The Maaya of Maya

The Maaya of Maya

1e by Masbt
1e by Masbt

On this blog, I’ve been arguing that the Sanskrit “maya” comes from the root “to build” and means creation, not illusion. We may see the world as an illusion at a certain stage but the reality is deeper than this.

It turns out we have lost some detail in transliteration from the larger Sanskrit alphabet to English.

There’s three different words in play: maya, maaya, and maayaa (aa meaning long A).

Maya means “made of”, from the root “to build.” We see this in words like annamaya kosha, the “body made of food” or physical body and in the name Maya.

Maaya means “measuring” and “creating illusion.” This is the word commonly used in neo-advaita circles but it’s not the same word as maya. There are nuances to maaya.

We perceive the world as an illusion when the rajas guna of transformation is dominant. This sometimes happens around Self Realization, depending on the degree of sattva developed. When sattva becomes dominant, we see the world as Lila, the Divine play. Lila is still an appearance but one with roots.

From a broader perspective, I would suggest the world is an appearance of reality. The appearance is not real the way it may seem, even to instruments of science. Rather, it is an effect of the deeper reality. It is not a mirage but the result of subtle complex processes. To consider it purely an illusion is to miss the point of why we experience it.

Maayaa is wisdom or in old use, extraordinary or supernatural power. I don’t recall seeing this word in use.

The 3 words are NOT spelled the same and do mean somewhat different things. Clearly, if we see someone using “maya”, it’s useful to check the source and see which one it is or consider what they intended. It’s not all illusion. 🙂

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  1. herwig

    Interesting that you approach this topic from the linguistic point of view. Thank you for explaining. Regrettably, I have no knowledge of Sanskrit.
    Actually, for a long time I found it difficult to grasp this question intellectually. It is profoundly important, but as long as one experiences the world as imperfect, one is caught in this theodicy trap and the concept of iilusion appears to be an easy way out.

    Aurobindo was rather clear about it, however the first time I came across them in the 1970s, I found his texts very abstract.

    “Tradition, or at least a major part of it holds maya as illusion. Sri Aurobindo goes back to the Vedic definition of maya as wisdom. It is the mind’s inability to see the other side that created the theory of illusion as it missed the link between the lower and higher maya. Once this distortion is removed, Maya emerges as the greatest creative force in cosmic existence. The illusion disappears.”

    Yes, of course, “the world is an appearance of reality”.
    Let’s face it!

    1. Hi Herwig
      Yes, like on the humanity article, we can excuse away all sorts of things with a few concepts. “It’s all illusion/ a dream.” or “thats just a concept.” The spiritual version of fake news.
      Hilarious, you’ve given a classic example. We have maaya, maayaa, repeats, and finally maya. I’m wondering if this is a translation issue or a transliteration issue. Or Aurobindo is looking at the 3 words as 3 flavours of the one thing.
      We do face it – in every moment. 🙂

    1. Hi Lewis
      Yes to the first part. The second part is trickier as it suggests we personally are the creator of our world. It’s better to understand we are the interpreters/ filters and give a unique take to the larger creation.

  2. AB

    Hi David,

    This is very interesting, I had always blindly accepted maya in all versions as illusion.
    Taking another look it seems there is more. In Bhagavad Gita 7.14, maayaa (spelled this way in Sanskrit text) is used and described as divine, part of the Lord and consisting of the 3 gunas. A similar description is given in the Bhagavat Purana (Srimad Bhagavatam) 3.5.25 maayaa as a shakti of the Lord and consisting of the 3 gunas.
    Makes me wonder if maayaa has been misinterpreted as illusion by many. For me this interpretation has created a big division between material/human life and spiritual life. More ammunition to break this belief.

    1. Hi AB
      Thanks for the references. Yes – world as illusion can be a valid experience during the process but it’s been co-opted as a requirement, “reality” and so forth. This is intertwined with ideas of renunciation. This has become almost a fundamentalism in some circles in ways that are not helpful.
      And yes, the point of enlightenment is to live that within the human experience. Then the profound potential of it can be lived.
      A reference to Shankara’s point about the influence of the gunas in the awakening process and why this comes up. It is much better seen as a phase than reality.


    For me, what maya is depends on the prominence of gunas, is like an Aha moment. Thank you David. And for me life resonates. Last week I was listening to the lecture of my other favorite guru “” and this week the topic gets the attention that is needed from my end.

  4. Jeff

    I don’t know how much this relates to the topic, but I have found that events in life can be somewhat similar in enlightenment to before enlightenment. I think the different is how you spontaneously react to them. While an experience before enlightenment can be devastating and bring along great suffering. After enlightenment, the same experience can just be observed, or be seen as total divine beauty in the play and display of the laws of nature.

    I see nature’s tests or challenges less , and more as tangible benchmarks. As Maharishi said, knowledge is structured in consciousness and it is different in different states of consciousness. I have found that I don’t necessarily have to react to anything that comes my way, but to just treat everyone with the same love and respect, or see it is another opportunity to play.

  5. Hi Jeff
    Right. For some, this shift happens pretty quickly. For others, the attachments are more so the process takes longer. But that is indeed a major benefit of the shift.
    Life becomes an adventure rather than a drudge.

  6. Null

    Thank you, and hi, interesting blog..
    English are not my main languages but i really love to comment about this post, Maya, maaya and maayaa … i feel this 3 words has the same meaning but different layer. Maya as kosa /karma (work/result), maaya illusion as radja or raja (behave) and maayaa wisdom as jnana(knowledge) shakti.
    Thank you and really nice blog

    1. Hi Null
      In some ways this is true. Sanskrit has a relationship between the sound of the word and the vibrations that produce it’s form. So words that are very similar in sound have similar effect.
      The point of the article was to clarify the differences because they’ve been muddled in many translations in misleading ways.
      But yes, made of, measuring, and understanding can be thought of as different layers.
      You’re welcome. Thanks for sharing your insight.

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