Q.539 Māyā and Brahman

A (Martin): 1) Māyā is not an attribute of Brahman which, as you say, is attributeless. Māyā is a diffuse, or polyvalent, concept which gives rise to much confusion, particularly by translating it as ‘illusion’ (see below). This concept can be viewed from the psychological, epistemological, and ontological perspectives.

Purely from the standpoint of Ṥaṅkara’s Advaita Vedanta, māyā is tied in with the concept of ‘ignorance’ (avidyā), which is prior to it; that is, avidyā is the necessary condition for māyā. Once ignorance has been annihilated by knowledge, māyā disappears. That means that from the higher (of two) point of view māyā does not exist. This is contrary to most post-Ṥaṅkara authors, with the exception of Sureśvara, who taught that māyā is a positive entity or force. If that were the case, how could a positive entity be removed by knowledge? Swami Satchidanandendra, practically alone in the 20th Cent. has defended the former Ṥaṅkarian position.

Māyā can also be viewed as the power or energy of Brahman to create the world, and etymologically the word comes from ‘magic/magician’. But note that the (phenomenal) world is not pure illusion , as stated above, but mithyā (relatively real)

2) ‘Brahman alone is real. The world is appearance. The world is not other than Brahman’ (one of the ‘great sayings’ – mahāvākya).

3) Ishvara is Brahman considered as creator and ‘personal’ by those who need or are proclive to a devotional relationship (creator/creature). It is also known as ‘saguṇa brahman’ (Brahman with attributes), as (apparently) different from ‘nirguṇa Brahman’.

12 thoughts on “Q.539 Māyā and Brahman

  1. Hi Martin,

    Since the world is ‘manifested’ through the power of māyā, then your answer above implies that the world also disappears when knowledge ‘eliminates’ avidyā. SInce it obviously doesn’t (and I have written many hundreds of words explaining why it doesn’t, supported by numerous quotations from Ṥaṅkara et al), then clearly avidyā is not the prior condion for māyā.

    Best wishes,

  2. Martin,

    I have a problem with a part of # 2 in your post. It says:
    “The world is not other than Brahman’ (one of the ‘great sayings’ – mahāvākya).”

    I am not sure that there is any mahAvAkya that says so. It is a concoction introduced by either Ramana or some of his followers. Perhaps, we discussed this issue once before.

    Most of the prakaraNa grantha-s say, “brahma satyam; jaganmithyA; jIvo brahmaiva na aparaH.”


  3. Dennis and Ramesam:
    Are your respective comments/replies not sublated by the following?:
    ‘All the universe has this Pure Being for its essence, that alone is real, that is the Atman. That thou art’. Ch. 6-8-7.

  4. Ramesam,

    Does it not amount to the same thing? The world is mithyA, which means that it is not real in itself but is name and form of Brahman. Which, when it comes down to it, means that it is ‘not other than Brahman’. The original (which appears in brahmajnAnAvalImAlA verse 20 and partially in vivekachUDAmaNi verse 20) constitutes a mahAvAkya, I would have thought.

    Best wishes,

  5. Dennis and Martin,

    A “mahAvAkya,” by definition, constitutes that sentence which tells us about the jIva-brahma aikya. [I am unable to recall the source text for this definition.]

    Taking that definition to be correct, “jIvo brahmaiva na aparaH” can be a mahAvAkya but not ‘The world is not other than Brahman.’

    Secondly, the apparent world, as Dennis said, is name and form. ‘Name and form’ don’t have any existence. For example, a “wave,” by itself, can never exist. What does not exist can never be ‘brahman.’
    Though a shape is ever dependent on one or other substance, the shapes, by themselves, are not the substance per se;


  6. Ramesam,

    I have also seen something somewhere suggesting that a mahAvAkya refers to jIva-brahman aikyam, but its dictionary meaning is ‘principal sentence’, ‘sacred utterance of the Upanishads’. And, since the ‘brahmasatyam…’ sentence is frequently cited as summarizing the entire philosophy of Advaita, I cannot think of a more significant ‘principal sentence’!

    Secondly, I refute your suggesion that a wave does not exist. It is true that its existence ‘belongs to’ or ‘is borrowed from’ water but try telling a surfer that the wave does not exist! Similarly, Ramesam does not exist according to your definition, in which case why I am I even bothering to reply to this? 😉

    Best wishes,

  7. Dear Dennis,

    I was hoping that you will use the great ‘power’ of your search engine on the vast ‘wealth’ of the knowledge-base you stored on your systems and tell me the source-reference for the definition of what a “mahAvAkya” constitutes!

    But you left it back to me.

    My inefficient search on incomplete data-sources tells me that:

    1. Yes, a mahAvAkya does establish jIva-brahma aikya only;
    2. The word mahA does stand for “something” much more significant than to merely indicating ‘importantance’;
    3. Swami Krishnananda writes: “In the Upanishads there are two types of description of Reality. One definition is called avantara vakya, and the other is called mahavakya. Avantara vakya is the statement which merely tells us that something exists; … the identity of that thing which existed prior to creation with our own self is the mahavakya.”
    4. “Not only do the mahAvAkya-s produce enlightenment, they
    are also the *sole* means of achieving enlightenment. For
    the advanced student hearing the mahAvAkya alone (shravaNa)
    through the instructions of a qualified guru, is enough for
    the complete destruction of avidyA.”
    5. Ordinary or even “mukhya” vAkya-s give scope to raise a question, “What next?” But the teaching being “Complete with a mahAvAkya,” no further questions will arise!
    6. Sureshwara in Manasollasa (particuary verses 2.12 etc.) explain the mahAvAkya-s; other sources are naishkarmyasiddhi of Sureswara, Upadesha sahashrI of Shankara; Vidyaranya’s pancadashi.
    7. paingala Upanishad, shuka Rahasya Upanishad, pancadashi etc. say that there are only four mahavAkya-s.
    8. Some teachers say that the four vAkya-s tell us about swarUpa (1 vAkya), sAdhana (2 vAkya-s) and phala (1 vAkya).

    Regarding your second point:
    Dennis and myself met on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge last night and exchanged thoughts in detail about mahAvAkya-s using the mathematical operators, + – / and x.
    I do not know if you happen to remember this Convo.
    But when I got up this morning and wanted to offer a cup of tea to you, I did not find you. I wantedto clean up the operators + – etc. They were also not there – I thought maybe you took them away?!
    Finally, I realized everything was “mental” (incl: + – etc.).
    The conclusion is that all creatures of ‘mentation’ can meet, talk, exchange mails. But they all disappear at another level of reality!
    🙂 🙂 🙂


  8. Dear Ramesam,

    1) Well-researched! (Saved me a lot of effort!)

    2) Ha-ha! (I think… therefore I am?)

    Best wishes,

  9. Dear Ramesam,

    Just a brief follow-up, since I am still not convinced. The sort of thing I have read before is typified by this one from https://www.templepurohit.com/mahavakyas-great-sayings-upanishads (which I am not citing as an authoritative source! It was found by Bing AI):

    “Though there are numerous Mahavakyas, four of them are frequently referred to as “the Mahavakyas,” one from each of the four Vedas. Other Mahavakyas include:

    ekam evadvitiyam brahma – Brahman is one, without a second (Chandogya Upanishad)
    so ‘ham – I am that (Isha Upanishad)
    sarvam khalvidam brahma – All of this is brahman (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1)
    etad vai tat – (Katha Upanishad)”

    The only ‘authoritative source’ that you have cited appears to be the Shukarahasya Upanishad. But, as far as I can tell, this only cites the four as being ‘great sayings’. It doesn’t actually say that there are ONLY four. Are you able to find an actual, authoritative stement to this effect?

    A ‘reasonable’ attempt at a definition seems to be this one from Swami Krishnananda:

    “The teacher instructs the disciple in the essential nature of the Atman by the Mahavakya (great dictum): Tat-Tvam-Asi (That thou art), which is one of the Siddhartha-bodha-vakyas or affirmations of existent facts, which have to be made the objects of contemplation for the attainment of Atmasakshatkara or Self-realisation.” (The Philosophy of the Panchadashi)

    Best wishes,

  10. Dear Dennis,

    I am quoting below the actual mantra from shukarahasya Upanishad – text from Sanskrit doc – edited by Dr. S. Hattangadi:

    अथ महावाक्यानि चत्वारि । यथा ।
    ॐ प्रज्ञानं ब्रह्म ॥ १॥
    ॐ अहं ब्रह्मास्मि ॥ २॥
    ॐ तत्त्वमसि ॥ ३॥
    ॐ अयमात्मा ब्रह्म ॥ ४॥

    Meaning: Now then, there are four mahAvAkya-s. As follows:
    Om prajnAnam brahma -1
    Om aham brahmAsmi – 2
    Om tattvamasi -3
    Om ayamAtmA brahma – 4

    An important aspect of the ‘mahAvAkya-s’ to be noted to my mind is as follows:
    All vAkya-s, whether a simple sentence (vAkya), an important sentence (mukhya vAkya), summary sentence (tAtparya), and mahAvAkya (Great Vedic sentence) convey a meaningful and complete information; BUT what distinguishes a mahAvAkya is that there is “nothing” more to be said after it (described as akhaNDa – there is no other knowledge or info to follow it). That’s why, it is said to be capable of ending avidyA.
    For example, statements like Sarvam khalu etc. need to be followed up with something for the attainment of liberation.


  11. I suspect there is a connection between having the traditional four mahavakyas and the fact that in Sanatana Dharma the number four is linked with divine perfection and holds significant importance and symbolism in various ways. For example, there are four Vedas, four yugas, four purusharthas, four varnas, four cardinal directions with their attendant guardians, and four ashramas. And we have the four mutts supposedly established by Shankara as well as his original four disciples.

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