Q. 346 – brahman, Ishvara and mAyA

Q: I am not clear about the relationship between Brahman, Maya and Ishwara. Maya is said to be inherent in Brahman. Like Brahman, it is ever existent. Ishwara is said to be a product of Brahman and Maya. However, while the universe is governed by Maya, Maya does not govern Ishwara. Ishwara governs Maya although he is a product of Maya. This is confusing.

 Secondly, did Shankara deviate from the teachings of Upanishads? The invocatory verse in Ishopanishad, Purnam idam, Purnam adaha, Puranat, Purnam utpadyate seems  to indicate that this world is born out of that Brahaman. Shankara does not seem to agree with this view. According to him, the imperfect limited world cannot emerge from unlimited, perfect Brahman and the world is only an illusion created by Maya. What is the correct position?

A (Ted): Brahman is simply the name given to pure awareness.  Brahman means “limitless” and so is an appropriate name to denote the self as pure awareness.  Brahman is beyond the scope of the three bodies – the gross, subtle, and causal bodies (sthula sharira, sukshma sharira, and karana sharira).  In other words, Brahman is the “fourth factor” (turiya), to use a term from the Mandukya Upanishad, or the pure awareness in which the three bodies appear and of which they are made.  In this sense, we can say that the three bodies are Brahman/awareness/the self, but Brahman/awareness/the self is not the three bodies.  That is, Brahman is the essential substance of the universe, but while all objects – gross and subtle – in the three-bodied “creation” depend upon Brahman for their existence, Brahman is unobjectifiable and self-existent and, thus, ever free of all objects.

 Maya (ignorance) is a power within Brahman.  Because it is a power inherent in Brahman and, thus, essentially none other than Brahman in the same way that the wave is nothing other than the ocean, Maya is beginningless. 

 In conjunction with this issue, it is worth mentioning that unlike Brahman, Maya does have an end.  Ignorance is removed, ended, eradicated by self-knowledge.  That is to say that while Maya on a macrocosmic level does continue to influence the apparent reality/universe throughout the millennia until the pralaya (the periodic cosmic dissolution), the jiva’s (apparent individual’s) avidya (individual or microcosmic ignorance) ends with the assimilation of the knowledge that I am whole and complete, limitless, actionless, ordinary, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness.

 Though Brahman is actionless due to its all-pervasive and perfectly-full-and-therefore-desireless nature, when pure awareness illumines or – to put it in personified terms – “wields” Maya, we call this “creative entity” – again employing personification – Ishwara. 

 For right understanding, it is essential to get clear on a couple of factors involved in this description of how the Creator creates, so to speak.

 First, it is important to understand that Brahman is not the creator.  Brahman is simply actionless awareness.  Brahman is the light of consciousness that illumines Maya and, thus, “enlivens” the apparent power of ignorance that projects the “dream” universe or apparent reality.  It is this illumination that we, due to the limited vehicle of inherently dualistic language, refer to when we say that Brahman “wields” its power of Maya. 

 Therefore, while in one sense it can be said that Ishwara is a “product” of Brahman and Maya, this creator God is not actually an independent entity or being.  Neither Ishwara nor Maya are actual independent entities capable of executing volitional actions.  These “entities” are simply personifications of the inherent power of what is.  Though it is difficult for us to comprehend, awareness simply is and this apparent universe is what “it” appears to be when seen through the lens of ignorance.  Nothing is actually anything other than awareness and, moreover, nothing is actually happening.

Which leads us directly to the second factor about which we must get clear.

 The second factor that is important to understand concerning the creation is that it is not a creation at all.  The word “creation” implies that something new has been added to the mix, so to speak.  But there is nothing other than Brahman or pure awareness; Brahman or pure awareness is the substance-less substance of the apparent reality.  Due to its attributeless nature, it is formless and can, therefore, appear in the guise of any form – gross or subtle – that Maya projects “upon” it.  Vedanta uses the famous analogy of the rope that is mistaken for a snake to illustrate how “creation” occurs.  Just as the snake can never be said to really exist, it does appear to exist and its appearance does have experiential consequences for the ignorant individual who misapprehends the reality of what is actually before him.

 For all intents and purposes, the terms Ishwara and Maya are synonymous and represent the macrocosmic causal body – to put it in impersonal terms.  Again, Ishwara is name we give to Brahman’s “wielding” of Maya, or pure awareness’s illumination of ignorance.  In this sense, Ishwara and Maya enjoy the same status and, therefore, one doesn’t govern the other.  To muddy the waters a bit, however, it bears mentioning that Ishwara is also used interchangeably with Brahman.  In this sense, then, we can say that Ishwara controls, wields, or governs Maya.

 It must always be remembered that Maya is insentient and is simply the power of ignorance, which makes the universe appear real.  Moreover, as has been pointed out, Maya is not actually a thing.  That is, ignorance does not enjoy anything more than a dependent existence in relation to Brahman/Ishwara.  If it were an actual entity that shared the same ontological or existential status as Brahman/Ishwara, it couldn’t be removed or eradicated.  Since it is only a mistake, however, a misapprehension, it can be erased through understanding.

 That said, there is verity to the idea that Ishwara is a product of Maya in the sense that the whole concept of a Creator is only brought about through ignorance.  This is why Vedanta says that the self is even greater than God.  Taken as the wielder of Maya, God or Ishwara is only a concept appearing within pure awareness, one’s true self.

Shankara did not deviate from the teachings of the Upanishads.  To have done so would invalidate his teachings.  The genius of Shankara was his ability to reconcile the apparent contradictions that are set forth in the Upanishads.  If you review the previous explanation, you will see that Brahman, actionless awareness, does not actually create anything.  The whole universe is an apparent reality that has no more – and no less – substance than a dream.  It is all an optical illusion – which does not mean that it does not exist, mind you, but only that it is not real, for its existence depends upon awareness – effected by the inexplicable power of ignorance, a misapprehension that is the uncaused effect of Maya.

 In fact, nothing ever happened.  Awareness simply is.

A (Dennis): The absolute answer is simple (and the same as the absolute answer to every other question): there is only brahman; end of story. When you ask questions about the nature of empirical reality, it is like the dreamer asking questions about his or her dream, whilst in the middle of the dream. An answer can be provided which may be deemed to be satisfactory (or not) but, from the vantage point of the higher reality, it has to be effectively illusory, i.e. mithyA. So yes, a frequently given explanation for the world-appearance is that Ishvara manifests it using the power of mAyA. But you cannot say that mAyA is ‘inherent’ in brahman. That would be two things and brahman is by definition non-dual.

 In order satisfactorily to explain the world as a separate entity, you really need an intelligent and a material cause. Ishvara is posited as these causes and mAyA is the supposed ‘magical power’ that He uses in order to do this. But such explanations are really for the non-seeker. The true seeker has to go beyond this and realize that there has never actually been any ‘creation’; that what is erroneously perceived  as separate is only ever name and form of brahman, the only real, non-dual substrate.

 You should also bear in mind that Shankara uses the term brahman for both the nirguNa (brahman) and saguNa (Ishvara) aspects. If you read his bhAShya on the brahmasUtra-s, you need to understand this and be able to differentiate; otherwise, you will get confused! But it does emphasize the point that they are really one and the same. It is just helpful to speak of Ishvara when we are talking about the world and the jIva because then we can remember that all these aspects are mithyA.

 I’m just at the point in my next book (on the Mandukya Upanishad and kArikA-s) of writing about mAyA but will be a couple of weeks probably (at least). So ask again later!

7 thoughts on “Q. 346 – brahman, Ishvara and mAyA

  1. Thank you both for your illuminating answers. I have yet to understand and fullyassimilate your comments. I am working on it. Incidentally, there seems to be some difference of opinion on whether Maya is inherent in Brahman.

    Ted, you have mentioned that Shankara reconciled the apparent contradictions in the Upanishads. I would grateful if you could kindly illustrate the contradictions you have referred to for my edification.
    Also, where does Maya figure in the classification of Ajatavada, srishti-drishti vada and drishti-srishti vada? I understand while Shankara posited Maya, his Guru advocated Ajatavada.

  2. As with so many questions, the answer is best understood by reflecting upon whether you want the vyAvahArika response or the (as if) pAramArthika one.

    From the standpoint of absolute reality, there is only Brahman. And there is nothing further to say.

    Any other answer is going to be from the empirical, dualistic standpoint and is certain to be of limited value and ultimately false. This is why you encounter so many, apparently conflicting responses. Regarding creation, there are a number of stances. You start with the creationist version – God created the world for amusement, sport or whatever and you progress from there. Ultimately, it has to be the case that there is no creation whatsoever, but you have to work up to that explanation.

    Shankara’s ‘preferred’, intermediate explanation is vivarta vAda – the world is a ‘manifestation’ of Brahman but not an actual, separate creation. But, ultimately, he agrees with Gaudapada’s ajAti vAda.

    My next book will have a long chapter on creation and lots on related topics, such as causality!


  3. But I still don’t understand the concept of creation/maya.I mean I know that there isn’t any maya/creation in the first place but why it(maya) appears to be and why do we then need to enlightenment ourselves with the fact that there isn’t any maya but only plain consciousness.
    If there is only consciousness,then why the snake-rope thing happens?Why the illusion happens that there is illusion?What is the purpose/cause of illusion taking place in the very first place if there isn’t any duality/maya/creation in reality?

    I hope you get my point :p and waiting to hear from you very soon as I’m baffled by this.
    Thank You!

  4. Nartamgaurav,

    The more of Spirituality and Vedantic terms you bring in, the more confusing they will be from our day to day understanding.

    So I shall try to answer in a simple way your questions. I shall go with the last question first.

    Q: “What is the purpose/cause of illusion taking place in the very first place if there isn’t any duality/maya/creation in reality?”

    A: Leave out the words “duality/maya/creation / reality.”
    Why do you think “illusions” — optical, auditory, cognitive etc. – take place?
    You are so many times easily fooled by magicians who take advantage of the limitations in your abilities in cognition, vision, audition etc. You see things that are not really there. You seem to hear things that are not really what the sounds are. You mistake one thing to be other than what it actually is. Why is it so?
    Well, you may have some scientific (which you think rational) reasoning to explain the mechanics for the appearance of a few things. But you do not know, in a vast majority of things a really convincing reason. Further, if I insist on “Why should it so happen?,” you have no answer. You just say “it’s just the way our brains are wired. Or it’s the way we are. Or no body know, it’s a black-box.”

    Exactly. The ancients used the term ‘mAyA’ for that ‘black-box mechanism.’
    It indicates the defective nature of the apparatus we have – the sense organs and the mind – with its limitations.

    Using such a defective apparatus having a highly limited range in its operation, results in a mistaken ‘vision’ of what really is.

    Q: “If there is only consciousness,then why the snake-rope thing happens?Why the illusion happens that there is illusion?”

    A: Viewing a thing is like interposing a prism in front of a white beam of light. The white single beam is not anymore white or single. It takes on multiple colors and becomes a spectrum of many beams.

    Think of the white beam of light as Consciousness and the multiple color spectrum to be the visible world. Your sense organs + mind combo is the prism in the above example.

    Q: “why do we then need to enlightenment ourselves with the fact that there isn’t any maya but only plain consciousness.”

    A: If you want to know the “Truth” and not be deceived by what appears through the ‘black-box.’

    In the above example, we have the white beam of light which is really there – the Truth. The multicolored world is only an effect of our “seeing” with a defective limited-range apparatus. If I want to know the Truth and not be led away by what “appears,” I have to inquire and find out the “Truth” beyond the appearance. The indirect benefit coming out of this inquiry will be to know that what I take myself is not what I appear to be (the body-mind) but something else which knows no suffering through disease, decay and death.

    Q: “in the first place but why it(maya) appears to be ”

    A: No, mAyA actually never appears!
    When you see a magic show, you do not actually see the magic. You only see the effect of the magic. Similarly, when you use your eye or ear or mind, you never realize their limitations or defects. You only see the ‘effects’ shown by them. Did you ever see a black-box in a black-box mechanism?


  5. Dear Ramesam,

    I had just been thinking for the past hour (while washing up the dishes!) about how best to answer this question and was just about to put keyboard-pen to screen-paper when I saw that you had replied – so I read that first only to find that you had said much the same thing – only better! Thank you!

    Best wishes,

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