An associate earlier this week made a remark about the concept of Maya – and the ‘matronly’ associations he’d felt for it, coming at it from a Buddhist context. Now, Maya is often misunderstood – in no small part because it’s grown so hugely as a term over the millennia … so it seemed as good a time as any to set down a few thoughts clarifying a rather contrasting Hindu perspective upon Maya.
So first up – what is ‘Maya’ ? Well, most people, when they use the term today, merely mean ‘Illusion’ – and the notion, I suppose, of reality all up as being illusory … a magic show, shadow-puppets upon the wall, that sort of thing. And that’s not necessarily inaccurate – it’s just that it’s only one of several shades of meaning which the term has. And, as I say, a quite specifically more recent one; of particular saliency amidst the Buddhists, and somewhat ill at ease with its archaic Vedic origins.
Perhaps appropriately, Maya has, as I say, quite the spectrum of applicable meanings – all drawn together via an essential, underlying unity … yet which nevertheless simultaneously supports multiple semi-competitive if not outright exclusionary interpretations. Both of the word, the term – and of the cosmology, the soteriology, the metempsychosis and the metaphysics, of … well, everything, not only us.
Now, while I do feel that it’s somewhat inaccurate in this usage, you will still see the meaning-field of Maya collapsed down to ‘illusion’ in some translations of the older Vedic texts – yet the actual sense is closer to ‘magic’ (or ‘power’, particularly of seemingly supernatural nature) … and I suppose it’s not hard to see how ‘magic’ and ‘illusion’, are regarded as somewhat coterminous by the careless.
Although the use of the exact same word to refer to ‘Art’ , or ‘Wisdom’ … well, that is starting to get us somewhere in deconstructing the illusion of its interpolation as merely something false.
The actual sense being conveyed, especially when speaking cosmologically, is that of … I suppose we might say the ‘tapestry of reality’. Which, of course, in later Dharmic cosmology & metaphysics, means something that is ‘less real’ than the absolute reality [‘Brahman’ – ‘highest’] … although it’s worth noting that as we’re also part of this reality (layered or otherwise) – that ‘illusion’ is not necessarily a helpful perspective, as it would imply that it’s less real, more illusory than we ourselves are. Or it may not – and whether you believe it (or some semi-middle-ground position wherein the self is the illusion, yet the experience of being a self is something true experiencing this illusion), would come down to just which of a half a hundred Buddhist and/or Hindu world(s)-views you are taking. Perspectives, I should probably emphasize, which are not really well-anchored in the broader Indo-European world-view. Although have grown out therefrom in perhaps not entirely unpredictable fashion.
In terms of an ‘Absolute’ and ‘Broader Reality’ distinction (indeed, if there even is one) – this, again, is a hugely complex area of conceptual cosmology and metaphysics that we’re … not going to get into. With almost as many precise perspectives upon the matter as there have been great Dharmic philosophers – and probably then some. Although I raise it here because whilst, again, it’s not something easily found in the broader Indo-European sphere up until much later … you CAN run something which is reasonably comparable to how Brahman functions for the Hindu view, by making use of the fundamentally Indo-European concept of Cosmic Order. This is because, for us (Hindus) – Brahman as Rta [Cosmic Order, Law] is a well attested theological precept ; and we find the directly cognate understanding to Rta in the Nordic / Germanic view of Orlog [‘Supernal Law’ – more literally ‘Outside/Above Law’], as well as some support for this conception also in the Classical mythologies. But more upon that some other time.
My point is – you can have an ‘absolute’ of a sort that is a-priori to our universal reality, and necessary as its foundation, in an Indo-European perspective. Except that this does not, in and of itself, make the reality we are inhabiting somehow ‘false’ and ‘illusory’ in the sense that many later Dharmic adherents may think of. And that is no problem – for as we have seen and as we shall se, it’s not exactly what Maya was intended to mean in the first place. But let’s move forward.
I spoke earlier of a fundamental unifying sense to these conceptual understandings of Maya , capable of reconciling, bringing together the notion of ‘illusion’ (in the sense of the shrouding of one’s senses from what’s ‘really real’], the potency of ‘Magic’ (in which the power is anything other than merely ‘illusory’ or ‘false’), and other such things.
The way to approach it, I suspect, is that ‘Maya’ as a potency means manipulating the fabric of reality [see what I did there? because ‘tapestry’].
Which may take the form of illusory magic, especially if wielded by forces of delusion such as demons, which is often what happens.
Although as we can see, that’s not really the ‘root’ sense of the term. As the power to, say, make the Sun Shine [as we find in one of the most notable of the RigVedic Hymnals upon the concept of Maya , RV X 177], is quite the opposite [and this is especially the case when we consider the customary associations of meaning of the Sun and the Solar Energy within the Vedic sphere – as the active empowerment of All, and the direct opposite of falsity; indeed, the immanency of the Absolute out into our world].
However, what’s quite instructive is to note just Who is described as the master-wielder of this power of Maya in a Vedic context:
Lord Varuna. A figure that is closely correlated with the ‘night-time’ face of the Sky Father [‘Dyaus Pitar’].
Night is a ‘veil’ [‘Kel’ in PIE => “Kaal” … which, of course, is where we get “Kali” … and more upon this in a moment]
Now in terms of why I mention Kali … it is intriguing to note the perspective of Kali as ‘reality’ [which may perhaps help to metaphysically underscore the Kali as Death concept – although that’s me making a later interpolation around “Death” and “Reality” versus “Life” and “Absolute”; although I should perhaps clarify that the actual reasoning for “Kel” => “Death” associated terms in subsequent IE languages is instead due to the notion of the ‘Veil’ between the world of the living and that of the Dead … past which one cannot easily see , and from beyond which few return]
… this perspective of Kali as Reality , both finds expression with the idea of the ‘blackness’ that is a-priori to various things occurring ‘within time’ – stitchings upon that tapestry of creation, we might say [and there is some broad Indo-European support for this notion of Kaal(i) as a-priori to what happens in creation – as seen, for instance, in the position of Nyx (and Erebus) in various Classical interpretations]
… and in relation to this , as a ‘covering’ [‘Kel’ again] upon absolute in much the same manner that various Hindu scriptural materials depict Kali as almost a ‘patina’ upon the otherwise fair [‘Gauri’] features of Devi [a sense, interestingly, shared rather directly with Demeter Erinyes … entirely uncoincidentally; and also, I suspect quite strongly, with the distinction between Chhaya and Saranyu – in which Chhaya is, in effect, ‘Shadow’ ; so, ‘the covering of’ , ‘the shadow of’ the absolute]
… but also , with the notion of Kali as the transcendent absolute reality [which would also connect with the concept innate to both the Shakta theology, as well as the excellent exegesis of Sayana, the Vijayanagara Brahmin Vedic commentator – wherein Devi-as-Brahman is well attested … as with, in the latter case especially, Brahman as Rta finding active in-universe expression as Devi Vak – hence, as I have occasionally observed : in regular world-view, transgressor breaks law … in Indo-European (and especially Shakta) mythology – LAW BREAKS YOU)
Except as applies Kali as ‘covering’ … or as ‘absolute’ … it’s actually a situation of both at once, various schools placing different emphasis upon, or even endeavouring to outright exclude one or the other of these
Now this, of course, brings us full circle – because when I noted that element around ‘Maya’ having a ‘matronly’ connotation … well, you can see how it is relevant. [And as a brief digression – Maya is the mother of the Buddha , whilst Maia is the Mother of Hermes. The Indo-Greek Buddhist syncretic approach, therefore, occasionally made Hermes – Buddha linkages informed by this as well as other partial coterminities. Although referencing back to Nyx, and to other such Goddess forms – Maya, we might perhaps say, is a Mother to us all]
In terms of the ‘power’ connotation I may have aforementioned … I’ll need to check this, but I suspect that the ‘measurement’ sense (another meaning of ‘Maya’) would be broadly cognate with a number of terms sharing an etymological root with Ancient Greek ‘Metis’.
Now, I mention this, because a number of these are effectively terms for ‘Rulership’ [interestingly, one of these, ‘Medo’ [‘Rule’/’Protect’] is also the root for ‘Medusa’ – although as I’ve covered in my previous work, that’s because this connotes a sovereignty association for the Sky Father … and the female deity that’s quite closely coterminous – Zeus and Athena, after all, have the relevant characteristics]; or, for that matter, for the closely aligned features of ‘Counsel’ and ‘Planning’ [‘Diomedes’ is a good example [‘Divine/Heavenly Cunning/Insight/Plan/Guided’ – as we see during his great combat in the Iliad availed by Athena]; as, of course, is ‘Metis’ , not only in terms of Athena’s Mother, but also the ‘Royal Metis’ of Zeus … and I keep meaning to illustrate the loose yet underlying coterminity of what’s going on with the former and Goddess Ganga in Shaivite iconography … which is a counterpoint to the ‘Illusion’ sense, because this is actually a connexion with the Absolute .. ]
Now, of course, it’s possible to propose a slightly contrasting etymological sense – wherein it’s the same ‘Meh’ [PIE] in its particular development that effectively means ‘to limit’ that’s most relevant .. with ‘Maya’, therefore, being a ‘limit’ upon comprehension.
Yet while that’s in some senses accurate to later usage … I don’t think that’s correct , either broadly or underpinningly.
Although that said, it did amuse me to note that the ‘to count’ sense of ‘Meh’ informed various subsequent terms for and conceptions of ‘Time’ in Indo-European languages …. because a) that brings us back to ‘Kaal’ and ‘Kali’ b) it is often said that ‘Time is an Illusion’ and c) Space-Time would certainly be one way to talk about a thing with a fabric that is the universe.
All up, though, what’s rather fascinating given how it’s more commonly interpreted … is the notion of this ‘Meh’ resultant ‘Maya’ as meaning ‘Thinking’
Because first up, this helps to underpin the cosmological, indeed cosmogonical sense – wherein the Creator Deit(ies/y) ‘think’ things into being [and there’s a broadly pervasive ‘Song-Smith’ concept wherein the ‘thoughts’ in question are patterns in reality given exterior expression through song/prayer by the figure(s) in question – which, as you can see, brings us right back to ‘Magic’ … ] ; or has creation, existence, as a thought in the ‘mind’ [which is the other possible derivation back to PIE , in some views – ‘Men’ , meaning ‘Mind’ … which is also where we get ‘Mantra’ and such from] of the Absolute .
But second – because it conveys the notion of ‘Maya’ , indeed, reality (Or even for that matter .. Reality) as being the opposite of delusion, illusion, beguiling befuddlement.
Instead, That Which Is Grasped, Comprehended, Realized.
Which is a nice way of thinking about things [pun not initially intended – perhaps that’s a guided one too ] from our positional perspective ‘down here’ – ‘the universe’ as something to be (creatively) mentally engaged in with the eventual potentiality of understanding it.
I would say “Understanding Her” .. but … well, that is just going to lead to a perhaps inopportune gendered jocularity.
And, also to an improbability – that of ever fully grasping, comprehending, understanding still much less internalizing, an Absolute.
Some days, I instead think the appropriate way to engage with reality is not as an act of mastery thereupon (an attempt that almost invariably ends with the ‘snap-back’ of fist into face in much the same manner as endeavouring to punch a rubber band of some size and spread) – but rather as a simple act of beholding. Beholding in wonder, marvelling at the greatness and the grandeur, the tapestry and the tableau. It is not required to understand how the thing works in order to have this sense – although it is distinguished from ‘illusion’ , I feel , insofar as understanding how the effect is generated does not diminish our awe at seeing it in progress, in process, in motion. Indeed, I would suggest that it tends only to increase this feeling. And not least because there’s almost invariably another layer of deepa complexity further down that we have not yet precisely grasped the intricacies of just yet.
‘Maya’, then, while it most certainly does have the conventionally applicable sense of ‘Illusion’ or ‘Stage-Magic’ to it – should not be construed as being limited to that definition, any more than reality should be thought of as merely what you can see right now in front of your face. It’s a part of it, sure, definitely – and for some people, that’s all of it that they know, can know, or care to know all up. But it is not the Power of Maya – it is only the ‘effect’. And even leaving aside the question of fundamental ‘root causes’ – to seek to understand only the surface skein is to seek not to understand the thing at all. To reduce actual, tangible Power down to parlour tricks and then wonder why merely disbelieving in things does not actually seem to provide adequate protection against them. After all – it is often less that you believe in reality, than reality believes in you. And that reality, as someone once famously observed, can be defined as that which continues to persist even if you should close your eyes and disbelieve in it. Something which, per the Shakta theology around the Pralaya – has everything else, including us , ceasing to exist – whilst She does remain [see our previous brief commentary on Ma as Dhumavati , for instance]
Shakti , after all , being Power – as is Maya . Even if , in a sense , one is the garb , the cloak , worn by the other – in a somewhat irreducible and saliently coterminous overlap of expression and essence, category and codifier, wearer and adornment.
So, with that in mind … an interesting lead-in for KaalRatri – the Black Night both a-priori to and permeating through the Universe – standing above and astride creation whilst also in a sense being Creation Herself .
Maya as ‘Matronly’, you might perhaps say.