामरूपव्यवहारगोचरत्वात् , ब्रह्मात्मभावप्रतिपादनपरत्वाच्चइत्येतदपि नैव विस्मर्तव्यम्    —  2.1.33, BSB.

Meaning: “The Vedic statement of creation does not relate to any reality, for it must not be forgotten that such a text is valid within the range of activities concerned with name and form called up by ignorance, and it is meant for propounding the fact that everything has brahman as its Self.” (Trans: Sw-G).

Shankara also asserts in his commentary on mantra 2.1.20, brihadAraNyaka: “Therefore the-mention in all Vedanta texts of the origin, continuity and dissolution of the universe is only to strengthen our idea of Brahman being a homogeneous unity, and not to make us believe in the origin etc. as an actuality.” (Trans: Swami Madhavananda).

In his prakaraNa grantha, upadesha sAhashI, Shankara writes:

अविद्या प्रभवं सर्वमसत्तस्मादिदं जगत् |

तद्वता दृश्यते यस्मात्सुषुप्ते गृह्यते ||   — 17.20, US.

Meaning: All this world is unreal and proceeds from nescience, because it is seen only by one afflicted with nescience, and is not seen in dreamless sleep.

Thus far, we have unequivocally established two important facts:

  1. There is no ‘power’ called mAyA sitting anywhere and creating a world of multiple objects;
  2. There is no creation whatsoever and a world does not exist in Reality.

That being the inarguable position of Advaita, how does one explain the appearance of the world?

Shankara tells us at 13.2, BGB (and at many other places in his commentaries) that the appearance of the world is due to ignorance and it is similar to the fictitious appearance of a second moon due to a defect in the eye (i.e. in the instrument used in cognition). He also says that ignorance (avidyA) is not an inherent property of the cognizer. He writes:

“We see that such diseases as lead to the perception of what is contrary to truth, and so on, pertain to the eye, to the organ. Neither the perception of what is contrary to truth, nor the cause thereof (viz., the disease of timlra), pertains to the percipient; for, when timira is removed by the treatment of the eye, the percipient is no longer subject to such perception, which is therefore not a property of the percipient.”

The same point is stressed again at 18.48, BGB, where Shankara says:

हि तैमिरिकदृष्ट्या अध्यारोपितस्य द्विचन्द्रादेः तिमिरापगमेऽपि शेषः अवतिष्ठते    —  18.48, BGB.

Meaning: No residue, indeed, is left of the second moon created by the false vision of the timira-affected eye, even after the removal of timira.

Shankara invokes the analogy of the appearance of a second moon (in other words multiplicity) at 2.7.1, taittirIya to say, “the ignorant man perceives another placed before him by ignorance as a second moon owing to a disease in the eye …”

Shankara also says that the “intellect” may imagine a multiplicity where it does not exist. He comments in the chAndogya Upanishad:

“It is logical that from the constituents of sat, Existence, “imagined by the intellect,” there can appear a changeful configuration (the One Self to appear as ‘many’). This is supported by the Upanishadic text, ‘All transformation has speech as its basis, and it is name only; clay, as such, is the reality’ (6.1.4, chAn.U.); ‘Existence indeed is the Reality.’ Even when one has the idea of ‘this’, there is in reality the One without a second.”  — 6.2.2-3, chAnUB.

We are also given a hint at 2.4.12, BUB that the sense of a separate me (therefore, many individuals) could originate “from the delusion engendered by contact with the limiting adjuncts of the body and organs.”

We may infer from all the shruti and bhAShya support cited above that the thrust of Advaita doctrine is that:

The appearance of the world is a distortion and aberration due to the inadequate and limited perceptual apparatus we are endowed with as a ‘finite’ cognizer! It is not that “a world,” filled with multiple objects is sitting out there for us to see; nor is there a defect in the cognizer per se.   

Ordinary vision and Eternal Vision:
1.4.10, BUB, 3.4.2, BUB, 4.3.23, BUB, inform us that “Vision is of two kinds, ordinary and Real. Ordinary vision is a function of the mind as connected with the eye; it is an act, and as such it has a beginning and an end. But the Vision of the Self is like the heat and light of fire; being the very essence of the Witness, It has neither beginning nor end.”

aparokShAnubhUti (verse 116) of Shankara and Bhagavad-Gita talk about Knowledge-Vision (jNana cakShu). Shanakara explains at BG:

क्षेत्रक्षेत्रज्ञयोः यथाव्याख्यातयोः एवं यथाप्रदर्शितप्रकारेण अन्तरम् 

इतरेतरवैलक्षण्यविशेषं ज्ञानचक्षुषा शास्त्राचार्यप्रसादोपदेशजनितम् 

आत्मप्रत्ययिकं ज्ञानं चक्षुः, तेन ज्ञानचक्षुषा, भूतप्रकृतिमोक्षं च, भूतानां प्रकृतिः 

अविद्यालक्षणा अव्यक्ताख्या, तस्याः भूतप्रकृतेः मोक्षणम् अभावगमनं च ये विदुः 

विजानन्ति, यान्ति गच्छन्ति ते परं परमात्मतत्त्वं ब्रह्म, न पुनः देहं आददते इत्यर्थः ॥   —  13.34, BGB.

Meaning: They who in this manner perceive the exact distinction, now pointed out, between kShetra and kShetrajna, by the eye of Wisdom, by means of that Knowledge of the Self which has been generated by the teachings of the shAstra and the Acharya), and who also perceive the non-existence of prakriti, avidyA, avyakta, the material cause of beings, they reach brahman, the Real, the Supreme Self, and assume no more bodies.

If Self-realization consists of in our ability (after a thorough understanding of the Advaita message) to shed the perceptual apparatus-based ordinary vision (that comes and goes) to that of the Eternal Ever-lasting Vision of the Self, we can easily say that the statement that, post-Gnosis, “ignorance goes but mAyA remains” is invalid!

7 thoughts on “Ignorance Goes, but mAyA remains – Revisited

  1. Dear Ramesam,

    Wow! A powerful, well-researched and assembled post!

    I will certainly need to re-read a few times, and the references will be valuable as input to my ‘Confusions Vol. 3’, covering ‘Creation’ (when I eventually get around to it!).

    Just a quick point, though, which I have encountered before with this sort of presentation, but never seen resolved.

    The first half of your post convincingly points out that there is no creation. But then you move on to say such things as ‘the world is only seen by one afflicted with nescience’, giving the metaphor of the two moons. And suggest that ‘the delusion is engendered by contact with the limiting adjuncts of the body and organs’. And you conclude that the appearance is due to our ‘limited perceptual apparatus’.

    But, if there is no creation, how can there be someone with limited perceptual apparatus able mistakenly to see two moons?

    Best wishes,

  2. Dear Dennis,

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Regarding the question: “if there is no creation, how can there be someone with limited perceptual apparatus able mistakenly to see two moons?”

    I am aware that you are yourself quite knowledgeable, and there is nothing new that I can offer that you already do not know!

    Neither the shruti nor any of the ancient Sages cared to provide an answer to that question which is a favorite of the ‘modern mind.’ Perhaps, the seekers in the past bygone ages were more concerned with “redemption from the cycles of birth and death” than investigate into the “first cause” (original sin).

    As you know, if one presses the Sages too hard for an answer, they say, “Nothing has ever happened! (vide 3.48, 4.71, GK) and hence, the shruti is silent on that aspect!”

    Traditional teachers, however, take shelter under the euphemistic term “anAdi,” (beginningless or no known beginning point so that one could have ‘witnessed’ the first cause and report) instead of plainly admitting, “we don’t know.”

    Shankara, on the other hand, suggests in his famous adhyAsabhAShya that such a “mistaken view” is natural (naisagikoyam adhyAsa) to all of jus who are born, i.e., we suffer from this malady right from our birth. But then, he also adds that the adhyAsa arises with the arising of a finite cognizer supported by an enchilada of limited structures – mind, senses, body etc.

    We find 2-3 stories in the Upanishads to explain to us the possibility of “How?” such a thing could have happened – merely as preludes to introduce the remedial measures rather than to assert as the “reasons” for such an happenstance.

    One is the story of the 10th Man (1.4.7, BUB); another is the story of the Gandharva (6.14.2, chAn); and the third is the story of the Prince brought up with the Hunter tribe (2.1.20, BU).

    Or maybe you would like to share your own thoughts on this subject?


  3. “if there is no creation, how can there be someone with limited perceptual apparatus able mistakenly to see two moons?”

    Isn’t the question sublated by the quoted US17.20?
    All this world is unreal and proceeds from nescience, because it is seen only by one afflicted with nescience, and is not seen in dreamless sleep.

    A further clue from Gaudapada: MK2.9 et seq:

    9. Even in the dream state itself, anything imagined by the inner consciousness is unreal, while anything experienced by the outer consciousness is real. (But) both
    kinds of things are seen to be false.

    10. Even in the waking state, whatever is imagined by the inner consciousness is false and whatever is perceived by the outer consciousness is true. It is reasonable that both these should be unreal.

    11. If all objects in both the states be unreal, who apprehends these objects and who is indeed their creator?

    12. The self-effulgent Self imagines Itself through Itself by the power of Its own Maya. The Self Itself cognises the objects. Such is the definite conclusion of Vedanta.

    So, the “someone with limited perceptual apparatus” is, most acutely, the perceived snake rather than the rope (as MK2.17 states). He is not created, just as the world is not created. It is all a dream, a magic show imagined by the Self, and as Sankara says in concluding MK2.16, that “the imagining of individuality is the root of all other imaginations”.

  4. Dear Venkat,

    Thanks for the quotes and the information provided by you.

    The quote 2.12 looks particularly bothersome.
    Are you convinced that the actionless Infinite Self Itself gets into such a game? Does it not look silly on the part of the Self to do so?

    Does all that explanation given by you answer your own passionate pleas about justice and equanimity being absent in an exploitative world we live in, a few weeks back at another thread?


  5. Hi Venkat,

    The US verse doesn’t answer it, because it suffers from the same problem: in order for there to be ‘one afflicted with nescience’, there has to be a creation.

    But I think you are right with the Gaudapada references. This is the only way one can resolve the dilemma – by eliminating the duality.

    I’ll look into possibly posting my ‘resolution thoughts’ from ‘Confusions 2 tomorrow, Ramesam.

    Best wishes,

  6. Hi Ramesam,

    Isn’t Gaudapada saying in MK2.12 that the Atman images / is the substratum on which, the duality of the knower and known arise in both the waking and dream states. In deep sleep there is no knower and thus no known. In 2.16 he goes on the explain, first is imagined the Jiva, and then are imagined objective and subjective entities; Sankara explains that this Jiva is competent to effect the further imagination. SSSS clarifies this by noting that I-concept arises not so much first, but coincidentally with the percepts. Ramanamaharishi calls this suttarivu (objectifying consciousness).

    Hence the object of Advaita is to negate this I-concept, to dis-identify with the body-mind, and thereby resolve the duality.

    How would you interpret 2.12?

    With regard to your second question, as long as there is an “I”, there will be a world separate from “I” and therefore there will be action.

    How to attentuate the “I”, the body-mind identification? Through SCS (turning 180 degrees, to abide in the Self) and through naiskama karma (desireless action). What would such action involve? Sankara in BG says action only for the bare maintenance of the body, or if like Janaka, who continued his role in the world, it is only for the good of the world. Hence Krishna exhorts Arjuna (because he is not yet ready to assimilate knowledge) to fight for what is right, but without desire for the fruits. Krishna is showing Arjuna the path to attenuate his ego.

    One has to distinguish between the teaching of the ultimate truth (as in Mandukya Karika) and of the path to it through attenuation of the initial jiva concept (as in Bhagavad Gita). As per Suresvara, it is not just intellectually understanding the words “that thou art”:
    NS 3.28: “The more a man turns inward and negates the body, etc, so much more does the meaning of the word “that” tend to enter into the meaning of the word “thou’.

  7. Dear Venkat,

    Thank you very uch for all the references cited by you.
    I find them very useful to develop a coherent ‘schema’ for explaining the apparent multiplicity. The last 2-3 sections of chAndogya Upanishad, where Shankara expounded in detail the mahAvAkya “tattvamasi,” bring about a closure to the “unfoldment” of the multiplicity, as far as I could make out.

    Let me see if I can put together a coherent and cogent write up combining the two aspects and may be then you can comment.


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