What is maya?

In the Indian philosophy of Vedanta, the world we see before our eyes is referred to as the product of maya. What is this maya?

Maya is commonly translated as illusion, but more accurately, maya is the mental veiling and projecting tendency that results in incomplete vision. It causes a fixation on a particular appearance (including the appearance of individuality) as real, without recognizing how else it might appear and what it is that projects as that appearance.

The screen you see in front of you is an appearance that would appear differently to different species. Furthermore, this variably appearing species-specific screen is made of some fundamental ingredient that is is veiled, beyond the grasp of our physical senses. In this sense, this screen is the power of maya. It still has meaning and usefulness relative to the perceiving organism, but the particular apprehension of “this screen” is far less than 1% of what appears as “this screen.”

Maya applies to all sights, sounds, tastes, scents, and textures. It also applies to thoughts, concepts, feelings, and intuitions. All that is distinct and can be recognized as this or that in particular is maya, in that it is only known relative to a particular identity and as a modification of something more fundamental. Again, this does not mean the aforementioned are useless or unimportant. They are quite useful, and they are a fraction of what is here.

The fundamental ingredient which appears as this screen and all other experiences is what science is looking for as the true objective reality. Many scientists are looking for this reality by going beyond particles to fields and ultimately the source of space-time itself. Some describe this reality as a vacuum. Others call it a sea of fluxing energy. Even this, however, is not “reality”, if we can use such a word.

The vacuum and the sea exist relative to the subtle minds that perceive them either conceptually or experientially as their own fuller nature. The conceptual vacuum can also be experienced as the void state described by ancient wisdom traditions, and the conceptual sea can be experienced as the ocean of bliss. These are the lighthouses that begin to guide us through the heavily tracked fields of maya.

As we walk these illuminating paths, they change our living perception of ourselves, the world, history, science, mind, matter, birth, death, space, time, identity, and every other story you were ever told, whether you begin as a scientist investigating matter, an adventurer investigating mind, a philosopher examining thought, a devotee engaging prayer, or any combination of the above. Nothing you previously knew was necessarily wrong, and all of it was incomplete.

As our living perception changes, so does maya. What was once seen as illusion or incomplete vision is seen as an irrepressible beauty—a beauty that is not specific to a culture or time-period, not on the side of good and opposed to the bad, but rather is indescribable, timeless, and eternal.

Here, maya ends, and along with it, the notion of reality.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of Michelangelo’s Medicine and the upcoming book Is This a Dream? He tweets @DrAnoopKumar.