It is said that the whole world is maya, and not the true reality. But what is this maya? Maya is often defined as illusion. But the world seems very real, doesn’t it?
Swami Rama said that maya is apparent reality—that which does not exist though it appears to exist. “Ma means ’no,’ ya means ’that.’” No-that. Maya is what causes you to see the one absolute truth as many objects.
To help understand what this illusory maya is, Swami Rama gave an example: “Suppose a thick layer of ice covers the ocean, and on the layer of ice there are trillions of holes. All the individuals and creatures of the universe can be represented by the holes, the sheet of ice is maya, and the ocean that lies beneath symbolizes the absolute reality.” Now, the sheet of ice is composed frozen water from the ocean. It’s really part of the ocean but appears different. When the ice melts, all that’s left is the ocean, and all those individuals and creatures never existed separately from the ocean or from each other.
Swami Rama tells a story that illustrates how maya affects us:
“When I lived in the mountains with my master, I used to teach the scriptures. My favorite scripture was Panchadashi, one of the books of Vedanta. But when I would teach the topic of maya, I would feel sad because I didn’t understand it. One day I said to my master, “Please give me a practical example. I know what maya is theoretically, but I don’t really understand what it is.”
He smiled and said, “Tomorrow I will show you what maya is.”
I became very excited and thought, “When I know what maya is, I will be free from its clutches and then I will meed the Absolute.”
The next morning, as we were returning from our bath in the Ganges, my master stopped all of a sudden and wrapped himself tightly around the trunk of a tree.
I asked, “What is this? Why are you doing such a strange thing today?”
He replied, “I’m not doing anything. This is maya that has done this to me. Will you please help me?”
Even though I was young and very strong and tried my best to pull his legs away from the trunk and to release his hands and arms, I was not successful. Finally, I asked him to release his hands.
“I cannot, because this is maya,” he insisted.
When he could see that I was working so hard to release him that I was beginning to sweat, he asked, “Are you tried of trying to release me from the bondage of maya?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Now, I have decided to release myself.”
And he simply released his arms and legs from the trunk of the tree.
- Swami Rama in Sadhana, The Path To Enlightenment, Pp. 42-43