Shankara's Concept of Maayaa


Let us start our discussion with an explanation on the two powers of maayaa - aavarana sakti and vikshepa
sakti. When we mistake a rope for a snake, our inability to recognize the rope is because of aavarana sakti
(concealing power) of maayaa. The appearance of snake instead of rope is due to the vikshepa sakti
(projecting power) of maayaa. It is this dual cosmic power of maayaa that brings about the presentation of
the physical universe concealing the totality (Brahman). Maayaa is one of the most misunderstood terms of
Advaita. Maayaa means that which is not absolutely real but which has the power to appear as real. The
root word for Maayaa is maya (with both vowels short), which has very much to do with magic. Sankara
explains Maayaa as yaa maa saa Maayaa, meaning, ‘that which is not is Maayaa.' According to Sankara,
the world is a myth, infact a total dream. To whom is a dream a dream? A dream is a dream only to a
person who has awakened from the dream. So the world is not a dream to me or you who are still
dreaming! Sankara's conception of maayaa is from the absolute point of view.

The world is as real as you and I are - so long our mind exists. It has an empirical reality. When Sankara
says it is a myth and a dream, it is so from the absolute point of view. His different orders of reality have
to be understood well if we want to give sensible meanings to statements like Brahman is the Absolute
Truth, the universe is a myth, Brahma Satyam, Jagat Mithyaa. Once the mind merges itself in the infinite,
when we have been awakened by the Absolute Consciousness overpowering us, we are then no more in
the dreaming state and to such an awakened soul the world is indeed a dream and myth!
The story on King Janaka's dream can help us additional clarifications. Janaka had a dream that he was a
beggar on the street. He suddenly woke up and started wondering who he was? He asked this question:
Who is real - Janaka the king or Janaka the beggar ? In the waking stage, Janaka the king appears real and
Janaka the begger is a dream. At the realized stage (Absolute), Janaka the king and the begger both become
unreal! This example is just to illustrate the conceptual difficulty in understanding the difference between
absolute and relative stages: Until we become the absolute, we can't resolve the question whether Janaka
the King is also a dream!

The true nature of sun gets distorted due to the presence of clouds. Similarly, our true nature (Brahman) is
distorted due to the presence of ignorance (Maayaa). When we experience our true nature (self-realization),
we can understand that the world is Maayaa. The Shastras say that one has to go beyond the intellect to
understand one's true nature. Examples such as the snake and the rope is an illustration so that we can
understand the Advaitic Concept within our intellect. Shankara knows the limitations of examples and
limitations the intellect. How is it possible to go beyond the intellect using the intellect? The answer is quite
simple. We have seen the pole-vault jumpers who use the pole to go beyond the height of the pole! Faith is
another important input to go beyond the intellect. Let me state this beautiful quotation from St. Augustine:
"Faith is to believe what we don't see, and its reward is to see what believe!"