Māyā and Brahman: Creativity of the Creator
A gold miner sits on the edge of a stream, dipping his pan into the sand and silt and letting the water run across it. He clears the bulky leaves and twigs, tossing them back onto the banks. Gently shaking the sieve, the worthless dust falls away. What is left he closely inspects, scratching the dirty surfaces, holding pebbles to the light, looking for that telltale hint of gold. Hidden deep in the mountain upstream he knows there is a vein of pure gold, but it is too hard to reach and too difficult to locate directly. So while he daydreams of stumbling across the source, he contents himself with making a living here along the stream, sifting through so much worthless matter, looking for a few small flecks of the valuable heart of the mountain that will sustain him.
Brahman, the Universal Soul
Brahman is the Sanskrit name given to the pure consciousness underlying all of existence. It is literally the medium through which all substances emerge, and while the manifested substances may change, Brahman itself remains unchanged. It is only a conscious witness to the dramatic ups and downs of life. Advaita Vedānta tells us that Brahman is infinitely expansive. It is pulsating everywhere. Acharya Shunya explains in her satsanghas that the Soul (Ātman in Sanskrit) that gives consciousness to our minds and animates our bodies with life, is none other than Brahman itself. Hearing this wisdom from a teacher, we feel comforted being told that this universal Soul nature is within us and totally independent of the alternating joys and sorrows we experience moment to moment.
Yet no matter how much the teacher describes our timeless essence in stories, or the ancient Advaita Vedānta texts lay out its mechanisms, will just listening to these words bring us face to face with the shining Self we are aching to greet? However vividly someone describes to you the culture, architecture and weather of Bali, can you say you have experienced it? You must make the journey yourself to really know.
It Definitely Isn’t This
To guide us home to our deepest nature, the sages have offered us a methodical mental practice to trace the path back to the Self. The practice is called ‘neti-neti’ which means, ‘not this, not this.’ Like a miner looking for gold scoops up rocks and stones and first rejects everything that isn’t gold, in the same way, a spiritual aspirant looking for the pure consciousness of the Self is instructed to first release his or her attachments to what is not the Self. We look at the objects we own, the professional success we have accumulated, the relationships we have, the body we see in the mirror, and we ask ourselves, “Are these going to stay the same forever? Does my eternal essence depend on these things for happiness?” We find that no, life goes on despite our possessions gained and lost, the friends sometimes turned enemies, the inevitable wrinkles and greying hair. As the noise and distraction of what is temporary settles down, that eternal presence we were seeking all along will reveal itself from within.
Qualities of Māyā
Those layers that we are so delicately peeling away from our definition of who we really are, are called Māyā. Māyā is made up of three qualities – called gunas – which have different characteristics that combine and permutate to form all of creation. Tamas is the quality (guna) of inertia which makes tangible manifestation possible with its blocking and unmoving aspect. Rajas is the activity principle that is the moving aspect of manifestation. Sattva is the knowledge part of creation that is most closely reflecting pure consciousness. When we are feeling dull, depressed and lazy, tamas is dominant in the mind. Fiery emotions of anger and jealousy indicate excessive rajas. A mental state of balanced, clear calm is the hallmark of a mind full of sattva.
Māyā is not only creating our mental world, however. All of the environment is made up of gunas and therefore is also Māyā. Once we begin to entertain the idea that who we really are is something beyond what we have discarded as temporal and fluctuating, it is a small but radical leap of consciousness to apply the same logical framework to the world around us. If I watch leafy branches of a tree swaying in the breeze, I can say that the solid trunk and fibers of the leaves are dominant in tamas guna, the movement of the wind and flow of sap within its branches demonstrate the presence of rajas, and the tree’s innate knowing of when to flower, when to fruit, and when to seed is the sattva aspect. Knowledge of the gunas, layered over a foundation practice of ‘neti-neti’ becomes a transformative tool to understand the observable world. We begin to interpret the changes of Māyā more as a science of physics, and it becomes possible to distinguish our abiding happiness and sense of Self from the play of subtle and gross matter.
As the building blocks of manifestation, the three gunas are in a constantly changing relationship with each other. Because Māyā is entirely made up of these characteristics, Māyā must also change over time. The greatest mountain will eventually crumble and dissolve into the sea. The body decaying in the graveyard will nourish new plants which will feed caterpillars that morph into butterflies. The awkwardness of youth eventually ripens into graceful confidence. Time grinds on and Māyā dances with it, never the same for long and never exactly the same way twice. So when we observe that friendships change over our lifetime, or our hometown has gentrified since our last visit, or our thoughts jump quickly moment to moment – those observable changes are the proof that they are all part of Māyā.
Through the process of neti-neti we become attuned to what is Māyā. We cultivate a little space between our Observer Self (the constant witness) and the material world (the constantly changing.) As Acharya Shunya said, “This neti-neti is like a weed killer. You put it and it kills all the weeds of inaccurate identities. I am a mother, I am the founder, I am the President, all these titles are laughable. Knowing that I am Ātman, I am Brahman, I am satchitānanda [eternal consciousness and bliss], has allowed me to bring breathing space between all these titles.” With practice, we are able for at least a few moments at a time, to disengage our default self-identification with the outward labels and aspects of our physical and mental world that constantly change.
An Understanding Emerges
As what is not Brahman comes into sharp relief through the practice of neti-neti, an understanding of what is Brahman emerges out of the contrast. Where Māyā is all that is unconscious, Brahman is pure consciousness itself. Māyā is made up of qualities (gunas) that change over time, and Brahman is that which is without gunas and so is constant through all phases of time – past, present and future. Brahman is a truth of infinite existence that will never end. It is pure consciousness
without any trace of tamas or rajas in it. It is an infinite joy and bliss that never devolves into sorrow like the temporary happiness we experience with the people and things in our daily lives.
When the definitions of Māyā and Brahman are viewed side by side, it at first appears that Māyā is the cause of all our suffering and to experience Brahman is our salvation. This is the moment where the student must keep going deeper in their understanding, or else they will be left totally disenchanted with the outside world. When taken on its own, the process of neti-neti convinces us that everything we think, see, smell, taste, hear and feel is not ultimate reality since it is made up of gunas that will change and cause us suffering. At this level we are tempted to see everything labeled as Māyā as a parlor trick, a mirage intended to ensnare us in the dream where we forget the Self. According to this thinking, Māyā is something we have to struggle to break free from if we want the ultimate spiritual freedom.
An Inseparable Power
Advaita Vedānta teaches a fascinating relationship between Māyā and Brahman that fills out and grounds our understanding of both temporary and ultimate reality. Rather than simply an inferior category of separate, dead matter – Māyā is actually Brahman’s superpower to be or become anything. Brahman, as pure consciousness, has an inexhaustible creative potential, and Māyā is Brahman’s mechanism for manifestation. If Brahman is the spontaneous and inspired child, Māyā is the collection of different shapes and sizes of building blocks she uses to build. If Brahman is the artist filled with an irrepressible desire to create, Māyā is the lump of clay begging to be shaped.
Since Brahman is eternally existing beyond time, its potential to be and become is also eternal, so Māyā and Brahman share an aspect of being anādi, meaning ‘without beginning or end.’ The innumerable manifestations of Māyā are constantly emerging and dissolving, but the powerful potential to be and become is always present as a faculty of Brahman. Yet, this creation and manifestation function of Māyā is totally dependent upon Brahman’s illumination. Māyā is the bulb, but Brahman is the current that lights it up.
Applying This Wisdom
If our true nature is that of timelessness, expansive consciousness and unalloyed bliss, then why do we and everyone else seem to be living lives so boxed by limitation and exhausting cycles of suffering and temporary joys? Advaita Vedānta explains that this happens because Māyā has fogged over our memory of our true nature and so we have gotten locked into a game of looking for our abiding wholeness in the unstable world outside. The practice of neti-neti breaks us out of this default mode and creates a sliver of space between the manifested world of Māyā and our deepest Self (Brahman) where we can begin to turn inward and connect to the independent source of light and consciousness within.
But Māyā’s ultimate purpose is not simply to make us forget our soul nature. For as much suffering it causes us, it is not a punishment nor a curse. Rather, Māyā is the equally timeless and inseparable creative faculty of Brahman. This means that since Brahman is everywhere and in everything, so too is its creative power surging through every corner of your being.
To boldly and creatively live life to our full potential is to align ourselves with Brahman’s supreme creative power. When we do this, without attachments, within the worldly set-up of Māyā, we are asserting our deepest spiritual capacities and acting as a microcosm of the macrocosmic creator. To view every blade of grass, skyscraper, co-worker, lover, enemy as a divine manifestation of Brahman through the power of Māyā is to live life with reverence, awe and acceptance of all life’s shades and textures. Even as we detach ourselves by retracting our mental identification with what is outside and pulling it back toward identification with the Self, we can worship all that is not that as proof of That’s never-ending power to create.
This article comes from Hamsa magazine. We welcome you to enjoy reading each magazine to benefit from summaries of and heartfelt reflections on Vedika founder and Acharya Shunya's teachings, written by students of her Spiritual Studies Program.
The author Ishani Naidu is a long-term student of Acharya Shunya, and serves as Editor of the Hamsa magazine, which is an offering of Acharya Shunya's Vedic Spiritual Studies program.
Learn more about how you can study Vedanta with Acharya Shunya in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program.