Avidya and Maya
International Forum for NeoVedantins
NeoVedanta of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda


Concepts of Avidya and Maya
Empirical and Vedantic Standpoints

Avidya and Maya are not identical; they are different. Avidya is subjective, and can be explained as the natural tendency of the mind to superimpose the Self and the non-self on each other (adhyasa). On the other hand, Maya (Adi-Prakriti or Mula Prakriti) may be said to mean the condition of 'name and form' in its seed (avyakta) state. This primordial Prakriti gives rise to all the different phenomena of gross name and form. Acharya Shankara does not postulate a hypothetical avidya (or Avidya-Shakti) in time, subsequently transforming itself into egoism called Ahankara, which in turn superimposes on Atman or Self. On the contrary, the superimposition of the real Atman (Self) and the unreal non-self is itself the beginningless avidya. This basic nescience (ignorance) perpetuates in all aspects of human life.

We can say that only for the necessity of explaining Supreme Self in human language so as to facilitate the formation and comprehension of a concept about Self (Atman, Brahman, Pure Consciousness) it becomes imperative to talk about Maya and Avidya on empirical or vyavaharic (human procedure in everyday life and thinking) plane. However, from the paramarthic (higher, Vedantic or Vedic vyavahara) standpoint Self or Atman does not really need any pramana (means and objects of knowledge) for its proof. Thus, the talk of avidya and Maya becomes necessary to lead us to paramarthic and transcendental level, and in the process their very existence becomes an issue of secondary importance. This leads to creating a notional concept rooted in empirical reality of this world of name and form (Maya) and superimposition of this world on Self (adhyasa). Brahman is Ishwara only when we concede the distinction of the Ruler and the ruled from empirical standpoint, and the Jiva is conditioned by the grossness of body and organs as the consequent effect of conjuring up of Maya in its manifest form.

However, it does not mean that the universe is false or unreal, or is an illusion. From vyavaharic standpoint a human being is forced to apply his/her own criteria for testing reality or unreality. We do not gain knowledge of a thing first and then try to prove or disprove the reality of that thing, but the contrary is true. We first have to accept or presuppose a thing or reality and then try to find out the means and objects (pramanas) to prove its reality or otherwise. For instance, we first presuppose or accept the superimposition of the Atman and the non-Atman (avidya, adhyasa) and on this presumption alone all the means and objects of knowledge, including the Shastras, the Scriptures, philosophies and teachings, function. The Vedas and the Upanishads come into existence as a result of presupposition of ever-existent knowledge or the truth of Brahman. Even an Avatara Purusha only proves and lends fresh support to the already existent reality (or preconceived concept) of superimposition of Atman and non-Atman. Thus, from highest -paramarthic- point of view discussion of Brahman, Maya, Avidya, or Adhyasa has no real meaning, but from vyavaharic standpoint such discussion, dialogues, and teachings still remain valid.

Avidya and Maya lose their value and substance; they lose their existence, only after the ignorance of superimposition of Atman and non-Atman is destroyed. Then the Knowledge (Brahman) shines of its own. There is no need to perform two acts, or not that the two acts are involved in gaining the knowledge: one to destroy the ignorance and then two, to seek the knowledge. As soon as the avidya is overcome, the Knowledge of its own shines in its full glory. The empirical concepts of Maya and the endeavors to dispel the ignorance are useful until the knowledge of the Unity of Atman has not been realized, and, thus, they have a role to play, albeit limited in importance and value. Till such realization it is even unwise to expect that the notion of unreality regarding the validity of the means and objects of knowledge (including the Upanishads and the Vedas) will ever occur to human mind.

However, there are distinctive features of Shruti pramanas (Vedas, Upanishads and the Brahma-sutras) as valid means of knowledge. In this case it should be emphasized that they deal exclusively with the transcendental truths, beyond the scope of empirical pramanas where sense perceptions alone are accepted as valid means of acquiring knowledge. Secondly, only those portions of the Shrutis that lead a person to transcendental intuitive realization are taken as true paramarthic pramanas of Vedic Vyavahara. Ultimately such Vedic Vyavahara leads to gain universal intuition of Atman, which transcends all the vyavaharas -empirical as well as Vedic. They were like some illusory help that was needed to reach the highest truth of Atman.

Failure to keep this distinction of Shruti pramana and empirical pramana causes or leads us to see contradictions in Vedantic teachings, in particular those of Acharya Shankara. All the doctrines and concepts like Karma, Moksha, Prarabddha, and reincarnation etc. come in the domain of empirical vyavahara, and could confuse our mind with doubts about the true Vedantic teachings of absolute Monism. However, such concepts have their own utility and value for leading the aspirant from empirical to Advaita perspective, and thus offer him/her a chance of reaching the True Self sans adhyasa through the unfolding of universal intuition.
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C S Shah


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