If there is one idea in yoga philosophy that is difficult for most Western yogis to grasp and to get used to, it is the idea of Maya. Over the years as a yoga teacher I have come to realise that even harder than karma or reincarnation to digest, is the theory of Maya for Western yogis and I hope that this article will shed some more light on the subject for them.
Samkhya, also Sankhya, is one of the six (astika) schools of Hindu philosophy and classical Indian philosophy. Sage Kapila is traditionally credited as a founder of the Samkhya School. It is regarded as one of the oldest philosophical systems in India. Samkhya is an enumerationist philosophy that is strongly dualist. Samkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two realities; Puruṣa (consciousness or God) and prakriti (phenomenal realm of matter or nature). Jiva is that state in which puruṣa is bonded to prakriti through the glue of desire, and the end of this bondage is moksha(liberation).
From this dualistic view flows the idea of Maya. Maya is part of prakriti, it is the realm in which we as reincarnated souls function within the limits of our karma and Maya serves as the catalyst through which we can experience prakriti. However, Maya is also part of this bondage or Moksha and we need to remember that all these constructs, Prakriti, Maya and Moksha are not real, they are part of illusion, the unreal, hence the famous words from the Shanti Mantra: “Om asato maa satgamaya, Tamaso maa jyotir gamaya, Mrityor maa amritam gamaya” (Lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to immortality.) The only aspect that which is then real is Puruṣa as it is God or that part of us which is Light, Real and the only Truth.
The world of names, forms and constructions is then Maya. It is our human nature (prakriti) to names things, to put them in categories and to organise them down to the smallest atom and even name those atoms into smaller parts. And this is Maya, while in a body it has purpose and it helps us to make sense of a very complex world, but once we are dead this system has no use to us. We don’t know what awaits us on the other side and even if we will need these Maya constructs to function. It is generally accepted that we forget them as we exist then in Puruṣa, pure consciousness and there is no need for these constructs that we have created and learned while in prakriti.
The Western Dilemma
The main dilemma for most Western yogis are that we grow up with such a strong sense of our world and our bodies, that to tell us suddenly that your body is only an illusion is a bigger shock to the system than the law of karma. As one of my yogis once challenged me in class to come and feel, smell and even taste her body and tell me it isn’t real! For the Western mind the world around us is very real and no illusion, it is a place of joy and sorrow, ups and downs, love and hate and much more. So, to tell a grieving mother and yogi that the death of her 11 year old daughter is only an illusion is no comfort to such a person, but adds to the confusion and sorrow.
True vs. Truth
For me illusion or Maya is true as long as I have a physical body and ego! Yes, my body is true: – I can feel it, smell it, taste it and even sometimes hear it function. I can perceive my body with all my senses. My emotions, my nature, my personality, all these aspects of me and the world around me are true as well. There is no illusion in that. There is even no delusion in that as well. It is also true that we construct words and ideas to describe and categorise our world around us and these constructs are also true and necessary to function in Maya. It is important to realise that all of Maya is true; there is no need to deny our prakriti of even Maya, in doing so we delude ourselves even more and association with our ego becomes stronger.
But is it the Truth? No, it is not the ultimate Truth, this body, this world with all its constructs is not our ultimate Truth. It is not really who we are and that is the path of yoga, to guide us to understand that while Maya is true, Maya is not the Truth! The ultimate Truth, that which is Real, the Light, call it what you want, that is what Maya serves us to discover, Maya is the great reminder that while certain things are true, it is not the Truth and that we are on a path of discovery. The discovery we need to make within Maya is to realise the Truth – and at that a very hard thing to do as well. So Maya helps to differentiate between that which is true and the Truth.