The Magic of Maya
Just what is maya? Maya is a Sanskrit word meaning the divine power of illusion, the principle of appearance, the marvelous power of creation. The gods and goddesses were mayin, as they were “possessed of the power of maya” (Mahony, 1998, pp. 32-33). They were seen to be powerful magicians or crafty artists. In early Vedic India, maya referred to this mysterious divine ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat—“to create dimensional reality seemingly out of nothing” (p. 32). Mahony further explains:
The power of the gods’ maya allowed them to convert their divine ideas into manifest forms. Through the power of their imagination they constructed or fashioned the many and various physical objects that constitute the world as a whole. And it was through their maya that they projected themselves into those forms as a way to enliven them and to direct their activities. (p. 32)
Maya was seen as a miraculous power of transformation and creativity, an extraordinary imaginative art of truly universal import, “for without it the world would not exist, nor would it be capable of sustaining itself” (Mahony, 1998, p. 34). The world in which we live, from an early Vedic perspective, is a projection or artifact of divine imagination. As Shakespeare has Prospero say in The Tempest much later, “We are such stuff as dreams are made of” (OSS, 2003, online, [iv, I]) This world is often considered a dream from which we can awaken, as Grof (1998) maintains.
Campbell (1995) tells us that maya has three effects: obscuring, projecting, and revealing. The obscuring or veiling effect cuts off our vision of perfect unity. Its projecting effect casts forth “all of these broken reflections that we see around us” (p. 263). These two go hand in hand as we will see. Maya’s revealing effect occurs when we contemplate all of these different forms with the idea that we are in essence one with everything.
Traditionally maya has often been most associated with the Goddess, Shakti, which is another name for Shiva’s consort, Parvati, who also represents the powerful serpent energy of kundalini, while Kali is Parvati's terrible aspect). Maya is the delusive veiling power that Shakti uses to create the phenomenal world and make the one reality appear as many. “Maya is the external garb of the universe,” according to Svoboda (2004), who provides insight into Shakti’s maya:
Maya can exist only where there is duality. The universe is full of pairs of basic principles: male and female, positive and negative, active and passive. Our philosophy [in this case Tantra] maintains that the Soul is only one, indivisible, in the state of sat-chit-ananda (existence-consciousness-bliss). But the Soul cannot enjoy itself unless there is some observer, someone who can perceive the reality. Observers cannot exist when the whole universe is in a state of nonduality because all is one; no distinction between observer and observed would be possible. To satisfy this urge for an observer, Shakti projects herself . . . . The whole projection is spontaneous because of joy, the overwhelming joy of existence or sat-chi-ananda. Because the process of this projection is unknown to everyone it is called maya. (p. 61).