Maya is Not an Illusion

“Maya is Brahman in its relative, ever-changing forms and phenomena.”

Thom Knoles

Episode Summary

One of the most commonly misunderstood Sanskrit terms is the word Maya. It’s frequently referred to as “illusion” and is sometimes used to describe “reality” as being unimportant or insignificant. 

Often when it’s used in spiritual circles, it’s an attempt to imply that one has a sense of detachment, “It’s just Maya, an illusion. Nothing to take too seriously…”

But like many Sanskrit words, its meaning cannot really be found in a single English word. 

Equally, the importance of Maya means putting the word “just” in front of it, doesn’t do it justice. Maya is neither unimportant, nor insignificant.

Listen in and allow Thom to set the record straight, and give Maya the mystery and significance she deserves.

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Episode Highlights


A Poorly Understood Concept






Appearance Requires Some Action



Brahman in Action



Brahman as Para


Jai Guru Deva


Maya is Not an Illusion

[00:45] A Poorly Understood Concept

Jai Guru Deva. Welcome to my podcast, The Vedic Worldview. I’m Thom Knoles.

Today I’m going to spend a few minutes talking to you about Maya, M as in Maharishi, A-Y-A. Ma-ya, Maya. Maya is a frequently mistranslated and poorly understood concept that has become popularized in the spiritual and yoga communities of the West. Maya, very frequently, is simply a code word for illusion or hallucination or relativity or untruth, etc.

This is not what the word Maya means, nor is it the concept that it is designed to communicate. The word Maya is in two halves; Ma, which means, is not. M-A, Maharishi and Absolute, M-A. M-A, Ma pronounced means, is not.

Ya, Y-A. Y-A, in this particular context, means, which is, is not which is. How interesting?

That which is not. That which is not. That which is not is, very often, because of the way that sentence is constructed if you think of it as a one-word sentence, Maya, that which is not, is very often construed to mean illusion, such an easy conclusion to arrive at.

But let’s undermine that and get to the true meaning of the word Maya, because Maya, if it’s simply illusion, is purported to explain the whole of the relative world. The idea basically being that there’s one, indivisible, whole conscious thing, the Unified Field.

[03:16] Appearance

The Unified Field in the Sanskrit language would be the word Brahman, B-R-A-H-M-A-N, Brahman. That Brahman is the Unified Field, the unmanifest field out of which everything manifests, the colorless sap, as it were, of a flower that can turn itself into a pink petal.

The colorless sap can turn itself into a round green stem. The colorless sap can turn itself into a sharp thorn. The colorless sap can turn itself into a fragrance. It can turn itself into a flat, broad leaf, or the roots of the rose plant. It’s the rose that we’re describing.

And so the colorless sap, that is the Unified Field value, and that is the Absolute, and that the truth of the rose is that the rose is nothing but colorless sap. It’s actually colorless sap. And the idea that you’re holding a rose in your hand is maya, an illusion.

And this is actually close, but not accurate, because that which is the word maya means, it doesn’t mean illusion. It means the word appearance. Appearance.

If we were to take it out of its literal context, that which is not, Maya literally means that which is not, but we’re not literalists. Literalism is the foundation of fundamentalism, and fundamentalism is the certain destruction of any body of wisdom.

To step out of the literalism and into the connotative, out of the denotative and into the connotative, we have to take the word Maya and see what its intent is. It is closest to the English word appearance.

[05:30] Appearance Requires Some Action

Think for a moment of, you’re floating in a big, broad, flat ocean. Something that some of you have done in your lifetime; floated in the ocean. And if the ocean was on a very flat day, a mirror-like surface, flat in all directions, the sun is shining.

There’s a giant vast body of water, inconceivably large, stretching for thousands of miles out from where you’re swimming close to the beach, and then something happens.

Some of that water, which is also ocean, some of that water curves itself into a swell, a wave, and that wave begins moving toward the shore. And now, suddenly, it’s no longer a flat mirror-like surface. Something has appeared in that surface.

What is it that has appeared? Curved ocean has appeared. Curved ocean. It’s an appearance, but it’s not an illusion.

If you were to look at that wave coming towards you and say, “That’s Maya. It’s an illusion.” Then you’re going to have a change of expectation when the wave finally arrives to where you’re swimming. You have to do something about this appearance.

An illusion, you don’t need to do anything about it. An appearance requires some action. Now we’re getting down to it, what Maya actually is. It’s the way in which the Unified Field moves into manifestation and continues being the Unified Field. Unified Field does not cease being Unified Field simply because it moves into manifestation.

[07:33] Brahman in Action

Colorless sap is still colorless sap when it is appearing as a green leaf. Colorless sap is still colorless sap when it’s appearing as a stem, as the pink petals, as the fragrance. Colorless sap is still colorless sap when it appears as a sharp thorn.

Are you going to push your finger down onto the thorn and say, “It’s actually only colorless sap? It’s an illusion.” No, you’re not.

So the mistake about the word Maya has to do with the mistake about another word, Brahman. Brahman does not mean only the Absolute underlying unmanifest Unified Field. Brahman means that the one, indivisible, whole consciousness field in its unmanifest form that underlies everything that’s relative, the non-changing Absolute that is at the basis of the relative ever-changing.

That’s not all Brahman is. Brahman is all of it. It is the Absolute, unmanifest, the process of manifesting, and everything that becomes manifest, all Brahman. Brahman.

So the word Brahman translates best into English as the word, Totality. Totality will give us the impression of everything, not just the Absolute unmanifest. And as contrasting with the unmanifest, everything that’s manifest being Maya.

Maya is actually an explanation of Brahman in motion. When Brahman ceases to be transcendental Brahman, Totality appears as forms as individuated things, as phenomena. Forms and phenomena, the ever-changing world, also is Brahman.

And so there’s the Maya version of Brahman, Totality, which is the ever-changing relative world, the world of appearances. And then there’s the Absolute form of Brahman, the flat, unbounded, unmanifest field of pure potentiality, the colorless sap, as it were.

This is the true meaning of Maya. Maya is Brahman in action. Maya is Brahman as relativity, Totality as relativity.

[10:38] Brahman as Para

When we want to talk about Brahman as only the transcendent Absolute, we choose another Sanskrit word, Para, P-A-R-A, P as in pure, A as in Absolute, R as in ritam, A as in Absolute, Para, P-A-R-A.

P-A-R-A, Para is Brahman in its transcendental unmanifest form. Maya is Brahman in its relativity, ever-changing, evidently ever-changing, forms and phenomena. And so the appearance of Brahman as relativity, we call that Maya.

The appearance of Brahman as transcendent Absolute, we call that Para. And there we have it, all in a nutshell. Brahman is Totality. And that beautiful phrase that comes out of the mouth of Rishi, that experience, which though unspoken, if spoken, would be Aham Brahmasmi, I am Totality.

When in the highest, most enlightened state Unity Consciousness one experiences, I am this unbounded unmanifest flat transcendental witness of all things, and I am also all things that I witness.

All forms in all phenomena are extended Self, and my own inner, unbounded, unmanifest, Absolute nature, the witness, is witnessing itself in action. Brahman, as Para, is witnessing Brahman as Maya. This is the true meaning of the word Maya.

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