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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Māyā

A Sanskrit term usually translated “illusion.” It is a feminine noun derived from the third usage of the Sanskrit root mā, literally meaning “measure, mete out, mark off.” In early Sanskrit, māyā meant “paranormal power,” presumably the feminine aspect of creation (since māyā is a feminine noun). It persists in later theistic Hinduism with this meaning as one of the nine powrs (aktis) of Viyu. But in classical philosophic Sanskrit it has the meaning of “illusion,” “deception,” “magic,” or “apparition.” There is mention in some of the Upaniads of a māyāvin, literally māyā-maker. From the description of such a person, it is clear that he is someone capable of inducing mass hypnosis, perhaps even by telepathic means.

In Vedānta, especially ADVAITA VEDĀNTA, the entire manifested universe is said to be māyā, i.e., illusion. In other words, it does not have an ontological status independent of Brahman, nor is it unchanging — permanence and independence being two of the criteria of reality in Indian philosophy. These same criteria are accepted by Helena P. Blavatsky as the meaning of “real” in The Secret Doctrine (see, for example, SD I:276). Hence she also uses the term māyā in the sense of “illusion” (e.g., SD I:xix, 367, etc.). But she makes a further distinction between māyā as a cosmic principle and “a māyā,” an individual mistaken perception, either perceptual illusion (such as the bent stick phenomenon) or perceptual delusion (such as misperceiving a shiny shell as silver, a stock example in Indian philosophy). Henry S. Olcott, in his Old Diary Leaves, especially in the first two volumes, cites numerous instances of the latter produced by Madame Blavatsky, often calling the phenomena “glamors” or “deceptions” as well as “illusions.” He hypothesizes that the illusions produced through audible suggestion by a stage hypnotist (“crude mesmeric experimentation in a village hall”), those produced telepathically by “an Eastern juggler, fakir, sanyāsi, or adept,” and those produced “on a cosmic scale” by a god are based on the same principle and differ only in degree (Old Diary Leaves [1941 ed.], Vol. 1, p. 433). But both he and Madame Blavatsky use māyā indifferently for paranormally produced objects which have objective reality (i.e., persist over time) and paranormally produced delusions which only seem at the time to have objective reality but do not (since they do not persist over time).

Both Advaita Vedānta philosophy and theosophy, however, are quick to point out that even if the ontological status of the manifested universe is, in the final analysis, an illusion, that does not mean that it is a mere figment of the imagination. It exists, even if it is not ultimately real. However, our perception of it is determined by our perceptual organs and what is relatively real for us (in terms of shape, color, etc.) is not necessarily the only relative reality; the way an ant, for example, perceives the world is just as valid for it from the relative point of view as ours is (SD I:329). Furthermore, as we develop psychic perceptual abilities and awaken to higher realms (the general term Blavatsky uses is “astral”), although we perceive the world in a different way, we are still under the sway of māyā. Only when “we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya” (SD I:40). So māyā is used in theosophical literature (esp. in The Secret Doctrine) in more than one sense, although the different meanings are clearly interrelated: (1) cosmologically as the (feminine) creative power which manifests the universe, (2) ontologically as indicating the impermanent nature of the world we live in and its dependence on a deeper reality, (3) epistemologically as our mistaken tendency to assume that the way we perceive the world is the way it actually is, (4) psychologically as explaining hypnotically or telepathically induced delusions, and even (5) axiologically as indicating that the objects of our world do not have the kind of value which most people attribute to them, but that there is something more important in life than the pursuit of material possessions.

R.W.B.

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