We're All in Maya

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In the Bhagavad-gita (7.14) Lord Krishna refers to maya, the deluding material energy, as mama maya: "My maya." We Vaishnavas accept His word on this, with profound philosophical implications.

The chief philosophical opponents of Vaishnavas are the Mayavadis, or impersonalists, who posit ultimate reality as one homogeneous impersonal energy, with no second thing: All the unique entities we perceive, whether things or living beings, are merely mirages. Variety and individual identity are illusions. According to Mayavada philosophy, therefore, even Krishna is a mirage.

But Krishna tells us that the energy pervading everything comes from Him, so reality must comprise at least two elements: God and His energies. Svetasvatara Upanishad states, parasya shaktih: "[The Absolute Truth has] varieties of energy." Two primary categories of energy are the individual souls (jivas) and the material energy (maya). Like Krishna, His energies exist eternally, but they are subordinate to Him. The energies never become one with their energetic source. Krishna's uniqueness with respect to the jivas and maya is established in Bhagavad-gita 2.12 and 9.4, respectively. Furthermore, Brahma, the original Vedic authority, says that Krishna possesses "unique loveliness" (vishesha shobham), His beauty and other qualities attracting countless souls to love and serve Him. Can any of us claim that status?

Serving Krishna is the eternal position of each individual soul. We cannot escape service, because we are subordinate by nature—and subordinate to nature, or Krishna's material energy. So when, for example, we serve nature by being forced to grow old, we serve Krishna indirectly.

The subject of Krishna's energy is an important one in the age-old debate between Mayavadis and Vaishnavas. While both agree that the Absolute Truth (Brahman) is one, or non-dual, Vaishnavas argue for variety in oneness. We Gaudiya Vaishnavas, followers of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, refer to this concept as achintya-bhedabheda-tattva: the doctrine of simultaneous oneness and difference. Like the sun and sunshine, the energies of the one Absolute Truth are identical to their source yet different from Him at the same time.

The Mayavada position that the world of our perception doesn't exist stems from their conviction that the Absolute Truth, which is pure spirit, could not transform in any way and still remain one. We Vaishnavas counter that this world is a transformation not of Krishna Himself, but of His energy.

One of the implications of the Vaishnava view of God and His energies is that the devotee sees Krishna in everything. When Krishna says that the energy controlling this world is His, He says that it is very difficult to overcome. The material energy may be unconscious, and thus in that sense inferior to us conscious living beings, but the controller of that energy is the unlimitedly powerful Supreme Lord. Only with His help can we escape its influence.

The maya of the material world has two main functions: It lures us away from our natural position of service to Krishna, and it deludes us into full forgetfulness of that position. But that maya, often referred to as maha-maya, has a spiritual counterpart—its source, yoga-maya. Because yoga-maya is also an energy of Krishna's, it too can overpower us. But yoga-maya connects us with Krishna. Another meaning of maya is "mercy." By devotional service to Krishna we place ourselves under the influence of yoga-maya and in time awaken to our eternal loving relationship with Him.

—Nagaraja Dasa