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Maya – Avidya In Advaita Philosophy

Maya and Avidya are conceptual terms in Advaita philosophy. Adi Shankaracharya, the founder of the Advaita (monistic) School of philosophical thought, did not make any distinction between maya (cosmic illusion) and avidya (ignorance). But some later Vedantins, like Vachaspati Mishra, made a distinction between the two. Mishra explained that the ajnana connected with jiva is avidya; and when it is described as a power of Brahman, it is maya. Avidya is subjective and maya is objective.

According to Adi Shankaracharya, the world is an illusory projection by maya of the unreal on Brahman. Maya is anirvacaniya (inexplicable). Therefore the world of name and form, which is the creation of maya, is different from sat and asat, and thus anirvacaniya. Maya, according to Shankara, makes the world appear unreal from the point of view of permanent reality and real from the phenomenal point of view. Although the word maya is found in Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda, Upanishads and other Vedantic literature, the concept of maya as such is first formulated by Adi Shankaracharya.

The Taittiriya text (“That from which these beings arise, by which the created beings are sustained, That into which these lapse back at the time of dissolution, seek to know That – That is Brahman”) speaks Brahman as the source of the universe and of the nature of consciousness. According to Upanishadic texts, maya is the primal cause of the world and Brahman the substratum.

Maya is identical with ajnana or avidya (according to Adi Shankaracharya). Maya consists of the three strands of sattva, rajas and tamas. When characterized by the predominance of sattva-guna, it is referred to as maya; and, when the sattva-guna, is less prominent, it is spoken of as avidya or ajnana. One of the same principle, the creative power of Brahman is responsible for the apparent diversification of Brahman into Ishwara and jiva. This principle when related to Ishwara is termed maya with the predominance of sattva guna and when related to the individuals (jiva) is termed avidya with sattva-guna not predominant in it.

The principle which is referred to as the creative power of Brahman has two powers, known as avarana (concealment) and vikshepa (projection). The former is the power of concealment of the true nature of Brahman of the latter is the power to project the unreal world as Brahman. It is the vikshepa shakti that is referred to as maya, while the avarna shakti is referred to as avidya.

From the above, it follows that one and the same creative power is spoken of as maya and avidya. These two are not two distinct principles, according to Adi Shankara. This is substantiated by Vishnu Purana, which states that the yogin by realizing his true nature as Brahman transcends maya that is avidya.

According to Upanishads, maya, which is identical with avidya, is the transformative material cause of the world. Thus avidya is not absence of knowledge; absence cannot serve as the material cause of any effect. If ‘knowledge is known, then we have knowledge’ itself and hence it cannot be negated. If ‘knowledge’ is not known, then also we cannot negate it. It is precisely on this ground, it is said, that “absence of knowledge” cannot be perceptually experienced. And so what is content of perceptual experience cannot be “absence of knowledge” but a positive entity – avidya.

Avidya is indeterminable. It is not sat or real. If it were so, it would never be present in any cognition. Avidya, however, is the content of the cognition, “I am ignorant.” Nor can it be asat and sat at once; for it is a discrepant notion. Further, avidya cannot be stated to be composed of parts. In that case, it cannot be a beginningless entity. If on the other hand, it were considered to be part-less, then it cannot be thought of as the cause of the world. Thus avidya is not real, nor is it an absolute nothing. It is not composed of parts nor is it part-less. Hence it is said to be anirvacaniya. The word anirvacaniya means that which cannot be described either as real or as an absolute nothing or as part-less or as composed of parts.

According to Vivarana tradition (Prakasatman), avidya is one only, while according to the Bhamati tradition (Vacaspati Mishra), it is many. In order to explain this, the locus of avidya is explained. According to Bhamati tradition, the self is the locus of avidya. It is because it is only the self that has the experience of Brahman not being manifest. Since the selves are many, avidya too is multiple. The Vivarana tradition holds that cetana, awareness or consciousness, is the locus of avidya.

The maya of Adi Shankaracharya is trigunatmaka (possessing three aspects)

  1. Knowledge function of the intellect
  2. Kriya (the activity) – the function of prana
  3. Jasa (the inert matter).

These three enable each one of us to construct the world.

Because of these three aspects of creation, maya is called trigunatmaka (possessing three aspects). Because of its dependence on Brahman, maya is called brahmasraya. Adi Shankara argues that all intellectual, religious, and moral activities presuppose maya. According to Dr Radhakrishnan, the incomprehensibility to the relation between Ultimate Reality and the world of plurality is signified by the term maya, and it is the power through which Brahman manifests as Ishwara.

The jiva is different from Brahman only because of avidya. When the latter, which is a limiting principle, is removed, jiva shines forth in its natural resplendent state of Brahman, in the same way as akasa (ether) enclosed in a pot and limited by it becomes one with the all-pervading ether when the limiting adjunct – the pot – is broken.