Reflections. Courtesy of author.
The Sanskrit term maya is usually translated as “illusion.” The etymology of the word is considered to come from the root ma, “to measure,” “to give shape,” and “to form.” In some early Sanskrit texts, maya has the meaning of “creative force” and it is related to the three innate qualities (guna) of nature (prakriti): sattva, light, purity; rajas, activity, passion; tamas, ignorance, darkness.
The ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, the Rigveda, mentions the gods possessing maya, the ability to create visible form. In the Upanishads, maya is a capacity or energy of God (ishvara). In the texts of the later Vedanta school, the term takes the meaning of “illusion,” or “illusory existence.”
In Buddhism, the term maya preserved its meaning of “illusion” but with the distinction that, according to Buddhists, nothing actually exists, and therefore there is nothing, of which maya can create an illusory reflection. In Buddhist philosophy there is no prime substance or cause regarded as eternal or endless. Life is the dynamic existence of ephemeral elements linked in constant succession. This succession is determined by the twelvefold chain of causality (pratityasamutpada). If everything that an individual experiences can be presented as a chain of transient combinations, then the continuity of the observable existence is just an illusion.
The idea of maya as impermanence leads to the Buddhist notion of individuality as a stream of transitory states of consciousness (santana). Accepting the premise of impermanence makes possible the law of causality or dependent origination. It forms the link between the existent and the non-existent or the Middle Path (madhyama-pratipad), between the two extremes of eternalism (nityanta) and nihilism (ucchedanta). The Middle Path in Buddhism can be juxtaposed with the relation between Brahman and maya in the tradition of Vedanta.
In Theravada Buddhism, not much importance is given to the philosophical aspect of maya apart from its use as the name of Buddha’s mother. In Mahayana Buddhism, maya takes on an important role in connection to both its meaning of “illusion” and the fundamental teaching of emptiness (shunyata). Due to ignorance, objects can be considered as existing independently of causes and conditions, which hinder the possibility of recognizing their true essence, as being empty in nature and as a magical manifestation.
Vajrayana Buddhism focuses on the same idea but in a different way. The completion stage of Tantric practice includes achieving a kind of union with the illusory body (mayadeva) of a particular deity, which is similar to a magical illusion. This practice aims at attaining liberation from the concept of the existence of objects and the duality of samsara and nirvana.
The common Buddhist viewpoint holds that everything in life is an illusion. Life itself, according to Buddhist perceptions, can be considered a manifestation of mahamaya, the great illusion—the mother of all existing things. The name of the mother of the Buddha, the goddess Maya (mayadevi), points to the illusory character of his birth, of birth itself, of life. It unites philosophical concepts across the Buddhist spectrum and embodies the Dharma’s message. On the one hand, the name Maya has a negative connotation, expressed by the force of delusion, which binds people to the cycle of existence, but on the other hand it also carries the positive meaning of a creative power, associated with motherly love: the most powerful force on earth.