Māyā & Jñana

Māyā, as defined by Sanātana Ḍharma literature, is to be under an illusion that makes us associate a name (nāma) with a form (rūpa), or in other words an illusion of perception of this reality. A form (like a shape) is nothing but one of many phenomena in Prakriti (Prakṛti), its ever-changing, giving us countless interpretations. This illusion of reality is also called as world-appearance. For example, the sky is blue, but there is no real object called sky with the color blue, it’s an optical illusion, an illusion of the senses due to phenomena in Prakriti. But this optical illusion made people write poems, songs, and paintings of the blue sky. In the Samkhya school (one of six astika) there are twenty-four principles in Prakriti, with the twenty-fifth principle called Puruṣa. The 24th principle is called Avyktha Prakṛti, which is also called as Māyā. ‘Avyaktha’ means, that which is there but not yet available to our reach or our understanding. Māyā is nothing but an illusion that exists in the absence of realization (jnana) which makes us assume this creation as real and separate from Iśvara (or Brahmān) and oneself. In other words, māyā is that aspect, that has no real existence, but the experience (influence) of that māyā within us seems real. It’s like a nightmare causing us to sweat and tremble in fear, but it’s not real. Māyā like darkness is not an item that can be counted or measured, it’s just an absence of light, in the same way, māyā is not an object that can be measured, it is a name given to the absence of Vidya. Hence, Avidya (absence of Vidya) creates an illusion called māyā. From where does Avidya arise? It arises of three things, the Pancha Bootha (5 elements) in Prakriti, the sense organs (indriya), and the Gunas (Rajas, Tamas & Satva) that create various emotions and false identity within a Jīva causing it to falsely perceive this reality from its true self. Because of these emotions, a Jīva simulates or projects its own version of reality within oneself in countless ways, and each interpretation and its influence vary. Just because our interpretation matches with many others doesn’t make it true or real. Adi Śankaracharya explained māyā in a profound way, he said that māyā though non-real has its existence in Brahmān, but the experience that is felt as real is not the true reality. He gives the famous example of a rope that appears as a snake in the dark, but light removes this false illusion and makes the rope apparent. In this analogy, the snake is not real, but the experience that is felt is real, at the same time this experience is false. Both the rope and the experience has its basis in Brahmān. If the rope is perceived as a snake by many people doesn’t make it any true or real. (Jinasu. 2017., Srichaganti. K.D.S, n.d., Swami Venkatesananda. 1993)

Māyā as explained by Swami Prabhavananada and Christopher Isherwood in their translation of Śrī Adishankaracharya’s renowned composition of Advaita Siddhānta titled Vivekachudamani (Crest -Jewel of Discrimination) as:

“The world of thought and matter has a phenomenal or relative existence, and is superimposed upon Brahmān”
“Superimposition is the apparent presentation to consciousness, by the memory, of something previously observed elsewhere. We see a snake. We remember it. Next day, we see a coil or rope. We superimpose the remembered snake upon it, and thereby misunderstand its nature”

(Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. 1947)

The light that removes this illusion as a false experience is called Gyana (jñana). Jñanais to realize that all forms and names are not many but just one, and that form or name is Brahmān. When one starts seeing Iśvara in everything, it’s called jñana. Never interpret jñana as knowledge or information. The creation itself is not our creation but gives us the illusion that we are in control and are its owner.

Alan Watt, a British-American philosopher said:

“The universe is the game of the self, which plays hide and seek for ever and ever. When it plays hide, it plays it so well, hides so cleverly that it pretends to be all of us, and all things what so ever, because it playing hide. When it plays seek, it enters on to a path of Yoga, and through following this path it wakes up and the scales fall from one’s eyes.”

(Alan Watt, 2015)

In Yoga Vaśiṣṭam composed by Maharśi Vaśiṣṭha describes the reality with an analogy on how multiple realities exist and how one can be oblivious about them. He says if two people fall asleep and dream, though both are in close proximity neither can know the dream of the other. Similarly, multiple realities can exist next to each other or overlap on each other but, can’t realize each other. Another analogy for māyā is, say someone falls asleep during the day when they wake up, its common to feel as-if its morning, it might take some time to realize otherwise. During the dream, a being forgets its physical body, but experiences happiness and sadness, joy, and fear, like and dislike. Similarly, we being in this reality for so long (almost) engrossed in activities, made many investments, like relationships, ownership, aspirations, admiration, dislikes, likes, and more. This causes the Jīva to forget its true self, and be lost in this unseen bondage of māyā as truth. A beautiful analogy which was captured in the book titled Vivekachudamani (Crest -Jewel of Discrimination) as:

The sun reflects upon the water. Water moves, and the fool thinks that the sun is moving. The Ātman is reflected upon the physical and mental bodies. The bodies move and act, and the fool thinks: “I act, I experience, I am killed”.
“The wave, the foam, the eddy and the bubble are all essentially water”

(Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. 1947)

In the grand composition of Upasesasahasri by Adi Śankaracharya, He says:

Manasetu gruhey:vektaha, Su:avidya karmā:vasanam
Pasyam:taijasa:atmoktaha, swayamjothi prakashitaha

Meaning, a Jīva builds a nest (or home) within the entity know as manas. And dwells endlessly in the loop of Karmā and its karmāphalas as vasanas. Thought the Jīva is the
one witnessing this viśvām (everything around) its Ātman that is the true witness which shines by itself, untainted by māyā. Hence, when Jīva creates an illusionary reality, its called the dream (Swapna), but when the Samastih (Iśvara) creates an illusionary reality its called Māyā. Hence the saying by Śrī Shankaracharya

Brahmā:satyam, Jagan:mithya

Meaning, Brahmān is the only truth and Jagath (reality) is an illusion.

Existence is but a Sakṣhi (witness) to the progress of kālá (time) and to realize that there is more to us than just a physical body and a form with a name. The one who is this witness is Ātman and not the Jīva. Similar to a Jīva who witnesses its dream, so the Ātman witnesses the drama of a Jīva in māyā. Let’s understand māyā with few more examples, but before that let’s go over a few vital definitions and concepts of Sanātana Ḍharma. (Śrī Garikapati. N.J.V, n.d., p.1474)


Jagath: Śāstra defines Jagath as “Jayate gachate iti Jagat“, meaning that which sprouts (comes out) and disperses or dissolves back. Jagath means the reality of the current creation (Śrusti) (please note, there exist many realities in Śrusti and within each of us), which emerges and dissolves. Some realities dissolve during Pralaya, and some out of Gyana (jñana).  On the highest purview, creation is māyā (an illusion) created through the aspect known as Prakṛti which is ever-changing and in constant flux.

Vāsanā: is an inherent habit or memory carried over by the Jīva which constitutes the guṇa. This inherent habit is an impression left over a Jīva out of Sādhanā (practice) or striving done by a Jīva in previous lives, which it carries over to the next. If one practices devotion or upliftment of conscience then that impression is carried over by the subtle body to a new form. The same applies to a life lived with hate or vengeance or discrimination.

Manas: Śāstra defines manas as “Sankalpa Vikalpa Sangatham”, wherein Sankalpa meaning resolution or decision, and Vikalpa means to be in a state of flux and fantasy and uncertainty, and finally Sangatham means to struggle. This statement defines our manas as an entity which reasons and struggles between resolutions and uncertainty. This manas can either be clouded by doubt arising from Vāsanā (as emotions), or it can be governed by intellect (Buddhi) (through Upāsanā and Sadhana). There lies a difference between Manas and Mind. The mind is a generic aspect of the physical entity called the brain, which processes accumulated information, however, manas uses this mind (technically buddhi) and its memory, to reason between like and dislike. This reasoning is influenced by various factors, and not limited to the data accumulated by the sense organs. A Jīva forgets its true self and keeps becoming a victim to its inherent vāsanā, which governs the manas hence, constantly struggles with decision making. Manas is a part of Sukshma Śarīra (non-physical or subtle body) and is directly proportional to the physical breathing pattern of the physical body (Sthula Śarīra). In reaction to various emotions, especially hate fear or jealousy, arising out of vāsanā and guṇa, various chemical aspects in the physical body change, causing our heart and breathing pattern to lose balance. This breathing pattern is directly coupled to the life-force of a body, this life-force is called prāṇa (various vayu/air that resides within our body). So, when a balanced breathing pattern is disturbed, the manas tries to react and reason with our mind’s information. Though buddhi presents information and statistics, the manas obscures this information and directs actions based on its like and dislike. Hence, one has to carefully witness and examine the likes (rāga or preeti) and dislikes (dveṣa) of the manas. Otherwise, these decisions and actions will leave an impression upon a Jīva that will carry over to the next life, in-fact it will determine the upādhi (form, like animal form or human form or other celestial forms) of a Jīva in the next life. One should not fight or be in conflict with one’s manas, one has to treat manas like a child or a monkey and slowly train it with love and reasoning. This can only happen through Upāsanā and Sadhana (Practice through dedication).  Various path of Sādhanā has been put forth by Yoga, there are eight such types called Astangayoga. ‘Asta’ Means eight, ‘anga’ means branches or limbs, ‘yoga’ means a path or a method to the union. One can channel Manas through these eight yogic aspects, which are, Yama, Niyama, Āsana, Prāṇayama, Pratyahara, Dhyāna, Dhāraṇā, Samādhi. Channeling manas means to break free from its bond of likes and dislikes.

“Hetam manoharika durlabham vachaha”

Meaning, the words of well-being are often disliked by manas since it always seeks comfort and pleasure-of-senses, based on its strong bonding to likes and dislikes, conditioned over many lifetimes. Manas has to accept Buddhi to be the one that projects and concludes and then put into practice using its Indriya. (Garikapati. 2016. SMA)

If one fails to channel one’s manas, then during the final breath of the Jīva (before death), the manas which lacks Upāsanā (practice) will continue to hold on to aspects like enmity, hate, jealousy, selfishness, discrimination and so will carry these aspects to its next life. If from practice (Sadhana) one fosters a nature that is uncontaminated by desire or hate or selfishness, seeking pure conscience (sattva guṇa) that Jīva will seek the Supreme Singular Conscience (Brahmān). The nature of the manas in its final breath will determine the upādhi (form) of the next life. This message can be found in Śrīmad Bhagavād Gita, Chapter 8 of Akshara Brahmā Yoga, Sloka 5 & 6, wherein Gitacharya (Śrī Kṛṣṇa) says:

अन्तकाले च मामेव स्मरन्मुक्त्वा कलेवरम्।
यः प्रयाति स मद्भावं याति नास्त्यत्र संशयः।।
यं यं वापि स्मरन्भावं त्यजत्यन्ते कलेवरम्।
तं तमेवैति कौन्तेय सदा तद्भावभावितः।।

(Gita Supersite. n.d.)

Guṇa: is the manifestation of human character (persona) molded out of vāsanā (traits from previous lives) depending on the level of conscience. In the process of evolving in conscience, a person strives to shed its inherent vāsanā and moves either towards higher conscience or towards the darkness of hate and selfishness. Each person is different and has a different interpretation and approach towards things, like a choice or perspective and more, but how can one define the reason why people are born with such interpretation. Circumstance does play a role by providing experience, however, the choice made by an individual when presented with options is defined by this nature or guṇa. Guṇa can be classified into three evolving states, they are thamas or thamo guṇa,  rajas or rajo guṇa, and satva guṇa. The final evolved state is the Shudha Satva guṇa.

Janma: A Jīva to reside in the physical realm of this reality needs a physical host body like a human being or animal or a plant and more, why? Because a human body in this physical reality becomes a means for a Jīva to both experience Puńya and pápa inherited by Karmā. This body because of a means towards both pain and pleasure. The concept of taking this form is through birth in a given era of kālá(am) (time), which is known as Janma.

Ātman: is the conscience that acts as an interface between this reality and the innate energy which is the Jīva, and helps the Jīva retaining a upādhi to realize itself and in-return realize Iśvara who is the Pāramatma. An Ātman is an extension of Pāramatma. A beautiful analogy which was captured in the book titled Vivekachudamani (Crest -Jewel of Discrimination) as:

“The ether enclosed within a jar is not affected by the smell of the wine. The Ātman within its coverings is not affected by the properties of the coverings”

(Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. 1947)

For example, let’s take clay, with which we can make many objects like pots, statues, sculptures, and more. The one who sees each such objects and creates a distinction among them based on its form, and names them is called māyā (under illusion), but when one sees the true source for all, which in this case is clay, is to have achieved jñana. A similar reference can be shown with wood, with which one can carve an animal-like shape, let’s say an elephant, and be presented to a child. That child calls it’s an elephant and not wood, but the father knows that is not really an elephant but wood carved into a shape that gives the notion of being an elephant. The Same realization when applied to all objects in space and kālá (time) that everything is one omnipresent Iśvara is called jñana. When we refer to all objects in space and time, include oneself, and realize that ‘I’ is not this physical body and that there is more to it which is the realization of Ātman is called a jñana, otherwise the one limiting each object as independent and different is a:jñani. A sloka from Śrīmad Bhagavād Gita, Chapter 7 of Jnana Vijnana Yoga, Sloka 14, wherein Gitacharya (Śrī Kṛṣṇa) says:

दैवी ह्येषा गुणमयी मम माया दुरत्यया।
मामेव ये प्रपद्यन्ते मायामेतां तरन्ति ते।।

(Gita Supersite. n.d.)

Meaning, this māyā is not real and is an illusion projected by the Prakṛti due to the lack of realization caused by subtle variations in guṇa. Those who lack practice (Sadhana) face difficulty overcoming this māyā, but for those who channel their practice towards me (Iśvara) they alone can overcome this illusion.

One has to understand that realization is much different from just reading or knowing about māyā or jnana. Knowledge gained from reading or listening is not the same as realization. In the Yoga of Vaśiṣṭha explained to Śrī Ram, He says:

“Liberation is the realization of the total non-existence of the universe as such. This is different from a mere denial of the existence of the ego and the universe! The latter is  only half-knowledge”
“Even as the mirage appears to be a very real river of water, this creation appears to be entirely real. And, as long as one clings to the notion of the reality of ‘you’ and ‘I’, there is no liberation. Not by merely and verbally denying such a notion of existence is it obliterated: on the contrary, such denial itself becomes a further distraction”

(Swami Venkatesananda. 1993)

Sloka from Śrīmad Bhagavātam composed by a Telugu poet and scholar Bammera Pothana wherein Maharśi Shuka:brahma explains to King Parekshith as:

“హరిమయము విశ్వమంతయు
హరి విశ్వమయుండు సంశయము పనిలే దా
హరిమయముగాని ద్రవ్యము
పరమాణువు లేదు వంశపావన! వింటే”

“harimayamu viSvamaMtayu
hari viSvamayuMDu saMSayamu panilE daa
harimayamugaani dravyamu
paramaaNuvu lEdu vaMSapaavana! viMTE”

(Pothana Bagavatham Audio. P.I. 2015).

Meaning, Śrī Hari is everywhere and is everything, even the tiniest entity is Sir Hari. When one understands this, that person will not have an enemy or a friend, such person has no distinction between animals or trees or humans, there is no rich or poor, the same compassion exists towards everything and everyone as it is Śrī Hari or Pārabrahmā.

Śrī Ramana Maharshi. (1948)

A good example from Śrī Ramana Maharshi’s life (a jñani from the Hills of Arunachala, Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu), wherein a sick stray dog kept trying to sneak into his Ashram(am), but was always shunted away. One-night Śrī Ramana Maharshi went outside to excrete bodily waste. One of the ashram(am) residents accompanying Śrī Ramana Maharshi up to some distance and waited while Śrī Ramana Maharshi walked into some bushes and trees. The pupil heard some whispers of Śrī Ramana Maharśi consoling someone, but didn’t confront Him when He returned. The next morning that pupil and others noticed the stray dog lying dead. They returned and notified Śrī Ramana Maharśi for which He replied, the dog was trying to visit Him for a while as it knew it was nearing its end but wasn’t allowed to come near Him and so He Himself went to visit the dog to console it during its last moments. Śrī Ramana Maharshi at the state of Ahaṃ Brahmāsmi saw one Pārabrahmā in all, including the dog. For Him there was no second entity to create a distinction, hence communication through linguistics was not something to be learned or to be considered as a miracle to be able to communicate to an animal, because it’s a known fact that animals do respond and understand affection through touch and sounds.

A sloka from Śrīmad Bhagavād Gita, Chapter 2 of Sankhya Yoga, Sloka 4, in which Gitacharya (Śrī Kṛṣṇa) Says:

भोगैश्वर्यप्रसक्तानां तयापहृतचेतसाम्।
व्यवसायात्मिका बुद्धिः समाधौ न विधीयते।।

Meaning, those who engross themselves in the illusions of Prakriti (reality) and fall for flower-like convincing words that material pleasure and aspects like fame and power are the highest goals will miss the understanding of Ātman and self upliftment toward the ultimate truth.

When man attains the realization of Pārabrahmā, one will not identify one’s body as self, and so will dwell as an Ātman wearing the material body like a cloth. A beautiful analogy which was captured in the book titled Vivekachudamani (Crest -Jewel of Discrimination) as:

“An actor remains the same person, even when dressed to play a part. The excellent knower of Brahmān always remains Brahmān, and nothing else”
“A Man is other than his shadow. No matter what touches his shadow-hot or cold, good or bad-he remains completely untouched”
“Like the properties of a room do not affect the lamp which reveals them”
“The man who has awakened no longer identifies himself with his dream-body, his dream-actions, or the objects of his dream. he comes to himself simply by waking up”

(Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. 1947)

To attain such a state, Śrī Śankara requests the sight of the Divine Mother, in this case, the joyful eyes of Śrī Lakṣmī which are watching Śrī Hari’s thoughts, and since He is watching those in Upāsanā, in return makes us be noticed by Śrī Lakṣmī. From this Śrī Add Śankaracharya is indirectly emphasizing that Śrī Hari’s means of uplifting us is through the anugraham (grace) of the Divine Mother’s eyes.            (Srichaganti. K.D.S, n.d., p.12,Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. 1947)

REFERENCE ENTRY (APA Style citation)

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