The Meaning and Nature of Maya (Illusion)

H. P. Blavatsky and Theosophy quite often state that the Universe and everything in it is illusion or, in Sanskrit, Maya.

But it’s important that this is correctly understood, since there is more than one way to understand Maya.

The idea that “it’s all illusion, everything is illusion” is quite prominent in some forms of popular spirituality nowadays, such as “A Course in Miracles.” It is also found in a certain form in Christian Science and, much more anciently, in Indian religions, particularly the Advaita Vedanta (non-duality) form of Hinduism. Although there are differences between the three systems just named, they all agree in essence in their teaching that the Universe is literally an illusion; in other words, that what we see and perceive as this Universe does not exist, has never existed, will never exist, and that we literally only imagine it to objectively exist due to being caught in a type of “dream of ignorance.”

The Ajativada form of Advaita Vedanta takes “illusionism” to an extreme, maintaining that there is no such thing as manifestation, that what we see and perceive as such is merely a mass projection of our collective ignorance, and that therefore no-one is actually bound and no-one needs to be liberated. What then do we need to do, according to the Ajativada (literally “no-birth” or “no-existence”) view? Simply to try to escape from manifestation as soon as possible and fully re-merge back into the Absoluteness of Brahman, the Infinite, the Divine. To achieve this, they suggest one must cultivate disgust with the whole of manifestation by looking upon the world as vomit and excrement and then try to literally extinguish and annihilate one’s own mind, since that – they claim – is the only thing keeping us in bondage to this illusory world and Universe.

The Theosophical view of illusion is different from this in almost every way. In the systems just referred to, the illusionist worldview is so extreme because the prospect of evolution – a grand, vast, purposeful, ongoing inner evolution of all life and consciousness, as well as of substance and forms – is denied. But this type of evolution, as a periodically recurring cyclic process that rises progressively to greater and greater heights of consciousness, experience, inner unfoldment, and actualisation of divinity, is one of the most central and fundamental components of Theosophy and its view of life, our Earth, and this solar system and Universe of which we are a part. And Theosophy discourages us from trying to escape from all this. Yes, we do need to rise above everything that binds us down to the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth, but, having risen above it, we ought not to abandon this Earth and the rest of humanity, but remain with it out of true love and compassion, to help, heal, guide, and teach. Those who Theosophy speaks of as “The Masters” are some of those who have done this very thing and we are encouraged to follow in their noble footsteps.

Yet nonetheless, we read such statements as this, which is the fourth “summing up” point in Vol. 1 (“Cosmogenesis”) of “The Secret Doctrine” by H. P. Blavatsky: “The Universe is called, with everything in it, MAYA.” But HPB immediately explains: “. . . because all is temporary therein, from the ephemeral life of a fire-fly to that of the Sun. Compared to the eternal immutability of the ONE, and the changelessness of that Principle, the Universe, with its evanescent ever-changing forms, must be necessarily, in the mind of a philosopher, no better than a will-o’-the-wisp. Yet, the Universe is real enough to the conscious beings in it, which are as unreal as it is itself.” (Vol. 1, p. 274)

So the reason the teachings of Theosophy describe the Universe and everything in it as being Maya – illusion – is because of the impermanence, the finite nature, the changeability, evanescence, transience, and ultimate temporariness of the Universe and everything in it. We say it is undeniable that everything around us currently objectively exists (if anyone doubts this, as some claim to, one can try walking through a wall, as that will quickly settle the matter!) but it is equally undeniable that everything around us, everything manifested, is but finite and impermanent. But even so, it serves a great and divine purpose and is not meaningless or useless.

Twice in “The Secret Doctrine” HPB uses the term “objective idealism” and contrasts it with “subjective idealism.” Objective idealism – or the spiritual worldview which still admits the existence and meaning of the objective material world – is what Theosophy is, she says.

Space is the real world, while our world is an artificial one. It is the One Unity throughout its infinitude: in its bottomless depths as on its illusive surface; a surface studded with countless phenomenal Universes, systems and mirage-like worlds. Nevertheless, to the Eastern Occultist, who is an objective Idealist at the bottom, in the real world, which is a Unity of Forces, there is “a connection of all matter in the plenum,” as Leibnitz would say. This is symbolized in the Pythagorean Triangle.” (“The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 615)

“Esoteric philosophy, teaching an objective Idealism – though it regards the objective Universe and all in it as Maya, temporary illusion – draws a practical distinction between collective illusion, Mahamaya [i.e. literally “Great Illusion”], from the purely metaphysical stand-point, and the objective relations in it between various conscious Egos so long as this illusion lasts.” (“The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 631 – note that in Theosophical terminology, “Ego” is a synonym for the permanent reincarnating individuality, the human soul; for more details, please see Ego Is Not A Bad Word.)

Therefore, in her article “What Shall We Do for our Fellow-Men?” we find H. P. Blavatsky saying: “The term maya . . . expresses only a relative notion. The world . . . “its joys and evils, its gods and devils,” and men to boot, are undeniably, when compared with that awful reality everlasting eternity, no better than the productions and tricks of maya, illusion. But there the line of demarcation is drawn. So long as we are incapable of forming even an approximately correct conception of this inconceivable eternity, for us, who are just as much an illusion as anything else outside of that eternity, the sorrows and misery of that greatest of all illusions – human life in the universal mahamaya – for us, I say, such sorrows and miseries are a vivid and a very sad reality. A shadow from your body, dancing on the white wall, is a reality so long as it is there, for yourself and all who can see it; because a reality is just as relative as an illusion. And if one “illusion” does not help another “illusion” of the same kind to study and recognise the true nature of Self, then, I fear, very few of us will ever get out from the clutches of maya.”

But there is also a deeper and greater aspect to Maya. It is not just a descriptive name for the temporariness of all that is manifested. It is also a name for the great divine Power that makes all manifestation possible.

Maya (Sk.). Illusion; the cosmic power which renders phenomenal existence and the perceptions thereof possible. In Hindu philosophy that alone which is changeless and eternal is called reality; all that which is subject to change through decay and differentiation and which has therefore a beginning and an end is regarded as mâyâ – illusion.” (HPB, “The Theosophical Glossary” p. 211, Entry for “Maya”)

Theosophically speaking, phenomenal existence and the ability to perceive it and have perceptions of it is an unquestionably good thing, an essential requirement for any evolution of consciousness in whatever kingdom of Nature. A “cosmic power which renders [all this] possible” can therefore only be working for the good of us all.

So it’s unfortunate that many Theosophists, like most Hindus, are accustomed to viewing and speaking of Maya as something “bad” or at least something negative, something detrimental, something that tricks, deludes, traps, ensnares us, and hinders our spiritual growth, at least until we are able to fully overcome it. While it is undoubtedly true that one can be deluded and hindered by Maya, that relates to what could be called the lower aspect of Maya or mental Maya. This is Maya as a “perceptive faculty,” to use HPB’s words which we’ll see in a moment.

See how Krishna, the Avatar or Logos incarnate, speaks of Maya in the Bhagavad Gita:

“My own maya” (Chapter 4, verse 6)

“This divine maya of mine” (Chapter 7, verse 14)

“My yogamaya” (Chapter 7, verse 25)

“The Lord of all beings dwelleth in the heart, O Arjuna, causing all creatures to revolve, as if mounted upon a wheel, by the power of maya.” (Chapter 18, verse 61)

Those quotations are from the Concord Grove Press edition translated by Raghavan Iyer, published by the Santa Barbara Lodge of the United Lodge of Theosophists. This is one of the most textually accurate and literal translations that has ever been made of this celebrated Hindu scripture. But it’s always useful to have a few different translations to compare. In the Theosophy Company edition, William Q. Judge renders “by the power of maya” as “by his [Ishwara’s, i.e. the Lord’s] magic power” and Swami Sivananda has it in his version as “by His illusive power.”

So Krishna, speaking there as the Logos, repeatedly says that Maya is His, that Maya is divine (“daivi maya” in Sanskrit), and that He uses this power of Maya to power the Universe and everything in it.

HPB once explained, “Maya is the Cause, and at the same time an aspect, of differentiation . . . Maya is everywhere, and in every thing that has a beginning and an end; therefore, every thing is an aspect of that which is eternal, and in that sense, of course Maya itself is an aspect of SAT, or that which is eternally present in the universe, whether during Manvantara or Mahapralaya.” (“Transactions of The Blavatsky Lodge” p. 30-31)

That could thus be said to be a description of cosmic Maya. But then she explains what we could call mental Maya:

“Maya is the perceptive faculty of every Ego which considers itself a Unit separate from, and independent of, the One infinite and eternal SAT, or “be-ness.”” (“Transactions of The Blavatsky Lodge” p. 31)

When human beings attach a mistaken importance and significance to that which is limited, transient, and impermanent, when they believe that anything, themselves included, has any existence other than in and as the SELF – the ONE Self, the Higher Self, the Spirit, the Atman which is Brahman (Parabrahm, Parabrahman) – this is the lower and mental aspect of Maya. But even that – provided it does not persist longer than it needs to – could be said to serve a beneficent purpose in the end, for the whole pattern of universal evolution is to first forget (i.e. the involutionary descent into matter), then remember, and then consciously re-become (i.e. the evolutionary ascent that leads us even beyond mind as we know it, to the Higher Manasic or “divine mind” level of consciousness and eventually beyond that) what we truly and really are.

The famed 20th century Indian yogi and philosopher Sri Aurobindo shared a similar perspective to Theosophy on this, as on many other points:

“This distinction between the lower and the higher Maya is the link in thought and in cosmic Fact which the pessimistic and illusionist philosophies miss or neglect.” (Sri Aurobindo, “The Divine Maya,” “The Life Divine” p. 124)

“And still we can recognise at once . . . the original cosmic Maya, not a Maya of Ignorance but a Maya of Knowledge, yet a Power which has made the Ignorance possible, even inevitable. . . . the principle of separation must also be allowed its complete course and arrive at its absolute consequence; this is the inevitable descent, . . . and if the One is born from that by its own greatness, it is still at first concealed by a fragmentary separative existence and consciousness which is ours and in which we have to piece things together to arrive at a whole.” (Sri Aurobindo, “Supermind, Mind and the Overmind Maya,” “The Life Divine” p. 299)

The same truth had been expressed a few decades earlier by H. P. Blavatsky in this inspiring and optimistic passage in “The Secret Doctrine”:

“The Universe . . . manifests periodically, for purposes of the collective progress of the countless lives, the outbreathings of the One Life; in order that through the Ever-Becoming, every cosmic atom in this infinite Universe, passing from the formless and the intangible, through the mixed natures of the semi-terrestrial, down to matter in full generation, and then back again, reascending at each new period higher and nearer the final goal; that each atom, we say, may reach through individual merits and efforts that plane where it re-becomes the one unconditioned ALL. But between the Alpha and the Omega there is the weary “Road” hedged in by thorns, that “goes down first, then –

Winds up hill all the way
Yes, to the very end. . . . .”

“Starting upon the long journey immaculate; descending more and more into sinful matter, and having connected himself with every atom in manifested Space – the Pilgrim, having struggled through and suffered in every form of life and being, is only at the bottom of the valley of matter, and half through his cycle, when he has identified himself with collective Humanity. This, he has made in his own image. In order to progress upwards and homewards, the “God” has now to ascend the weary uphill path of the Golgotha of Life. It is the martyrdom of self-conscious existence. Like Visvakarman he has to sacrifice himself to himself in order to redeem all creatures, to resurrect from the many into the One Life.” (Vol. 1, p. 268)

In many forms of Hindu philosophy, Maya is not an “it” but a “she” or, rather, She. As has been shown at length in another article, that which Theosophy speaks of as Daiviprakriti, called “the Light of the Logos,” is the Shakti (i.e. the Power or Energy and the feminine aspect) of Ishwara (the Logos or “Universal Lord”), and Daiviprakriti is Herself the great Maya or Illusory Power. In using female pronouns here, it must not be thought that a sort of personal, anthropomorphic “divine woman” is being referred to. But we are attempting to point out that Daiviprakriti, Shakti, Maya – all of which are ultimately synonymous – is the Cosmic Feminine principle or power or presence and is certainly neither the Cosmic Masculine nor the neutral Absolute. In the Saundarya Lahari (literally meaning “The Ocean of Beauty” or “The Waves of Beauty”) which is a hymn (described by H. P. Blavatsky as “beautiful . . . very mystical and occult”) to the Devi or Goddess or Divine Mother – and therefore a hymn to Daiviprakriti, the Light of the Logos, according to the respected Indian Theosophists T. Subba Row and Bhavani Shankar, who were disciples of the Theosophical Mahatmas – the great Adi Shankaracharya adopts a much deeper approach to Maya than is typically found in his philosophical treatises, and exclaims in the 97th of its 100 verses:

“O Parashakti, who is one with Parabrahman, though some call you Saraswati, the wife of Brahmā, or call you Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, or Parvati, the wife of Shiva, I know you as the fourth: Maha Maya, who gives life and sustenance to the whole Universe.”

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