The Vaiṣṇava Concept of Māyā

Based on Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī’s Bhagavat Sandarbha

By Satyanarayana Dasa

The Lord has two types of energy: parā and aparā. Parā means distant, beyond, superior, and so on. The energy is called parā because it is superior to, or beyond, the material energy, which is thus called aparā, i.e. near or inferior. In the Bhagavad Gītā, Kṛṣṇa states that the living beings can be counted as parā, because of their conscious nature:

This eight-fold separated energy (the material nature) is called aparā, but different from it, O mighty-armed one, is the parā energy of mine, called the jīva (living being), by which this world is sustained. (Gītā 7.5)

In Śrī Bhagavat Sandarbha, Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī explains these energies in detail. To understand parā, he first explains aparā because it is easier to understand. This is called candra-śākhā-nyāya or “the branch-moon principle,” by which one precedes the development of a more complex argument by first explaining an easier point, just as one might first point to the branch of a tree to show someone where the moon is.

To define the aparā, or external energy, Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī cites one of the four seed verses (catu-slokī) of the Bhāgavatam that Lord Kṛṣṇa spoke to Brahmā at the dawn of creation. In this verse the Lord defines His external energy, māyā. The term māyā has various meanings, such as false, cheating, illusion, compassion, power, wisdom, entanglement, the goddess of fortune, magic and so on. Kṛṣṇa here uses it in the sense of the energy that causes bewilderment, the external energy.

According to this verse the basic characteristics of māyā are as follows:

1. Māyā does not exist within the Lord.

2. Māyā does not exist without the Lord.

3. Māyā exists outside the Lord.

4. Māyā is perceived when the Lord is not perceived.

A doubt may be raised concerning this definition. A conditioned living being also has the above characteristics and thus this definition has the defect of being too broad. To avoid this, Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī says that the jīva is conscious and has been counted in the same category as the Lord. Moreover, the above definition should include the jīva-māyā and gua-māyā features, which are indicated in the verse. Māyā is not in the parā-śakti. This also implies that it is not in the svarūpa of the jīva, or in the nature of the living being, and this is good news. Were māyā part of the jīva, there would be no question of being liberated from it.

This explanation of māyā defies the monistic view. Monists say that māyā is neither sat (real), asat (false), nor a combination of both. It is different from both, and yet not non-existent. Thus, it is inexplicable, or anirvacanīyā, and antagonistic to knowledge. Śaṅkarācārya describes māyā as follows:

Māyā is neither sat nor asat, nor is it a combination of sat and asat. It is neither different from, nor one with, Brahman, nor is it different from and one with It simultaneously. It does not have limbs or divisions, nor is it without them, nor is it a combination of both of these conditions. Māyā is most astonishing and inexplicable. (Viveka-cūāmai 111)

The reason for such an explanation is due to the fact that radical nondualists do not accept the potencies of Brahman. Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī, however, establishes that the Absolute is full of inconceivable potencies that manifest in multifarious ways. This is a simple fact, yet without acknowledging it, Absolute Reality cannot be comprehended. Because Advaita-vādīs cannot accommodate this fact, they are forced to manufacture complicated definitions. Instead of accepting inconceivable power (acintya-śakti), they are forced to accept a power that simply defies description (anirvacanīyā māyā), which is a convenient way not to have to adequately account for it. This strategy of theirs is itself inconceivable.

Advaita-vādīs also propose that both īśvara (the Lord) and jīva are products of māyā and at the absolute level there is only formless, unqualified Brahman. The Absolute Person, Śrī Kṛṣṇa however, does not agree with such ideas. Rather, He states that māyā is His energy and that it is beginningless (SB 11.11.3). Lord Brahmā also confirms this in the Second Canto, “The Lord is the support of both the vidyā and avidyā features of māyā” (SB 2.6.20).

The existence of an entity that can influence Brahman to turn into īśvara and jīva is impossible as well as inconceivable. We cannot invent a new category different from existence and non-existence (sat and asat). Kṛṣṇa Himself states in Bhagavad Gītā that there is either sat or asat; there is no third category, as speculated by the monists:

The unreal (asat) has no existence and the real (sat) has no non-existence. The conclusion about both of these has been seen by the knowers of Truth. (Gītā 2.16)

This definition of māyā also invalidates the Śākta philosophy. The Śāktas consider Śakti or Devī, who has various forms, to be the supreme controller. She is the mūla prakti, original nature, and divides herself into purua and prakti. She is mahā-māyā, who creates Viṣṇu, Śiva and Brahmā out of herself and enables them to perform their respective duties. In her ultimate feature she is nirgua and called para-brahman. There are various branches of the Śāktas and they have various types of practices for attaining their goal.

In contrary, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam clearly indicates that māyā cannot exist without the support of Lord Kṛṣṇa. She cannot even face Him (SB 2.7.47). In Bhagavad Gītā, Kṛṣṇa says, “māyā is My divine material energy” (7.14). Since Bhagavad Gītā is accepted as authoritative even by the Śaṅkaraites, certainly the claim of the Śāktas is not supported by the prasthāna-trayī, the three sources of scriptural authority, which are accepted by all Vedic philosophers.

Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī says that māyā can be subdivided into two categories based on her functions. The first is called jīva-māyā, the feature of māyā that covers the living being’s true nature, or svarūpa. He also uses the term nimittāśa, “efficient or instrumental aspect,” to refer to this subdivision due its being instrumental in covering the living being with ignorance. But it is not sufficient to cover consciousness, or the nature of the living being. To perfect the soul’s bondage she must also provide the material body, senses, and sense objects for the jīva’s enjoyment. This is called gua-māyā, because all this paraphernalia is a transformation of the guas of māyā.

The gua-māyā feature is also called upādāna, or the material aspect, because it supplies the material ingredients. Just as when a man goes to a nightclub, he first gets intoxicated, which covers his intelligence (like jīva-māya); then he gets allured by the sense objects, such as a young woman (comparable to gua-māyā). That makes his illusion complete. In this way, the attack of māyā is two-fold—internal and external. The two features complement and strengthen each other. Thus it is impossible for a conditioned soul to get out of her clutches without assistance from beyond the guas.

Although māyā is real and this world manifested by her is also real, the good news is that the bondage of the jīva is not real. Otherwise there would be no possibility of liberation.

3 thoughts on “The Vaiṣṇava Concept of Māyā”

  1. This is a clear, vivid description of maya, how the bondage comes about and hope that one can be released from the clutches of maya. it is encouraging news. this philosophy so practical can show anamolies in ubiquious radical non-dualism. keep posting this way to enlight us.

  2. …it certainly clarifies a lot of confusions about true identity, to start of, but also unmasks deeply rooted threads of bondage for us, “the awareness”, to face and ultimately to liberate from …thank You PrabhuJi…

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