Maya is one of the more confusing Sanskrit terms due to its diverse array of meanings and how its definition can change depending on the context. Synonyms for maya include avyakta (unmanifest state) and prakrti (primordial nature). At the personal level, maya is also synonymous with two words that mean “not knowing”: ajnana and the more commonly used, avidya. Other words used to describe maya include “indefinable” and “inscrutable.” Maya is said to be avyakrta (impossible to understand). Thus, the term “maya” also works as a sort of catchall for that which cannot be explained. Sages liken it to a mysterious force that makes the impossible, possible—for example, how, according to Vedanta, from consciousness we get an entire universe full of objects and apparent beings.
Most people who have dabbled in eastern metaphysics understand maya to be the power of delusion. Maya is the great illusionist, that which hides the truth from us by using its powers of concealment and projection. It tricks us in many ways, for example, by having us believe that objects are independent, substantial and unchanging. The classic example is the pot and the clay. What we perceive as a “pot,” in reality, is only clay that has been fashioned into name and form. The pot is only an appearance. We know it exists because we experience it, but the truth of the pot is that it's clay. If the pot breaks, we no longer have the pot but we still have clay. However, without clay there is no pot. For this reason, we say that clay is real (satya, meaning “truth”), while the pot is only apparently real (mithya). The wording is very subtle, but significant. Maya isn’t an illusion, like an apparition. It is the inability to perceive the truth. It is ignorance, or more specifically, a kind of not knowing.
If we compare maya to pure consciousness, we find a peculiar relationship. Similar to the pot and the clay, maya depends on consciousness but consciousness doesn’t depend on maya. Vedanta defines “real” as that which is always present and never changes, which, as it turns out, only consciousness qualifies as. In contrast, the nature of maya and creation is to be constantly in flux where objects are created, maintained for while, then destroyed and recycled into other forms. Objects in maya are also divisible and dependent on other objects. For example, a shirt is just cloth, which is just thread, which is just cotton, and so on. Thus, a key characteristic of maya is that everything is constantly changing and nothing is as it appears.
On the other hand, we do experience objects. So, maya has the unusual status of neither being real nor unreal. Thus, maya, at best, offers a morphing, dream-like experience when examined closely. Any feeling of solidity and permanency is nothing more than a facade created by the slow passing of time and the composition of parts that seemingly make up the object.
So, maya’s super power is its ability to keep us in a sort of hypnotic state where we constantly misinterpret the objects before us. Of course, every super power comes with a hidden weakness built in—an aspect that makes it vulnerable—and maya’s weakness is that its spell ends when right knowledge is applied. This is traditionally shown using the example of the snake and the rope. A weary traveler walking at dusk grows fearful upon encountering a snake in his path. It’s only when the truth is revealed that the snake is just a coiled rope that the threat of danger loses all its power. Technically, this is referred to as viparaya in Sanskrit. It’s maya’s ability to reverse our cognition of reality. So, although maya’s deluding power may be beginningless, it is not without end.
However, that’s not all. The term “maya” is used to describe more than just how we continuously get duped regarding the nature of reality. It is also used to describe God’s power of creation and the impersonal forces that shape the world as we know it. Thus, to really understand maya, we must view it both from the microcosmic and macrocosmic level. Both are related, but different. One explains personal ignorance (avidya), while the other explains the creation, sustainment and eventual dissolution of the universe. Maya, then, is responsible for both our outer and inner worlds.
At the macrocosmic level, God’s maya makes consciousness appear as name and form. It is an illusory superimposition (adhyaropa) onto consciousness, similar to how a dream is an illusory superimposition onto the waker. Maya is the ultimate virtual reality machine in which our senses correlatively participate in a world of sense objects that create endless wonderment and fascination. God skates along its maya effortlessly, while the individual gets tangled up in its web and must learn how to exist in harmony with it.
God (Ishvara) is defined as consciousness + maya. Maya is said to be an upadhi, a limiting adjunct that makes consciousness appear something other than it is. A common example is how a red cloth placed behind a crystal will make the crystal appear to take on other attributes (i.e., the color red). Maya is not a part, product or property of consciousness. And yet paradoxically, neither is it totally outside of consciousness. It’s inseparable from consciousness just as fire’s ability to burn is inseparable from its ability to illuminate. Nevertheless, similar to the pot and clay, maya is dependent on consciousness and not the other way around. One is not real, while the other is.
While maya's power cannot be shown, it can be inferred. Vedanta rationalizes the existence of maya by making the point that because consciousness is not agent (is actionless), it cannot cause the world. Similarly, because the world is inert (dead matter), it cannot cause itself. That means that the cause of the world must be something other than consciousness or the world.
Maya is sometimes esoterically described as “consciousness in motion.” A supporting illustration for this comes from Gaudapada’s, Mandukya Upanishad with Karika which uses the metaphor of the firebrand. Imagine, an artist lighting the end of stick until it is a red ember. Waving it in the dark, he creates the appearance of various entities and objects that seemingly come and go. The artist might make a story surrounding such entities and objects, drawing us in even further, until we forget it’s only a stick of fire being hypnotically waved in front of us. In this metaphor of the firebrand, the objects are just an appearance caused by the movement (maya) of the firebrand (consciousness).
When God’s creation cycle is active and God is “awake,” maya—in the form of its three constituents, the gunas—creates the world. The gunas provide more detail about maya’s specific creative powers. Briefly described, the gunas are sattva (the information needed for creation), rajas (the energy or action needed for creation), and tamas (the inert material needed for creation). When the creation cycle comes to an end and God goes to “sleep,” maya reverts to its unmanifest state holding the information necessary to activate and sustain creation again.
At the microcosmic level, the gunas also create and influence our inner world. Thus, the gunas, or maya, have a psychological aspect, which makes sense because if God is all creation and we are included in its creation, what makes our outer world would also have to make our inner one. That said, each guna can have a positive or negative effect on our conditioning. Maya’s ability to project and conceal is associated with rajas and tamas, while clarity is associated with sattva. Management of the gunas leads to a harmonious life, while mismanagement of the gunas leads to succumbing to and being bound by impersonal forces—samsara.
It should be clear by now that maya has many different facets. We can view maya from the microcosmic or macrocosmic, or from the psychological or physical. However, at a personal level, we mustn’t only think of maya in the negative. Due to the world’s, ultimately, unsatisfactory quality, we are eventually driven to pursue, hear, contemplate and actualize the truth about the nature of existence. In other words, it’s our inevitable frustration with the world that eventually brings us liberation. The individual, searching for permanent happiness out in the field becomes exhausted chasing objects, relationships and experiences, and instead, turns within. Thus, the extroverted becomes the introverted and begins to seek the answers required to gain actual freedom. For that, we can thank maya.