Gist: Understanding Prakriti or Maya. Is she Jada or chetana or both. Since supreme goddess is Maya, Maya is not necessarily a bad or scary thing as is commonly stated. this answer too speaks very highly of her.

Puri Shankaracharya says:

When Brahman wants to become sākāra and saguna (with form and attributes), his shakti known as Maya or Prakriti must be accepted. As per Śvetāśvatara Upanishad, this Maya a.k.a shakti of Brahman is composed of three forms viz. iccha, jñāna and kriya shakti through which he becomes saguna. (Forgot why I quoted the above, if I remember I’ll edit it)

Puri Shankaracharya says

Maya is beyond tattvas. The Śvetāśvatara Upanishad, says माया तु प्रकृतिं विद्यात् - Know Maya to be Prakriti. Prakriti as exists in the Sankhya philosophy, when conceived as the shakti of Brahman in Vedantic philosophy is called Maya, the shakti that brings about creation, through which jiva jagat and paramatma are conceived.

From this we can understand the importance of Maya. Often, the Purusha is associated with the male god and his Shakti or Maya with his ‘wife’ or the supreme goddess. Quoting an example from Ramcharitmanas:

आगें रामु लखनु बने पाछें। तापस बेष बिराजत काछें॥ उभय बीच सिय सोहति कैसें। ब्रह्म जीव बिच माया जैसें॥१॥

In front was Ramaji and behind was Lakshmana. In the guise of ascetics they had lustre. Between both, Sita looked charming like Maya in the middle of Brahman (Ramaji) and Jiva (Lakshmana).
Ayodhyakanda Doha 123.1

The Devi Bhagavata Purāṇa says:

the Devī Bhāgavatī, the Prime Śakti ... There is oneness always between me and the Puruṣa; there is difference whatsoever at any time between me and the Purusha (Male, the Supreme Self). Who is I, that is Puruṣa; who is Puruṣa, that is I. 3.6

You have seen the Śakti (the Prime Energy) personified the Saguṇa energy, the Supreme Goddess, having hands and feet; but cannot understand of what kind is that Nirguṇa Śakti which cannot be seen and which is devoid of all Prākritic qualities. 3.7

(Note: Yes I know the Devi Bhagavata has Devi as supreme but this question is centred around the Prakriti aspect. Then again the Devi Bhagavatham talks of the inseparability of Purusha and Prakriti and this answer too talks of when either of them is considered supreme, they’re spoken of together (supreme male and supreme female))

Questions: (Note some questions may sound stupid, please don’t downvote trying to understand something here)

  1. Is Maya to be conceived as the supreme female goddess as merely shakti of Brahman, as per the quotes above? Or is Maya to be conceived as the shakti of the supreme goddess who herself is Brahman? (Refer Note). Can I attribute Saguna aspect to both OR only to Brahman (see Q3 for saguna aspect to jada)? For example can I say shiva is Brahman or Purusha and Devi Parvati is Maya or Prakriti OR do I say something like Narayana is the supreme, without any attribute to Mahalakshmi? similar to Q1
  2. If Maya is conceived as the supreme female goddess, is Maya, jada (insentient) only or does she too have chetana like Purusha; instead the tattvas like manas, buddhi, ahankara she produces are jada? similar to Q3
  3. If Maya is jada (answer to 1 above is affirmative), then why is an ‘only insentient thing’ (or how can he be/whats the logic for being) personified her as the supreme goddess? (God should be both jada chetana, she can’t be only lifeless matter)

Note: I would prefer not to have an answer with something like Brahman and Maya are same although it’s welcome. Trying to understand Prakriti or Maya here. Please keep the language as basic (baby level) as possible and provide little explanation to understand something like GIRIBLR’s answers. Taking names of gods (eg. Narayana Mahalakshmi) to explain is also welcome. Also I’d prefer answers from a vedantic perspective i.e. Maya and the supreme goddess. Related

Note for Q1: See I know Prakriti is an aspect of Brahman indeed but it has been described elaborately and separately. While differentiating between why not conceiving Maya as supreme Goddess, please explain the nature/ job of Maya, besides inconceivable and above 3 gunas.

  • 2
    Excellent question. "something like giriblr's answers" Ha. Thanks. Here the answer will depend on the samkhya or the school of vedanta. Samkhya says purusha and prakriti are real. Advaita says only Brahman is real. Thus maya can be destroyed by the realisation of the pure Brahman just as the mistaken idea of a snake is removed by the discrimination of the rope. Though it is destroyed for the jnani, it remains for the ajnani. who will still mistake the rope for a snake. Maya has her Gunas as Rajas, Tamas and Sattva, named after their respective functions of projecting, veiling creating duality
    May 19 at 13:32
  • Dear sir, my understanding is that supreme goddess = brahman. From vedAntic perspective, she is not mAyA. She is parabrahma svarUpiNi.
    – user23407
    May 19 at 14:38
  • 2
    The question cannot be answered from a singular school of thought because it mixes various. Advaita refutes it all and will say, any kind of distinction observed or perceived are due to avidyâ. Once, that ceases, distinction ceases. Purusha and Prakriti too are manifestations of that avidyâ, and when jñan is attained everything dissolves into oneness. Of course, few people don't like to become one with the sweetness and rather experience the taste itself. Vishist and Dvaita enters here to make further distinctions.
    – peace
    May 19 at 14:46
  • You are confusing phenomena with persons. Brahman is the universal Consciousness. Maya is the illusion that cloaks this in physicality. When you are in deep dreamless sleep state, you are non different from Brahman (provided you retain awareness). When you wake up, you are surrounded by the physical world again. So which is real? The world around you (Maya) OR your experience in the deep dreamless sleep state (Brahman)? Hint: Only that which can last 24 continuous hours is real. Rest is Maya.
    – Siv
    May 19 at 16:47
  • 1
    Prakriti is insentient but without Prakriti there is no You, no I, no We(like in deep sleep) because its the cause of boundary, multiplicity itself. Only Kaivalya Moksha means separating formless Purusha from form Prakriti or Maya. adbhutam.wordpress.com/2010/06/12/…
    – user22687
    May 29 at 6:44

Maya is not equal to Brahman.

We have Upanishad mantras which indicate the lower status of Maya. Following the Sankhya system, the first category in the order of the evolution of the differentiated universe is called ‘Mahat’.

Katopanishad I.3.11 says,

“Superior to Mahat is Avyaktam (i.e. Maya). Superior to Avyaktam is ‘Purusha’ (i.e., the infinite, Brahman). There is nothing superior to Purusha. He is the ultimate and He is the supreme goal.”

Mundaka Upanishad III.ii.8 –

“The vidwaan (i.e., the one who has known himself to be Brahman), having become freed from name and form, reaches the self-effulgent Purusha (i.e. Brahman) that is superior to the superior (Maya).”

If there is only the Absolute Reality of Brahman, then how is it that the dualistic world of multiplicity makes its appearance? The answer to this question has basically been dealt with by positing some power, force, energy, ‘desire’ or primal ‘stuff’, that inheres.

Thus the Shaivites postulated a ‘Shakti’ that is inseparable from Shiva, and which allows Shiva to perform his ‘dance of creation’. The Kashmiri Shavaites called it “Tuiti” (The primordial seed), or ”Iccha” (the desire of Shiva). It should be noted that all these thinkers accepted the reality of the world, and therefore it was really created, and therefore there must be a cause for it. Advaita is different. Here, the world is not real but mithya (i.e., not sat or asat).

From an advaitic perspective, Maya has two powers – aavarana sakti and vikshepa sakti. Ishvara, being the master of Maya, is not affected by the avarana sakti of Maya and is therefore ever aware of his true nature being Brahman. Both the avarana sakti and the vikshepa sakti of Maya come into play as far as jiva is concerned.

Vivekachudamani says

  1. Maya, called also the Undifferentiated, is the power of the Lord. She is without beginning, is made up of the three Gunas and is superior to the effects (as their cause). She is to be inferred by one of clear intellect only from the effects She produces. It is She who brings forth this whole universe.

  2. She is neither existent nor non-existent nor partaking of both characters; neither same nor different nor both; neither composed of parts nor an indivisible whole nor both. She is most wonderful and cannot be described in words.

  3. Maya can be destroyed by the realisation of the pure Brahman, the one without a second, just as the mistaken idea of a snake is removed by the discrimination of the rope. She has her Gunas as Rajas, Tamas and Sattva, named after their respective functions.

  4. Rajas has its Vikshepa-Shakti or projecting power, which is of the nature of an activity, and from which this primeval flow of activity has emanated. From this also, mental modifications such as attachment and grief are continually produced.

  5. Lust, anger, avarice, arrogance, spite, egoism, envy, jealousy, etc., -- these are the dire attributes of Rajas, from which the worldly tendency of man is produced. Therefore Rajas is a cause of bondage.

  6. Avriti or the veiling power is the power of Tamas, which makes things appear other than what they are. It is this that causes man’s repeated transmigrations, and starts the action of the projecting power (Vikshepa).

  7. Even wise and learned men and men who are clever and adept in the vision of the exceedingly subtle Atman, are overpowered by Tamas and do not understand the Atman, even though clearly explained in various ways. What is simply superimposed by delusion, they consider as true, and attach themselves to its effects. Alas ! How powerful is the great Avriti Shakti of dreadful Tamas !

Saguna brahman is Ishvara. Panchayatana Puja consists of worshipping five deities of Hinduism viz - Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, Devi and Surya. The sixth deity, under shanmatha system, is Agni or Karthikeya, with the latter being followed currently. These forms of worship were revived by Adi Shankara. These forms of pooja were already existing. For example, Matysa Purana says

Adityam gananAtham cha devim rudram cha keshavam | PanchaDaivatyamityuktam sarva karmasu pujayeth ||

Surya, Ganesha, Devi, Rudra and Keshava - These five deities are to be worshiped in all auspicious occasions.

Thus various Ishvara: Shiva, Vishnu, Devi (all 3 devis), Ganapati and Muruga (Kartikeya/Skanda) are all Saguna Brahman. They are all considered equal. In jivanmuktananda lahiri, verse 14, he talks about the equality of these Gods.

क्वचिच्छैवैः सार्थं क्वचिदपि च शाक्तैः सह वसन् कदा विष्णोर्भक्तैः क्वचिदपि च सौरैः सह वसन् । कदा गाणापत्यैर्गतसकलभेदोऽद्वयतया मुनिर्न व्यामोहं भजति गुरुदीक्षाक्षततमाः ॥ १४॥

Kvacicchaivaih sárdham kvacidapi ca shálaih saha raman Kadá vishnorbhaktaih kvacidapi ca sauraih saha vasan Kadá gánápatyairgatasakala bhedo'dvayatayá munir ca vyámoham bhajati gurudèkshá kshata tamáh (14)

Living at ease somewhere in the company of shaivas and elsewhere with sháktas, And still in another place with the devotees of Vishnu or the Sun, Sometimes with Ganapati's worshippers and thus with all difference gone with the feeling of one-ness; The sage, with ignorance dispelled by Guru's grace (dèkshá), is not at all deluded.

Saguna Brahman is brahman+maya wherein he/she is the controller of maya. While jivas are Atman + avidya but they do not control avidya. If they destroy avidya, they can realise Atman but they cannot become Ishvara. Maya is universal, but avidya is individual. Therefore, in a sense Maya cannot be destroyed but avidya can be destroyed. For a jnani, Maya/avidya does not exist, but it exists for an ajnani.

Maya is always subordinate to Ishvara. Therefore, you can say, Nirguna Brahman is the top. Then comes Ishvara (including Shakti), who are controllers of maya, and then maya and then tattavas. However, from a parmarthika satya view, all (Ishvara, jiva and jagat) are mithya. Only Nirguna Brahman is real.

Maya, like avidya is indescribable and can not be classified as sat or asat. Please see this answer.

  • 1. What about Maya being jada? Or she is indescribable as stated? (Didn’t understand the quote of partaking existent etc). 2. Jiva destroys avidya and realises atman but still he is separate from ishvara correct? 3. What is the level you are referring to in the answer if paramarthika (basic level) all jada chetana are Brahman?
    – Adiyarkku
    May 29 at 6:08
  • I didn’t understand the indescribable part. Existent non existent partaking etc.
    – Adiyarkku
    May 29 at 6:16
  • @Archit Thanks for accepting the answer. Maya has shakti to mask etc. But it is neither existent (sat) nor non-existent (asat). Sat is brahman and asat is tuccha. A jiva can never become Ishvara but he can realise that he is brahman. I have modified the answer to reflect the above.
    May 29 at 11:44

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