Have you ever gazed into the river on a full moon night? The reflected mirage of the moon on the water does not accurately reflect what the moon actually looks like. A transformation takes place when the moon’s rays collide with the river. That, in a nutshell, is an analogy of the Hindu concept of Maya.
The serpentine river that snakes through the land allowed mankind to create the civilisations whose many fruits have made humanity what it is today. We learnt to cultivate the river and understand its intricacies. It is this knowledge which gave birth to a society where life could flourish. It meant that we were no longer subject to all the periodic, seasonal and cyclical whims of nature.
To the ancients, the river was both a life-giver and a life-taker. When she was merciful, we were blessed with an abundance of bounty. When she was cruel, we were left with naught and forced to move and immigrate, lest we perish.
A long time has passed since civilisation was first born. These days, the term Maya is translated to mean ‘illusion’. If we come back to the analogy I gave before, that Maya is the phenomena that makes it appear as though the moonlight dancing in the water–would we still call it an illusion? I’m sure we can come up with a better scientific and even theological explanation.
The word Maya has taken on many different meanings over the course of time. Shankara defined Maya as, “That which is not.” Maya is the condition of perception that is dominated by memory. It is a form of superimposition: the action of placing or laying one thing over another, typically so that both are still evident. It is a malady of the mind. It is when we believe the reflection we see of the dancing moon in the river to be what the moon actually looks like.
The way in which we experience the world has been superimposed. It is not so much that our perception is false. It is that the phenomena of this world give us a false impression. The more we think that the dancing moon in the water is what the moon actually looks like, the more we delude ourselves.
That is the Maya.