Cluster of 12 blossoms – द्वादशमञ्जरिका (12) – Sankara highlights the inscrutable power of maya (illusion)

The word maya often used in Sanatana Dharma is translated as “Illusion” in the English language – this is an incomplete translation. As with most words in Sanskrit, a word used in a particular context can have one import/meaning in that context and another completely or subtly different import/meaning in a different context. The word “Illusion” for Maya best describes Buddhism and its concept of “Maya-Vaada” (the doctrine of illusion) which is the foundational basis of Buddhism – the theory of “shunya” or “negation” or “voiding” (emptying) of all that is material and worldly, and the entering of a state of calmness – in this limited sense, Buddhism could be called an atheistic-agnostic sect.

The Maya of Sanatana Dharma can be better described as a “veiling-power” or the inscrutable power of the divinity inside each individual – where each person is “potentially divine” (Swami Vivekananda) but he/she is separated from his/her own reality by a veil of illusion which needs to be removed for the divinity to shine forth.

There is a story in the Srimad Bhagavata which illustrates the power of Maya. Once Sage Narada and Sri Krishna went out for a walk in Dwarka. Narada kept asking Krishna about the power of Maya. Krishna was initially reluctant but Narada being Narada, was adamant. By this time they  had wandered a long way from the palace. Krishna sat down under a tree and then spoke to Narada “Friend, I will tell you what Maya is, but I am very thirsty, could you first get me a glass of water from that little hut there across the fields?” “Right Away” said Narada and set out across the fields. It was a hot summer day and soon he was exhausted and thirsty himself -he decided that he would ask for two glasses of water instead of one.

He reached the edge of the village and knocked on the door of the first house. The door opened and there stood before him the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Something happened to Narada that had never happened to him before and instead of asking for water he blurted out “Will you marry me?” The couple settled down to a life of conjugal and connubial bliss. They soon had children who were enrolled into the nearest Gurukula (school). Narada worked hard to provide for the family. His days were busy in tilling the land he owned, working at the shop he had set up, and spending the evening with his wife. Soon he became the richest merchant of that village. His children came back from Gurukula, got married and had children. Narada now had grandchildren with whom he and his wife played everyday. He became the patriarch of his family and the headman of the village. One day while sitting in the courtyard of his house he turned to his wife and said “Isn’t this the greatest thing on earth? Watching your grandchildren play?”

Then one day it rained, and rained, and then rained and the river became flooded – it burst across the embankments and washed everything in its wake, away… Narada watched horrified as his wife, sons, daughters, grandchildren, his shop, cattle, the crops and everything he held dear was washed away in the blink of an eye. He screamed “Krishna! Krishna! Krishna!…”

Krishna gently shook Narada awake, smiled and asked him “Have you had your experience of Maya?” Narada saw that he was lying next to Krishna under the same tree and everything that he had experienced was a dream…

In these two shlokas discussed here, Sankara asks us to ponder on how ephemeral and volatile this life is – he says “That which you call your own, that which you take pride in, that for which you give up your today in the fond hope of a better tomorrow, can disappear in the blink of an eye…”

The shlokas, transliteration, and translation below:

वयसि गते कः कामविकारः
शुष्के नीरे कः कासारः ।
क्षीणे वित्ते कः परिवारः
ज्ञाते तत्त्वे कः संसारः ॥
Vayasi Gathe Kaha-Kaama-vikaaraha
Shuske Neere Kaha-Kasaraha
Ksheene Vitthe Kaha-Parivaraha
Nyathe Tattve Kaha-Samsaraha

मा कुरु धनजनयौवनगर्वं
हरति निमेषात्कालः सर्वम् ।
मायामयमिदमखिलं हित्वा var बुध्वा
ब्रह्मपदं त्वं प्रविश विदित्वा ॥
Maa Kuru Dhana-Jana-Yauvana-Garvam
Harathi-Ni-Meshath-Kala-sarvam
Maya-mayam-idham-Akhilam Hithva
Brahma-padam Tvam Pravisha Vidithva

वयसि (Age) गते (Fled) कः काम (Desire, Passion) विकारः (Malady, Excitement, Contortion)
शुष्के (Dried-up, Shrivelled) नीरे (Water) कः कासारः (Pond, Pool)
क्षीणे (Lost, Emaciated, decayed) वित्ते (Wealth, Gained, Acquired) कः परिवारः (Family, Relatives)
ज्ञाते (Known, Ascertained, Understood) तत्त्वे (Philosophy, Truth) कः संसारः (World)॥

मा कुरु धन (Wealth) जन (People, Friends) यौवन (Youth, Beauty) गर्वं (Pride, Arrogance)
हरति (Flees, Gone) निमेषा (In a second, Blink) त्कालः (Time, Moment) सर्वम् (Entire, All)
मायामयमिदमखिलं  हित्वा (Illusory everything in this world)
ब्रह्मपदं (Brahman, Truth, That path of self-realization) त्वं प्रविश (Engaged in, Entered into, Begun) विदित्वा (Known, Learned, Knowledge, Information)

When your youth is gone, what use is this wealth, you have acquired? Why this ceaseless desire even now? Of what use is a dried-up, parched pond? Where are your relatives now that your wealth is gone? Where is this World when the supreme truth is realized in the heart of your being?

Boast not of your wealth, your friends, your beauty and youth. Remember, all of this will be gone in the blink of an eye. Can’t you see how illusory they are – with you today, with someone yesterday, and with someone else tomorrow. Give up this illusion and enter into the divine nature of your own self and understand the timeless truth of your true nature

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