Maya: Illusion and Delusion

Jason Siff
Mar 24 · 3 min read
This is a modern painting of the Hindu goddess Chamunda (though it looks much like the Tibetan goddess Palden Lhamo), who, among other things, is considered a manifestation of the goddess Durga. The painting was done by Ratna Gopal Simkhwala in 2010 and is part of my personal collection of contemporary Newari art.

One of the most memorable Hindu stories I encountered as a young person learning about Eastern religions has to do with Vishnu’s maya (illusion). The story goes something like this. A sage wants to understand maya, so Vishnu asks him to fetch some drinking water. The sage goes into a village and immediately forgets about bringing Vishnu water. He finds a wife, has a family, settles down, and lives a happy life until a storm comes, and he loses everything, including his family. Vishnu reappears and asks him if he now understands the power of maya. (Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, pages 32–33).

From this story, maya gets generalized into something like, “existence is all an illusion.” That is how it was first explained to me. But more recently, I have been reading Hindu mythology, and maya actually has other, more interesting psychological dimensions to it.

Another Hindu deity who is known for her maya is the goddess Durga. There is a story about two demons who are born from Vishnu’s ear wax. These two demons want to kill the god Brahma, who calls on Durga to save him by slaying the demons. Using her powerful maya, Durga gets the demons to ask a boon of Vishnu, which he accepts, and that allows Vishnu to kill them. Durga’s maya is capable of deluding others to do things they wouldn’t do if they were not under its influence. In this story, Durga is called, “she whose form is sleep, hunger, thirst, and shadow.” In another instance, she is called, “the force that seizes those of knowledge and leads them to delusion… and the cause of bondage in the world.” (Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses, page 100)

This alternative idea of maya has similarities with Early Buddhist teachings. Our desires and ignorance are the cause of bondage (suffering). Desire, as a thirst for what we feel we can’t live without, is a recurring cycle we too easily fall into, occupying our attention and diverting us from meditation and contemplation. Ignorance in the form of sleep, of darkness and shadow, can successfully obliterate our hard-won wisdom and knowledge, leading us back into delusion. This maya is a powerful force that others can use on us to get us to think, feel, believe, and behave as they would like us to.

An open meditation practice, like Recollective Awareness, allows thoughts and emotions, giving us permission to enter into the sleepy, dark, shadowy realm of our own maya. Meditation techniques, mindfulness methods, and breathing exercises can postpone, rather than assist, the inevitable arising of what we don’t want to see and know about ourselves. Yet everything we have tried to consciously deny or avoid is waiting for us in meditation. In Recollective Awareness Meditation, we have compassion for the part of us that wants to build more delusion to escape from experiencing the truth of already existing delusion. Our attention is not anchored to the breath, to body sensations, or the any of the senses, but rather is grounded in self-honesty. It is acknowledging to yourself: “When feeling hatred, I know hatred. When feeling desire, I know desire. When feeling fear, I know fear. When feeling sad, I know sadness….” And the same goes for thoughts. “When thinking of revenge, I know the thoughts of getting even, of speaking ill of, and of ruining another person’s life.”

We are honest about our mistaken perceptions and the actions we have taken because of them. We learn to question the convictions we build based on stories we have heard and embellished with our imagination. We see through the assumption that our emotions give us a complete picture of ourselves and others, one that seems true as long as the emotion lasts and not so true once it passes away. And, we admit to ourselves how comfortable and complacent we are with rigidly patterned behaviors and responses. Our patterning has very deep roots, further than we can ever see, but once we can see through the surface haze of maya, evaporated by the heat of our self-honesty, our behaviors can catch our interest differently and become an opportunity for exploration and contemplation.

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