Maya: Illusion

Under the influence of the three gunas, the soul is (1) misled by matter, and (2) subsequently entangled and entrapped. This tendency is termed maya (illusion).

Under maya’s influence, the atman, (the soul) mistakenly identifies with the body. He accepts such thoughts as “I am white and I am a man,” or “This is my house, my country, and my religion.” Thus the illusioned soul identifies with the temporary body and everything connected to it, such as race, gender, family, nation, bank balance, and sectarian religion. Under this sense of false-ego (false-identity) the soul aspires to control and enjoy matter. However, in so doing he continuously serves lust, greed, and anger. In frustration he often redoubles his efforts and, compounding mistake upon mistake, only falls deeper into illusion.

In ignorance (tamas), he is fully convinced that right is wrong and wrong is right. In passion he is unsure, hesitant, sometimes enjoying and at others times repenting. Only in goodness does the soul begin to develop wisdom – to see things in the real light. Thus enlightenment means moving away from tamas towards sattva. By so doing, the soul gradually escapes the clutches of maya and moves towards liberation.

Key Points

  • Maya means “that which is not” (i.e. illusion).
  • It refers to accepting the temporary as having lasting value, and looking for enduring happiness in this world.
  • Through cultivating the quality of goodness the soul may rise to transcendence and escape the clutches of maya.


Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust.
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so,
Had, having and in quest to have, extreme,
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe,
Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream.

William Shakespeare Sonnet 129 (on lust)

Useful Analogy

Pursuing a mirage in the desert

  • If one pursues a mirage of an oasis in the desert, one will not find water but will be misled. Similarly, this world provides no real happiness, which exists only as an elusive dream.
  • The mirage indicates the presence of a real oasis, of real water. Similarly, our desire for happiness, though frustrated, implies that real pleasure does indeed exist.

Useful Example

Mistaking a rope for a snake

  • Maya literally means “that which is not.” In the twilight, one may easily mistake a rope for a snake. In so doing, we feel fear. Hence fear and other emotions may often be based on illusion, an incorrect perception of reality.

Related Stories

The Yogi’s Cloth (STO-109)
About the entanglement of material life.

The Guru Embracing the Tree (STO-110)
Describing the nature of Maya.

Scriptural Passages

“On the basis of this misconception which ties together the hearts of the male and female, one becomes attracted to his body, home, property, children, relatives and wealth. In this way one increases life’s illusions and thinks in terms of ‘I and mine.””

Bhagavat Purana 5.5.8

“If one clings to his attachments, refus­ing to let go, sorrows will not let go their grip on him.”

Tirukkural 35.347–348

See also: Bhagavad-gita 2.60 – 63; 16.3 – 18, 21.

Related Proverbs/Sayings

  • “All that glitters is not gold.”
  • Being “Led up the garden path”
  • “A wild-goose chase”
  • “Failure is the pillar of success”
  • “The grass is always greener”

Related Practices

All forms of enlightenment, particularly methods of controlling the mind and senses, so as to avoid being misled. Different paths involve the regulation of material activities, developing wisdom, performing austerities and serving God, instead of trying to enjoy and control the world.

Some traditions suggest retirement from materialistic society to avoid the temptations it offers. Accepting good counsel (e.g. from a guru) is usually considered essential. Perhaps most important is the role of education in training children so they can suitably respond to life, its opportunities and its allurements.

Related Values and Issues

  • Becoming a responsible citizen – seeing the consequences of our actions. Learning from our mistakes.
  • Avoiding immediate gratification with its possibly dangerous consequences (sex, drugs, etc.)
  • Consumerism/advertising.
  • Greed/compulsive shopping.
  • Seeking guidance from others.
  • Learning how to say “no.”

Personal Reflection

  • Our own experience of being illusioned – perhaps when a plan that promised happiness turned sour.
  • What emotions tend to sweep us into difficult situations?
  • Have we ever rectified one mistake with another?

Common Misunderstandings

Hindu responses to good and evil …
Though these concepts exist in Hinduism, more commonly discussed are the tensions between “knowledge” and “ignorance.” Ignorance is usually considered a matter of personal choice, and some scholars note the term’s connection with the verb “to ignore.”

It is wrong to think that Hinduism uses exactly the same conceptual models as other religious traditions.

Hindus consider the world to be false, an illusion.
Some schools do. Others consider it real, but illusory in so much as it is temporary.

Hinduism is world denying.
Although Hinduism tends to be ultimately “world renouncing,” it places much emphasis on accepting our temporal needs and meeting them in a dignified fashion, rather than denying them.