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What Is Maya?
Sundari: This email of yours is a different inquiry to what I have received from you so far. It almost seems like another person enquiring. ☺ You have certainly been doing your homework, as you have posed excellent questions which show good thinking and logic. Well done.
I have replied to your points below.
Robert: I am struggling with duality and the idea of maya.
I know that no object creates lasting happiness nor is it permanent. I know that I am awareness and that is my primary identity but I’m not sure how I can come to know or verify non-duality and maya.
Sundari: First of all, why do you need to “come to know and verify maya”? Who is it that is asking this question, who is the “I” talking here? Is it not obvious that by the very fact of asking this question you are doing just that, verifying maya? Maya is just ignorance of your true nature as awareness.
You say that you know that your primary identity is awareness yet you want to know how to verify maya. That is a contradiction in itself, because if you really know that your primary identity is awareness you would not need to “verify” maya.
Verifying means to prove that something is true. Maya can never be proved or disproved, as the one who is asking this question is an effect of ignorance. The effect cannot comprehend the cause. We can only say that it is and accept it as a mystery.
Robert: To begin with, I want you to know I have examined the qualifications. Based on my understanding of them, they are not a problem.
Sundari: I know I was hard on you about this the last time I wrote to you. There was a reason for this though, because it is very easy to jump to conclusions a little too quickly when one is new to Vedanta. This can become a serious impediment to self-inquiry and can lead to “enlightenment sickness.” With regards to the qualifications, what does it mean to say that they are “not a problem”? The qualifications are necessary, because without them discrimination is not possible and self-inquiry will not work.
This email of yours has very good questions but they are asked because you are having trouble discriminating consciousness from the objects that appear in it. So clearly, you need to work on your discrimination, to mention but one of the qualifications.
I am glad to hear that you seem to have more confidence in the knowledge although, as in the last time you wrote, it still seems clear to me that you have an intellectual understanding of the qualifications and of self-realisation. You have not necessarily assimilated what the qualifications, and being self-realised, means. Self-knowledge is still indirect; your questions reveal that you are speaking as the apparent self that knows about the self, not as the self that knows it is the self.
Robert: If it is a requirement for moksa to suspend disbelief until all ignorance is removed, then I could try to, but since Vedanta is presented as a logical system, and in fact it requires discrimination, then I would like to understand a few apparent conflicts, so I can be clear. I would be grateful for any help you can provide.
Sundari: What do you mean by you could try to “suspend disbelief”? Do you not see that this very statement makes it very clear that one of the most important qualifications, shraddha, or faith in the scripture, is lacking? Faith in the scripture pending the outcome of your investigation does not mean that you have to stop thinking or discriminating. It means that you put your beliefs and opinions on hold until you have exposed the mind to the scripture (sravana). After one has done that, through contemplation (manana), then you look at your beliefs and opinions in the light of self-knowledge – NOT the other way around (nididhysana).
Robert: Here are some of my challenges of understanding: How do we know maya exists?
Sundari: Maya is a power that exists in awareness or it could not be unlimited. It simply means ignorance of the true nature of reality. In order for the creation to manifest, maya (ignorance) has to be there for awareness to appear as a subtle body and have contact with objects. This is the self under the spell of ignorance. If there was no ignorance, Robert would not be around to ask this question. Other than simple observation of the hypnosis of materialism (the identification with the body or objects gross or subtle) and its effects, is that not proof enough?
Maya is a difficult topic, that which gives rise to karma. The Bhagavad Gita says, “On the subject of karma, even the sages are perplexed.” Maya is that which makes the changeless appear changing, therefore action appears to take place. This is why it is said that Isvara is the only doer; in reality there is no doer because when one deconstructs action, the jiva and Isvara in the light of self-knowledge, you are left with only awareness. Awareness is actionless. When one has non-dual vision you see action in inaction and in inaction in action. This means that nothing ever happens. Can you find what happened a year ago, a month ago – a minute ago? Where are the actions now? They are no more than an idea in the mind, a memory, or a vasana. There is nothing there.
Robert: What is the purpose of maya?
Sundari: There is no purpose other than for awareness to have contact with objects. Ignorance, or maya, is just a power that exists in awareness or it could not be unlimited.
We have gone through this before, and I am repeating myself; however, discriminating you, awareness, from jiva and Isvara is Vedanta’s most subtle teaching. It is hard to grasp. Understanding it is moksa. Following is the key to understanding how you as awareness relate to jiva and Isvara (the individual and the total, the creature and the created). It is a description of maya, beautiful intelligent ignorance.
Reality, though one, is comprised of three factors:
1. An apparent person, or jiva, the “small self,” or subtle body. It is an experiencing entity.
2. A causal body produced by maya, macrocosmic ignorance. Maya is also known as Isvara, the power that creates the dharma field. The dharma field is brought into being by Isvara, pure awareness associated with maya. Isvara is the Creator of the experiencing entities and what they experience. Vedanta refers to Isvara as The Unmanifest because it cannot be experienced. It is known by inference.
3. The knower of both: pure awareness, the self.
Both the jiva and Isvara enjoy the same identity as awareness and on inquiry dissolve into awareness because they are impermanent. Awareness cannot be dismissed because it is permanent. “Permanent” and “impermanent” are not actually good words because they imply duality and seemingly set the experiencers apart from the objects of experience. But we need these words and others like them to set up the discrimination that brings about moksa, freedom. Awareness is always prior to and free of the jiva and Isvara, the subtle and the causal bodies. Therefore there is really only one self, or awareness, free of all objects, from which everything arises and into which everything dissolves.
Here is a verse from the Bhagavad Gita that is the key to moksa, Chapter XV, verse 17:
“Two selves, one perishable and the other imperishable, exist in the world. The conscious beings and matter are perishable, the Unmanifest is imperishable.
“But other than these is the Self beyond the selves, the limitless, changeless Awareness that has entered the three worlds and sustains them. Therefore I am renowned as the Supreme Being. If you know me in this way you become a knower of everything, the Self of All.”
This means the apparent self, or jiva (the self under the spell of ignorance), is not real because it is not always present (think deep sleep) and is always changing. Although it appears to be conscious, the apparent self is not actually conscious; it is modified by maya/ignorance and is perishable because its lifespan in the apparent reality is very brief. Moksa is freedom from the notion of doership and ownership, notions that are the essence of jivas identified with the subtle body. Identified jivas are also known as human beings, or people. There are two meanings to jiva. One is “awareness associated with the subtle body, the self under the spell of ignorance.” In this case awareness is governed by Isvara, the Creator, because of identification with objects. But very importantly, the other meaning of jiva is “pure consciousness” (jivatman). This is what the great saying, or mahavakya, Tat Tvam Asi means. It indicates the identity of jiva and Isvara as paramatma. If it meant that jiva and Isvara, the Creator (jagat karanam), were identical, jiva would not be free because Isvara in the role of Creator is not free. So it has to mean that jiva and paramatma are pure limitless awareness. The jiva is not actually bound because it is really pure awareness, and ignorance can be removed by self-knowledge. Once ignorance of the true nature of the jiva is removed (avidya), the apparent person continues to exist in the apparent reality, although as the self (no longer under the spell of ignorance) it is forever free of the notion that it is limited, inadequate and incomplete. It knows it is nameless, formless, unconditioned awareness.
Isvara associated with maya is conscious (although it is not a jiva, or person) and is not modified by ignorance/maya (the gunas). It too is dependent on awareness. Isvara is conscious because with the appearance of maya there is something for awareness to be conscious of. But Isvara (in the role of Creator associated with maya) merges back into awareness at the end of the creation cycle, so it too is not unchanging and not always manifest.
Isvara is always present in awareness but it is either manifest or unmanifest with reference to awareness.
Therefore Isvara associated with maya is not real either, although in terms of the apparent person Isvara is relatively real and eternal. In other words, Isvara associated with maya is eternal, or permanent, with reference to the jiva and the objects it experiences, but impermanent with reference to awareness. To say that Isvara associated with maya is eternal with reference to the jiva does not mean that it is limitless, because ignorance, or maya, only operates on a tiny fraction of awareness and because it is resolved back into awareness at the end of the creation cycle. The words “operates on a tiny fraction of awareness” are also used for the purpose of discriminating awareness from the objects that arise in it, as the self has no parts and cannot be quantified.
Maya is eternal because it is a power that exists in awareness and awareness is eternal; this is why maya is said to be beginningless. Personal ignorance (avidya) ends for the jiva when the self is realised to be its true nature, ending its cycle of incarnation and suffering, but maya, or cosmic ignorance, continues unchanged although it is not always manifest, because the creation is not always manifest. When ignorance, or maya, does manifest, Isvara in its capacity as a Creator appears, followed by the apparent creation (Isvara srsti), the world of sentient beings and insentient elements.
Isvara as pure awareness prior to maya is called paramatman. Although paramatman is called eternal and imperishable, it is neither. “Eternal and imperishable” infer non-eternal and perishable, and since paramatman is non-dual it is neither. It is is-ness, being. It is simply that which gives rise to everything, that which is self-knowing, and when objects are present knows objects. It is prior to and the knower of both the jiva and Isvara. Therefore it has no qualities.
The most subtle aspect of this teaching is the irreducible fact that because consciousness implies unconsciousness, it is not strictly speaking true to say that awareness is conscious. Awareness is without qualities, it is the non-experiencing witness, and although it gives rise to all objects who are not conscious and Isvara who is conscious, awareness is not conscious. Awareness is that which makes apparent consciousness possible in that apparent consciousness is reflected awareness. Like Isvara, awareness is not a person either; conscious and unconscious objects (Isvara and jiva respectively) arise when maya (ignorance) appears.
This is why the apparent reality is called “apparently” real, it is reflected consciousness. Awareness under the spell of ignorance is apparently governed. It is all a play of the gunas, and although the apparent reality can be experienced, it is not real. It is all a projection, a dream. Isvara is like the projector, the jiva, or apparent reality, is the movie, and awareness is the screen on which the movie is being projected. All objects are temporary, seem to act and are always changing; awareness is ever-present, never changes and actionless.
And as stated above, as long as the apparent entity, the jiva, is still embodied in the apparent reality, enlightened or not, it is conditioned by Isvara, the Creator. A jiva that knows that it is limitless awareness is called a jivanmukta, “liberated while alive.” In reality a jivanmukta is just pure awareness stripped of its identification with Isvara and jiva. Therefore the jivanmukta is trigunaatita, free of the gunas. The jivanmukta, the self freed of apparent ignorance appearing as a human being, is also free of the objects created by ignorance.
This does not mean that the gunas cease to exist; Isvara srsti, or creation, continues as before enlightenment. The gunas no longer condition the jivanmukti, thus it does not project the person’s creation, or jiva srsti, onto Isvara; the jiva, the gunas and Isvara are objects known to it. However, as the jiva never leaves the apparent reality, it is still subject to the dharma field, or Isvara. Therefore the jivanmukta would naturally follow dharma in every aspect of its existence. The jivanmukta, who perceives duality for what it is, has no problem with Isvara or jiva-hood, because both appear as objects. Because he or she knows he or she is actually actionless awareness, the belief that he or she is a doer no longer obtains. And because the notion of jiva-hood has been destroyed by self-knowledge, the vasanas continue to appear but there is no one to bind, unaffected by it, because he or she knows that it is a superimposition onto non-duality and that Isvara, the gunas, is the doer. Insofar as this understanding is moksa, the karma yoga sadhana that leads to this understanding no longer obtains although the karma yoga attitude remains without effort.
The Isvara-jiva-awareness identity is the essence of Vedanta because it is the key to understanding what it means to be awareness as a jiva living in the apparent reality. Isvara plus jiva and jagat make up the dharma field. Their common identity is non-dual reality, awareness, out of which all orders of reflected awareness arise. Although all objects share a common identity as awareness, they are not the same as pure awareness. However, all the orders and the objects depend on awareness but awareness is always free of the objects. A good analogy is H2O. Water is pure H2O. So are the ocean (Isvara) and the wave (jiva/jagat). But while the wave and the ocean are dependent on the H2O, the H2O is free of both the wave and the ocean. Pure awareness is free of Isvara, jiva and jagat but Isvara-jiva-jagat has a dependent existence on awareness.
The distinction between these three factors in existence is crucial for the jiva’s moksa because it disentangles the jiva from its own psychology and from the objective world. It makes it clear that everything the jiva could claim to be the author of belongs to Isvara and that anything that it claims ownership of also belongs to Isvara. At the same time this distinction makes it clear that the jiva is not under the control of Isvara, because Isvara is not real. How can something that is not real actually create or control anything? Furthermore, this teaching separates awareness from both Isvara and jiva, the Creator and the created. In so doing this teaching reveals the logic that the jiva’s ordinary awareness, which is the essence of its identity, is limitless. The discovery that the self is limitless awareness is moksa, freedom for the jiva and from the jiva. In what way does this understanding come about? Jiva understands that it does not exist unless it is known to exist and the knowledge of its existence is only possible because it is aware. This leads to the conclusion that it is awareness. Try as you might, you cannot find two awarenesses.
Robert: If life is ultimately a conflict between the real and apparently real, is there a greater purpose to that conflict?
Sundari: If by “life” you mean samsara, the conflict is not between the real and the apparently real. The conflict is there because the unreal is taken to be real, which is what causes all the suffering. There is no conflict between the real and the unreal because they are not in opposition to each other. Non-duality is not opposed to duality. The only purpose is to realise that duality is a superimposition on non-duality, and not real. As stated above, once the true nature of reality is known to be non-dual, duality still exists but it is known to be unreal, like the mirage in the desert.
Robert: Any knowledge developed in maya which could reject its nature as illusion could simply be argued to be itself an illusion.
Sundari: This statement of yours shows that you do not fully understand the nature of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is not “developed in maya” nor is it a product of maya. Vedanta, self-knowledge, is simply a means of knowledge for the self under the spell of ignorance to break the spell of ignorance and free itself from bondage so that the jiva could live free as non-dual awareness within the apparent reality. Because the self is the cause of and subtler than the organs of perception, it cannot be known as an object of perception. So consciousness “developed” Vedanta as the means to experience the reflection of the self in a pure mind. This is why the qualifications are so important, as self-knowledge will not stick in a mind that is not purified.
Robert: The whole approach requires that we deny everything we ever experience, everything we’ve ever known and anything verifiable. Our only means of knowledge is learning from experience.
Sundari: You are speaking here as the jiva identified with the subtle body and not as awareness. The “whole approach” of Vedanta does not deny everything “you” (WHO?) ever experienced, Robert. Quite the opposite is true. It simply requires you to examine the unexamined logic of your experience. By examining what makes up the person called Robert and his environment in the light of self-knowledge, the true nature of both is revealed to be you, the self under the spell of ignorance.
You are confused because what you think you know and can verify as a jiva is based on reality being a duality, on Robert being real, which is the root of the problem. I pointed this out to you in our last exchange. Vedanta employs pure logic to deconstruct the system of thinking you have that makes you believe that what you experience as a person IS verifiable in terms of what is real. It is not. You are presupposing that how you are seeing things is a valid standpoint which it may be for Robert, if he thinks he is the person. It is not valid for the standpoint of awareness.
Robert: Therefore what theory could not be constructed based on denying everything that is as an illusion?
Sundari: The premise here is that you have to deny everything you experience, which as I stated above, is not true. I am not entirely sure what you are trying to say here, but it seems to me that you think that everything can be reduced to a theory. This is true, other than for awareness; Vedanta is about you and it is not a theory. It is irrefutable logic. What would be the point of constructing a theory to deny your own true nature?
Robert: The fact that maya is said to exist within awareness may technically prevent reality from being called a duality.
Sundari: The opposite is true. The fact that maya is a power that exists in awareness or it could not be unlimited does not technically prevent reality from being called a duality, it proves that it is a non-duality.
Maya is not a substance, it is not real. It is a power at the disposal of awareness that makes it seem as if awareness is something other than awareness. Awareness has to have this power or it would not be limitless. Ignorance is the power of awareness to apparently forget that it is limitless. If it was a real power, awareness would not be able to know itself once it had become ignorant. But it can know itself once it has fallen under the spell of ignorance, because ignorance is not real. It disappears in the wake of knowledge. Vedanta is the means for that knowledge.
Robert: However, the fact that there is an apparent reality while at the same time there exists a not-real world made up within a real world that can never be experienced is almost the definition of duality.
Sundari: I think you still do not understand the definition of “real.” “Apparent” means “not real,” it’s the same thing. “Not real” does not mean non-existent, it means that which is always changing and not always present. Vedanta does not say that you cannot experience what is not real. The proof that objects have an apparent existence is that you can experience them. Objects are just not real, meaning not permanent, which is what discrimination is all about. Like I said before, you have work to do here.
You are right though, Vedanta is a setup. It has to employ a dualistic teaching method to explain consciousness, because self-knowledge is an object like any other object. It occurs in “time” and is a throwaway in that once it has removed the ignorance of your true nature it too is discarded as an object known to you. How else would teaching take place within the apparent reality? There is no such thing as non-dual teaching because there has to be two principles to teach anything. The difference with Vedanta is that it uses a dualistic teaching method to thoroughly prove the non-reality of duality. In this way Vedanta, or self-knowledge, prepares the mind to experience the reflection of the self in a pure mind.
The self is not an experience, it is the hard and fast knowledge that you are awareness, and it does not feel like anything. As awareness you are the knower of ignorance and knowledge, they are both objects known to you.
Robert: Moreover, if this apparent reality still exists in every way after enlightenment, just the faith in its reality is gone, and if I still command this body and mind, and everyone else still believes that to be the extent of them, then there is always a duality.
Sundari: Correct. Like I said above, non-duality is not opposed to duality. Duality is only a problem if you don’t know what it is. Imagine how dull life as a jiva would be without duality? How would you ever touch or love or eat or sleep? Only if you are under its spell does duality cause suffering.
Robert: Claim: awareness had to be there before senses evolved. This comment refers to the development of senses from the five elements. I don’t know how to verify this claim. Mutations are random, and ones that enable improved survivability become selected for as the organism breeds.
Sundari: Who is it that does not know how to verify this “claim,” Robert? And it is not a claim, it is a statement of pure, inescapable fact. Nothing comes from nothing. Evolution does not contradict the obvious fact that consciousness has to be there for mutations to take place.
Robert: Are the five elements forming the basis of maya and all matter allegory or should I be able to fit this idea in with science?
Sundari: It is not allegory, Robert, it is pure logic. Science has come a long way to approach agreement with this obvious truth, and there is a much more enlightened approach these days. Some scientists, like Professor Bruce Lipton in particular, have gone to great lengths to prove this through his study in biogenetics. He proved categorically that we are not just a product of our genes, that we are also a product of our environment. He developed and proved the theory of epigenetics, and I recommend that you look him up. Read his book The Biology of Belief. Professor Candace Pert has also done great work with her study The Molecules of Emotion. Also read Amit Goswami and his book The Self-Aware Universe. There are many other brilliant scientists working on proving that consciousness is the substrate for all being. Look up Professor John Hagelin, who with his take on super-unified string theory came up with a very good proof that consciousness is the ground of being.
The problem with most scientists, even the most enlightened ones, is that they do not fully understand Isvara.
Robert: I understand that the meaning we put on objects can be illusory, and they themselves are made up of smaller components, and empty space is a component, but there is no way to verify that it is consciousness.
Sundari: Who puts the meaning into objects, and who is it that is trying to verify this? It is not Robert, because he is an object known to you. After all, you made the claim that you know that awareness is your primary identity, did you not? There is only you, awareness.
Robert: An assertion is made that to be conscious of something means it is consciousness.
Sundari: How can you be conscious of anything unless you are conscious? If you are not conscious you would be six foot under, not so? Everything is made up of consciousness and arises out of consciousness. But only consciousness is conscious. Does your body know you? Does the brain know the brain? Do your feelings know you? No, they don’t. No object is conscious, all objects reflect consciousness but are not conscious themselves.
Robert: Despite something appearing in our consciousness, to say that necessarily means it must be consciousness depends on believing non-duality, but since that is the proof for non-duality, how can the proof depend upon the faith?
Sundari: Everything appears in consciousness, or how would you know it? All objects are made of consciousness and appear in the mind as a thought, which is also made of consciousness. How would perception of anything take place unless there is consciousness, the means to perceive and an object to perceive? Consciousness is self-knowing and does not need anything to know itself. Self-inquiry does not “depend” on “believing” non-duality. Vedanta is not about belief. It proves irrefutably that everything dissolves into consciousness and therefore dispels duality as not real. The proof does not depend on faith, although faith is one of the most important qualifications for moksa.
You can believe the scripture because it is an independent teaching, put together by thousands of rishis over thousands of years, who carefully and dispassionately worked out the logic of absolutely everything. Vedanta does not come from the mind of man, it is revealed to the mind by consciousness. Remember that the mind is inert and not capable of thinking, it is simply a reflector, an instrument for consciousness. Awareness shines on the mind, making it appear conscious, like a torch lights up a dark room. Vedanta is not dependent on anyone’s opinions or beliefs, it is not a religion or a philosophy.
The proof you need depends on the mind being qualified for self-inquiry.
Robert: Also, to say that there is only one consciousness is a logical leap, and I am not sure how that can be known. It is logical to say we all have consciousness, but how can we know that those consciousnesses are not independent and equal but actually united?
Sundari: You are confusing the apparent with the real. It is not logical to say that we all “have consciousness.” It is logical to say that there is only one principle and that is consciousness. To say that there is only one consciousness and we all share it is the logical and irrefutable deduction one comes to when all the objects have been negated as not-self. In the apparent reality, this does not mean that the individual, with all their seemingly unique qualities, disappears. They are just known not to be real. Once the dharma field and gunas are understood, it is easy to see that it is all an endless playing out of the same basic ingredients, all in slightly different permutations, but all have the same origin, consciousness.
Robert: I know these are very difficult questions. I do not ask them because I am looking for reasons to discount Vedanta, rather I hope this can be resolved. Sorry for the hassle but I appreciate any help you can provide.
Sundari: Yes, these are good questions which address the most subtle and difficult teachings in Vedanta. The question is, do you understand the answers and can you apply the logic?
~ Om and prem, Sundari