One day I said to my master, “Sir, I have been taught that avidya and maya are one and the same. But I do not really understand what maya is.”

He often taught by demonstration, so he said, “Tomorrow morning I will show you what maya is.”

I could not sleep that night. I thought, “Tomorrow morning I am going to meet maya.”

The next day we went for our morning ablutions as usual. Then we met again afterwards. We bathed in the Ganges. Afterwards I did not feel like I could sit for meditation because I was so excited by the prospect of the mystery of maya being unveiled. On our way back to the cave we came upon a big, dry trunk of a tree. My master rushed up to the tree and wrapped himself around it. I had never seen him run so fast before. He called out, “Are you my disciple? Then help me!”

I said, “Huh? You have helped so many people, and today you need my help? What has happened to you?” I was afraid of that tree. I wouldn’t go near it because I feared it would also entrap me. I thought, “If the tree also entraps me, then who will help us both?”

He cried, “Help me! Take hold of my foot and try your best to pull me away.” I tried with all my might, but I could not separate him from the tree.

Then he said, “My body has been caught by this tree trunk.” I exhausted myself trying to pull him from the tree.

Finally I stopped to think and I said to him, “How is this possible? The tree trunk has no power to hold you. What are you doing?”

He laughed and said, “This is maya.”

My master explained anadi vidya—cosmic illusion—to me just as Shankara had described it. He said that avidya means individual ignorance, while maya is both individual and cosmic illusion. Ma means “no” and ya means “that”: that which is not self-existent, yet appears to exist, like a mirage, is called maya.

He said that avidya means individual ignorance, while maya is both individual and cosmic illusion.

Then he explained another school of philosophy, which maintains that maya is universal illusion and also the mother of the universe. He told me that in tantra philosophy maya is considered to be both cosmic power, or shakti, and the primal force, or kundalini—the latent force in all human beings. By focusing one’s awareness on the Absolute, this sleeping force is awakened within and directed toward the center of consciousness. When one comes in touch with this power he can easily attain the highest level of consciousness. Those who do not awaken this force of shakti remain forever brute and ignorant.

After describing the philosophies of maya he said, “When we devote our mind, energy, and resources to believing in that which is non-existent, then it appears to exist, and that is maya. Don’t contemplate on evil, devils, sins, avidya, or maya and thereby put yourself in a state of stress and worry. Even spiritual people become preoccupied with blaming the world for their lack of progress. This weakness is significant in creating obstacles. For lack of sincerity, honesty, faithfulness, and truthfulness we do not realize that which we are. We project our weaknesses and think that the objects of the world are the source of our obstacles.”

He told me to practice non-attachment and constant awareness. He said, “The strongest of bondages is created by attachment, which makes one weak, ignorant, and unaware of the Absolute Reality. Maya, or illusion, is deeply rooted in attachment. When we are attached to or have a desire for something, it becomes a source of illusion for us. Those who are free from attachments and have directed their desires toward spiritual growth are free from the bondage of maya— illusion. The less attachment, the more inner strength; the more inner strength, the nearer the goal. Vairagya and abhyasa—non-attachment and constant awareness of Absolute Reality—are like two wings of a bird which can fly from the plane of mortality to the height of immortality. Those who do not allow their wings to be clipped by the illusion of maya can attain perfection.

“Many people confuse attachment with love. But in attachment you become selfish, interested in your own pleasure, and you misuse love. You become possessive and try to gain the objects of your desires. Attachment creates bondage, while love bestows freedom. When yogis speak of non-attachment they are not teaching indifference, but are teaching how to genuinely and selflessly love others. Non-attachment, properly understood, means love. Non-attachment or love can be practiced by those who live in the world as well as those who are renunciates.”

The message which I received on the sands of the Ganges in the Himalayas helped me to understand that illusion is self-induced. By imparting this knowledge my beloved master made me aware of the nature of cosmic illusion and the individual barriers we create.

Source: Living with the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama
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Stories of the Sages