Ignorance (Maya, Avidya)

21-24. D.: What is this ignorance?

M.: Listen. In the body appears a phantom, the ‘false-I’, to claim the body for itself and it is called jiva. This jiva always outward bent, taking the world to be real and himself to be the doer and experiencer of pleasures and pains, desirous of this and that, undiscriminating, not once remembering his true nature, nor enquiring “Who am I?, What is this world?”, is but wandering in the samsara without knowing himself. Such forgetfulness of the Self is Ignorance.

  1. D.: All the shastras proclaim that this samsara is the handiwork of Maya but you say it is of Ignorance. How are the two statements to be reconciled?

M.: This Ignorance is called by different names such as Maya, Pradhana, Avyakta (the unmanifest), Avidya, Nature, Darkness and so on. Therefore the samsara is but the result of Ignorance.

  1. D.: How does this ignorance project the samsara?

M.: Ignorance has two aspects: Veiling and Projection (AvaranaVikshepa). From these arises the samsara. Veiling functions in two ways. In the one we say “It is not” and in the other “It does not shine forth.”

27-28. D.: Please explain this.

M.: In a discourse between a master and a student, although the sage teaches that there is only the non-dual Reality the ignorant man thinks “What can be non-dual Reality? No. It cannot be.” As a result of beginningless veiling, though taught, the teaching is disregarded and the old ideas persist. Such indifference is the first aspect of veiling.

29-30. Next, with the help of sacred books and gracious masters he unaccountably but sincerely believes in the nondual Real, yet he cannot probe deep but remains superficial and says “The Reality does not shine forth.” Here is knowledge knowing that It does not shine forth yet the illusion of ignorance persists. This illusion that It does not shine forth, is the second aspect of veiling.

31-32. D.: What is Projection?

M.: Though he is the unchanging, formless, Supreme, Blissful, non-dual Self, the man thinks of himself as the body with hands and legs, the doer and experiencer; objectively sees this man and that man, this thing and that thing, and is deluded. This delusion of perceiving the external universe on the non-dual Reality enveloped by it, is Projection. This is Superimposition.

  1. D.: What is Superimposition?

M.: To mistake something which is, for something which is not — like a rope for a snake, a post for a thief, and mirage for water. The appearance of a false thing on a real is superimposition.

  1. D.: What is here the unreal superimposition on the real thing, the substratum?

M.: The non-dual Being-Knowledge-Bliss or the Supreme Brahman is the Reality. Just as the false name and form of snake is superimposed on a rope, so also on the non-dual Reality there is superimposed the category of sentient beings and insentient things. Thus the names and forms which appear as the universe, make up the superimposition. This is the unreal phenomenon.

D.: In the Reality which is non-dual, who is there to bring about this superimposition?

M.: It is Maya.

D.: What is Maya?

  1. M.: It is the ignorance about the aforesaid Brahman.

D.: What is this Ignorance?

M.: Though the Self is Brahman, there is not the knowledge of the Self (being Brahman). That which obstructs this knowledge of the Self is Ignorance.

D.: How can this project the world?

M.: Just as ignorance of the substratum, namely the rope, projects the illusion of a snake, so Ignorance of Brahman projects this world.

  1. M.: It must be regarded an illusion because it is superimposed and does not exist either before (perception) or after (knowledge).

D.: How can it be said that it does not exist either before (perception) or after (knowledge)?

M.: In order to be created, it could not have been before creation (i.e. it comes into existence simultaneously with or after creation); in dissolution it cannot exist; now in the interval it simply appears like a magic-born city in mid air. Inasmuch as it is not seen in deep sleep, shocks and Samadhi, it follows that even now it is only a super imposition and therefore an illusion.

  1. D.: Before creation and in dissolution if there is no world, what can exist then?

M.: There is only the basic Existence, not fictitious, nondual, undifferentiated, ab extra and ab intra (Sajatiya, vijatiya, and svagata bheda), Being-Knowledge-Bliss, the unchanging Reality.

D.: How is it known?

M.: The Vedas say “Before creation there was only Pure Being.” Yoga Vasishta also helps us to understand it.

D.: How?

  1. M.: “In dissolution the whole universe is withdrawn leaving only the Single Reality which stays motionless, beyond speech and thought, neither darkness nor light, yet perfect, namely, untellable, but not void,” says Yoga Vasishta.
  2. D.: In such Non duality how can the universe arise?

M.: Just as in the aforesaid rope snake, the ignorance of the real substratum lies hidden in the rope, so also in the basic Reality there lies hidden Ignorance otherwise called Maya or Avidya. Later this gives rise to all these names and forms.

40-41. This maya which is dependent on the unrelated Knowledge-Bliss-Reality, has the two aspects of veiling and projection (avarna and vikshepa); by the former it hides its own substratum from view, and by the latter the unmanifest maya is made manifest as mind. This then sports with its latencies which amounts to projecting this universe with all the names and forms.

  1. D.: Has anyone else said this before?

M.: Yes, Vasishta to Rama.

D.: How?

43-50. M.: “The powers of Brahman are infinite. Among them that power becomes manifest through which it shines forth.”

D.: What are those different powers?

M.: Sentience in sentient beings; movement in air; solidity in earth; fluidity in water; heat in fire; void in the ether; decaying tendency in the perishable; and many more are well known. These qualities remained unmanifest and later manifested themselves. They must have been latent in the non-dual Brahman like the glorious colours of peacock feathers in the yolk of its egg or the spread out banyan tree in the tiny seed.

D.: If all powers lay latent in the Single Brahman why did they not manifest simultaneously ?

M.: Look how the seeds of trees, plants, herbs, creepers, etc. are all contained in the earth but only some of them sprout forth according to the soil, climate and season. So also the nature and extent of powers for manifestation are determined by conditions. At the time Brahman (the substratum of all the powers of Maya), joins the power of thinking, this power manifests as mind. Thus Maya so long dormant suddenly starts forth as mind from the Supreme Brahman, the common source of all. Then this mind fashions all the universe. So says Vasishta.

  1. D.: What is the nature of this mind which forms the power of projection of Maya?

M.: To recollect ideas or latencies is its nature. It has latencies as its content and appears in the witnessing consciousness in two modes — “I” and “This”.

D.: What are these modes?

M.: They are the concept “I” and the concepts “this”, “that”, etc.

  1. D.: How is this I-mode superimposed on the witnessing consciousness ?

M.: Just as silver superimposed on nacre presents the nacre as silver, so also the I-mode on the basic witness presents it as “I”, i.e. the ego, as if the witness were not different from the ego but were the ego itself.

  1. Just as a person possessed by a spirit is deluded and behaves as altogether a different person, so also the witness possessed by the I-mode forgets its true nature and presents itself as the ego.
  2. D.: How can the unchanging witness mistake itself for the changing ego?

M.: Like a man in delirium feeling himself lifted in air, or a drunken man beside himself, or a madman raving incoherently, or a dreamer going on dream-journeys, or a man possessed behaving in strange ways, the witness though itself untainted and unchanged, yet under the malicious influence of the phantom ego, appears changed as “I”.

  1. D.: Does the I-mode of mind present the witness altered as the ego, or itself appear modified as the ego in the witness?

56-57. M.: Now this question cannot arise, for having no existence apart from the Self, it cannot manifest of itself. Therefore it must present the Self as if modified into the ego.

D.: Please explain it more.

M.: Just as the ignorance factor in the rope cannot project itself as snake but must make the rope look like a snake; that in water unable to manifest itself, makes the water manifest as foam, bubbles and waves; that in fire, itself unable, makes the fire display itself as sparks; that in clay cannot present itself but presents the clay as a pot, so also the power in the witness cannot manifest itself but presents the witness as the ego.

58-60. D.: Master, how can it be said that through maya the Self is fragmented into individual egos? The Self is not related to anything else; it remains untainted and unchanged like ether. How can maya affect it? Is it not as absurd to speak of fragmentation of the Self as to say “I saw a man taking hold of ether and moulding it into a man; or fashioning air into a cask?” I am now sunk in the ocean of samsara. Please rescue me.

  1. M.: Maya is called Maya because it can make the impossible possible. It is the power which brings into view what was not always there, like a magician making his audience see a celestial city in mid air. If a man can do this, can maya not do that? There is nothing absurd in it.

62-66. D.: Please make it clear to me.

M.: Now consider the power of sleep to call forth dream visions. A man lying on a cot in a closed room falls asleep and in his dream wanders about taking the shapes of birds and beasts; the dreamer sleeping in his home, the dream presents him as walking in the streets of Benares or on the sands of Setu; although the sleeper is lying unchanged yet in his dream he flies up in the air, falls headlong into an abyss, or cuts off his own hand and carries it in his hand. In the dream itself there is no question of consistency or otherwise. Whatever is seen in it appears to be appropriate and is not criticised. If simple sleep can make the impossible possible what wonder can there be in the Almighty Maya creating this indescribable universe? It is its very nature.

(Source: Advaita Bodha Deepika, 2002, Sri Ramanasramam. Available for free download here)

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