The Status of Illusion

Image by Rob Gonsalves

Image by Rob Gonsalves

Nāsato vidyate bhāvo
Nābhāvo vidyate satah
Ubhayor api drsto ntas tv
Anayos tattvadarsibhih

The unreal has no being
There is no nonbeing of the Real
The truth about both these has been seen
By the knowers of the Truth.

Bhagavad Gita 2:16

We must start with the primary premise of Yoga philosophy and related schools of thought: True Reality is free from all qualities, atemporal, all-pervading, and impassive. Given this premise, various philosophies from the Indian subcontinent have converged on a single origin for all suffering  - Ignorance, or avidya. The word vidya derives from the same Indo-European root as “vision,” and it links, as comparable words in many languages do, correct understanding with correct sight. If someone is explaining something to me and I say, “Yes, I see!” I mean, “I understand!”

To manifest vidya is to properly perceive reality from the perspective of the Absolute. Avidya is the negation of this correct vision, and it represents a misperception. Avidya is a way of processing experience that is not in line with the true nature of things. According to the parlance of contemporary psychology, avidya is a cognitive distortion. We distort reality by creating a certain concept of the world, or, more precisely, by creating an endless supply of concepts that chop up reality according to certain limited perspectives. These distorting lenses then shape all our experiences. We believe there exist objects. We form judgments towards those objects. We desire or feel aversion based on those judgments. In desiring or feeling aversion, we are constantly destabilized and at the mercy of the objects that lay claim to our attention. These dual affective motivations – desire and aversion -  are called the dvandvas, or dualities, and their continual push and pull rob us of any lasting peace.

Thus, in causing us to reify chunks of what is an inherently transitory and dynamic reality into concepts, and react towards those concepts as if they were reality, our avidya leads us to suffering. Avidya is also the root cause of a paralyzing uncertainty that prevents us from acting freely and authentically. For the Bhagavad Gita, liberated action means that we act according to our dharma, our raison d’être. Fundamentally, if we perceive existence as painful, if we are crushed under the inescapable exigencies of life, or terrified by an apparent lack of meaningful direction, as was Arjuna facing the Kaurava army, it is because our avidya presents a false world, which we mistakenly believe to be real. A primary purpose of spiritual practice is to fix the distortions, so that reality can be accurately perceived, maya overcome, and we can live according to our dharma.

Maya and Prakriti

The Upanisads gave a name to this distorted representation of reality that arises from avidya: Maya. The word maya connotes illusion, and is etymologically linked with the word “magic.” It is the cosmic razzle-dazzle, flashy and attention grabbing. In his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Chinmayananda  discusses the concept of Maya in the Vedanta - he employs the metaphor of maya as the veil cast over the buddhi (intellect). Doubt and hesitation arise as this veil turns attention away from the absolutely pure Self-consciousness of the Atman. We identify with the occluding veil, and take it to be our true self. The veil of maya not only occludes the “inward” glance towards the Atman; it also projects an “outer” world, a world that is separate from the perceiver, which we believe to be true (satyattva).

What is the nature of maya, this peculiarly mistaken perception of reality? Maya emerges, in some ways, because of the structural limitations of the substrate supporting human experience. According to the Vedantic architecture of mind, a person’s perception of an external world is mediated through the indriyas – the sensory modalities of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and thought. Each of these modalities produces a corresponding mental object -  objects seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, conceptualized. The Atman projects through the indriyas to contact (or, in some philosophies, to construct) external objects. If the Atman mistakes those impressions for itself, we have avidya. If it is properly able to refrain from identifying with information from the indriyas, this is a step towards proper vidya, and the freedom of the Atman from maya. The yogi may practice pratyahara, or the withdrawal of consciousness from the gates of the indriyas, as an important step in beginning to divest from the projections of maya, turning attention back to the Atman.

In BG 2:52, Krishna tells Arjuna that the intellect (buddhi) must “cross beyond this mire of delusion,” and when it does so, it will be unbothered by the illusory “objects” that crowd Maya.  Once the buddhi has directed its focus from the projections of maya back to the Atman, the buddhi can reflect Atman (but, significantly, not grasp it the way it grasps thoughts or sensory impressions, which, after all, belong to the level of the indriyas).

In the Bhagavad Gita, maya is more frequently referred to by a related term from the Samkhya School, prakriti. The great religious scholar Mircea Eliade translates prakriti as “the primordial matrix.” Prakriti refers to nature. Nature is always in flux - it is the world of evolution, a vast interconnected web of causality, in which the state at any given moment is always contingent on myriad influences. Prakriti is the world of karma, of a fleeting present conditioned by the past, and in which many different causal factors interact to condition the future. Whereas Maya is a phenomenological concept, prakriti, I would posit, is an ontological term, describing a Nature that is dynamical and transient. If this distinction is proper, maya is a manner of perceiving prakriti. That is, maya is a distorted representation of “reality” that is produced by cognizing nature in a particular manner – we look at the ever creative, ever dynamic prakriti, and try to find absolute satisfaction by grasping phenomena that are transitory and without any essential reality. As might be expected, doing so leads us inevitably to the trouble of the dvandvas, where our peace of mind is disrupted in grasping or pushing away an endless flood of experiences. From a consciousness clouded by maya, we believe the objects of prakriti, which are inherently conditional, to be eternal, or at least to possess some more or less solid, essential existence.  

The Real and the Unreal

The question of whether or not Maya is “real” depends, of course, on our definition of what is Real. For the Vedanta, as Swami Chinmayananda lays out, maya is not real – it is an illusion. According to the technical definition of Real (satah), anything that does not exist before the beginning or after the end also does not really exist in the middle (i.e. during its illusory duration). So, anything temporal does not meet the technical Vedantic definition of “Real.” Rather than referring to transient nature as something with ontological reality using the Samkhya term “prakriti,” Vedanta then refers to “maya,” as the illusion. This Vedantic judgement of the world of flux can be found in Krishna’s statement to Arjuna in BG 2:16 – “naasato vidyate bhavo / na bhavo vidyate satah” – The unreal never is, the Real never is not. It is important, however, to specify that Maya is not an illusion in the colloquial sense, but that phenomena in Maya are classified as illusory given the rather stringent Vedantic definition of what can be counted as Real.   

In Samkhya and Yoga soteriology, prakriti and purusa – nature and the true Self, which corresponds to the Vedantic Atman – are both real. Both exist without beginning and without end, separable but enmeshed, and the pure purusa has, unfortunately, become entangled in the non-essential and suffering-filled prakriti. The two realities of prakriti and purusa are of a fundamentally different nature. One is in continual flux, temporal, conditional, and creative. Engagement in prakriti requires navigating an ever-changing field of choices, which elicit desires and aversions. Thus, the destabilization that comes from the dvandvas is an inherent outcome of participation in prakriti.

The other reality is without qualities, without desires, eternal, free of the fluctuations of consciousness, pure, impassive Being – this reality is absolute freedom. Disentangling the purusa from all elements of prakriti represents liberation from all the qualities of prakriti. In the Samkhya prescription, liberation is, in a manner of speaking, simply a matter of doing a clean sort between the two realities. There were debates as to whether individual purusas were many (one for each person, as in the Dvaita school, and not dissimilar to the concept of individual souls in the three big monotheisms), or whether there was only one Ultimate Brahman underlying all the individual purusas (as in the Advaita Vedanta). In any  case, however, the point of practice was to be free of prakriti. As we shall see, the Bhagavad Gita posits a special relationship between prakriti and the Ultimate that departs from this ascetic goal of freedom from the world.

Maya and Prakriti in the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita primarily discusses the issue of prakriti and maya in chapter seven. We can probably attribute the emphasis on prakriti rather than maya in this text to the fact that Yoga soteriology is largely derived from Samkhya’s, rather than Vedanta. Thus, in the Bhagavad Gita, the matrix of phenomena that we are contrasting with the true Self is granted some degree of reality. In fact, in the Bhagavad Gita, prakriti is a manifestation of the ultimate reality, as personified by Krishna. These manifestations of Krishna form two levels of prakriti, a lower and a higher. For the lower level, Krishna cites eight forms of manifestations: earth, water, fire, air, space, mind (manas), and spiritual intelligence (buddhi) (BG 7:4). In the second, higher level of the manifestation, we find these elements from the lower level have been organized into what seem to be human psychological selves, or jiva. In Aniruddha’s commentary on the Samkhya sutras, I,97, the jiva is defined as the confluence of all the prakritic elements that combine to form an individual personality. Among these elements we find the intelligence (buddhi) and the senses (indriyas). We also find the ahamkara, The ahamkara seems conceptually similar to the individual self as it is usually studied in contemporary psychology. This self is a conceptual object; it is formed from ideas we hold about ourselves as individuals possessed of certain traits and personalities, in certain socio-historical contexts, with certain autobiographical memories acquired during our temporal existence. Ahamkara is most commonly translated as “the ego.”

The relation of the lower to the higher level of Krishna’s prakriti seems to be an emergent rather than hierarchical one; the lower levels are the substrate, which may become organized in more complex ways to manifest phenomena at the level of the higher prakriti. If we look at the elements of the jiva defined by Aniruddha, we find that they are all present at the lower level of prakriti except for one – ahamkara. If we want to phrase it this way, the higher level of prakriti is an additional step away from the Paramatman, the Ultimate Reality, and complex conceptual structures like ahamkara begin to emerge as prakritic structures look to prakritic structures to create deeper levels of delusion.

It is when the ahamkara looks at its own constituent domain of phenomena in prakriti and says, this is me! that the individual personality begins to emerge. This is the level of self-consciousness attained when the three-year old baby, looking in the mirror and seeing a yellow spot on the image’s forehead, touches its own forehead. This self-consciousness in which the ahamkara gains awareness of itself represents the furthest away one can get from the Self-consciousness which is the fruition of yoga. The self as the ahamkara is constitutionally unable to perceive the Atman, because it takes itself for reality. In his commentary on the Samkhya sutras, Sankara also emphasizes that because it is the Atman that shines out and energizes the various elements of the jiva, the Atman cannot be experienced by the prakritic components of the jiva. Even the rarefied buddhi cannot turn back and grasp the Atman; it can, however, reflect it its attention is turned away from the phenomena of maya.

Krishna, as the ultimate Self, the Paramatman, thus states that He is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer, of prakriti (BG 7:6). This position differs from the Samkhya, where the two modes of reality are self-creating and self-sustaining, and also differs from Vedanta, where maya is simply an illusion. Everything in the transient world is Krishna’s prakriti, at many different levels of organization and complexity. Everything that arises, has some duration, and dissolves is, collectively, Krishna’s manifestation. He likens the relation of prakriti to the Absolute as pearls on a thread – it is the divine reason that links everything together - and then spends the next several verses singing how all manifestations of the beautiful, the excellent, and the skillful, within prakriti are Krishna manifesting. This view of prakriti is quite different from the more orthodox Samkhya view, in that in the Bhagavad Gita, prakriti is a manifestation of the Absolute, not one of two utterly different ontological realms.

The different qualities that characterize prakriti, the gunas of lightness (sattva), activity (rajas), and inactivity (tamas) are all manifested by and manifestations of Krishna; Krishna is the grand totality harmonizing all qualities, but each eddy in prakriti, conditioned by a particular combination of gunas, is partial, not the total, and so he says they are within him, but he is not within them (BG 7:12). This is curiously unidirectional, and makes the point that we cannot simply equate Krishna with prakriti. People are deluded by the qualities of prakriti –no one knows the immutable and supreme reality of which they are manifestations (BG 7:26). Prakritic resources like buddhi and ahamkara, as mentioned above, are structurally unable to know the Atman.

Only those who surrender the prakritic components of self can surmount maya. In the Bhagavad Gita, surrender seems to mean ceasing to identify with the conditional, prakritic elements of the jiva – the personality and all the machinery devoted to maintaining it; that is, the ahamkara is the problem. The Bhagavad Gita specifies several types of people who appeal to the Absolute: 1.) those who are in distress, 2.) those who seek knowledge, 3.) those who desire wealth, and, finally, 4.) the jñani – those who seek wisdom.  Naturally, while the first three seek God for the purpose of attaining goals within the veil of maya, the seeker of wisdom seeks the Paramatman for its own sake, and thus, the jñani is the one who will be free of maya. Those who do not surrender to the Absolute engage in prakriti on prakriti’s terms – Krishna says they partake of the nature of asuras. The asuras, in Vedic mythology, are the warring deities, the titans, who engage in the eternal struggle for power. For those of us living in New York, the asuras are quite familiar companions, and the asura nature always right at the threshold of our own consciousness.

The Infinite Given Condition by Matter

In the Bhagavad Gita, then, the link between the Absolute and maya is quite intimate. The Bhagavad Gita and its larger literary context, the Mahabharata, lend themselves to readings at a variety of levels of mythological allegory. As we shall discuss, by embedding the abstruse and esoteric within the concrete and metaphorical, the author of the Mahabharata, Vyasa, was able to scaffold human understanding of its reified truths. The various characters may be given allegorical readings and Upanisadic interpretations.  Swami Chinmayananda equates Krishna’s mother, Devaki, with Maya. That is, the Avatar was born of Maya. An avatar, by its nature, is a (typically) human incarnation of the Absolute. God as an avatar is not the unknowable, unmanifest, all-pervading Brahman, but something constructed and conditioned within prakriti. Avatars have bodies and personalities. They are woven through stories where they steal butter or drink wine, walk on water, and generally participate in the illusory and temporal world in which humans usually find themselves. All of these anthropomorphized deities, however, are God as conditioned by matter (or, if you prefer, by culture, as objects of myth and literature). The Buddha’s mother too, incidentally, was named Maya, likely for similar mythological purposes. Indeed, in the larger tantric tradition, Maya as the creative, the generative, the dynamic – and the terrible – is usually associated with the goddess, the sakti, the Mother.

This framework of approaching the abstract through the concrete – for example, of approaching the Paramatman through prakriti - is quite in line with most modern cognitive science; even the most abstract thought is never disembodied or separable from the specific structures implementing it, be they biological, technical, historical, or social. If we can digress slightly from the Gita to modern philosophy of mind and cognitive science, we can contribute some perspective to the way we think about using manifestations of the absolute to reach the absolute. The name most commonly associated with the phrase “embodied philosophy” is George Lakoff. Lakoff’s game changing contribution to philosophy of mind is the conceptual metaphor. In a conceptual metaphor, we use our inferences based on an understanding of a concrete source domain to form a metaphor that we use for understanding a more abstract target domain. The classic example of a conceptual metaphor would be the use of the domain of space as a metaphor for the much more abstract concept of time. In space, an object may be in front of us; an object on the other side of the first object is further away from us. If we all three objects are all moving in the same direction, the more distant object is ahead of us both, and so on. We have accumulated over the course of our temporal existence a large bank of intuitions about how objects in space are supposed to behave, and we use these inferences to navigate space very skillfully. This understanding of space is based on our experience as embodied creatures of a certain size, who interact with the physical world in a certain way, whose dominant sensory modality is vision, which is based on visual sensors that generally point in the same direction as that in which we move that we move, etc. In the conceptual metaphor, we then take this embodied, concrete understanding of space, and use it when we reason about the more abstract concept of time. We cannot see time the way we see space, we don’t perceive it in any straightforward way. When we talk about a distant event in the past, about looking forward to the future, about our plans for the future taking a detour, we use metaphors for space to think about time. Events are behind us in the past, future events are ahead of us, my childhood is more distant than my college years. Time as an abstract target domain is constructed using a metaphor based in our understanding of a more concrete source domain, in this instance, space.

The cognitive scientist Justin Barrett extends the conceptual metaphor framework into religious cognition. Sophisticated philosophies and theologies generally describe the Absolute in terms of negations – neti neti, the maya that we perceive is and illusion, and not the Absolute, the Tao that can be named is not the Tao, the unmanifest, atemporal Brahman without qualities, boundless, etc. However, in most popular religious discourse, the deities are given more human qualities. Deities feel human emotions like pleasure, jealousy, rage, they have relationships with each other and with humans, they may have representations in human form, they have agency and choice. Thus, whereas it is possible with a great deal of effort and training to approach the idea of the unmanifest, atemporal, boundless Ultimate without qualities, most people need some concrete scaffolding to reach that point (and many never do reach that point).   

Thought is not only embodied in the rather trite sense that its implementation involves a brain embedded in an ecology of interactions with the socio-cultural world. This much is fairly unquestionable. If we follow what Edouard Machery calls the neo-empiricists, all thought is fundamentally conditioned by the specifics of human embodiment and sociality. Thought can perhaps allude to things outside of this embodied experience, but it does so through metaphors, where more concrete source domains are used to think about more abstract target domains.

Returning to the Gita. The images of the paramatman that are most free from the veil of maya, what Barrett would call the most abstract images of God, are rarely realized. More common are images of deity that we could characterize as maya, images produced within buddhi based on its experience within prakriti. This picture overlaps nicely with the statement in BG 7:20, where Krishna describes how those seeking the Absolute for their own svaya prakritya – their own prakritic reasons – practice devotion to lesser gods. In my reading, this is talking about culturally conditioned conceptions of divinity - that is, the conceptual metaphors for divinity discussed by Barrett.

At first glance, we have here constructions within prakriti being mistaken for the Absolute; they are not necessarily separate from the Absolute per se, being after all manifestations of It, but they do not, as partial, cultural constructions within maya, contain the Absolute. This does not mean that these “masks of god,” to use Joseph Campbell’s term, are false gods; Krishna states that worshipping the god(s) your culture honors will indeed bring that which the worshipper desires. Those prakritic things we are culturally conditioned to desire -  community, respectability, family, wealth, health, narrative coherence -  all those good, worldly things that religion is able to provide for us – can in fact come about by participating in a culturally conditioned religious practice. All this is very nice and appropriate for certain types of seekers. Those who seek after the Absolute for reasons within prakriti – the distressed, the curious, those who desire wealth (presumably in literal and metaphorical terms) – will find their devotion brings them what they want. But, says Krishna, the jñani is content only to attain the ultimate, the paramatman (BG 7:23). Any vision within maya, any representation, any form or quality attributed to the Absolute, is not Krishna’s imperishable, unmanifest, exalted, and supreme state. Krishna is the governing principle of phenomenal existence (BG 7:30). Any other conceptualization or representation of the Absolute, Krishna says, is Maya (BG 7:25).

Liberation within Life

The Bhagavad Gita, then, in a departure from earlier Samkhya and Vedanta proscriptions, does not call for a divorce between the True Self and prakriti in its totality, or the annihilation of maya. Rather, it proposes a new relation between the true Self and the conditional world. The yogi of the Bhagavad Gita remains in the world of the senses, but now, having received the wisdom imparted by Krishna, processes prakriti differently.

Apuryamanam acalapratistham
Samudram apah pravisanti yadvat
Tadvat kama yam pravisanti sarve
Sa santim apnoti na kamakami

He attains peace into whom all desires (kama)
Enter as waters enter the ocean
Which filled from all sides, remains unmoved;
But not the “desirer of desires.”

Vihaya Kaman yah sarvan
Pumams carati nihsprhah
Nirmamo nirahamkarah
Sa santim adhigacchati

The one attains peace who abandoning all desires
Moves about without longing,
Without the sense of ego (nirahamkara)

BG 2:70,71

If we go back to the two levels of Krishna’s manifestation in prakriti, we recall the lower level, made up of the material world along with buddhi (intelligence) and manas (the non-directive aspects of mind), and the higher level, or the jiva, which is composed of the buddhi, ahamkara, and the indriyas. For the liberated yogi of the Bhagavad Gita, the prakritic structure that makes up the jiva has been restructured – we retain the indriyas and buddhi, but fail to construct ahamkara. Rather than identifying with the ahamkara, the individual ego, the buddhi has turned and properly identified with the Brahman (BG 2:72). This shift in identity doesn’t mean that we are not engaging with prakriti through the indriyas, but it does change what we do with the information processed through the indriyas. Rather than being primarily motivated by the push and pull of the dvandvas as they relate to the prakritic goals of the ahamkara, information from the indriyas can be processed and action in the world accomplished according to the goals of dharma. Kama, or pleasure/desire, as a representative of everything in the conditional and goal-oriented world of prakriti, still approaches the buddhi, but against the vastness of the Brahman, which has now been taken as the central focus of the buddhi, the dvandvas no longer destabilize the whole system. They can enter and be experienced, but find no ahamkara to trouble. The jiva, or person in prakriti, has not been eliminated, simply streamlined, for more effective functioning in the world which is, after all, the emanation of the divine. Maya is no longer produced, and action, rather than being driven by the perturbed ahamkara, or paralyzed by anxiety, can proceed according to our dharma.


Barett, J.L. (2000). Exploring the natural foundations of religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(1).

Eliade, M. (2009). Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (2008). Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic Books.

Machery, E. (2007). Concept empiricism: A methodological critique. Cognition, 104. 19-46.

Swami Chinmayananda’s Bhagavad Geeta, Chapters 1-5. New Delhi: Sheila Puri.

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