Maya (philosophy)

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Maya ( Sanskrit माया māyā "illusion, sorcery") is a term in Indian philosophy . It is considered to be the unfathomable creative power of the absolute Brahman , which is veiled by the relative phenomenal world of the Maya. Since she embodies the world of appearances as a whole, the concept of Maya unites all dualities and includes positive knowledge ( vidya ) as well as negative ignorance ( avidya ) of man. In Shankara's remarks , the term is used in a negative sense to express a universal delusion and a power of delusion.

In order to emphasize the illusory character of the Maya, the emphasis on the negative aspect has prevailed in the Vedanta philosophy .


Two negative aspects of the Maya are distinguished. On the one hand it is the veiling force that hides the truth under a veil, and on the other hand it is the projecting force that makes the truth appear to man as another reality.

Maya is shaped by the three properties of the world energy, the gunas . According to Shankara, the concealment arises from the quality of indolence ( tamas ), and the projection arises from the quality of passionate activity ( rajas ).


According to the Vedanta, ignorance, or ignorance of the true nature of man as well as of the actual nature of the world, results from the fact that the one Absolute or Brahman is veiled by the diverse world of appearances. Although according to the Vedanta man is divine in nature, he sees himself as a mortal creature in a multiform world of name and form, which is conditioned by time, space and causality.

The Indian saint Ramakrishna equates this covering veil with egoism, which like a cloud covers the sun. Ignorance can be defined here as a concealment of the immortal soul ( Atman ) through its identification with body, thoughts and feelings. This delusion creates the impression that the ego is the doer, as it is said in the Bhagavadgita verse 3.27: “All kinds of works are performed through the manifestations of nature [note: the power of māyā] ; but the person whose soul is confused by self-awareness thinks: 'I am the perpetrator'. "( Radhakrishnan : p. 163)

Since, from the point of view of Vedanta, this “I” cannot be found substantially and only a special existence resulting from this identification allows all other existences to become possible, it is equated with the illusory nature of Maya.

The image of the veil is also used in relation to the changeable experience of the spiritually striving. Moments of high spirits and the feeling of God's presence can be followed by phases of dryness, as if the veil covering Brahman had only been lifted briefly.


To explain the projecting power of Maya, the image of the rope, which is perceived as a snake in the dark, is common in literature. It comes from Shankara and is a very commonly used metaphor in Indian philosophy:

“Deceived by ignorance, people mistake one for the other. Lack of distinction makes him mistake a snake for a rope. If he reaches for her in this belief, he is in great danger. To take the unreal for reality creates the state of attachment. "

- Shankara : The Knowledge of Truth (p. 61)

With regard to the assessment of this world of appearances (“snake”) there are different evaluations in Hindu philosophy . The directions of Sankhya , Yoga or Nyaya assign an objective reality to the world, whereas Shankara as a representative of Advaita-Vedanta does not grant it any real substance.

The assessment of the reality content of the Maya is also made dependent on the respective point of view. From the absolute point of view, the world is considered identical to Brahman. Ramana Maharshi, however, in a state of ignorance, considers it necessary to speak of Maya as an illusion, because this is the only way to turn away from the habitual identification with the world of appearances.

The philosophical problem of relating the relative and the absolute or the finite and the infinite to one another is solved in Vedanta by the idea of ​​a "covering" . Like the rope from the serpent, Brahman is "overlaid" by the multifaceted world. To clarify this, the metaphor of cinema is used in literature. Brahman corresponds to the screen that stands behind everything and is always the same, and the film projected on it resembles the constantly changing world of the Maya.

A superimposition of this kind also takes place in the form of an avatar (in Hindu thought, for example, Buddha, Christ, Krishna). It is seen as the positive side of the Maya, since the divine incarnation tries to free man from this same ignorance through the means of manifestation or revelation. In the commentary on verse 4.6 of the Bhagavadgita it says: “The unborn, imperishable comes to empirical being through the power of the Maya. Thus Maya is also the ability to make the impossible a reality. "( Radhakrishnan : p. 176)


From the observation that Maya on the one hand reveals (or projects) this world of appearances and conceals the ultimate reality at the same time , a paradox emerges which Shankara has described as "neither being nor not being". The translation of Maya as an illusion in the sense of non-being is flawed because it can be experienced, just like the snake in the metaphor. On the other hand, due to its relativity, it cannot be ascribed an absolute being. Swami Vivekananda says about it:

“'This world has no existence.' This means that it does not have an unconditional existence, since it only exists in our sensory conception. This world is perceived through our five senses and we would have to have a completely different idea of ​​it if we had one or more senses; therefore it has no real, immutable, immovable, infinite existence. But neither can one speak of non-existence, since it is there and we work in it and through it. It is a mixture of being and not being. "

- Swami Vivekananda : Jnana Yoga (p.96-97)

This indeterminable mixture of existence and non-existence results in fundamental contradictions for people living in the Maya. Swami Sivananda illustrates this with examples:

“You know you will die, and yet you think you will live forever. This is Maya. You know that the world is full of suffering, and yet you enjoy the fleeting objects and do not give them up. This is Maya. You know that a woman's body is made up of all sorts of impurities, flesh, bones, urine, and feces, and yet you enjoy her embrace. This is Maya. "

- Sivananda : Divine Knowledge (Chap. Appearances of Maya)

Swami Vivekananda describes the Maya concept of Vedanta as neither idealistic nor realistic, nor as a theory that explains the world, but as a statement of given facts that the basis of our existence is contradiction.

Way out

Maya as a universal principle is seen as beginning and endless. However , according to Vedanta, personal ignorance ( avidya ) can be completely overcome. For this one should use the positive attributes of knowledge ( vidya ). In Shankara, the first need to remove the veil is the power to distinguish between the real and the unreal, followed by the renunciation of the fruits of actions in order to weaken selfhood. In his speech “Maya and Freedom”, Vivekananda emphasizes the intense need for liberation, and the Bhagavadgita emphasizes the difficulty of overcoming the Maya and the need for refuge in God.

One direct way to overcome this world of names and forms is called "practical Vedanta" . It is advisable to cover the Mayan cover again with Brahman. Swami Vivekananda says about this, one does not need to leave spouses and children, but should see God in them.

Although the negative aspect of Maya predominates in the depiction, inaction is not recommended in order to escape the dualisms of the world of appearances. According to Vivekananda, people should do good in order to be happy themselves, and the relaxed fulfillment of duties is also seen by him as a way of escaping contradictions. In Ramakrishna there is the distinction between Maya and Daya (mercy). By serving one's neighbor, the virtue of purity should be strengthened and thus the bond with the world reduced.


The Maya term appears in the Indian scriptures already in the Rigveda (e.g. 6.47.18), as well as in the Mahabharata and Ramayana as a demon ( asura ) and in many Upanishads . The term is used there mainly in the sense of magic, magic power and revelation of the creative power of Brahman ( Shakti ).

Saint Ramakrishna saw Maya as a power of the divine mother Kali . In this context, the goddess is also called “Mahamaya” and is seen as a cosmic sorceress who creates this world and grants liberation to people according to her grace.

In Buddhism, Maya is the name of the Buddha's mother. (see Digha Nikāya 14.4)


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Ramana Maharshi, Be who you are, OW Barth Verlag, 2011, pp. 227–228
  2. Hans Torwesten, Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism, Walter Verlag, 1985, chap. Maya, the Indian Sphinx; quoted in: Vedanta-Heft 2/2012, Vedanta-Zentrum Wiesbaden eV, p. 43
  3. Shankara, 1990, p. 56ff
  4. Ramakrishna, 1991, introduction by Nikhilananda, pp. 37-38
  5. Ramakrishna, 1991, p. 156
  6. Ramana Maharshi, Be who you are, OW Barth Verlag, 2011, p. 41
  7. Ramakrishna, 1991, p. 235
  8. Shankara, 1990, pp. 14-15.
  9. Ramana Maharshi, Be who you are, OW Barth Verlag, 2011, pp. 227–228
  10. Shankara, 1990, pp. 16ff
  11. Paul A Nathschläger, Holistic Yoga: A detailed consideration of the classic five yoga paths in theory and practice, chap. Adhyaropa, the overlay
  12. Hans Torwesten, Ramakrishna and Christ, Mirapuri-Verlag, 1981, p. 34ff
  13. Shankara, 1990, p. 56
  14. Swami Vivekananda, 1990, pp. 104-105
  15. Ramakrishna, 1991, introduction by Nikhilananda, p. 43
  16. Shankara, 1990, pp. 41-42
  17. Swami Vivekananda, 1990, p. 142
    Bhagavadgita verse 7.14, Radhakrishnan, p. 250
  18. Swami Vivekananda, Vedanta, The Ocean of Wisdom, OW Barth Verlag, 1996, p. 211
  19. ^ Vivekananda, 1990, p. 107
  20. Hans Torwesten, Ramakrishna, A Life in Ecstasy, Benziger Verlag, 1997, pp. 173–174
  21. Hans Torwesten, Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism, Phenomenon Verlag, 2017, chap. Maya, the Indian Sphinx; quoted in: Vedanta issue 1/2017, Vedanta Center Wiesbaden eV, p. 19
  22. Hans Torwesten, Ramakrishna, A Life in Ecstasy, Benziger Verlag, 1997, p. 112